Friday, 31 January 2020

THAMES: 6) Curse of the Magna Carta

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

Friday, 17 January 2020

THAMES: 5) Cross Purposes

Today we have a tale of two towns.

Chertsey and Staines emerged for opposite reasons. One was for going to, the other for going through. Each owed this to a singular crux: in one case a house of the Christian cross, in the other a river crossing. Those structures are long gone, yet the towns they birthed stand to this day as important crossroads on the river. Add to that that one can hardly cross their paths without being made cross at the political situation, which has seriously crossed a line, and you begin to – well, that’s enough talking across them.

Although, it really did cross a line. And don’t take my word for it. In the present constituency, Runnymede and Weybridge, it was a line too far even for some individuals on the highest balconies of the party responsible.

On the electoral map we are now well into hardcore Tory Thames, blue surrounded by blue. In the December 2019 election they changed their minion in parliament regardless. This was because up till then it happened to be former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. It isn’t anymore.

Chertsey Bridge is approximately the same colour as Philip Hammond’s lugubriousness.
Hammond controlled this country’s treasury during some of the cruellest years of the Tory austerity programme and must take his share of responsibility for its dire human rights abuses. Yet relatively speaking, he was a moderate: more concerned with outcomes – however poorly he assessed them – than ideological zeal, preferring to deal in arguments rather than slogans. Ultimately this found expression in a stubborn resistance to a hard Brexit which turned him into a hate figure for the Brexit-rapture demagogues who clawed their way to power under Boris Johnson. At the crunch, Hammond was one of twenty-one Tory MPs expelled from the parliamentary Conservative Party, some of its grandest veterans among them, for voting against Johnson’s Brexit deal. Like many other conservatives he has since wandered into the political wilderness, no longer at home in a party he believes has left him.

It is one of the many subplots of England’s present crisis, and one which will most trouble the hearts of old Tory heartlands like this. The death of English conservatism, a tradition devoured by its own children. It always had its grievous flaws and made terrible mistakes. It had its part in the worst atrocities of industrial exploitation and colonial racism. But somewhere in there was also a more scrupulous dogs-and-meadows-and-fireplaces conservatism that meant something better than violence against dissidents and minorities. An honest and venerable tradition existed, born from legitimate shock at the carnage of the civil wars and the French Revolution, whose instinct was to place a steadying hand of caution on the shoulder of swift and hot-headed change; that enjoyed discussing disagreements over tea and earnestly sought to learn from them; that did not beat its chest about the wonders of industry and empire, but made pragmatic use of those systems to try to do good with their own little bits of them. A conservatism, that is, with integrity in its bones – integrity which to the Brexit revolutionaries, in their contempt for truth and hatred of dissent, has been totally indigestible. Those bones, spat out with dripping conceit, are all that remain of the English conservative tradition: scattered, lost, with a body no longer, washed away on the river.

Today’s direction of travel: the view north atop Chertsey Bridge.

But that is what the river does. To the people who live on its floodplain, it brings possibilities and it takes them away. But it does not choose from them. Only they, the English and their predecessors and successors, can do that. Let’s look at a few they did.

Start: Chertsey Bridge (nearest station: Chertsey)
End: Staines Bridge (nearest station: Staines)
Length: 6.4km/4 miles
Location: Surrey – Borough of Runnymede, Borough of Spelthorne

Topics: Chertsey Abbey, Laleham and the Earls of Lucan, the Penton Hook, Staines

Thursday, 9 January 2020

THAMES: 4) Into the Valley of Imagination

Dawn of a new year, and a new phase. Our journey up the Thames’s central valley begins here, and like the future of its people, the first light of 2020 finds it lost in fog.

The triumph of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party (a.k.a. the Tories) in the December 2019 general election presents the English people with a new phase in their own journey. Our exploration began with them mired in a protracted struggle over whether to leave the European Union – ‘Brexit’. As of now, Brexit is secondary. The new government heralds not only the triumph of the Brexit movement’s most fanatical high priests but a far more ambitious project of cultural transformation, whose values have manifested over this decade in the Tories’ austerity and hostile environment policies – or to call them by their proper names, social and ethnic cleansing. 

Swans seek their breakfast on the river below Kingston Bridge, shielded by fog from the world of human folly.
No secret was made of these leaders’ admiration for the darkest demons of twentieth-century nationalism, whose violences of gender, race and class, and contempt for the very concept of truth, have burst back out through the crust of the Earth in so many places worldwide. The English saw what they stood for. They chose it anyway.

The most violent consequences will fall on those who did not choose it, who did not consent, and this will bury once and for all the English’s claims to a democratic polity. As for those who did select this: they have chosen their fate, and will learn the cost when the lights at the end of their tunnel turn out to be the fires of hell.

The river, which precedes and outlasts their mistakes, shall guard the true light in the meantime.
As for their organised resistance, the opposition Labour Party crumbled dramatically in England’s fallen industrial heartlands to the north as its traditional working-class supporters deserted what they saw as its arrogant and complacent leadership. Here on the Thames, that world could not feel further away. The Thames valley, so the stereotype goes, is the winding spine of England’s protected southeast: the lounging, cosseted, corpulent body of the octopus which sucks the rest of the country dry. Monopolised by some of the most privileged sections of English society, these provinces are some of the wealthiest in the country and have returned a nigh-unbroken ocean of Tory blue in election map after election map, disturbed only by the occasional red or yellow blip in headstrong urban centres like Reading and Oxford.

They include the domains of some of the Tory Cabinet's most absurdly impervious figureheads of mediocrity. Beyond Kingston we must cross the constituency of Esher and Walton, then Spelthorne, respectively the lairs of foreign minister Dominic Raab and business minister Kwasi Kwarteng, two of the most accomplished performers in the vacuous trolling that has become the signature of Tory politics. In spite of this both were returned comfortably in the election, the former in the face of a committed challenge from his opponents, the latter by an overwhelming 20,000-vote majority.

That speaks foreboding things about the populations we are about to traverse. The crimes of Boris Johnson’s Tories – whose ideologies seek and mock the death of people like myself, and whose abuses have brought hideous suffering to my friends in marginalised communities – make it discomforting to venture into strongholds of such evil. How uneasy lurks the prospect of accepting its populace as they walk past, as though their murderous voting behaviour can be excused? How irrefusable the instinct to hold them to immediate account right there on the towpath one by one?

If they are to be spared it then let it be out of respect for the river itself. It is above their sordid politics, does not deserve to be poisoned by having them pushed in it, and might yet have important stories to tell about just what twisted things had to happen in order that a nation, any nation, could put itself in so small-spirited and shameful a position.

Today's section is broad, so click if you want a better view.
After all, what can explain the middle Thames’s unyielding grasp on the neck of English society if not some sturdy historic roots? At a glance, these appear as varied in shape and texture as they are deep. From the constitutional totems of Kingston and Runnymede to the elite scholastic keeps of Oxford and Eton, from the commerce of rich monasteries and industrial boomtowns like Reading to the warlords’ big damn walls at Hampton Court and Windsor Castle, the wealth and power of this valley is as much in its stories as in its physical stuff – as much in emotion and imagination as in armies and bank accounts.

The armies and bank accounts give them power, but it is the stories that have turned that into structures of power. Resisting siege after siege from their critics and passing it down from one generation to the next, these bastions on the river guard their power well. They are the Privilege Forts of the central Thames valley, and a notebook, camera and pair of walking boots might not enough to topple them. Nonetheless, England’s redeeming characters will continue to siege them, and can only liberate their treasures on an understanding of how they came to be what they are, their habits and assumptions, their strengths and weaknesses. On this account, it might be hoped, this passage could one day be of some use.

Start: Kingston Bridge (nearest station: Kingston)
End: Chertsey Bridge (nearest station: Chertsey)
Length: 17.7km/11 miles
Location: Greater London – Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, Borough of Richmond upon Thames; Surrey – Borough of Elmbridge, Borough of Spelthorne, Borough of Runnymede

Topics: Kingston upon Thames and the emergence of England, Surbiton, punting in Thames Ditton, Hampton Court, Molesey and the waterworks, Sunbury and Walton, the Shepperton and Weybridge Ferry