A Tale of Two Britains

I am writing you whilst in the middle of our annual pilgrimage to England, this time to pick our daughter up from school.

As has been the case after past trips, I wanted to share some updated observations on the people and place.

A caution that any observations will fall into the “drive-by” category. Were I English, I’d take offense that a mere tourist - in this case, me - would have the audacity to comment on anything other than the summer weather.

For the record, it has been unseasonably warm.

And so, with apologies to all, I blunder forward.

A Tale of Two Britains

While I can’t be sure, I suspect that London - and to a somewhat lesser degree, Oxford where we are staying - are among the most international cities in the world.

Everywhere you turn, you bump into Middle-easterners, Slavs, Chinese, Africans. More often than not, even those you meet who seem British, turn out to be from Eastern Europe.

This is understandable, given Britain’s location at the doorstep of Europe and beyond.

A flight from London to Paris is just over an hour. To Moscow about three. And an eight hour flight will land you in New York, New Delhi or Abu Dhabi.

While Beijing, at a flight time of about 11 hours, is a bit more uncomfortable, the point remains that for the untold millions looking to visit England and Europe, London is at ground zero as a starting point.

Supporting that contention, London’s Heathrow Airport is the second busiest airport in the world for international travelers (interestingly, Dubai’s airport takes first).

Adding to London’s worldly aspect are lingering echoes from the country's epoch of Empire. During the 500 years or so that it lasted, the Empire acted as a cultural vacuum, drawing far flung subjects and their traditions back to Mother England.

Tea, anyone?

What is a bit eye-opening, at least to me, is the degree to which other cultures are now interwoven into the fabric of the London milieu.

Anecdotally, on a day trip to London, and given that we had to wait for a late afternoon train back to Oxford, we went in search of a jolly Olde English pub in which to enjoy a pint.

Our search lasted the better part of an hour, passing along the way any number of hookah bars with cafe tables full of men puffing on the tentacular pipes between sips from small cups filled with thick black coffee.

We also passed Indian restaurants in their abundance and, heaven forbid, franchised hamburger outlets and french cafes - but pubs? Far and few between.

I have since learned that since the year 2000 alone over half of all of the traditional pubs in England have closed, with London being particularly hard hit.

Hot and tired, we finally settled for the basement bar of the storied Alfred Dunhill’s on St. James Place as an expensive substitute. Once again, the customer base was noticeably from somewhere else. I assume because, like many of the grand old London establishments, the place is eye-twitchingly expensive.

Back in the days of Empire, while the influx of loot continued apace, the Brits had a lot of money. You can see it in the amazing architecture, statuary, museums and more. Today, however, the silver platter has passed on elsewhere.

And the trend is not a friend: the Institute for Financial Studies projects that between 2008 and 2021 the standard of living for the average Brit will have fallen by close to 20%.

That said, it is clear that both London and Oxford are thriving. Admittedly, my data set is a bit skewed by the fact that we are here in the high season, but the streets of both cities are awash with tourists.

Oxford, where we spend most of our time, seems to be a particularly successful little city. Thanks to a thriving business in higher education and a knock-on trade in tourism, the town is bursting at the seams.

Of course, this flows over to the housing market. A quick perusal of the latest data reveals that the average residence in Oxford now sells for close to US$700,000. As anecdotal support, we are staying in a tiny two bedroom flat, small enough that the four of us are tripping over each other. I looked up the building and found that the flat will have cost the owners about US$800,000.

In London, the data suggests the average residence is closer to US$900,000.

Naturally, price is a function of supply and demand - and the demand in the cities these days appears to be mostly foreign-sourced. From what I could tell, the 52 unit building we are staying in, while essentially sold out, is almost entirely unoccupied. For the wealthy Chinese, Russians, Saudi’s, etc., I suspect the apartments are just trading sardines.

Fortunately, for the average fellow, once you travel 30 minutes or so outside of London or Oxford, and a small handful of other high demand cities, prices fall precipitously - by 50% or more. So, there’s that.

The Other Half

Reading through the post-Brexit analysis, I found it interesting, and understandable, that the 30 voting districts where the highest percentage of residents self-identified with “being English” all voted to leave the EU. Likewise, of the 30 districts with the highest percentage of elderly folks, 27 voted to leave.

Taking a bit leap over a chasm of what might pass for hard knowledge, it appears that the English people - at least in the culturally traditional sense - want to claw back something of their heritage and, indeed, their national sovereignty.

For the record, traditional British culture seemed to us to be alive and well outside of the cities.

Pubs abound, hookah bars, not so much.

As is my wont during these visits, having quickly become bored with touristy things, I decided to give the local golf courses a try. Which requires a cab ride.

In my first ride, the driver was in every sense an Englishman. As I have always enjoyed my cabbie conversations, in no time at all we were exchanging views on various things. Quite surprisingly to me, the cabbie was a big fan of Donald Trump, at one point even saying words to the effect of, “Once Trump is finished cleaning up America, we need him to do the same for England”.

On the topic of Brexit, I asked him if he thought the determined efforts of the city-dwellers to overturn it, or dilute it to the point of insignificance, might succeed. His tone dropped somewhat ominously as he replied, “They don’t dare do that”.

Another driver, also a Brit by heritage, echoed a favorable impression of what Trump was trying to do, then went on to tell me that he had got in a bit of trouble recently by complaining about the teaching of Islam to his 10-year old daughter at her Catholic school. It was not that they were teaching it per se, but that they were sugar-coating the religion to make it look all “peaches and flowers” and overlooking the misogynism and worse.

The topic of Tommy Robinson came up. From what I have learned, Robinson was literally rushed straight from a public rally to prison to serve a 13 month term for daring to report readily available facts on gangs of Muslim men who have been preying on young girls here in the UK.

The cab driver told me that, along with over 600,000 others, he had signed the petition to free Robinson. You can look up the case yourself, or click here to read one version.

A fellow I played golf with told me that, as a result of voting for Brexit, his kids call him a racist, which he very much is not.

Another golf partner, a retired teacher from Australia, asked me what I thought about Trump (as an American abroad, the question comes up frequently) then went on to say that he thought he was doing a pretty good job. Pretty surprising, given that he had worked for the state for his entire career.

On the other side of the spectrum, I traveled to London to lunch with friends who come from what might be called the "upper crust". Naturally, the topic of Trump came up and it was clear from the throat-clearing and raised eyebrows, as well as more direct comments, that they had a very low opinion of Mr. Trump.

Not to go on, because, again, I am certainly no expert, on this year’s trip I find the same sort of deeply divisive political scene in such evidence in the US. With the fault lines similarly running between the urbanites and the rest of the country.

While you would never know it from reading the US press, which takes literally every opportunity to paint Trump and his many supporters as buffoons, racists, ignoramuses, etc., on this trip to the UK, and from encounters with individuals from around the globe, I have observed that his policies are resonating quite strongly with the common man.

Despite all the outrage so breathlessly reported upon by the media, regular folks actually like it when Trump tweets or says something outrageous because that so clearly differentiates him from the polished politicos that would not dare to deviate from the script written by their handlers... as directed by the handlers of the handlers.

Given that the bottom three-quarters of the global economic pyramid is dominated by individuals who would self-identify as common folks, we may be a lot closer to the beginning of the era of Trumpian-type anti-politicians, as opposed to its end.

Is that a good thing? Or, are politics too important to be left to the commoners, as the cultural elite would have one believe?

In the words of George Orwell, whose excellent book “Homage to Catalonia” I recently finished reading…

 “In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.”

As a closing comment on this section, I am including here two images that underscore my observations. The first is of a giant balloon made in the image of Trump as a baby that Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has approved to fly over Parliament Square during President Trump’s upcoming visit.
The man behind the blimp, Leo Murray, explains the purpose of the blimp as, “...when he [Trump] visits the UK on Friday, we want to make sure he knows that all of Britain is looking down on him and laughing at him”.

Based on my observations, many would argue with Mr.Murray’s characterization of the situation, evidenced by the second image, that of a London Pub who has changed its name to The Trump Arms in honor of the Presidents visit.

According to the owner of the pub, Damien Smyth, speaking in the inimitable English style…

“It’s a jolly wheeze,” he says, “A bit of fun. It’s quite fun to cock a snook, to give a small counter-blast against the essentially false narrative that everybody in London disapproves of a visit by the head of state of our biggest ally.”

The Rules of Fools

On arrival at the local public golf course on our second day here, the taxi I was in was challenged by a security guard at the gate who required us to answer several questions before allowing us to enter. This despite it being a public course that anyone can, usually, pop over to for a round, and not some exclusive members-only establishment.

Curious, I asked a member of the pro-shop staff what was going on, and he explained that it was because there had been a “Traveller’s” wedding down the street the week before and one of the guests had set up his caravan in the golf course parking lot and refused to leave.

“Travellers?” I queried, just as a corner of my brain opened up, “Ah, you mean gypsies!”

“We’re not allowed to call them that any more, sir,” said the staff member with a roll of his eyes.

In the UK, and across the EU, the gypsies have been awarded protected status. Basically, they are allowed to camp pretty much anywhere and there’s next to nothing the landowners can do about it.

This because some high court accepted their argument that camping here, there and everywhere was a part of their cultural heritage.

It would be akin to the US Supreme Court giving the same rights to members of the nomadic Indian tribes so that on any given day one might wake up with tepees set up in one’s backyard.

In fact, now that I think about it, I am surprised they haven’t.

Interested in learning more, I read a number of articles on the topic.

The laws around the gypsies, and in particular, their encampments on private property, seem to me to be a near perfect example of the mash-up that occurs when a perfect world government such as that which dominates the EU, and I guess the British establishment, sets about hammering humanity into compliance with its idealistic goals.

To give you a sense of the thing, below are some direct quotes from a circular prepared on the topic by the Oxfordshire City Council.

Does the council have a duty to move Gypsies/Travellers when they are camped without the landowner's permission?

No. If they are camped on council land, the council can evict them. If it is private land, it is usually the landowner's responsibility. The government has advised that when Gypsies/Travellers are not causing a problem, the site may be tolerated.

What can the police do?

The duty of the police is to preserve the peace and prevent crime. Trespass on land by itself is not a criminal offence. (Ed. Note: Really?) Prevention of Trespass and the removal of trespassers are the responsibilities of the landowner and not the police. The police will investigate all criminal and public order offences.

What if the landowner decides to let them stay on the land temporarily?

Unless the landowner has already obtained planning permission for a caravan site or is a farmer and the Gypsies/Travellers are helping with fruit picking etc, then the landowner could be in breach of planning acts and the acts dealing with the licensing of caravan sites.

So, basically, once they have lighted in the car park of your golf course, or on your tidy little farm, you are legally unable to evict them. However, if you are okay with them staying, then you may be breaking the law. The very definition of a Catch 22.

FINAL NOTES

As I finish up this edition of Sendero, Tales from the Trail, I am freshly ensconced in our summer headquarters in Vermont.

While there were many highlights from our two weeks in England, in particular visiting with old friends and meeting new ones, sitting here overlooking the verdant mountains, surrounded by the freshest of air and the complete lack of traffic noises, I am reassured in my preference for the country life.

We humans are a complex lot, with an almost infinite range of attitudes and quirks. Living in a city such as London, or Oxford, puts you in close contact with humanity en masse, assuring that you will be constantly confronted with a multitude of attitudes and quirks.

I can’t believe that, for most, that environment can be healthy.

To quote the lead character in a television series I enjoyed as a kid…

Green Acres is the place to be. Farm livin' is the life for me.
Land spreadin' out so far and wide
Keep Manhattan (and London and Oxford), just give me that countryside.

Until next time… happy trails!

David

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