The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

Out on to the Silk Road …

The new Silk Road – will the direction of traffic be primarily east to west, west to east, or both – and who will control the flow?

I’ve posted recently on the subject of history, and how we abuse it. But sometimes we do need the big picture, and I’m thinking here of China President Xi’s $900 million Belt and Road initiative to build a modern-day Silk Road.

History provides a vital context, and a warning.

Forty-six nations attended a gathering in Beijing last weekend. Heads of state from Rusia and Turkey were there, though not from Europe. The EU held back from endorsing a final statement because it didn’t stress ‘transparency and co-ownership’. India argued the scheme is ‘little more than a colonial enterprise [that would leave] debt and broken communities in its wake’.

Philip Hammond attended (not our high-risk foreign secretary, I note), relishing the opportunity for trade deals. In his speech to delegates he argued Britain was a ‘natural partner’ for China. ‘China and the UK have a long and rich trading history…’  Others have commented that the Chinese, remembering the 19th century Opium Wars, and the great British imperial enterprise, might see this ‘natural partnership’ in  different way.

There’s something telling in this sycophancy. Sycophancy comes out of weakness, not strength. The EU holds back, argues from a position of strength. India is rebarbative, confrontational, overstates it – yet there’s truth lurking there. Circumspection has its merits.

Britain in the 16th century set up its own maritime Silk Road, along with the Dutch, Portuguese and (less successfully) the French. The Belt and Road initiative is the land route reasserting itself. The old oceanic skills of Empire will no longer help us. We are one of many, supplicants, out on a western European limb.

There will be many camel trains along the new road, if it develops the way the Chinese wish. We might just be a little lonely. On a camel train, as out on the ocean, there is strength in numbers.

 

Walking in the Lake District with Mrs May

Father, son and daughter in the Lake District. No talk of politics, just much sharing of music, all our of favourites, from fifty years back in my case, back to Grace Slick belting out White Rabbit – where did such amazing music come from when all had been doldrums only ten years before. Not quite so far back for Ben and Rozi, but they have good taste, and are slowly convincing me that I should love You can be heroes...wrong… We can be heroes… wrong again, just Heroes, and maybe come round to David Bowie after all these years. Now that he’s gone.

We try and avoid politics, though father and daughter are political animals. Whoops of delight when I see that all the election posters in Coniston are for the LibDem candidate. What, I wonder, does Theresa May talk about with her husband, and passing strangers, when out walking? And what if I met her out walking? A cheery good morning?

Bagehot in the Economist has a piece on Theresa May, under the heading Tory of Tories. Her Britain he writes is ‘the Britain of the Tory heartlands, a Britain of solid values and rooted certainties, hard work and upward mobility, a Britain where people try to get ahead but also have time for the less fortunate’. That made me wonder. What’s to disagree? Well, let’s get started…

Rooted certainties – that of course has never been England, or the UK. It’s our ability to change, to move quickly, to adapt, to draw on skills from around the world (here in the Lake District the Coniston mines and Millom tannery are two local examples) that has made us what we are. Not clinging to rooted certainties. ‘Solid values’ – a euphemism too often for closing ranks against the world. ‘Hard work’ – it’s inspiration, and we’ve drawn over centuries much inspiration, and wisdom, from Europe, we need as well. ‘Upward mobility’ – and what of those left behind? Not the JAMs, the just about managing, an invented concept if ever there was one, but those whose disadvantages of birth and position deny any opportunity of upward progress. The Tory world is too often a world where the barriers comes down, and the shutters.

There’s another free-trading Tory as well, a different breed, and they have a curious co-existence with the heartland Tory. Not Mrs May’s world at all, nor it seems that of her ‘guru’, Nick Timothy,  who likes to quote Joseph Chamberlain as a hero, claiming him as a people’s champion against … free trade. Falling into the old trap of quoting history out of context, one that seems to be everywhere in these post Brexit days.

All a frightful muddle.

And if we’d met her out walking? A cheery hello, as I manage with most walkers, that would have to suffice. Puzzling over the contradictions of Mrs May would be for another time, and the certainties.

Walking is about the next horizon, and the one after that, and horizons open up as you travel to take in the whole world…

 

 

 

Time to chill out?

Tomorrow I’m heading off to Herefordshire for ten days’ vipassana (insight) meditation. Up in the very small hours and no contact with the outside world, and silent throughout. I will put all politics behind me. I will have no way of knowing the American election result until five days after the result is announced. Much as the result concerns me I will be better for it. Clinton or Trump, the world will take what direction it will. Likewise Brexit. I in my small corner will re-engage when the time comes, just to be part of the process.

But continue with my blog? Time to let the world loose, spare the world – and myself – my take on it? Who listens, who reads? All along, over seven years, I’ve tried to put over my own considered view. To understand the world from a (sort of!) Zen perspective, but at the same time to engage.

Some of us may choose to stand apart, others to engage. Both are equally valid. As I put it when I stared this blog seven years ago I wanted to [take] the trash and the hyperbole out of politics and [try] to look at people and issues in a way that’s detached from emotion and as they really are. Can be very hard to find these days. Zen is living in the moment and not somewhere else past or future….

The downside? Blogs take over. You organise your moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour thinking in terms of how it might appear in a blog. It’s harder to skim, to browse, to just absorb what you read or hear.

Worse, blogs and creativity, blogs and poetry are uneasy bedfellows. There’s a randomness, an complete unexectedness, something of the suck-it-and-see about poetry. You’ve a starting-point and a sense of direction. And no idea of an ending

With a blog it’s all about argument and conclusion. Though occasionally, as in my last All Hallows post, a little bit of creativity creeps in.

So will I return to this blog when I’m back from my time-out?

There has to be something obsessive about a political blog, and I may want to put obsession behind me. To walk and run and sing and play my guitar; to meditate and dream, to create; to give practical help to a charity, a church, even a political party. To go with the flow of the world, rather than try and arrest it – try and put it down in print and words.

We shall see. Maybe I’ll start Zentravel blog, and the Tao, the Camino, the way, will be my inspiration. Maybe Zenpolitics will become occasional, and less politicised. More chilled.

Do come back and take a look sometime

 

 

 

 

On the road 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,/Healthy, free, the world before me,  /The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.              Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Whitman walked, we’re driving. We’re in the USA. A far cry from the Camino. And yet….

We’ve not planned our journey, we don’t have expectations, there isn’t a goal. There’s no history along the way, the road is open, everyone and no-one has trodden this route before us. Encounters with God are accidental not planned. We don’t walk or shuffle, we drive. Our minds picks up the blisters, wheels the wear and tear, not our feet.

We travel in a straight line, travelling west, heading for the sierras and the ocean. America travels in straight lines. Or back east. Start in New York, or California. Route 1 or Route 66, or the Pacific Coast Highway. Keep travelling.

The hobo, riding the blinds… rootless … looking for work: ‘I’ve been doing some hard travellin’, as Woody Guthrie sang.

The Beats by contrast had it easy. Kerouac was out of Columbia University. But like the hobos they were footloose, in mind and body. Searching for God, as Kerouac put it, not work.

Heirs of Whitman, and Emerson, and Thoreau. Even John Muir, though the Beats travelled the road not the wilderness.

They’d escaped the impact of war, the road network arrowed across America, an invitation, the cars that travelled it were streamlined. How lucky and how unlucky they were. War and its aftermath were three thousand miles away, too young to fight or worry, they didn’t have to agonise over combat or parade a political conscience. They were beyond their upbringing… drugs and sex came easily. And jazz. California Zen was a convenient religion – Dharma Bums as well as On the Road.

The Midwest and California have their own dreams and myths. The Beats were originally out of New York, but found California. California lifestyle reinterprets America. Putting up a different dream against New York. Not a Hollywood dream. Precursors to hippies, but they didn’t seek to change the world – not just yet. Challenge because they couldn’t help it – witness the obscenity trials – but not change it. America was their head space, not a place beyond.

They could be measured, a little bit lyrical:

‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’ (Kerouac, On The Road)

And out of their minds:

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,…./who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,/who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull….(Howl, Ginsberg)

And as for me…

It’s 1971 – I’m on the open road, on the Beat trail, starting in New York, ending in California. A road journey, yes, but no automobile of my own. And I’m not hitch-hiking. Taking Greyhound buses city to city. The bus has its own iconography. Bus stations, hostels, camping out with friends in New Jersey, Toronto, Atlanta, Colorado, San Francisco, San Diego. Sleeping rough in Chattanooga. I couldn’t listen to music – but I could read. So Whitman and his streams of consciousness my companion. And Albert Marcuse. Mine was a counter-culture. I might teach history on California, but I wasn’t planning to sully myself with any other work along the way. No encounters with God, but charity from a Baptist preacher who paid for my breakfast and invited me to lunch with his family – but first I must attend his Sunday morning service, and hear him preach.

The long road north out of Texas, straight and parched and empty. Colorado I sensed was still Indian country. San Diego: we were all still hippies at heart. Barefoot and beaten by the sun. I could have tried surfing but instead I headed south, took to the road again, to Mexico. But the Mexicans wouldn’t let me in. Hair too long. Strange irony. They weren’t sure they wanted me back in America either. They cut back my visa to one month. I returned to Mexicali my hair shorn and my ears, unaccustomed to the sun, grew burnt and blistered, as I headed south to Oaxaca, the Yucatan and Chichen Itza.

Did the road came first, or the need to travel it? The road without destination, always going somewhere. Road movies aren’t about physical, but personal destinations. About setting out and avoiding arriving. Not seeking self-knowledge …but maybe achieving it. Though not knowing what to do with it.

My trip was my own road movie, before they invented the genre.

The road’s just one agenda for America. America has multiple agendas, it’s own powerful myths and images, but they have a kind of surface quality. Still a dream. Europe has multi-thousand years of history interwoven into its structures, artefacts and traditions. They root us, define us, hold us back and lift us up – America isn’t tied down – it looks for, loses, its way, finds it again.

James Dean on the one hand, Howl on the other. Drugs, sex, Zen … they are unto themselves, not adjuncts of another culture, a music, a street culture.

I’ve avoided the noise and anger and foolery of America for a while. But I’ll go back. Maybe because there’s no place for complacency – and no place for rebellion – quite like it. It has open spaces, and straight roads, and you can still be alone there. And the skies are big. And there are millions there like me. Chugging along, rebels at heart.

Finisterre – a few hours at the end of summer

Finisterre (Fisterra), Sunday 11th September. There’s a story in the photos below.

Mist down all day, clears to my surprise at 4 o’clock, initially only over the Finisterre peninsula, and even then it’s always present, as if only the slightest movement of air will cause it to re-form. There’s a radiance, an iridescence in and about the air. Should we sail out now into the ocean, to a spirit world, or paradise, beyond, the seas will be calm. There’s a white trail on the water: might that be the route we take?

I clamber down, below and beyond the crowds. I have the far southern tip of Finisterre to myself. People have of course been here before me. Once upon a time pilgrims burnt their no-longer-needed and odiferous walking clothes here, but that practice has been banned. But not to be defeated several people have built a frame of poles and branches and strung their old unwanted clothes from it. They hang limply now. Come the next strong wind they will be shredded.

All the while the cloud is building from the north-west, as the photos show. How stormy the weather will be who is to say, but a long hot summer is slipping away.

The surf is gentle, breaking in concentric patters round untroubled rock. The clouds are wondrous, curtains of cirrus, swags of dappled white looped lightly across the sky, and the ocean almost impercetibly darkened beneath. The sky as it might be in paradise, and all the more a thing of magic because it might just disappear in an instant.

Sure enough the following morning breaks grey and damp, with the cloud down to rooftop level. It will not clear today, and rain will follow. And in England – the hottest September day on record. Cold winds slip down to the west of Ireland, leaving England marooned, cocooned and over-heated.

 

 

Finisterre – end of the known world…

Last year walking the Camino across Spain I put all thoughts of politics out of my mind. I posted a blog when I returned, entitled ‘On being a European’. I had confidence a European and international outlook would win out in the end, whatever the short-term travails. The Brexit vote hit that confidence hard, but walking the Camino Portuguese, and the passing of the weeks, has helped bring calm and perspective. And a shrug of the shoulders – can we really be so daft?

At Cabo Fisterra, Cape Finisterre, where I ventured after Santiago, I clambered down the rocky slope below the lighthouse, and looked out west, over a stretch of ocean which to the Romans would have been at the very edge of the known world – finis terrae. The ocean as the Styx, and somewhere out there would have been Charon, with his boat, ferrying souls.

High cloud patterned the sky but didn’t reduce the sun’s intensity. Mist held to the coast behind me, but not out to sea.

In medieval times, likewise, this was the end of the world, and pilgrims would continue beyond Santiago to Finisterre. In the voyage of St Brendan he sails out west from Ireland and passes over into paradise.

I’ve this fantasy of May, Davis, Fox and Johnson, sitting in a restaurant, at the end of the world (borrowing from Douglas Adams!), having a last meal before they cut ties with Europe and venture off into the unknown. The ocean is peaceful just now but the autumn and winter storms will be mighty.

On another tack, but still in Spain, there’s a quote I like from Gerald Brenan’s classic book, The Face of Spain, about Spain, but more applicable to the UK just now: ‘I do not know where we are going, but I do know this – that wherever it is we shall lose our way.’

And China…. thinking walls, not oceans…. I’ve a sense that the Emperor Shih Huang Ti’s behaviour, as recorded in Richard Flanagan’s novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, might just have relevance to our own times: he ‘ordered the construction of the Great Wall and the destruction of all books preceding his reign, so that history would henceforth begin with him and his wall.’

In this post-expertise age, we are in a not dissimilar place. We might just finding ourselves using a new, unknown and very friable building material, not stone, not brick – but brexit. On one side of the wall, the old Europe, and on the other, the ocean.