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.

Essence of English

One of those all too rare ‘proper’ English summer days – warm but not stifling and no wind to speak of. Perfect weather for a longer ride so today was a circuit taking in Caversham to the north, Theale to the west, Aborfield to the south and the edge of Windsor Forest to the east – just over 50 enjoyable miles.

Near Tidmarsh there’s an old pillbox in a field. (For younger readers, a pillbox is a reinforced defensive position. Any number of them were built in the Second World War; the threat of invasion was very real. Don’t be fooled by ‘Dad’s Army’ re-runs.) Seeing it now, the whole notion of them seems to be faintly ludicrous but very heroic, examples of a dogged determination and a thoroughly irrational ‘to hell with the odds’ response.

Just a few yards from there, there were horses standing in the shade of an oak tree in the middle of a field. The summer-blue sky was full of those ‘little fluffy white clouds’ and further around the route it was easy to see white sheep set-off perfectly against lush green fields.

From the attitude behind the construction of pillboxes to the scenes to be found seemingly everywhere, it all seemed quite ridiculously English in any number of stereotypical ways.

The Almshouse Association

The Almshouse Association: pure Englishness?

The fifty miles took in duck ponds, babbling streams complete with ramshackle wooden footbridges and a fair smattering of picture-perfect old churches. Chocolate-box-ready thatched cottages? Two a penny. Near Maiden’s Green there was a lady wearing a summer dress and straw hat, riding a beautiful-looking sit-up-and-beg bike with poise and style and yes, ‘Maiden’s Green’ exists and no, I’m not making any of this up.

As I rode I kept looking for a photo to best illustrate all this Englishness I was being faced with. Everything I’ve mentioned could have been snapped but then I saw The Almshouse Association. My instant thought was that both ‘Almshouse’ and ‘Association’ are perfect words for conveying so much about the English: charity, care, the establishment and the church; history, patronage, doing the right thing and an unspoken order to the way things are done; volunteers, donations and genteel goings-on.

I don’t want to know anything about the realities of The Almshouse Association. I want to leave it to exist as I imagine it is. I don’t want to reflect any more on Englishness. Now, sitting at home, I don’t want to ponder and come up with something better reasoned. For today, today’s scenes were enough.

That said, it would be very interesting to hear what anyone else thinks about what sums up England and/or the English on a summer’s day. Do leave a comment.

Terribly, Terribly English

Riding around the lanes, villages and small towns like Henley today and yesterday, it was surprising how few people there were around. I don’t think they can have all been indoors, retreating from the relentlessly dismal weather. (If it’s not raining it will be soon.) I don’t think they were all at Jubilee parties.

There have been endless attempts to market on the back of the Jubilee – from the connected to the desperate. I’ve been offered ‘Jubilee Guitar Strings’ (at 10% off, no less) by email. The pubs are the ones I fear for; they’re nearly all trying to get punters in the door for some Jubilee-themed event or promotion or something but I doubt there are that many punters to go around – or even that there would have been if the weather had been glorious.

Today, riding past a seat provided to mark the Golden Jubilee 10 years ago, along the Harpsden Bottom road, I realised I’ve not heard anything at all about longer-lasting community ‘Jubilee Projects’, whether as small (but significant) as the seat or anything more grand. Perhaps they’ve just not crossed my radar.

The Queen's Golden Jubilee - anniversary bench

Something lasting …

I confess I’m finding it a bit tedious now – as ever, the media are giving the whole thing such an overkill treatment. I suppose it’s the same underlying issue as the pubs’ events: the media are just as desperate to attract punters, and just as imagination-free in their efforts. It’s very hard for anything to retain any semblance of being in any way ‘special’ when it’s flogged to death.

I can only have praise and affection for the people of Goring and Streatley, their 1km long table for an outdoor Jubilee lunch and the way they just got on with it in the rain, including an attempt at baking the most scones (4,000) in one sitting. It’s just so terribly, terribly English in every way that’s wholly admirable. (Of course, that should really be a .62 mile long table.)

Perhaps the way the weather’s brought out such classically English ways of carrying-on is a blessing – albeit well disguised. Perhaps that’s just sort-of de facto twaddle and we’d have been ever better in our Englishness if the sun had shone.

Talking of the praiseworthy – my heartfelt thanks to the (possibly quite elderly) lady in the Honda on the road out from Henley today. Without excessive detail: the situation on the road was out of the ordinary because of a large lorry; I wasn’t correctly positioned as a result; the lady understood perfectly what was happening, gave me all the space I needed and passed me with a cheery wave. It’s appreciated – and should be acknowledged.

Some photos from BBC Berkshire, including of Goring’s Jubilee party.

Oh, England

Some thirty-plus miles in the area between Reading and Windsor: damp air; temperature no higher than 60F, a good 20 degrees cooler than it has been; a stiff breeze from the south-east and a slab of grey for sky. Another English Summer day.

The weather deteriorating just as the Royal Diamond Jubilee celebrations officially start, along with a four-day public holiday and the opportunity that represents for lots of people to get a week-long break at the cost of just three annual leave days, is perfectly English. It could be worse: in 1975 it snowed in England.

There’s a lot of bunting, flags and what-have-you around the place although it would be a mistake to say a majority of properties are joining in – the more the typical commuter village, the more the bunting. I suspect the well-off like to play at ‘community’.

I’m not sure what I think about the Jubilee. I don’t resent it and I don’t want to kick against it particularly; I imagine there’s some good coming out of it one way and another. But it doesn’t do anything for me personally, emotionally, and I can’t help but suspect the costs involved are unjustified. (A Bank Holiday day is reputed to cost about £1bn to ‘the nation’, and this is the second extra one we’ve had in as many years because of Royalty. That said, the estimated costs vary wildly.)

I can’t bring myself to be a republican in any practical sense because of the calibre of politician we have in this country. The thought of any of them as a president is deeply unsettling. We need a root-and-branch clear-out of the political classes before notions of republicanism can be entertained.

I also can’t help but think that if we could stand back and try to understand what we do and what happens on an occasion like this, we’d realise that any good that does come out it could be achieved anyway, and in a far more lasting way. We just need guidance and leadership to that end. If only genuine leadership weren’t so rare.

Royal Jubilee decorations in the rain

It could be snowing …

As it is, most of the jubilee parties and major events are planned for the next three days and the forecast is rain. England, in best bib and tucker, in glad-rags, will end up with mascara runs and bedraggled buttonholes. It’s probably completely appropriate.

(I’m referring just to England consciously: I have no idea what the Scottish or the Welsh or the Northern Irish think about the Monarchy – to listen to their nationalists you’d imagine they’re burning effigies of the Royals as I write but I doubt the vocal few are representative.)

The BBC speculates about the cost of Bank Holidays.

Water, Water

For reasons various and tedious, I was out today without any water. It’s unseasonally warm. Fortunately I was out on a fixed wheel bike with just time for a short ride so it wasn’t a big deal.

Coming in to Emmer Green, my thirst and the water tower combined to remind me of the looming drought. There’s been hardly any rain for ages and there’s none forecast either. Apparently other parts of Europe are even more parched, already.

The Emmer Green Water Tower

Water, Water, Up A Tower

It doesn’t bode well.

Water, by and large, is something we take for granted. This is England – the land of wet summers and wetter winters. It’s hard to switch from a normality of viewing water as something plentiful and ‘just there’ to a new context where it’s something to be conserved. That’s not helped when water leaks aren’t fixed by the self-same company that’s telling us all to have shorter showers or whatever. There’s a major leak on Kidmore End Road that’s been there for weeks now. Yes, quite possibly there are valid reasons for it not being fixed and yes, quite possibly the amount leaked is still small beer in comparison to the amount to be saved by every householder spending a couple of minutes less time in the shower. That’s to miss the point though. If Thames Water, the responsible company, want us to respond to their exhortations to save water, they have to be seen to be treating it as precious themselves. Perceptions matter.

Filtering The Gene Pool

Thirty-three hassle-free miles in Spring sunshine and above-average temperatures on a nicely kitted-out Colnago Master X-Lite. That’s a pretty fine way to spend a couple of hours. It really was unseasonally warm and bright out there, so the blossom in the hedgerows and the urban Magnolia trees looked really quite stunning. And there’s something pleasing about seeing Alpacas on the steep folded hills near Whitchurch – their strange and distinctive shapes against green with a strong blue sky.

I don’t doubt there’ll be some kind of argument being made somewhere about Alpacas not being ‘native’ to England and not appropriate for English farmland blah blah blah, but what’s ‘native’ is relative to a time frame. It changes over the centuries. In much the same way as people oppose fields of rape seed as being not like English fields should be, really what they’re complaining about is change relative to their lifetime or to their understanding of what the past was like. And in reality the introduction of Alpacas or rape seed or whatever else will just be change – neither unequivocally good or bad, with both some positive and some negative consequences.

Alpacas in the sun

You can only welcome immigrants

Unusually, I was able to ride with and chat to two different strangers today, which made the day more interesting. People are, generally, interesting if you listen to what they have to say. With one chap we talked about riding around this area compared to other regions – he hailed from the Fens originally. With the other we talked bikes – he was riding a nice fixed wheel with a two speed kick-back-to-change hub. Intriguing; the idea of a second gear is rather appealing.

Also, earlier, is caught up with a chap riding and said hello, and he had to take the ear-piece of a – I presume – personal stereo of some kind out to hear and reply. Each to their own, but I wouldn’t like to ride not being able to hear things going on around me – either nature, the birds and so on, or the traffic.

Talking of traffic, I’ve seen a couple of incidents recently which have set me pondering. In the first, a delivery van and a Smart car, both travelling too fast along a narrow lane, nearly hit each other. In the second, a motorbike came hurtling down the road, really hammering it and taking the most fearsome risks to get around some traffic. The question to ponder is, if I carried on riding up the lane, for instance, and found the Smart car in the ditch with the driver injured or dead, would I / should I stop? (And the same applies to any other no-question-about-it idiot on the roads.)

I know I would. But I do wonder if I should. If these people take themselves out then isn’t that just better for the gene pool generally? As long as they don’t take anyone innocent with them, surely there’s nothing much to fuss about. Is that harsh but fair? Momentary lapses are one thing; people making a concerted and sustained effort to be idiots is quite another.