High-Speed Rail Protest Song Tops U.K. Charts

In England, an anti-HS2 ballad is hotter than Adele or Coldplay

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Dirty Mavis

Move over Adele: heartbreak has nothing on high-speed rail. In mid-December the U.K. band Dirty Mavis released "Oak Tree Lament," a protest ballad about England's proposed fast train line. By Christmas Eve the song had become the fourth most popular single on HMV, a U.K. download chart — ahead of the likes of Coldplay, according to the BBC. A review of the Top 40 Tracks on HMV on New Year's Day showed "Oak Tree Lament" at No. 1, with a live version of the same song holding the second position.

The proposed High-Speed 2 line would connect London with the cities of Manchester and Leeds, to the north, via Birmingham. (England's rail link across the Channel is referred to as High-Speed 1.) The 335-mile system, which is expected to cost roughly £30 billion, has some political support but also a good amount of public opposition. Some of the loudest critics suggest that its environmental impact will be too great.

Dirty Mavis seems to agree. The band has been together since 1997 but has no record label and plays fewer than 10 gigs a year, according to its website. Lead singer Martin Davis was inspired to write about the HS2 after a chance meeting with a leading protestor of the line. After Googling the project Davis drove the route and penned a song from the perspective of a tree that would be destroyed during HS2 construction.

Davis and company filmed the music video for "Oak Tree Lament" in the bucolic fields of middle and northern England that the HS2 line will, in their view, one day corrupt. The group is upset that the line has been planned by "greedy men in suits" and urges country folks opposed to the project to unite against them. "Well 30 billion is the cost, far way beyond belief," Davis sings. "And look across my valley, it's like a pound for every leaf." The song ends by tugging at the conscience of potential protestors who might not join the battle: "Did you fight to save this England?" they sing. "Did you stop the HS2?"

Despite its recent popularity the "Oak Tree Lament" probably won't have a lasting place in the annals of protest music. The song is catchy but it's not exactly up there with Bob Dylan's odes to Hattie Carroll or Medgar Evers during the Civil Rights movement. What those and other great protest songs share in common is a defense of a human victim. Trees are great, of course, but if one old tree were reason enough to stop all human progress, we wouldn't have come very far.

That's not to say the environmental impact of HS2 shouldn't be limited as much as possible. There are other legitimate, reasonable arguments against the line as well. The Economist laid out a few of these back in September, wondering if the proposed system will "ameliorate the north-south divide in Britain’s economy and prosperity" as much as advocates suggest:

Yet Britain’s infrastructure demands are different from other countries’. Its regular trains are already faster than most other nations’ equivalents. Britain is sufficiently small that even without pricey futuristic technology, Manchester and Leeds are only just over two hours from London. And a greater proportion of the population is already connected to the road and rail network than elsewhere in Europe. ... 

A deeper, and mistaken, geographical belief may be at work in the minds of the Whitehall technocrats behind the venture. It is that “the north” is somehow a single, homogeneous place (a view encouraged by the signs to “The North” on motorways heading out of London). It isn’t.

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