Our evening meal on Pie Day at the Outgate Inn is in danger of being blighted by a noisy band of happy Brexiteers apparently unaware of the serious situation they and their like have created. The young man behind the bar with the hint of a foreign accent, French perhaps, smiles as he goes about his work, polite and unobtrusively attentive. I wonder what he thinks of these noisy tribalistic Brits. I could say that their presence makes us feel embarrassed to be British, except that our feelings about their crass opinions and attitude take us beyond embarrassment. It’s no relief when they turn their mindless chat to comments on football or the telly.
Fortunately, after what seems like half an hour or more, they decide to leave. The people at the table next to ours give us a smile and a shake of the head that says, “Phew. Thank goodness they’ve gone.” And the pub reverts to a good old English calm.
Back home at the bus stop in Sale a man with a round face and loud opinions, approaching old age with a certain lack of dignity and a total lack of wisdom, is mouthing off to an older couple next to him about security, the EU, the U.S. president and other related matters. His bus comes before ours and, when he’s gone, the old man who had listened to the diatribe with a tolerant smile, expresses relief at the fellow’s departure and we all agree that he didn’t know what he was talking about.
It’s democratic, of course, for people with little or no knowledge to have opinions on matters beyond their comprehension and to express them with dogmatic force. They’ve been told that their opinion matters. It’s democratic so it must be right.
I’m only too aware that this makes me sound like some right wing authoritarian. No. But I do think that we abuse our democracy. We support our cause, not by honest expression of our ideas, ideals and principles, but by using slogans, selective bits of information, misinformation and half truths. This is possible when people have not learnt to think, to recognise crooked argument, to spot when they are not being given the complete picture, to recognise their own limitations.
As I grow old and older, I find that my ideas and opinions are less secure. And I think of the Quaker advice to their members to consider it possible that they might be mistaken. So, dear reader, consider this diatribe of mine as a letting off of steam, but also, maybe, as giving you something to think about.
I’m a Billy Collins fan. Well, not a fan, perhaps – I don’t like fanaticism. I’m an enthusiastic reader of his poems, which seem to me to be just the right kind of poem for our time. So when I spotted, in the OXFAM shop, a book of his I didn’t have, I didn’t have to think twice about buying it.
His poem about the trouble with poetry is spot on. Reading it does make you want to write it and we do pinch ideas from other poets, or, if not, they do show us what can be done. A poem by Xavier Grall showed me exactly how I could write a poem about Llangynyw to my own satisfaction.
What can be a worry is that you can come up with something that seems so right that you feel you must have read it somewhere.
This became something to think about one day as I listened to the radio. I had, some years earlier, ended a poem with the lines, ‘girl of this land/you fill my life with space.’ Imagine my…..well, surprise, to say the least, when the song on the radio, a song I was not aware of having heard before, contained the words ‘you fill my life with space’. The song writer certainly hadn’t read my poem, which was written years before I heard his song. Ah well! It said what I wanted it to say, so I suppose it doesn’t matter.
Even Shakespeare and T.S.Eliot, to name but two, were not averse to using other people’s stuff in their work. And look what we think of them.
I’d love to write the sort of poem Billy Collins does, so suited to the 21st century, but I don’t suppose I could. My way of using language isn’t his. I don’t have his genius for making something special of the ordinary things of life the way he does. So I’ll just tread my own path, which, though I says it myself as shouldn’t, isn’t at all a bad one.
I hope Bill Bryson will forgive me – I think he will -for quoting him at length. He has expressed what I have been thinking for years.
‘Looking back now, I really do think Britain had attained something approaching perfection just around the time of my arrival. It’s a funny thing because Britain was in a terrible state in those days. It limped from crisis to crisis. It was known as the sick man of Europe. It was in every way poorer than now. Yet there were flowerbeds on roundabouts, libraries and post offices in every village, cottage hospitals in abundance, council housing for all who needed it. It was a country so comfortable and enlightened that hospitals maintained cricket pitches for their staff and mental patients lived in Victorian palaces. If we could afford it then, why not now?’
It would be easy to blame Thatcherism, but it would probably be more sensible to say that the application of moneterist policies turned Britain into a place where the driving force was the pursuit of private gain and enrichment. There’s no such thing as society. We’re a collection of individuals all doing the best for ourselves, best being defined in terms of getting richer. And many of us are getting richer. And because we have been persuaded that this is the badge of success, we go along with the idea that taxes are bad and should be kept at as low a level as possible. So we can’t pay for things which make for a socially and spiritually rich society – oh, but I forget, there’s no such thing as society.
What’s more, if something is cheaper to buy abroad, do that. I understand that we now import as much coal as was produced by the mines we shut down. Where’s the sense of that for a real economy? For our economic survival as a nation we have become heavily dependent on financial services, and even those can’t produce a balance of payments.
I expect that Margaret Thatcher’s ideals of integrity, hard work and self reliance also included living within one’s means. Did she not realise that the agenda of those for whom she was the political mouthpiece would create a Britain living beyond its means, an increasing divide between rich and poor and a threat to the survival of things we hold dear?
Add to this the relentless march of technology. If you want to do something which involves the use of new technology but is of questionable value, you trot out the word ‘modernising’ to clinch the argument. We don’t want to be left behind. Modern equals good.
So rather than pay a little more in taxation to fund libraries, art galleries and theatres and maintain our parks and footpaths in good order, we spend our money on Sky TV and constantly upgrade our mobile phones. Government and local councils encourage us (almost force us) to do things on-line, taking the humanity out of our dealings with them, this despite the fact that their IT programmes seem designed to ignore individual needs.
So the answer to your question, Bill, might be that for some unfathomable reason, we have been encouraged to live beyond our means, hate taxation and spend our money on the wrong things.
But actually, it isn’t all that bad. A lot of good things are happening to give us hope that there could be a better future. I’m hoping to stick around for a few more years, long enough to see this better future beginning to emerge.
When we first moved to Woodhouse Park, the little children of the close came to greet us and to talk to us. They were full innocent questions, wanting to know about us. And they were proud to tell us that one of the little girls could speak Polish and went to Poland on holiday.
Now a friend , a teacher, who lives in Yorkshire, is telling us that the little Polish children in her class have been crying and asking her if they will have to go back to Poland.
It’s a sad reflection on what has just happened that it is making little children cry.
I have been made more than sad, despondent, by the result of the referendum on EU membership, not so much because of the leaving itself, but because of what appear to be the motives and mind set behind the vote. There has been a lot of xenophobic tribalism in evidence. A decision has been made which the arguments have revealed to be largely based on ignorance of what it is we are leaving.
I must admit that I do not have great knowledge of the workings of the EU, of what is laid down in the treaty or of the economic implications of membership. I do know that a lot of nonsense and misinformation have been put about.
Much has been made of what is best for Britain. We should be asking ourselves what is best for Europe (including Britain) and indeed the world. During the campaign I have been wanting to follow the example of J.F.Kennedy and say to people, ‘Ask not what Europe can do for you, but what you can do for Europe.’ It wouldn’t have worked for those people who want to think that Britain is better than any other country and the British are the best -something which smacks of an inferiority complex .
If the EU is, as I would hope, an expression of an ideal of international friendship, co-operation and peace, we should be in there helping to realise the ideal. If it isn’t, then perhaps we should be in there working to make it so. Sadly, the public face of Britain seems to be one of obsessive self interest. In leaving the EU we are turning some of ‘us’ into ‘them’.
I must confess that just now I’m feeling a little embarrassed at being British.
Reading Wainwright’s Ex-Fellwanderer, I’m getting the impression of a nice old chap who has good old fashioned values of integrity, honesty, hard work and so on. A man who values and respects the countryside as something special, not just a playground, who hates the mistreatment of animals. Then up pop the disagreeable opinions – ‘the culprits should be birched until they squeal for mercy’, ‘football hooliganism would be cured overnight if the penalty was castration’
Wainwright, by his own account, led an idyllic life over many years, cutting himself off from society as much as possible. He should have kept his reactionary old man opinions to himself.
I hold no brief for those who engage in criminal and violent behaviour. But our response to such behaviour cannot be to become, even if only in our mind set, like the criminals who disgust us.
An old man on the radio admits that the referendum on membership of the EU shouldn’t really be his concern – it’s the young people’s future that is at stake – but he will be voting to leave because he thinks we are losing our way of life.
I wonder what he means by our way of life. What time do we get up in the morning? Do we have a bath or a shower? What do we wear? What do we have for breakfast? How do we go to work – on foot, by bike, by car, by public transport? What sort of work do we do? What do we do with our leisure time – play sport, watch telly, go down the pub, play music, go to concerts or the cinema or the theatre, go walking or climbing, join a choir, go to bingo, walk the dog, do charity work, eat out…?
It’s true that things change. Someone once said that the only thing that doesn’t change is the law of constant change.
When I think of the changes in British life that have made a big impact in my lifetime, they don’t seem down to the EU.
The growth in car ownership and use – not down to the EU. The advent of television – not down to the EU. The change in shopping habits brought about by supermarkets and out of town shopping centres – not down to the EU. The commercialisation of sport, largely thanks to Sky – not down to the EU. Changes i the workplace brought about by advances in technology – not down to the EU. The privatisation of utility companies – not down to the EU. The impact of computers, the internet and mobile phones – not down to the EU. The popularity of Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Big Mac, chicken vindaloo – not down to the EU.
If we are losing our way of life, if the world of Shakespeare and roses round the cottage door has disappeared, it is not because of the EU, it’s down to commercial pressures and the seemingly inevitable march of technology.
What the EU does represent is an ideal of co-operation friendship and peace. Maybe we should be in there working for this ideal. The old-fashioned tribalism which seems to be driving the leave campaign is not a mind set suitable for the twenty-first century.