Tuesday, 17 December 2019

THAMES: 3) Arcadia

The chill light of a winter morning falls on Putney Bridge, riding a tide that rises beyond the capital city. Having cleared the urban core, the water’s mood changes dramatically as it swings hard to the south in a great ninety-degree bend. Could this be a memory of 20,000 years ago, when the glaciers of the last ice age advanced all the way down here and shunted the Thames to the south?

Coincidence or otherwise, the bottom of that arc sends it right into what in a single human lifetime has become the corner of the Greater London conurbation, where on meeting the water that falls from the English interior, the sovereignty of the tides finally ends.

The limit of the tidal Thames, at Teddington Lock.

But more than water comes and goes this way. For thousands of years before trains and motor vehicles the river was the prime means of travel for the people of its watershed. Far better after all to let the tides take you where you want to go than drag yourself and your belongings up and down the muddy, potholed, bandit-ridden land routes.

If you had the means and status for it, that is. Under English class hierarchy, this privilege of escape from the struggles of London was primarily the preserve of those on the highest levels of the social pyramid. Above all that meant the monarchy, whose palaces and hunting grounds duly colonised all the best floodplain they could grab off the common folk. In their wake came their obligatory orbiting constellations of nobles, clerics, sycophants and concubines, some of whose families still occupy these prize mansions and riverside villas. Theirs are the upriver domains of Richmond and Kingston, towns whose roots lie in the legends of English royalty, but the intervening distance was settled by the middle-class affluents on the next tiers down as they popped up through the thick foam of the industrial revolution, into the fresh river air, and followed the old nobility out that way. Entranced by the splendour of the riverscape, these escapees imagined up and passed down an Arcadian paradise of swans and ducks and herons, of comfortable housing whether ruddily historic or ostentatiously gentrified, of lazy promenades lined with elaborate lamp-posts and hanging flower baskets, along a riverside of leaves and willows everywhere managed and in places manicured.

Yet the question, the very English question, remains. Who is it for?

Before we embark, ongoing events should serve as a reminder that history is alive around us. Not two days after the previous section’s article there was a terrorist attack at one of its most prominent landmarks, London Bridge. The attacker stabbed two people dead in the hall of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers before being shot by police on the bridge, having been subdued by, among others, someone wielding a narwhal horn from the aforementioned institution. This violence fed into one of the dirtiest and bitterest general elections in this country’s living memory, in which, as has typically been the case, the old royal lairs on the path ahead were some of the most fiercely contested constituencies in the country. Past and future, local and global: all are present and inseparable.

It was not a regular election. The outcome has struck a whole new level of shock and despair into many people and looks likely, to say the least, to irreparably alter the destiny of Britain and England. But even in this extraordinary instance, the boroughs of Richmond Park, Twickenham, and Kingston and Surbiton defied both the national trend and that of London’s division into working-class Labour Party urban areas versus white and affluent Conservative Party sub-rural outskirts. This corner alone chose a third option and put in Liberal Democrat MPs with comfortable majorities: the sole phalanx of Lib-Dem amber on a map that has otherwise scattered it to particles.

Pinned between core and periphery; shaped by both upstream and downstream worlds but not entirely of either. Who are the people who live on the riverbend, and what makes them different?

Start: Putney Bridge (nearest stations: Putney Bridge, Vauxhall)
End: Kingston Bridge (nearest station: Kingston)
Length: 20.9km/13 miles
Location: Greater London – Borough of Wandsworth, Borough of Richmond upon Thames, Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames

Topics: University Boat Race, Barnes, Hammersmith, Chiswick, Mortlake, the National Archives, Kew Gardens, Syon House/Abbey, Richmond, Isleworth, Twickenham, Teddington Lock

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

THAMES: 2) The Great English Power Struggle

The Tower’, they call the shortest of these buildings. Do they not get the feeling its name has been somewhat overtaken?

Upstream of Tower Bridge, the tidal Thames ebbs and flows through the current power centres of both the English nation and the larger constitutional vehicle it presently rides, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (a.k.a. ‘the Union’) – although that ride feels wobblier by the day.

Many people think of this country as a democracy, and one of the oldest in the world at that. Its civilised, courteous, tea-sipping national persona fuses in their minds with the landscape of its capital city’s riverside, where red buses link the likes of the Palace of Westminster, the Victoria Embankment and St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is in pride of place at the downstream culmination of this catalogue of modern wonders that stands the Tower of London, which draws in some three million awestruck visitors per year.

The original Tower consisted only of the central keep, the White Tower, built in 1078. Wards, lodgings, and fortifications were layered onto it down the centuries, and then a moat, filled in the 1840s. More recent restorations have polished it up into the postcard-friendly attraction we see today.

But there is a problem here.

The Tower was a political prison, torture dungeon and killing field. Erected by William of Normandy as part of a network of castles to scare his conquered populace into submission, by the time the English nation consolidated under the Tudor dynasty (1509-1603) the main use of this fortress had shifted to confining, torturing, and oftentimes decapitating high-profile political dissidents and prisoners of war. Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey and William Laud were among the dozens who had their heads handed to them here, and even four hundred years later it was dragging German spies in front of its firing squads in both World Wars. Yet nowadays you can pay a hefty £24.70 per head – and keep the head – to go in and take carefree selfies on top of those corpses while marvelling at this architectural symbol of a country which, they would have you believe, has political freedom and human rights in its national DNA.

That story of democratic destiny has been incredibly powerful in the English self-consciousness. But as we follow the Thames right through the middle of its ancient nuclei – the City of London and the City of Westminster – the river will have a quite different story to show us: of a heritage packed, like everyone else’s, with greed, oppression, and violent struggle. A story in which for every piece of democracy these people have scrapped together, they have had to fight and die for it and could never be sure they wouldn’t lose it again at any moment – and in which its worst enemies have not been external threats, but the impulse for the abuse of power that has ever lurked in their own culture.

Power. Yes. That will be the Dark River’s melody today.

The King’s Reach – the stretch of the Thames beside the old city – as seen from Tower Bridge, looking upriver. Yet never forget that twice a day the water goes in, and twice a day it goes out. Can you see the real power in this picture, far exceeding any of these glass pretenders as it looks on from high in the sky at left?
Start: Tower Bridge (nearest station: Tower Hill)
End: Putney Bridge (nearest stations: Putney Bridge, Vauxhall)
Length: 16km (10 miles)
Location: Greater London – Borough of Southwark, Borough of Lambeth, Borough of Wandsworth

Topics: Power versus democracy amongst the City of London merchants, Southwark bishops, Bankside and Lambeth recreationalists and the English Parliament in Westminster, then escaping through Vauxhall, Battersea, Wandsworth and Putney.

Today’s exploration is long. If you want to keep to the three main discussions, they are the City of London (immediately below), the story of Parliament (skip to ‘City of Westminster’), and the Putney Debates (skip to ‘Putney’ at the end.)

Thursday, 7 November 2019

The Fall of World of Warcraft

Videogames and Politics in a time of Authoritarian Revival

Some time ago, I wrote here of a very special computer game.

A game which saved my life. A game which grew into a core aspect of my existence, so much more than ‘just a game’. It offered me community, belonging, friendship, a sense of fulfilment, and the power to hold authoritarians to account by hurling fireballs at them – all things denied me by the corrupt societies of Earth, yet provided by this game in sufficient measure that I could endure by moving between the two worlds as needed. More than fourteen years have now passed since I first stumbled into the vast and beautiful world of Azeroth that forms the main setting of World of Warcraft (WoW).

It wasn’t a paradise. There were terrible times in it as well as good ones. But it was – is – part of who I am. It was the closest thing I have known in this world to home.

And then, in the space of one week in October 2019, World of Warcraft fell.

Two Stories
The company responsible for WoW, Activision Blizzard (originally and colloquially just Blizzard), has grown into a behemoth of the videogames industry on the back of WoW’s titanic success. Together with its other major franchises like Starcraft, Diablo, Overwatch and Hearthstone, its subscribers span the world and number in the millions.

Eventually this rise propelled it into the extremely lucrative Chinese market. In the same period, the People’s Republic of China has lurched into a resurgent authoritarianism under the rule of Xi Jinping, a distinct feature of which has been an obsessive coercive control over the Chinese information environment. Foreign companies operating there are in effect required to abide with strict government expectations that they will not contain even the slightest hint of dissent at the ruling party, its vision, or its increasingly atrocious abuses of those of its people – be they political opponents, social activists or ethnic minorities – who do not fit the official narrative of China’s national character and journey.

The definition of this under Chinese law is extremely vague. That is deliberate. Under its present authoritarian leadership China lacks an independent rule of law. This relates directly to the current crisis in Hong Kong, which in turn has been directly pertinent to the fate of WoW. The immediate trigger of the Hong Kong conflict was the threat of new extradition laws that would break down the barrier between Hong Kong’s legal system, with its relative political independence, and the arbitrary system in mainland China where legal outcomes are often politically-determined.

What that system means in practice for games companies is that compliance tends to take the form of prior self-censorship to lower the risk of problems in the first place. The infamous covering-up of undead characters’ exposed bones in the Chinese version of WoW was a prime example. More generally, games are shepherded into conformity by the local partners through which foreign companies have to operate, in Blizzard’s case the Chinese company NetEase.

Perhaps that coercive environment is one reason Blizzard’s games are phenomenally popular in China. If there is a common thread to all its games – their gameplay, their storylines, their experiences – it is heroism: the ability of random anybodies from humble backgrounds to work hard, gradually build their power and renown, and through courage, sheer strength of will and good old teamwork, vanquish one after another of a rogues’ gallery of tyrants, warmongers, demons, dragons and malevolent gods. Good ultimately prevails over evil; freedom overthrows oppression. ‘The world could always use more heroes’, says Tracer of Overwatch in that game’s famous signature. ‘No king rules forever’, one of WoW’s most tenacious dictators was reminded as he lay dying.

There are obvious ethical complications in this view of the world, which in our neo-colonial reality tends to get parsed rather tiredly through arguments about cultural diversity and individual rights versus community interests. Explorations are certainly possible into how far Blizzard’s games derive from the company’s American background. But on a personal level I for one found it incredibly empowering to enter WoW as a Level 1 gnome with a stick, stumbling through the snow on a journey which within a few years had turned him into a meteor-flinging pyromancer blasting down one arrogant oppressor after another. At best this accountability was administered side-by-side with some fabulous teams of people, many of them likewise considered eccentric by the outside world and finding in WoW a validating alternative to outside societies’ abusiveness and hostility to difference. If WoW did so much for them and for me, then what of its service to people living beneath the totalitarian judgementalism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?

What we were watching here was WoW’s story growing in two incompatible directions. On one branch was etched those words: ‘no king rules forever’. But at the same time, the other branch was twisting and bending to enter the story of a bloodthirsty king obsessed with living forever – so obsessed that he died from consuming mercury in his search for an immortality elixir, but who lives on in Xi Jinping atop a Chinese civilisation his authoritarian worldview has cursed for two thousand years.

A WoW of heroic struggle against oppressors, and a WoW of expedient submission to them. To be both at once was not sustainable. The time would come to choose between them.

When it did, they chose poorly.

The Fall
On 6th October 2019, a participant in Hearthstone televised professional competition, Ng Wai Chung – known as ‘Blitzchung’ – protested the CCP’s violent repression of Hong Kong by stating ‘liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times’ in Chinese during a post-match interview. Blizzard responded by summarily throwing him out of the tournament, rescinding his $10,000 match winnings, and imposing on him a one-year ban on competitive play. On top of that, the two TV casters who had been interviewing him, guilty of nothing, also had their contracts terminated.

The public backlash was instant and ferocious. Players, professional competitors, journalists and current and former Blizzard staff lined up to condemn the company for appearing to do the bidding of the Chinese authorities in suppressing freedom of speech and voices for human rights. The damnation was particularly intense in the United States, where a pattern of similar high-profile China censorship scandals was befalling the National Basketball Association (NBA), Apple and several other companies. People began cancelling their Blizzard subscriptions; the hashtag #BoycottBlizzard started to trend on Twitter. Another Hearthstone team, American University, held up a ‘Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz’ sign during one of their matches and were later also banned for their trouble. Some thirty Blizzard staff walked out and staged a protest outside their California HQ, covering up the slogans ‘Think Globally’ and ‘Every Voice Matters’ on a statue displaying the company’s purported values. Other games companies spoke out either to wiggle their fingers against ‘political’ speech like Blizzard had, or more courageously, to declare they wouldn’t punish their players for it (and here I extend respect to Tim Sweeney of Epic, whose classic ZZT was a staple of my childhood). Most potently, the character of Mei from Overwatch began to appear as a symbol of the Hong Kong protests, raising the possibility that a clampdown from the Chinese censors might punish Blizzard in the very markets they thought they were protecting their presence in.

Blizzard remained silent throughout this storm, giving the impression they hoped it would die down of its own accord. When it didn’t, they contrived to make matters worse. On October 12th President J. Allen Brack released a long statement that attempted to justify their punishment of Blitzchung, while also halving his ban and reinstating his prize money. It was an extremely unconvincing non-apology that only served to further inflame Blizzard’s critics, and as people like former Blizzard designer Mark Kern deconstructed it more carefully it came to look downright suspicious: as though it had originally been written in Chinese, and was aimed not as an apology to aggrieved fans but a promise to the Chinese authorities that such an embarrassment would not happen again.

Video Games are Political
Not everybody shared in the anger at Blizzard’s actions. WoW is a complex world that different people experience in their own ways, and a great many were not sufficiently invested in either Hong Kong or the more general problems of humankind to care. A common line you hear in gaming discourse is ‘it’s just a game mate’, and no doubt for many people WoW is indeed ‘just a game’, providing them with enjoyment which they value more than strangers harmed by the company’s political decisions. (But let us not even dignify with attention the adherents of free-market ideology who claim that it is in businesses’ nature, rather than choices, to prioritise profit over the welfare of people affected by their actions.)

In fact there is no separation between games and politics any more than there is in sports, whose inherent political character goes back millennia and is as salient in this age of oppression as it ever has been. To claim to be apolitical is itself a political position: a satisfaction with and de facto support for the status quo. At best it is naïve; at worst it is perniciously disingenuous; and either way it speaks from a position of privilege not available to people who get no say in whether the politics happens to them.

Video game politics, despite the relative infancy of their history as a medium, already have baleful form. While on the one hand they have been empowering and liberating, their notorious dark side as a tenacious harbour for racism, stigmatisation of disabled or mentally ill people, and especially misogyny, transphobia and other forms of gender-based bigotry is news to no-one. The GamerGate hate movement anticipated a whole new generation of toxic-masculinist far-right political thuggery that then found world-changing expression in Trump, Brexit and similar truth-unravelling, social-media-savvy forces that have risen to power worldwide; in some ways it directly laid their operational foundations.

In WoW I witnessed those strains of political poison disgorged on a regular basis whether in random groups, in-game public channels, or the forums of external websites. As in many other game communities, no-one has bothered, even after a decade and a half, to design a method for holding those behind it to account. That strain of politics – ultimately, fascism – is in effect deemed acceptable. Conversely, expressions like those of Blitzchung or others calling out oppression or attempting to improve either the representation or experience of, say, women, gender-diverse people or ethnic minorities in videogames, are regularly met with a scathing cacophony of ‘stop making it political’ or ‘it’s a game mate, keep your politics out of it’, if not outright punishment by the game authorities as in the Blitzchung affair.

Let’s be clear what this means. The politics of videogames has already played a decisive role in helping the most murderous political forces ever known on this Earth, as a matter of historical fact, to reawaken as a real and present threat to all humankind in the twenty-first century. Possibly the most serious threat, given its implications for the climate and ecological catastrophe as well as human freedom and safety everywhere. Blizzard’s decision to suppress voices challenging that threat must be read in that context as an explicitly political act: one that favours the trolls and tyrants, and promotes the suffering of dissidents and people considered different.

That context doesn’t go away if game developers pretend it’s not there. In their attempts to do just that, Blizzard had, in effect, declared in support of violent authoritarianism, and in opposition to the heroic struggle against it.

No authoritarian takes and wields power entirely by themselves. Atrocities from those of Hitler and Stalin to the present-day American border concentration camps, the English attempt at ethnic cleansing through the ‘hostile environment’, and Chinese cultural genocide in Xinjiang (yes, let’s call things what they are) can only take place because they are enabled by a sufficient mass of the population which, even if not in active support of those crimes, are cowardly or indifferent enough to keep their heads down and carry on business as usual. In a world like that, the atrocities will never stop – not until ordinary people take responsibility to think critically and speak out against blatant and egregious violent decisions.

Actions like Blizzard’s have real consequences. In this case, they signal to the CCP that its behaviour is acceptable, thus helping to enable further violence against people in Hong Kong as well as China more widely (including serious threats to Chinese overseas). They also signal to those oppressed that if they open their mouths to complain about it or call for help, they can expect a video games company, of all things, to join in their punishment. The belief that after all that there remains a respectable ‘keep politics out of it’ position to take does not even deserve consideration.

A Home No Longer
WoW was never without its problems. Humans play it, after all, and find the capacity to be terrible within it in all the ways they do so outside it. Toxic relationships, abusive groups, racist and gender-based hate speech, egomaniacal power-tripping and appalling cruelty are all things players encounter in it, and over fourteen years their presence in WoW at times caused serious injury to my life outside it.

But WoW as a whole is larger than any such villainy, and none of it upset what that world meant to me at a fundamental level. Blizzard’s decision to take the side of the authoritarians did. It devastated, instantaneously and utterly, everything that WoW has meant to me for nearly half my lifetime.

Not only because Hong Kong and China both have deep personal significance to me. Opposition to authoritarianism – rage at the heinous suffering it inflicts on this world, and at the destruction of my youth in bitter struggles with its English variants (which are just as barbarous as the Chinese ones) – has been the core of my political consciousness since a childhood when, like nowhere before or since, I called Hong Kong home. For most of the years since, if I had yet to find a way to confront the scourge of authoritarianism with a more decisive challenge, WoW was the place where I could do so by proxy, in a different world, at least to experience the sensation of it and get better at it till a time I could do so in this one.

Blizzard’s action stripped WoW of that entire meaning at a stroke. What substance remains in fighting the monsters in it, if the subscription money is going to those who support the monsters outside it? What is left of ‘the world could always use more heroes’ if at the first sight of actual heroes that world’s custodians brandish staplers at their mouths?

After the first two or three days of this scandal, the world I was logging into each morning already felt hollow. Routines that had been part of my day for so many years – to zoom around the world completing quick quests for gold or artifact power while chatting with fellow guild members – suddenly tasted so futile that they fell away in a few moments. WoW belonged to the authoritarians now. It was terminally corrupt. And suddenly, after a decade and a half in it, I realised with mounting anguish that it was no longer a home.

In the hours that followed this realisation was confirmed. I was a member of two different communities in WoW. They were led by marvellous people and had given me opportunities for regular and meaningful social activity in a way the outside world never had. This is something I believe many people whose most important and rewarding relationships (not to mention families) originated in WoW will relate to. But as hours and days passed, it became apparent that a gulf had opened between me and these fellows. Some of them were critical of Blizzard and offered supportive words, but at an essential level, they were all still able to find comfort and enjoyment in the game. I was not. That sense of connection had gone, and to stay there surrounded by people having fun in it as usual while the tear gas, rubber bullets and condescending bluster of the oppressors of Hong Kong ruled the air was too painful to bear. The only recourse to protect my mental health was to leave both communities, and so WoW’s significance to me as a social world evaporated too.

After some final record-taking and exchanges of contact details, I left WoW and cancelled my subscription. This has meant ruined friendships and the loss of my main social circles, much of my daily routine, and indeed an entire world whose masters decided it was worth leaving behind not only me and thousands of other disgusted players, but the very values which made WoW a strong place; a good place. In effect it has been a bereavement, requiring a painful full-scale readjustment of my life.

Though it may appear a principled choice, the fact is that there was little choice in it. I did not leave WoW so much as WoW left me. Those to whom it was so much more than ‘just a game’ – those to whom it brought love, hope, safety, freedom, a future – will understand just what level of hurt Blizzard’s actions have inflicted, and perhaps forgive description of these events with a word we should be extremely careful about using but which I believe matches the gravity of their deeds: betrayal.

In complying with the authoritarians, they betrayed their players. They betrayed their basic human duty to do no harm to other people. But perhaps worst of all, they betrayed their own stories, and it is from that last that those involved will never recover.

A beautiful world, the world that saved my life, is no more. I mourn its passing.

'There was not even any sound, because of the sand.'

Meanwhile something dark remains in its place, which short of drastic political change within the company can only sink deeper into the abyss. Which raises the question: will Activision Blizzard be held to account?

After the Fall
The weeks following the Blitzchung affair saw it swell from a tremor in the gaming industry into a full-blown international scandal. Blizzard’s repute was sullied across the pages of mainstream newspapers and media outlets. Their behaviour is under scrutiny not as mere corporate naughtiness but as a political phenomenon condemnable in the strongest terms, both from the left as a danger to human rights and from the right as a civilisational threat: namely, compliance in the CCP’s attempts to spread its censorship policies beyond China’s borders to suppress freedoms in other lands. Even the U.S. Congress deemed it serious enough to issue an open letter to Blizzard’s Chief Executive to express their ‘deep concern’ about the mistreatment of Blitzchung and urge them to reconsider; it was signed by several representatives including the formidable Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a rare instance of American cross-party cooperation.

As pressure mounted, a launch event for Overwatch on the Nintendo Switch in New York was cancelled at short notice. So was a WoW 15th anniversary event in Taiwan. Observers began to wonder how the scandal might overshadow BlizzCon, Blizzard’s massive annual convention and the biggest event in its calendar, held on 1st-2nd November in Anaheim, California. Sure enough, barely two days ahead of it, it emerged that the Taiwan branch of Mitsubishi Motors had pulled out from sponsoring Blizzard’s e-sports events following their punishment of Blitzchung.

BlizzCon itself however was a disappointment for those hoping for signs of either reckoning or lessons learnt. Most of the attendees are dedicated fans who book their coveted places months in advance and pay considerable sums of money to travel to it, so it was never a likely setting for nemesis to strike. A small but vigorous protest did make itself seen and heard outside the site’s layers of security, while a couple of courageous individuals succeeded in raising Hong Kong’s name in a Q&A session of the convention itself, plunging the hall into a guilty silence.

Protesters outside BlizzCon 2019 (from the Washington Post).

Most visibly, J. Allen Brack, in whose name the dubious non-apology of October 12th was issued, opened the convention with an actual apology this time. This was effective in spreading headlines that Blizzard had uttered the word ‘sorry’, but otherwise was as vague as a professional PR team could possibly have been designed it to be. They had apparently ‘moved too quickly in (their) decision’ and were ‘too slow to talk with all of you’ – the apology went that far, and no further. Though Brack stated he would ‘accept accountability’, he made no specific reference to the Blitzchung incident or Hong Kong and suggested nothing further as to what form that accountability would take, whether in terms of actions or policy changes; or whether the original punishments would be reversed; or how the damage done by their favourable signalling to authoritarians would be repaired; or whether something similar could happen again in future. The opening then seamlessly segued into what was effectively a feelgood self-congratulation for their role in ‘bring(ing) the world together’ with ‘the positive power of videogames’, followed by the dramatic unveiling of new games and the next WoW expansion. After the convention, it was quietly confirmed that no, the original punishments would not be rescinded.

As such, it seems Blizzard is continuing in their approach of pursuing business as usual and hoping that criticism will die down, save from a small minority of affected former players whose market impact can be ignored. I shall not predict whether that strategy will succeed, because that is a matter not of facts of life, but of choice. Every individual involved with Blizzard and their games, be it with producing them, playing them or talking about them, has a responsibility to reflect on as to whether they are okay with this situation, and if not, then on what means are available to them to hold such behaviour to account.

There are many ways to do that. Cancelling subscriptions to Blizzard’s games is the most obvious, but there are legitimate reasons that might be difficult – the human cost I have borne from doing so attests to that – and there are plenty other recourses if that is not an option.  You can take part in protest events like those at BlizzCon. You can get involved with groups like Gamers for Freedom, and write of your concerns to Blizzard, its sponsors, or your political representatives (and this matters – remember that even the likes of the US Congress is involved in this now). If nothing else, simply speaking up about it in your everyday life helps to make public discourse more difficult for the authoritarians and those who enable them to operate. Acknowledge the politics of video games and make yourself more aware of it, as well as of politics in general. Confront those who deny there is a politics or who abuse those who speak out. Be alert to prevent the hijacking of this movement by the tribalists of the far right, who are always looking for such opportunities; keep the discussion safe for people across the wide spectra of human diversity, and reject its mis-shaping into a racist attack against Chinese people. The problem is not China, nor even ‘communism’ (which is a different conversation altogether), but authoritarianism, which has no flag and ruins all nations.

If enough people’s choices amount to a critical mass of such action, you will not only effect political change at Blizzard in this instance, but empower the people of Hong Kong in their struggle for freedom, place pressure on the authoritarians in the CCP and elsewhere, and just possibly, have a contribution you can sign in the history books to reshaping the long-term politics of this world to make it a kinder and safer place for all human beings.

Right now, the conflict in Hong Kong grows darker and more violent by the week. Though part of me anxiously hopes it will not be the case, the current Chinese leadership’s total failure to empathise with Hong Kong’s people, and knowledge of no other means to address problems beyond insults and vicious force, make me fear that serious bloodshed lies ahead.

If it does, it is in that outcome that Blizzard and those involved in their games will have to weigh their responsibility. My authoritarian-blasting gnome, now returned to my soul, shall be weighing it too.

No king rules forever, Mr. Ying Zheng.


Friday, 1 November 2019

THAMES: 1) Tides of Time

Thames Barrier to Tower Bridge

Peer through the Barrier. What do you see? Things absent for nearly all time, yet for this instant they bend the landscape around them as though they be most important.

Between the Thames Barrier and the English capital, three peninsulas form a buffer zone that slows the onslaught of the tides. These reaches were always beyond the limits of London proper, a waterlogged hinterland that much like the marshes downstream were thought of as belonging to the rural provinces of Essex (north) and Surrey (south), not the City.

Slowly the attentions of kings, sailors and merchants followed the river out this way. Then England transformed into an industrial empire of global reach and ambition. In the process, so did these margins metamorphose utterly and beyond recognition, for it was here that much of the actual work of those projects was done. But as industry and empire alike have stumbled, stuttered and sank into history, these banks have transformed yet again. Still now they transform. Perhaps no stretch of the Thames has experienced so much flux, nor seen the very landscapes that frame its meanders so tied up in the meanders of the English national story.

Some of those stories propelled these riverbanks to international significance. The name of Greenwich is known in all countries of the world because of things done there in centuries past; some of their people might even pronounce it the way the English do (“Grenich”). Meanwhile much of what the British Empire looted off them passed through the renowned docklands that dominated both banks of the river here. Today these shores are still changing, and hurl new names round the world like Canary Wharf. But is this a flowing onwards, or rather a drastic bend in history much like the river’s own sudden hairpin around the Isle of Dogs? Are the English building their modernity ever higher here? Or has that modernity subsided, to soak into the marsh and wash away on the Thames’s tides, replaced where it once stood with something, if not darker (for the shadows of the docks were dark indeed), then altogether hollow?

Let’s find out.

Multiple generations – marsh, wharf, tower – gather together for a picture. Most important ones in front, tallest at the back.

Start: Thames Barrier (nearest station: Charlton)
End: Tower Bridge (nearest station: Tower Hill)
Length: 14.5km (9 miles)
Region: Greater London – Royal Borough of Greenwich, Borough of Lewisham, Borough of Southwark

Topics: Greenwich Peninsula, the Millennium Dome, the Docklands, the Greenwich meridian and GMT, Surrey Docks, Tower Bridge

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

THAMES: Prelude - Dark River

Dark River. That is one interpretation of Tamesa, the name (or something approaching it) by which this watercourse was known to its ancient Celtic inhabitants, thereafter called Tamesis by the Romans, Temes by the medieval English, and Thames by the English of today.

The Thames is the longest river entirely in England, whose capital London it birthed and has shaped ever since. And yet, the origin of its name is among the most mysterious in the country. The above is one of numerous possibilities, but it seems perhaps the most fitting. The Thames is very much a dark river: in the obscurity of its name; in the muddiness of its waters; and in the heritage of questionable human deeds committed upon it. ‘And this also,’ says Marlow famously in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, ‘has been one of the dark places of the Earth’.

The river itself cares little what people call it, still less weighs the validity of one name against another. It surely recognises that Thames is not its final, settled name, merely its latest in an ongoing story. Indeed, it got a new one just this year on account of the intrepid Ugandan explorer Milton Allimadi:

The Samuel Baker he references did the same thing in the other direction, travelling from London to what is now Uganda where he ignored local names for geographical features and changed them to colonial things like Lake Albert. There is always a politics to names, which from the perspective of the features themselves – the Thames (or Gulu) is some 40-50 million years old – is mere imagination.

But the water itself is real enough, as is the material relationship it has shared with the people of its watershed for as long as they have crawled upon its banks. It is not a simple relationship. It contains not only water and fish but swords and shields thrown in as sacrificial offerings, flint tools and arrowheads, human and other bones, sewage, cholera, industrial effluents, dead bodies, state-of-the-art engineering and steamships stacked with a planet’s worth of colonial plunder. How many secrets must lurk in its darkness still…

It could be interesting to walk all the way along a river like that, couldn’t it?

The Thames rises in the Cotswold Hills and carves a path through the chalk escarpments of southern England, then gathers pace on the clay of the London Basin before spilling into the North Sea. (Map from Wikimedia Commons.)

This series follows an attempt to walk up the Thames and see how far we can go. It might have made sense to begin at its mouth, but its estuarine territory – the Thames Gateway, they call it these days – appears a land of industrial dereliction and crumbling infrastructure not designed for friendliness to walkers and in places dangerous or impassable.

So instead let’s begin near the border with Kent, where the river punches clear of the English capital and rampages on to the sea. The journey opens, then, on the bleak lower reaches outside the city limits. Here, as the warehouses rust and the silos stand empty, the ancient marshes creep round the edges, through the cracks, and know that this was always their land.     

Start: Erith (nearest station: Erith)
End: Thames Barrier (nearest station: Charlton)
Length: 12.8km (8 miles)
Region: Greater London – Borough of Bexley, Royal Borough of Greenwich

Topics: Erith; Erith Marshes industries; Crossness sewage treatment works; Thamesmead; Princess Alice disaster; Woolwich Arsenal; the Thames Barrier

(CORRECTION: ‘BARKING REACH’ should be slightly west of where it is on this map; where it is now should in fact be labelled ‘HALFWAY REACH’.)

Thursday, 26 September 2019

London Outer Orbital Path (LOOP) - Other Worlds, Other Stories

This walk is not actually in London.

When you hear London, perhaps your internal atlas opens on a shape somewhat like this:

Officially, this is the present extent of what is tellingly titled Greater London: thirty-two boroughs bound within the eternal chain of the M25 motorway. And yet, this map and that concept of London would have been unrecognisable to anyone in it for most of the last two thousand years.

London has traditionally meant a nucleus upon the river Thames – the City of London. This was later supplemented with a second nucleus, the City of Westminster. Most of the rest of this territory was a mix of tiny villages, rolling farmlands, forbidding forests and bandit-ridden wasteland till the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It was only then, in the living memories of present-day grandparents, that industrial urbanisation and suburbanisation flung out London’s tentacles of road and rail to seize chunks off its neighbouring provinces (or counties as the English call them, a word with Norman French origins). Middlesex, west of the city and north of the Thames, was completely devoured, while most of the remainder of this map was taken off Kent in the southeast, Surrey in the south, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire in the northwest, and Essex in the northeast. And it is those lands, now absorbed into the London amoeba but retaining stories, cultures, landscapes and accents that clearly belong to different worlds, that you will come into contact with if you attempt the so-called London Outer Orbital Path long-distance walking trail. better known by its acronym, the LOOP.

The route of the LOOP, as appears on its Transport for London webpage

Most of this route's 24 sections still cover farms, fields, woodlands, riverbanks, parks, or little villages that hold onto distinct identities. They are largely devoid of bandits now (the traditional kind at any rate – it does pass through the constituencies of several unsavoury Conservative Party MPs, among them Uxbridge and South Ruislip, seat of a certain Boris Johnson). It is very green, and people tend to greet you when they pass - itself a sign that London is far, far away.

Many of these locals might well be descendants of people who resisted the encroachment of London and fought to preserve their homes from its all-crushing notions of development. In the mid-twentieth century they managed to get that preservation formalised as the Metropolitan Green Belt: a ring around the capital where new construction has been heavily restricted, much to the consternation of the evangelical free-marketeers and property speculators who have taken over the English housing sector.

The ‘Happy Valley’ in deeper Croydon (Section 5). The ‘green and pleasant land’ is an important image in English national culture and has deep and historic significance for both its celebrants and its critics.

In the 1990s, an expanded London’s municipal officials started getting together with walkers’ organisations like the Ramblers to consider the creation of walking routes, to encourage people to get out and explore these surroundings on foot. The London LOOP was the most ambitious route to be proposed. Over the following years they worked improve its trails to be as safe, accessible and well-signposted as possible. The resulting quality varies, as many separate local authorities are responsible for maintaining it, but the overall outcome is a high-standard continuous route fully endorsed by the Mayor and Transport for London (TfL).

Still stranded in this city, I set out to roam these outskirts in January this year. I began its first section from the town of Erith, far to the east on the south bank of the Thames, and taking it section by section as time and weather made feasible, managed to complete the route on the opposite bank eight months later. But that's only one way to do it; with a dedicated effort you could probably do the whole thing in one or two weeks.

Whether to escape the city for more natural surroundings, to exercise, or to learn more about the English capital’s context first-hand, this is a walk I recommend. 

London in the distance from Havering Country Park (Section 20).
Deer in Bushy Park (Section 9).

Route Details:
Length: Approx. 242km (150 miles) total. Officially divided into 24 sections, which range in length from short 5-6km strolls to day walks of 17-18km.
Access: All sections can be reached by public transport, i.e. trains or London Underground (Oyster Card accepted with one exception), or buses for more remote locations. Most have convenient places to leave or return to the route part-way, so you can split up or combine sections and tackle it however works best for you. Because it is England, always check live transport service status before travelling.

All sections contain excellent picnic opportunities and most pass pubs, cafés and/or kiosks.

The best starting point is the official TfL London LOOP website, which contains maps, route guidance and further information for each of the 24 sections (here’s Section 1 for example). But if you would like to learn more about what you are walking through, or have more detailed directions that will help when the signposting is not so good, I strongly recommend walking with a guidebook as well; I found Colin Saunders’s The London Loop (Aurum Press) helpful.

(For those who would prefer a shorter walking project closer to the city, there is also the Capital Ring, which shares the same origins but is a more manageable 126km/78 miles. Alternatively, if you prefer a more ambitious and transgressive approach to walking, have a look at what the psychogeographer Iain Sinclair did in London Orbital.)

The chalky Farthing Downs over Coulsdon, actually a piece of the North Downs projecting towards the Thames valley (Section 5).
The London Monster as confronted from the Addington Hills, Croydon (Section 4).
Wetlands in the valley of the Ingrebourne, one of the Thames’s many tributaries, near Upminster, Havering (Section 23).
A flavour of this journey’s stories and creatures follows.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

My Hong Kong Story

Hong Kong is probably the one place in the world where I felt closest to a sense of home.

That was more than twenty years ago. It was the mid-1990s, just as the curtain was coming down on more than a hundred and fifty years of British colonial rule. It was a time of tension, uncertainty, and fears for the future – which two decades on have surged back to the surface, raw and unresolved.

The British and Chinese governments had negotiated the Joint Declaration – an international treaty to return Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while guaranteeing it a high degree of autonomy. Its political, economic and legal systems and way of life were to remain unchanged for at least fifty years – ‘one country, two systems’, as proposed by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. The Hong Kong Basic Law would come into effect as its new constitution at the moment of the Handover on 1st July 1997. I arrived with four years left to go, just as the last British governor, Chris Patten, was shovelling in dramatic last-minute reforms aimed at making the electoral system more democratic – antagonising the Chinese and earning a battery of vicious epithets of which the politest was ‘sinner condemned for a thousand generations’ (千古罪).

At seven years old it would be some time yet before I absorbed all this. That may be why Hong Kong retains so special a place in my memory. It is the last place where I remember an existence at least partly free of the alienation and conflicts with human society that have defined my journeys since. After the handover I would arrive in England as a teenager and it would all go horribly wrong. Hong Kong – the last place the world seemed to make some sense.

The Hong Kong handover ceremony, 30th June - 1st July 1997 (from South China Morning Post).
An innocence? Of sorts. Though it was beyond my consciousness at the time, I lived in an extremely privileged position in Hong Kong’s colonially-defined social geography. I was the son of a British diplomat installed in a comfortable apartment in Mid-Levels, halfway up the slopes of the Peak on Hong Kong Island and largely the preserve of white people with means or in government service. The windows that made up all of the north-facing wall commanded a panoramic view across iconic Victoria Harbour – the skyscrapers of Central, the museums of Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon, and of course, at the centre of the view with its fluttering Blue Ensign, the white palatial Government House where my dad’s boss Chris lived.

Of Hong Kong’s history, socio-economic problems and broader international context I gleaned little. I had a basic awareness of course that Britain had got the territory off the Chinese a long time ago in dodgy circumstances and was now due to give it back. On a certain level this felt like justice, but it also gave people real anxieties in the wake of the 1989 Tiananamen massacre. My dad’s work occasionally brought me in contact with Chinese political dissidents and survivors of the crackdown, major characters in the struggle for a freer and more humane PRC who would leave on me a deep and lasting personal impression. Beyond that, most of it passed over my head – and in colonial bourgeois surroundings, attending an English-speaking international school in Pok Fu Lam (regularly butchered upon English tongues into ‘Pok Fulham’), it was not as though I would receive an impartial assessment of Hong Kong’s complex story, least of all the more notorious British behaviours therein.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Ramsgate to Margate, Isle of Thanet, Kent - The Waning Beacon

In the southeastern corner of England, right at the end of the Kentish peninsula, the Isle of Thanet reaches out for Europe. Whether it means to shake its hand or wring its neck is another matter.

So near to the mainland and blessed with rich alluvial soils, these fertile marshes have been farmed and settled since time immemorial and still are today. If you seek a walk in the tranquillity of nature this is not necessarily the place to go. With much of this coastline overtaken by the towns of Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate, there is little chance of having much of it to yourself.

Instead it offers an immersion in physical and cultural landscapes shaped by Thanet’s distinct historical experience: sandy coves, chalky cliffs, lighthouses, cannons, ruins, and the harbours and holiday resorts of yesteryear petering on. Replica fire beacons attest to the Kent coast’s signal fire networks of old that are thought to give Thanet its name – from the Celtic root tan-, for ‘fire’, thereafter appearing as Toliatis in Ptolemy, Tanatos in Bede, and Tenet in the Domesday Book. This is a land of chalk and tar, bladder wrack, fish and chips and pink rock candy and dark clouds over a gunmetal sea, across which successive generations of the immigrants who became the English, ensconced beneath those flickering flames, have gazed out, proud and afraid, at whence they came.

Replica fire beacon in Margate
Map courtesy of Visit Thanet

This 11km route is straightforward enough – just follow the coast. There is usually a choice between soft-sand beaches, concrete promenades, or clifftop tarmac paths. Most walking is level apart from steep climbs up or down stairs when you switch between these. Two detours are of note:
a)       After Ramsgate and before Dumpton Bay, the clifftop King George VI Memorial Park may tempt you with its woods, spacious fields, coffee stalls and Italianate glasshouse. 
b)      There is an annoying stretch after Broadstairs where people with antisocial values and too much money have seized the clifftop for their private mansions, so till it erodes and dumps them in the sea a detour inland on roads is necessary.

More detailed route guidance is available here courtesy of Kent County Council.

VERY IMPORTANT: If you intend to do any walking along the beaches, be sure to check the tide tables (here) in advance. Many of the sands go completely underwater at high tide, which is extremely dangerous if it happens while you are on them.

Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate all have train stations and connecting buses with regular services, and there are many pubs, cafés and public toilets throughout the route.