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)