‘Ram Packed’

Language is a slithery thing, as everyone knows. Try to hold it down and it will wriggle from your grasp. It’s said that the French try the hardest to catch and throttle it, and the Icelanders have had a go at it too, but prescribing how language should be used, and banning the use of new and imported words is a hopeless task. Language changes all the time. The best you can do is describe, as the Oxford English Dictionary does, not prescribe. Even proud nations such as Hungary, with a language that slithered into Europe a thousand years ago from somewhere terrible beyond the Urals, and which belongs to a group to which few other languages belong, is a hotchpotch of words borrowed locally from the Turks, the Slavs and the Germanic peoples.

You notice changes to your own language most if you’re an expat, as I am. Or, I suppose, if you’re the child of a minority language group exiled to another country. It’s like seeing friends again after many years have passed. They suddenly look older, though the people you see every day never age.

And I remember working with Americans of Hungarian descent in Budapest during the early 1990s. Some were second generation Americans, the children of those who fled in 1956,some third generation Americans, the grandchildren of mostly Jewish emigrants from Hungary in the 1930s, or of survivors of the Holocaust who found a new home in the USA after the Second World War. They were eager to practice the language they’d learned from their parents or grandparents and which some of them had used at home. But what they found was that this was a charming, utterly out-of-date variant of the language spoken in the streets of Budapest today or twenty years ago.

I write this because I was perplexed by an expression Jeremy Corbyn used to describe the crowded train he boarded a couple of weeks ago. There’s a controversial video of him sitting comfortably on the floor of a railway carriage, having walked past a number of empty seats (some of them unreserved), complaining about the overcrowding of Britain’s railway services. ‘The train is ram-packed,’ he said, or something like it.


I’m unfamiliar with the expression. I know ‘crammed’. I know ‘packed’. I know ‘cram full’, perhaps even ‘cram packed’, but I don’t know ‘ram-packed’. It brought to mind those white-gloved train packers who cram or ‘ram’ passengers into the carriages of Tokyo’s metro, but I don’t think Virgin East Coast has yet resorted to that kind of violence.

I put it down to a local dialect that Jeremy might have acquired as a child, though he grew up in the Midlands and went to the same primary school that I went to, but perhaps his ears were better attuned to the streets than mine, as they are now to the shrill street-activists who support him.

But then I read the same word today. Not exactly the same, but a similar usage unfamiliar to me. In an article on low footfall over the Bank Holiday weekend at Britain’s shopping malls – http://www.bbc.com/news/business-37212179 – a man called Mr Nathan is quoted as saying, “It certainly looked very busy yesterday – the restaurants were rammed.” (I must have been desperate to be reading an article about retail statistics, but the headline caught my eye as perhaps a sign of post-Brexit-decision economic decline.)

Dictionaries appear to be more up to date than I am…


So ‘rammed’ and ‘ram-packed’ must be words that have slithered into use whilst I’ve been away and inattentive. Or rather, they’re new usages, since I know what ramming means. It worries me. I still intend to return to live in Britain someday soon, but will I understand my fellow citizens, and will they understand me? I have no wish to sound quaintly anachronistic.

On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right about the trains. They are ram-packed and someone ought to do something about it.. I only just found a seat on the train from King’s Cross to Peterborough last Tuesday. It was dog eat dog.

Will he or won’t he?

I dreamt last night that I had a talk with David Cameron. It was an after-lights-out talk at a generic Public School (it couldn’t have been Eton, because I didn’t go there) and we should have been snug in our dormitory beds rather than whispering in the corridor. He was kind enough to ask me to call him Dave.

Dave and I had one of those frank man-to-man talks that late nights encourage. He was carrying a cricket bat, which was odd, because sports equipment isn’t allowed in the bathroom or the dorm, and he was practising shots as we whispered.


I was very much the Junior Boy in the conversation, though in real life I am older than he is, and I was very privileged to have the brief attention of the Head Boy. I timidly asked him what he’d be doing after Wednesday when he steps down as Prime Minister. Perhaps the cricket bat was a clue, but I can’t now remember what he told me. He agreed that he would neither be offered, nor would accept  a Cabinet post, and he didn’t find the idea of an academic career appealing. Village cricket, it might have to be. But I suggested, sympathetically, that it would be a trying time for him and Sam, whatever happened. I pointed out how utterly bereft I would feel if I were suddenly to have nothing more to do with LLP Group or systems@work, two companies of which, I suppose, I am Head Boy.

So, Dave will travel to Buckingham Palace on Wednesday after Prime Minister’s Questions, leaving from the Palace of Westminster in the Prime Minister’s armoured Jaguar but returning from the Palace to his suburban semi in a Mondeo or something similar. In the UK the trappings of power are removed immediately and savagely. He’ll be putting the kettle on himself come teatime.

Poor Dave. He’s been a decent sort of chap, on the whole.  He puts you at your ease when he’s talking to you, in my experience, at least in dreams.

So, PMQs on Wednesday will be an emotive affair. I well remember Margaret Thatcher’s defiant last performance, and Tony Blair’s nine years ago. David Cameron did a rather decent thing on that occasion, the sort of thing you learn to do at Eton. As Blair’s last performance came to an end, David Cameron urged his Tory colleagues to stand and applaud as Tony left the House. ‘Come on,’ he called out. ‘Let’s show appreciation for his years of public service.’

It was a decent thing to do, and so English Public School, reminiscent of the kind of honour celebrated in Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada (‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’). It was a way of saying, more slyly, that, winners or losers, we’re all in the game together, and it’s decency and how you play the game that counts. It was also cleverly patronising, almost suggesting, ‘We’re the winners. It’s our time now.’

So, my question is, will Jeremy Corbyn do the same thing on Wednesday?

Now as it happens, I did go to the same school as Jeremy Corbyn, the Castle House School in Newport in Shropshire. He’s eight years older than me, so he would have been a very senior boy or not there at all, when I was there at the age of five. Perhaps he, too, was Head Boy. But it was a private school and his parents paid for it. Corbyn’s background is not so utterly different from Cameron’s. And, as it happens, I was at the same Oxford college and at the same time as Corbyn’s strategic adviser, Seumas Milne, who studied at Winchester College, an English Public School almost as illustrious as Eton. But, of course, Lenin was no working-class lad either.

My guess is that Corbyn will be mealy mouthed. He won’t fall for the cliché of decency and we’re all in it together and there’s more that unites us than divides us and Play up! play up! and play the game!. I suspect that he and his cadre will staunchly hold the line. They’ll have nothing to do with all that Public School nonsense. Rather, ‘Tories to the firing squads.’

And my second question is, what will all the other Labour MPs do? Will they break ranks, with their leader?

It’s a tiresome truth that an hour, a day, a week, is a long time in politics. One of the great unknowns is now resolved, and hard-as-nails Theresa May will be PM by Wednesday evening. But the other great unknown, what will happen to Corbyn, is a game that’s far from over.


Vitai Lampada
There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—
The Gatling‘s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind—
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Lovely, but Unelectable

There is much to admire in these three undoubtedly lovely men, all stalwarts of the ‘old’ and principled Labour Party, all unelectable.

tony benn

Tony Benn (1925 – 2014)

michael foot

Michael Foot (1913 – 2010)

jeremy corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn (1949 – )

Of these three, only Michael Foot has so far led his party into a General Election (1984), losing disastrously with the fewest votes for half a century or more. If the polls are correct then Jeremy Corbyn might soon win the chance to do the same.

Though each is of a different generation, and each came to his radicalism by a different route, all three share some of the same qualities.

  • They’re not in it for themselves (Jeremy Corbyn, for example, claimed fewer expenses in 2010 than any other MP)
  • They care deeply about inequality, poverty, injustice, etc., and oppose it vigorously, seeing Labour’s policy as the best suited to alleviate disadvantage
  • They are anti-establishment and anti-elitist
  • They have a fond belief in the essential goodness of humanity (except perhaps that of ‘capital owning humanity’ whom they see as rapacious and essentially selfish)
  • They believe that state ownership and state intervention are the route to a more equitable and a more efficient society

Michael Foot’s convictions were formed during the conflicts of the 1930s, when capitalism and socialism were stark and incompatible opposites, and when capitalism seemed to tend inexorably towards Fascism (as a young journalist he vigorously opposed the appeasement policies of the Chamberlain government). He was an intellectual socialist, and he stuck to the belief that socialist economics could work. He campaigned throughout his life for nuclear disarmament (even unilateral disarmament) and it was probably Labour’s disarray on this topic that lost him the election in 1984. He was a notably kind, funny, personable, man.

Tony Benn nearly became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1981, but profound influence on the policies of the Labour Party in Government ultimately eluded him. He, too, was convinced of an old-fashioned, ideological, class-warfare kind of socialism. He was happiest in the company of union officials, drinking mug after mug of tea (not for him the fine clarets and champagnes of New Labour). Perhaps, like Marx, he believed that socialism could transform human nature and resolve the conflicts that arise from personal or class interest. He was also a notably kind, funny, personable, man, and, even in his later years, still a man of the people, travelling to Parliament and back by bus.

Jeremy Corbyn is an activist, allied to all the radical (and often admirable) causes of the last thirty years, including nuclear disarmament, opposition to the Iraq War, the extradition of General Pinochet, and many others. He has never been a member of the Shadow Cabinet, and was, during the last Labour Government, the most rebellious Labour MP. He has never been a Party man, and clearly never fed at the Westminster trough. I’m not sure he is as witty, warm and personable as Tony Benn or Michael Foot, but he comes across as an ordinary, soft-spoken, even if passionate man.

But none of these three is imaginable as Prime Minister.

The fact is that there are some truths about the world that in their goodness and idealism these lovely men don’t see. Perhaps it is because they have never worked extensively in the commercial world. Take this passage from Tony Benn’s diary from 1965 (when he was Postmaster General and obsessed with the idea that the Queen’s head should be removed from postage stamps):

This highlights in my mind one of the great difficulties of being a socialist in the kind of society in which we live. The real drive for improvement comes from those concerned to make private profit. If, therefore, you deny these people the right of extending private enterprise into new fields, you have to have some sort of alternative. You have to have some body which wants to develop public enterprise, but our present Civil Service is not interested in growth.

Benn rightly sees ‘private profit’ as an engine of growth, as motivating ‘improvement’, and he’s struggling, in painfully good faith, to come up with a substitute for this in state-owned industry. But he completely misses the point. Private profit leads to improvement only if there’s competition (it doesn’t work if there’s a private monopoly). Competition is the point, not profit. Profit is the means, not the end.

This point, blindingly obvious to most of us, just doesn’t occur to this well meaning, but naïve and, in terms of practice, inexperienced man. Yes, it’s certainly hard to see how competition can be fostered within or between state-owned enterprises. The shabby unproductive factories of Eastern Europe are witness to the lack of it. ‘Growth’ and ‘improvement’ cannot be directed, even by the best motivated Civil Service in the world, or by the most well-meaning Government. Benn seems to know that something is lacking, but doesn’t see what it is.

And all three of these lovely men are still devoted to the old class-war rhetoric that talks of ‘working people’ as if these are still the oppressed. exploited manual labourers toiling in mines or in Satanic mills. They forget that capitalism isn’t any longer unfettered (and never should be), that there’s the national health service (which could be better), there’s free education (that could be better), there’s a minimum wage (that could be higher), and myriad health and safety regulations that protect the ‘worker’ (whether struggling with a machine or at a call centre) from the mercilessness of capitalist greed. And they forget that everyone, whether ‘worker’ or not, aspires to better his or her lot. Whether you believe that the balance should be tipped more in favour of the disadvantaged or not, there’s no class war being fought, is there?

Admirably, none of them has the slick establishment gloss of the career politician, the pragmatic, non-ideological, unprincipled, deal-making skill that the likes of Tony Blair, David Miliband, David Cameron, even Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown possess.

But what do we want our politicians to be? Good men, unsullied by the realities of the world, averse to compromise, certain of their mission and clearly principled? Or realists?

There is currently a global, certainly European, aversion to establishment politicians. Conviction politicians, and anti-establishment parties of both the left and right are winning the votes of the disaffected, whether old or young. Syriza, in Greece, is a case in point. But what are the realities of power? Alexis Tsipras has, finally, been forced to accept a deal that is worse than the one his people rejected earlier in a referendum.

Labour party members or affiliates must ‘get real’. Unhappily, I agree with Tony Blair, that Jeremy Corbyn would be another disaster for the Labour Party. As Gordon Brown said yesterday, the Labour Party must be credible, radical and electable.