For Starters: The Business of Life by Peter Parker - review by Helen Hague

Helen Hague

The Train Driver

For Starters: The Business of Life


Jonathan Cape 352pp £18 order from our bookshop

Sir Peter Parker sets out to disarm. He had a happy childhood, has been ‘happily in love’, all his married life and therefore has ‘no right to write an autobiography’. He boasts of knowing ‘zilch’ about the railways, moving from private industry to take over as BR chairman in 1976. William Blake, cited as mentor in this quotation-spattered memoir, helped forge the polymath career it unshamedly celebrates. Blake’s dictum, ‘I must Create a System; or be enslaved by another Man’s,’ is a pretty tough remit to fulfil as chairman of a nationalised industry. Especially one which was demoralised, embattled and £500m in the red.

Parker went to union socials, and began championing the railway cause with the zeal of a convert- twinning a crusade to win over public support with battles for treasury cash. BR was to become a ‘Citizen’s Business’, sandwiches were to be provided.’ After the Thatcher victory in ’79, came renewed insistence from Whitehall that productivity and investment must go hand in hand. A set-piece bust-up with the unions became inevitable.

Parker is out of sync the prevailing Thatcherite ethos. As a Labour man who later embraced the politics of Shirley Williams – he played Lear to her Cordelia at Oxford – his belief in public enterprise and the need for a national transport policy were seen as a bit questionable

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