Damn, I thought, as soon as I saw, I’m going to write on this and it is going to be absurd. On the middle of the platforms at Flinders Street station, there were squares of steel fencing and a gap. What had been there, until a couple of days before, on platforms 2-3, 4-5, 6-7, and 8-9, had been the sheds of the little red engine kiosks, little milk bars – they looked like milk bars once did – with a display of sweets, magazines, buns, sandwiches at the front, and hot food in a bain marie from a smaller window at one side. I remember them coming in — can’t remember when exactly.
The little sheds were a good convenience and a great pleasure. They meant that you could dash for a train, know that you’d made it, and get a coffee and a sandwich on the platform, a copy of New Idea if you were going all the way to Pakenham, a bag of dim sims if you’d just been dumped. But it wasn’t just the utility. They were a joy, a warmth, a glow – including for the people who ran them, who said it was a good gig as retail goes, with hundreds of regulars, the ebb and flow of life.
Metro Trains official explanation is that they’re improving passenger flow on the platforms. That’s spin, because they’ve also removed a take-away stand — one that was in the actual shape of a steam train! — from Parliament station, and it was in no one’s way. It’s part and parcel with Metro’s disregard for anything passing for character in the system, such as the blundering near kill-off of a black-and-white photo booth outside Flinders St station (by offering its owner an uneconomic replacement site), and its attempt to destroy half of Campbell Arcade, the glorious art-deco/modernist underpass to Flinders Street — which a hipster global destination like Melbourne should kill to keep — by routing a pedestrian tunnel through, that could easily avoid it altogether.
But they can get away with this sort of stuff as the death of a thousand cuts. Because there is something ridiculous about writing about the removal of a bunch of kiosks – from the French kiosque, from the Turkish, kosk, (pronounced: kershk), from the Farsi kus, pavilions in palace gardens — from railway platforms, and everyone feels this sort of embarrassment about making a fuss about it, even as they feel the real sense of loss. I told three people, activist, writer types about it, and they all did the same thing: expressed a dismay at it, but in a mildly ironic tone: “what, we can’t get a potato cake on the platform anymore? A coffee scroll?” Why? Because otherwise you sound like Alan Bennett, ohhh we went down to Radnor’s to get some Peek Freans … But matter it does.
The one kiosk that remains open is on platform one, and thereby hangs a tale. Because that’s the old VicRail bookstall — it still appears as such on google maps — and it’s a heritage structure, a mildly art-decoish little wooden structure. VicRail didn’t subcontract out such things; they had their own department, which advertised in the timetables. “If there is something you would like us to stock, please do not hesitate to contact the manager,” and then a phone number, Melbourne 4, or something.
What the hell was that? Well that was public service, derided and misremembered through decades of neoliberal propaganda. Yes, often bumptious and inefficient – if you murdered someone it was said, the best way to dispose of the body was to mail it to yourself via the VicRail parcels office, and it would never be seen again – it was nevertheless oriented to the social, without, in a society where public transport was a universal service.
And yes, I still feel embarrassed about writing this. But fighting through that, the point is that large monopolies like this — public or private — should have user and citizen boards with real power as regards service decisions, etc. We had to have a damn public campaign to save a photo booth that anyone who’s not an MBA pinhead can see was a public treasure, for chrissake. And on and on.
Why do we have to fight these battles over and over? Why do users, in NSW, of the hugely busy Kings Cross-Bondi Junction have to put up with blaring jumbo screens on the platforms, bouncing off the walls, because the corporation has sold their eyeballs to advertisers? Why not structure public institutions to recognise the inevitable disjuncture of management and user, and recognise the legitimacy of the latter’s separate interests and viewpoints. What matters is neither the small stuff nor the big stuff but both, and the Escher-picture-like way in which both intertwine. So we fight on for the thousand small pleasures which make up a city, a society, a life, as the system attempts endlessly to throw them beneath the iron wheels.