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“Commute, commute, commute… Have a nice day! Keep your bowels open!” Commuting, wellbeing and the 'good life' in post-war Britain

Screengrab from The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin (BBC 1976)
Screengrab from The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin (BBC 1976)

In recent years, public health policy, media representations and everyday discourse have positioned commuting as a core contributor to wide-ranging pathologies connected with contemporary capitalism: climate and ecological disasters, social dislocation, urban decay, mental health crises and growing rates of chronic disease, to name a few. Over the past two years, COVID-19 also added pandemic infection to this list of risks and ailments.  

This paper, however, suggests that the individual and social effects of the daily journey to work has long been the source of concern in Britain. With increasing regularity over the post-war decades, doctors, novelists, journalists, academics, sitcom writers and “commuters” themselves came to frame the commute as simultaneously a symbol of oppressive and dehumanising routine, and a substantive cause of stress, frustration and community disintegration. In some respects, this was something of a historic irony. Particularly as industrial change and public policy drastically remade urban landscapes over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, new forms of transport were intended to enable workers and their families to relocate to healthier and more enriching suburbs and estates. At the same time, as the paper concludes, the pathologies of commuting – and particularly its isolating anomie – were not always shared by all.  

Different modalities of travel, social inequalities, and differences in employment created a diversity of experiences. Some commuters even found their daily travel could provide reassurance, sociality, and the time to daydream. Indeed, as recreations of commutes by people in lockdown highlighted, the daily journey to work has deeply interpellated cultural and daily life during the past seventy years and more. 

Speaker 

Dr Martin Moore is a Lecturer in Medical History in the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health at the University of Exeter. He is author of Managing Diabetes, Managing Medicine: Chronic Disease and Clinical Bureaucracy in Post-War Britain (Manchester University Press, 2019) and co-editor (with Mark Jackson) of Balancing the Self: Medicine, Politics and the Regulation of Health in the Twentieth Century (Manchester University Press, 2020). His current research examines issues of time, waiting and care in post-war British general practice, and the historical entanglements of commuting and wellbeing in Britain between 1945 and the early 2000s.  

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