London Crawling – Frank McNally on Hamilton, the British rail strike, and the importance of looking right

A visit to Paddington Station

In London with my sons at the weekend, I finally went to see Hamilton, the most unlikely hit musical of recent times. In one way, it’s a monument to political incorrectness, being a throwback to the “Great Man” school of history – and to great white men at that – which has been out of fashion for decades.

On the other hand, the show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has ensured that all its main roles are played by non-white actors, including himself (he’s of Puerto Rican descent).

Furthermore, in presenting a story of “America then, as told by America now”, his musical medium was hip-hop.

The show also lionises immigrants, as summed up in its most popular joke.


This occurs in a scene set at the decisive battle of the American Revolution, the Siege of Yorktown, where the French General Lafayette and Hamilton (born in the West Indies) congratulate each other in rap.

Hamilton: “We’re finally on the field/We’ve had quite a run.” Lafayette (high-fiving him): “Immigrants./We get the job done.”

This always wins applause on Broadway and drew cheers from the Victoria Palace Theatre audience too.

I didn’t feel qualified to join in, although maybe I could have. After all, I too was an emigrant to London once, briefly. I even built a small part of it. But I should probably check if that’s still standing first.


At the insistence of the teenager, we paid a visit to Paddington Station next morning, to get a picture with the statue of a famous four-legged immigrant from “darkest Peru”. While there, I noticed that the railway strike picketers outside had a banner featuring James Connolly. So we got a picture of that as well, for which the strikers happily posed.

Connolly is a personal hero of Mick Lynch, the British rail union boss, who grew up in Paddington but whose parents are from Cork (his father being a Jack Lynch, no less) and Crossmaglen, respectively.

Time was when, as the song said, poor Paddy just worked on the railway. Now, it seems, he’s more likely to be organising the workers.

Lynch’s immediate predecessor as union general secretary was Mick Cash, born in an Essex railway cottage but the son of Traveller parents from Kildare.


We were largely unaffected by the strike, flying into Luton, then out of Stansted and catching trains for both. Mind you, we had to cut our Saturday evening in London short when realising that the 5.40pm from Liverpool Station was the last departure for the airport.

Some Underground closures en route caused us a minor panic. But we arrived at the station with all of eight minutes to spare, unlike one harassed local man who sprinted for his platform shouting “Wankers!”, either at the railway management or the strikers, or both.

I was intrigued to read since that the London Times columnist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris also flew into Luton Airport at the weekend, after a trip abroad. Unlike us, he had to get a bus home.

This provided a small epiphany.

The bus driver was a multi-tasker, he noted: not just driving, but checking passengers on and off, helping with luggage, and having sole responsibility for the wellbeing of the passengers behind him while also making constant split-second decisions about the traffic with which he shares road space.

For all which responsibility, the columnist discovered, British bus drivers’ annual pay is £24,879, rising to £31,000 with experience.

Train drivers, by contrast, get £48,000, rising to £65,000 for a job that is more straightforward (in every sense). As Parris concluded: “Something here doesn’t look right.”


The obsession with things looking right is unavoidable on London tubes and trains. Voices on the PA constantly advise: “If you see something that doesn’t look right, speak to staff or text British transport”.

But I’m relieved to report that during extensive travels on the city networks over two days, the nearest thing I saw to something that didn’t look right was the missing apostrophe in a T-shirt slogan: “Punks not dead”.

Another of our side trips, this time at the behest of my older son, was to Abbey Road. He only wanted to see the studios, but I insisted on him and his brother doing the cliché tourist thing: recreating the album cover on what must be the world’s only heritage-listed pelican crossing.

The constant stream of walkers and their photographers at Abbey Road is yet another hazard for London bus drivers to negotiate. No doubt regulars on the route are well used to it by now. But just in case, a message printed on both sides of the road embellishes the theme of British Transport, advising would-be Beatle imitators: “Look Right.”