Archive for September, 2009

From somewhere near the middle of England

Monday, September 28th, 2009

I had a day off today so I went down to Burford. I’ve already mentioned that I live alongside some of the most beautiful countryside in England. Burford is the essence of Cotswold village set along a hill with a High street that drops between stone houses essentially unchanged externally for three hundred years, and down to a single bridge crossing the Windrush river. The post office looks as must have done when Flora Thompson wrote Lark Rise to Candleford not far from here.

Burford High Street

I am particularly fond of the church at Burford. It is nearly a thousand years old and full of stories. The Levellers were under siege here in 1649 and on the wall of the church is a plaque commemorating the three ringleaders who were executed by Cromwell’s troops. On the lead rim of the font Anthony Sedley engraved his name. The Harman family memorial shows 16 children, all at prayer, (although a good few of them died in infancy) and features natives of a Brazilian tribe – possible the first depiction of American natives in England. There is a romanesque Norman entrance and a wonderful and awesome memorial to Lord and Lady Tanfield who were hated by the village, Lady Tanfield in particular. And up near the ceiling is the strange carving of three figures known as the Three Disgraces.

I went in and sat and thought about the men who had spent their last night here – unpaid and rebelling against Cromwell, himself the rebel leader. And what they wanted to achieve. I thought too about ideals diverted or, perhaps, perverted. Cromwell is an ancestor of mine (as he is of many people) and I take pride in the small part of my Parliamentarian blood heritage but not of the treatment of the Levellers.

Outside, the high street is completely full of gift shops, antique shops, Cotswold candy stores and restaurants, gastro-pubs, cafes and delicatessens. There is a shoe shop too where I heard the kind of accents that I thought had died with the Mitford girls sometime in the early 50s. I can buy lots of reading specs with fun frames and lots of ornaments on hedgehog themes and hand-baked meringue nests. There are bay trees in tubs outside the front doors which, if they are not 400 year old wood, are painted French Grey. The charming properties in Burford sell for huge sums of money, presumably to bankers with their bonuses. In the summer the pavements are shuffle-along only. It is massively popular with tourists.

Much as I like Burford, I think it is even less of a real place than Oxford. I live in a tourist town but at least we have butchers and places to get shoes repaired and Pret a Manger and dry cleaners. We have drunks and lots of thin blonde girls enjoying Friday nights out. I think that might be better than the almost Disney like quality of many of the perfect Cotswold villages. The question of whether to move to Burford or any of the villages around it is not one that I am likely to be able to afford to face I’m rather pleased to say. But I do suspect that if the Levellers came back they would recognize the town where they were finally run to ground and they would also think that their work was by no means over.

They do things differently

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

It’s not just the past that is another country where they do things differently – other countries are also places where they do things differently. In South Africa where I’ve just spent 12 great days I noticed that by great cliffs or by swimming pools there are warning notices. And they warn that anyone who gets injured has only themselves to blame. The management will take no responsibility. If it’s a teeny child that gets eaten by a lion, then it’s the responsibility of the adult with the child, and not the game reserve. It can’t be much more than a decade since the British took the same view but I realized quite how restrictive the UK has become. Rather than take the robust African view of matters, we simply restrict what one can do – walk on cliff edges, take more than one child at a time into a swimming pool – so that there is a minimal risk of danger and litigation.

I was also impressed by another area of robustness in SA. One of the big stories was the planned strike of taxi owners on the day that Jo’burg’s brand new public transport system was opened in time for next year’s World Cup (which le tout South Africa is agog about). The taxi drivers are, I am reliably told, unpopular with everyone. Their vehicles are dangerous and ill maintained, the drivers are erratic and unsafe and they are sometimes given to violence towards their passengers. So unlike our own dear cabbies.

The newspaper report was refreshingly direct.

“Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane said ” Those who have spoken out on TV and in the media will find they will have to take responsibility for their loose talk. She added that those threatening the new public transport system were in the minority and that authorities would take a heavy-handed approach against troublemakers planning to use vehicles to block bus routes.

“If someone leaves a vehicle where it should not be, we will… throw it in the rubbish unless somebody wishes to step forward and claim it”

Speaking about threats of violence and intimidation, Mokonyane said “We are government and we are in charge. The others don’t have the police, the army and the metro police to call on”

That’s what I call the firm grip of government. In the event the strike didn’t take place but some members of the army were in a pitched battle with police in the centre of Pretoria, protesting about low pay.

South Africa is a fascinating and wonderful country. More anon. Meanwhile, here’s a picture of a lion.

Bottlierskop resident

Bottlierskop resident