Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Stephen Bayley

Travelling by train? It’s like surfing a sewer, says the design guru

Stephen Bayley

October 20 2011
Stephen Bayley

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Someone once asked Charles Saatchi if he ever used public transport. The great man ruminated for a moment and said: “Yes. Concorde.” Times change. One current preoccupation of mine is to wonder why public transport smells exactly like pubic lavatories. I was on a 737-400 from Rome last week and I might as well have been body-boarding in the Cloaca Maxima. It was like surfing a sewer. Right now I am on a rather defiled Virgin Pendolino returning from Manchester. Is it because airlines and train operators are too mean to use the air conditioning? The technology exists for clean, dry air to be enjoyed in-flight or on the rails. Instead, you have to suffer disturbing noxious vapours and recirculated air resulting in a horrible sort of contaminated fatigue. Before I even reached my appointment in Manchester, I felt the need for full body ultra-sound cleansing and a fresh shirt.

I have been in Manchester to give a talk at Cornerhouse, the city’s popular venue for creative types. I was a student here and explained to the audience what I learnt from the city. First, paraphrasing a bit, I agreed with Disraeli that, properly understood, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool are at least the equals of Athens and Rome. Impossible not to be moved by the solemn splendour of Manchester’s hard-nosed architecture: not a lovable place, but an impressive one. Second, it was in Manchester that, for a different reason, I decided to proselytise about design. I remember the drizzly day when someone was teaching me about the splendour of Bolognese Baroque architecture and questioned why no one was bothering to explain Manchester and the modern world which its industries made possible. This, I decided to do. That’s what I mean by “design”.

But I also spoke to the audience about my loathing of economists and management consultants and the chilly, barren calculus they peddle. Amazing that in Keynes’ General Theory you see no suggestion that taste, desire or pleasure play any part in economic activity. His successors have inherited this bleak view of human nature. And as for McKinsey, how wrong can it possible to be? You can measure anything and if you can measure it, you can manage it, the godfather of consultancy insisted. Well, you can only measure very simple things. Beauty, peace, happiness and everything else important remain beyond the reach and grasp of quants. You may be surprised how very, very enthusiastically my audience responded to this message.

And now my reverie has been interrupted by someone pushing a battered trolley whence was expelled in my direction an icy cold industrial sandwich, to prove that I am in first class. It’s just like being on a plane. What a ludicrously insulting conception Virgin has of quality and service. You go on the Spanish AVE between Madrid and Seville and you get a glass of manzanilla and some olives and good almonds. Distance may lend sentimental beauty to the view, but last time I was in Amtrak’s Metroliner between Washington and New York, a smartly uniformed server brought proper cocktails on a tray. You can get excellent coffee and sandwiches everywhere nowadays. Except on public transport. Or, I imagine, in public lavatories.


So engrossed was I with its delicious effects, I carelessly transcribed the Conservative Arts Dinner red wine as “Morgon”. It was, in fact Morgan Twelve Clones from California’s Santa Lucia Highlands. Cornelius Medvei wrote, reproachfully, to tell me this. He added that he was “crushed” that I thought he might serve Beaujolais. Here I think we have the mushy peas/guacamole antithesis of our day.

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