Folk horror and Brexit

The first mention of folk horror on this weblog was in 2018, where I talked about it in relation to Brexit. According to wikipedia, the term dates back to 1970, but its recent popularity started with Mark Gatiss’s History of Horror, which described the ‘folk horror trinity’ of The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General. In 2014, Adam Scovell described the ‘folk horror chain’ in an attempt to define folk horror, listing four main attributes:

  • Rural Location
  • Isolated Groups
  • Skewed Moral and Belief Systems
  • Supernatural or Violent Happenings.

There has been something of a boom in folk horror in recent years. In his May 2023 newsletter, John Higgs wrote.

When people tell me about the projects they are working on, it’s now weirder if they don’t involve ritual, folk horror, magic, ancient landscapes or at the very least weird animal masks (those that don’t, curiously, tend to be AI-based)… Because magic always undergoes a resurgence during times of hardship, economic decline and political failure, all this has been baked into the Brexit project from day one.

Ben Graham went into this a little further in The Urban Spaceman newsletter for July 2023:

But in fact, a more appropriate metaphor to draw from The Wicker Man in 2023 is that we’re all living on Summerisle right now. The island is a prophecy of Brexit Britain, ruled over by high-handed autocrats who use the emotive power of invented myth to keep us working for their interests rather than our own, and to distract us from the fact that their crackpot schemes are tanking the economy and alienating us from our neighbouring nations. Ultimately, they whip up a frenzied hatred of outsiders, making them both scapegoats and sacrifice, as though if we could just shut all of the immigrants and woke police in a giant wicker man and burn the lot then everything would be alright.

Ley-lines, Brexit and the Right

Back in July, I wrote a post on Ley lines and Brexit. This was retweeted by Matt Pope, which produced some interesting discussions. While my initial alignment was tenuous, further reading showed more points connecting these two topics; as well as leading me into reading more widely about the links between earth mysteries, paganism and right-wing groups.

The main, obvious, link between ley-lines and Brexit is the work of John Michell, whose book The View over Atlantis launched the 1960s earth mysteries boom. His writing is explored in depth in Amy Hale’s essay John Michell, Radical Traditionalism, and the Emerging Politics of the Pagan New Right, originally published in Pomegranate.

As I wrote before, through his work on earth mysteries, Michell believed in the significance of ancient measurement systems, becoming an enthusiastic anti-metrication campaigner, as well as being suspicious of Europe’s Common Market. As Hale writes:

[Michell] argued vehemently against the metric standard, believing that it was erasing not only a uniquely British measure, but also one of the few remaining links to the traditional measures which were related to the divine order and sacred kingship.

I’ve just finished reading Finlan O’Toole’s excellent book on Brexit, Heroic Failures. In this, O’Toole talks about the competing images of Britain that each side had in the 1975 European Communities membership referendum. Those resisting joining the European union often had a belief in Britain’s significance. Michell’s claims for the importance of England were inspired by Anglo-Israelite theories and the work of William Blake. To quote again from Amy Hale:

While Michell did not evidently share the White supremacist sentiment of many contemporary Anglo-Israelites, he did feel that the British are the chosen people and, echoing Tudor Pole, that Britain (with particular emphasis on Glastonbury) is the spiritual centre of Europe if not the world, which he gives as a justification for remaining separate from the emerging European superstate.

Michell was also a nativist who believed in some level of racial segregation and a return to ‘traditional’ societies. Hale writes in detail about Michell’s views:

Michell also felt that each race has its own characteristic traits and areas where they excel, and that it is important to the restoration of divine law that each group of people is situated within their homeland, because it is their indigenous quality that connects them to their particular sacred landscape. As far as Britain is concerned, Michell admitted that he perceived multiculturalism as a far-from-ideal social model, and that within England different ethnic groups should remain segregated and geographically separate, which would replicate Britain’s village level diversity from the pre-Reformation period. He seems to justify this by arguing that if various groups of people are allowed to remain together that their traditions will remain vibrant, however he also states that it is crucial for the indigenous majority, in this case the British, to enforce the rule of law.

While he was aware that these views would appall some of his friends and readers, Michell was also tolerated – I mentioned in the previous post about the book of Hitler quotes that he published. After the rise in right-wing groups over the past fear years, I suspect (and hope) someone doing the same things as Michell nowadays would be less indulged.

In her conclusion, Hale looked at Michell’s relationship to a broader spectrum of right-wing thought, writing that “within the extension of Michell’s beliefs about tribalism, sacred landscapes, ecology, anti modernism, and conservation—all themes which underpin the values of many Pagans—that we see this fascinating convergence of right-wing and left-wing politics

Hale has written elsewhere about this convergence of views between wildly different political groups, exploring the intersections between extreme right and the left on issues such as anti-capitalism, ecology and folklore. She warns of the need for vigilance where such crossovers mean that ideas and works intended as non-political can actually end up supporting the right.

This tension was apparent in the ley-line community in the 1980s, when the British fascist movements attempted to use earth mysteries to support their racial theories. This is discussed by Paul Devereux in an interview with Chris Aston in QuickSilver Messenger. Devereux was asked about earth mysteries and ideology. He replied that the ley hunters he knew covered “all social groups and all age groups and all political views” and aspired to be non-political. But, despite this, he acknowledged a political angle. Talking about a rightward drift among sections of the British people, Devereux continued:

I’m getting exchange magazines now produced by Nazis – Facists I should say. They’re offering 10% reduction to the Police and Armed Forces – saying Auschwitz never really happened. They’re producing articles showing that Arian blood is superior to Jewish blood. They’re talking about leylines – it’s all deeply in it. People like Tony Roberts have been approached by the National Front- he was one of their heroes – Tony Roberts was on the street as a long-haired leftie – fighting in the streets back in the 60s. We’re in a very curious phase- and there’s no doubt that this material – this Earth Mysteries stuff – can – would fuel a new sort of Fascism. I mean I’m not a Fascist – I’m anything but – I’m the other end of the political spectrum if anything. But I’m aware of this danger and I’m just afraid it could be used in a dogmatic way…

All this makes it apparent that anyone writing on landscape, folklore, or even ley lines needs to be aware of a choice in how to be approach it. Even if you aspire to be apolitical, as Devereux longed to be, there are people who may try to use your writing for their own extremist ends. I should say that this isn’t a revelation, and that people have been talking about this a lot over the past few years (just search for “folklore against fascism” or read Cat Vincent’s essay). Seeing how even ley-lines became political makes me more aware of a need to be wary in my own writing, even for a small audience. As much as I’d considered certain aspects of my writing are non-political, that’s not necessarily a choice I’m free to make.

One place these issues played out was in the row over Paul Kingsnorth’s now-withdrawn essay Elysium Found, written to promote the film Arcadia. Kingsnorth wrote about tradition as under attack from modernity, but also from invaders, including the Spanish Armada and the Nazis. While Kingsnorth protested at being accused of racism, the essay casually evoked a nativist view of Britain under attack from the outside. The piece would have benefitted from being a little less ambiguous on some of these points.

Another example has been the correspondence about ‘blackface Morris’ in a particular earth mystery magazine a few years back. Some people seemed angry that blackface Morris was under attack as racist and exclusionary despite what they claimed were non-racist origins for the make-up. Regardless of the historical origins (which are contested), these people found themselves on the side of a rather distasteful view: that being faithful to tradition was more important than not offending or excluding other people from these traditions.

A more explicit and shocking example such exclusion in a landscape/nostalgia context was the TV show Midsummer Murders, whose producer, Brian True-May, stepped down after an interview with the Radio Times. This was discussed by David Southwell in his introduction to one of Paul Watson’s books (although my copy is currently in storage). It’s an explicit and appalling example of someone excluding people from the landscape, and it’s shocking that this was just ten years ago. To quote from the BBC news story:

Mr True-May added: “We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them. It just wouldn’t work.” Asked why “Englishness” could not include other races who are well represented in modern society, he said: “Well, it should do, and maybe I’m not politically correct. I’m trying to make something that appeals to a certain audience, which seems to succeed. And I don’t want to change it.”

(I’ve never understood the idea of ‘cosy’ murder mysteries, but True-May was ahead of a lot of people in linking rural England with slaughter, something that Nick Haye’s Book of Trespass explored in detail).

Jonathan Last’s essay Et in Avebury ego… is a brilliant exploration of how heritage exposes itself to being appropriated by nationalism through the use of nostalgic (small-c) conservative views. He suggests that we need to make people aware of how the landscape has changed over time and to make it explicit that these things belong to everyone. He is clear about what is means to belong to a place:

making a connection with an ancient place does not depend on ancestry, it is about dwelling – which may simply take the form of visiting. Of course understanding and a sense of belonging are deepened by spending time in a place but it is not a quantitative matter to be measured in generational time.

Ley lines and Brexit

Throughout 2021, I’ve been writing a monthly page about ley lines in Bodge magazine. I assumed this was a long way from the things I’ve written about Brexit, but a link has emerged.

I recently read Seekers of the Linear vision, Paul Screeton’s history of ley research from 1921 through to the early 90s. The book has a lovely wistful tone as it retells some countercultural history, along with reminiscences of the people involved. It also has a tantalising bibliography.

One of the most important figures in the study of leys is John Michell, whose book The View Over Atlantis started the ley-line revival in the 60s, as well as shifting the topic into earth mysteries. Michell is a fascinating figure, an old Etonian who wrote on subjects including the Shakespeare authorship controversy, defences of Michael X, and arguing against the prosecution of Gay News for printing James Kirkup’s poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name. (He was also responsible, rather dubiously, for the Hip Guide to Hitler, which reprinted supposedly amusing or supposedly insightful statements by the dictator).

One of the major causes pursued by Michell was anti-metrication. In 1970 he founded the Anti-Metrication Board, and produced various pamphlets. Michell opposed the metric system on the basis that the imperial system had links to divine systems used in a pre-historic golden age. As Screeton writes, he was “defending the sacred measures against an arbitrary system preferred by Brussels administration”.

Michell organised a grand fete in the grounds of Rupert Lycett Green’s house, which was described as looking like “the sun setting on the British empire“. Around the same time, in 1971, Michell was involved in the first Glastonbury festival, siting the pyramid stage at the intersection of two leys.

Michell became an inspiration to the ‘new right’ through his interest in ‘radical traditionalism’. He described some of his views as ‘mystic nationalism’, seeing Britain as a sacred island. He also apparently believed in racial segregation. Quoting from Wikipedia, “[Michell] believed that communities should be led by a strong leader who personified the solar deity. This embrace of the Divine Right of Kings led him to believe that Queen Elizabeth II should take control of Britain as an authoritarian leader who could intercede between the British people and the divine“.

Elsewhere in the book, Screeton refers to a controversy where the members of the National Front briefly became interested in ley lines, which I’ve only heard of from a paragraph in Seekers of the Linear Vision. (Screeton objected to this strongly, describing the bulk of ley hunters as revolted by “elite organisation as practised by fascists“).

The link between Michell and Brexit is nothing more than the alignment of a few chance points, but it would definitely looks worth digging into further. If I ever get round to working on that Brexit and Hiking book, maybe…

Boris Johnson and the Painted Buses

Modern politics is confusing and alienating. I know this because, earlier this year, Adam Curtis told me across eight hours in Can’t Get You Out of My Head. But, while this show entertained and educated, nothing was explained. I kind of wish Curtis had done more than demonstrate that we’re trapped in a maze. What we really need is a way out.

For me, the essential riddles of recent British politics focus on a few specific strange incidents. I don’t know if I am insane, but I am convinced that these odd moments might explain… everything. One of the political riddles is Daniel Hannan’s lie about taking a walk in the English countryside. I’ve talked about this in depth and if I survive the pandemic I will have more to say about this (much, much more, as I’ve still not published my 10,000 word essay on the subject). Another example is the news footage of Boris Johnson telling an angry parent at a hospital that there were no press there – while on camera. The thing is, I finally found an answer to another riddle and it turned out to be far stranger than I expected, and no help at all.

Back in June 2019, before the pandemic, before Brexit, Johnson was campaigning to be leader of the Conservative party, which also meant being selected as Prime Minister. He’d just been caught up in a scandal where the police were called to an argument between him and his partner (now wife) Carrie Symonds. Shortly after, he was interviewed by TalkRadio and was asked what he did to relax. Johnson replied:

I like to paint. Or I make things. I have a thing where I make models of buses. What I make is, I get old, I don’t know, wooden crates, and I paint them. It’s a box that’s been used to contain two wine bottles, right, and it will have a dividing thing. And I turn it into a bus. So I put passengers – I paint the passengers enjoying themselves on a wonderful bus – low carbon, of the kind that we brought to the streets of London, reducing C02, reducing nitrous oxide, reducing pollution.

Now, this seems a very odd statement from a politician. There is little evidence that Johnson really does this – and certainly no pictures of these buses. There was a doodle of a bus sold in a charity auction. Many journalists, including the Spectator, found the whole idea preposterous. To quote Guardian sketchwriter John Crace’s description of the footage:

Even Johnson looked as if he had surprised himself. It was such a pointless, obvious lie. One there had been no need to tell. But he just couldn’t help himself. Lying was what he did. Lying was what he had always done.

Some people even saw the statement as arrogance mockery of the public, including TV show runner Simon Blackwell:

Only just caught up with the Boris Johnson model bus interview. Feels like a screw-you status thing – “I can literally say any old unbelievable shit and still become PM.” Like Trump’s “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

One theory, a connisseur’s insider theory, provided a logical explanation, that the strange admission was a stunningly clever SEO (search engine optimisation) trick designed to hide the mentions of the Brexit bus in Google’s index. Johnson had long been linked to this outrageous lie during the Brexit campaign. There was even a widely-ciculated post from an SEO agency discussing this in detail. I’ve worked in agencies, and there’s always a drive for newsworthy blog posts that might go viral.

But I’m not sure how realistic that is, since Johnson was running for leader of the Conservative party, having reached the last two. It just seems a lot of effort to go to for a constituency that are not going to be so bothered. And there are far worse lies in Johnson’s past he’d likely prefer to hide. (Back in June 2021, Dominic Cummings was asked about this on his substack and replied: “You don’t know Boris! This was not a cunning SEO plan, honestly“)

I finally found an answer in Tom Bower’s recent biography of Johnson. I’ll talk about that book in detail elsewhere, as it’s both interesting and very poorly-written. But it did get to the answer about Boris and the bus, and it’s a stranger, sadder story than I’d expected. I now think Johnson was telling the truth about painting buses.

Bower’s biography of Johnson paints Stanley Johnson, the PM’s father, as the villain of the piece, and Johnson’s faults as the result of an unpleasant childhood. Bowers tells about how amusing celebrity Stanley Johnson once broke his wife’s nose, and would hit her in front of the children. How he deserted his family for a time in an old farmhouse, where the iron in the water pipes made them sick. “‘We were all lying ill on the floor,’ says Charlotte. [Johnson’s mother] Compounding that sickness, Boris often screamed with pain from agonising earaches caused by grommets.” Amidst this grimness, Johnson suffered periods of deafness.

Bower’s book later says: “Despite being a mother to three young children, Charlotte went to art classes and encouraged her children to paint. Boris seemed particularly keen on drawing and painting buses in oils.

That line might be a little too on the nose for some people to find it believable. But despite the flaws in Bowers’ book (almost as many as his subject), it made Johnson a sadder, more sympathetic figure. I could imagine him painting as a way of revisiting some of the better moments of a harsh childhood. And, it turns out, there is other evidence of Johnson painting for fun, in this case, cheese boxes:

You get Brie and Camembert in these lovely wooden boxes. Now it might sound cretinous – and I’m not a very good painter – but I enjoy it and find it therapeutic. I paint the whole thing white with a tube of children’s paint and I look for something to paint. The last thing I painted was a picture of one of my family in front of the Colosseum in Rome. I also like painting whisky bottles.

So, having read Bowers’ book, I now have an answer to the riddle of Johnson and the bus. On balance, I believe Johnson was telling the truth. It’s not the answer I expected, and a far sadder story than the obvious one.

Here’s a picture of a banana Johnson painted in March 2021:

On Top of Glastonbury Tor (21/06/18)

I am standing at the top of Glastonbury Tor when my phone buzzes: my sister’s email is not working and can I fix it.

I have my laptop with me. My Airbnb, while comfortable, has no locks on the door, so it was better to bring it with me. Since I’ve got my laptop, I can work out what’s wrong with the email from here, using my phone as a portable hotspot. And so, at the top of the holy hill, I go online and check things. Once a test email goes through, I can put the laptop away and get back to being a tourist. It’s late in the day after the solstice and the hilltop is full of people celebrating, playing and meditating.

The Internet has grown to encompass the world. We used to ‘go online’; now online is all around us. Even on the top of Glastonbury Tor I can be as connected as I am at my house.

In his book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, James Bridle quotes mathematician Harry Reid’s description of working with the ENIAC, one of the first computers. This was a machine that took up the whole of a large room, and Reid says: “The ENIAC… was a very personal computer. Now we think of a personal computer as one you carry around with you. The ENIAC was actually one that you kind of lived inside”.

As Bridle goes on to point out, we all live inside a computer now, “a vast machinery of computation that encircles the entirety of the globe and extends into outer space on a network of satellites [while] it has rendered itself almost invisible to us”.

The supply chains, our phones, the planes in the skies, are all part of a massive network. Satellites send signals that tell us where we are anywhere in the world. We can no longer opt out. Everywhere I go, the Internet is there in some form. I don’t usually have my laptop in my bag, but my phone is always there.

The problem with this is that all places start to look the same. They all look a little bit like the UI on my Android phone.

This is an excerpt from a work in progress, A Hiker’s Guide to Brexit. It comes at the start of a chapter about Glastonbury, and how Britpop caused Brexit.

Brexit Day

In some ways, I’m glad we’re finally leaving.

The 10 month extension to Article 50 from March 2019 has achieved very little. The country is still massively divided about the referendum and we are no closer to defining what Brexit means. The transition period has been squashed to 11 months. The delays and lack of focus have been incredibly expensive; Bloomberg Economics estimates that the cost to the economy of Brexit so far is £200 billion in lost growth, approaching the total Britain has paid the EU during its membership.

Leaving the EU was unavoidable. Whether the referendum was advisory or not, the government promised that it would act upon the results. In my opinion, any mandate was discharged when the May deal was voted down by elected MPs, reflecting the lack of a realistic Brexit people could agree on. Despite that, parliament has voted to leave without a plan.

Westminster should have come up with something that satisfied both sides. But May’s red lines, Johnson’s empty bombast and Corbyn’s lack of substance have wasted three years.

Brexit coins and triumphalism are not bringing people together. Well, the Leave side should enjoy their victory while they can. With their huge election victory in December, the Tories have taken full charge of Brexit, and have to be held accountable for all the promises that have been made.

Our country has had almost a decade of stagnation. People have suffered under austerity, and even died. We were promised a Brexit that would be economically transformative and we have every right to expect Britain to make up for that £200 billion in lost growth, and then overtake Germany and France. Without that, there is no point having left.

Despite feeling that Brexit was unavoidable, I’ve resisted as I can, mostly through art/magical events such as The October Ritual and Hexit. That network is still there, and still watching. I have been particularly inspired by Cat Vincent, who this week republished part of his curse from last year’s Hexit event, the last time Brexit was deferred.

Government ministers have repeatedly urged the country to come together. And that’s fine. I don’t want Brexit to fail. I want the country to thrive, and for the doubts of remainers to be proved wrong. Brexit is a stupid idea, but it seems unavoiable, so let’s get on with it. The Tories have coasted for ten years on blaming Labour for the country’s problems. Now, with a massive election victory, Johnson has won the responsibility for making Britain a better place.

We were promised sunlit uplands. To quote the Prime Minister:

We can see the sunlit meadows beyond. I believe we would be mad not to take this once in a lifetime chance to walk through that door

We’re stepping through the door now.

This had better be good. And, if it’s not, then someone needs to take responsibility.

As for tonight, I’m off to London to see John Higgs talk about William Blake. Things may look bleak but, as Mr Higgs has often reminded us, Pessimism is for Lightweights.

The Road: A classic hiking novel

There aren’t enough great novels about hiking.

The classic example is, obviously, The Lord of the Rings, where two tourists wander through war zones to reach a scenic mountain. The slog of a long walk also turns up a lot in post apocalyptic sci-fi too. My favourite example is Riddley Walker, with its pilgrimage through a post-nuclear dark-age version of Kent. But the most important post-apocalyptic hiking novel is The Road, a charming story of a father and son hike to see the ocean.

No, actually it’s a grim and depressing novel, with the characters trudging through a ruined world. Images from the film turn up in bleak political memes, with the father explaining/excusing how the world came to be like that. The most common one responds to Trump’s attacks on Hilary Clinton: “But her emails!”.

I laughed when I first saw this; but it never seemed a realistic scenario, until ex-“Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union” David Davis promised that Brexit would not mean a “Mad Max style dystopia”. I’d not considered that to be a risk until Davis suggested it. Particularly since Davis was notorious for seeming not to understand how the sequencing for negotiations was supposed to go – a fairly fundamental part of his job. And that same meme of The Road has turned up with the quote changed to be about Brexit.

Given the unbridled incompetence of DexEU, we might not be lucky enough to find ourselves even in a Mad Max-style dystopia.

But there is one hopeful things about The Road. The idea that, when everything else collapses, there is the option to start walking. It’s an idea powerfully portrayed in Raynor Winn’s book the Salt Path. If the worst is happening, keep moving.

The hikes of Rory Stewart

For a while I thought that, maybe, linking hiking and Brexit was far-fetched. Then along comes Rory Stewart as a late addition to the Brexit storyline.

Stewart emerged as an outsider in the 2019 Tory leadership race, promoting himself through a series of ‘Rory Walks’ videos on social media. He attracted public attention as a conviction politician, one who spoke plainly and clearly about doing the right thing. He made a great impression, even if a lot of people enthused about him with no clear idea of what he stood for. This includes the great work he did as prisons minister: it’s rare to see a minister set targets for themselves and promise to quit if these weren’t achieved.

Rory Stewart is also one of our age’s greatest walkers. I recently finished his book The Places in Between, which describes a solo trek across Afghanistan in 2002. This was shortly after the fall of the Taliban, when rural Afghanistan was incredibly dangerous. Stewart had been following the journeys of the emperor Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, but had missed out Afghanistan due to the political situation, and decided to go there at the first possibility.

It’s hard to grasp exactly how dangerous Stewart’s walk was, and I’m not sure what he thought he was doing. He sometimes walks away from encounters, having bluffed his way past armed men, not sure if he will be shot in back of his the head. At one point, a group of men suggest he walk down to a riverside and he refuses:

They all laughed. ‘Why are you laughing?’ I asked. ‘Because if you had gone down there, you would have been killed,’ they replied.

Stewart is a great writer on walking, and his account is beautiful and melancholy. He describes a visit to the Bamyan Buddhas, giving a real feeling for the location. Stewart also powerfully evokes the experience of such a long trek:

My mind flitted from half-remembered poetry to things I had done of which I was ashamed. I stumbled on the uneven path. I lifted my eyes to the sky behind the peaks and felt the silence. This was what I had imagined a wilderness to be.

Few westerners have explored these regions of Afghanistan; and those that did were travelling between secure compounds in armoured cars (“International advisors and soldiers were prevented, because of security fears, from ever spending a single night in an Afghan village house.”). Throughout the trip, both locals and visitors are shocked that Stewart risks making his journeys on foot. But this means Stewart is able to discuss the rules of hospitality and how they are applied. He produces strange vignettes from his encounters:

As we went to sleep someone turned on a radio tuned to the BBC Dari service. A Bill Gates speech on American policy towards technology monopolies was being translated into Dari. The men listened intently. I wondered what these illiterate men without electricity thought of bundling Internet Explorer with Windows.

Stewart was not able to carry a map on his walk, in case he was thought to be a spy. Instead, his journey was a linear one: “I recited and followed this song-of-the-places-in-between as a map. I chanted it even after I had left the villages, using the list as a credential.” The walk became a passage between different villages, each with their own chief, relying on the names of allies and protectors for safety. It’s a very different way of walking to following a trail or a map.

Stewart’s descriptions of Afghanistan made me think about it very differently from the impression TV has given me:

Most people in this area had not heard of Britain, though they had heard of America. Some had even heard of the World Trade Center, but they had no real concept of what it had been or why the coalition had bombed Afghanistan.

By 2008, Stewart was teaching at Harvard, and failing to persuade his students of the difficulty of nation-building through military force. My frustration convinced me that my only way of stopping such events in future was to stand for election as a politician. It’s quite something to be in a position where a decision to be an MP so quickly leads to parliament.

Stewart has had an interesting time as a politician. He is an eccentric, and failed to fit comfortably into the Tory party, as Paul Goodman points out in Conservative Home. A lot of people have attacked him on his voting record, but he followed a party whip, and used the ministerial position gained through this compliance to improve the lives of prisoners. The ‘minor gangsters’ incident is embarrassing, but I’m not sure it’s a reason for Stewart to quit politics. And being in the position to have made this mistake is far, far better than our PM’s racist columns written from the safety of a journalist’s desk.

I’m not convinced Stewart is a great fit for London mayor, as Paul Goodman has pointed out. But I hope leaving Westminster after the December 2019 election will give him more time for walking; and for writing about it.

Why Brexit and Hiking?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and some writing about hiking and Brexit.

Beyond the anxieties and concerns of the current political situation, Brexit fascinates me as a story. We have a complicated piece of policy, which has sometimes proved too much for the people directly involved: witness Nadine Dories admitting privately she didn’t understand the customs union; or the surprising errors by Brexit ministers.

The details of this policy cut across all areas of life in incredibly technical ways. I’ve written before about how the software needs of the project makes it impossible. A massive number of policy decisions need to be made, at the same time as it raises issues about the meaning and direction of the country, including a reckoning with the legacies of war and empire. And these questions are being settled by slogans and emotional arguments.

There are already some great popular histories of Brexit, including the first two volumes of the Shipman trilogy. But there is also a space for interpretations of Brexit, and I think these can be best approached from oblique directions.

Daniel Hannan is described as the man who invented Brexit, and provides much of the intellectual force behind Brexit. He also wrote How we invented freedom, a book about the supremacy of anglophone institutions and ideas. In a discussion of the English language, Hannan praised the English language for favouring “the expression of empirical, down-to-earth, practical ideas”. He goes on to attack academic language for being wooly, too influenced by “European thinkers”, and gives an example of Karl Marx’s writing, asking:

What native speaker of English could have written that way? Only one who had trained himself, over many years, to ape the style of Hegel, or Marx, Derrida or Satre

Setting aside Hannan’s surprising suggestion that Marx reads like he was aping Derrida or Satre, it’s notable that Hannan makes a swipe Derrida. Jacques Derrida is a philosopher I know a bit about, having studied him on my MA. Derrida was fascinated by details, whereas Hannan is less concerned by them – he’s more a big picture sort of guy.

Reading Derrida – and parsing the sometimes forbidding style – trained me to see the way language can undercut itself. It also trained me to be sensitive to how marginal details undermine a larger project. Derrida once destroyed an argument by respected amateur philosopher John Searle starting with his copyright statement. Small things can undermine supposedly-simple wider arguments. Faultlines can easily be exposed by looking at something from the edges.

There is, for example, a great book to be written about Brexit and curry. Not by me, although I’ve written some short pieces about the topic. Such a book would look at issues around immigration for unskilled workers, the promises made to the Indian restaurant industry during and after the referendum, and the Leave campaign’s strange ideas about empire.

And hiking also seems to resonate with Brexit. There are incidents like Theresa May’s Wales hike, Danniel Hannan’s lie about a walk, or Rory Stewart’s walks-as-campaigning. Then there are all the rural metaphors being used for the future, ‘sunlit uplands’ and all that. Brexit has also intruded into some of the walks I’ve taken, which have cut across leave and remain boundaries , and got me talking to people outside my liberal metropolitan bubble. And it’s impossible to walk across the English countryside without thinking about landscape, ownership, myth and legacy.

I’ve been trying to focus on less marginal things, but this theme keeps returning. So, maybe I’d just be better off giving in to it. I’m not sure where this path leads, but I think it’s going to be interesting.

A short Brexit hike in London

I missed the London protest against Brexit in March, because I had things to do in the midlands. But I did check out the leave march organised by Richard Tice, now an MEP for the Brexit party. I wrote a long piece comparing the two marches as hikes.

Another pro-remain march was booked for October 19th, the day Parliament was due to vote on the Johnson deal. This time I went along with my friend Kate and her Rich Astley sign (“never gonna give EU up”).

The March to Leave had explicitly compared their multi-day hike to the previous London march, which they described as an easy stroll through London. I’d be interested to see how a democracy based on walking actually worked. There could be something there. But we’d have to solve the question I asked previously: Does a million people walking a single mile trump a couple of hundred people walking a couple of hundred miles?

As we walked through London on Saturday, the heroic March to Leave was pretty much forgotten, just another strange plot twist from an earlier season.

We arrived in London early and headed from Victoria to Green Park. As we waited for friends by a food kiosk, we met a woman who was leading a cheese tour. Her attendees were delayed by the march, so we got talking, and she told us her favourite cheese joke: What are cheese puffs made from?

We also got talking to a woman who was at the march with her young son, but couldn’t find the friend she’d planned to march with; Kate invited her to join us. We all soon set off through London. Pace-wise, the march was slow, but the signs were a lot funnier than the ones on the pre-leave march. (I liked the ‘Extension rebellion’ one, and another comparing a donkey with an ice-cream cone on its head with the unicorns we’ve been promised).  We persuaded some Lib-Dems to lead a chorus of the ‘Revokey Kokey’, which Kate had been hoping to hear on the march. And, talking to one of our party, I learned she’d met Nigel Farage the night before but refused to shake his hand. She’d also been wearing a blue dress and star earrings for the event.

We made it to the mall in time for the votes. The crowd roared as the Letwin amendment result was announced. I know the deal will go through, that Parliamentary maths makes it inevitable, but I still felt joy that it was being scrutinised, that MPs were standing up despite the abuse and mockery they received. I’ll treasure the memory of being in that crowd. Among the cheering there were shouts of ‘Order!’. It’s probably a bad sign that the speaker is such a partisan figure, but that still made me smile.

One the March to Leave, Richard Tice talked about the horrific weather his marchers had faced. “We showed true grit. You softies in the guardian would’ve delayed it a day but we pushed on, we had hundreds out it was amazing.” As the vote was announced it started to rain.  As I headed back to Brighton, the march continued through Trafalgar Square, thousands of Guardian readers carrying on anyway. Richard Tice would have been impressed, I’m sure.

My feelings about Brexit are complicated. David Cameron’s government made a lot of promises that are undeliverable, but the commitment on his ‘advisory’ referendum was repeated. Even at this late stage in the process, almost 50% of the country still wants Brexit to proceed. Maybe a more united remain campaign, with clear leadership from the opposition would have shifted popular opinion. But it didn’t happen, and there is not yet a sensible pathway to remain. So, we need to hand this over to leave and tell them to do their best.

I don’t know if there will be another hike through London for remain, and I’m not sure what good marching does. But it was a friendly group to go walking with, and I’m glad I went. It was certainly a funnier and friendlier group than the March to Leave, who were a little scary.

And what are cheese puffs made of?

Wotsit matter.