Tony Judt: The Right Questions

Tony Judt had a thing about railway trains. We even know from his last book, a brilliant compilation of his ideas on history and politics, distilled from a series of conversations with Timothy Snyder just before his untimely death, that he had wanted to write a history of trains, entitled Locomotion. This book, he explains, was to be about “the fate of modern sociability and collective life in our over-privatized societies. The railway, after all, was a creator of sociability.”

This is typical Tony Judt, a commitment to an idea of public good and community, laced with nostalgia. He recalls the Green Line buses of his childhood in 1950s London with equally deep fondness: “They made of me an English boy, perhaps just as much as school did.” Recounting the sad story of the decline of public transport that connected boys like him to the public lives of their countries, Judt hoped, “might be an instructive way to think through what has gone wrong in countries like America and Great Britain.”

A little oddly perhaps, this elegy for state-owned railways and buses brought to my mind the literary musing by an Englishman from a much earlier age, who would seem to have had very little in common with Judt: Thomas Hughes, author of the famous tribute to private upper-class boarding school education Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). In the first chapter of this paean to Rugby School, his own alma mater (as well as Neville Chamberlain’s and Salman Rushdie’s), Hughes laments the demise of the stagecoach that took him to school from his native village in the rolling hills of Berkshire. And then came the railways:

Oh young England! young England! You who are born into these racing railroad times, when there’s a Great Exhibition, or some monster sight, every year; and you can get over a couple of thousand miles of ground for three pounds ten, in a five weeks’ holiday, why don’t you know more of your own birth-places? …We were Berkshire, or Gloucestershire, or Yorkshire boys; and you’re young cosmopolites, belonging to all counties and no countries.

You might think that Hughes was a crusty old Tory, fighting progress at every turn, lamenting the lost ties to the native soil. In fact, like Judt, he regarded himself as a progressive figure, a liberal member of Parliament, the product of muscular Christian socialism. Indeed, he was precisely the kind of late-Victorian reformer that Judt often said he admired. Elegiac sentiments and leftist politics are not necessarily in contradiction, of course. At one point Judt describes the left as a permanent form of protest: “And since the thing most protested against is the damage wrought by rapid change, to be on the left is to be a conservative.”1

Means of transport, for Hughes as well as Judt, were about more than politics. Faster ways of getting around offer broader horizons, new kinds of belonging, different aesthetics, and a concomitant loss of earlier worldviews …

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  1. 1

    “The Social Question Redivivus,” reprinted in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (Penguin, 2008), p. 427.