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Railway Buffet Cars (Design)

Volume 466: debated on Monday 27 June 1949

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

12.19 a.m.

A few weeks ago the country was electrified by the news that the Railway Executive or British Railways were about to entertain their passengers with a new kind of buffetcar, or, as it became known, tavern-car, embellished and adorned in mock-Tudor style. Words fail me, for once, to express the full horror and disgust that I felt when this announcement was made, and I think it will save time if I simply quote a sufficiently concise letter, of three sentences only, that appeared in "The Times" shortly afterwards:—

"Sir,—The appearance on British Railways of tavern cars dressed up to look like old English inns with painted brickwork and false beams is the reductio ad absurdum of the mania for the fake antique. These cars are ridiculous, even by the silliest roadhouse standards. It is deplorable that a public authority should set such an example."
That letter was signed by the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Principal of the Royal College of Art, the Chairman of the Council of Industrial Design, the President of the Architectural Association, the President of the Design and Industries Association, the Principal of the Architectural Association School of Architecture, the Chairman of the Council of the Royal Society of Arts, the hon. secretary of the Society of Industrial Artists, the Chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Master of the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry, and by a former chairman of the Industrial Art Committee of the Federation of British Industries.

I do not think that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Transport, to whom I am grateful for waiting to answer this Debate, will suggest that these signatures were merely those of unpractical, "long-haired" aesthetes. That correspondence in "The Times" was paralleled by similar letters and comments in the "Manchester Guardian," the "Spectator," and in much of the responsible Press and the technical Press. The innovation also excited the attention of some of our most respected humourists, Beachcomber, Osbert Lancaster, and others.

I wrote to Lord Inman, Chairman of the Hotels Executive, to express dimly what I felt, and I received a letter in reply in which, inter alia, he said:
"I think I should make it clear that any criticism or any praise cannot be directed to this Executive, as these particular cars were designed and initiated before we were constituted."
So they are a hang-over from private enterprise; none the less, I think it could legitimately be argued that the British Transport Commission are responsible for perpetuating them, in that they found them in the prototype stage, and did at least go ahead and develop them and put out this full-dress experiment. Lord Inman adds:
"I do feel, however, that you are unduly severe in your criticism. We are constantly being asked for new and progressive ideas, and these cars are clearly in the nature of an experiment. It may be that in the light of experience alterations will have to be made."
"An experiment"? Yes—but at least five of these cars are now in service. They are called "The White Horse," "The Salutation," "The Jolly Tar," "The Dolphin," and "The Three Plovers." It was "The Three Plovers" that I personally visited a few days ago at Waterloo Station. I acknowledge gratefully that the very courteous official who showed me "The Three Plovers," when he observed how ill the whole thing was making me, did at once administer the appropriate medicine.

I am bound also to say there are at least two things about the experiment to praise wholeheartedly. The first is the general lay-out and idea of these tavern cars. I think it is an admirable idea, and quite different from the buffet cars which have been in existence for several years. I am not in the least surprised to hear that they have been very popular where they have been in use—but I think that they would have been equally popular, for what they are, whatever style the decoration had been in. I do not think that my hon. Friend would suggest that, merely because they are popular as an institution, that is necessarily an argument for this Tudoresque décor. I do not think either that it can be seriously argued, as has been argued in some quarters, that they will appeal to American tourists. If American tourists want to see old English taverns, they can see genuine ones stationary, rather than bogus ones whizzing along at 70 miles an hour.

The second respect in which these cars are praiseworthy, as I should like to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing), if he were here, is that they are not tied houses. They are not tied cars. You can get a great variety of drinks on them, including even draught beer, which struck me as rather interesting in these circumstances. Incidentally, the arrangements behind the bar are excellent: they are in the most gleaming, modern style. There is no trace of Tudor whimsy behind the bar; all is purely functional. There is, however, one criticism that has to be made, and has been made fairly widely—that is, that though the windows, absurdly enough, have to be lattice windows, I do not see why they should be so high that you cannot see the scenery at all. That is also characteristic of the newest style of dining car. Apparently the idea is to hurry you along, so that you do not linger admiring the landscape after you have eaten the delicious meal.

I hope my hon. Friend will not fall back on the argument that this is only a question of taste, that one cannot argue about taste, and that, after all, one man's taste is as good as another's. Though I do not altogether admit that argument, even of the fine arts, it is the case that there is a distinct difference between the fine arts and the applied arts in this respect. This is not a Munnings v. Picasso controversy. In the applied arts—though there are, I agree, no absolute standards—there are some standards, above those of the speculative builder and the fumed-oak interior decorator, which are generally accepted by most reasonably civilised people; and especially by any reasonably civilised public body. It may well be that in a highly competitive industry, such as the newspaper game, "what the public wants" is all that can be considered; but in a publicly-owned industry I suggest that different considerations can and should apply.

The policy of the B.B.C., throughout its whole history, has not been to give the public what it wants, but to give the public something a little better than what it thinks it wants. The result of that policy, as we can see, looking back over 30 years, is the quite sensational improvement in the musical taste and knowledge of the people of this country, which is fairly commonly admitted. For instance, again, if my hon. Friend wanted a serious assessment of the merits of say, a series of posters on some quite different subject, such as road safety, even though they were intended to influence the popular taste, I suggest that he would not only, or would not first, go into the street and ask the first hundred passers-by what they thought of the posters. That would be a travesty of democracy. Besides consulting technical experts, he might, I hope, consult some group of fairly civilised people, people of some taste and discrimination, such as my learned Friend himself is, in his private capacity, and as I believe he may show himself tonight.

The important issue, of which these tavern-cars are merely a small and unfortunate illustration, is that public ownership offers the greatest opportunity since the days of aristocratic patronage for inspiring a real renaissance of the public taste. We have extremely talented industrial designers in this country; yet I think it is fair to say that the idea of industrial design is still more acceptable to industry in the United States than it is to industry here. For instance, to take an example from privately-owned industry as remote as possible from the railways or from my hon. Friend's responsibility, no popular cigarette in England is sold in a packet the design of which bears any comparison with the beauty and clean modernity of the "Lucky Strike" packet, which I think was designed a few years ago by Raymond Loewe, one of the outstanding industrial designers in the United States. I do not think "Players" or "Gold Flake" are comparable with "Lucky Strike" in this matter of design.

I realise that some of what I am saying is beyond the responsibility of my hon. Friend who is to reply tonight. What is needed is, first, a consistent design policy for the nationalised industries; and, secondly, that design research should be up-graded to the same level as technical and marketing research. Incidentally, I would make a point which may perhaps be of practical value also in the export trades: that all industries should develop what may be called "pilot lines," in the contemporary idiom, to meet the inevitable change of taste in the American market. There are influences in the United States which are weaning the public taste from the antique. When this change of taste is fully developed, we do not want to be left standing.

Apart from this momentary aberration, transport has led the way in this country in modern design. We can be proud of what has been done by London Transport over many years, especially in contrast with transport in Paris or New York. I would conclude, if I may, with a short quotation from a book which I am sure will appeal to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, for it is by Mr. Christian Barman, who is now Publicity Officer to the British Transport Commission. He speaks about these great new opportunities. He says:
"Nowhere have these opportunities been more clearly apprehended and more skilfully utilised than in the transport undertakings in the London region that in the interval between the two wars came under the inspired management of the late Frank Pick. It has been truly said that only two other men, Sir Christopher Wren and John Nash, have made a contribu- tion to the physical aspect of London comparable to that which we owe to these undertakings. Through their buildings, rolling stock and equipment generally, as well as through their posters and many other forms of publicity, they have made an impact which is not only physical but something having the quality of a moral force.…
There is no reason why the part played by public transport in our visual education should be confired to London.… A large part of our transport equipment is either worn out or obsolete, and much of it must of necessity be renewed as soon as labour and materials can be spared for this purpose. Our new stations and other buildings, our new roadside transport furniture, our new locomotives and vehicles, will be the best in the world if we set about this business properly. They will be the best, not because it is our wish that other nations should admire us and envy us, but because we know that a first-class environment makes the kind of people we intend to be."
A shoddy Tudoresque monstrosity is not a first-class environment.

12.56 a.m.

I think that the hon. Member has performed a public service by bringing this matter forward tonight. I do not think any action equally shameful to our national reputation has been done for a long time as the production of these ridiculous cars. It was more than a decade ago when I made a plea to this House to take steps to end the destruction of urban and rural England, and I made a plea for respect for good design. I mentioned such things as the work of London Transport, to which the hon. Member who has just spoken alluded, and I was associated with Frank Pick and others in the work of the Design and Industries Association. In that speech I drew the attention of the House to what I had noticed on a by-pass—" ye olde wireless shoppe."

That idiocy of some 12 years ago is easily surpassed by this action of British Railways. The Government have given encouragement—indeed it is a semi-public body—to the Council of Industrial Design. We know from the letter which the hon. Member referred to, what they think about it. If this sort of thing is to be permitted two consequences will follow: if the work of the Council of Industrial Design and the Design and Industries Association and similar bodies is to be treated with such contempt the Government had better be logical. The Council of Industrial Design had better be abolished and we should have mock-Tudor, half-timbered, engines to draw the Flying Scotsman.

The thing is quite disgraceful. One can make jokes about it, but I feel as the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) feels about it. Almost worse than the letter he received from Lord Inman is the letter in "The Times" from the P.R.O. of the Railway Executive which says they will note the public reaction and see what the public thinks of it. I do not know how they will estimate the public reaction unless it is from those made sick inside and outside these tavern cars. I hope that, when the Parliamentary Secretary replies, he will not defend this thing in any way. The Parliamentary Secretary, whatever our political differences, is much too intelligent a man to have the least sympathy with what has been done, and I hope that he does not feel that his official duty compels him to defend this thing, which is outrageous, and has got to stop.

12.59 a.m.

I shall not detain the House for more than a few moments, but I wish to support most strongly what has been said tonight. I regard these tavern cars as bits of bogus sentimentality. We have enough Hollywood mummery inflicted upon us already without adding to the far too big accumulation of it. I think that it would be a very good idea if British Railways added touches of fancy related to taste and dignity to our transport system, but for them to adopt a remarkably silly idea like this will lead, if they are consistent to such things as the erection of mock smoke stacks on the electric locomotives now being built for British Railways. Such a course would be quite fantastic.

What I would do with these tavern cars is to shunt them into one of Butlin's camps where they might fit into the scheme of things reasonably well. Perhaps alternatively they could be used for some sort of stage setting. At any rate, I trust that the design will be scrapped and that we can have in its place something genuinely appealing. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the matter which has not been touched on so far, is that some of the shipping companies seem to be falling for the same idea. I read the other day of the decorations in the "Franconia," as follows:
"There is a smoking room in the ship in half-timber with furniture chosen to match the Elizabethan atmosphere."
That I think may be the result of the influence of the lead given by the Transport Commission over these tavern cars. In regard to what the hon. Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. H. Strauss) said about the Council for Industrial Design, we have not been told whether it was in any way consulted before this ridiculous step was taken. I should like my hon. Friend when he replies to deal with that point.

1.2 a.m.

This has been an interesting little Debate which has focussed the points that have been made in the public Press during the last few weeks. A deluge of adverse expert opinion has fallen upon the Railway Executive, but I am bound to say it has been very good for business. The use to which these tavern cars have been put has exceeded the wildest expectations of the revenue that the Railway Executive ever hoped to get. Because of that I am sure the Railway Executive is grateful for the adverse criticism which has followed them about. The fact seems to be that nobody likes these tavern cars except the public, and the public have flocked to them and have found, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) said in his very temperate and reasonable speech, that they are well laid out inside and have many conveniences for the smaller sort of meals than the full-scale meal you get in the dining car.

My hon. Friend commented on some of the creditable points in these cars. There is one other I would draw to his attention and that is the excellent accommodation that is provided for the staff. They have got something which is new in this field. They have got accommodation reserved for them—the sort of thing we should all like to see—on a scale which is better than any previous buffet car or restaurant car I have seen.

I shall come to that in a moment. The hon. Gentleman was not very courteous in his comments, and he is not very courteous now. The hon. Member for Maldon did say, and I agree with him, that it is important that we should get a proper and balanced view about this sort of thing, and I hope to project that in the few minutes left to me this evening. Of course, the Minister is not responsible—I ought to make that point straight away—for this design or for the type of carriages that are produced. That is the job of the Railway Executive. What the Minister obviously is interested in is that bodies such as the Council for Industrial Design, the Royal Fine Art Commission, and this sort of body, should have the opportunity of making their views known to the British Transport Commission. The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) asked whether they had been consulted about these particular tavern cars. The answer is that they were not consulted. They knew nothing about it. I am sure my hon. Friend would not expect me to say, or give an assurance that they should have the last word on matters of design so far as the railways are concerned. Indeed, quite the contrary.

What I think we shall find is that the British Transport Commission will be able to give lessons to many of these bodies in the field of railway design, and that their staff, designers and machinery are such as will enable them to take up the challenge of my hon. Friend. Here is an opportunity—and I readily accept what he has said—for a nationalised industry to lead in public taste. I can say, on behalf of the Transport Commission, that I am certain they will want to take up that challenge. My hon. Friend quoted from a Penguin just written by Mr. Christian Barman. He can be comforted by the fact that Mr. Barman holds a high position in the Transport Commission.

I have not said whether he was consulted, because I have not inquired into that point. As the machinery develops—and these cars take a long time to get from the drawing board—I think we shall find the Transport Commission need not bow the knee to anyone in the matter of public taste. I am bound to say that too much "hoo-hah" has been made about these restaurant cars. There has been a lot of exaggerated language used by people who have not been within half a mile of them. I do not think there is anything exceptionally bad or good about them; they are nondescript. If I may say so, if they had been tenth-rate coaches in chromium and glass they would probably have passed and we should not have heard anything about them. But that would not be good enough litter. I want them to be first-rate in any material that is used.

I want to say publicly what has been said privately to the Railway Executive by my right hon. Friend, that they should not be deterred by this tremendous volume of criticism from certain quarters from going ahead with experiments in any nature of design they wish to undertake. Nothing but good can come from this controversy, and they will no doubt learn from what has been said about these particular cars.

I think that this will prove to have been a very profitable matter in more ways than one for the Railway Executive. The pioneer of this is the man who has designed the new double-decker coach that is to appear in south-east London in the Autumn. He has great imagination and enterprise. He has done very good service, and I should not like to think that what has happened in this case will make the Railway Executive timid again, but that they can go ahead with the machinery they have devised and see that the canons of good taste are properly observed. I think that the result will then be something of which the Commission can be proud.

I think that the Railway Commission ought to be congratulated on producing this monstrosity. It is obvious that they have done it with their tongues in their cheeks, and thank Heaven they have a sense of humour. It has been done to provoke controversy and publicity, and it shows that the Railway Executive are not afraid. I congratulate them on what they have done for that reason alone.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten Minutes past One o'Clock.