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Tracks of our tears

The authors of the newly published Legatum Prosperity Index were not there when my head slumped against the floor at York station. They did not hear my low moan, nor witness my crumpled frame coming to rest on the bubble gum-strewn platform amidst the rushing feet of unheeding Yorkshiremen and women, long-since used to the sight of despairing adults giving up and falling to the ground in front of them. If they had been there I suspect they would not have been as surprised as they profess to be at just how badly the UK performs in their annual assessment of global wealth and wellbeing.

When the results were revealed on 26th October, a barely credulous Legatum spokesperson revealed, “Of the 110 countries covered by the survey, Britain ranks a staggering 101st on public trust in financial institutions, 98th on optimism about job prospects and 93rd on expectations of future economic performance.” These are figures, Legatum asserts, usually found in the world’s poorest countries – not in its fifth biggest economy. Despite having the 12th most effective government in the world, our levels of confidence in government come in at 74th place. Our levels of safety are high compared to other countries but we rank ourselves 40th in the world when it comes to feeling safe going home at night. Why then are we so pessimistic?

Let the spokesperson attempt, as I was, to travel from London to the north east of England at the last minute without going mad or bankrupt and I feel he would be less staggered by our national inclination towards gloom. As the coastal town I wanted to reach is particularly isolated, at least 40 miles away from the nearest airport, a cheap flight was not an option. So I had to get the train, but as I wanted to travel that same day one of the many – and confusing – discounted advance booking tickets were not available.

“Britishness is not a nationality but an affliction and you pick it up on trains”

Two companies run services on the same route: East Coast and Grand Central. East Coast is a publicly owned operator which recently took over from the now defunct National Express East Coast – which ran a service, according to the purely subjective view of one deranged traveller I encountered staggering out of King’s Cross station, that had been “absolutely fucking awful”.

I went for Grand Central, but unfortunately there were no available seats so I was obliged to hand over a stupendous fee to East Coast. Then my connecting service at York, lacking a driver, was cancelled.

It was late by now and my options were to take an incredibly expensive taxi to the town, spend a night in York or a catch a train back to London. I was trapped in a peculiarly British limbo and, unable to carry on, I succumbed to our nation’s distinctive default position – crippling pessimism.

This brand of pessimism, according to Legatum, holds a stronger grip on our national consciousness than ever. By the index’s criteria of public health, crime, economic prospects and other markers, one would expect to see 21st century Britain rank among the world’s leading nations, but crucially Legatum also measures public perception. That is, how the people of a country actually feel. How, in essence, hopeful they are. Factor this in and the United Kingdom not only fails to get in the top ten (it comes in at number 13) but is also rated below both Ireland and Iceland. Arguably these are countries with more reason to think prospects are pretty poor right now but, compared to the Brits, they are paragons of optimism.

It takes a certain national genius to maintain our collective pessimism in the face of the clear evidence that we are actually rather well off and it is a genius, I would argue, that is shaped by one thing above all others: public transport and, in particular, our railways. The British invented trains but now have one of the most expensive, inefficient and confusing railway systems in the developed world. As a metaphor for a national decline – albeit one that Legatum suggests doesn’t exist – it is hard to better. But it also has also tangibly malign effects on the British psyche. Where else is the ordinary citizen’s wealth removed so adroitly, his hopes crushed so mercilessly and his personal space invaded so regularly?

Small wonder then that other nations are so much more optimistic than we are. The Irish, though they no longer – and maybe never did – say “top of the morning to you”, remain essentially cheerful. And an Icelander, although Nordic and subject to perpetual darkness for parts of the year, is generally inclined to good humour. Why? Trains of course. Ireland’s railway system is small and in the case of the DART in Dublin, offers clean trains that run punctually. And Iceland is clever enough to have no public railways at all to sour the mood. In London alone tubes and trains swallow hundreds of thousands of people each day and hurl them out disenchanted, desperate and willing to believe everything else is as terrible.

So, the next time you see a grown man sinking to the ground and sobbing, do not be too harsh a judge. He is not a drunk, he is British and he can’t help it for Britishness is not a nationality but an affliction and you pick it up on trains and in railway stations. No matter how upbeat, no one is immune – the simple attempt to catch a train can turn the happiest and most optimistic of visitors, even Irishmen and Icelanders, into standard Britons, utterly pessimistic and completely convinced that nothing works. Which is why, by a Grand Central train, I sat down and wept.

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