I took the campervan to Paul and Colin, the mechanics I have used for years: they operate from a railway arch, as do many small, useful businesses that serve inner-city residents such as me. The nation’s railway arches are public property, insofar as they are owned and operated by Network Rail, but I had learned that the leases are to be sold as a job-lot to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, existing tenants are being pressed into onerous rent rises and short-term lease renewals as part of a process designed to raise the sale value of the property portfolio. “Has this affected you?” I asked Paul (or Colin – they are twins and I still can’t tell which is which). “No,” he said, “I haven’t heard from them:” which fits with the suspicion that Network Rail is deliberately keeping its tenants in the dark so as to avoid their objections to its plan.
I went back to collect the vehicle, as arranged, only to find that it would not be ready for another week. “Why didn’t you call to let me know?” I asked. “Sorry,” said Paul-or-Colin, “Colin was in charge of the job and he’s gone on holiday.” I studied him hard for a moment, but he remained poker-faced. I let him know that I was a bit miffed because we had planned to go touring the next day. However, I soon got over it, since our diary was flexible and, in any case, the weather had turned rainy.
I made good use of the unexpected week at home. I saw two cinema documentaries – Tracking Edith, about the photographer and Soviet-era spy Edith Tudor-Hart, and Leaning into the Wind, about the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy – and an Icelandic tragic-comedy, Under the Tree. I also had two catch-up dinners with male friends, remarking that, in the old days, we would not have isolated ourselves at tables in restaurants: on the contrary, we would have been mingling in buzzing bars.
I also found time to finish reading Hans Rosling’s book, Factfulness, in which he argues in favour of cultivating the “...habit of carrying only opinions for which you have strong supporting facts.” He was driven to this by analysing the responses of educated audiences to questions about world statistics. When given the choice of three possible answers, no group had any more success than chimpanzees do in random-choice tests. Horrified by this level of ignorance, he set about exploring why we are so deluded and, in the process, came up with some convincing reasons. One of them is that we tend to look at things from a single, limited perspective i.e. our own.
When I went back to collect the van, Colin (as he claimed to be) was back from his holiday. The job had been well done and, after handing over the keys, he said, “They want to put our rent up. We might have to move from here.” “Oh no!” I said. “It will probably become another Starbucks and I’ll have to travel miles to get my van fixed.” Neighbourhood gentrification has its downsides.
“Why are they selling them anyway?” he asked. I explained my take on it thus: the Government wants the assets sold to the private sector on the pretext that the money raised from the sale will be used for much-needed rail investment. The fault in this logic is that the assets already generate income, against which capital for such investment could be borrowed. Income-generating assets like this are hard to accumulate and nobody in their right mind would sell them; therefore, the buyers must be companies in which the politicians have financial interests, direct or indirect, present or future. But perhaps my conclusion is distorted by my single, limited perspective? Paul-or-Colin doesn’t think so.