Monday, 22 June 2009

Twenty Twenty-Nine: Speculative Short Story

This story details what I could envisage the UK being like in twenty years' time if the BNP continues to build on its recent European election success and becomes the dominant political party in the UK. I have based the society of Britain in 2029 on the BNP's stated policy objectives and, also, from my experience in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, of what apartheid South Africa was like, especially in terms of the racial categorisation of people. The advent of DNA analysis makes that easier than the physical categorisation the South African regime used, but of course no system is infallible.

The assumption is that growing in success and with many people leaving UK for life abroad, ultimately the BNP is sufficiently strong to defend democracy, perhaps in response to a manufactured terrorist crisis and then the UK becomes a one-party state with candidates selected from a list. This is similar to many authoritarian regimes and naturally owes a lot of the Nazi regime. I think that it is useful to think through the implications of parties' policies and see where, if unchecked, they could lead this country in the next few decades.

Victoria Day was the Canadian replacement for Empire Day. These were on 24th May, Queen Victoria's birthday. In the UK, Empire Day was officially celebrated 1916-58 when it became British Commonwealth Day; in 1966 it became just Commowealth Day and moved to 10th June, Queen Elizabeth II's birthday. In 1977 it was moved to the second Monday in March and is now mainly observed simply through a radio message from the Queen. Given the BNP's obssession with supposedly glorious elements of Britain's past, I envisage they would revive such anachronisms; others are mentioned in the story.

Twenty Twenty-Nine

Despite the heat of the mid-May evening, Alfred Napier closed the window. The sound of the brass band rehearsing in the park ahead of the Victoria Day celebrations had been nagging him for the past couple of hours. Of course, as a councillor he once would have expected to have air conditioning in his office. Yet, like a lot of things in Britain today, the New Great Britain as the government vigorously branded it, his air conditioning no longer worked. With the country having been expelled from the European Union three years before and the borders to Britain tighter than the Iron Curtain had been in Alfred’s youth, there was a labour shortage. People preferred to get jobs working in the new Ministry of Information or as Special Constables, basically thugs with a warrant to boss people around, than to train for a skilled job like air conditioning repair. Part of the problem was the fad in architecture of the past five years. All government bodies had been moved out of modern buildings into anything Victorian that could be found; alternatively, buildings constructed along those lines, which meant huge lobbies that were difficult to heat and poky offices that were either too cold or as now, too hot.

There was a knock at the door and Alfred stepped away from the window, realising he had let his mind wander. He knew it was displacement activity. His wife, Mary, had had an appointment at the hospital this afternoon to see about treatment for their son, Harold’s glue ear. Alfred knew that it was a straight forward procedure, but the National Health Service had lost so many doctors in the sweep of 2026 that waiting lists now stretched for years, even for the family of a man as comparatively privileged as Alfred. He wondered if he should lay out more bribes to see if he could get Harold moved further up the list. With the debts that the doctors who had been rushed through medical school in the past decade in an attempt to fill the shortfall, incurred, they were more than willing to take payments. Of course, everyone knew this and Alfred recognised that he was in competition with people much richer than himself. He wondered if his predecessor in this role had adopted the right method. Richard Waugh had been unashamed when speaking with fellow councillors about how he used blackmail and simple rumour-mongering to exert pressure on those he wanted something from. Many men would do Waugh a favour rather than have a visit from the Borders Agency following an allegation that they did not have four generations of indigenous blood or that their daughter had been consorting with a mestee or even a quadroon.

“Come.” Alfred called and went and sat down in his seat.

It was Harley, Alfred’s tea boy; though ‘boy’ was more a technical term these days than designation of age; Harley was only three years Alfred’s junior. Alfred knew that Harley had been born Henry, but had been compelled to change his name back in 2024 to something that was seen as being more suited to a man whose father had been born on St. Lucia. Alfred had changed his name too when it became apparent that, despite the history of English Anthonys, it was being perceived too much as belonging to the ‘Mediterranean’ category, especially when shortened to Tony. Mary always said he would have been unlikely to have got on the Party list for the council selection, if he had kept his old name. Back in the early 2020s people had begun to get so jumpy about that kind of thing.

It was that purging of anything felt not to be sufficiently ‘indigenous’ that had started the EU towards expelling Britain. Of course, the National Party had been keen to leave the organisation right from the start; that had been the key thing that had attracted Alfred to them in the first place. However, previously their economists had shown how damaging it would be to suddenly been shut out from Britain’s prime market. The Commonwealth had its own trading partners and anyway, once the expulsions of ‘non-indigenous’ people back to many of these countries began, they had little interest in trading with Britain even with continued reference to the shared heritage.

“Are you staying late this evening, sir?” Harley said with his eyes dipped.

Alfred felt like shouting ‘look at me’, but knew that that would cause more trouble than the moment’s irritation he was facing. The mixed race people left in Britain had to face enough, Alfred felt, without this palaver of pretending as if they were slaves from a cotton plantation. Alfred dreaded the day when one of the more robust members of the council insisted that he be called ‘massa’.

“Yes, Harley, I want to finish this report. The committee meeting’s at eight tomorrow, isn’t it?”

“Erm, yes, erm, sir.”

Harley replied hesitantly and Alfred realised that that was because he was aware that he should display no knowledge of the affairs of the council. Alfred knew, however, that Harley had a degree in economics from back in the 2000s when mixed race people were still allowed to go to university, and in fact, when half of 18-year olds were expected to attend rather than now when it was something just for the rich and those of leading National Party members. Harley was never going to be able to do much more than make the tea. Once his grandparents died, Alfred was sure, Harley would flee across the Channel and be Henry once more. With the influx of skilled and educated mixed race people from Britain over the past decade, the economy of France; those of Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands too, were thriving.

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

Alfred hesitated. “Erm, yes, bring me one; make yourself one. Is Matilda still out there?”

Harley shook his head. “No, she went at … she went.” He cut his sentence short and Alfred realised he was reluctant to give away that Matilda had slunk off early again as he knew the trouble she could cause him if she found out.

Matilda. Alfred laughed at the name. Almost all women born in the past twenty years were named after queens. The number of Victorias and Elizabeths was ridiculous. For a while Matilda had been argued over. The connection between that queen and France had counted against her, but ultimately, Alfred imagined, she had been accepted simply to increase the range of names female babies could be given, just a little. Matilda’s father was the city head of the National Party and so she was simply given a job, despite the fact that she had few skills and, having being spoilt for all her life, almost seemed to expect Alfred to do her bidding rather than the reverse. Alfred had to admit that her father, Edward Dickens, at least seemed to feel that his daughter should get out of the house and do ‘something’, unlike the bulk of the princesses of Party bosses who simply idled their time and their fathers’ money away. However, it meant that Alfred was saddled with an assistant who was useless and spent most of her time chatting with friends via the computer, when the power supply was on, or slipping off for various beauty treatments.

Of course, Alfred knew that there were many women who would do the job better, but these days after they passed their mid-twenties, companies were reluctant to employ women. The government’s emphasis on women being at home producing babies, or, if infertile, adopting a child from a single mother meant that any working women older were looked at with suspicion. Mary had been an IT consultant in her younger years but stood no chance of working in that field now. The best she could have hoped for was secretarial or care worker jobs and then there were hundreds of younger women filling those each day while they sought a husband. Heaven help them, though, if they got pregnant out of wedlock. These days abstinence was the only permitted form of contraception and unmarried mothers automatically lost their child at birth before serving three years imprisonment. The government felt the loss of morals had been partly what had previously weakened Britain and, so, for the past decade had felt compelled to legislate on these too.

Alfred gazed at his computer screen but he was utterly bored of this report. These days reports were demanded with such tight deadlines it was always difficult to meet them. This was the so-called ‘national’ style of running business. It was felt that catching staff out with sudden demands kept them dynamic and always ‘ready for action’ as the phrase went. However, Alfred was now not so sure. It seemed to just leave him feeling edgy and he knew that he did not produce the kind of analysis that was really needed. This report was on the challenges of attracting sufficient primary school teachers to the city. It had been a grave problem for over ten years. No-one wanted to come and work in a city when so many tiny village schools had appeared across the country. Teachers liked the small class sizes and the fact that in those places there was less direct monitoring by the Ministry of Education about what they taught day-to-day and whether the content was sufficiently patriotic. The strict limits on what books could be used in schools and the tight budgets local authorities worked under, made it difficult to run a school successfully to start with. In addition, Alfred imagined that the contemporary emphasis on rote learning, especially of dates and famous names, could not be that interesting to teach. Accessing forbidden websites, even inadvertently, might end a teacher’s career and so they kept to just the official government ones when seeking teaching resources.

Matilda had recited the names of the monarchs when she had been interviewed for the post of personal assistant as if it equipped her for any job. Of course, with the criteria that Alfred had to work with, in part, it did. That knowledge of British history and a clean nationality certificate, let alone a father in the Party, rather any ability to do the work, had been more than sufficient for her to get the place.

The computer warbled and brought Alfred back from his pondering. He clicked on the icon and brought his wife’s face on to the screen. He could see she was back home. Partly he hoped that meant the visit to the hospital had been a success, but his wife’s face seemed to tell a different story.

“My love. How’s Harold? Did you get to see Dr. Allison?”

Mary melted into tears and Alfred wished he could be there to hold her. He imagined that Allison had gone to deal with the child of a Party leader or someone who offered him more money or a parent who had simply threatened the doctor to get his attention.

“They refused us. They said Harold’s not indigenous. They took a swab from me too. They said we can’t go to that hospital. Apparently we can’t use a national one any more; we have to use community facilities from now on.”

Alfred’s head reeled. ‘Community’ was a euphemism for second class. The hospitals that the ‘non-indigenous’ were sent to, generally underfunded and filthy.

“That’s not right, we’ve got our nationality certificates. There must be some mistake. They must have mixed you up with someone else. Look, calm down, I’ll phone the hospital direct and get them to sort this out. We’ll have it sorted. Okay? It’s going to be alright. I’ll be home soon. Give Harold a treat, keep him happy. I know he feels uncomfortable, but it’ll soon be sorted.”

“Yes, okay.” Mary looked a little more cheerful. “Hurry home, Tony, erm, Alf. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Alfred said, a little self-conscious that someone might overhear that he had had a personal call here at work. He guessed that the connection was tapped anyway, though where the funds to employ people to listen to every mundane conversation came from, he had no idea. Alfred would have been happier if his elder sons, William and George, had been at home, but term at their army academy did not end for another seven weeks. Alfred wished that he could just shove this report aside and go home to his wife. Not for the first time was he tempted to get Harley in to write something for him, but knew that would risk both their jobs and, if it came to light, would render the report meaningless: no-one in government was permitted to accept anything written by a mulatto.

Alfred heard footsteps outside the door but could tell from their weight and number that this was not Harley returning. There was a terse knock on the door, but the two men did not wait for a response before entering. Alfred guessed that only his position had warranted the knock; these men were more used to opening doors with their feet. He did not need to take in the details of the uniforms to know that they were from the Borders Agency. Of course that body’s role encompassed everything pertaining to racial legislation in Britain these days and these two particularly looked like men who were more used to chasing down quadroons trying to pass as white than checking passports. They were both over six feet tall, with shaven heads and large moustaches that, despite apparently being drawn from Victorian styles of the British Army, always made Alfred think of fat Germans running a beer hall.

“Mr. Napier?”

From the man’s pronunciation that he was one of those who had come to Britain from the southern USA once the implementation of the National Party’s agenda had got underway. In terms of ability and even numbers, they had done nothing to replace those people expelled from the country. Many had had their expectations dashed. In contrast to what they had expected, that they would be stringing up blacks from lamp-posts as their grandfathers had done, they had ended up hassling those who had a few genes that no longer fitted with the government’s demands. Much of their day was spent excluding such people from certain buses, parks, beaches, schools, hospitals and jobs, reserved for the ‘indigenous people’.

“Yes, I’m Councillor Napier.” Alfred felt he had to pull rank to show this pair he was better than them.

The two men took chairs unprompted. The other man had a leather case from which he pulled documentation. He spread it out across the table.

“This,” the second man spoke with a strong West Midlands accent, “is the report of your son’s latest DNA check.”

“And you are?”

Alfred’s question seemed to surprise the men. There was a quick glance between them and Alfred was pleased that he had drawn them up short.

“I am Sergeant Hopkins,” the American said, “and this is Corporal Neal, we are from the Borders Agency, Councillor.”

“Thank you.”

Alfred felt he had won a little victory. He wanted these men to be uncertain as to the extent to which their careers were in jeopardy if they mistreated him. He might not be all-powerful in this city, but he was not without influence. Major Kendal of the Borders Agency had dined at his house.
“Can I offer you some tea?”
“No thank you.” Hopkins replied and Alfred noted there was no ‘sir’.
It seemed apparent now that the mix-up at the hospital had had wider repercussions. This could be tiresome to resolve.

“Basically your son’s DNA check shows some non-indigenous characteristics that were followed up on.” Hopkins had taken over the narration.

“Are you sure there has been no mix-up? A mistake at the hospital.”

“Mr. Napier, they only call us in when they’re certain.”

Alfred realised that these men would go nowhere near the biological analysis, they just did the enforcement.

“This has been followed up on and it revealed something from your wife’s record. Did you ever meet her grandmother?”

“Once, she was at our wedding. She does not live around here.”

“No, she lives in France, doesn’t she?” Neal snapped as if that was a crime in itself.

Alfred felt guilty for an instant. He had asked Mary to pressure her parents to remain in Britain and they worried that it might come at the time when Alfred was being considered for the Party list, but until now, fortunately, it had not.
“Did you know that Mrs. Gould was half-Burmese?” Hopkins asked.

“Must have come here as a baby, say, in 1948, when the floodgates opened. You know, when we lost India, a lot of them came over here.”

Joyce Gould certainly had long straight hair, but she had freckled in the sunshine as Mary and her mother, Helen, did. Then Alfred found himself wondering a little at Hopkins’s claim to ‘we’ losing India.
“No, I didn’t know that.” He responded calmly.

“And the grandfather, Gould, he wasn’t born Gould, but Gold, you know, a Jewish name. Probably forced their way in here in the 1930s.” Neal said almost with an enthusiasm.

“There are people, not Jewish, called Gold.”

“Not in this country.” Neal sneered.

“Well, why was none of this detected? Mary and I have had our checks. You are saying that my wife has sixteenth Burmese and possibly an eighth Jewish blood, though probably none, so why is it only now that you know?”

Hopkins hesitated and Alfred was pleased that he had got him back on the defensive.

“The history of this country has been plagued by so many tides of different races sweeping into it; miscegenation, bastards, all that kind of thing makes it tough.” Hopkins drawled, what, to Alfred, sounded like a speech repeated by this man’s boss. “There are sometimes backlogs in processing the results and, you know, we are reaching new levels of sophistication in how we detect cross-breeds. Great Britain leads the world in this type of DNA analysis. It costs billions, sorry, milliards of pounds in research to get it right.” Hopkins said proudly.

“Yes, yes, I know that. Many milliards.” Alfred said, now with irritation as he knew how much his city could benefit from even one of those many billions.

Alfred allowed himself to laugh a little to see that even a Borders Agency man could slip up and forget the directions on the use of ‘proper’ English. He knew how challenging these changes were. Coming from the construction industry, Alfred remembered how he had had to adjust from millimetres to inches and the re-adoption of shillings and pennies alongside pounds had taken him months to master.
“You have been shown the evidence.” Hopkins seemed to be getting back to his script.

“So what happens now?” Alfred was a little uncertain. He remained convinced that this was a mistake, but pondered if a bribe was in order. He wondered how much cash he had in his drawer.

“Your wife has already been re-categorised. She has been given octoroon status, but she may be reduced to quadroon if we do find her grandfather had Jewish blood.”

For an instant Alfred envisaged one of Hopkins’s ancestors being as comfortable as him, with these terms like octoroon that the National Party had imported from the Americas of the past. They had come in when talking about ‘one-eighth non-indigenous persons’ had proven to be so cumbersome.

“So, the community hospital for her?”

“Yes, Mr. Napier and for your sons. Being mestees, William and George will be expelled from their academy this evening. You might like to make arrangements to collect them. They can join the waiting list for a community school in this city.” Hopkins outlined.

“Of course, your wife won’t be permitted to live in Wollaton district and will have to move closer to the city centre. I have no doubt your office has a list of the districts that the kind of people like Mary and her sons are permitted to live in.”

For a moment Alfred was going to protest or argue he would have to move with his wife and children, but realised that someone deemed to be ‘indigenous’ would not be allowed to live in districts allocated to octoroons. Even if he tried to live there he would be chased out, he was sure.

“This,” Hopkins said, lifting up a folded form, “is your application for divorce. It will be processed immediately and you will not be liable for charges of miscegenation, though obviously they will be held on record in case you happen to make a ‘mistake’ like this again.”

Alfred felt stunned. It seemed incredible that his marriage of over twenty years was being dissolved by documents being delivered by these two bully-boys.

“This is your resignation from the council.” Hopkins turned a printed letter towards Alfred. “In your case, we have included the phrase ‘to spend more time on my business interests’ as ‘spending more time with my family’ is inappropriate as you do not have one.”

Alfred’s head spiralled through all the options. He wondered whether he could bribe these men to lose all this stuff. Could he try to challenge this in the People’s Court? It seemed futile: he knew that even men simply suspected of miscegenation received rough treatment, let alone someone like himself who had lived with an octoroon woman for twenty years and fathered three children by her. Perhaps a prison sentence for that would be what he needed, to get him away from all that was happening. Realistically, though he knew he would still have to live the rest of his life and his options would be wider if he still had his business. Now his plans began developing. He knew people, he could start getting funds out of the country, say to France, and in a couple of years he would be able to fetch Mary and the boys and they could flee abroad. Better than that, if he invested in property in Spain he could channel funds there, yes that was what he would do, run down his business and build a new life there. Of course, Mary would have to tolerate months in the ghettos of the city centre, but she was strong, he knew.

“Your Party card.” Hopkins asked.

Alfred reached into his jacket and pulled out the worn leather wallet that had held his membership of the National Party. Of course, without it he would never have been able to work in any public sector job, let alone hold office even at local level. His membership dated back over a decade and he wondered whether, if he had been in the Party from when its rise had started, or had been more visible in its activities in the years since he had joined, he would have somehow have found a way now to stop what was happening. He guessed not.

“Well, that will be all gentlemen.” Alfred said as he briskly signed the various forms and shoved them back across the desk. He took the DNA record and dropped it into the bin for shredding that sat by his desk.

Neal took the documents and Alfred’s membership card and thrust them all into his leather case as if they were unimportant.. The councillor stood and began ushering them to the door. He was concerned that they would escort him from the building, but realised that they had no powers to arrest him unless they pressed the miscegenation charges and it seemed they would not. They would inform the town hall security staff, but Alfred guessed he had some minutes before they would arrive to eject him.

The two Borders Agency men were through the door now. Alfred was eager to return to his computer and wreak as much damage as he could before he went. Let the council disentangle the schools and hospital policies once he had done that.

“Sorry to rush you two, but I need to get down to working on my business interests as soon as possible.”

With that Alfred closed and locked the heavy door.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

10 Years On - Part 8 of Account of Cycling Northern France

Staying in the Citadel at Montreuil salvaged a bit of something from the holiday. I wrote a letter, poorly, in French to the warden of the youth hostel, thanking her from 'the temporary king of the castle' and closed the main gate behind me. It seemed like far more than a week had passed. What I do not understand is why, given how much I was depressed by this holiday I decided to do it twice again. I can only suppose I stored my old diaries at my parents' house not to hand. I did regret not visiting a few more towns, especially not stopping in Boulogne. Not going to Beauvais on this occasion also lay problems for my next trip to France.

On the previous day, the left pedal, which was plastic, had broken on the road to Montreuil and I remember lashing it together in the rain using pieces of green coated wire that I found by the roadside. The journey is in fact 45 miles (72 Km), which, taking me six hours meant I was averaging 9mph (14.5 kph) which, though not good enough to get into the Milton Keynes Cycling Club which requires a 15 mph average over 50 miles for membership) given the terrain and the amount of luggage on board was not as bad as I felt at the time.
Interesting to note, that this was when I had been doing so freelance work and so was effectively self-employed and so owed the Inland Revenue £590 which is probably what my holiday had cost. In some ways it is better never to do these trips and retain the pleasant image of you enjoying cycling in France rather than facing up to the reality. I guess very few people going on holiday encounter as much, though often low level, but certainly sustained, bad luck which undermines the experience. Despite having mild Asperger's syndrome which means I keep memories of embarrassing situations with me as if they occurred yesterday, I am quite glad to say that I had forgotten a lot of the things that went wrong on this particular holiday. Maybe I blanked them out. Perhaps this project was a mistaken one. I hope it historicises the thing and allows me to see it with more clinically rather than bitterly.

I remember passing places I knew from First World War history, notably Etaples where the British training camp had been and a British mutiny broke out made famous in 'The Monocled Mutineer' (book 1978; television series 1986). Interestingly I saw memorials to the Portuguese soldiers who died on the Western Front (people forget Portugal was an ally of Britain and France) and an impressive one to the Chinese labourers killed during the war. The Chinese were the main group who actually dug the trenches.

Cap Gris Nez and Cap Blanc Nez are the highest points Northwards from where they stand, just South of Calais, right up to Denmark and they are steep cliffs. Having staggered over them (there is a deep defile between the two of them as well) my bicycle I was free wheeling down towards Calais when I saw two American cyclists (you could tell by the flags) coming the opposite way on bicycles which were so packed with huge panniers that they looked like they were on slowly-moving armchairs, you could hardly see the bicycle beneath it all and I still wonder how they got over the two caps.
The photos do show some of the beautiful countryside that I passed through on this trip. On other days not wanting to break my (slow) stride I had not stopped to take photos of the landscape I was passing through, but seeing the poppies and wheat fields that for so many British seem to sum up northern France and Belgium and all the violent history of that region in the 20th century, I had to take a few. My inability to expose photos well did not make the best of the shots I was taking. However, I hope it encourages people to visit a region of interest and beauty and I hope you have a far better time than I ever did.

Monday 21st June 1999

Today I woke early and packed. I then set off, the stretch to Boulogne was not too bad. I got there in about three-and-a-half hours. The road on to Calais was tougher especially Cap Gris Nez and Cap Blanc Nez. I arrived at the port around 14.10, so a six hour journey for forty miles, showing how slow I have been going probably never more than 7-8mph, often only 5mph.

I caught the 14.45 ferry and was in Dover by 15.15 British time. Getting lost in the town I missed the train and had to wait ages. I got off at London Bridge which proved to be much nearer than Charing Cross would have been.

I got back at 18.30. I had a kebab for dinner. I then unpacked. The zip on the saddle bag got broken when the bike fell over on the train, making it useless, further waste.

I will have quite a lot to sort out, changing my money, getting my left pedal replaced and above all, the stress that goes with being unemployed. The tax office want £590 odd, which is not as bad as I expected.

I wish I could have gone on with the holiday but not with more things going wrong and getting stressed. This evening I watched television and a video.

Programmes of the day: Goodnight Sweetheart, The Planets (videoed).
Weather: Sunny and warm, windy.

Valley South of Boulogne, June 1999

View of Wimereux, June 1999

View of Ambleteuse, June 1999

Wheat Fields near Ambleteuse, June 1999

View towards Cap Gris Nez, June 1999

View of Cross-Channel Ferries from Road to Calais, June 1999

View Back to Audreselles, June 1999

View of Cap Blanc Nez, June 1999

Saturday, 20 June 2009

10 Years On - Part 7 of Account of Cycling Northern France

This was the day that I found I had had 700F (about £70 in those days) stolen. I had feared getting pickpocketed in the town and had concealed the money, with a distinctive 500F note in my spare of shoes. Though this may not seem much money now, it was a day's pay for me in those days and I was paying 120F per day, bed and breakfast, for my room. I assumed it was by the maid as when I came back to sleep the previous afternoon she came straight back into my room without knocking, I assumed, to see if she could find any more. Of course I had no evidence. The diary entry for 22nd June 1999 when I changed my French money back shows that I had had equivalent to £239 left, so my despair at losing the £70 need not have curtailed the holiday, but it seemed to be the final reason for cutting the holiday short.

I did get to stay in the youth hostel in castle at Montreuil-sur-Mer (though the sea is now a number of kilometres away, it was on the coast in medieval times), a small medieval fortified town. Some weeks later watching Richard Holmes's series 'The Western Front' (August 1999), I found out it had been the headquarters of the British command in the First World War. Given that I was the only person sleeping in the place that night, if I had known that fact I think I would have relocated for fear of being haunted. However, there were no curtains on the windows and it was the day before the longest day, so the night was very short.

Sunday 20th June 1999

Today I found I was about 700F short, I had put aside before I went out yesterday, but I could not find it anywhere today, possibly the maid took it. I do not know because I cannot remember precisely where I put it.

I cycled 100Km today going North instead of North West so it took time to get on the route. The weather was appalling - heavy rain, mist and wind, everything got wet. I reached Abbeville at 12.30 and Montreuil at 16.30. The Sun then came out but the wind remained strong until evening.

The youth hostel is in the middle of the Citadel, a 16th-17th century fort. It is a "green" one without permanent staff but adequate showers and rooms. There is only a woman on the gate when the Citadel is open. I am the only guest as one large group left today and a group of British children arrive tomorrow, if I had arrived then I would not have got in. The woman gave me the key to the main door so I have the whole fort to myself! I looked around it and the town taking photos.

There are a lot of British here as we are on the main road to Boulogne and Calais. I had some beers in a cafe then dinner at the Logis restaurant, 'Les Hauts de Montreuil' which was really tasty. Though I pulled the stops out it came to only 213F. I walked back on the ramparts and came back to the deserted fort, a bit unnerving. If I had arrived tomorrow I would not have had all this.

Weather: Dull, rainy, windy, cool, sunny and mild later.

Entrance from Inside the Citadel at Montreuil-sur-Mer, June 1999
Towers of the Citadel at Montreuil-sur-Mer, June 1999

Barbican in the Citadel at Montreuil-sur-Mer, June 1999

Youth Hostel Accommodation in the Citadel at Montreuil-sur-Mer, June 1999

View through Arrow-slit in the Citadel at Montreuil-sur-Mer, June 1999

View of Montreuil-sur-Mer from its Citadel, June 1999

St. Saulve Church in Montreuil-sur-Mer, June 1999

Town Hall and Equestrian Statue of Field Marshal the Earl (Douglas) Haig in Montreuil-sur-Mer, June 1999

Assorted Houses in Montreuil-sur-Mer, June 1999

Why I took, let alone kept this last picture of a mundane street, I have no idea, especially as there are many prettier streets in the town. Given how often I get lost on holiday, I always spend ages walking through dull suburbs of towns rather than their better-looking areas, so I suppose my standards for what counted as 'interesting' were pretty low by this stage.
Views from the Ramparts of Montreuil-sur-Mer, June 1999

Friday, 19 June 2009

10 Years On - Part 6 of Account of Cycling Northern France

By this day, depression was turning to guilt as I knew that I had done so much more by just coming on this holiday than the bulk of my neighbours in East London would ever experience. Ten years on I have forgotten how traumatic this holiday was and am a little alarmed that I see, even a decade later, my attempts at holidays are still blighted as back then.

My fear of everything being closed on a Sunday may seem unusual to British residents of the 21st century but even now most French shops are closed on a Sunday and, as I had found out in the Dunkerque youth hostel, as a cyclist, that can leave you stranded without vital things.

Saturday 19th June 1999

Today I work around 08.00 having slept well despite the bed. Initially I felt relieved that I have decided to leave but today I just feel depressed and also guilty that I am throwing up a holiday neighbours would kill for. I sat around reading unhassled.

I wandered around the town, the market and the old town and stopped at the entrance to it to write the last of my postcards in 'Aux Manniken Pis', I should be less gloomy in them.

I had the plat du jour at 'La Capitainerie' on the quay of the river, made difficult to translate because spelt wrongly. I walked along the Hortillonages which are gardens and islands divided by small rivers. I did some shopping as much will be closed tomorrow.

Back in my room I slept and read more of 'Shōgun'. I then walked inmto town but had missed the festival's afternoon stuff and was too early for evening things most which started at 21.45. I ate at 'La Table Picardie' and unlike meals since yesterday did not rush it. I then came back.

I hope I can make Montreuil tomorrow rather than be depressed in Abbeville. This holiday has proven what a pathetic character I am, fearful of everything, unable even to relax or enjoy myself. I need to hurry back to the pathetic scraps of my life in Britain I have for comfort. I should eat lightly and save more money, though that is less important now.

Weather: Sunny and hot.

Old Building Reflected in New Building in Amiens, June 1999

Terraced Houses in St. Leu District of Amiens, June 1999

River Somme Running through St. Leu District of Amiens in June 1999

Bridge to the Hortillonages Area of Amiens, June 1999

View along River Somme to Amiens, June 1999

Gated Bridge to a Hortillonage in Amiens, June 1999

A Small Chalet on a Hortillonage in Amiens, June 1999

Etangs between the Hortillonages in Amiens, June 1999

Father and Daughter Returning Home from Working on a Hortillonage in Amiens, June 1999

The Perret Tower in Amiens in June 1999

When it was completed in 1956 the Perret Tower, also known as La Chandelle (The Candle), at 25 stories was the highest skyscraper in the whole of France. Its original budget had been FF 93 million but ultimately cost FF 225 million. It was begun in 1949 and took 3 years longer than had been planned to build. An underground river was found to run under where the foundations were to be laid and had to be re-routed. Water pressure in Amiens at the time was too low for water to reach the top 5 floors and it was estimated it would take the 350 people expected to live in it two hours to leave the building using the lifts. It seems to summon up modern construction problems, but for some reason I find it intriguing and think it would make an excellent base for some shadowy organisation in a movie. 

Steampunk Street Performers in Amiens, June 1999

Probably appropriate to have steampunk performers in Amiens given that Jules Verne lived there, was a town councillor and was buried there. 

Glass Shop in Amiens, June 1999

Water Alleys in Amiens, June 1999

Evening along the Waterfront in Amiens, June 1999

'Rubbernecking': Far Less Common than People Think

As regular readers of this blog will know I drive anything between 280 Km and 630 Km per week, so spend quite a lot of time on the road. I imagine that this means I see a lot more bad driving than most people. Of course 'bad' is a subjective description, lorry drivers view anyone else being in their vicinity as being bad even if we are obeying the law precisely. Daily I see congestion and accidents, the kind of things that fill the traffic reports of radio stations from national right down to small local level stations. Often when there is an accident on one side of, say the M25 or M3 or even the A31 (a dual carriageway which has a wide, overgrown central reservation) then you find traffic on the other side, i.e. the side without the actual accident, slows down as well.

On some radio stations there are sneery comments condemning the 'rubberneckers', people supposedly in some morbid fascination, to stare at the accident. This misapprehension is heard on many radio stations, though ones like Wave 105 which covers Hampshire and Dorset, counties I often drive through, are the worst. Wave 105 is a bad radio station anyway with incredibly self-righteous DJs clearly aware of their populist, rather bigoted audience who seem to just love complaining about immigrant and generally being smug about the'right' way to do things, so perhaps it is unsurprising that they sneer at those drivers they believe are behaving in an improper way.

Today, from my extensive experience, I am going to outline why I believe this reports are based on a misapprehension about most drivers. I am not pretending that there are not people who do not slow down to stare at accidents, possibly with genuine concern if on a small road, that it might be a friend or neighbour who has crashed. However, in any situation these people are in a small minority. People slow down on the opposite carriage for one simple reason, it is a natural reaction. When you are next a passenger in a car, taxi or coach, notice what the driver does when they see a flashing light, even from the corner of their eye. Their foot lifts from the accelerator automatically. If you asked them they probably could not even tell you that they had done it.

Another thing is that many roads curve in the UK, even motorways, so as you approach an incident, it is not always clear whether the flashing lights are on your side of the carriageway or on the other side until you are up close, especially as usually there are lots of slow-moving cars and lorries in between you and the incident when you first become aware of it. In addition, there are in fact, quite often, accidents that go across both carriageways. You do not know until you are right up to it, what is happening, so naturally you slow up long before you could even catch a glimpse of the accident site. It is good that drivers slow when they see flashing lights, this is something we want to encourage, not sneer at.

It does not even have to be a flashing light. I drive a lot on the M3 and M25 and often on the so-called matrix boards information flashes up about congestion or accidents on other roads, often far distant from where you are at the moment. On the M3 you get information about the M4 which is reached from the M3 down the A34 or the M25, but you are still warned about incidents on it. Around the M25 which connects all the major roads and motorways you get information about roads which are often on the other side of London from where you are currently driving. However, again you will notice, that no matter what information is being displayed, naturally people slow up so that they can read it. Sometimes the instruction is immediate such as a speed limit or something like the currently very popular message 'Queue Caution 40'. It takes some seconds to process the data even if it is not urgent. You now get information like 'A34 38 miles 34 minutes', which is useful if you are going up the A34, but even if you are not, the bulk of drivers read, process and probably start analysing what it means in terms of speed. Again, this leads them to slow up. Anyone who drives on Britain's motorways will know that the moment a indication like this comes into sight traffic automatically slows. It could say 'God save the Queen' or 'Qwertyuiop' and it would still have the same effect.

Slowing up when you come up to an accident whatever side of the road it is on, is not the bad thing that radio stations lazily assume it to be. Of course there are people who do not slow up and that is why you get accidents opposite existing accidents and through complex road works (which seem to be all over the motorways of South-East England at present). However, it is they who should be condemned. Slowing traffic in the opposite carriageway to an accident is a natural response: blue lights/matrix signs = slowing up. The equation is no more complex than that, and for anything else to happen is both unnatural and in fact hazardous. So, let us stop complaining about the supposed morbid 'rubberneckers' and actually take account of what really happens on our roads, which in my view, is actually the more sensible reaction from drivers.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

10 Years On - Part 5 of Account of Cycling Northern France

I remember one character from this day and this was the woman at the Tourist Office in Amiens who poured scorn on how far I had cycled and could not understand why anyone would want to stay in anything less than a 3-star hotel. She also seemed surprised that the whole world was not informed about the affairs of Amiens and that I had arrived in the middle of the city's festival oblivious to the fact it was on and expecting to find accommodation. As such I got very put off the city and left it quickly. I only returned in 2005 and this time got to go into the heart of the Hortillonages, the unique floating gardens of Amiens at that time.

I think Amiens should have sacked that woman as her high-handed attitude certainly dissuaded this tourist from staying in the city, contrary to what the function of her job presumably was; with her reaction I almost chucked it all in and cycled on to Abbeville that day. Perhaps Amiens has criteria regarding its visitors: you must be fully knowledgeable about its itinerary, have cycled at least 120Km to reach it and stay only in 3+ star hotels.

I do remember talking to the young man who was the guide to the tower in the cathedral which has a wonderful maze. Both of us though each other's country had a strange mix of old and new. He had visited London and talked of the historic buildings in the City of London alongside the newest financial institutions and I talked of all the high-tech octagonal telephone boxes I had seen in tiny French villages that lacked even a shop. The French got into DVDs and the internet well ahead of the British. He also spoke about his irritation at visitors, especially school parties who came to the cathedral simply because it was 'big' with no concept of its history, meaning or function and little willingness to learn that.

I also remember the fact that going to bed at around 21.00 each night I liked to eat early but in Amiens I could find no restaurant of any quality that opened before 19.00 and so had to sit around rather bored waiting to get some food. Probably snobbery got in the way in that aspect. However, with me feeling the holiday was a failure, having good meals seemed to be the only compensation and also as I had no-one to talk to in the evenings it meant I could avoid hours of solitude in my room, which, bar in Arras, did not even have a television. This was the day that I decided to abandon the holiday, though, at eight days, it beat the two days of my 2008 Belgian holiday.

Friday 18th June 1999

Well I am really beginning to get sick of this holiday, it is not that things are going wrong, though I did make two mistakes over the past two days. There was a youth hostel in Arras, on La Grand' Place where I ate last night. I must say I saw no signs to it though. Secondly, used to using only five gears around London I have forgotten that I have five others for climbing hills which would have been very useful on Wednesday. I am an idiot, blinded by fatigue.

I set off promptly and did not get lost. I had a sandwich in Rainneville and reached Amiens at 13.30. At the Tourist Office the woman insisted on speaking French and kept pointing to 3-star places but I persuaded her to book me a room at the restaurant-hotel 'Le Tatarin' on the edge of the centre, only 120F a night, a sink, no shower.

I am getting through my money too quickly. It was good that I checked at the office as many places are booked up for the 2-day festival. I worried about staying here 2 days and arriving at Beauvais on Sunday and not getting a place but there is a lot to see in Amiens which is bigger than Arras. This is the capital of Picardy, different to the North of previous days.

I wandered around taking photos of the beautiful public buildings and looked around the cathedral, the largest in France and chatted (in English) with the guide. I also looked around the Belfry and Les Halles covered market. I had to wait in a park until 'The Salmon House' restaurant opened at 19.15, others did not open until 20.00.

My holiday is being ruined by constant worries which affect me even cycling through beautiful countryside. I could have eaten more cheaply but would have tired of burgers and pizzas. The food was tasty but I was too impatient to stay for cheese or coffee. I came back to the hotel's rock hard bed. I have decided to abandon the holiday, it is too stressful. I will look around town tomorrow and get back via Abbeville, Montreuil and Calais which means getting home on Tuesday rather than Saturday via Beauvais-Rouen-Dieppe then Abbeville.

Weather: Sunny and hot.

Slender Avenue on Road from Arras to Amiens, June 1999

This is far from being my perfect avenue along a French road, which has to have much larger trees and be straighter. However, it does indicate the traffic levels that I had to deal with on much of my cycling.
Modern Church in Amiens, June 1999
Theatre in Amiens, June 1999

Public Building in Amiens, June 1999

Door Panel in Amiens, June 1999

Views of Amiens Cathedral, June 1999
In this and some subsequent photos in other postings about this trip I seem to have fallen victim to the 1980s fashion of shooting pictures through different shaped 'cut-outs'. To some degree, I think this was also, as can be seen from the images, it was a very sunny June and the light would cut across especially when trying to shoot buildings against the sky as I often did. This is probably the best of the bunch in that style.
Carvings around Main Entrance to Amiens Cathedral, June 1999

Detail of Statues of Male Saints

Detail of Statues of Female Saints
Detail of Bas-relief Carvings on Amiens Cathedral, June 1999

Tower in Amiens, June 1999
Views of the Beffroi (Belfry) in Amiens, June 1999
Taken at 5.55pm on 18th June, 1999.
The Sundial on the Face of the Beffroi in Amiens, June 1999
Palais de Justice in Amiens, June 1999

Amiens Town Hall, June 1999

Building Facade in Amiens, June 1999

Another of my photos of the front of some building, clearly fed by my interest in architecture.