Nothing Is As It Seems

Three lovely old ladies, good friends thrown together by circumstance and now sharing a house, decided they liked a vase they’d seen in a second hand shop window. It would brighten up their dining room. It was just £30 but their pensions weren’t huge. However, they decided they’d each chip-in with £10, so they saved up over a few weeks and eventually had enough in the kitty.

Money in their purses, off they set one Saturday morning and to their relief the vase was still there. Without any further ado, they paid the nice lad in the shop and set off home with it.

Just seconds after they’d left the shop manager came out from the office where he’d been doing a rough-and-ready stock check and said to the lad, “let’s mark that vase down to £25, it’s been hanging around for ages and it’s never going to sell.” The lad said he’d just that minute sold it to three old ladies. The manager, without a moment’s hesitation, told him to run after them and give them five pounds back – “it’s only fair”, he said.

So the lad grabbed five pounds out of the till and ran after the ladies. But while he was nice enough, he was also a crafty one, and when he caught up with them he gave them back just one pound each and kept two pounds for himself. “Well,” he reasoned, “they’re still going to be happy.”

So that meant the three old ladies paid £9 each. Three multiplied by nine is twenty-seven. The lad kept two pounds for himself. Twenty-seven plus two is twenty-nine. Where did the other pound go?

Nothing is as it seems.

This week I caught a glimpse of a not particularly imposing church while out near Wittenham Clumps but in fact it’s Dorchester Abbey – one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain.

The establishment in Britain is currently working out how best to deflect the resurgence, yet again, of claims that some of its leading members were, perhaps even are, involved in child sex abuse and/or covering it up. They’re doing the inevitable and setting up enquiries and investigations left, right and centre. I think it was either a ‘Yes Minister’ or ‘Yes Prime Minister’ episode that made the joke about an enquiry being just a way of kicking a problem into the long grass.

In the 80s I was told that you could tell which ‘top people’ the press knew were ‘fiddling with little boys’ by whose photo was printed next to other stories about paedophiles. I have no idea whether that’s true; the chap who told me is long dead. The point is, this is not a new story, in the same way that Catholic priests have been ‘joked’ about as fiddling with choir boys for far longer than I’ve been on this planet.

The establishment will always put a lot of effort into pouring oil on troubled waters – being seen to do something positive while in fact doing nothing apart from saving itself. As they do so now, it’s always worth remembering that nothing’s as it seems, not even simple maths.

Dorchester Abbey - ancient Christian site

Not an insignificant church

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.

Fleeced

You could admire the snowdrops starting to show through in earnest now and be pleased spring is here.

Snowdrops on a verge

Spring, surely, has sprung

You could dodge the pot-holes (new and old, often very old) and cut the responsible councils some slack because, after all, the weather’s been awful.

Or you could find yourself wondering, yet again, how it is that so much money is wasted on sub-standard road repairs that fail at the first inclement weather – and from there start to ponder ‘the system’.

Forget all the talk of ‘austerity’. The system is massively rich. Huge amounts of money are sloshing around in local and national government, and vast amounts of that money get wasted. It’s wasted on road repairs that are repairs only in name, obviously, but in all sorts of other respects too. The staggering sums being siphoned out of the NHS spring to mind readily – not least because every passing week, it seems, word leaks out about another Tory/Tory donor with their snout in that particular trough. Whatever way they dress is up, it all comes down to public money being drained away from health care and into private hands for ‘consultancy services’ and management and failed IT projects and the private provision of the previously publicly owned and funded.

In short, a very few people are getting rich out of the public purse on the back of providing ever poorer, ever more expensive, ‘services’.

Nothing about that is news. What is interesting, therefore, is why we put up with it.

Today, riding along debris-strewn roads, I concluded because we’re being fleeced under the cover of politics, and the Brits have a) always been generally disinclined to take much interest in politics and b) when they do show an interest, these days find themselves wholly disillusioned with what’s on offer. And so we give up caring. And so we’re fleeced, royally.

I suppose that does leave us with the question of whether the disillusionment has been deliberately engineered. After all, it suits those who are in a position to do that engineering.

New Year Resolutions

I’ve been told or reminded of a couple of true tales in the last few days. The first is about a former colleague’s arrival in Britain, before the 2WW.

When H. was a child her family had fled from Russia at the time of the revolution and had settled in Vienna; in the 1930s that was not a good place to be. So she became a refugee for a second time.

When she arrived in Britain, her husband left her standing at the back of an enormous queue at immigration with their baby and two large suitcases while he went to find a loo. As she heaved her baby from one arm to the other she noticed a uniformed policeman looking straight at her from the other side of the hall. She said that her blood froze. Life had made her terrified of state officials; she said that no-one brought up in a free society would ever be able to understand her terror of uniforms. Uniformed state officials always meant trouble – always – even if no corruption was involved, as was all too often the case.

She looked away immediately, but when she heard heavy footsteps approaching she “just knew” that they were coming for her. She assumed the worst and started to cry. But when the policeman came up to her he said: “Madam, this queue is very long and your baby is looking very heavy.” Then he picked up her suitcases and took her to the front of the queue. That was H.’s introduction to Britain.

For the second tale: a friend of a friend’s experience in 2013: studying in London and from the Middle East, she’s been stopped twice on London Bridge by the Metropolitan Police, harassed about the legitimacy of her visa and threatened with deportation. Needless to say, she’s on a student visa that’s perfectly valid. That’s the impression of Britain – and Britons – that she’ll take home with her.

As a Briton hearing about this, if you’re a Briton reading this, it seems to me it is our choice as to whether we’re happy with that impression or not, in the same way as choices have been made that have created the current attitude of the police. Very few things about human societies actually have to be the way they are. If you or I don’t like things, however big or difficult they may be, then if we’re looking for New Year resolutions, we could do worse than ‘work to make changes happen’. Merely moaning is too easy.

Happy New Year, thank you for your time to date, and here’s to the future.

Issues Behind Issues

The prospect of western involvement in Syria’s civil war looms; it’s a prospect that inevitably loomed large all this week, filling the space for idle thoughts that bike rides create.

Above all else, it seems to me that too many questions aren’t asked. Why are chemical weapons ‘bad’ weapons that can’t be tolerated; death by bomb or bullet is preferable how? Why now? Why just Syria? Why should the west be seeking to punish this particular crime, given all the other crimes being committed by so many other regimes? Why does Britain imagine it’s still a world player? Why are we worried about a ‘special relationship’ with the US given that we know, as plain as plain can be, via Wikileaks, that it’s unreciprocated? Who stands to make any money out of intervention? Why did our political parties and politicians act the way they have this time around, given the way they behaved with Iraq? Which lobby groups – here or elsewhere – are going to be most pleased by action against Syria – and how likely is it that they’re influencing the decisions being made? Should we laud the Prime Minister for allowing and respecting the vote that went against action by Britain against Syria? How do you judge your local MP come the next election – by local issues or by how they voted on this?

And so on.

As always, it’s the issues behind the big issue that are most interesting, the most important. And pretty well as always, they’re issues that aren’t being aired. We all owe it to ourselves, as intelligent adults, to ask these questions and more; accepting the headlines is rarely wise.

And perhaps the most salutary – albeit depressing – thing I find myself thinking about all this, is that none of this is in any way, in any respect, new.

Never Before

Riding today, it struck me that never before have I seen so many dying bees on the roads. There aren’t hundreds of them, but I’ve noticed several of late and I think that’s a first. Climate change? Disease? I’ve no idea. I know worker bees do die off, but if what I’m noticing is unusual we should all be very worried.

I’ve never noticed young Wrens, newly fledged, before but I did earlier this week, in undergrowth to the side of woods near Mapledurham. And today I saw a female Blackbird busy feeding what I guess will be a second brood; I’ve seen more second-brood-related activity this year than ever before, both in my garden and out and about.

I’ve never noticed so many fallow fields before; today I wondered whether that was because of subsidies for ‘set aside’ land, depressed markets or similar; or whether it was because crops planned for them had failed with the late seasons this year.

Fallow fields

Fallow, or a sign of failed crops?


I don’t think I’ve ever before been quite so conscious of my shorts having settled down as I rode around to being a good half-inch above the permanent ‘farmer’s tan’ mark on my legs: a pallid tide line isn’t a pretty sight – I know that. I can only apologise.

And never before have I contemplated killing government officials but today, as I dodged pot-holes, I found myself wondering whether that’s what I might do – perhaps even ought to do.

Let’s say someone I loved hit a pot-hole while cycling, fell off and died. People will have been responsible for that hole – some single person, some people in a chain of command, some people responsible for employing other people, for setting budgets, for setting the low quality standards that are deemed acceptable these days. My loved one’s death would be the direct fault of people – real, accountability-dodging people. No court would do anything about them. Some public hand-wringing and trite, bogus, hollow ‘our thoughts are with the family’ statements by the representatives of the apparatus that employs those responsible people aside, nothing would change as a result of that death – unless I took personal action.

I’ve no desire to be judge, jury or executioner, none whatsoever, but as I rode around today I wasn’t sure what would be morally right if people in a chain of responsibility killed my loved one; I wasn’t sure whether exercising such an extreme form of retributive justice could be argued to be right in the absence of a legal system willing to act, in the name of both natural justice and – as long as the reason for the killing was explained – in the name of trying to raise standards and thus prevent other unnecessary deaths on the road. I just wasn’t sure.

If the law fails, if the law is wrong, ‘taking the law into your own hands’, surely, can’t always be the wrong course of action. That is a very unsettling thought.