Her: Opening section to a new novel by Matt Wingett

Love.

Am I actually glowing, or is that a trick of the light? Is this really love? Really? I mean, what do I actually know about it? She laughs gleefully. – Except – I’m in it!

Jo Parris stands ecstatic and naked before a mirror, a sensation rising in her core as if someone has reached down and benignly electrified her insides. Gorgeous-beautiful-ache happy-delirium bursting-joy-pain. This is it all right. The real thing.

The early summer air is hot around her. Even at this time of day, when the shadows are cast on the ground by the red light of dawn, she feels so hot her skin might catch fire. Glorious morning light.

"Her" - cover art

“I’m home,” she says in a whisper, stepping to her bedroom’s sash window, through whose mouth cooler morning air kisses her skin.

Sol, the old currant bun, Helios, Starfire, shaking out his bedhead, she thinks, as he bounces a shaft against a car window and lights her up: a young woman exultant in a town where she only ever expected to feel marooned. She revels in the spotlight, picked out by the sungod, radiance washing through her.

Love’s like catching fire. It burns. Weird.

A passing gull dims the dazzle a moment and she recollects the meeting scheduled for later that day. A cloud of dismay dims her mood.

What will Aunt G say?

Her question to herself refers to her secret (because, yes, I have a secret!, she tells herself excitedly). Yet, today, even for Aunt G and her disapproval she feels indulgent – as if she might forgive her former attempts to shape her life and lead it in the old woman’s preferred direction –

I don’t know why, Jo puzzles to herself. – All her weirdness… Over all these years… Fuck that! This time, it’s different. He’s my secret. No answers to prying questions, no breathless revelations about relationships.

Her gut agrees – a compass-needle-north feeling that points to her resolve –

I’ll handle her. She shakes off the thought and soaks up the view from her first floor flat: green of common, leaves of palms, elms neat-queued beside a path first laid for holidaymakers when seaside was a novelty of mass transportation. Distant: a low castle, built in the time of one Henry or other. Beyond, unseen from her position, a blue margin, whose saline presence fills her sinuses.

The sea, the sea. She half-consciously registers it. Magic pool of life. Home of possibilities. Bucking road to all compass points. All life comes through this town she hugs her arms to herself and lowers her giddy head, breathing it all in as if she wants to contain the world, right here, right now. Life is fucking ‘A’.

Movement behind her – snorted breath. Pirouetting with dizzy delight to the source of her reverie, she wonders, – is he waking up!?

Earlier, before slipping excitedly from her bed, she lay for half an hour, transfixed, torn between waking him and just watching. Beautiful man. My secret.

Thus her excited turn about her bedroom – a space once a Victorian family’s living room; now, where once resided the primmery of Imperial life, her hot lover snores abed. She draws him in through her eyes. Still asleep, she registers, hoping his dreams are hooking him to the surface – and if not, they’re of her.

She stretches. Arms sideways, bracing invisible pillars; arches her neck. Yawns.

With him she is all herself. An innocent in the forest who looks up, breathless at the world around her, and loves it for what it is, knowing she is loved in return.

Maybe not actually innocent, she thinks, because he has been the source of seriously good sex from day one, – And it only gets better – she tells herself as she feels the full stretch.

Satisfactorily yawned out, she drops her arms and relaxes her shoulders.

I hated it here, she tells herself in wonder. Till two weeks ago. Hated.

She rests her elbow on her navel and plants chin on palm to think a moment. Considers The Shrine on the chest of drawers – a little resident goddess standing immobile, watching them both.

“It all changed with You,” she whispers to Her, half-playfully reverent. The target of her gratitude is a carved figure in a homemade leaf bower. A doll of exotic origin. The one she calls Her.

Jo feels the same pull she felt the first day she found Her. Steps over to Her. Imagines She is sentient – somehow watching the scene in the room.

Now Jo lifts Her. Near-religious tenderness. Eyes Her wooden face – my breath is tremoring!? – As if magic will happen!? Of course it does not, though a little bit of Jo thinks it could.

She holds Her a while longer, replaces Her on the chest of drawers, then walks back to the bed and looks down on the man she is in love – or at least in lust – with.

Still asleep. Breathing his dreams through his mouth – can I get an idea of what they are? They smell sweet.

She scents his sweat, too, the tang of last night’s sex. Jumbled sensations flash through her mind – and she remembers: exhausted, falling into black sleep together, winding around each others’ dreams, smell of fellow human, warmth of skin. This morning, her brief and by now familiar flash of surprise and joy when waking to find – Yes! he is real.

She takes a breath as all these thoughts wash over her, reaching a conclusion as she stretches her arm to wake him –

Yes. I’m in love!

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Good Night, Knight And Lee, Southsea.

As the retail ritual of closing up, bending down to secure the floor bolt then reaching up for the top bolt on the double doors of Knight and Lee was enacted for the last time at 5pm on July 13th 2019, a crowd of around 50 middle-aged, middle-class shoppers suddenly looked as if their spiritual heartland had been nuked.

The scene was made both more poignant and absurd as it came at the end of a set sung to the collected mourners by Rockchoir.com, which had included classics such as (ironically enough) I’m Still Standing, a mournful version of Only You and the spiritual hope of Hallejujah. It was (as it should have been) like a religious service in commemoration of a departed loved one.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sad to see Knight and Lee go from Palmerston Road. Its stalwart service to the local community is well known. Its position in the corner of Palmerston Road and Clarendon Road, opposite the soon-to-close Debenhams that was once Handley’s Department Store together created a presence – a bit like the great statues in the Lord of the Rings as the Fellowship arrives in Gondor. These two shops did not announce to invading hordes “You shall not pass”, but were sentinels guarding a near-lost civilization called High Street Retail.

Yet the loss of this aspect of civilization at least in part lies at the feet of these very retailers.

Yes, Amazon most definitely enjoys an unfair advantage in cyberspace – not having to pay the same levels of staff, able to operate out of warehouses with considerably lower business rates, not needing to use expensive space to put items on display – and perhaps most importantly for Amazon, being able to avoid paying tax, and thus giving absolutely NOTHING back to local communities.

But Amazon’s advantage to one side, there is also a hard lesson retailers have failed to learn. That lesson is you can’t out-Amazon Amazon. You have to offer something different from what Amazon offers. And let’s face it, what DOES Amazon offer? The answer is stark – it offers cheapness and fast delivery with no fuss.

The High Street was never going to be able to compete on those terms of mass storage, immense ordering power and wafer-thin bottom lines that empower Amazon, and what it failed to do was change.

In a world in which more and more people are shopping online, we are equally seeing a world in which there is less and less face-to-face human interaction, and more and more isolation. Anxiety, societal dysfunction, depression, these are all symptoms of society no longer fitting together and functioning properly. That isolation has led to record levels of suicides. Human beings are social creatures. We may not acknowledge it, but we need people. The reality is, the chat in the Post Office or outside the butcher of the old days was as much a part of the shopping experience as the retail high shoppers used to get in the 1980s laden with designer goods on their ways home from Oxford Street – and probably still do at Westfield, Oxford Street, Gunwharf and other destination shopping complexes. But those are different creatures from the town High Street, that now needs to find its own model.

It’s no surprise that businesses that are thriving on the High Street are classically those businesses that focus on uplifting vibes.

Coffee houses where people meet, barbers, hairdressers and nail bars where people can chat – and charity shops where you can buy stuff you just can’t get anywhere else and which catch your eye and leave you feeling clever for being the one who snapped the bargain – all these have at their hearts the same thing: good feelings.

What retailers like Knight and Lee need to learn is that in a world which is increasingly global we need to offer locally those things the globalist offer can’t give.

That means face-to-face contact in a real location with real people. In fact, the answer to globalism is that old word localism – though I don’t mean it in the David Cameron context of Big Society or any other thing that has the initials B.S.

Portsmouth and Southsea are actually extremely well placed to offer that approach to locals and visitors alike.

We are, after all, fiercely proud of our local identity. I’ve often been told by visitors that Portsmouth has a sense of self in a way many other English towns don’t, whose High Streets have already been cloned into mini faceless shopping streets that are now on their last legs. To counter the bland flavours and products made in China that play the numbers game, making tiny profits per transaction from clone products that sell to billions, we in Portsmouth need to go the other way. To recognize our uniqueness and make that our selling point.

So, good luck to Knight and Lee and its staff. I am sorry to see you go. Let’s take our hats off to the service you provided. But now it’s time to start taking our lives back from the globalists who are shaping our lives. Not through silly nationalist notions, because globalisation isn’t going to go away – that’s just not a possibility unless you have in mind dismantling the internet and disinventing the jet engine – but by going local and making a celebration of who we are and our uniqueness – as a counterbalance to ever-present globalism – to thus give people the choice and the rounded experience they want and need as they go down to the marketplace.

Time to build community pride and offer world class products and experiences you can’t get elsewhere. We already have so many of them in Portsmouth. The Dockyard is an extraordinary world class experience. The Solent Forts are unique. Businesses such as the Portsmouth Distillery are offering something truly special. The Victorious Festival, the way we did D-Day 75 despite all that interference from Washington in the planning – these are the things we should be looking for to show the way. There are so many others – the list is very long of big and small, local businesses offering something special, right on our doorsteps. We do great things here, and they are uniquely ours and this is what we should be focusing on.

Because, unlike on Amazon, people ain’t going to get THAT Pompey vibe anywhere else. Our local identity – that is our greatest asset.

RIP Knight and Lee.

Viva Pompey.

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Saying no – when politeness fails

When someone won’t take no politely, what do you do? Earlier this year I had a conversation with a man on other business who said that he would like to hire me as a writer. That’s fine, I do that sort of thing, write things for people and help them express themselves. I’ve worked ghostwriting books and letters, edited emails, all sorts of things.

But this older man had an obsession, as I realised. He told me that he had been badly treated and, as he put it, wrongly accused of paedophilia, and had been beaten up by a social worker when he was at his lowest. It was a pretty shocking story, if it were true. And it had all happened, he told me, in Northern Ireland in the 1950s.

He wanted it written down for the world to see. At this point I became uneasy. I understand the terrible sense of grievance that can occur in someone when they don’t express themselves – but at the same time, what did he hope to achieve? Did he really think the world was interested in what happened to him when a young man? Did he really think he was going to go around accusing people in written form in order to feed a half-century-old grudge? And more importantly, did I want to be involved in this?

I worked to put him off at the time. I warned him that he would end up in the middle of libel actions if he published a book naming names without evidence. He seemed to accept that.

Then just today he came back to me. He had tried over the last few months to contact me, and I was so busy that he was not a priority. But today, I called him back. The conversation went along these lines:

“I’m sorry I haven’t replied to you earlier, but I have been very busy. But if it is something to do with writing your biography, it’s not something I’m interested in doing, thank you.”

“Well, it’s not to do with my biography. It’s on something different. Could we meet for lunch today?”

“I’m sorry, I’m really busy, that’s just not possible. If it’s a different job, maybe we could meet in the New Year.”

“You see, I’ve read your book. Some of it is very good…” (Ah, how well he knows how to woo an author’s ego.) “And I want someone who can write me a letter.”

“I see,” I said. “Go on.”

“I want to be able to put it into good English so that I can tell some people some home truths.”

“Ah, I’m sorry. But if you want to spread ill will in a world that is already full of it, please, don’t include me in it.”

“It’s nothing litigious. I just need a letter that will tell a few home truths to the people who did me wrong.”

“Look, I understand how unexpressed anger can make you feel a deep sense of grievance, and it can eat you up, but this is not something I’m interested in being part of.”

“No, you see, the head of the Salvation Army thought it was scandalous, the way I was treated…”

And so he pushed on. My real thought was, what did he hope to gain from this? If these people he was involved with are as hard-hearted as he says, a letter will do nothing. Indeed, it would quite easily start a cycle of anger that would just make things worse for him. The thing I’ve come to realise is there is no objective truth in these sorts of matters. Just motives and misunderstandings and self-preservation and exertions of power and ego. There is no higher court of appeal. The world is a bloody mess, and it’s only when events get momentous enough or criminal enough that an attempt at objectivity occurs. And that is usually woefully inadequate.

But how to explain that to this obessive man?

I have a three strike rule, and he had now had his three strikes. So, my tone hardened.

“Look,” I said. “I’ve tried to be polite to you, but that’s clearly not worked. I don’t want to be involved in your grievances and your grudges. Do you understand? I don’t want to get mixed up in your shit!”

There was silence for a moment. Then he said. “Yes.”

“Thank you. Goodbye!”

And there it is. Sometimes being polite just won’t cut it. I don’t know what it is with older people that won’t get the message, but I seem to encounter a lot of them. Remember. If you are asked to work for someone, be aware of whether you want the job. Don’t let them browbeat you. It’s your life after all.

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Portsmouth: Be Inspired

As some of you may know, one of the things I try to do with writers is inspire them to get on and write, to support them when I can and to pass on the gift of encouragement and inspiration when I can. I was reminded earlier this week of times I have done that in the past – and I will always try to do it in the future.

One of the things that I’ve really found psychologically helpful is knowing that, actually, my home town has produced the most extraordinary writers over the years. It’s very easy, especially in a town like Portsmouth that on the surface can appear bleak and provincial to start thinking “No one from this town has really made it in writing”. To think so would be wrong, of course, but the psychological effect of such thinking is to hold you back. That’s why, sometimes you need to be reminded of the counter-examples.

It’s noted that before Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile, it was generally considered an impossibility that anyone would break that record. Afterwards, when the counter-example was given and the psychological boost had been given to runners, records tumbled in quick succession. A new threshold had been set. The paradigm for the possible had been altered.

A little while ago I was selling my books at a market stall, and someone pointed to my latest. With a sneer and a sarcastic grin they said: “To be honest, ‘Portsmouth A Literary And Pictorial Tour’, must be very small. It’s the literary part. Surely any book with ‘Literary’ and ‘Portsmouth’ in the title is going to be super thin.”

Of course, I set this person right, telling her about Conan Doyle, Dickens, H G Wells, Kipling, Jane Austen, Wodehouse, C J Sansom, Jonathan Meades, William Cowper, Olivia Manning, Jean Rhys, Neil Gaiman and numerous other major authors who had either grown up here, or had something to say about the town. It surprised her, I think. And it changed her beliefs.

I say it to you, too, as writers who sometimes may doubt their abilities or their purpose: Portsmouth has already produced four of the greatest writers of the Victorian era, produced some of the greats of the 20th Century and (I am sure) is poised to do more with the 21st. You can be part of that future history, too.

We all deserve to feel good about where we’re from, and we deserve to draw inspiration from success stories to feed us on our own journey. So I thought, in case you didn’t know about it, that I would let you know that’s part of why I wrote my book.

Portsmouth, A Literary and Pictorial Tour celebrates this island city’s rich and diverse literary heritage, but more than that, it asks you to imagine that perhaps one day, you will be in future editions.

In fact, some of you already are in this one, alongside those famous greats, some of whom I’ve named above. So, as Christmas and the New Year come along, I wish for all of you to have the success you deserve in the coming years and months.

Merry Christmas all.

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Are we entering the New Dark Ages?

Today, I compare the fall of Rome and the rise of what used to be called the Dark Ages, and what’s going on in Europe today, to see if there are parallels and if we can understand our modern age a little better by reference to this period of upheaval in our past.

First, I should outline where I see us, now. What the EU provides us, we take for granted, so much is it engrained in our modern world view. The great successes of the West in the last 70 years can be quickly listed. They are co-operation, peace and prosperity, achieved after great loss of life and crippling expense which led to enhanced cooperation through sharing resources and pooling national effort. The flowers of this cooperation are supranational organisations such as NATO, the UN and of course, the EU.

Recent revelations about interference in European and US elections and in the Brexit referendum are beginning to uncover the shadowy network of agitators and corrupt businessmen aided by Russia who see such institutions as their enemy. It is no coincidence that Trump has criticised each, alongside other voices of the far right, such as Farage, Banks, etc, who remain instinctively tribal in their world views.

How have so many in the West forgotten that these organisations, though far from perfect, have helped maintain peace? The answer in part is that the generation who fought in the last war has gone, and their children (many of my generation) conceitedly believe that war and division could not happen again. Ironically, they believe it because there has been peace thanks to the very structures they now criticise – those supranational cooperative bodies, such as the European Union. When you point this out, they don’t believe it.

As a result, over the last decade, we have seen the rise of the far right in the UK, interference in the Brexit vote, the election of Trump, the popularity of Orban in Hungary and agitators such as Geert Wilders and Beppo Grillo rise to prominence. There has even been a rise of the far right in Germany, one of the great defenders of pan-Europeanism. The danger is that such forces will fracture Western civilisation, turning it away from cooperation, and making it intolerant, inward-looking, xenophobic and protective of national interests over supranational ones. This desire for protection will make our country and those we are newly competing against rather than cooperating with, weaker. The winners will be big business and the mafiocracy in Russia.

With the death of those people who directly experienced the last great upheaval in Europe, the Second World War, history has been replaced by mythology. Instead of remembering that Britain relied on America, Russia and numerous European soldiers, agents and resistance fighters to prevail – all working together to ensure mutual survival – the post-War generation has grown up with the idea of British exceptionalism – a belief that somehow Britain doesn’t conform to and shouldn’t be constrained by international standards. In war, this little island wins against impossible odds (a false view, considering that Britain had the world’s largest Empire during this period), and it doesn’t have to follow the norms of peaceful international diplomacy. Much of this goes back to a pre-war view, when the Empire could “resolve” disputes with gunboats.

Whether this historical interpretation of Britain is realistic or not, in the modern world, the UK is not an exception. It is a country among countries of more or less equal standing.

Generation Brexit, however, is locked in the old paradigm of Empire. Many believe there was something benign about the British Empire. At the same time they accuse the EU of being an Empire, which they say is a bad thing in principle. None note any cognitive dissonance in these two views.

So we see the fracturing of the West, and the rise of new, localised power bases, some political, some business-related.

Is there a precedent in history?

Perhaps.

I have lately been drawn to study parallels in the Early Middle Ages after the collapse of Rome. This period used to be called the Dark Ages, and though it is now deeply unfashionable as a term, it is perhaps accurate to use it when we talk about parallels with the modern day.

I should add that I am not by any means defending the principle of Empire here, nor am I directly comparing the EU with the Roman Empire, except on the broadest terms, that there was a pan-European administration in place during its existence.

As the Roman Empire came under stress from marauders from the 3rd Cenury on, its finely honed administrative structures adjusted to the new reality. Central control was lost. Yet the administrators continued on. These administrators comprised a cadre of selected officials who held the Roman Empire together. The Comes Palatinus was one such type of civil servant, who looked for some form of political continuity.

In the course of the various waves of invasion by successive tribes who broke the communication lines to and power of Rome, the Comes devolved from a selected regional administrator answerable to Rome to become a type of self-governing landed gentry appointed by the local king.

Meanwhile, the federates and buccellari who worked on the land were drawn to their local Comes for security in the face of so much upheaval. The estate of the Comes became the localised centre of power. In order to enjoy the protection of the Comes, the workers ceded their rights in the name of security, working essentially as slaves tied to a local magnate. The federates were former soldiers in the Roman Imperial Army who had claimed land in retirement, and also offered military service to the Comes. Thus a new and specific power relationship arose in Europe which will be familiar to us today, since this was the start of the European aristocracy.

The French word for Comes is Comte, meaning Count. These newly-created counts now began to bequeath their estates to their children, and so the hereditary principle saw powerful aristocratic families ruling over a serfdom. All this came from the collapse of  centralised power.

For centuries the counts sat alongside the newly-arrived Gothic, Visigothic, Vandal, Frankish and other kings, who took on the original Comes to continue regional administration after they seized power. Even as late as the 11th Century, there were aristocrats in Europe who claimed descent from Roman Senators of the Sixth Century CE. Thanks to the hereditary principle, their families were ensconced in local centres of power across Europe, styling themselves as Princes, petty kings, Barons and other such titles, alongside their barbarian overlords.

In all of this grabbing of power during upheaval, the common man suffered. Feudalism was born – a strict suppression of the labouring classes and a creation of a rigid, insurmountable hierarchy designed to make the rich richer at the expense of the poor.

So, are there parallels to be drawn with what’s happening in the modern world?

Some, yes. If Europe falls into disarray, expect corporations to create new centres of influence and power. Just as the Comes class claimed areas of Europe that became their personal fiefdoms when central power was weakened, big business will pick off aspects of the State. Businesses are already interfering in democracy, hollowing it out to make it a plaything that they can direct. Expect petty local politicians no longer constrained by international treaties to create local laws to suit the needs of business rather than the people. In the UK, this will see the feeding of the NHS to big business, the privatising of other State assets, the lowering of standards of health and food-related legislation, and the reduction of workers’ rights, in the name of competitiveness.

At the same time, we are seeing the rise of the super-wealthy in politics, some of whom pretend to be on the side of the common man. Take, for example, Jacob Rees-Mogg, not a billionaire, but a multi-millionaire. He has no interest in the plight of the poor and dispossessed, but he does have an interest in being popular. His trademark appearance of a very polite comedy 1930s SS officer hides a truth we all can see. This man chimes with Generation Brexit’s desire to drag us back to a time we have nostalgised into a beautiful dream when “we” ruled the world.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Trump espouses the rights of the common man, because democracy is a numbers game and he calculates that the common man  is the most numerous. He has no interest in the poor, the weak or the dispossessed, but more in those who are aggressively jealous that their little patch of America will somehow be threatened by people less well off – which is largely a spurious fear.

In both cases, and in numerous other populist politicians, their appeal is that they protect the livelihoods and lives of “ordinary people”, a phrase that immediately creates an identifiable group to defend. Thus they gather their modern workers to their sides, who in their fear at the supposed upheaval around them (much of which has been created by the far right) can’t see that their own rights will be eroded and their lives materially impoverished by their leaders’ policies. Their future will be yet more enslavement to capitalist systems, with, for example, the lowering of food standards in the UK to a US level and the predation of US companies on the NHS. Neither of the men named above, Rees-Mogg and Trump (and there are plenty more) are representative of the interests of anyone other than the privileged, the wealthy and big business. Yet, the frightened people flock to them and their message. Each is indeed a new Comes.

Billionaires and their propagandists are also the new invaders and marauders of democracy. The representatives of big business, the super-wealthy, are the new aristocracy that will suborn the current administrative systems to their agenda. Big business has no interest in the common good or in rights, except insofar as they are lucrative. It instead seeks to create new power bases within countries, to hive off services formerly provided by governments and to reduce rights to enhance personal profit. This is why they seek to destroy supranational entities such as the EU, because larger cooperative entities are harder to control.

The great irony is that many critics of the EU talk about the supposed New World Order, when they are in fact enabling billionaires intent on wresting control from legitimate governments.

This is the world we can look forward to if we are not careful. We are in danger of entering a new Dark Age – one of Feudal Capitalism in which workers’ rights are stripped from them and business seeks to maximise profit at the expense of the most vulnerable, while central government is either suborned or powerless. It is in many ways analogous to the decline of structures across Europe in the 4th Century. This weakening and fracturing of the West is exactly what Russia wants, and this is why it has been helping to unleash the heightened passions of nationalism and xenophobia to sweep across Europe like waves of savage tribes, destabilising all in their paths.

That is the direction we are heading in, if Brexit and the rule of the far right are allowed to continue.

Can we do anything to stop it? Perhaps. To speak truth and resist wherever we can. That is a start. To do nothing is to resign ourselves to the New Dark Ages.

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Disruption, Farage, Brexit – and the Winchester Gallop

Brexit has many historical precedents, all of them bloody, writes Matt Wingett.

When royal wannabe Harold Godwinson was blown off course and shipwrecked on the coast of Northern France, that disaster was bad for him, but very good for William the Bastard, who had already set his French Norman heart on the English throne. Because, what with furniture delivery services being in their infancy, and there being no customs union, how else could William get hold of the prized English throne, if not by invasion?

William needed a pretext. Being called the Bastard, he lived up to his name by tricking Harold into swearing loyalty to him. What’s worse, he did it while Harold unwittingly had his hands on a reliquary fully of bits of saints, so he definitely had to deliver. At least that’s how the Bayeux tapestry spins it. Which meant, when some years later Harold pronounced himself King Harold after the death of Edward the Confessor, William the Bastard had a reason to invade.

The point is, William the Bastard was devious, and knew how to use disruption for his advantage. 333 years of oppression by Norman and Plantagenet aristocracy would follow in England.

When the king formerly known as William the Bastard died in 1087, (a focus group having decided “The Conqueror” was a better brand), the tradition of The Winchester Gallop began. William Rufus made a dash from Rouen to the treasury at Winchester, determined to be declared King before anyone else took the gold – and succeeded in becoming William II.

Rufus was meant to be king. Imagine how much more important that gallop was for anyone who might face a counter-claim. Thus successive Bishops at Winchester shot eyes to the ceiling at the death of another monarch and waited for the clatter of cavalry in the courtyard. Because, with possession being nine tenths of the law, whoever held the country’s money held the crown. And who was a mere bishop to gainsay the intention of 20 titled thugs in armour waving swords, after all?

When William Rufus promptly died during a hunting “accident” at which his brother Richard just happened to be present in the New Forest (at a spot known as Rufus Stone, quelle coïncidence!) it was Richard’s turn to gallop northward and grab the gold and the power.

Other gallopers included the Empress Matilda, who had been left control of the country by dead daddy Henry I, but who was beaten to the gold by interloper King Stephen. This contretemps led to The Anarchy, which deadlocked the country in civil war for nearly two decades. Something that in the current state of Brexit play, with divisions all over the the UK, seems quite possible again.

A few hundred years later, London replaced Winchester as the centre of power, and so the Winchester Gallop was no more – but the seizing of opportunities caused by disruption remained.

Just so, when one June Wednesday in 1381, an army of 50,000 peasants parked themselves outside London waiting for the king to take up their cause against cruel landowners. As if the king wasn’t the biggest, cruellest landowner of all. (That’s how Royal propaganda works.)

King Richard II, a lad of 14 years, whose army had refused to fight the massive army of peasants, went out to treat with the peasant leader, proto-socialist Wat Tyler. Wat, not being well-versed in matters of courtly behaviour spoke to the king on equal terms, for which insult, one of Richard’s knights took a slice off him. With Wat unexpectedly dead on the ground and the peasant army just a few hundred yards away, Richard did the opposite to what most sane people would have done, and spurred his horse alone toward the peasant army, shouting to them “You shall have no captain but me.”

It worked. By the time the peasants had realised they’d been had, an army had at last been mustered from London to meet them. The ringleaders were arrested and in the usual way, many of the poorest and most idealistic died horribly in the aftermath.

This fake “man of the people” soon showed his hand. “You wretches, detestable on land and sea; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues: rustics you were, rustics you are still. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher. For as long as you live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity. However, we will spare your lives if you remain faithful and loyal. Choose now which course you want to follow.”

So, what’s the lesson from these moments in history? For certain self-serving individuals, moments of disruption lead to opportunity. Caught up in all the noise, and either fooled by leaders to fight on their behalf, or tricked into believing them, it’s the common man who gets screwed, suffering from the ambition, egos and maniacal thirst for power of the ruthless who are quite happy to tip the country into a tail-spin for their own gain.

The rule is, when disruption occurs, psychos win.

Sound familiar? Because that’s exactly what’s going on with Brexit. The ringleaders of Brexit all personally having plenty of money, know they have nothing to lose, but thanks to the disruption that continues to swirl around Brexit, each has plenty to gain.

The language of disruption and conquest isn’t even hidden by Brexiters. Daniel Hannan, the modernday wild-eyed prophet of Brexit, proclaims Britain should be a “buccaneering” country. If ever there were a motif of redtoothed rapaciousness and theft, it is the buccaneer – a state-sponsored pirate. Mr Hannan would like to fit masts to the island of Britain, sail down to China, pound it from the shoreline and burn down the odd village or two like we did in the Opium Wars, another period of state-enabled jolly-rogering of other nations. Sure, it was post-buccaneer, but back then Britain could make up the rules without reference to anyone else, and did so at every opportunity.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is another disrupter in the same vein. The disruption he seeks is in the financial markets, and the money he will make comes from hedge funds. Disruption = massive market movements, and in the wake of all that turbulence, Moggy just needs to gallop on his field hunter to the nearest internet hotspot to check his burgeoning treasury. There are even some sycophants calling for him to be PM and willing to back it up with violence. Not quite as glitzy as the chainmail look of former thugs, but you get the gist.

This extract from Jacob Rees Mogg’s twitter feed shows how sections of the country are keen to enable his power grab.

For Boris Johnson, the prize was always coronation. The disruption and strife that he exacerbated within the Tories he also still hopes to “solve” by being crowned PM. Think the same of Gove and numerous other Brexiteer Tories, too numerous to name. Our pain is their gain.

“Bad Boy of Brexit” Arron Banks is now sounding increasingly desperate on twitter to distract attention from growing interest in his alleged Russian-funded shenanigans by attacking the latest White Paper to come out of Chequers. Little did he realise that the chutzpah displayed in calling himself the “Bad Boy of Brexit”, might soon be hubristically translated to alleged “Lawbreaker of Leave”.

Then, of course, there’s Nigel Farage, whom I imagine one day in his youth saw the letters “N.F.” sprayed on a wall next to a swastika and took that as an omen. What gains are there for him?

Of all of them, Nigel is the most obvious. After the rigged referendum result was announced, Trump was soon calling for Nige to be made ambassador to the US. Disruption. Trump lobs a twitter-bomb, scares the markets, then while everyone is in disarray, sends in the tanks.

Of course, Trump’s blitzkrieg tactic didn’t stand a chance at the time, but it was a jab, a softening-up blow that cracked the surface and allowed a seed to be planted. Soon, other calls for Farage to be knighted followed – as did his faux outrage at not being so honoured when he knew there was no chance.

This posturing has a purpose – to create a narrative of grievance that at some point Nige will want to use while orchestrating the latest outcry. That may come soon. The EU has already said it won’t divide the Four Pillars of freedom in the EU. Yet this is what May’s White Paper wants. Very soon, May could be facing all-out revolt again*, or a collapse in her shaky government.

And in all that disruption? Watch out. The Winchester Gallop is alive and well, and Mogg, Banks, Gove, Johnson, Farage et al are saddling up.


*Since writing this piece, David Davis has resigned. Watch this space.

Ah. There goes Boris, like a great sulking parody of a colonial Viceroy, but with hair instead of feathers.


Further update, August 2019. Well, Boris Johnson is now PM, him having made the Winchester Gallop before all other successors, and the jester king is now threatening to wreck the economy for his own aggrandisement. Once again, he will not loose out. But the peasants he so royally promises to destroy adore him. Funny old world, eh?

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Turmoil in the Marketplace for Ideas

There is a story that on arriving at the scene just a few minutes after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Lord Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India was met by an increasingly angry mob. One voice suddenly rose over the crowd, saying: “A Muslim shot him…” The story goes that Mountbatten, seeing the danger of a massacre by enraged Hindus shouted loudly: “You fool, it was a Hindu!”

Whether this story about Mountbatten is true or not, and whether or not a Hindu or Muslim had been responsible, the wisdom in such a reply – to quell rage and prevent scapegoating of the minority Muslim population is obvious. In fact, the murderer actually was a Hindu. But even if you put this to one side, the instinct was still sound.

As a writer, for some time I have been imagining how best one might cause a civil war in an imagined country. Suppose there were an invader seeking to destabilise the regime, but wanting to do so discreetly. What would he do? The land I imagine is low tech, pre-industrial and ruled by an increasingly distrusted Prince who has perhaps made one or two poor decisions, but who is in fact a kindly and beneficent ruler. How might agents foment revolution, I asked myself?

In a thought experiment, I imagined a marketplace, where people convene from all parts of the country to trade, meet and enjoy a two week fair. The fair-goers would include members of the ruling classes, tradesmen and merchants with connections to trade routes and fleets. It would include guildsmen, jealous of their work and their skills, guarding against impostors. There might be harlots and mountebanks and cheapjacks and performers all mingling with the general population who have come there to buy, meet others, share news, gossip and talk.

It was there that I realised that the revolution would start. In the marketplace for ideas.

It might happen thus: at one end of the market, a gossip spreads news about a well-established merchant. He uses those ships to trade in people, and whenever his ships land at ports, children always go missing. Is this a coincidence? The gossip only asks the question, but it is a question that others with no knowledge of the gossip’s agenda repeat.

In another part of the market, a rumour starts that local guildsmen were heard hatching a plan to kill another merchant because he brings in goods from the shores of Cathay that are putting local tradesmen out of work. Elsewhere a rumour goes up about the Prince, that he is using the taxes from the fair to raise an army, and will be conscripting soon. Others say that this is not true, but that he is in fact using the money to line his own pockets, or that the Prince is in the pay of foreign powers.

More rumours abound. An army was seen in the East, and those of the Eastern faith are accused as spies for that army. After all, wasn’t it invaders from the East who killed a child in the woods last year, even though no-one can quite remember the name of that child? Butchers are accused of selling infected meat and bakers of adulterating their bread with alum.

Soon, the harmony of the marketplace is disturbed by the rumours. Butchers and bakers look defensively at their rivals, tradesmen pit themselves against tradesmen, all look suspiciously at foreigners and more so at the Prince on whose watch this is all happening.

Over the next few days, factions form. Those who have been accused complain and grumble. Others of the secret invader’s agents, pretending to be on the side of the aggrieved, amplify their complaints, turning them from a mild grievance into an angry counter-accusation. The newly aggrieved on the other side respond, and soon the agents have very little to do as the factions take their grievances to each other.

For those spreading the rumours, the truth of one claim or another is irrelevant. The purpose is to spread discontent wherever possible. For those in the marketplace of ideas who have no idea of the agenda, they naturally take sides according to their preferences and predilections, their biases and loyalties, and soon, hardened factions have formed within the marketplace, where formally there was only interest in trade.

Neighbours look at neighbours on the stalls distrustingly, and guard their goods against theft. Accidental overturnings of carts, genuine accidents or planned, are immediately met with outrage and anger as proof of the ill intentions of one or other faction. The mood of the marketplace has changed so that reasonable discourse and the sorting out of problems is no longer possible. Everybody is aggrieved. Everybody is simmering and angry. The rumours become truths in the minds of those who now seek to interpret the actions of their neighbours from within the grossly distorted paradigms they have internalised.

Now the rumour goes out that groups from the East are carrying concealed weapons. They are challenged on the streets by butchers, with meat cleavers.. Though they are not carrying weapons, they soon begin to. The butchers are joined by the blacksmiths and the knife sharpeners. But these two factions already distrust each other, and arguments start between them, at the agents’ instigation.

Soon, everyone feels unsafe, and no-one trusts anything anyone says, except their own small factions. Civil society is breaking down. The Prince posts guards to ensure safety on the streets, and soon more whisperings are complaining that the Prince is both taxing and oppressing them. The guards themselves become the subject for distrust – and one night after a drunken brawl a guard is killed.

Rumours blame the people of the East, the butchers, the merchants, the traders, the guildsmen in turn. Each accuses the other and none will listen. Soon the factions are so widely separated and angry that more guards are called in as more and more discord breaks out.

And then, one man with a louder mouth who seems somehow to have the ear of the armed factions steps in. He ousts the Prince and installs himself in his place. He is a strong man He is one the crowd trust to “get things done”. Those who armed themselves are grateful for his intervention as he brings in increasingly Draconian rules to deal with foreigners and traders, and anyone who steps beyond his increasingly eccentric and tight restrictions.

Others complain that he is taking away freedoms, others that he is favouring certain groups over others, others that he is a bully.

All of these things may be true, or none may be true. The point is that while the people are thus preoccupied with their rage and accusation at each other, they do not even notice the coup that has taken place, nor fully appreciate how their lives have changed. The few who do notice and make a stand are shouted down and buried with rumours by agents. And in order to discredit those seeking to reinstate rational discourse, new rumour-spreaders join the rational side, so that there is very little rational discourse, only more and more rage, and more and more accusation.

Against those who do still persist in trying to speak their milder or more perceptive truths, it is not difficult now to raise an outraged mob. Some are intimidated into silence. Some disappear.

Meanwhile, the loudmouth who got to power continues to strengthen his hold, spreading further lies and adding to the general sense of distrust with proclamations and with increasingly sweeping powers. Those who want order at any cost rally round him, calling those who oppose his approach traitors, not seeing that what he is doing is quite the opposite of what they wanted, which was to bring them peace and liberty. And what his agenda is, nobody knows, though some suspect that the foreign power that some voices warned about in regard to the old Prince, have in fact installed this one in his place.

That is how one uses the freedom of the market to bring about its opposite. It is also, of course, an allegory of how free speech can, ironically, be democracy’s worst enemy.

 

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Goodbye Silence, My Old Friend

Since I was a child I’ve had the most extraordinary hearing. I’ve revelled in the sounds I can hear that others can’t. Really precise sounds.

The pleasure of hearing the expansion of a teapot as hot water is poured into it, tick, tick, fizz at the lowest levels. The sound of the feathers of birds as they fly by catching in the wind as I stand on a lonely moor. The rain coming off the sides of buildings and puddling and pooling, so that you can hear the locations of each spot as it drops, in a 360 degree soundscape.

There have been nights when I woke to the sound of voices, and complained about the noise of people talking in the streets – to the bafflement of my partner.

The crisp rustle of dried autumn leaves plucked from the branches, the whisper of the wind though a poplar stand while we camped out in Ireland years and years ago. And the sea, of course, the wide open sea that floods my head in oceanic stereo.

And the thing that made it all so clear and powerful was the silence. The powerful, echoing silence that made everything else so stark, like the gaps between words.

There was a time when I was living on the Isle of Arran, a lonely young man who had had his heart broken by a woman and had hitched for two years, living in woods, on friends’ floors, in tents – just seeking some form of inner peace, when the depression had taken hold of me so badly that I couldn’t function. On the Isle of Arran, the long days and nights of pure, utter silence reached into my soul and cured me of my pain. It said: “There, there, this now is past. There is peace here. There is love. There is a world in which you can start again. The only voices you hear are inside yourself – your rage, your pain, your narrative of suffering, your self-created rage.”

And so, silence taught me, and nurtured me, and helped me grow.

All this went on a night out in Southsea. It changed when I got a text from a good friend of mine, Johnny, a few months ago, telling me there was a DJ set at a local pub in aid of charity.

It was a good night. I danced. I thought the music was loud, but no-one else seemed to notice, and so – unlike my usual habit of putting paper in my ears to protect them, I danced on.

The next morning I woke to a high pitched whistling in my ears. From then, till now, it has not gone away. I did my research, and I am now resigning myself to a terrible, soul-destroying fact. My hearing has been damaged irreparably by that one night. I will never hear silence again, and the clarity with which I heard the tiniest sounds has gone forever.

I can’t tell you how much this hurts me. Silence was the thing I relied on to gather my thoughts. It was the thing I used to unwind myself and find the centre of my soul. Silence was the touchstone I used to direct my life, the void in which the stream moved.

I had no idea how much silence was my friend until now. I had no idea that I wouldn’t be able to hear precisely the movements of wind and rain, or hear the slightest change of stress in a voice, or hear the tiny nuances of sound that others missed and that I took for granted.

So, what can I say? This little piece is goodbye to you, my old friend, Silence.

I loved you. I loved you, and I miss you so much.

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Why Conan Doyle’s Southsea Life Should Inspire Writers

Writers looking for reasons to keep going when times are tough, should look no further than Arthur Conan Doyle’s early life in Southsea. His story of struggle, finding his way and eventual success is one for every writer to learn from.

In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, Doyle talks about those early years after his arrival in Southsea.

I made £154 the first year, and £250 the second, rising slowly to £800, which in eight years I never passed, so far as the medical practice went. In the first year the Income Tax paper arrived and I filled it up to show that I was not liable. They returned the paper with “Most unsatisfactory” scrawled across it. I wrote “I entirely agree” under the words, and returned it once more. For this little bit of cheek I was had up before the assessors, and duly appeared with my ledger under my arm. They could make nothing, however, out of me or my ledger, and we parted with mutual laughter and compliments.”

So, what changed? Doyle confesses that he never imagined he’d be able to make a living from writing. In the early days, he was so poor he had no staff at his surgery on Elm Grove and cooked bacon over the gas lamp in the back room. But, he adds:

In many ways my marriage marked a turning-point in my life. A bachelor, especially one who had been a wanderer like myself, drifts easily into Bohemian habits, and I was no exception… with the more regular life and the greater sense of responsibility, coupled with the natural development of brain-power, the literary side of me began slowly to spread until it was destined to push the other entirely aside.

Though Doyle did write before he married, he was paid an average of £4 per story and made around £10 or £15 a year from his work, which works out at between £1000 to £1500 a year.

A great insight into his creative life follows:

But though I was not putting out I was taking in. I still have notebooks full of all sorts of knowledge which I acquired during that time. It is a great mistake to start putting out cargo when you have hardly stowed any on board. My own slow methods and natural limitations made me escape this danger.

A Study In Scarlet in the famously rare 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, of which only 11 complete copies are known to exist.

After he married, he wrote most of the stories that appeared in his book, The Captain of the Polestar. He progressed steadily, until he appeared in the prestigious Cornhill magazine, with his short story Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.

Doyle had to deal with hostile reviews and keep on, even then. One reviewer stated: “Cornhill opens its new number with a story which would have made Thackeray turn in his grave.”

Doyle was also willing to take on any writing job that came his way:

I was still in the days of very small things—so small that when a paper sent me a woodcut and offered me four guineas if I would write a story to correspond I was not too proud to accept. It was a very bad woodcut and I think that the story corresponded all right. I remember writing a New Zealand story, though why I should have written about a place of which I knew nothing I cannot imagine. Some New Zealand critic pointed out that I had given the exact bearings of the farm mentioned as 90 miles to the east or west of the town of Nelson, and that in that case it was situated 20 miles out on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. These little things will happen. There are times when accuracy is necessary and others where the idea is everything and the place quite immaterial.

Doyle’s next realisation about his writing is a useful one for any writer.

It was about a year after my marriage that I realized that I could go on doing short stories for ever and never make headway. What is necessary is that your name should be on the back of a volume. Only so do you assert your individuality, and get the full credit or discredit of your achievement.

His first venture was The Firm of Girdlestone, which he acknowledges as a “worthless book”. He adds:

When I sent it to publishers and they scorned it I quite acquiesced in their decision and finally let it settle, after its periodical flights to town, a dishevelled mass of manuscript at the back of a drawer.

Then came his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes:

Gaboriau had rather attracted me by the neat dovetailing of his plots, and Poe’s masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes. But could I bring an addition of my own? I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science. I would try if I could get this effect. It was surely possible in real life, so why should I not make it plausible in fiction?

Doyle adds: “It is all very well to say that a man is clever, but the reader wants to see examples of it—such examples as Bell gave us every day in the wards…” Next came the choice of the name. something not too obvious for a clever man, such as Mr Sharps or Mr Ferrets, but something else.

First it was Sherringford Holmes; then it was Sherlock Holmes. He could not tell his own exploits, so he must have a commonplace comrade as a foil—an educated man of action who could both join in the exploits and narrate them. A drab, quiet name for this unostentatious man. Watson would do. And so I had my puppets and wrote my “Study in Scarlet.”

In fact, Doyle wrote the book over a period of 3 weeks in 1886. It was a novella rather than a novel – but he was rightly proud of his achievement.

For the writer, the question then, is how to deal with publishers who just don’t “get” your work? To push on and hope, appears to be the answer. And a matter of luck is always part of the equation, it seems:

I knew that the book was as good as I could make it, and I had high hopes. When “Girdlestone” used to come circling back with the precision of a homing pigeon, I was grieved but not surprised, for I acquiesced in the decision. But when my little Holmes book began also to do the circular tour I was hurt, for I knew that it deserved a better fate. James Payn applauded but found it both too short and too long, which was true enough. Arrowsmith received it in May, 1886, and returned it unread in July. Two or three others sniffed and turned away. Finally, as Ward, Lock & Co. made a speciality of cheap and often sensational literature, I sent it to them.

“Dear Sir,” they said,—”We have read your story and are pleased with it. We could not publish it this year as the market is flooded at present with cheap fiction, but if you do not object to its being held over till next year, we will give you £25 for the copyright.

“Yours faithfully,
“WARD, LOCK & Co.”
“Oct. 30, 1886.”

The story famously appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887. Doyle never received another penny for it.

Doyle did not wait for publication the next year, but wrote a historical romance, Micah Clarke. For which pains, he was asked by publishers how he could waste his wits and time writing historical novels. Other comments from publishers were in a similar vein.

I was on the point of putting the worn manuscript into hospital with its mangled brother “Girdle-stone” when as a last resource I sent it to Longmans, whose reader, Andrew Lang, liked it and advised its acceptance. It was to “Andrew of the brindled hair,” as Stevenson called him, that I owe my first real opening, and I have never forgotten it. The book duly appeared in February, 1889, and though it was not a boom book it had extraordinarily good reviews, including one special one all to itself by Mr. Protheroe in the “Nineteenth Century,” and it has sold without intermission from that day to this. It was the first solid corner-stone laid for some sort of literary reputation.

As for Sherlock Holmes, British literature was fashionable in the United States at the time, and it was a Mr Stoddart, an American agent for Lippincott’s who asked to meet up with him in London in 1889. He thus had dinner with Stoddart and Oscar Wilde, the latter of whom had read Micah Clarke, and liked it very much.

The result of the evening was that both Wilde and I promised to write books for “Lippincott’s Magazine”—Wilde’s contribution was “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” a book which is surely upon a high moral plane, while I wrote “The Sign of Four,” in which Holmes made his second appearance.

Doyle now went on to write The White Company, feeling once again the urge to write historical romance. When he finished, he writes:

I felt a wave of exultation and with a cry of “That’s done it!” I hurled my inky pen across the room, where it left a black smudge upon the duck’s-egg wall-paper. I knew in my heart that the book would live and that it would illuminate our national traditions. Now that it has passed through fifty editions I suppose I may say with all modesty that my forecast has proved to be correct.

He goes on:

This was the last book which I wrote in my days of doctoring at Southsea, and marks an epoch in my life, so I can now hark back to some other phases of my last years at Bush Villa before I broke away into a new existence. I will only add that “The White Company” was accepted by “Cornhill,” in spite of James Payn’s opinion of historical novels, and that I fulfilled another ambition by having a serial in that famous magazine.

These remembrances should act as inspirations for writers in Portsmouth, and indeed, everywhere. It’s one reason I decided to celebrate him and his greatest creation Sherlock Holmes by bringing out a facsimile reprint of the first appearance of A Study In Scarlet through my publishing company, Life Is Amazing. The truth is, the most famous writers come from somewhere. One of those places could be where you are right now. In fact, one of those writers could be you.

[NB: This article was updated on 12th February 2019]

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Follow the sun (and the lightning), Late May Bank Holiday 2018

“Go west, young man,” that piece of advice given to American pioneers who loaded up their wagons and headed into the vast expanses of the unexplored US has been my own mantra when it comes to the slightly less epic short holiday out of Portsmouth. 

What lies west, I considered, are all the good bits in easy driving distance. Dorset, Devon, Cornwall – and further up the Welsh Borders and Wales proper.

The best, however, cannot be said of the weather. When the Anglo-Saxons pushed in from the Continent and chased the Celts into the hills, I’ve often wondered whether it was a distaste for that bloody Bank Holiday weather that left them poking their camp fires at Brighton and Lyme Regis, so that by the time they’d bred a race hardy enough to handle the dispiriting Welsh and Cornish rain, all that was left to their descendants was to show off their resilience by inventing the drizzle-soaked seaside holiday.

Despite this, I had never really considered going east. I’ve made a few trips that way, but I have to admit that Brighton, with its huge hotels, infinite seafront and wrecked pier leaves me cold. Once, when going further east on business, I broke down (or more accurately my car did) in Rye, but I never saw the town, since I was struggling with driving home along a busy road sans clutch. Roundabouts were impressive.

The weather for this bank holiday, however, promised Armageddon, what with storms, thunder, lightning and possibly fireballs and / or falling fish all neatly scheduled by Notan (the ancient English God of Bank Holidays) for the entire west.

Time to follow the sun. Looking at the weather maps, sunshine was forecast for East Sussex and Kent, and so, with an acceptance that it might not be as fun as the wild west (covered wagons or no), we headed out into the eternal tailback at Chichester, which, black-hole-like, holds all south-east coast traffic circulation in its orbit, slows time, and in the crawl crushes you to a singularity, before you reappear on the other side.

We drove on, toward the rising sun (quite a bit after it had risen), past the great castle at Arundel and the dull mass of Brighton, stopping off for a bite at Lewes and then heading on again. 

East. East into the green countryside and the comfortable villages of East Sussex. Noticing a real difference in architecture – clapboard houses and flint cottages, so different from the whitewashed thatched confections of the west. And something else. Flags. Flags fluttering everywhere, in red, white and blue, as if the entire country was a confused and indignant elderly relative who kept ambiguously asking: “Do you know who I am?”

Stopping briefly at Hastings for a cuppa, we were struck by the extremes. Rows of caravans stood rotting on the seafront where the poor had taken up makeshift residence. Homeless people huddled in seafront shelters in St Leonard’s, where the paint from abandoned hotels peeled like tree bark. Yet, further up the road, expensive housing and smart bars thronged with visitors, overlooked the sea. 

The road diverted as we swung past the net shops – the black clapboard towers the fishermen used to store their gear. Soon we were out in the countryside again, passing attractive villages adorned with yet more flags. Union flags everywhere, run up poles, hanging from bunting in the streets. I felt a sense of unease at the instinct that leads people to want to hoist a flag of any colour, and to overlook all the terrible things done under its shadow.

We passed through bright country roads, through Winchelsea looking super picturesque, down past the low stone structure of Winchelsea Castle, where cows grazed in buttercup fields, and onwards to Rye. 

I was curious about this place, having seen on the BBC’s Mapp and Lucia (a series in which two rival middle class ladies – one, a fierce Little Englander furious at having her world dislocated by the other, a sophisticated woman of foreign-sounding extraction, fought battles for influence in the social milieu of an English idyll), and we climbed up to find an ancient town atop a hill. 

It was beautiful, full of half-timber mediaeval houses, with a church surrounded by nestling cottages on cobbled streets. It seemed like a little slice of historic perfection, as if someone had mocked up the quintessential English town, with bar-gates, and ruins, and pubs and shops. Walking the streets, I got a sense of the closeness and tight scale of English village life, and marvelled at the melted houses where the beams had bowed under the weight of centuries. I realised then that I knew nothing about this part of England.

That night we stayed at The Bell at Iden, just outside Rye. We pulled up in the camper and were immediately greeted by a super-friendly barmaid who welcomed us as we walked in and who told me it was no bother to park in the car park and stay overnight. Cosy. The place was cosy and friendly, and I felt surprised at the chattiness of the locals. Portsmouth, after all, can be famously terse.

So the weekend began with a warm welcome both meteorologially and figuratively. The following day, we drove out past Camber Sands on a military road, past a firing range and army training ground where mocked-up villages await trainees in urban warfare to do our flag’s killing work, and onward past the towering metal box that is Dungeness nuclear power station, which sits on the west side of the nature reserve.

There, away from the great green expanse of the countryside, we arrived at what in urban myth is known as the UK’s only desert due to its low rainfall (a story denied by the Met Office) and gazed over the great shingle headland, dotted with makeshift huts where people live and work in sparsely dotted homes, some of which were made from old railway carriages. The feeling was like a Native American reservation. We almost expected to see tumbleweed blow down the road. To add to the effect of the Wild West was a steam train, though the Old Lighthouse (next to the new one), and the fact that some of the huts contained art studios, and were overlooked by a gigantic nuclear power station somewhat lessened the impression – as did the fact that the steam train was narrow gauge and we were taller than it. 

It did, however, add to the sense of an alien landscape, unmade and ill-formed, and both of us loved its eery otherworldliness.

Onward again, to Dymchurch where a classic British seaside town crammed along the coast road, and stubborn donkeys allowing small children to sit on them while they were dragged across the sandy beach made me feel like I had suddenly gone back to the 1950s.

Then out into bright and massive countryside, full of greenery, through yet more flag-fluttering clapboard houses in villages bearing Anglo-Saxon names like Lympne, Bilsington, Hamstreet and Tenterden, with each hill we climbed opening up massive vistas and views across yet more startlingly beautiful countryside. 

Finally, we arrived at Bodiam, and explored the castle. It was great. A proper castle, with a moat; the sort that schoolboys might have consulted Disney and fantasy writers to make. It was built in yellow sandstone in the 14th Century by contractors working for Sir Edward Dallingridge. I’m precise about this because although the National Trust tells us Sir Edward “built it”, Dallingridge himself was far too busy terrorising peasants, and generally slaughtering and murdering the innocent as part of the Hundred Years War, to do anything so useful as lifting a trowel. “On the backs of the workers,” etc.

The story of Dallingridge seizing his opportunity when King Edward III decided on a whim that, actually, he owned France and declared war on his neighbour, is a useful one as a clue to the whole of human history. 

Like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage, mediaeval businesspeople also saw disruption as an opportunity, and so Dallingridge went out in a gang run by Sir Robert Knolles, a man so cruel and ruthless, the National Trust film informed us with what seemed like misplaced pride, that French people threw themselves in the river at the sound of his name. Ha! That showed ’em. Damn Frenchies, I can imagine one of the flag-flyers saying, not realising he probably had more in common with the poor French peasants than the psychopath who was murdering them. But there it is, when we imagine history, we are selective about those with whom we identify. That is the problem of history in a nutshell.

In the same film, we were informed that, like most of his contemporaries, Dallingridge was extremely concerned about the afterlife. Which, considering all that he’d got up to in this one, will come as no surprise. This may also explain why Jacob Rees-Mogg is a staunch Catholic. Thankfully, Dallingridge died quite soon after going back to the wars, and certainly didn’t make the whole Hundred Years of it, which must have been a relief to the French. It is not recorded whether his personal chapel in the castle made any difference to outcomes thereafter. Jacob Rees-Mogg, take note.

Opposite the Castle was The Castle Inn, which some lucky landlord must have named in the hope that someone would put up a castle. What were the chances of that, eh? Here we spent another night, again, warmly welcomed. It’s a lovely pub with a long lawn leading down to a river, where children played and families congregated in the summer sunshine to eat and drink and socialise.

That night, we were woken by the most extraordinary thunderstorm. It went on for hours, the thunder rolling on and on to create a constant rumble, and the lightning striking so often it felt like we were in daylight, and I wondered if I had been perhaps a little too disrespectful of Dallingridge in my private thoughts that afternoon. Then I reckoned it was probably the ghosts of all those murdered French and English peasants, and I thought I had probably underdone it.

From Bodiam the following morning, we went to Great Dixter house – a gorgeously combined mixture of 14th century farmhouse, 16th Century Yeoman’s Hall and Lutyens-designed modern house that creates the most beautiful scene, surrounded as it is by perfect gardens, the whole being set in yet more stunningly beautiful countryside. The patriarch who bought the place and made it his project, I learned, made his money in the first flush of sophisticated Victorian advertising, in which the modern nature of publicity, branding and mass-produced consumer goods meant worldwide sales to a public grateful for the reliable and the familiar. This meant he could retire at the age of 42. Which puts a new spin on the phrase “it pays to advertise.”

From there, we headed to Battle, which was decked out in red, white and blue bunting, and there were yet more Union Flags in people’s gardens. We stayed the night at this quintessential English town and drank French Merlot at a Trattoria, looking down the High Street at this place so central to mystical English identity. It was when I realised all those Union Flags had been bought on the proceeds of businesses in a town whose whole raison d’etre was to celebrate being invaded by the French, that I profoundly thought: wtf?

On again the next morning to Cuckmere, past the Long Man at Wilmington, supposed to be either neolithic, Celto-Roman, Saxon or modern, depending on which archaeologist is talking. Like so many other villages in East Sussex, the streets were cosy and warm and picturesque. 

They were also flaggy. Don’t get me wrong. I get it. You’re proud of this part of the country. It’s stunning. It’s genuinely something to be proud of. But this part of the country is not represented by a Union Flag (convenient political concoction born of debt and oppression) or a Cross of St George (dodgy myth about a Turkish knight). No, what really makes it distinctive is the hop fields and the oast houses with their white cowls used to dry the hops one tastes in English ales – hops that were originally Dutch imports. Even the word clapboard comes from the German root klappen – meaning to split. And all those flags – they are probably made in China. But hey. I get it. 

Then, down to the Birling Gap via Cuckmere, to walk along the coast and see the Seven Sisters, the great white cliffs. They reminded me of the cliffs at Dover, associated with all that safe, reassuring, misty-eyed patriotism, though I thought they could just as easily stand for upheaval, seeing as they are massive uplifted seabeds dotted with flints that were once sponges, long before flags were even thought of.

Next, over to Eastbourne to meet with a friend. And then, back to the Cuckmere Inn, where we stayed in the car park and – after a bite to eat and several pints of fine English ale – we walked down to the sea, waded the river and walked up by the meandering elegance of the snaking Cuckmere.

It was there, as the sun set and the birds made such a noise in the fields and the skies, and the cows lowed, and the gulls cried, I felt such a sense of sudden quiet and eternity and such a passion stirring inside me, that I too felt proud and awed to be, though it be for only a short time, a citizen of this world.

The next day we came home. And I have to say, East Sussex is beautiful. Despite those darn flags.

“We’re proud of England, see our flags flutter!
You can just feel the history: In High Weald’s
fossil-rich chalk downs, in bells of butter-
cups, clapboard houses and hanging hopfields.
Look! That oast house dried hops brought by the Dutch;
this stronghold, French-gold funded, reeks with stench
of war. That Battle street, decked in so much
colour, celebrates defeat by the French.
We welcome you coz we know who we are –
we Sussex English, comfy in our skins,
claim this land as ours. Though you come from far –
our distant ancestors saw it all begin.”
And Seven old Sisters don’t even shrug
at fleeting flags, knights, and Union Jack mugs.

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