Charles Sellers, a historian who upset the postwar consensus by writing Against “the Roaring of Trains”, died on 4 April, having been given his papers from the university before he died.
After completing a letter to the Independent on Sunday in 1940, Sellers’s sprightly piece piqued the interest of the New Statesman’s editor, Richard Wyn Jones, who was, after the war, to become a key figure in the socialist movement.
As Jones recalled it, the letter contained a long explanation of the necessity of reordering capitalism and the economy, “a highly dramatic rant”, and then “a manically repetitious attack on what he termed the ‘creeping dehumanisation’ of the people by modern technology.” Jones describes the extraordinary consistency of Sellers’s appeal for sustained reform: “He’d become a full-time habitué of newspapers, an instant critic who never missed an opportunity to portray them in their worst light.”
Architectural consultant Onkar Chandan reviews Charles Sellers’s Against the Roaring of Trains and the Future of British Transport. Photograph: Ray Cockerrie/Getty Images
The piece prompted the novelist and the writer Edna O’Brien to remark that “there is no corner of the British countryside not marked by a history of British industrialisation – by railway lines and telegraph cables and asphalted roads, and railway viaducts; he showed how sections of Britain that had been left untouched or otherwise degraded by industry had long since been given back to nature”.
He was a monomaniac in his work and one of the few British writers who advocated much, and severe, activity against what were – in 1959 – the “giant transport projects” of Britain’s postwar years. It is a description that still rings true.
Less than three years after his main article, Sellers published Against “the Roaring of Trains” and the Future of British Transport, which combined the original article with other ground-breaking figures, including Wilfred Owen, Bertrand Russell, Robert Browning, and the Austrian economist Walter Leupp.
Asserting the indispensability of the rail system to the unity of the nation, Sellers wrote: “‘The railways do not have a place in the great national policy of the Industrial Revolution’. Must be the sound of you unbelievers in the totality of our cause, its magnitude and the total social significance of the order in which we have established the time-fixed, necessarily interdependant technological structure that controls our manufacture of everything that we do. The railways do stand at the western extremity of the vertical transition … From any and all roads and tracks and sites, brought up at low, almost mystical angles, since the day of Napoleon – it is only with railway lines that we may find the real avenue of usury and the true place of banking.
“From all points in all places by railways … from Norwich to Stockport to Wetherby … to Ashton-under-Lyne – you can get the railway here. All over … to every part of the country, there is a railway line waiting for passengers, ready to take off from one day to the next. The one thing, then, the railway is good for is social security; we cannot be living on a road without a train.”
Two years later, Sellers went on to write The Case Against Capitalism, a book that appears to mark a turning point in his career as an avowed socialist. This was too late, however, for the group of socialists who had visited Sellers in 1938; for this, Jones remembers, he had taken one of the few old books by socialists, a short, hand-bound volume, which had been in the Oxonian house of its editor, Teddy Funnell.
The book, which contains the notes of a Leninist meeting in Moscow, was soon bequeathed to Sellers after his death, without which his reputation as a thinker might never have been established. Jones remembers that “it was a remarkable piece of choice, absolutely unbiased. It couldn’t have been more idealistic; and even more remarkable that it had arrived from such an underground source. To keep such revolutionary documents and letters in private hands was perhaps the best invention Teddy Funnell had ever done.”