Thursday, 31 July 2008

Stepping Into A Parallel British Society

I am in the fortunate position of having leave to 'use up'. Many businesses force you to take a certain amount of leave in a year and partly due to my failure to have a holiday I have been compelled to take time off despite the fact that this is generally a costly experience. Anyway, it gives me some more time for blogging. Like today I was on leave yesterday and that enabled me to step into a very alternate British society. No, I did not slip through a portal into a world where Hitler had won the Second World War or even just where Callaghan won the 1978 election, I simply went to the New Forest & Hampshire Country Fair. There are many of these kinds of events, I used to run into much smaller ones in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire when I lived in Milton Keynes, and I guess that I probably encountered the kind of people I am about to talk about there. I think the thing about this fair was the scale of it and probably Hampshire is more prosperous than those Midlands counties. Also the New Forest which I sometimes skirt while driving around the South of England, attracts the very wealthy. It is picturesque and comparatively close to London so probably no surprise. So scale, prosperity and the fact that unlike Buckinghamshire-Northamptonshire-Bedfordshire which for some reason are the realm of bikers, there were not the usual leather-clad bike brigade to leaven the mix of people.

Why did I find it so unsettling? Well, many of the things there you would probably find at any fete in a country area. There were stalls selling cakes, there were marquees of flowers and handicrafts, there were car dealerships and various charities with stalls too. So, far so normal. There were more livestock. Having recently re-seen the episode of 'Father Ted' featuring the 'King of the Sheep' contest it was fun to see one for real. There were a lot of horses and people show jumping or driving coaches very fast or pulling those commercial carts with shire horses. So, it was rural. However, it was the people that made the whole thing a little scary. The event runs Tuesday to Thursday rather than over a weekend, so this presumably filters out office workers and shop assistants for starters. I would normally have been at work. So walking around, for all the conservationis and the modern farm technology on show (and a great deal of older stuff like 'vintage' tractors and a huge steam-powered combined harvester) you felt as if you had stepped back to 1928.

There were middle class people there but they seemed mainly to be traders. However, predominantly the people seemed either to be squires and big landowners and their numerous offspring or they seemed to be farm labourers granted the day off and their families, greatful for a day's break, tugging their forelock in their gratitude. There was a clear pecking order with 'members' areas where men were wearing suits and ties (despite the heat) and there was a commissionaire in full uniform to police entry into these areas. Colonel and Mrs. Blimp seemed to be everywhere, he in a navy blue jacket, carrying a shooting stick and she in a floral dress and large straw hat. There is a younger version too, who presumably in time will grow into these people. Their dress code was different but equally as alien: young women in leather hats with jodhpurs and these peculair knee-length boots in a kind of hard suede. The young men dressed the way Princes William and Harry do off duty, I suppose unsurprisingly, because they belong in this same alternate reality. There were dogs, dogs by the score. Some were for showing in events, but the bulk were just brought by visitors. Many people had two or more, everything from beagles to labradors and the odd poodle or dalmatian. You could believe if someone started shooting pheasants from the air there would be a thousand dogs rushing to catch the kill. There was a stall with a whole range of shotguns sitting on it, so maybe they do that when 'outsiders' like me have gone home. Despite the hunting ban it was interesting to see the book stalls there had hunting books in great prominence.

I clung to the conservationists because at least they seemed to have come from a world I knew. They were put at the far end of the event from the groups like the gundog handlers and the Countryside Alliance that seemed to be more in tune with attitudes of the bulk of the visitors. I do remember in the 1970s people spoke of the Green-Brown alliance in West Germany. By this they saw some commonality of interests between the Greens and the Browns (brown was the initial colour of the Nazi Party) who represented landed interests and the people who are subservient to them. Both groups want to leave rural areas untouched, though for very different motives. The Greens (in this situation represented by conservation groups, and by this I do not only mean pressure groups, but also official bodies such as the Forestry Commission who weree there in force) are democratic and want to encourage all kinds of people to enjoy the rural areas of Britain and the more Brown tendency founded on exclusive access for the 'right' people and no interference from outside. Now sometimes there is overlap but it is an uneasy relationship on both sides. You could almost see that represented physically at the event I was attending.

My concern, I suppose, was that I had stepped into a society (in large numbers, there must have been thousands of people there) which bore no resemblance to what I know UK society is like. What was frightening, was that the people there whether they were from the top or the bottom of society seemed to believe in a society founded on strict hierarachy and privilege. Most alarming they believe whole-heartedly that their view of Britain and especially the rural areas is the correct one. They believe that the elites should control everything, should be free to exploit the rural spaces and block out anyone else. Of course they need poor people to work for them, but these people must be grovelling and grateful for the meagre wages and the minimal privileges that the elite grant them. I was reminded by what I read in the 'Metro' (a free newspaper in London and some other cities) which had a comment from Claire Armstrong of Safespeed (an organisation opposed to speed cameras who talk under madness in trying to get people to have the 'right' to speed) commenting on the need that near Preston in Lancashire, the local authorities have had to put a CCTV camera to guard a speed camera to prevent it being constantly vandalised. Armstrong said '[t]he culprits were probably law-abiding citizens taking direct action against speed cameras'. How can these people be 'law-abiding' if they are vandalising a piece of safety equipment? I am sure these same people would want young taggers birched for vandalising through graffitti. In addition, these people are disabling speed cameras so that they can commit more crime, i.e. speeding, without being penalised. Of course, in the screwed-up parallel society which lives beside our own, there is a very different sense of what being 'law-abiding' is. Their definition is about protecting privilege while keeping down those who lack power and wealth or will not kow-tow to them.

The bulk of the attendees of the New Forest & Hampshire Country Show, feel that their view is the correct one. However, they are fortunately only a minority. The bulk of the population lives in cities and suburbs and has at least a semi-democratic view of how UK society should function. What is alarming is that the ordinary people of the UK in fact have so little power and with David Cameron on the horizon as the next prime minister or the one after next, they are actually going to climb into the ascendancy once more. In that kind of society wages are kept low while bonuses are in their millions; people are free to speed and run down people with impunity. The bulk of us come into a kind of serfdom and forced to be grateful for that. An afternoon at a country fair has shown me a potential UK of 2015 and unless you are of the navy-blue blazer brigade, for us it is going to be a country with an unfair, oppressive and divided society.

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