Can Europe Make It?

'Tseuf tseuf' waiting to go: the English legislator and national disaster

What does it take to make packed public transport, bars and football stadiums, perfectly compatible with clean air and climate catastrophe avoidance?

Iain Galbraith
18 March 2021, 2.11pm
Group of men pose with Tramcar No 13 outside Horton Bank Top depot, c. 1898.
National Tramway Museum. Some rights reserved.

It was in a Horton Bank Top back yard in early 1960s Bradford that I first met James Broadley. My Grandma had told me to go out and see my great-grandfather. A man was waiting outside the kitchen door, ready to go, where? But there he was, and here he is again, altered by memory no doubt, nonetheless wearing a black hat and coat. As I came out he smiled. It's true I was small, but I had never seen, nor will I ever see again, a taller man. He called me over and, from somewhere high up in the clouds, bent almost double to hand me a sweetie. Thinking of him I cannot help recalling the tall ageing porter played by Håkan Jahnberg in Ingmar Bergman's The Silence, much of which is filmed from a boy's perspective, or Carel Struycken's Giant Room Service Waiter in Twin Peaks, both of whom bend down in a similar manner. Memory and imagination seek the same underground channels, breaching in all the same places.

Born in 1874 James Broadley died shortly after our meeting. He had been a policeman, and before that, as a 1891 census records, a labourer and dyer. According to family lore he was employed dyeing leather upholstery for Bradford Corporation and had lost his job when the tram service gave way to motorbuses. But a glance at the history of Bradford city transport does not make it easy to locate when that point of transition was. His lifetime saw the introduction (1882) and passing (1902) of horse-drawn trams, steam-driven trams (1883-1903), then the full electrification of the tram service from 1903 (tramcar construction ending in 1931). Competing with trams and buses, Britain's first trolleybus service was introduced in Bradford in 1911 (a year in which a census recorded Broadley as a policeman). Later, from 1926, came the inexorable advance of the motorbus. This date is not without resonance in British history, and the advantages of more "flexible" privately run motorbuses were exploited by the City Fathers when tram drivers joined the General Strike that year. But with so much coming and going it is difficult to establish when James Broadley left dyeing to become a policeman.

My memory of my great-grandfather and his dyeing were revitalized recently by reading the Triestine writer Italo Svevo's 1913 essay 'A Short Walk to Woolwich' (translated by Carmine G. Di Biase), in which he remembers undertaking a business trip to London in 1901 as a representative of his father's company. Svevo's piece is a completely charming account of "men and things in South-east London" and more especially of the English eccentricities of the day as seen through a foreigner's eyes. But what initially surprised Svevo about London was that it seemed in one respect far behind the Continent: transport.

By contrast with France, where what he calls the "tseuf-tseuf" (his translator uses the same expression in English, although Italian "fare ciuf ciuf" means to chug, so chuff-chuff, though far less intriguing, would have fitted!) had "infested" the streets of even the smallest towns, petrol-driven transport was "almost unknown" in London. The first automobiles "had frightened the ever-diligent English legislator and so many laws and bye-laws had been hurled at the new machine that it had been immobilized." Perhaps, but only perhaps, the "legislator" was aware that there was no particular desire among the public for such a radical change to their way of life. Which was hardly surprising, when the "stench of fuel is such that everyone weeps, as if over a national disaster," or when "in the first month after the petrolization of the omnibuses 1,400 accidents occurred in London alone."

Yet Svevo is not only observant but astute. When the legislators eventually "loosened the reins" it was because they had discovered they needed cars – not so that "they might travel quickly but so that they might sell them." John Bull, "India's conqueror", had come to his senses to find France, Germany and America had "profited greatly" from the legislator's reluctance. By the time Svevo put pen to paper in 1913 to recall his earlier visit, the political obstacle had long been removed: "now for every automobile the United Kingdom imports, it exports ten." The rest, as they say, is history, or decline, or fall, or maybe even ... Looking at our screens and longing for a "return to normality", watching webcams of London streets empty of traffic or grounded fleets of aeroplanes, reading reports of 2020's plunging greenhouse emissions, with carbon from transport activity dropping 12% in the USA and 11% in Europe, we draw courage and think ... Yes, but only with the right legislators, holidays, rave parties and music festivals, also packed public transport, bars and football stadiums, are perfectly compatible with clean air and climate catastrophe avoidance.

Opening of Bradford Wibsey Tramway 9 October 1907. | National Tramway Museum. Some rights reserved.

This piece was first published in the March edition of Splinters.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData