Sunday, 20 June 2021

THAMES: 10) Blood-Red Junction

Reading. Redding, they pronounce it. Red bricks. Red blood.
The English bleed. Over 125,000 deaths and counting, many avoidable. Failure – or worse, opportunities seized for blatant corruption – on practically every aspect of the pandemic response. The single thing that has actually gone reasonably well, the vaccination programme, becomes a basis to gaslight their population, successfully, into forgetting how far it was political blundering, not the COVID-19 virus itself, that caused them a year and a half of abject suffering.
They are eager to get ‘back to normal’, so one hears. Back to the neo-feudal normal of a country that feeds on its poor and its different, hurling aside the tethers of truth and care as they follow a clutch of crypto-fascist killer clowns to a promised land of eternal abuse in a cloak of hollow vanity, fairytale history and woke-bashing for sport.
They had a choice, the English. A chance to look at their country in the mirror of this virus and change its course before it was too late. Perhaps one day they will look back, and wonder if this was when they crossed the point of no return.
A return: Henley-on-Thames, after more than a year’s absence.
It was my hope to continue this expedition once COVID-19 had been defeated. However, with the English administration’s failure to take it seriously or mount any coherent broad strategy to suppress it (in which they are far from alone, to be fair), it is quite clear they have gifted the virus a permanent place in this land. In the same period my alienation from this country, and quite frankly, disgust at it, has deteriorated from hellish to terminally traumatic. This river journey can wait no longer if it is to reach completion before I get out of here for good.
Where we rejoin it, the river, too, comes at last to a crossroads.
Round a bend from the rowers’ capital of Henley, the villages and meadows recede before the largest settlement on the central Thames. The 150,000-strong town of Reading – really a city – sits halfway up the Great West Road (now the A4), halfway between this island’s east and west coasts, and halfway up the Thames where it cuts free of the Chiltern Hills. The middle of the middle: a pivotal position, strategically speaking, which has afforded the people of Reading foremost experience in the fortunes and woes of the most turbulent movements in English history.
The ruins of Reading Abbey, for centuries one of the country’s wealthiest and the anchor of Reading's prestige.
In later industrial centuries, new wealth and prestige was found in biscuits.

Reading rises beyond a trek through some of the most attractive river landscapes so far. To wrestle aside the tarnishing presence of familiar English follies – in particular the cult of property and Enclosure of huge swathes of riverbank for the private mansions of the obscenely rich – is to observe that the sun shines, the waters glide, and the dragonflies dance around local people taking their first tentative steps out of lockdown.
Why, then, is this air so laden with depression?
Perhaps it is the anxieties and insecurities of England in the age of COVID-19 that cast this gloom across the riverscape. To look on these people today – swimmers and sunbathers, lunchers and boaters – is to sense a society lost in a despondent limbo: cowering indoors one moment, rushing out to play defiant on the river the next; divided between those taking shelter in their privileged wonderlands, and those left behind to bear the worst of the consequences; a people torn between a destructive past that stubbornly refuses to change, and a future that will never be the same. They spin before us, this way and that, tugged in all directions at once – back to normal, new normal, third wave, learn to live with COVID – till the last sense of a journey together is lost, and all that remains is to spin on to the depths of an abyss where all that it means to be a society, all that it means to be real, no longer pertains...
The river, at least, is real. Trust it, follow it, for here we can trust so little else.
Start: Henley Bridge (nearest station: Henley-on-Thames)
End: Reading (nearest station: Reading)
Length: 14.5km/9 miles
Location: Oxfordshire – South Oxfordshire; Berkshire – Borough of Wokingham, Borough of Reading
Topics: Henley Meadows, Shiplake, Sonning, Reading

Friday, 4 June 2021

June 4th 1989

Remember June 4th 1989.

Remember the students, workers, intellectuals and citizens slaughtered not only in Tiananmen Square, but in the homes and streets of Beijing and other Chinese cities on that night of carnage, and in the hunts of the years that followed.

Remember not only those unnumbered casualties, but those still to follow. The future of humankind was murdered that night.

Consider. The story of human modernity has been written in white-supremacist horror. European conquerors and colonisers raised a vision of the human future rooted in unspeakable violence: the violence of genocide, slavery, human disposability, relentless and systemic otherisation, exploitation and abuse of power at all levels of society, and neverending cycles of conflict between and within populations soaked in trauma, and at last, the plunder of the planet itself to breaking point.

That corrupt modernity is now dragged to its reckoning. First to rise to global power from beyond it have been the Chinese.

The People’s Republic of China had the first true chance to challenge that order at a comprehensive level. The opportunity, and responsibility, were huge: to offer the world a real alternative to the cruelty of white modernity. A better vision. A better conception of power than that the Chinese themselves knew so well for the century of torments it visited upon them.

Instead, it is now beyond doubt that they have chosen merely to emulate it in their own image.

To look on the behaviour of the China of Xi Jinping – the Uyghur genocide, the thoroughly colonial repression of Hong Kong, the totalitarian surveillance, the erasure of crimes like the Tiananmen massacre from historical memory, the hypocrisy, platitudes and relentless butchery of the truth by organised trolls and “wolf warrior” diplomats – is to see them doing exactly the same thing all over again. Unleashing it on the world once more – only now in a time of interconnected global peril when the stakes could not be higher.

Was the 1989 massacre the threshold, the signal, the event horizon?

It took generations for the Chinese to emerge from a hundred years of horrific pain: colonial humiliation, total war, revolutionary upheaval. The catastrophic atrocities of the Maoist period can arguably be seen as the spasms and meltdowns of an utterly traumatised society. 1989 was different. It was the conscious choice of a leadership which claimed to be steering their country out of post-revolutionary turmoil. To be re-entering the world as they set about building a stable, confident and respectable Chinese future.

And at the crossroads of 4th June 1989, they baptised that future in blood.

After the initial shock, the rest of the world decided it was okay with it. And so the endless nightmare of the white supremacy is set to play out again in a new format. Further centuries of the same abuse of dissidents and people seen as different, the same contempts, the same authoritarian bloodthirst, the same towers of lies dressed up as timeless truths, the same mountains of corpses, nameless, forgotten  – all of it, all over again. They, too, in their millions, will be victims of the choices taken on 4th June 1989.

Remember Tiananmen. We are all stood in it now.

Monday, 20 July 2020

Five Empowerments from Video Games in Troubled Times

It’s 2020. COVID-19, lurching authoritarianism, mass atrocities. Chances are the political and human rights conditions of your country – or the one you are stuck in, like England – have become so farcically obscene that you are challenged to hold together the sanity, let alone the words, to coherently critique it.

For the majority of reasonable people, the recent years have been anywhere between troubling and downright wretched. What we are experiencing is no less than the breakdown of the promise, indeed the premise, of modernity: of a world where tomorrow is supposed to be better than yesterday. Instead we have let yesterday's darkest horrors return and put our tomorrow at their mercy.

We each do what we must to survive and make meaning in this nightmare. For me it has meant looking once more to video games, which are full of such meaning and have helped me so much to navigate the madness of humankind before. Here I would like to pay respects to five of my recent discoveries, and explore some of the power they offer to struggle on through an impossible world.

There may be mild spoilers in this article for each of these games.

1) The Power of Freedom: The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild
2) The Power of Perspective: Fire Emblem – Three Houses
3) The Power of Distance: Animal Crossing – New Horizons
4) The Power of Presence: Assassin’s Creed – Odyssey
5) The Power of Will: Xenoblade Chronicles

Sunday, 12 April 2020

COVID-19 is Not the True Enemy

Image: New Scientist
The COVID-19 pandemic is a common threat to all humankind. Much has been said about the need to put politics aside to unite against it. If only. For in this world of our making, COVID-19 is extremely political and is becoming the gateway for something far deadlier.

The pandemic was not unpredictable. Warnings and precedents have been there for years. It has only done its damage because of the political and cultural failure of all countries to build and protect strong public healthcare systems; to prepare even when they knew COVID-19 was coming; to tell the truth about it; to mount an informed and effective response; to cooperate with one another against a challenge to them all; and most fundamentally, to value real people, with real lives, over abstract totems like “the nation” and “the economy”.

But the problem goes beyond failing at a pandemic. The problem is one of power. It is of how human societies, for years, even decades, have been handing their power to those who could not care less about human death and suffering; and that these Trolls, as we might call them, are finding in this virus a springboard to launch their abuse of humankind to unstoppable heights.

The Trolls take many forms. Authoritarians, nationalists, gender-policers, and the cultists of the market all stand among them. There are many well-trod roads to Trolldom, often from opposing directions, but two characteristics bring them together:
     a) The belief that life should serve power, rather than power serve life;
     b) The subordination of all things, even truth itself, to the pursuit of that power.

The sum of the Trolls’ threat far exceeds, and will long outlast, that of COVID-19. This is not to trivialise the death and agony the virus wreaks as we speak. But COVID-19 will pass, as even the deadliest pandemics in history did. By then it will have killed hundreds of thousands of people. The Trolls, for their part, killed hundreds of millions in the twentieth century alone. They will do so again if we allow them to claim the twenty-first. And by that point they will have compromised our response to the challenges of climate change, making their threat, unlike the virus’s, existential.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

THAMES: 9) Death in the Willows

After every storm comes the calm. And for the moment, what a calm.

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

Sunday, 15 March 2020

THAMES: 8) River Shamans

The river rages. It has had enough.

An unsettled winter has broken on England in a sequence of devastating storms. The Severn watershed in the west of the country has borne the worst of it, but the Thames next door is also on the warpath. Even now the rear end of February’s onslaughts rampage down this valley of privilege with no concern for where the humans think its banks should be. The ferryman dares not cross, the trembling resident watches the water lap over his windowsill, the farmer beholds her flooded fields and clutches her face in despair, and the professional dog walker cannot find the way to go.

North from Maidenhead Bridge. Maidenhead is protected by the Jubilee Channel but even here the riverbanks are at their limit.
England is a flood-prone country, and for thousands of years the Thames has made this abundantly clear to anyone who dares settle on its floodplain. Yet this latest round, in the midst of both acute political degeneration and a global climate emergency, has washed down to a graver sense that something is seriously wrong.

Then just in case people weren’t getting the message, along has come COVID-19. This virus has held up a mirror. In it, instead of rigorous, calm and informed international cooperation and care for one’s citizens, we see instead the posturing hollowness of the authoritarian ego-trips which now pass for governance among prejudiced and panicking populations. It has laid bare a world where human beings are not the authors of the social contract, but disposable meat for the macho cannibals, free-market cultists and eugenicists who have overrun their politics.

Modernity, the human future, was never supposed to look like this. After the horrors of the twentieth century there was no excuse. A reckoning is sure to follow.

That said, a reckoning will do no good unless it offers a way to come out on the other side: on a path of healing, of rebuilding the togetherness they should have got right the first time. Humankind, including the English, must build systems that empower their compassionate natures rather than their nasty ones, and become a presence worthier of this world and this universe. If they wish to stick around in it there’s no other choice.

This involves obvious practical measures. For the English, an immediate end to austerity and deportations, and the prosecution of those policies’ architects, would be a good start. But the damage of these depredations goes beyond the physical. It has cut deep into individuals' and societies' souls, so the journey is also a necessarily shamanic one.

The English are not known for their shamans. A shaman bridges the ordinary world with all those other worlds that transcend it – cultural worlds, emotional worlds, spiritual worlds, or worlds further still. Across the shamanic bridge, relationships are built that heal and enrich their participants, and valuable things are exchanged, things unmeasurable and far more meaningful than the narrow range admitted by that fantastical chimera, the economy. On the shamanic journey, prejudice and panic are left far behind as the human consciousness pushes past its perspectives, travelling to the very furthest places it can reach.

In some societies, in particular many indigenous ones, the shaman who opens the way to these places fulfils a formal role. In England, as in many nations which believe their modernity makes these journeys no longer necessary, the office of shaman does not exist.

But that does not mean there is no-one who tries.

Stanley Spencer’s View from Cookham Bridge (1936). At one level, a scene of perfect ordinariness in an English riverside village. Yet the longer you look on its colours, its patterns and lights, the more the simultaneous presence of other worlds comes crawling up your bones…
There are few great overarching constitutional dramas on this section of the Thames. A parade of towering castles and extravagant palaces, elite public schools and hallowed legal texts has lined this valley all the way from London, but here they shall fall away as the water itself resurges to centre stage.

It is the river, after all, that must be supreme in any shamanic considerations in reach of it. It shapes and dominates its peoples’ physical reality, yet is constantly on the move between that reality and others. Just as it has carried these people from town to town and spun the wheels of their mills, has it not ferried their consciousnesses to far further destinations? Has it not powered their mills of imagination to create what could not have come from this reality alone? What magic in this water has the English Christians still pouring it on foreheads for their baptismal rituals, or shapes the bridges of their engineer-heroes from mere functional crossing points into artistic masterpieces that bring their pride to tears?

These floods have created many temporary ponds and lakes along this subtler stretch of the Thames. Perhaps they can be windows on some of that magic.

Start: Maidenhead Bridge (nearest station: Maidenhead)
End: Marlow Bridge (nearest station: Marlow)
Length: 11.2km/7 miles
Location: Berkshire – Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead; Buckinghamshire – South Bucks

Topics: Boulter’s Lock, the Cliveden Set and Profumo Affair, Cookham and Stanley Spencer, Cock Marsh and Winter Hill, Marlow (via Budapest)

Sunday, 16 February 2020

THAMES: 7) The Eaten

Eton College. What a pain.

The cannon is because they knew we were coming.
There is no straightforward way to handle this one. Most English people know of Eton College, if more through its mythos than the thing itself. And one does not simply know Eton College. Generally speaking, to know Eton College is to either adore it or to resent it to every monied brick in its crenellations.

Why, indeed, does a school need crenellations?

Perhaps to call it a school is misleading. It is a school, of course – the most infamously exclusive in England (and needless to say, one of the most expensive) – but only in the first instance. In the ways that matter it is so much more.

What we have here is an England. Eton College is an embodiment of this country, or rather of a specific vision of it which, though only a tiny minority of its population ever passes through its doors, wreaks so reekingly powerful an impact on the majority that it needs no introduction. A vision so storied, so intractable, that to its detractors, and there are many, Eton is no less than the principal sausage-factory of England’s white, male, upper-caste forces of destruction and the ultimate locus of fault for the ruin of their land.

Thus while physical Eton nests safe and snug in the Thames Valley, imaginary Eton is a castle under permanent siege. And behind its walls, as much as anywhere else in the world, there is no hard border between reality and imagination. That, perhaps, explains the crenellations.

Is it fair to lay guilt for so supreme a crime at the gates of one mere school? The real significance of the condemnation of Eton in these terms is perhaps less literal, more mythic: a permanent counter-mythology which, in crashing upon the school’s mythology, becomes half the dialectic nest of narrative power which sustains the legend of Eton. But in factual terms the case is not without grounds. To say nothing of its graduates’ perpetual dominance in media, commerce, religion and the military, the twenty prime ministers it has manufactured include both the individual who instigated the Brexit crisis for no reason, David Cameron, and the one who now consummates its descent into the abyss of authoritarian nationalism, Boris Johnson. This entire saga can and has been read as the continuation of a tussle between these two bully-boys which started in Eton’s playgrounds: rollicking, soaked in seven varieties of bodily fluids, now spilt out to nation-wrecking scale. And then, goes this telling, once the country’s breaking is complete, the lives of everyone in it laid waste, and their chisel lodged securely in their mortal wound to the post-World War II European peace settlement, these Etonian man-boys will bear none of the consequences but march away across a burning horizon, underpants overflowing with multiple multimillion-pound incomes for doing nothing while they slap each other’s backs, chortling at what a fun game it all was – and really believing it.

The game. Here and in the wider English public-school universe, this seems to be the operating principle, the nexus to which everything returns. The world is your game, and this is how you play it. If that means the Boris and Dave Show is Eton’s doing, how often has the same been the case for the political currents that shaped England and Britain in the past? Conspiracy theories are dangerous and should not be mistaken for serious consideration. But the distance between reasonable suspicions on the one hand, and the mythic image of this place as the puppeteers’ tower behind so many of England’s imperial misdeeds and perennial structures of oppression on the other, is not great enough to satisfy scrutiny.

What shall we do with it? There is no getting around it, because cross the bridge from Windsor and there it is, lording upon the northern bank where it secretes a power uniquely its own. A power not jewel-studded or glintingly solid like the stone towers of royalty it faces across the river, yet nonetheless every bit its equal and in practical terms quite possibly its superior. Its crown is made of different material: subtler, less tangible, wafting and oozing and sausaging rather than towering, all the more challenging to pin down for how it is in that very swirl of myths and symbols, ever elusive to those they are designed to ward away, that is concealed the source of Eton’s power.

Upon Windsor Bridge, facing upriver (west) with Windsor at left and Eton right. The college’s old boathouse facilities at right have been re-done into apartments; instead of the river they now train at a colossal artificial lake further upstream.
Less a school, then, and more a phenomenon: one built right into the heart of both the stories and power relations of the phenomenon called England. Its class system, its problems of race and gender, its land, its empire, and now its post-imperial nervous breakdown – everything refracts through the Etonian prism in ways that are impossible to grasp, because as soon as you get close, it moves, teasingly, just enough, like the well-timed evasive twist of a cricket bat, then chuckles down at you that you’ll never really get it because after all, it’s just a game, and you’re not special enough to play it.

Maybe so. But it so happens we’re playing a larger game here and Eton is in the way. Let’s devour some sausages.

Your barricades will be of no use, Eton College.

Start: Windsor Bridge (nearest stations: Windsor and Eton Riverside; Windsor and Eton Central)
End: Maidenhead Bridge (nearest station: Maidenhead)
Length: 10.5km/6.5 miles
Location: Berkshire – Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead; Buckinghamshire – South Bucks

Topics: Eton College, Eton’s backyard, Boveney and St. Mary Magdalene’s Church (which is special), vampires (Oakley Court) and cannibals (Monkey Island, Headpile Eyot), Bray, Maidenhead