We Are Not The Good Guys

Stoke Row Maharajah's Well

The English celebrate a gift from India

Englishness and/or Britishness has been in the news of late – not least as it’s been brought up by the question of Scottish independence, by the relative success of the more jingoistic UKIP in recent voting, and by a subsequent poll purporting to show that people are more racist these days.

Recent bike rides have:

  • taken me past the Stoke Row Maharajah’s Well, all decked out to celebrate its 150 anniversary, and that made me think we can’t be that rabid in our dislike of Johnny Foreigner, surely, if we’re still celebrating this gift from a foreigner to the English rural poor.
  • taken me past Jeremy Paxman, who I tend to think of as very English in the way he occasionally asks allegedly tough questions of politicians, but never actually goes for the jugular, never actually rocks the boat in any serious way. It’s also very English that this high profile TV personality can be walking in a lane on his own and be happy to exchange pleasantries with a stranger cycling by.
  • witnessed the eccentricities of village scarecrow competitions;
  • witnessed people suffering with Stoicism for good causes on charity rides and walks …

… and so on – I could drum up any number of examples of Englishness/Britishness; it’s especially easy to during a summer of bad weather, when we really do show our national characteristics off.

But then I read about how Britain was the ‘go to’ country if you wanted to want to learn how to torture your citizens.

Yes, that was in the 60s and 70s and perhaps we genuinely have moved on from then, but finding out about it is, nevertheless, enough to throw into question the whole image of the British.

At home, that image has been deftly managed to ensure that we think we’re the good guys in a world of untrustworthy foreigners.

What I found myself wondering was how would we look at our day-to-day lives, the manifestations of what we think of as Englishness/Britishness, if we knew these were the actions not of the good guys, but of the citizens of the ‘go-to’ country for wannabe torturers.

I didn’t arrive at any conclusion. Ultimately, it hinges on how responsible ordinary people are for the actions/apparatus of the state they live in. Unfortunately, it is possible to conclude that we, the British/English, might be guilty of not acting against the state when we should have done … or perhaps should do. That is sobering.

The Stoke Row Well
Racism On The Rise
Britain Training In Torture.

Regurgitating Drain

Regurgitating Drain

Regurgitating Drain …

Reasonable weather for a welcome change, after too many days with the temperature too close to zero and stints on the turbo-trainer the only sensible option.

And it was good to be out – a loop south of Reading then back across to Henley and over the top to Caversham.

If nature was a sentient being, it could be tempting to thing that nature’s getting her own back at the moment. After all the floods of late, most road-side ditches are full to the brim or have been recently, meaning all the dumped rubbish and litter has come to the surface. Nature’s revenge – as all our filth is regurgitated back at us.

Today I was riding in the Royal County of Berkshire and South Oxon. This whole region is a visitor destination. It’s a litter-strewn, pothole-riddled mess.

Dear politicians – this is the impression visitors are getting of Britain. Invest here – in a country, in a society, that’s all too happy to foul its own nest? It’s not a good omen …

A flooded ditch and field near you

And nature said, ‘Look at your filth’. And the businessman said, ‘Invest here? Not on your life’.

Of course, nature isn’t a sentient being. If only. Perhaps I’ve just been listening to too many old Bowie records lately.

Sitting Down Outside

Near Twyford today I had to stop and tighten a cleat (the bit that allows a shoe to clip in to a pedal). That was just sloppy on my part: I’d changed them a little while ago, ridden them since but not checked and tightened them. A basic over-sight but no big deal: a multi-tool will fix most on-road problems.

What it made me think about wasn’t bike maintenance but the fact that I could sit on a bench to sort it out. It, the bench, was just there, on a grassy few square yards near Ruscombe Church.

Public seats near Ruscombe Church

Seats near Ruscombe Church

That’s really quite wonderful. It’s civilised and it’s caring.

Once you start noticing them, there are lots of places for the public to sit down outside, provided by councils or churches or any number of other groups or individuals. If you look further, there are any number of semi-public seats – in National Trust properties and that sort of place – for people to rest on, outside. Add to them all the seats in gardens and it’s obvious that we like sitting down outside.

That’s not something you’d naturally associate with Britain – land of grey skies and showers. Perhaps as time goes on they’ll get more appropriate. Today was another day hovering around the 80F mark and the second day in a row with a very strong wind accompanying it. And there I was, thinking Sirocco-like conditions weren’t for old Blighty.

The saving grace for this time of year is that hot air isn’t so thick, so the strong winds of the last couple of days aren’t so hard to battle against as they would be in winter. It looks far worse than it is once you get out there. The classic ‘out in to the headwind, back with a tailwind’ works well.

Free / Shame

The sky seemed on the verge of ominous for most of today; it could easily have rained at almost any time. As it was, Charli and I fitted in a decent enough road ride taking in places like Sonning, Wargrave and Henley, criss-crossing over a now much subsided Thames in comparison to just a few days ago. All that precious water running away and the threat of drought still remaining – all for the want of some forward-thinking investment, for the want of something other than short-termism and greed.

The thought that struck me today was that Charli and I were free – free to ride where we wanted, when we wanted. Free to get outside and ride. That’s something to appreciate on so many levels, but today it’s just hit home in the most basic way: we’re not in prison. Fair enough, we’ve done nothing to merit being in prison. But nor did Sam Hallam, who it seems has spent seven years in jail for nothing and who’s only been freed this week.

That’s seven years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Police didn’t investigate his alibi. Evidence, including mobile phone data and CCTV footage, was never disclosed. People made those decisions; people, not ‘the system’.

I don’t know how I’d cope with that kind of injustice. It’s one thing to be being punished legitimately; it’s quite another to be framed. And as Patrick Maguire said, while there’s plenty of state help for former, genuinely guilty, prisoners, there’s none for the framed innocent if and when they’re released. Patrick Maguire should know – he spent four years in prison for something he didn’t do.

The enormity of how wrong that all is, I don’t think it can be over-stated. This is the apparatus of the state knowingly persecuting an innocent man. It’s not the first time – far from it. In Britain, we’re taught that this is the kind of thing that happens in tin-pot countries ruled by corrupt dictators. In Britain, we’re taught lies.

The enormity of how wrong that all is, is haunting. The absence of a major media-led outcry about it is shaming.

Today we rode past the Henley Regatta grounds – the marquees are going up already. The preparations take weeks. High society will gather there – the great and the good – and they’ll have been totally unruffled by what’s happened to Sam Hallam. As long as it doesn’t involve them it doesn’t matter.

I also read today that the government, after a Freedom of Information request, has had to reveal that over 1,000 Civil Servants have ‘snooped’ on British citizens’ private data. Against that backdrop, the government wants the power to pry extended even further. Again, there’s no concerted national outcry and, again, the great and good won’t worry about it – they’ll imagine it will never concern them.

One day it will.

One day, security services will use the powers granted to them by government against a government or against a potential government. More people will be framed, and unless we are very, very careful, sooner or later we’ll get to a point where the framed are never freed.

Photo: A Hawthorn hedge in full flower

A Hawthorn hedge in full flower. Up to 200,000 miles of Hawthorn hedge were planted during the Parliamentary Enclosures, from 1750.

Sam Hallam and Patrick Maguire.
Civil Servants snooping.
Government plans to monitor electronic activity.
The Innocence Network – working against wrongful convictions.

Tasting Dust

Another off-road jaunt with Charli – good riding for a couple of hours. If you study the Ordnance Survey maps well it’s surprising how many bridle paths there are, how well they join up and – even for someone who’s ridden an area very thoroughly – how there are still some new ones waiting to be tried out.

In case you’re not sure, bridle paths are fine to ride on, footpaths are not. If you’ve not tried them, I find the Ordnance Survey Landranger maps are fine for most riding purposes, although their Explorer series has double the scale which can be helpful for off-road routes. If you’re feeling flush then you can get a custom map made just of your area, at either scale.

Today’s an election day in Britain, with two issues on the agenda. First up there’s a referendum on the ‘Alternative Vote’ system. I genuinely do not know what’s the right way to go on this, but my instinct is that any change, however flawed, is better than the status quo.

Second, there are local council elections and these are always – rightly or wrongly – perceived as being less important, with low turnouts, lots of so-called tactical voting or people voting to show their views on national government rather than anything else.

For the first time this year, the taste in the mouth was dust while I was out riding … It is stupidly, worryingly hot and dry. I’ve not heard one politician talk about the climate during these elections. That it is not the screamingly urgent, frightening issue on everyone’s minds is in itself … what? Alarming? Damning?