Friday, 23 July 2021

THAMES: 12) The Gap in the Chalk

A hundred million years ago, England didn’t exist.
 
Nor for all but the latest sliver of the ninety-nine million years that followed, for that matter.
 
What about the land they now called England? That existed, in a manner of speaking. But it had no humans yet, and so no names based on imaginary lines on maps or in minds. It also sat about in tropical latitudes some thousand miles from where it is now. It had dinosaurs. When it wasn’t underwater – which much of the time it was.
 
And while it was underwater, it had something else: extremely tiny planktons which, when they died, left behind extremely tiny calcium carbonate shells. There were a lot of them. More than forty million years’ worth in fact. And that’s why these extremely tiny creatures are among the most extremely important things to the people of what is now southern England.
 
They’re standing on them.
  
This stuff. Chalk.
Standing on them physically, but also mentally. The English like standing on these planktons’ contributions. It makes them feel English. Be it rolling downs like the Chiltern Hills or the soaring cliffs of Dover and Beachy Head, chalk is a nigh-obligatory feature in the green-and-pleasant landscapes of their national imagination.
 
The low ridge of the Chilterns, gliding down to the gap where the river runs through the chalk.
The cliffs are ironic. Within that imagination their chalk is a barrier, a natural wall against the inferior barbarian hordes on the European mainland. In reality the chalk does the opposite. Its province of deposits does not separate but connects England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands over a timespan for much of which the island of Britain was no island at all but a European peninsula. The Dover cliffs are not a wall, but a bridge beneath the Channel to the Alabaster Coast of Normandy. It’s the same chalk.
 
Chalk – that is the concern of today’s length of river. It is through the outer arms of this Cretaceous (literally, chalky) realm that the river cuts down to Reading and the comparatively recent sands and clays of the London Basin. And having followed the water up that basin, it is time to cross into a more ancient land: the Jurassic reaches of Oxford, and in their midst, the river’s origins in Cotswold limestone.
 
The view upstream from the Pangbourne-Whitchurch toll bridge, from where we set out today.
The river created this passage itself. Later it would prove important to the human immigrants by funnelling their boats, roads and railways through its narrow corridor. And so the corridor sprouted a pair of villages: Goring on one side, Streatley on the other. From the former comes their present name for this gap in the chalk: the Goring Gap.
 
The river a little downstream of the Goring Gap. For all the chalk’s geological significance you can only draw it out so far for dramatic effect because its hills aren’t actually all that high. There’ll be no breathtaking scenes of the Thames gushing through precipitous canyons. There’ll be plenty of grass though. And cows.
 
Start: Whitchurch Bridge (nearest station: Pangbourne)
End: Goring Bridge (nearest station: Goring and Streatley)
Length: 6.4km/4 miles
Location: Oxfordshire – South Oxfordshire
 
Topics: Whitchurch, Hartslock Wood, Gatehampton, Goring, and the geology of the Thames
 

Thursday, 1 July 2021

THAMES: 11) Middle Margins


Today is more or less this.
 
After the town at the centre of things, we come to an in-betweeny space where not much seems to happen. There are fields. Ducks. Overhead cables. It’s quiet back here.
 
Geese on the banks of Rivermead Park, West Reading.
The river near Pangbourne. Railways, pylons and other infrastructure crisscross this backstage space for Reading and its surrounding settlements.
And yet, Reading’s upstream outskirts herald a significant transition in the course of the river.
 
The central Thames thus far has been a procession of castles and palaces, mansions and monasteries, elite schools and sports facilities and sprawling land-grabs by the monied obscene. The Privilege Forts of the English south line up along their valley of imagination: a furnace-belt of willows and glistening water, insulated from its country’s sordid realities by its fortress-walls of inherited wealth as it roars in the manufacture of narratives of high-caste white Englishness.
 
As we have seen, the hammering from these foundries is loud and relentless. Theirs are the stories they want the whole nation to hear.
 
And then, on the far side of Reading – they fade.
 

The upper-middle Thames dispenses with the battlements, searchlights and megaphones. In their place unfurl rolling lowlands, spread with farms and dotted with small villages through which the river comes gliding. Some of these settlements are historic, ancient even, while their surroundings continue to supply the green-and-pleasant backdrop to the English national reverie. Yet now the volume is dialled right down. These settlements merely speak their stories, rather than shout them – except, of course, for one of the loftiest Privilege Forts of all, which waits at the end of this sequence in a certain city known as Oxford.
 
But there is a more important transition beneath that. Literally.


Oxford sits in a basin whose clay is geologically distinct from that of the lower valley. To push north on this island is as to delve deeper in time. Where London’s surface clay is young – that is, Cenozoic, about 50 million years old – Oxford’s goes back some 100 million years further to the Late Jurassic period. And through the space and time in between runs an outer arm of the great network of Late Cretaceous chalk deposits (from c.65-95 million years ago) which stretch across southern England and northwest Europe – and whose separation, of course, is wholly imaginary.
 
One segment of that arm is well familiar by now. The chalk ridge of the Chiltern Hills has overlooked the north bank all the way from Marlow.
This chalk has dramatically reshaped both the landscape itself and its imagery in English culture, and among those effects have been significant changes to the river’s course. There was a time the Thames pushed straight east into the North Sea. But finding its way blocked during the glaciations of the most recent ice age, it cut a gap through the relatively permeable chalk and has since skewed down through the London Basin instead.
 
It is through this gap that we now pursue it, with a better look at this realest of deep-history in the next section. For today the goal is the foot of that gap, where the river emerges between the villages of Pangbourne and Whitchurch.
 
Thames Water HQ, with its sinister spiral stairs in transparent tubes, hulks over the river at Reading Bridge where today’s progress begins.
 
Start: Reading Bridge (nearest station: Reading)
End: Whitchurch Bridge (nearest station: Pangbourne)
Length: 11.2km/7 miles
Location: Oxfordshire – South Oxfordshire; Berkshire – Borough of Reading, West Berkshire District
 
Topics: West Reading suburbs, Purley, Pangbourne – shifting satellite settlements on the edge-of-centre


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 Bridge (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.