Enjoying Inequality

Cycling and walking around the Stonor Park estate near Henley, on a good, warm but not stupid-hot day, and

  •  yes, as claimed, it is a beautiful setting for a house;
  •  yes, the whole valley is lush and attractive; English Chilterns countryside at its best;
  •  yes, the whole area is criss-crossed by footpaths and bridle paths and so there’s plenty of access for the likes of Josephine and Joe Public (albeit some of it in a fairly poor state – broken stiles, overgrown tracks etc); and
  •  yes, for sure, the whole area wouldn’t look the way it does if it hadn’t been owned by the same family for centuries: the land doesn’t just look after itself; it has been managed to end up the way it is; it has been kept the way it is only because this particular ownership model (repeated with variations all over England) has allowed it to happen.

And it’s disconcerting to realize that something I’m enjoying and valuing can only exist by dint of extraordinary inequality. I have no ready response to that realization.

Stonor House

Stonor: made possible through inequality

I suspect the extent that that inequality is acceptable hinges on the social quid pro quo between the rich and the rest of society. I also suspect the newly rich in our current society don’t understand that implied contract. There seems to be a grubby, base greediness about today’s ‘fat cats’ and many other ‘successful’ people in the news that puts them at odds with those who society rewarded in the past.

But then again, time mellows things: quite possibly the people who first established Stonor and all the similar estates were just as venal in their day, and it’s only over the years that any kind of social responsibility developed.

Quite possibly though, I’m simply thinking about the wrong thing. Perhaps the real question is whether any general, to-be-enjoyed-by-all gains only possible through such gross inequality are worth the social and human costs, and that’s a question that can be asked at any and every stage of the acquisition of wealth, a question that doesn’t mellow over the years. It’s a question that could do with being asked now, of an awful lot of people.


Circumstances conspired so I ended up doing an afternoon ride. I go better in the mornings but so it goes. At least I had a decent, dry and warm afternoon for it. One should be thankful – it’ll rain again tonight and tomorrow.

It’s easy to forget just how much traffic the school run generates.  A loop taking in Woodley, Twyford, Wargrave and Henley at school chucking-out time reminded me forcefully enough. Of course, that’s absolutely nothing new.  What did strike me was the number of men doing the driving: I’d make a small wager that it was more than it would have been, say, two years ago.

Photo: A young Horse Chestnut

A young Horse Chestnut, near Shiplake Cross

If I’m right then I’d guess it’s because men are finding it harder to get jobs in this recession. Men ‘normally’ want ‘proper’ jobs – full time, a proper salary or wage and so on.  Women, for better or worse, are more readily pigeon holed into part time posts with less remuneration. As a result they’re often easier to sack – sorry, ‘downsize’ – but they’re also easier to re-employ.  If you like, many women are in a sort of flexible fringe which can expand or contract easily. So-called ‘male’ jobs or ‘proper’ jobs may be cut less willingly by employers, but once they’re cut they stay cut until there’s a very, very real need again.  There’s nothing about the economy that’s on a firm footing and we’d be fools to pretend otherwise.

I don’t know how that might feel if you’re a bloke on the school run – all other things being equal. If you’re managing to make ends meet and your partner’s out to work, you could feel liberated … or emasculated. It could be very hard to break out of the traditional way of thinking about yourself, your household budget, your role in the domestic set-up. It could be necessary. It might not be a bad thing – one day.  There’s nothing inherently right about traditions.

If any of all that is accurate, then if society wants to play a positive role it should be helping people adjust – men and women and children too. National and local government, charities and other not-for-profits, churches and media channels and any other organisation with a stake in society – they should all be working to help people adjust to changing roles.

Just writing that – and hopefully just reading that – brings home how little positivism there is in society. Society’s voices are largely carping, criticising, point-scoring, bemoaning … If you have something to moan about, do something about it – even if it’s only pointing up the need.

Christmas Fever

A short off-road ride before the weather turns windier and wetter. The lanes are dank and dirty and there’s just a general lack of colour in nature now.

A blow-up Santa Claus

Be afraid, be very afraid

I think I’m right in believing Robins get redder breasts this time of year but I’m sure they appear redder still, are all the more striking, for the dull backdrop they’re exhibiting in front of. All things are relative.

Talking of relativity, the route today took me past a garden centre. Normally, you expect it to be reasonably busy on a Sunday. Today it was manic – cars queuing to get in; customers either pushing forward with purpose or dithering hopelessly everywhere. Ho ho ho – Christmas is upon us once again, like a fever.

It’s hard to begrudge business owners who need to make a living and depend on this seasonal spending spree to survive the rest of the year. It’s hard to look at frenzied shoppers and the manifest lack of pleasure on display and not think that there must be something better than this.

Of course that’s all trite and obvious, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Given that resources – time, money, energy, lives – are finite, wasting them on the – almost now traditional – unnecessarily unpleasurable seems a tad daft.

It is very difficult to make alternative actions stem from the familiarly unpleasant.

The Things You See And Hear

You’d have thought with all the local riding I do that I’d have noticing most things by now, but no. I’ve ridden through Goring Heath any number of times, but I’ve never before noticed that one of the lanes at the crossroads there is called Deadmans Lane.

As with nearby Gallowstree Common and numerous other places, I’m struck by how macabre so many older place names are; for a Council to call anything something even slightly other than anodyne these days is unthinkable. What that shift signifies, if anything, I have no idea.

Shortly before the crossroads, as I was going by Gutteridge’s Wood, some tree-felling was going on – large beech trees. I was lucky enough to be passing just as one toppled to the ground. Hitherto that’s only a sound I’ve heard second-hand, on television, but it’s still unmistakable. It’s an evocative and unique noise that it makes – powerful and, I guess, a bit sad. All those years of growth ended by a few minutes work with a chain saw. Still, woods need to be managed; I imagine it was being done with good reason.

A few miles further on, just past Tidmarsh, I saw a stone mile-marker on the side of the road showing the number of miles to Basingstoke. That’s the first time I’ve seen that too, despite riding by it dozens of times. I wonder if they are at all relevant or useful to anyone anymore. Distance is nowhere near as significant as it once was, at least for drivers. And even for other travellers, walkers and cyclists and whoever else, with GPS and good maps and so on, a stone saying such-and-such miles to somewhere is really of little consequence. It all moves on.

I’ve thought before that making up totally fictitious, fanciful stories about the origins of place-names in Britain might be good fun; they are so often so strange.

To continue the anachronistic theme that the day seems to have, near Sulhamstead I joined a small queue of traffic that had had to stop to wait for a canal boat to pass through the narrow little swing bridge at Tylemill. Barges are so gloriously slow in comparison to rail and road. I’m as prone as anyone to hustling along when I’m driving and I’ve never been known for my patience in any sphere of life, but I do wonder whether all the hurrying we seem to do these days brings any real gain. If everything took longer, so what? What are we hurrying towards?