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  • Writer's pictureStephen Balogh

Naturally nothing off limits for discussion

A lot seemed to happen for me in the last quarter of 1990 and the first of 1991. I started my career. Margaret Thatcher resigned. The First Gulf War took place. I was enjoying the social company of the woman I eventually asked to marry me. And a mortar bomb was set off that, had it gone twice as far as it did, would have landed on the office I worked in.

It took a little while for me to settle into the small team I’d joined in the Planning department of what was then London Transport (now TfL), but that was far more about my own naïvety than others’ hostility. Things gradually settled down and we rubbed along pretty well. We had a pretty broad representation of political opinion from centre right through Lib Dem to soft left to hard left revolutionary communist (holidaying on work camps in Nicaragua and all that).

Nothing was off limits for discussion. Contrasting and indeed conflicting positions were taken on every matter imaginable but we all chimed in, had our say. Our lives were all enriched as a result, the sum of human understanding was marginally incremented, our senses of honour and humour were satisfied and we all pulled together for the actual work bit.

To illustrate this camaraderie, when Mrs Thatcher resigned in November 1990 we headed to the pub across from Downing Street to drink to her health. At least, I think that’s what we were doing.

At that time there was a continuing campaign of attacks by the Provisional IRA (Irish Republication Army), including on the mainland, and so there was a general backdrop both of vigilance and of lively debate about the related political issues aroused. Many were the times strong feelings would be expressed one way or the other and there was respect for the complex nature of the conflict. But at least we were all talking about it and not in some way reticent to do so.

That mortar attack in February 1991 was intended for Downing Street, where the Prime Minister (by then John Major) was holding a cabinet meeting. Fortunately, none of the three mortars quite met their mark and two overshot by quite a bit. That’s where our location came in. Had that overshooting been the double it would have landed near us in Petty France. We heard the blasts and the windows shook but fortunately the plastic covering on the glass did its job.

But here’s a thing. Until the previous weekend there had also been special weighted net curtains as an additional measure against glass shrapnel, fitted because we were across the road from the Home Office. Those curtains had been temporarily removed because the office was being repainted. The reaction of our resident revolutionary communist on hearing the blasts was something to behold. She went from strong supporter of the Republicans the previous week to searching for a chair to stand on and get those curtains back up pronto. No, of course these two things are not mutually inconsistent, but it was entertaining to see our resident Sandinista reduced to jelly, nonetheless. We rallied round and did all help her get those curtains back up pronto.

That not-very-close brush with death added some spice to our animated debates on the subject once they resumed and probably nudged our positions at least a little. The main point is that we continued to talk about it, a healthy reaction in my view.

Thirty years on, for whatever reason there seems to have been a huge change in the propensity of people, co-workers, to engage in open discussion about politics and related matters. I am not here going to go into what I would suggest are the reasons why (I may do so another day), but I think it’s a great loss for the opposite of all the reasons why I think healthy debate is, well, healthy.

One closing vignette and the reason why I mentioned the Gulf War. The project I’d been assigned was what over time became the Countdown electronic bus stop system that gives forecast arrival times and which is now ubiquitous across London and the world and on every smartphone. We’d been looking at suitable technologies and GPS was of course a strong candidate. However, at the time it was controlled fully by the US military who insisted on a deliberate “jitter” reducing its accuracy to something like +/- 10 metres for non-miltary users. However, the small print said that depending on “operational requirements” (aka war) the military reserved the right (a) to worsen the jitter and (b) remove the service entirely.

Especially in the light of the engagement by US-led forces in Kuwait in January 2001, we in the Countdown team had collective nightmares of having to put a holding message on all the bus stops reading “Owing to the Gulf War, we are unable to bring you up-to-the-minute bus information”… and took an alternative technology for the first stage of the roll-out, which was eventually switched out in favour of a more robust and by then independent GPS system.

Just waiting now for a solar storm to knock out GPS and it’ll be “Owing to the sun, we are unable … “ etc.

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