Tag Archives: Politics

#Pilgrimage in Terror: Day 1

September 2002. Disillusioned with protesting against the ‘war on terror’, Katie went on a 13-day pilgrimage in Northern Spain.

Day 1: Invasion

File:From Citadelle, Saint-Jean-pied-de-port 01 HDR (1873202026).jpgOn the railway platform at Bayonne we were all waiting in our different ways for the train that would take us to St. Jean Pied de Port (‘St John at the foot of the pass’) and the start of the pilgrimage route. One man was smoking a pipe and his wife, a cigarette. They wore chic red rain gear. I wondered how they would make it, with smokers’ lungs, over the Port de Cize, the mountain pass that had brought the Romans and Napoleon into Spain, and now pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.

We strung ourselves out along the platform. We were all clearly walkers, with our backpacks and boots. We couldn’t hide from each other that we were all starting off on the same rather zany commitment of time and energy: a pilgrimage. Even today, even when lots of the walkers on the route are atheists or agnostics, it isn’t quite like just setting off on a hike. The modern tradition of the route says it will change you, it will give you some kind of experience of truth or happiness or peace. Paolo Coelho and Shirley MacLaine are but two of the more famous writers who have talked of mystic experiences on the way to Compostela. And that made us all a little sheepish standing there, made it difficult to strike up a conversation, as if we were all sitting in a therapist’s waiting room.

Our train crawled into the station. It hadn’t been painted for years. It made me think of the Harry Potter train, taking us into the time-warp of walking, into a world where the rules are different. Very soon the land began to rise around us as the train rattled on, winding tighter and tighter into the Pyrenees. Grassy banks sloped up at forty-five degree angles from our window, waving bunches of trees at the top. A light misty rain blurred the distances.

Opposite me in my compartment sat a young Englishman, just out of his teens. He was well built, with close-cropped hair. I could tell he was English because, apart from pale skin and shyness, he was studying a copy of the bright green laminated guidebook produced by The Confraternity of Saint James, a British outfit headquartered in Lambeth.

Chugging round tight valleys in the Pyrenees, I wondered if the young man opposite me had met the same lady in mauve that I had met in the Confraternity’s Lambeth office. He certainly had great respect for the guide, which he was poring over. Would he like a conversation or would he think talking to fellow English spoilt the atmosphere?

The ticket inspector entered our compartment. This created more awkwardness: the embarrassment of making those strange French sounds in front of a fellow Englishman. So we both of us confined ourselves to the relatively uncontroversial ‘Merci’, with just a glimmer of the vomit sound of the French ‘r’. The inspector didn’t bother looking us in the face, but examined our tickets disapprovingly from above a bulbous nose.

Having survived that incident together, we started to exchange bits of our lives. Alec was at ‘uni’ and seemed anxious. He only had enough money for two weeks’ walking and he wanted to get as far as Burgos, 257km according to the guidebook. I would never be able to walk that fast. Ah youth and maleness!

‘And what made you decide to do it?’ I asked.

‘Character building. That sort of thing.’ He was looking down. ‘I want to test myself. My Dad was in the army.’ So that explained the haircut. ‘He’s always told us that it’s important to have challenges in your life.’ Pause. ‘How about you?’

There I was, a recent peace demonstrator, walking against war, and in the very first moments of my pilgrimage I’m alone in a compartment with a soldier’s son. What magnetic material had they planted in those laminated bright green booklets to bring unlikely people together?

Faced with the politeness and forthright decency of this young man, my anti war arguments dissolved on my tongue. ‘I just wanted some time to reflect,’ I said, ‘Deserter!’ ringing in my ears.

I moved the conversation on to discussing the two routes over the Pyrennees into Spain: Napoleon’s conquering one over the mountain and Charlemagne’s path of retreat down in the valley. To my surprise, Alec agreed with me that the lower route would be enough of a personal challenge for the first day. Neither of us had done any training before we left, he because he was working day and night and I because I hadn’t managed to get organised.

But when we reached the tourist office in St. Jean, which was flooded out with pilgrims of all nationalities, their pilgrim staffs rolling over the floor and the shiny new rucksacks obstructing all passage, we were commanded to take the upper path, the ‘Route Napoleon’. The woman behind the desk raised an eyebrow and completely failed to comprehend when we suggested we might follow the modern lorry driver’s route. Brushing aside our qualms she told us to stay the first night at a hamlet called Huntto and attack the pass tomorrow. She pointed out the way on her map and showed us where, tomorrow, halfway along, there was a water fountain and shops. This I translated for my friend.

Alec was keen to get to a supermarket and stock up on provisions. I on the other hand was dreaming of a sit-down lunch with meat and potatoes. He was a little hesitant to abandon me in Saint Jean but I reassured him, so he shook hands with me and strode off. Over the next days of the walk I soon lost touch with him, polite and upright as he was. He rose each day with the earliest and launched off into the pre-dawn, swinging a plain baguette. I’m sure he reached Burgos and will do well.

In contrasting style I lingered in the mediaeval fortified town of St. Jean, eating a pricey meal of a whole duck with chips. It was late and I was the last person lunching, upstairs over a bar, with red and white checked paper tablecloths for company.

The town’s chief business seemed to be starting pilgrims on their journey. There was an entire market for pilgrims’ staffs. I wanted one of these, as I had read that they were a deterrent to dogs. I chose one with a spike. This was a bad mistake. The shock and ring of that spike on dry roads was to persecute me up and down dale for two weeks. But I clung to the thing in the hope that it would scare off territorial beasts who might waylay me at the gates of far-flung farms.

Before leaving St Jean, I climbed one of the stone staircases up onto the massive walls. Hills stretched away in all directions, blue and mushy with mist.

I had decided to dedicate each day of my walk to an aspect of the ‘war on terror’. I was hoping to find insights as I walked.

The theme I had picked for today, September 5th, was the plight of the Iraqis. Troops were already massing in the Gulf before I set off.

From my position on the fortifications, I gazed down on terracotta roofs, which the rain had stained dark red. Each had its own sliver of garden running towards the wall, dripping and shiny with the recent showers. Some were striped with different shades of green, the foliage of tomatoes, marrows, beans. Others had grown wild, but even those showed some sign of human providence – a walnut tree or an apple tree, a little easy nourishment in these pockets of land.

I could not think about a dry place. I could not think about suffering and fear. I could not think about hunger and the worry of parents. I could not both be here and somewhere else. How strange it was to be attacking a country so far away, none of whose people I had ever met, let alone hated. Here was full of enjoyment and there not. I chose here. I chose with an uneasy feeling of guilt.

So it was with a heavy heart and confusion, together with my usual expectant fear of dogs, that I crossed the river over the mediaeval bridge and followed signs for Huntto….

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Popular Myth 3: You’re all the Same!

Wouldn’t that be nice? Responsibility off our shoulders. Sit back and relax. The Parties are all the same.

The Camel-Coated One by Asbjorn Gundersen in Adventures in Tory Land: Democracy in Middle England

The Camel-Coated One by Asbjorn Gundersen in Adventures in Tory Land: Democracy in Middle England

Here’s a quick quiz:

Which party thinks the Environment is the most important issue?

Which party is committed to protecting private wealth?

Which party is strongly in favour of public spending and state intervention?

Which party wants us out of the EU?

Which party puts Liberal values and Democracy first?

Wasn’t hard, was it! The hard thing is resolving those conflicts inside ourselves.

Katie Barron tries to canvass a particularly self-righteous suburban mum on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Here is one side of the conversation….

http://liberalengland.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/guest-post-youre-all-same.html

The Mother by Asbjorn Gundersen in Adventures in Tory Land

The Mother by Asbjorn Gundersen in Adventures in Tory Land

http://liberalengland.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/guest-post-youre-all-same.html

Adventures in Tory Land: Democracy in Middle England, tales of the canvassing trail, is available as an ebook and paperback through Amazon and in Waterstones St Albans. Yours for £2. For a laugh, click here! http://amzn.to/1GpXY1F

#UKIP Myth 3: #Europe

Imagine if I went into the Bakehouse in St Albans, handed over a fiver, got my mocha and my change, and then started shouting, ‘They’ve taken my fiver! They’ve taken my fiver! They’re bleeding me dry! It’s so corrupt! Why do they need a manager? Look at that bowl full of tips! And all the rules! Have to go to the toilet marked ladies – so bossy – Why can’t I go in the gents? Or right here if I fancy? Have to sit at a table, supposed to sit at an empty one, not allowed buggies here, not allowed dogs there, for gawd’s sake! And look at that five pounds I just gave them! It’s monstrous! What are they doing with it all?’

I find this a useful website for facts on our contribution to Europe etc:

https://fullfact.org/europe/election_2015_europe-43684

Adventures in Tory Land: Democracy in Middle England is available as an ebook and paperback through Amazon and in Waterstones St Albans. Yours for £2. For a laugh, click here:  http://amzn.to/1GpXY1F

#UKIP Myth 1: #Common Sense

Our dear old local UKIP candidate John Stocker is still talking about Common Sense with every breath, just as he was in 2010.

The Gentleman Businessman

‘The Gentleman Businessman’ by Asbjorn Gundersen in Adventures in Tory Land http://amzn.to/1GpXY1F

I have to admit I use it myself quite a lot, usually snootily (shame) about parents who ‘have no common sense’. Why don’t they use some common sense? etc.

But I mean something different from John Stocker. I mean, ‘It didn’t work last time so why are they doing it again?’ ‘So and so NEVER does X, so why do they keep banking on their kid doing something he/she never does actually do?’

Yes I know I’m being obnoxious but at least I’m rational. When I talk about common sense, I’m talking about using past evidence as a guide to one’s plans, one’s ‘policies’. I’m asking for evidence-based policy.

But Stocker means something else. Common sense for Stocker means taking his daily life as a paradigm, and assuming that his personal experiences in his life will be a good guide for an entire nation’s policies. This is not evidence-based, because he doesn’t present evidence that a nation is the same as a household – the same as his household.

Nations are more complicated than households – which are complicated enough! I want policies based on what nations and governments have done and experienced, not on what J Stocker has done, even though I know he has lived an interesting and varied life. So I’m afraid there have to be some experts in there, such as economists, preferably arguing with each other, and public health researchers, dare I say it a sociologist or two….

Thomas Paine's pamphlet 'Common Sense' 1775 advocating American independence

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ 1775 advocating American independence

Adventures in Tory Land: Democracy in Middle England, tales of the canvassing trail, is available as an ebook and paperback through Amazon and in Waterstones St Albans. Yours for £2. For a laugh, click here! http://amzn.to/1GpXY1F

#Labour Myth 1: Ends Justify Means

Just now in St Albans, mild-mannered and likable Labour activists are distributing a glossy tabloid with a big lie on the front. Many of these activists are church-goers.

They must believe that the end justifies the means.

I wonder if this is the dividing line between Labour and the Lib Dems. Labour fight the class war to win. Lib Dems fight it but only up to a point. Labour see that as weak, or a betrayal.

Meanwhile Lib Dems worry about truth, and an individual’s human rights. If you abide by those things, can you ever win a war?

But are wars ever won? Is there ever an End? Is today’s China a communist state? Is Iraq a liberal democracy? Is Afghanistan ‘terrorist’-free?

If there is no end to things, no end in sight, maybe the means are all?

Popular Myth 2: Politicians are Mummy and Daddy

As children, we expect our parents to put us first, to be firm but kind, above all to be right.

And then we grow up.

The Mother by Asbjorn Gundersen

The Mother by Asbjorn Gundersen

But we still seem to have unrealistically high expectations of our politicians, and to go into all the bitterness and woe of neglected children when they turn out just to be human.

As members of a democracy, I think we need to trust less to individual saintliness or brilliance in an MP or leader and trust more to the democratic process: politicians will do what’s best for us exactly to the extent that we are prepared to vote for what’s best for us. And that takes some thinking! In fact it might turn out that we are the ones that need to be brilliant and saintly more than they!

Dear old Nick Clegg especially comes in for gunning from media and voters alike because he

– changes his mind  – compromises  – adjusts to reality  – doesn’t know everything  – isn’t scary enough  – isn’t always right  – admits fault  – isn’t omnipotent…

But maybe we are grown up enough to cope with a Liberal leader?

Buy Adventures in Tory Land: Democracy in Middle England, in paperback or kindle format, through Amazon:  http://amzn.to/1GpXY1F

Tory Myth 1: Conservatives conserve things

Tory Myth 1: Conservatives conserve things – except the Green Belt, the NHS, Pensions, University Education, Libraries, Welfare Safety Net, Planning Law, Part-time workers’ rights, our position in Europe, school leaving age, the right to march in safety (i.e. Freedom of Speech), the self respect of public sector workers, the temporarily unemployed and the North of England….

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/local-wildlife-sites-not-protected-by-statute-are-being-ruined-by-development-warns-report-9939138.html