I noticed Signal Failure by Tom Jeffreys partly because I live near the route of the world’s most expensive trainline, known as HS2. You can read some of our thoughts on the project, written before we finished Tom’s book, elsewhere on The Z. However, Tom has brought his full weight of experience and understanding to a topic so complex, it even confused the interviewer. Perhaps the French let us believe trains are always good news, but Tom found that they are always more complex than that. We can strongly recommend Signal Failure.
TZR: Hello Tom. We’re here to talk about your book, Signal Failure, which is mainly about a walk you did along the route of HS2. What was the most memorable sight you saw on the walk?
Horses! On two occasions horses appeared to me at times of great fear. On the first day, I made much less progress than anticipated and ended up wild camping in the London suburb of Perivale (not recommended). There, in the middle of the night, I was woken by a huge white horse right up close to my tent. Given my state of mind, and the unlikely location for such an encounter, it was a truly extraordinary experience
The second time, somewhere in the Oxfordshire countryside, it was the horse that was the source of the fear. I clearly insulted it in some way and ended up having to beat a hasty retreat. As the first experience was exhilarating, this was genuinely terrifying.
TZR: It seemed to me that you set out to rubbish HS2, understandably angered by the lack of process and perhaps arrogance of the planners. But that’s not how I felt after reading the book – it seemed that you could definitely see two sides to it. If financial cost was removed from the equation completely, would HS2 be an unequivocally good idea?
It’s funny you should say that because I probably see it the other way around. I tried to be open-minded from the beginning because there has been far a lot written about HS2 already. This has tended to polarise between very clearly anti (most British newspapers have been opposed to it) or very pro (often commissioned by the government or HS2 Ltd.).
Over the course of the walk, however, I found myself increasingly inclined against the project. Partly this was due to sympathy with those affected by it: the narrative of the lone individual fighting against the grinding wheels of government bureaucracy is an alluring one (even if those individuals are entitled, white, middle-class home-owners who voted for Brexit). Partly because of the places that will be destroyed or changed irrevocably: villages and communities, ancient woodlands, archaeological sites etc. Partly because so few of the arguments I heard or read in favour of HS2 really seemed to stack up.
In answer to your question, it is worth pointing out that HS2 is hugely expensive: the official estimate is £55.7bn, although campaigners believe that it could be double that or more. This makes it the costliest trainline on earth. It’s an extraordinary amount of money at a time when successive governments have built entire social and economic policies on the need for austerity.
So removing the question of financial cost would certainly remove one major objection to HS2. Nonetheless, the line will carve a swathe of destruction through London, the suburbs and the British countryside. The evidence of the promised benefits is, in my mind, simply too weak to justify a project requiring this scale of upheaval.
Moreover, throughout the book I was trying to look at those things that cannot be measured and inscribed within the logic of cost-benefit analysis. You cannot put a monetary value on ancient woodland or rare species of bats or newts (or even very common species), or human life or a functioning democracy. If you can put a price on something, then – by the logic of the market – you can sell it. This is what needs to be resisted.
TZR: If you were forced to do another walk and write, where would you walk?
Tom: I’m currently researching the history of landscape aesthetics in Russia with a view to some kind of writing around that. It’s too big a topic (and too big a place) to cover comprehensively, so I’m looking to weave together different strands to provide a series of tangentially related insights rather than a single coherent picture. Several long journeys will be called for.
Looking further ahead, I’d like to retrace the Finnish leg of Carl Linnaeus’s expedition to Lapland. I’m vaguely planning to do this in 2032, exactly three hundred years since the great scientist’s original journey. I lived in Finland for two years until this November and while I wrote numerous magazine articles and the odd exhibition text, I would love to write something more substantial there.
I’m not sure I’d be walking either of these though as they’d each cover thousands of miles and I’m quite lazy. Maybe I’ll need to learn to drive after all.
TZR: Who is your favourite travel writer?
Tom: Can I choose three? Ken Worpole, Rebecca Solnit and Bruce Chatwin. Of these three, Worpole had the most influence on Signal Failure – especially his book, The New English Landscape, with photographer Jason Orton; Solnit is the most heart-breakingly beautiful and intelligent writer – Wanderlust is such a rich resource for anyone interested in the histories of walking and writing; and Chatwin is the most alluring figure, whose adventures are so precisely evoked that they sometimes don’t seem real at all.
In Signal Failure, I discuss the shift away from travel writers like Chatwin and Paul Theroux towards the nature writing of Robert Macfarlane or Helen Macdonald. Now that so many can travel the world cheaply and safely and post their photos all over the internet, we are seeing increasing interest in writers who focus on the mundane and close at hand. But has something been lost along the way? As Werner Herzog once remarked to Chatwin: “Walking is virtue; tourism deadly sin.” Signal Failure, which moves between places I’ve known all my life and those I’ve never even heard of, was an attempt to navigate between these two opposing impulses.
TZR: All this HS2 stuff can get a bit heavy and political. If you could make one non-HS2 comment for our American readers, about anything in the world, what would it be?
Tom: How about, “please buy my book”!
Alternatively, there’s this lovely bit from The Book of the Green Man, by US poet Ronald Johnson:
“At our backs, surrounding the picture,
Is the whole world.”
TZR: Thanks Tom!
You can purchase your copy of Signal Failure directly from Influx Press.
Tom Jeffreys will be discussing Signal Failure with Honor Gavin, author of Midland, and Chris Prendergast, author of Build & Destroy at IKON gallery, Birmingham, UK, at 2pm, Saturday 28th October.
Tom will also be in London discussing the book with wild swimming poet Elizabeth-Jane Burnett and language artist Camilla Nelson on Thursday 9th November. Location TBC. Tom’s own site is here if you are interested in attending.