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.

Brexit Hiking: Who had the better march? (part 4: judgement)

(I tried to write a blog post about the March for Leave, and it’s ended up being about 3,500 words. Also available: part one, part two and part three. But this is the best bit, where I finally get to the point and judge the marches)

Settling the issues that we face as a country through the medium of hiking makes as much sense as anything. Given that Tory MPs have only just received training on what a customs union is, picking whether to leave or remain based on how good each side’s marches were is no less arbitrary than Parliament.

The Put it to the People March took place in London on March 23rd, and involved up to a million people walking through a small area of central London. The March to Leave was a hardier affair, travelling from Sunderland to London over the course of 16th March to 29th March, arriving in London to what was expected to be Brexit day but wasn’t. Both sides have mocked each other, but which one was better?

I am actually the best placed person in the world to answer this question. I’ve lectured on Brexit and hiking; and I’m a pretty keen hiker myself. I might be partisan, but I can promise to be unbiased – hiking is more important to me than the political fate of this nation.

When I attended the March to Leave in Sutton Bonnington, there was serious shade thrown at the March to Remain as being an easy stroll through London. While Remain-Twitter mocked the March to Leave’s smaller numbers, it was never intended to be a mass protest, with a limited capacity of core marchers. And attacks on the charge to the walkers missed the point: £50 was a very fair charge for accomodation and two meals a day, while preventing the march places being taken by spoof sign-ups.

A lot of energy went into mocking the March to Leave. I saw it referred to as the ‘Gammonball Run’, which sounds funny when you first hear it – but then you think about it for a second, and realise it’s a shit pun. The Guardian got some good quotes in their article on the march (“I don’t want my grandchildren being conscripted by an EU army likely led by the Germans.” LOL) but they were never going to be supportive. The march’s entire website was soon copied and rewritten with massive snark by remain campaign Led by Donkeys – a depressing and juvenile contrast to their clever billboard stunts. I do wonder how effective this scorn is, beyond amusing remainers and boosting social media page impressions.

The Leave walk also faced a challenge from nature, with appalling weather, but they kept going. Richard Tice, the man in charge, was quoted in the guardian, “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 if no guardian reader or journalist has ever done a proper hike, right? Richard Tice cannot contemplate his grand act without comparing it to the other side. Rich, please: I read the Guardian, and I’ve kept walking in some really grim conditions. You wouldn’t believe the grit I showed crawling up Pen-y-ghent in a storm. I had a great time, and it never occurred to me to compare it to people I know who plan their walks for more hospitable months of the year.

But there are rules about hiking.

Let’s set aside the things like numbers and distance. My sympathies are with the March to Leave, as far as pedestrian feats goes. But what does it take to say you’ve ‘done’ a hike or a trail? have you ‘done’ the trail if you don’t do it in one go (“through-hiking”)? What if you’re using a baggage service and not carrying your own gear? Are you allowed to get into cars during the hike? If you miss a section through getting lost, do you need to go back to it?

Some people are very firm on these rules. Just look at Wikipedia’s article on through-hiking: Certain thru-hikers, referred to as “purists,” take this emphasis on continuity to obsessive lengths. Some touch or kiss every blaze of white paint along the trail, while others carefully line up their shoes, like Japanese slippers, in the precise spot they entered a lean-to, so as to know exactly where to resume hiking the next day.

But there are other things about hiking than just the walking. On the Pennine Way last year, one of my favourite things was meeting people along the way. We found ourselves drinking with someone who was hiking between jobs, having just finished working for a pro-Brexit think tank. I didn’t feel like ruining a hike by starting a row – some things are more important than political point-scoring. This person arrived at one pub three minutes after they stopped selling food – so I shared some of what I’d ordered. Hanging out with someone I disagree with, who I wouldn’t normally be speaking to, that was a pretty good way to spend an evening. Maybe, what we need when this is all over is a March for Moving Beyond the Brexit Fiasco.

There are rules about hiking – very definite rules. Some people condemned the March to Leave for not walking point-to-point, with buses between sections. But the thing about the rules for hiking is, you pick them for yourself. The big rule is, you should be happy about the hike you’ve done. It’s not a competitive event. Don’t compare your walk to other people’s just walk, breathe, and enjoy the world.

Which is why it’s so weird that the March to Leave is so insistent on comparing itself to the March to Remain. The March for Leave should have been a grand gesture, a celebration of… something. It was self-evidently an interesting and worthwhile project, and the people on that walk obviously thought it was worth doing.

The fact that Richard Tice had to continually defend the March to Leave against the Remain March suggested he has no real confidence in it. Just the same as Leave keeps defending their stupid, shabby and failed project of Brexit, when it’s success ought to be self-evident by this point. The depressing thing about the March to Remain, and the entire Brexit project, is that nobody seems to believe in it. Which turns them both into mindless, pointless fucking slogs.

Tory pop culture and magic metaphors

Once the extension to the Article 50 people is agreed, I should get on and finish my essay on Brexit, Hannan in Spandau. I have about 16,000 words to wrangle, but in the meantime, Cat Vincent asked me about “the Tory use of pop culture magic metaphors”.

I’ve been collecting references to children’s literature and fantasy related to Brexit, and have copied a few of them below. Please let me know of any I’ve missed.

Game of Thrones

Tolkien

  • Daniel Hannan in Conservative Home: What I Learned about the Hobbit From Reading it to My Children: “When the editor of ConservativeHome phones me, he often begins by wryly declaiming some line or other from Tolkien. If I can, I reply with the next line, and so on. He tends to get the better of our exchanges: his knowledge of the text is encyclopaedic.
  • In his book What Next? Hannan compared his years campaigning on Brexit to Galadriel, “fighting the long defeat”.
  • From Aaron Bank’s book The Bad Boys of Brexit, describing his visit to Donald Trump: “we found ourselves walking down Fifth Avenue towards the famous skyscraper which the liberal cry-bullies had officially designated as America’s answer to Barad-dûr.
  • From 2005 in Conservative Home: J R R Tolkien: Lord Of The Rings (Tory Version)

Watership Down

Others

Brexit Hiking: Who had the better march? (part 3)

(This is the third part of a series. The first post discussed the background to the march to leave and the second post described our arrival there.)

On a sunny Sunday morning, having missed the march to remain, my Dad and I popped along to the march to leave. Mainly because it was nearby and we wanted to check it out for ourselves – which was why we were in a car park full of union jacks before breakfast.

Generally, when one sees a lot of union jacks in my hometown, it means the March for England are visiting. But, with two exceptions (see below), the leave march were a pleasant enough group, a great contrast to the facist supporters intimidating people in parliament on Friday evening.

The Leave Bus drew into the car park and started setting up for the march. Once they were ready to leave, Richard Tice, founder of Leave.EU gave a speech from the bus’s upper deck:

“What a wonderful sunny day! Doesn’t the sun shine on the righteous. And we’ve all grown up to believe that the sun shines on democracy. But the truth is, ladies and gentlemen, democracy is under threat in this nation. Dark days lie ahead… tomorrow, MPs are going to try to wrest control of the government agenda… almost like a mini-coup in Westminster… thousands of people marched through a few hundred yards of London yesterday, they didn’t march miles and miles the length of the country… they also don’t believe in democracy… we’re marching for the future of our great nation. We believe in Britain.”

Tice is not the first person to claim that the weather will be better under Brexit (see, for example, Angela Leadsom referring to the “sunlit uplands” ahead of us). Better weather seems as likely as an economic boom, something that used to be raised as a Brexit dividend, but is mentioned less these days. Now, the argument relies on points about democracy, that the referendum decision needs to be enacted at any cost. But a new dimension to the debate is that of hiking and marching, the idea that your belief in democracy can be performed by marching across the country in a sort of magical performance.

Fired up by the speech, the march set off. My Dad and I lingered back so as not to be counted among the supporters. This meant that we got to listen to a man ranting on a loudhailer about “traitor” Anna Soubry. He said that she had lied about being told by the police it was not safe to go home, since she had been in London for the remain march. Soubry is the MP for Broxtowe, in the Nottinghamshire area of London: the man in question was as ill-informed as he was unpleasant. Democracy cannot survive an atmosphere of death threats and hostility, and this rant was not a good look for the march.

It was at the edge of the car-park that we found a small group of remain campaigners. One of them was singing loudly, “They tried to make us leave the EU, I said no, no, no!” This group were zany and wacky maybe, but they looked a lot more fun than the dour plodding of the marchers.

My Dad and I stood by this remain group as we watched the tail-end of the march set off. On the other side of the gates, a posh-voiced man had a loud-hailer, and was ranting poison. He mocked remain as “socialist workers who’d never worked a day in their life”, before telling us to leave the UK if we didn’t like the referendum’s outcome: “You know where the door is”. I could unpack the ironies of this for hours, particularly given that the leave vote is engaged in stripping away many of my rights to free movement. He also made the claim that remain were supported by elite financiers such as George Soros – a nasty anti-semitic conspiracy theory.

A few marchers stayed to argue with the remain side, the debates centering on democracy and fishing rights. The claim that remain was managed by the elites emerged again, which is baffling. I know you are not your job, but it is worth pointing out that Tice is CEO of Quidnet capital, which has about half a billion pounds worth of property under its control.

I chatted a little with the remainers, all of whom had made it to London the day before. “If they’re in your village you can’t just do nothing,” said one. We were interrupted by someone yelling at us about how leave was walking two hundred something miles, and remain had managed just one. Someone shouted back that the person making this claim was in a landrover

A landrover that was heading away from the march.

I think it’s positive that people are debating fisheries policy at 9am on a Sunday morning. And it was good to see that, in contrast to the shocking scenes in London on Friday, there was no need for police in Sutton Bonnington. Just before we left, a man arrived for the leave march and was disappointed to miss it. One of the remain protestors told him not to worry and gave him directions. “They only set off about ten minutes ago. If you hurry you’ll catch them”. This co-operation was the most positive thing I’d seen about Brexit in some time.

(Continue to part 4, where I finally decide which march was better)

Brexit Hiking: Who had the better march? (part 2)

(In the previous post, I discussed some background of the march to leave, and how come I ended up there. Here, I’ll talk a little about my visit to the march itself)

When we arrived at the carpark in Sutton Bonington, a car was parked across the entrance. A man beside it greeted me as we passed: “Hello, mate”. Like all members of the metropolitan liberal elite, I feel nervous when a stranger calls me mate without a bar between us. We continued into the car park, where the March to Leave was gathering.

Welcome to part two of a longer essay in which spend about 2,500 words trying to talk about Brexit – but instead talk self-indulgently about hiking. Having missed the March to Remain in London the day before, my Dad and I were checking out the March to Leave.

I was definitely in the wrong place: I voted remain in the referendum, think article 50 should be revoked, and loathe much of what leave stands for: the dog-whistle racism of some proponents, the childish economics and the mockery of anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Walking into that car-park, I felt like Agent Philip Jeffries walking into the Black Lodge meeting – and we know how well that went.

That charge of racism is incendiary, and many leave voters would protest it. It’s undeniable that there is a racist element to the leave vote (as shown by the 29th March protests in London). Having the renegade leave.eu campaign running allowed leave to have the unsayable said, while standing aside from it. As former-MP Matthew Paris said of Daniel Hannan, “he has ridden a tiger, and knows the tiger he rides”. But I was also aware that many leave campaigners were not racist, talking about democracy and economics instead. I came with as open a mind as possible, while being very cautious about what I would find.

The march had travelled from Sunderland and is due to arrive in London on March 29th, Brexit Day on Earth-Three. It’s been mocked for the fact that it has not walked the full length between points, and the daily route maps had disappeared from the website, making it harder to find the marchers. Emails about the meeting place were sent quite late, with a time of 8am to 10am for gathering, and a stern warning that we were here at our own risk.

Sutton Bonington is a sleepy English village, with attractive cottages and green open spaces. The march was gathered in a small car-park there, with a playground at one end. Standing by the entrance was a lorry with a video screen. This had been hired by pro-Remain group Lions Led By Donkeys,. Nearby stood a man wearing a keffiyeh, with a sign reading ‘Let my people go’, foreshadowing Boris Johnson’s front page Telegraph column, published the following day.

After passing the parked-car barricade, we walked down a short track. Most of the people there were middle-aged men, but everyone seemed friendly enough. People milled around, waiting for things to get going, and talked about how the walk was going and its representation in the media. Some of them mocked the previous day’s march in London, which might have had the crowds, but was slight compared to what they were doing.

Most of the attendees seemed, you know, OK. I mean, as normal as anyone who is too interested about one particular thing, right. If these men are too interested in Brexit, and they like walking, then they are, in a way, my people. We have the same hobby, we just disagree about how it should be followed, right?

A woman arrived in suffragette cosplay, and people photographed and posed with her. One person commented that it was “as if a Page 3 turned up”. I saw a walker with four spare plastic union jacks in his backpack. The woman beside him wore a sweatshirt with a ‘PARIS’ logo, so I’m not certain whether she was leave or remain. I definitely don’t know her dog’s opinion, but expect they were in favour of free movement of pets, rather than the six-month quarantine we used to have. And more foreign dogs means more interesting new friends to sniff.

Looking at the gathering marchers, before the support bus arrived, my strongest feeling was that these people were fighting a losing battle. I couldn’t see the young people pictured on the march the day before. Despite being close to what they wanted, there was no sense of celebration, just gloom and defeat.

I was surprised by the defensiveness in the speeches and conversation: after almost three years, Leave have not made Brexit sound like the default option, even in their own minds. There’s a sort of flop-sweat about the whole thing. Leave might have won the referendum, but they need to “get on with it” because they know that history is against them, and this is the only chance they’ll have. Even so close to victory, the whole thing felt like an imminent defeat.

The saddest thing is, I think, that the people in this car park are going to be disappointed in the long term. As the writer Tom Bolton put it, they are flag-waving while drowning.

Anyway, that’s part 2, and the Brexit bus has not yet arrived at the car park. Continue to part 3, where I’ll talk about speeches, ask which side is being manipulated by elites, and describe a brush with the dark side of leave. I’ll also get on with actually talking about hiking. Maybe.

Brexit Hiking: Who had the better march? (part 1)

We’re not going to settle the leave or remain argument, so let’s talk about who had the better march last weekend.

 

Long after all this is over, school children will write essays on the 2016 referendum: 15 marks for a summary of whose argument was more compelling, making sure to consider the claims of both sides. The marking scheme will call for answers that provide a balanced argument, with the benefit of hindsight.

None of those children will understand how batshit crazy this all feels, and how irreconcilable the two sides are. Leave or remain is not something that can be solved with rational debate. I’m not even sure it matters – the bitter division in the country might actually prove more dangerous than either option, leave or remain.

How much better if we settled this, not with anger, death threats and eventually violence, but through the medium of hiking?

 

I did a bad thing this weekend. I know I was supposed to go to London to march with the million. But I wanted to catch up with family and, you know, I still feel disappointed over the Iraq march. No, not the big one everyone went to, but the next one, in March 2003, after the bombs started dropping, when most of you didn’t bother. So I went to the Midlands instead of to London.

But then I realised that the other march, the leave one, was passing near the Burt family estate, so I decided to pop by to take a look.

James at the wrong march
Cock. I’ve turned up at the wrong march.

I missed the Saturday march, which included an appearance from Nigel Farage cameo (described by my friend DaveP as the Earth-1218 version of Sir Jim Jaspers). The times on the march invite were vague, so we went along later, arriving after the speeches happened and the walkers set off. We drove around looking for the marchers, couldn’t find them, and I realised I was near Sherwood Forest, and eight-year-old me is still disappointed at never having seen the Major Oak, so we went there instead. So that was good.

The Major Oak
The Major Oak

The Remain march took place on March 22nd. It was organised by the People’s Vote and travelled a mile or so through central London. Estimates are that a million people took part, making it one of the largest political protests in British history.

The March to Leave is a cover version of the Jarrow March, travelling from Sunderland to London. It set off on March 16th, aiming to arrive in London on March 29th – orginally planned as Brexit day, now just Friday. A core group of about 75 marchers are joined by local people each day, with speeches as they set off. These core marchers paid £50 through PayPal, and received accommodation as well as food and transfers to the start and end points for each day. This is actually a pretty good deal if you wanted to do a hike.

The March to Leave’s website describes their aims:

It is now clear the Westminster elite are preparing to betray the will of the people over Brexit. To counter this, Leave Means Leave are undertaking a peaceful protest to demonstrate the depth and breadth of popular discontent with the way Brexit has been handled. The UK has a long history of successful popular protests, where the establishment have been forced to deliver much-needed reform by widespread demonstrations of large scale dissatisfaction.

One of the most common arguments given by the leave side is about democracy, and the March to Leave claims that, given the referendum saw the highest turnout in a UK ballot, “Failing to deliver a true Brexit will permanently damage the British people’s faith in democracy.

I am not sure what a true Brexit is, as it was not one of the options on my ballot paper. Any research I do for this essay is unlikely to answer any questions about Brexit. And then there are the associated questions about democracy. Throughout the last two years, we’ve been talking about different ways of deciding the ‘will of the people’. Does a referendum trump MP’s votes? Does a petition cancel out a referendum if it hits the same numbers? Does a political party leader gain their power and authority from the country, their voters, their party members or their MPs?

These are not questions I am qualified to answer. Instead I will stick to my area of expertise. I am quite capable of figuring out which of the two events was the better hike: the ‘Put it to the People’ march, or the ‘March to Leave’?

 

Broadly put: remain had the numbers, leave has the distance. Does a million people walking a single mile trump a couple of hundred people walking a couple of hundred miles?

A lot of people are mocking the March to Leave, claiming they are not doing the hike ‘properly’. ‘Proper hiking’ is something I have strong feelings about. I have watched and occasionally participated in debates about whether it counts if you miss a bit, whether you have to walk to the accommodation, and what needs to be carried. I might not be able to solve the Brexit crisis, but I am qualified to judge the two marches as hikes.

But I’ll stop there for now. Next up, will be my account of my visit to the March to Leave.

 

The Battle of the Thames

Back in the Summer of 2016, on June 15th, a naval engagement took place on the Thames. Boats left Ramsgate at 3am and Southend at 6am, heading towards Tower Bridge. Other vessels came from Brixham, Berwick, and Faversham, even some from Scotland. The fleet was prevented passing the Thames Barrier by the Harbour Master, who only allowed through four large boats and eight smaller ones, leaving about twenty behind. By the afternoon the fleet had reached central London, led by Edwardian, a “luxurious river cruiser”, where they were ambushed.

The admiral of the fishing fleet was Nigel Farage, leading boats assembled by Fishing for Leave. Leading the counter-demonstrators on a ‘party boat’ was Bob Geldof. His boat had a large sound system and kept playing a thirty second snippet of classic song ‘The In Crowd’. Again and again. Among the other vessels in this group were ones captained by Charlotte Church and Rachel Johnson, sister to Leave politician Boris.

On his flagship, Farage’s discussions with journalists were drowned out by Geldof, who attacked the UKIP politician’s record, accusing him of being a fraud. He pointed out that when Farage was on the European Parliament Fishing Committee, he attended one out of 43 meetings.

Farage was unimpressed with Geldof’s response to the fishermen. “It’s just insulting to these people. Some of these lads have come from the north of Scotland, communities… where we have seen tens of thousands of jobs lost and a way of life destroyed, and they come here to make their protest and be heard, and they get a multimillionaire laughing at them.”

And, to be fair, Geldof was not the best placed person to be leading the Remain fleet, given his interesting and complicated tax affairs . And raising two fingers at the fishermen and telling them to ‘fuck off’ was not a good look.  A group of activists left Geldof’s boat because of this, with one saying “these fishermen were working-class people with genuine issues and we didn’t think they should be erased by Bob Geldof”

The police did their best to prevent an actual battle. Water cannons were sprayed by the fishermen at their opposition. And Geldof’s boat came under direct attack. In the Guardian’s account of the battle, they wrote “Richard Eves, a fisherman from Leigh-on-Sea, decided to launch a boarding raid on Geldof’s boat using his rusty trawler Wayward Lad… ‘We threatened to ram them first and then they let us on,’ he said afterwards. ‘They shit themselves. I was angry.’”

The Vice magazine article on this is a work of genius, and includes reports of “a spy boat, a secret In boat in with the Out flotilla, which will do a heel-turn somewhere around the Thames Barrier and unfurl “In” banners in amongst the Out fisherman

The engagement is most remarkable for how shambolic it was. The sight of two rival groups shouting at one another, while not really engaging was representative of the whole Brexit campaign. Arron Bank was on the Edwardian and described the event as “Traflagar meets wacky races”. According to his book, Bad Boys of Brexit, he bankrolled the Leave Fleet to the cost of 10,000 a boat, or 250,000 for a fleet of 70.

A map even appeared on social media, showing the battle:

According to Maria Pretzler, the image was based on a diagram of the Battle of Lowestoft.

One of the jokes abut the post-referendum period is that a lot of people have suddenly become experts on customs unions. These were barely discussed in the run up to the referendum. No, we had more important things to be talking about.

Who needs fake news when the real news is so poor?