Once upon a time two reptiles sat by the river. One was a lizard which could open great frills around its head to appear much larger than it was. The other was a chameleon, constantly changing its colours to match its surroundings.
So might have opened Rudyard Kipling, the poet of empire, who had quite a fondness for animal fables. Instead, when he made his contribution to the legend of the riverbanks ahead in 1922, his preferred imagery was less animal, more animist:
And still when Mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on English ways
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
To which we might reply: well go on then?
|Runnymede. Lots of mud, but no shudder. Was Kipling’s idea of English ways the same as the Thames’s?|
Seventy-five years later, in 1997, I arrived to find an England rapt in triumphalist swagger. The Soviet Union had fallen. A fresh-faced Tony Blair had just swept to power. They had won. Their stories had won. They had won history.
To any suggestion that this country had serious problems, let alone that it was not as free and democratic as it claimed to be, the standard response was mocking hostility. The scorn for dissent and difference here alienated me even before its deeper structural cruelties, especially of gender, made that alienation catastrophic over the years to follow.
And then that history burst from the grave and clamped its bloodied hands round their necks on 9/11. Real history had kept going, indifferent to their myths, and in their reverie it totally blindsided them. It then unleased two of the most distressing episodes in England’s modern history, and these, at last, have shaken the general population’s confidence to its roots.
One was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No-one who lived through that here will have forgotten the ugliness it brought down on the English social atmosphere (which nevertheless pales before what it did to Iraqis). The other is the unfinished Brexit-austerity-racism nightmare of the 2010s, whose most potent symbol is the blistering eruption of Grenfell Tower, a funeral pyre of something which, for its absence, the English psyche now unravels. The least that can be said coming out of these bloodbaths is that the gulf between England’s self-congratulatory myth of democracy and human rights on the one hand, and its inveterate tendencies to casual and mean-spirited violence on the other, appears to trouble far more of its people than it did at the turn of the millennium.
|North from Staines Bridge to a land of legends. How much has this view changed in those twenty years? How much in eight hundred?|
I didn’t have to wait twenty years for that. In 1997 my instruction in the gap between myth and reality was immediate, traumatic, and lasting. Entering an English boys’ school brought me in contact not with accountable leaders but a bristling-moustached, foam-at-the-mouth adult authoritarianism the likes of whose bellowing arrogance I had never encountered, even in a far less likely bastion of democracy, colonial Hong Kong. And the pupils, far from being a courteous and enlightened citizenry that knew its way round a social contract, exhibited instead a barbarism that was hysterical, violent and sometimes plain racist, eagerly following their scripts in that divine-right-of-adults diorama. If it was all to meld into a single message, it would have been this: We are a democracy, so STFU.
In that shock and turmoil one image has never left my memory. The back wall of the history classroom, packed floor to ceiling with parchments. Each was brown with a red wax seal, and though the handwriting varied, each’s text began, in huge capital letters, with the words: ‘JOHN, BY THE GRACE OF GOD, KING OF ENGLAND…’ before the text size diminished to illegibility.
English history was a morass to me. I had had next to no exposure to it and its contents were totally foreign. Kings with weird numbers after their names instead of Chris Patten; cryptic symbols everywhere like lions (but they don’t have any?) and fleur-de-lis (but they don’t like France?); important people named after places they had nothing to do with and weren’t pronounced how they were spelt, and endless random wars for no sensible reason. I went by the English name John then – were those suspicious documents directed at me? What would I want with the grace of their god? My history teacher’s name was also John. Was this about plastering his authority all over the wall, revering him as no less than their king?
That wall of charters, unexplained and ever-present, loomed over two years of English history lessons which, for lack of foundation and context, left me lost at sea. It was only much later that I pieced together what it was about. It was what they had studied the previous year, which I had missed on the other side of the world. It was the foundation. And the foundation revolved around a single document, one they deemed so important that they got each boy to re-create his own, dunk it in some yellowy-brown chemical to make it look historic, then hoist it high with the others so as to dominate the visual experience of the history classroom through all the centuries of material that followed.
Eventually I managed to put a name to it. Magna Carta. In English imagination, possibly the greatest story of all – the key word, of course, being imagination.
|The Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede.|
There are facts, and there is myth. Both matter in history. In this particular history, the myth has mattered a hundred times more.
But charters are made of paper, and paper, real or mythic, has two sides. The English’s claims to democracy and rule of law are writ on the sunlit side. How often do they look on the shadowed side? They do not – because it screams. It screams a racial exceptionalism which wetted the chops of undying English authoritarianism and drove it on a genocidal rampage across the Earth. They do not look, because it still burns their eyes.
Oh yes. Today’s journey through the meadows where Magna Carta was verbally agreed (not signed – signatures as a binding instrument came much later) shall not be the same pilgrimage made by a neverending crocodile of approved storytellers, excited lawyers and awestruck schoolchildren. My path is the dark path and here it leads through the underworld. Come, if you dare face a reckoning with the Runnymede Horror.
|Staines Bridge in the light of an especially cold winter morning. Staines’s significance as a ford town as explored in the previous section will be of continued importance.|
|Oh, and there is also a great big fortress called Windsor Castle. That might be important.|
Start: Staines Bridge (nearest station: Staines)
End: Windsor Bridge (nearest stations: Windsor and Eton Riverside; Windsor and Eton Central)
Length: 12km/7.5 miles
Location: Surrey – Borough of Runnymede; Berkshire – Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead
Topics: The Magna Carta – history and mythology in Runnymede and Dark Runnymede; Old Windsor, Datchet, Windsor Castle, the Charter of the Forest