The river’s been holding out on us. Not anymore. The floods and clouds recede over a flawless dreamscape. The Chiltern hillsides erupt in fresh spring blooms, the screech of red kites slices the air, and through it all the everlasting ribbon of crystal-smooth water glints in the sunshine. Welcome, it says, to Wind in the Willows territory.
"Nice? It's the only thing," said the Water Rat solemnly as he leant forward for his stroke. "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing," he went on dreamily: "messing—about—in—boats; messing—"
"Look ahead, Rat!" cried the Mole suddenly.
It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.
And so the dream crashes to a thousand splinters.
Oh make no mistake, this dream, in this place, on this day, is reality. You can walk in this gorgeousness, immerse all your senses in it, feel better for the fact it exists – and then you can weep. Because realities constantly change, and all realities are in contact with each other. All that this is, indicates all it is not. And what this is not, it will be soon, for this is the calm before the most terrible storm in their lives.
|So beautiful. But a thing a) is usually more than it seems – especially in England – and b) by existing, implies the existence of its opposites.|
The picture has four sides. Underneath lurks English class violence in the ruins of modernity. To the left, upriver, up the flow of time, the winter tempests rage and the floods rear up to claim their due. And to the right, it careens down the stream of time toward the doom that has now arrived: COVID-19, the pandemic that has laid bare to the English, and all humankind, the disgrace of their social and political arrangements. All that is needed to complete this sorry meta-picture is the alien civilisations off the top, studying us with alarm and concern and wondering how the hell, with a planet so abundant as this, we could have got it so wrong.
Yet in the dreamscape of the Thames valley, many have found it easy to tune out what lies beyond its frames.
"Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World," said the Rat. "And that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or me. I've never been there, and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all. Don't ever refer to it again, please. Now then! Here's our backwater at last, where we're going to lunch."
But now the coronavirus has come in for its lunch. Though invisible to the eye, it pinches all one’s senses round the picture-frame of this progress through the best of the Thames valley so far, undertaken just before the pandemic exploded. Walkers leave the paths to semicircle round each other at wide berths; nervous conversations are overheard in pubs and parks. Most telling of all, the water itself is empty of people.
That is unthinkable, because this stretch ends down a long and famous straight in the settlement of Henley-on-Thames. Henley is the command centre and primary base of the English rowing establishment, a juggernaut we first encountered on its University Boat Race in London and must now confront in its nest. As such, one would expect the Thames here to teem with boats, bristle with oars and erupt with the grunts, heaves, hollers, sweat and megaphone-assisted admonishments of an activity tethered to English national pride with the toughest of ropes and regimented to military extremes as they drill for their lives…
…but not today. The river is silent. And when an enemy is fearsome enough to confine the boats and paddles of Henley to their racks, you know it heralds the end of an era.
Start: Marlow Bridge (nearest station: Marlow)
End: Henley Bridge (nearest station: Henley-on-Thames)
Length: 13.6km/8.5 miles
Location: Buckinghamshire – Wycombe; Berkshire – Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Wokingham; Oxfordshire – South Oxfordshire
Topics: Bisham Abbey and the Temple Mills, The Wind in the Willows, Hurley, Medmenham and the Hellfire Club, Remenham, Henley-on-Thames and the Plagues
|West up the Thames from Marlow Bridge. So peaceful. You wouldn’t think it’s all about to get capsized by a microscopic obstacle.|
To set off upriver from Marlow is to pass through its recreational riverside. On this bright spring morning it exudes a serenity. Children run around on the grass. Elderly people take their morning walks, feed the swans, or watch said swans' bark-and-hiss contests with their dogs.
|Human and bird life bond over breakfast.|
|There is also bird life that will satisfy itself for the breakfast without the bonding.|
|At the centre of the park is Court Garden (at right), whose 1760s house was designed by a certain Dr. William Battie. Dr. Battie was a physician who heavily critiqued the prevailing views on mental illness. His efforts helped advance the shift from the imprisonment and torture of people with mental health problems, towards supporting them in healthier and more humane environments – a struggle that still continues, far from resolved, in England today. It is said the derogatory term batty for people with mental health problems originates from Dr. Battie’s name – not from his work, but because when he designed the house he spectacularly forgot to include a staircase to the upper floors, thus requiring an external one to be added later.|
With that it is farewell to Marlow as the river strikes west. From here it winds through its remotest landscapes yet, along the base of the Chiltern Hills: that chalk escarpment that is the closest thing (at about 250m high, not really that close) that the English south has to mountains. Here the fields and woods unfurl, and the timelines, no longer bound to strong urban anchors, shift insecure.
|Enjoy a final view of Marlow, with its towering steeple and bridge to Budapest. At right is a bloody suspicious white thing that could be either a ship or an outbuilding.|
|Inland the town gives way to floodplain pastures. The Chiltern ridge begins to poke up in the distance, dappled with the paler greens of young spring growths.|
In short order a stocky Norman church, with its twelfth-century Go-Away tower, asserts itself on the opposite riverbank. It is the All Saints Church of Bisham village, which will be familiar if you have been following this journey because it was where the monks of Chertsey Abbey gave it a final go after Henry VIII broke up their monastery.
|Bisham’s church is an unmissable landmark here. The tower is the oldest part; the rest has been added to and renovated numerous times. It has particular associations with the Hoby family of English nobility under the reign of Elizabeth I.|
|It has eyes and is looking at you.|
|This one doesn’t have eyes, but is not the kind of plant to have differences of opinion with.|
The monastery complex was built just upriver, and centred on a manor house which survives to the present day. The manor came first, built for the formidable Knights Templar, but they were brutally suppressed in 1307 as the European kings feared their growing power. From there Bisham passed through various titled hands till it ended up with the Earls of Salisbury, who founded the Bisham Priory monastic community around it. Like the other monasteries it was crushed under Henry VIII’s purge in the 1530s, but unusually got a short second lease of life – when the Chertsey monks retreated here – before getting broken for good in 1538, after which all the monastery buildings were torn down.
|Bisham Priory’s manor house is all that remains of the complex.|
|The north bank facing it is known as Bondig Bank, whose willows the Bisham monks harvested for osiers to make fences, baskets and fish traps. Bondig is an Anglo-Saxon name and could refer to an even earlier occupant of this land.|
But to look closer at the manor house’s grounds is to spot land uses one identifies with neither manors nor monasteries: tennis courts, squash courts, football and hockey pitches, a golf course and a sizeable gym. This is because Bisham Abbey – which still keeps that name – has fallen into the hands of Sport England as one of its three National Sports Centres. These are serious world-class facilities dedicated to nurturing English elite sporting efforts, including its national football and rugby teams.
|The sailing arm of Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, today demonstrating the English sluggishness at taking up social distancing in the face of COVID-19.|
The fate of Bisham Abbey exemplifies two themes that colour the banks ahead. One is the ruins of worlds gone by, moved into and repurposed anew: abbeys and mills and forts turned to offices, cultural and educational facilities, or the usual unaffordable housing. The other theme is the decidedly sporty turn the river is taking, sustained by a constellation of rowing and sailing clubs till it crosses its white-hot finish line at Henley.
|Meanwhile, on the northern side, there are sheep.|
|A stone by the river commemorates Giles Every, who ran the Marlow rowing regatta from 1968 till his death in a car accident in 1984. The Marlow Regatta used to run along here but was moved in 2000 to Eton College’s purpose-built Dorney Lake.|
Temple Mill Island also fell within the Bisham monastery’s sphere of influence. Conveniently the ‘Mill’ refers to the watermills which stood on it, as mills do on river islands, since long before the monastery came along, while the ‘Temple’ descends from the old Knights Templar presence.
The mills outlasted both them and the monks. Indeed, mill owners’ control over the river gave them considerable power, blocking its course with their weirs and – in the days before the present ‘pound’ locks – holding traffic at the mercy of their ‘flash’ locks. Those were basically gates in the weir for boats to dangerously ‘flash’ down or get hauled up, with the millers typically charging their captains through the nose to use them (which upset the City of London big merchants the latter worked for, part of the reason the Magna Carta was so concerned with regulating mills and weirs on the river).
When the monastery was demolished, the mills remained and struck out on their own. After lifetimes in the tranquil service of agriculture, they too transformed beneath an industrial sky into clanging, sweaty foundries of copper and brass, astonishing a passing Daniel Defoe in 1722 with their kettles and pans. They boomed through the British imperial wars till around the 1840s, when they switched to paper-making, but the decline of industry a hundred years later finally finished them off, and by the end of the 1970s Temple Mill Island for the first time had neither Templars nor Mills.
|Temple Mill Island is now, of course, affluent housing. It has a marina too. Perhaps in one thousand years they’ll call it Housing Speculator Marina Island.|
|Since 1773 the island has had Temple Lock to go with it, though this was rebuilt in 1890.|
The Wind in the Willows
So far the usual fate of these leafy spaces has been to get taken over by people with too much money, aligning their pretentious Private Properties along the waterfront and asking the river what it’s going to do about it till it answers in inundating ways they ought to have expected. So here they take things up a level. These reaches were or are the domains of individual country mansions, raised or set back from the water with spreading blankets of field and membranes of wood.
|A lusher prospect from atop Temple Mill Bridge, though half of it has been carved out to build a marina.|
|The natives, driven back to their quays, desperately hold the line against COVID-19.|
|Scenes like this, glimpsed through the woods, begin to build a sense of enchanting currents adrift in the air.|
The perception of other worlds explored round the Cookham bend, layered above or below this one yet ever blending into it, returns here. They amount to an emotional confusion: the carefree romance of the rustic Thames does not mix easy with the blooded spikes of class and market forces, nor with the spectral undercurrents of devastation by plague which have always lurked as one of the river’s dark secrets.
Perhaps they jar so much because the rustic romance is at its strongest in these parts. So it was for a young Scottish boy called Kenneth Grahame who, growing up hereabouts in the 1860s in the anguish of having lost his mother to post-natal illness and his father down the bottle (the latter still lived but would abandon him), found precious sanctuary in the magical otherworld of the Thames. While Stanley Spencer opened a way to that world with his paintbrush, Grahame would build the portal with his pen. That portal, The Wind in the Willows, has ever since invited the mundane English into one of their most treasured dream-journeys on the itinerary of English transcendence, and perhaps the Thames world’s most familiar of all: one in which the animals talk, enjoy the comforts of home and harvest, and participate in (or in one gloriously infamous case, run rings around) the good old public institutions of the English countryside.
|"Believe me, my young friend (said the Rat), there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”|
The Wind in the Willows is the paradigm of the Thames pastoral fantasy. It centres on the adventures of a small group of furry friends: the everyman Mole, the rustically cultured and comradely Rat, the gruff and scary-but-actually-kind hermit Badger, and the rather more problematic Toad who warrants his own treatment at length. “Adventures” really means faffing around in boats, delighting in the warmth of the burrow and the treasures of the well-stocked larder, getting lost in the woods, and other such experiences of the natural cosiness and tranquility of their Thames valley home. One of the book’s standouts is its copious descriptions of that nature, which Grahame’s prose rolls and cascades across at such length, like the tributaries of the river itself, that publishers today would surely flick the contents of their haughty nostrils at it. Yet it is precisely these tumblings down the reedbeds and rabbit-holes that made the work such a vessel for the mythscape of the rural Thames in English imagination, so bringing it to life down the generations.
Naturally it is the river itself – ‘a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea’ – that threads through the length of this dream and binds it all together with its ribbon.
|All was a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.|
But this is not a separate world. Grahame portrays these anthropomorphic animals as living across both realities as though they are one. They have their animal world, but also operate within that of the humans who seem totally unfazed by this curious state of affairs. The result is a real charm in the unremarkability of the animals’ use of human shops, pubs, and post offices, and by far most of all in Mr. Toad’s seamless – if to him quite unwelcome – interactions with the police, courts and prisons (in which he ‘passed his days and nights for several weeks, refusing his meals or intermediate light refreshments, though the grim and ancient gaoler, knowing that Toad's pockets were well lined, frequently pointed out that many comforts, and indeed luxuries, could by arrangement be sent in—at a price—from outside’).
Perhaps it is by building this dream not in a separate dimension but on this liminal space at its edge, overlapping with this reality, reachable from it, that Grahame achieved his work’s ready appeal. These animals really do inhabit the riverbanks after all, with relationships and ways of life mysterious to humans yet physically significant to the shape of this landscape. Even if an otter isn’t about to enter the pub and order a few pints in literal terms, depictions like that still offer the Thames’s human inhabitants ways to relate to their environment, to make shared meaning with it, and – if all goes well – to value and interact healthily with it at a heartfelt depth that empirical understanding of its ecology, however vital, struggles to reach on its own.
Consider, for example, this speculative psychology of bird migrations as told by a sparrow:
"First, we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come the recollections one by one, like homing pigeons. They flutter through our dreams at night, they fly with us in our wheelings and circlings by day. We hunger to inquire of each other, to compare notes and assure ourselves that it was all really true, as one by one the scents and sounds and names of long-forgotten places come gradually back and beckon to us."
This is shamanic work, which every now and again wanders well off the Thames towpath into all-out mystical territory. In a chapter often omitted from adaptations (perhaps due to monotheistic fragility?), the animals encounter a ‘piper at the gates of dawn’: a horned, hoofed demigod figure who seems to represent a helping and healing force in nature’s narrow places, his pan-pipe melodies carrying like wind through the reeds. At other times they ruminate on philosophical fare, as in the Badger’s explanation of his remarkable house, built into subterranean ruins:
But as a matter of fact I did none of it—only cleaned out the passages and chambers…I see you don't understand, and I must explain it to you. Well, very long ago, on the spot where the Wild Wood waves now…there was a city—a city of people, you know. Here, where we are standing, they lived, and walked, and talked, and slept, and carried on their business. Here they stabled their horses and feasted, from here they rode out to fight or drove out to trade. They were a powerful people, and rich, and great builders. They built to last, for they thought their city would last for ever."
"But what has become of them all?" asked the Mole.
"Who can tell?" said the Badger. "People come—they stay for a while, they flourish, they build—and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I've been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again.
Emphasis added, because this sounds like the sort of scenario to which a certain virus acquaintance might have something to contribute.
If the setting still sounds somewhat twee, another presence in the narrative bone-marrow is felt not three paragraphs in, when the Mole, on his way out, is accosted by a rabbit who demands “Sixpence for the privilege of passing by the private road!”. Class, as performed through such propertied behaviours, is everything in England, and causes the tenor of The Wind in the Willows to change dramatically when it turns to follow the figure through which it is most humorously explored: the hilariously conceited Toad – ‘Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night’. When he’s not scorching a wake of accidents, fines, arrests and hospitalisations through his obsession with speeding around in stolen motor-cars, still a novel technology at the time, he lazes around, splurging his inherited wealth on satisfying his crazes (which he cycles through arbitrarily) from the comfort of his mansion, Toad Hall, an archetype of those massive estates which dominate such huge swathes of riverside land in these parts. It is “an eligible, self-contained gentleman's residence, very unique; dating in part from the fourteenth century, but replete with every modern convenience. Up-to-date sanitation. Five minutes from church, post-office, and golf-links…”
…as he later describes it to the warden’s daughter while languishing in jail. His collisions with the apparatus of the law dispense with the darkness of both sides of this English equation – the guffawing impunity of the high-propertied, versus the vicious and prejudiced cruelty of ‘law and order’ in the age of Oscar Wilde – to set up a fair contest between the two in which one is left at times pitying the jollified public officials in their pursuit of this slippery menace, and at other times hoping for their frustration, if only because the Toad cycles between such comically over-the-top self-celebration in victory and abject wallowing self-pity in defeat that the effect is most splendid when the leap or fall from one to the other occurs over the greatest distance.
|In one of the early editions, from 1913, the text was accompanied by naturalistic illustrations by Paul Bransom such as this depicting the Toad in prison: ‘He lay prostrate in his misery on the floor’.|
Domesticated as these ruinous English class phenomena may be in this work, there is more than the occasional subtle dig at, say, the pretences of officialdom and questionable integrity of the rule of law. Take a look at how Toad receives his sentence, with a few discretionary emphases added:
“…he has been found guilty (said the Chairman of the Magistrates), on the clearest evidence, first, of stealing a valuable motor-car; secondly, of driving to the public danger; and, thirdly, of gross impertinence to the rural police. Mr. Clerk will you tell us, please, what is the very stiffest penalty we can impose for each of these offences? Without, of course, giving the prisoner the benefit of any doubt, because there isn't any."
The Clerk scratched his nose with his pen. "Some people would consider," he observed, "that stealing the motor-car was the worst offence; and so it is. But cheeking the police undoubtedly carries the severest penalty; and so it ought. Supposing you were to say twelve months for the theft, which is mild; and three years for the furious driving, which is lenient; and fifteen years for the cheek, which was pretty bad sort of cheek, judging by what we've heard from the witness-box, even if you only believe one-tenth part of what you heard, and I never believe more myself—those figures, if added together correctly, tot up to nineteen years—"
"First-rate!" said the Chairman.
"—So you had better make it a round twenty years and be on the safe side," concluded the Clerk.
The class commentary continues as Toad escapes from jail in the disguise of an elderly washer-woman – a relative of the warden’s daughter, who takes pity on the wretched creature.
To his horror he recollected that he had left both coat and waistcoat behind him in his cell, and with them his pocket-book, money, keys, watch, matches, pencil-case—all that makes life worth living, all that distinguishes the many-pocketed animal, the lord of creation, from the inferior one-pocketed or no-pocketed productions that hop or trip about permissively, unequipped for the real contest.
But this impersonation of a cleaning lady, falling in his mind many rungs beneath his social position, does not come easily to him. The result is a catalogue of ludicrous ordeals he brings on himself while on the run, most often in encounters with the labouring classes to whom he speaks in suspiciously pompous diction and, when upset, cannot resist bursting out of the persona his freedom depends on to vituperate at them with high-caste condescension.
Mr. Toad’s lovable rampages, deceptions and histrionics contrast with the seamier end of the class spectrum: the coarse and violent ne’er-do-wells that are the weasels, stoats and ferrets of the Wild Wood. This is the menacing working-class slum of the Wind in the Willows world.
While Toad is off slipping around in disrepute, these furry proletarians organise, take up arms and seize control of the vacated Toad Hall, much to the consternation of the bourgeois Rat and Mole as well as the unbridled fury of Toad when they are at last reunited. But of course, English class order is restored when the friends mount a stealthy assault, send the squatters packing, and mark the mansion’s recapture with a splendid banquet in which some of those weasels resume their subservient compliance as servants and couriers. Finally, Toad resolves, seemingly sincere this time but you never know, to mend his ways and behave at last with a respectability and decorum worthy of his station.
Thus the English natural romance is injected with a dash of the English class-order romance. And yet, Grahame is not content to let this sit as a closed world. Recall Rat’s earlier statement of how he holds no interest in the affairs of the Wide World beyond. Such is the terrain from which Brexit sprung, one might feel, until Rat meets a wayfarer on the road and is transfixed both by his account of his voyages and the globalist perspective from which he tells it. With a few junctures for thought highlighted by yours truly:
"I'm a seafaring rat, I am, and the port I originally hail from is Constantinople, though I'm a sort of a foreigner there too, in a manner of speaking. You will have heard of Constantinople, friend? A fair city and an ancient and glorious one. And you may have heard too, of Sigurd, King of Norway, and how he sailed thither with sixty ships, and how he and his men rode up through streets all canopied in their honour with purple and gold; and how the Emperor and Empress came down and banqueted with him on board his ship. When Sigurd returned home, many of his Northmen remained behind and entered the Emperor's body-guard, and my ancestor, a Norwegian born, stayed behind too, with the ships that Sigurd gave the Emperor. Seafarers we have ever been, and no wonder; as for me, the city of my birth is no more my home than any pleasant port between there and the London River. I know them all, and they know me. Set me down on any of their quays or foreshores, and I am home again."
The historical reference is to Sigurd I Magnusson, King of Norway (1103-30), who went crusading against Muslims in the Mediterranean and Middle East but left a ton of treasure and ships for the Byzantine Empire along with soldiers for its famous Varangian Guard. Here Grahame has drawn up the Thames the tail of one of the most complex and consequential episodes of migration and globalisation in human history: the Viking expansion out of Scandinavia as far as what is now Russia, the Middle East and North America, which together with this Sea Rat’s citizen-of-nowhere pronouncements amounts to the last perspective you might expect to find in this festival of snug Thames-valley localism.
“I never stick too long to one ship”, the seafaring rat throws in; “one gets narrow-minded and prejudiced.” Ever more entranced in his tale as it bounces from the seascapes and shellfish of one Mediterranean port to another, the Rat of the river comes right to the verge of heeding the call to adventure himself and leaving this story altogether.
|The red kites, too, ought to be asked for their broader perspective on the Wide World.|
If the abiding picture of Wind in the Willows is its representation of a safe and idyllic England, passages like this reveal a more turbulent riverbed. Those who are happy with their world rarely find need to devote such energy to searching for other worlds through their dreams. Kenneth Grahame, for his part, had every reason to do so, for his was a life cursed with spectacular torment. He lost one parent to illness, the other to drink, then his brother to a lung infection at fifteen. Setting his sights on Oxford University, inadequate financial support shunted him instead into the Bank of England, where he felt bored by the work, quarrelled with his bosses, and was shot at three times by an intruder. Perhaps because his ability to relate to people was wracked by his tumultuous childhood, especially in an England of ferociously repressive social scrutiny of relationships and sexuality, he fell into in an instantly unhappy marriage. It is in this context that his difficulties writing about women (all the main animal characters in Wind in the Willows are male, though their behaviour is not particularly gendered) might perhaps be understood. To complete this nightmare, his son, Alastair a.k.a. ‘Mouse’, was born blind in one eye, bullied through school, and struggled at university before being found dead on an Oxford railway track at the age of twenty.
It was from Kenneth’s bedtime stories for the young Alastair, featuring talking animals perhaps imagined up by the son, and set in the father’s memories of the Thames of his own childhood – a dreamscape of safety and tranquility, fun and friendship, where so much of the pain did not yet exist – that The Wind in the Willows seems to have originated. As he put it to paper, publishers and critics did what publishers and critics do to compound his misery, rejecting or filleting his work before it managed to trickle through to a more admiring public.
Beware, therefore, the positing of this book for the simple totem of an English rural class utopia for which it has oft been taken. In its unspoken depths lurk death, sorrow and alienation, under the effect of whose gravity one well appreciates the tension, both personal and political, at the heart of this world of talking animals and in its links with others. There is a darkness beneath the contemplations of humans building their cities in the delusion they will last forever; of the call to sail far away; of the pan-pipe music from the gates of dawn. Is this an affirmation of paradise that springs from this English homeland, or the longings of a tortured soul for a world where he might actually belong? Is it a conservative allegory, championing the stable community and loyalty to one’s friends while shaking a fist at the looming shadows of dirty, noisy technology and revolutionary socialist stoats and weasels? Or a radical wish unto the universe, if only for such community and camaraderie to truly exist in this world, or if not, to journey far from the humans, to where the enchanting melodies of the reed-pipes, from a layer of pristine reality beyond them all, at last blow forth on the wind that whistles through the willows?
|Most things are deeper than they look on the surface. Did you know, for example (thanks Environment Agency), that 'rivers are deep, cold and fast-flowing'?|
It was important to part those willows and delve beneath, till the multi-layered complexity of reality came to the forefront of our vision. This is because we are soon to come upon some of the Thames’s most breathtaking displays, an environment which at its broadest justifies every publisher-offending waterfall of words with which Kenneth Grahame embraced it. Basking in its splendour, it becomes too easy to forget the realities with which it is juxtaposed: the oppressions endemic to these Conservative Party heartlands, and more immediately, the plague of reckoning to which they have now flung open their nation’s gates, for its scythes, too, are sped by the river in their passage.
Each of those slices of reality is complex in itself. Holding them in mind together might feel like carrying several diverse, non-tessellating suitcases in your arms and fumbling not to drop any. But reality is complicated, and to understand it, let alone build a decent society within it, requires we learn to find our balance with all those suitcases, resisting the urge to hurl one or two off the bridge to make it easier.
|It looks pretty, but have a think about all the realities hidden within walls, hulls, branches and – of course – water. How many worlds overlap in this scene? How many stories?|
Here is Hurley Lock, which till its opening in 1773 appears to have been the scene of particularly grumpy conflicts between boat operators and the great intensity of milling interests that brought their weirs, flash locks and hefty what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it tolls to these parts. And then – look there.
It’s a secret passage. Shall we see where it leads?
Look at that. It’s a secret village. Isn’t it nice to be somewhere you can stumble on that kind of thing?
This is Hurley, which appears to have grown up around a Benedictine monastery from the time of the Norman invasion. Here in Berkshire the name (and its variants, especially the town of Earley) is common and seems to originate from a family of Norman knights handed lands hereabouts by William the Conqueror. As expected the monastery was consumed by Henry VIII’s purge in the 1530s, yet the village remains, tiny and beguiling in its rustic architecture, like a patch from a bygone era sewn incongruously in near the corner.
|The Monks’ Barn, an honest medieval structure that was probably exactly what it says it was. It’s now rented out as an event space, especially for (urgh) weddings.|
And yet, secret villages like this can be more connected to the Wide World than they first appear. There are people out there with reason to actively seek out these secret spaces, after all.
Not bad for a tiny hamlet hidden down a secret passage. And a good lesson: there really is no walling out the Wide World. All realities are connected.
Back to the river, whose floodplain now opens once more.
|At Hurley’s weir. The chomps of erosion are very visible down the rim of the bank ahead.|
|Evidence of animistic rituals, probably held here at night. The image does not show the jubilant cries of a group of kayakers splashing around under the weir – likely one of their final outings before COVID-19 put paid to these communal activities.|
The north bank now towers into sheer chalk cliffs. Peeking out through their curtain of trees and climbing fauna, their alabaster crags catch well the bright spring sunshine.
|The cliffs seem to mark where the Chiltern Hills have stretched an appendage right up to the riverbank.|
The plateau is administered as part of the Medmenham area. The name in Old English is simply akin to ‘medium-sized homestead’, and no I don't have a clue how they pronounce it. The area ahead has several names like this designed to trip the tongues of strangers into tangled heaps of defeat.
But here on the south side, if you can forgive the caravan park, there is at last a sense of nature’s ascendancy.
|Despite the greenery, this is still a human-occupied and at least partially managed setting. Yet the wild earth leaves no doubt who is really in charge, such as with this evidence, at bottom left, of people it has eaten whole.|
|There are some impressive trees along here. Most are bare from the winter but beginning to reawaken.|
It’s nice out here. Is it possible to appreciate that niceness while at the same time remaining conscious of the not-so-nice realities to which it necessarily connects?
|Some ducks and geese demonstrate the proper application of social distancing as they enter the water.|
|Also unfortunate is this great profusion of blood-red Butchering Cummingsbush, which flourishes in response to eugenicist influences on policymaking.|
|This, for its part, appears to be a dog.|
The Hurley bungalow park now lays a final tentacle along the riverside before more permanent habitations return. They are not a village, nor really even a hamlet, but a single street called Frogmill with some well-to-do flood-prone cottages.
|The bungalows appear quite fancy along here. Notice the evidence of an army of moles about to tunnel in and bring them crashing into their foundations.|
|The bank approaching Frogmill. Insert your own comment about displays of nationalism here.|
|This is the typical outcome of attempting to photograph a red kite in flight.|
Then the humans withdraw as fast as they came, leaving the wayfarer to delve into more wooded riverbanks. To brave the mud is to be rewarded with a glimpse into another window through time. In it can be found another killed-and-reincarnated monastery, this time of Medmenham.
Medmenham Abbey was a twelfth-century establishment of the Cistercians, the ‘White Monks’ who split off from the Benedictine ‘Black Monks’ because Christianity is complicated. This abbey seems to have been a quieter concern than some of its neighbours. Its records are uneventful till it got Henry VIII’d in 1536, by when only the abbot and one other monk lived there, though let it be insisted that that does not in any way mitigate that king’s egregious wrongness.
Once again though it is its afterlife that stands to notice. Other ruined monasteries on today’s route have found new work in the nurture of sporting endeavours in one case and violent regime change in the other – not too much, perhaps, for the old monks’ ghosts to stomach. This one however might have breached their limit because of the penchant of its new set of ‘Monks of Medmenham’ to whoop around drenched in alcohol and bodily fluids while sacrificing to Greco-Roman deities, inserting their genitalia into each other, and decorating its underground caves with symbols evoking said genitalia under the name of the Hellfire Club.
|Today an expensive private residence (how’s £10 million sound?), little remains of either the original monastery or the secrets of varying viscosity that some time dribbled down its walls.|
The Hellfire Club, or to give its – ahem – respectable name, the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, was the brainchild of a certain Sir Francis Dashwood, eleventh Baron le Despencer: a rich and titled high-society Londoner (via Eton of course) well-known as a gadabout when not occupied by his side-job as Chancellor of the Exchequer. On a youthful voyage round Europe in the 1720s – whose highlights included impersonating the King of Sweden, bothering the Russian Tsar’s daughter and getting thrown out of the Papal States – he appeared to decide, between inhalations of high art and culture, that the way the majority of people did religion offended his sense of what nature and reason required it should be, and so set out to have a better go at it himself. A string of experiments in creating exclusive secret societies led to Dashwood’s collaboration with a clutch of top-of-society friends, in particular the fourth Earl of Sandwich, whose product was the ‘Monks of Medmenham’ – as they became known when they moved into the ruins of this abbey, having shaken the fruits of their magic money trees into its restoration and installed, above the entrance in stained glass, their motto: Do What Thou Will.
And they did. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong about activities of a blasphemous or fornicative nature so long as no-one is hurt, only this was not Bacchanalia but class-performative English Bacchanalia, powered by the profuse minds and wallets on the top tier of the caste system to celebrate unto each other’s orifices their entitlement to get away with absolutely whatever the fuck they wanted.
|A 1750s Hogarth depiction of Francis Dashwood, portraying him parodically in the likeness of St. Francis of Assisi with the Bible replaced by erotic literature.|
Medmenham was and is an out-of-the-way country village unused to that level of excitement, and rumours of disquieting goings-on in the cloisters of their hallowed ruins were soon spreading round the community. Tales leaked out of casks of booze, profane shrines and altars, riotous singing and revelling into the night; of the likes of Venus and Dionysus walking among the costumed “brothers” and prostitute “nuns” who amassed round “High Priest Francis” in mock Christian rites beneath murals depicting these “monks” in alternative versions, to say no more than that, of Christian mythology – almost as though the entire setup was a deliberate parody that had stuck its hand in a time-rift, pulled out The Life of Brian and drenched it in steroids. Rumour mushroomed into scandal. Satanism and demon-worship were spoken of. Weighty names got mentioned in the same sentence as this ‘Hellfire Club’ – the Earl of Bute (later Prime Minister), the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Queensbury, even Benjamin Franklin – which played to fears of secretive, likely seditious political conspiring within this necromantically-raised perversion of the Medmenham monastery. Its high priests’ reputation did not improve when the Earl of Sandwich released a monkey into a local church service, prompting screaming worshippers to scatter for their lives. By the 1760s the game was up but the peacocks had had their laugh, and they packed up their club and moved on to the greater privacy of what remain known, thanks to them, as the Hellfire Caves up in Wycombe.
Perhaps we shall never know for sure what went on in here, not least with the tendency of later English commentators, especially those on fearful moralistic Victorian high horses, to embellish such episodes with all manner of judgemental exaggerations. Was this a conclave summoning abominations out of pits to advance the interests of the Pope or the independence of the American colonies, or just a bunch of fellows being silly? This much, at least, is clear: that class is everything in England (Do What Thou Will indeed, but be sure to be rich and white while doing it); and that if the realities of the Cistercian monks and “St. Francis of Wycombe” must share the same ruins, then what unthinkable realities could one day be reached from yours?
|Some willows are perhaps best left un-parted.|
|This local was approached for an interview about the Hellfire Club, but no comment was given.|
Oh and incidentally, Francis Dashwood never made the most popular Chancellor either. During his tenure under the short administration of his mate the Earl of Bute (1762-3), in which he built a repute for not having the faintest clue about financial affairs, he is best known for sending the farming provinces into uproar by tabling an excise on production of cider and perry.
That’s right. An alcohol tax. From this guy.
There was a ferry here too. Someone wanted to restrict it to private use, if the memorial over there is anything to go by. It asserts that a certain Hudson Kearley – later Lord Devonport, first Chairman of the Port of London Authority – fought a successful court action to keep it as a public service.
|The same Lord Devonport would later cause a sensation by getting put in the House of Lords despite refusing to pay the customary bung to his political party, threatening to expose their conversation to the newspapers unless they went through with it.|
Public or not, the ferry is gone, but the nicer walking is on this side anyway on the Remenham peninsula. No I don’t have a clue how to pronounce that either. The instinct is surely to read it as Remainham: perhaps a recent temporary settlement, the last stand of this valley’s holdouts who voted to Remain in the EU.
Remenham itself is a tiny village out on the west side, but administrative inertia from manorial times keeps its parish spread across the inside of this river bend.
|More signs of mysterious nocturnal rituals involving antlers, eldritch geometry, arm-waving and suspicious beverages – all corroborating the evidence of the Hellfire Club that this is a good place to get things under the radar.|
|Not all of the creature fit back through the portal.|
The Remenham peninsula centres on a steep and chalky hill, to the frustration of drivers heading up this way on the Henley Road. But where the slopes drop off, they leave the best of their scenery sweeping round the low-lying riverbend – only because this is England, we must cross someone’s massive private land-grab to see it.
|Remenham Hill at left, also known as White Hill for its participation in the chalky tendencies of the local geology.|
|Wanderers are shooed away from the riverbank here, but because it is a protected wildlife area so that is okay. Huge numbers of geese can be heard quacking their beaks off about religion and politics in there, so it seems to be working.|
|Culham Court, the massive Toad Hall at issue.|
This is a suspicious one. Built in the 1760s on a longer history of prestigious occupation, it seems this Culham Court has always been the lair of one branch of the hyper-rich or another. To make matters worse, they have tended to be from that stratum that makes their fortunes by fuelling mass oppression, impoverishment and atrocity: Caribbean sugar plantations (based on slavery), property speculation, newspaper ownership and dodgy financial products have all featured in its story, whose latest instalment stars a Swiss billionaire who recently pocketed it for £35 million.
|This appears to be one of the mansion’s outbuildings, positioned on raised ground to allow space for an elevator-accessed underground vault, nuclear bunker and submarine dock.|
|And what is that naked mass of white over there?|
|White deer? Well then.|
Fortunately the river is real where money is not, and has prevailed on the occupants to not dare interfere with the cosmic right of all people to access its water. Not all the hyper-rich have the sense to accept that, so let’s acknowledge the decency of these ones by reciprocating an act of politeness: we shall refrain, on this occasion, from besieging the house and seizing its land for the common interest.
|And it’s just as well they don’t try to stop people crossing. The front of their property looks out on some of the best views to be had in those parts, and it is right that those should be accessible to everyone.|
|They’ve plugged a lawn in it for rolling their seaplanes down onto the river.|
|The tiny settlement of Aston makes its appearance up the valley.|
|All the while the red kites whirl. The class hierarchies, floods and pandemics that humans invite to trouble themselves are literally beneath them.|
At last Culham Court’s assertions drop off, and just as well. For here, now, just as a virus, that tiniest of existences that barely even qualifies as a lifeform, threaten to bring a chapter of this society’s story to a pestilential close, the Thames valley hurls its wings wide open. Here, where the water is halfway down and the traveller is halfway up, tragedy and beauty join as one.
|It’s not the Yangtze, nor the Amazon. But it has a character uniquely it own, and here perhaps comes a first glimpse of its full potential.|
It might not look like much in a photo. But as a sensory environment, with the wind blowing, the sun shining and kites screeching on high, this was the place, for myself at least, where the river first touched on something connected to awe.
No, make no mistake, not because that Wind in the Willows vision of a harmonious ‘green and pleasant land’ was true after all. Rather because the scene enabled the imagination that it could be; brought the what if so close to the boundary of this reality that you could just about reach out and touch it.
Just about – but not quite. The feeling was bittersweet. It was this: that if they had this – all this, right here – but without the heap of pointless nothings they have invented out of nowhere to hurt each other for no reason; without the terrible governance, the manufactures of race and gender, the class structure, the conviction that competition is the natural way and care is weak; if they had never sullied the fabric of this reality with such pointless cruelties, and instead made proper use of the abundance and freedom given to them by this landscape here, then it is not hard to imagine, on top of shrugging off the likes of COVID-19, that they could in fact have a bloody good world here to show the rest of the universe.
Instead the most monumental screw-ups have sent them cartwheeling into a new millennium on their knees, the English and all the rest of them, and that alone is why this country, this, here, with all its genuine potential, is instead on its way to becoming one of the bloodiest feasts in the world for a virus whose tens of thousands of victims, with all the resources and lessons of history available in this world, they really had no possible excuse not to protect.
They cannot travel now. They are confined to their houses in lockdown and almost everything has been shut. But when it is safe to do so, let them come back here to imagine what could have been.
It still could be, if they want it. But they are running out of time.
|A lone cottage on the hillside. It looks like each piece was added in a different era.|
Down the slope is the tiny hamlet of Aston. A satellite of the Remenham manor, it seems to owe its existence to another ferry which has since ceased to run.
I wonder if the flocks of red kites still circle this pub at low altitude, now that these tables lie deserted.
|It seems they do in fact land sometimes. You probably wouldn’t see this downriver.|
|And this is unlikelier still.|
|Life erupts on the fields and branches, a reminder of all the lovely spring walking that will be missed this year while languishing in quarantine.|
|And here’s where the ferry was. If you shift to a different timeline it might still be there, though rubber boots remain recommended.|
Then it’s out into the fields to walk in the dream again, past the remains of a major flour mill.
|Somewhere in here is a good metaphor for the inevitable fate of human nations' imaginary borders.|
|Beneath the western end of the Chiltern Hills nests what used to be Hambleden Mill, protected by a yellow mechanical brachiosaurus.|
|Hambleden Lock, built in 1773, accompanies the mill’s venerable weirs.|
|And these pointy terrors accompany the lock.|
The Henley Reach
Formally this is still Remenham, but along this bend all narrative gravity draws unstoppably into the boatyards of Henley. Round the corner it is easy to see why.
|The final curve, with an incongruous proletarian platform.|
|By now there are regular encounters with upriver lifeforms exotic to the metropolitan lower reaches. Anyone know what this is?|
|Sunshine. Cottages. River. Hills. Plague.|
|And then it shoots off in a straight line all the way to Henley.|
The Henley Reach covers two kilometres of suspiciously straight river. It is as though the water spirits specifically sculpted it for the pleasure of the rowing establishment, which is why a geographical determinist might tell you that Henley, of all the Thames towns, emerged as its nerve centre.
I am obliged to declare my biases before taking another step. Back downriver I was for some years involved in punting. In that activity, the rowers emerged as our natural adversaries in a struggle for supremacy on the river whose driving force came entirely from them. While we in our punts merely sought immersion, exertion and honourable contests by the grace of the river’s generosity, we were rarely spared the invasion of the rowers in their bristling and roaring centipede-boats which nuisanced our punts with their wash before the inevitable dictator-in-a-motorboat came spluttering through in their wake, bellowing humiliations at the crews through a megaphone as though the blustering pretensions of a professional navy are any way to behave on a common waterway.
I have nothing against rowing in and of itself. I respect its potential to do good when undertaken in a safe and consensual way, and especially celebrate its capacity for the physical and social empowerment of women, whose battle for the right to participate in it has been an enormous plank of its story in a gendered England which robbed so much of women’s power in the first place. I only mean to say that, though it be far from my place to make requests on how that power is used, there might be a case to avoid scenarios like that time in Thames Ditton when a group of young girls, drifting along in their vessel as they awaited instructions, happened to ram into my punting instructor as he stood starting a race in his canoe, thereupon capsizing it and plunging the poor fellow into the river.
|Henley-on-Thames in the distance, our destination for today and the finish line for the course of its rowing regatta.|
At the downstream end sits this island, exactly where it would be had it been deliberately placed to mark the start of a rowing course that ends beneath whooping crowds on Henley Bridge. For reasons in plain sight they call it Temple Island, but this temple is not a facility for religious observance, nor was it built by the rowers themselves in an attempt to appropriate the weight of divine authority for their sport. Its truth sits once again in the English class system: the island was controlled by another big mansion, Fawley Court on the opposite bank, and built in a style inspired by Roman Pompeii as a fishing lodge and focal object for views.
Henley’s rowing authorities managed, after decades of attempts, to prise the island out of the landowners’ hands for an eye-watering sum. They now hold it on lease and appear to rent it out for expensive private functions.
|I believe this is a nymph, as they call her species. She probably prefers punting to rowing.|
The final waypoint on this approach is Remenham itself. The village’s tiny footprint on the riverside belies the procession of big landed names who have swaggered in its domain.
Now it might be that Remenham’s tiny size is simply a relic of days when small numbers of obscenely rich and powerful individuals controlled lands far too big for them. Listen closely though and you hear far more sinister whispers, offering an alternative explanation that now gurgles back to anxious relevance.
Remenham used to be a lot bigger, they say. Then came the plague. It wiped out almost all of the village’s population. And they have never grown back.
The Great Plague of 1665-6, England’s last catastrophic outbreak of bubonic plague, is mostly associated with London where it took down one hundred thousand people, about a quarter of the city's population. Most of those – and all this is worth reading with the filter of 2020 on top of it – were poor and vulnerable people living precarious livelihoods in crowded and unsanitary accommodation, but the plague also spread to the countryside as panicking rich people fled there, bringing the bacteria with them much as they have lately ferried COVID-19 to Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands. Records for the impact in remoter places are patchy; most famous is the story of the quarantine of Eyam which always does the rounds here during public heath emergencies. But in Remenham, all that can easily be found is a single line, which takes all the agony of its most traumatic experience in history and reduces it to a bland, phlegmatic piece of trivia: “most of the population was wiped out by the plague”.
It is a statement of stories forgotten rather than remembered. But I wonder if deep in the collective memories of the people who live there today, communities like this each feel the echoes of what they went through in the great pandemics of the past; and if in any significant way, even subconsciously, those memories still move their feelings and actions in the face of the current one.
…the Mole was very full of lunch, and self-satisfaction, and pride, and already quite at home in a boat (so he thought), and was getting a bit restless besides: and presently he said, "Ratty! Please, I want to row, now!"
The Rat shook his head with a smile. "Not yet, my young friend," he said; "wait till you've had a few lessons. It's not so easy as it looks."
Nope. Not easy at all when you’ve been stopped from leaving your house except for basic necessities, medical needs and one form of exercise per day.
|Those will be staying on there a while I think.|
|This is clearly some weapons-grade world-domination apparatus in use by the rowing establishment, but whatever forbidden materials used to blast around within it have been hurriedly locked away for the duration of the emergency.|
Nope. Thought this was going to be about rowing, did you? History is still going, and today it has other ideas. You want to hear about the time 60% of Henley’s population got killed.
Once again the terrible toll of microbial slaughter – the heartbreak, the terror, the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the stench of piles of corpses – is compressed in the accounts to a banal one-liner. In Henley’s case the horror in question was not the plague of the 1660s but the really big plague, the matchless rotting shadow which has never ceased to drip-drip-drip on the English national consciousness since it ripped its scythe through humankind: the pandemic of the 1340s and 50s, better known by its colloquial name, the Black Death.
|Central Henley, with the last residues of bustle before everything shut down.|
The worst plague in the English’s and many others’ history devastated every place it touched, but a little background establishes why a town like Henley was so vulnerable. This was always a pivotal location on the river with all aspects of life and identity shaped by its waters. Its lack of defensive features in this contested middle ground between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex to the south and Mercia to the north (and for a time the Viking Danelaw to the east) delayed its permanent settlement till after English unification. By then its drawbacks had turned to advantages. So easily accessible by river just before it rose into the navigationally hazardous upper reaches, Henley flourished as a market town and grew into the principal food supplier of a burgeoning London. It attracted the interest of monarchs and City of London big merchants, with many of the latter installing mansions and warehouses here to better drink off this vital trade.
In other words, it was a sitting duck for Yersinia pestis as it rampaged up and down the river on rats in the barges, fleas in the grain, and in the bloodstreams of the human traders themselves.
The Black Death was by no means the first bubonic plague pandemic. The disease had been around for eight hundred years already, at least since the Plague of Justinian which smashed the eastern Mediterranean in 541-2 (whose namesake, Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire, also contracted it but got better). Nor was it the last, as Remenham found out to its soundless agony in the 1660s. But in England it remains the paradigm of killer pandemics, leaving its name of plague as a colloquialism for any deadly mass outbreak, whatever the disease, and spawning the cultural archetypes of crow-masked plague doctors (much like medical staff today as they struggle for protective equipment) as well as Death as a friendly scythe-toting wandering skeleton: the sole democrat in a violently hierarchical land, reminding its people that everyone is equal after all.
COVID-19 is not bubonic plague. Its death rate, still horrific in absolute numbers and in the individual sufferings each statistic represents, does not compare to Yersinia pestis’s massacre of an estimated three to four million people in an utterly unprepared England and 100-200 million worldwide during the Black Death pandemic alone, wiping out up to a third of the world's population. Nor does it produce bubonic plague’s most visibly harrowing symptoms like necrotic blackening and the lymph node swellings or buboes that give it its name. Nor did the Black Death reach the Americas, now among the most exposed of COVID-19’s victims because of their fragile healthcare infrastructure and capture of their governments by science-hating maniacs like Trump and Bolsonaro – though infectious diseases, especially smallpox, would become a defining civilisational trauma there by a different route when brought across by European colonisers.
Nonetheless the echoes are inescapable. Like COVID-19 the Black Death came from an invisible, impersonal source with complete disdain for imaginary borders, social ranks and political or religious beliefs. It wrought havoc in China before travelling west to make a new epicentre in Europe. It broke too the border between life and death, spilling rot and decay and wagons that rattled with corpses into the daily realities of the living. It caught societies unawares even though the history was there and they should have known better, and instead got abused to blame and persecute vulnerable groups. It is the index model of a phenomenon in the human story unique in its character, horrible in its carnage, and perpetual in how it lingers round the margins with the promise that, though you’ll never know when, it will come back. Thus is it the shadow of the Black Death, with its doctors in masks, bodies in pits, and grinning skeletons walking the land, that now chills the English as they contemplate what has fallen upon them.
|“Social distancing”, English style.|
But one might ask: didn’t they recover? Even with some half of its people wiped out, didn’t Henley, for example, rise back up as a renewed agricultural breadbasket, which despite getting wrecked again as a battleground in the Civil Wars found still greater prosperity as a junction for stagecoach journeys, then railway ones in an industrial blossoming of wool, glass and hearty brews?
|Henley Bridge dates to 1786, though wooden and stone remains in the river indicate far older structures.|
|Henley’s old town hall, built for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (sixty years on the throne) in 1901.|
|The old Brakspear Brewery in the rear which made Henley a celebrated centre of beer fermentation through the nineteenth and twentieth century. Today Brakspear mainly runs pubs under new ownership; the brewery was closed in 2002 and is now apartments.|
|And there is the rowers’ command centre, the Henley Royal Regatta HQ. The rowing story here begins with the first University Boat Race in 1829 before it moved down to Putney. The regatta itself was founded in 1839 and gained the prestigious ‘Royal’ affix twelve years later when Victoria’s consort Prince Albert took interest. Henley is now a core engine of English rowing efforts in the Olympic Games and has hosted that tournament’s rowing events when held in England, but unforgivably its regatta was barred to women until the 1980s. The rowing story might have held pride of place in this exploration but for the coming of COVID-19, which a few days after this walk would force them to cancel the Henley Royal Regatta of 2020 – the only time in history they have done so aside from the World Wars.|
No – it is too simple to say that after the great pandemic they got better. Beyond its deathly shadow over the imagination, the Black Death wrought far-reaching changes on the structure of English society much as it did in all the lands it rampaged. Populations took centuries to grow back to pre-plague levels. Its cultural shockwaves were seismic, with the most ambitious interpreters seeking to trace them through to the Italian Renaissance (through its impact on art and philosophy) and the Protestant Reformation (through its demolition of the priests’ authority). In England the strongest structural effect is extremely relevant today: the Black Death upended its economic power relationships. With so many labourers dead, the survivors could charge much more for their work, and if their employers in the nobility didn’t like it then the labourers could simply find one of the many others who better twigged that the situation had changed. To say that the bubonic plague bacterium broke the back of English feudal serfdom is to risk oversimplification, but the point stands: pandemics are political.
In England this much is blatant in the prejudiced attacks on Chinese people; the nauseating (and at any rate mistaken) relief that COVID-19 “only” threatens elderly and immunocompromised people, as though they don’t matter; the chorus of wails from big corporations for public bailouts because their business models can’t stand two weeks of closure without collapse, in a society which mocks and sneers at its poor as it blames them for mis-spending their money rather than saving; the lack of concern for self-employed and gig-economy workers with precarious livelihoods, or for abuse victims stranded in their abusers’ houses; the spate of “coronavirus assaults”, with people actually coughing and spitting on others on purpose; and the frontline doctors, nurses and carers left unsupplied with protective equipment and effectively sent to their deaths. If, after so many experiences of the relentless recurrence and true traumatic horror of pandemics, a society still does not arrange its power to protect its population from them, then that is an indictment not on the pathogens, but on the society. The reflection in a mirror cannot be blamed for its honesty about the reflectee.
For that is the historical significance of COVID-19. It is holding up a mirror to the abject failure of societies, including this one, in their self-important delusions of modernity. The world we saw earlier – of the willows, the red kites, the green and pleasant land – has given them everything they need to build an informed society which values people as people, not as fodder for hyper-rich landlords and capital holders; in which a virus like this might well still kill people but not the tens of thousands it would not have if not for their cannibalised healthcare systems and concession of power to crypto-eugenicist killer clowns. A virus cannot be blamed for behaving like a virus, for that is the only way it knows. But when humans behave like viruses, and moreover build societies that celebrate and reward such behaviour, then that is another matter altogether.
COVID-19 is not a punishment, then, but a consequence, the kick up the arse that was always coming to cap the hubris of the English and wider human depravities of the 2010s, and in historical terms it is a remarkably light one too. There is no reason, least of all within that obsolete illusion they call modernity, that COVID-19 might not have killed half or two thirds of those it infects as the bubonic plague did. A future plague still might.
Oh, the English! They whose river we have hiked halfway up while they whooped and cheered at the triumph of Brexit nationalism following the general election of 2019, splashing contempt on those they left behind as they revelled drunk on their conviction that theirs is an exceptional isle, wreathed in golden mists, home to a superior race immune to the malaises of the wider world. They had chance after chance to get off this mine-cart ride to doom, yet they stubbornly refused. Now Death itself is come unto the English, whose national ego, after years of shovelling away the victims of its persecutions of poor and vulnerable people and its racist deportations, is now itself to be buried in a mountain of corpses. If that is not enough to burst that ego once and for all, to humble the nationalists into the dirt for giving the boast of a great country precedence over building actual greatness, then what in the world is left that could do so?
For now their politics remains in the hands of authoritarian nationalists and free-market cultists whom, after all, a critical mass of them did vote into power just this winter. But even those are having their totems smashed by COVID-19, finding that they must cooperate with the wider world, must intervene in the economy, lest the virus’s killings splatter their name forever as the Coronavirus Party which let the pandemic happen. On the other hand, those tricksters’ entire mindset is geared for manipulating crises like this for political advantage, seizing emergency powers and extending digital surveillance here, blaming marginalised groups and fiddling data there, and in the world of their making where truth itself is flimsy and belief is its own justification, the populist wave might yet crest high enough for them to pull it off. The world will have changed after COVID-19, but the conflict to harness that change will be more tempestuous still: that which decides if humanity steers itself at last to a better place, or plunges into a tribalistic abyss from which it never emerges. It is a choice, one every person in the world will have to make, and the English, too, will have to choose what part they wish to play in that struggle.
That struggle has already begun. To those who feel lost and bewildered in the face of these monumental forces, take power in knowing this. You might not be able to switch off the pandemic. You might not find shelter from its rain of death. The pain is real. But what you can do is understand that this is not a random whim of luck or fate thrown in from an inscrutable higher world beyond your comprehension. No: it is the result of specific political chains of cause and consequence in a history which is always present, which it is folly to believe one could ever outrun, but which has changed before and by your determination can change again. Death is not the true enemy here.
|The Rat got hold of a scull and shoved it under the Mole's arm; then he did the same by the other side of him and, swimming behind, propelled the helpless animal to shore, hauled him out, and set him down on the bank, a squashy, pulpy lump of misery.|
Watch this plague. Watch its effects all the way up and down your society’s power relations, and look out for weak points it exposes to hit your oppressors where it hurts. Speak what needs to be spoken, speak for those who are not being heard, demand your rights in this world of plenty and support the people around you, and for goodness’s sake, give me better things to write about in this country – unless Death comes by to say I am needed in other worlds – when it is once more safe to carry on this journey.
For after the storm, whatever is gone, the sun and the river remain. It is for you to choose what goes in the space between them: an English Spring, or a winter that never ends.
[This decision will drastically change the story.]
Special thanks to the Henley River and Rowing Museum for much of the information and insights in this section and for special consideration afforded in these difficult circumstances.