Feb11

SAY HELLO TO THE REAL ‘BIG SOCIETY’

Here is a parable. It can be read as a microcosm of the grinding paralysis that has gripped the progress of our nation. A stultifying cycle that is suffocating us has to be broken.

A man had an idea that could give joy to the privileged few. It liberated. It hurt no-one, entertained everyone, was daring and fun and foolish and ridiculous. It looked a bit dangerous, but wasn't, too much. But enough to give quite a thrill. It was seen as a passing fad, a pin-prick, something so isolated that it could be easily controlled and wouldn't upset the old order too much. It could easily be 'kept in its box', or at worst put back in. It was tolerated, eventually and reluctantly by sceptical authorities, and it was accepted in England in 1896. It was the motor car.

But to one single minded man, it wasn't a car at all.

It was a very, very, small bus.

So he got out his tools, and got to work to change things. "This car's inventor, Herr Benz, has evidently got many things wrong." he thought

And the English authorities tutted, and folded their arms and shook their heads, and said: "Someone always has to take things too far, and spoil it for everyone."

"Picking up passengers, and taking them to places they want to go!" "Preposterous!" "Who is this man?" "He must be stopped" "Prosecute him, he has no permission". But still the man went on. And on. And on. And on and on and on. And despite no one else thinking this way, he had had experiences that uniquely prepared him for what was to come.

He was an engineer, a motor engineer, he had just enough access to funds, and he had family.

A car does not function as well as a bus because it is too small and insufficiently powerful. Lacking the means, and not having the need to start from scratch, he used his engineering skills to adapt, first one, then two then more. "I can cut my car in half and extend the chassis", "I can put on a roof and enclose the body" "I can run my bus on petrol, with steam, with oil, even with hydrogen" the man thought

"But have you got permission?" "You will of course require our permission" said the authorities. And the man said, "I don't need your permission, because I'm doing things so beyond your limited expectations that you haven't yet written the rules to stop me. I have looked into it as closely as I could be bothered to, but in any case, whatever you say, I'm still just going to do it".

But the authorities thought of ways to hinder him, not because they needed to, just simply because they thought they should. And prosecute they did, on trumped up charges. But the people loved him, really loved and supported him, and moreover, loved his buses. And he was an engineer, a motor engineer, and he still had just enough access to funds, and he had family.

Like his buses, his family grew. And worked with him. Both the boys and the girls, driving and conducting. "Girls, driving and conducting," said the authorities "are you quite mad?" Such dangerous thinking put the man, his daughters and their adopted home town of Beeston Nottinghamshire in the national newspapers in 1913. But still they went on, and with them, more and more people travelled on his increasing numbers of buses, and worked for his companies, and took jobs and careers that were previously unavailable to them, as they had lived before in inaccessible villages.

Strange unexpected things started to happen. People found they could totally rely on his service. They found they had more time for themselves because travelling was so much quicker, and if they chose to they could move from the squalor of cities to the towns and villages around and still work, and play, and rest. The economy started to move for the better, and people became more prosperous and met each other and married and travelled even more. The man who had been frequently threatened, and even once been taken to one side for making a fool of both himself and the town in which he lived, had, it seemed, been right.

"Hang on a minute", said the authorities, "this lunatic has stumbled across a good idea after all. He, by his stupidity and completely by accident, has achieved things we have been trying to, with all our resources and Committees for years. What a stroke of luck we haven't yet succeeded in stopping him".

Rather than thank him for changing the world for the better, they had their own plan. "Let's copy what he did, but rather than do it for the love of life, the pleasure of seeing a job done well, and for a modicum of profit, let's use people's taxes and rates and start a "not for profit version" that properly belongs to the people."

And they did. His buses were the brightest possible red. Their buses were a rather sober green. His seats were covered with expensive and comfortable cloth that you could run your hand over with some pleasure, or were warm to your legs. Theirs were made of a plastic that poorly imitated leather, and which was cold in winter and too hot and sticky in summer.

Their service was not the same thing at all. Rather than making a bit of money, the green buses lost rather a lot of money. Rather than being run with vibrancy and love, with vehicles of colour and charm, it was all rather humourless and functionary and bossy. "Exact Fare Only" "No Change Given", "Don't stand beyond this point" "Don't talk to the driver".

People began to stop using both this service, and then that of the man, whose own idea was damaged by the unfair competition and interference in his business by those who had the power to interfere. People began to think "this bus travel is not for me". "What I quite clearly need is a car"

The magic had been broken, and the roads started to clog with cars each often with one person in them. The speed of getting anywhere slowed because of the traffic. The growth in the economy stalled. People arrived at work late and angry and found that living away from the city and towns had become more inconvenient, not less. They questioned why they didn't want to live closer to where the shops and pubs and offices were.

And in the man's family, still doing the same job, in the same company in the same building, at the same desk and in the same chair, someone had a plan. This was the man's great grandson, and that man is me. Perhaps I have just enough access to resources, but maybe I do not. It is time to see. It is not for the faint-hearted.

If living away from your place of work is no longer the thing because travel has been made so unpleasant, we need to make the place where we work, the place where we also want to live. A town has to function where it can, as a big village. People will need to know each other just enough to feel they live in a place of identity, and that caring about each other and caring about our town will not be pointlessly dissipated, like blowing into a punctured balloon. We need boundaries that are tangible, so we know where our responsibilities end, and those of others begin. We cannot do all things, but we can change an area. When you change an area, you need to start with the smallest most manageable part.

And I have tried to. For twelve years now I have dug, and cut and swept and painted, and lifted and cleared and repaired. I am not finished. A massive site on the edge of Beeston has been taken in hand, and has been cleared where necessary of uses, and clutter and buildings. New uses have been found, hopefully to make a whole town beside the site to start to function better. And people have come to see this place, in ever increasing numbers, and many of them, thank God, intuitively 'get' it. It is strange and unusual, and we laugh and we congregate, and people sing and we talk, and we work, and shop and eat. And we start to know each other.

And have, you will ask, the authorities asked me yet how they can help, how they can help me achieve what they claim they want to see with their working groups and their committees and their agendas and their initiatives?

No they have not. They say "where is your permission?" "Have you got our permission?" And my answer?

"I don't need your permission, because I'm doing things so beyond your expectations that you haven't yet written the rules to stop me. If I am capable, I'm just going to do it. But if you just, for once, stop trying to hinder me, it will be done far sooner, and you never know, you may like it so much you might even want to imitate it."

A man had an idea that could give joy to the privileged few. It liberated. It hurt no-one, entertained everyone, was daring and fun and foolish and ridiculous. It looked a bit dangerous, but wasn't, too much. But enough to give quite a thrill. It was seen as a passing fad, a pin-prick, something so isolated that it could be easily controlled and wouldn't upset the old order too much. It could easily be 'kept in its box', or at worst put back in. It was tolerated, and eventually and reluctantly by sceptical authorities, it was accepted.

www.bartonsplc.co.uk

 

Simon Barton
Great Grandson of T H Barton OBE 1866 - 1946