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.

Real Pessimism

I’ve been cycling, largely off-road, in the rain, but I don’t think any amount of sun would change my outlook at the moment – the sopping state of things is just mood reinforcement.

Rain and mud and real pessimism

No amount of sun will help

Local and European elections have set off a few mild tremors to rock the normally complacent political establishment, but whether that’s for the better is at best moot; a lurch to the right, which is what we’re seeing, doesn’t have a happy pedigree.

Meanwhile, wars in Africa continue; wars in the Middle East continue; there’s a coup in Thailand; large parts of South America are failing; civil war or war with Russia looks increasingly likely for Ukraine and where that will leave the rest of Europe is unknown, and gross iniquities in the West are accelerating. And let’s not forget the Indian sub-continent’s increasingly volatile prospects.

There is the theory that war has led to much of humanity’s advances over the centuries but even if that’s true, that doesn’t mean we still have to descend to fighting now. We have history to learn from. We know that all wars will eventually only be settled by negotiation; we could skip to that stage. It’s easy to feel that if you want a cause for pessimism, even despair, it’s surely our collective difficulty in learning from the self-evident.

Perhaps a more far-reaching, more deep-seated cause to feel grim is how history shows us that, always, a few people get rich from wars and that the people who get rich are right-wing. Now put the current state of the world in to that context. We have wars actual or potential on the world-wide agenda; we have a (manufactured) popular lurch to the right in politics across much of the world too. Some people will be rubbing their bloody, greedy paws with glee at the prospect, and we – the victims – are doing nothing to stop them. That’s a very deep-seated cause for pessimism indeed.

Pink World

Rolling out at the start of a ride and cycling through Caversham, I saw a young female runner. She had on a pink top and pink-and-black calf-length leggings. She had bright pink shoes and her long blonde hair was tied up with a pink band. She was running with supreme, enviable ease. She had white headphones on, attached to whatever her chosen mobile device was, which in turn was strapped to her arm. In one hand she had a clear-with-pink-bits water bottle while the other was holding a shiny black-and-silver dog lead, at the other end of which was a not-quite-handbag-sized-but–small dog, running along as fast as it could to keep up.

And it occurred to me that this person’s world is just amazingly far away from my own. We can share the same streets, the same town and country but surely we’d have almost nothing in common if you sat us down in a room together to chew the fat.

It’s election time in England at the moment – European MPs and some local councillors. Inevitably, you’ll see some political activists have put up posters for parties and hence beliefs that you simply do not share and cannot understand why anyone else would want to adhere to.

It’s easy to wish for a world in which one’s own political beliefs were universal, but I’d hate it if the world didn’t include runners in pink and any number of other strangers living different lives to me. Which I guess is a way of saying the politics I really want is the politics of consensus – a world where different views are accommodated and respected.

For some, it's a pink world

For some, it’s a pink world

Little Fluffy Clouds

Riding southern English counties this week, I always think England looks its best around this time. The vegetation is lush – there’s been enough rain and enough warmth, and it’s rained recently enough that everywhere is still relatively clean. (Lots of the uglier sides of humanity, not least littering, are also being hidden by all the growth. It’s only a fig leaf, but it’s better than nothing.) And on good days, with a little warmth combined with blue skies, just a few clouds, The Orb’s ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ for a mental soundtrack and the ability to get outside – on foot or on a bike – to appreciate it, and you could think ‘what more could anyone ask for’.

OK, the little fluffy clouds Rickie Lee Jones was talking about in the song were in Arizona. OK, a fair distribution of wealth, an end to racism and bigotry and prejudice of any kind, an overwhelming rejection of greed as a worthwhile value, an end to patriotism and religion, the rise of rationality and empiricism, the outbreak of peace through negotiation worldwide and global cooperation in the face of climate change could all be asked for, quite legitimately, but you know what I mean …

Little Fluffy Coulds

Little Fluffy Coulds

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.