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.

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.

Non Natives

Off road with Charli – picking a not too muddy route to stop it being a slog; there’s mud to be had if you want it, now there’s been rain for a while. The Rapeseed fields are pretty well fully out around here – Charli says she’s heard this is early. It wouldn’t surprise me; nothing about the weather or the seasons is as they were.

Photo: Rapeseed field in April

Rapeseed in April - coming on early this year

Rapeseed’s an old plant in England but a relatively new crop: you see a lot more of it now than even just a couple of decades ago. When you ride by a whole field of it, it has a strong and not that pleasant smell – something you’d just never have experienced once. That is a slightly odd thought.

Something else that’s new is the spread of ‘English Flags’ or ‘Flags of St George’. The desire to mark St George’s Day (23rd) seems far more common now. There were a fair few flags around today – cars, some pubs, some houses.

Photo: The English flag, on a bag, dumped

The English flag on a bag, dumped

I can’t have anything but a knee-jerk mistrust of patriotism. It seems nothing good is ever done in its name. It’s generally built on bogus foundations. (St George was a Turk. Most of what people think of as Scottish ‘culture’ is a Victorian English invention. And so on.) All too quickly it lurches into racism, discrimination and persecution.

Surely, some of those who want to celebrate aspects of a localised culture are doing so out of genuinely good intentions, but their intentions, and ultimately their emotions, are all too easily hijacked. There are any number of examples, world-wide, of racism being stirred up where once there was none or what did exist was contained. From the former Yugoslavia to the Rwandan genocide, you don’t have to look very far to find out how easily passions are poisoned.

And make no mistake, the culture of any country is a localised thing – and the fundamental inappropriateness of a localised view is accelerating as economies and communications become ever more global in scope.

Make no mistake, too, that any propagandized notion of what a culture is, is false. Cultures are built on shifting sands.

The people who’d profess to be leaders – politicians in the main – who invoke anything to do with patriotism are always out for their own aggrandisement – the only thing that varies is how well they disguise it and how long it takes for the truth to come out. They always do damage: invoking divisions always does and always will. The damage can be horrendous – war, genocide, slaughter – or ‘just’ the creation of mistrust, the emphasis of difference. Even if you want to downplay the damage these people cause as they seek to gain power, any ‘leader’ invoking an inward-looking parochialism when globalism is a simple, bald fact of everyday life will do those being led no favours at all.

Time For The Devil

Another unseasonal day – today it was even milder, much more so than it should be. It makes for nice riding, but …

If you look into the history of the devil in popular culture, you’ll find the notion of the devil that we have today has a lot of its roots around the 1500s; a time of both climate change and a rising population that couldn’t be fed. A notion of a devil as we have it today is manifestly irrational. There’s plenty of irrationality around today. That is not a foundation for optimism.

There’s plenty of media space being taken up at the moment by the seven billionth person being born some time around about now. Quite when this milestone is reached is neither here nor there.

In my early 50s, I know I’m old in real terms, for a human in a body that they say is really designed to stop functioning in its 40s, but it’s not as if I’ve been stalking the planet for that long. When I was born there was only a tad over three billion people. The growth is staggering.

I read a while back that you can track the likelihood of wars occurring between countries to the number of young males there are in the populations of those countries. No, it is not difficult to work out what the growth in the population of the planet has meant on that front.

A lot of the talk in connection with this seven billionth person on the planet has been about whether that many people can be fed. There’s no discussion about the quality of life, no examination of long term sustainability, no putting it in the context of a planet likely to be less able to support humanity as the climate changes.

It should be a wholly different world now, compared to the 1500s. We have a stunningly complex global interconnectivity operating in so many ways; we know so much more; there’s the simple fact of the entire body of science as it has developed since then and the fruits of centuries of empirical enquiry; there’s the so starkly obvious failing of religion of any variety to serve mankind well.

And what do we have?

We have a growth in state sponsored ‘faith schools’; we have any number of tin pot politicians harping on about national identities when the need is for a global perspective; we have a never-ended parade of cranks and quacks offering bogus certainties.

History doesn’t repeat itself, things move on – but human nature doesn’t change.