I shouldn’t be writing about the passing of someone just a few months older than me. My first feeling when I heard about the death of Tom Barry was of anger — nobody should die at the age of 41. Especially not a man with a partner and two children he adored.
If you were fortunate enough to know Tom, who died suddenly last week, you’ll have your favourite story about him. As the co-author of the Boris Watch blog, he put a critical spotlight on the inner workings of London mayor Boris Johnson’s administration — particularly its transport policy.
There’s little day-to-day scrutiny of the London mayoralty in the mainstream media. It’s often observed that journalists tend to look after their own — and with a particularly well-connected one in charge at City Hall, critical stories can struggle to get an airing. Especially in the early days, it was independent bloggers and reporters who most closely followed Johnson’s reign — Martin Hoscik’s Mayorwatch, Adam Bienkov, and Boris Watch.
But while Tom’s Boris Watch stories were fiercely critical of the mayor, he didn’t come from a party political view. He simply had no time for the cant and dishonesty of so many current politicians — and he expressed that impatience brilliantly, especially on Twitter.
His other passion was transport — planes, buses, trains, roads. The first time I spoke to him, I was following the Capital Ring walk in Brentford, near his home. He’d suggested meeting up on the way. We never managed to meet back then, but I remember our conversation being interrupted because he’d spotted a rare plane coming into Heathrow.
So, naturally, he was brilliant at watching the highly politicised world of London’s transport policies. Thanks to him and Boris Watch colleague Helen Gardner, the site was the first to report on the baking hot conditions inside Johnson’s enormous “new Routemaster” buses — which they alternately dubbed the “Roastmaster” or “Lardbus”.
He and Helen continued to report on the Roastmaster, even when their stories were being dismissed. Finally, TfL conceded there was a problem — and only this year decided to install opening windows on the buses. Appropriately, his last tweet criticised the buses — “gloomy, cramped plus a weird vibration from the powertrain. #lardbus #triumph”.
Tom also scrutinised the failure of Johnson’s plan to build an airport in the Thames Estuary — “It’s always nice to report from Medway, where they don’t tend to fall for the glamour of Boris playing SimCity in the same way that unsophisticated metropolitan journalists do”.
The dismal user figures for the Emirates Air Line cable car also came under his spotlight, along with plans for a “flyunder” in Hammersmith.
In March 2011, he gave a talk on the history of London’s transport policies above a pub on Theobald’s Road. His slideshow is still essential reading for anyone trying to understand how we get around this city. When roadbuilding slipped quietly back onto the London agenda, he was one of the very few people to notice. He also spoke up against the Silvertown Tunnel, a subject I’m going to miss his expertise on.
Above all else, though, I’ll miss his sense of fun and mischief — from taking one look at the calibre of those running free schools and branding them “twat madrassas”, to infiltrating Tory bloggers’ bashes. Oh, and nicking as many bottles of beer as we could from Londonist’s 10th birthday party.
He’s confused about what to write so I suggest he can write ‘total bollocks’ if he wants. He does so and hands the book back and buggers off to talk to someone less weird… So, I now have the only signed copy of Just Boris to carry a warning from the subject as to the contents. It’s nice to pin him down to an opinion for once.
I last saw him in March, at some drinks for his birthday. He was in his element — in The Ship in Wandsworth, surrounded by friends, beer and obscure books about long-gone transport schemes. I still can’t believe we’ll never get to do that again.
He’d often tweet about stealing a quiet hour in the pub with a pint, Private Eye and Modern Railways. Right now, I can’t think of a better way to honour a him. We were really lucky to have known Tom. My condolences go to his partner Ish and their two sons.
Tom’s family have set up a fundraising page for Amnesty International in his memory.
Other tributes to Tom Barry:
Tim Ireland: RIP Tom Barry of @Boriswatch
John Band: He was watching the defectives
Tim Fenton: So farewell then, Tom Barry
David Allen Green: Farewell, Boriswatch
Dave Hill: A small tribute to Tom Barry of Boriswatch