‘A typical desecration of the ground in search of profit.’
Arty Sozzler was staying in a cottage in south Bucks which abutted the Bradenham woods. Most of the woods belonged to Lord Dashwood and some of them to the National Trust. Their value as timber recently had gone up and so the lord was having several of the trees cut down to sell as firewood. Their stumps left unpleasant reminders of the trees they had been and the lorries and diggers had churned up the soft leafmould soil around them.
‘But you told me you lived on the common,’ said Robin, his new-found American friend.
‘I do. The land between here and the lord’s is all common land. This common and Downley Common.’
‘So how come he has the right to all the wood?’
‘Because this is the UK and in the UK members of the aristocracy still have all their privileges.’
‘You’re still allowed to walk through it?’
‘For the most part. But not all. And you’d be mad to try at the moment, unless you have a death wish.’
‘I really don’t get it. This is twenty-seventeen. And you still have lords who can do what they want with the surrounding land?’
‘He’s sold off a lot of the land around the town recently, for building houses.’
‘He must be making a mint!’
‘In the UK just a few people – members of the aristocracy mostly – own most of the land. I forget the figures, something like five percent.’
‘Five percent what?’
‘Five percent of the UK population own about 98 percent of the land. You know, like the one percentile owning virtually the world’s financial wealth. Prince Charles, for example, owns the whole of Cornwall, one-hundred per cent, and a great big chunk of Devon – something like twenty percent of that county.’
‘He owns a whole county!’
‘Why not? This is the UK. And he’s a future king.’
‘But it’s twenty-seventeen.’
‘Things are getting worse, I’m telling you.’
‘So why does nobody do anything about it – this land thing?’
‘Hardly anyone knows about it. It’s a staged rip-off. The so-called Land Registry doesn’t actually reveal who owns what. You have to make educated guesses half the time.’
‘It sounds like calculated fraud.’
‘It is. It’s a giant scam. Like the banking system. The big landowners receive subsidies from the working population – at around one hundred pounds per acre – and the workers (who believe there is a land shortage, incidentally) are ripped off again for over-priced housing and huge mortgages. You’ll work your whole life to pay off the interest on your mortgage, just to possess the deeds of a little pocket-handkerchief size of land with a little dwelling on it. Meanwhile…’
‘Sounds like you’ve got yourselves a real problem.’
‘It won’t be much different in the USA, if you analyse it.’
‘I daresay you’re right. We were really screwed by the whole sub-prime mortgages scandal.’
‘When we were in America, I got the impression Donald Trump was riding on the fact that so many Americans felt cheated and poor.’
‘That’d be about right, I guess. White folks. People of colour have always felt cheated and poor. Not to mention the native Indians, who’ve been treated worse than any group.’
‘Like you say, this is twenty-seventeen.’
‘Feels more like eighteen-seventeen, give the cars on the road, the Rust Belt and all the pollution.’
Arty and Robin had met the year before, when Arty was travelling through Arizona with Gee Ward in an old Chevrolet Astra van which they slept in, while Robin was taking time out from his wife and daughter in upstate Washington, travelling alone in a custom-built VW camper. Now the two had come together in south Bucks, and were intending to travel down through part of France to see Gee Ward sing in a performance for the Celtic Fest Noz festival in south Brittany.
‘I read online High Wycombe is constantly voted in the top five boring UK towns.’
‘Sounds credible. It’s boring in the sense that it’s long-term Tory and has all the chainstores in the town centre. Plus, it’s increasingly become a dormitory town for those who work but can’t afford to live in London. On those points it’s a very conservative town. A modern English shire county town, in fact. And yet, post-war, it had a huge influx of Pakistani and West Indian immigrants. Not to mention Irish and Polish. They just don’t seem to have impacted its politics and culture over-much, even though for a long time before most areas in the country we had great Asian food stores and probably the best pub for reggae and weed outside of St Vincent. The authorities tore down that pub, unfortunately. And the rest just got assimilated. Though riots did break out here in the Thatcher years.’
‘Seems like it takes more than marijuana and mooli.’
‘Seems you’re right. When I first met some of the guys in Zeitgeist and their friends, there was an idea to create a Free State of High Wycombe. Nothing came of that. However. Maybe they started something. There’s been an unusually high incidence of arrests for supporters of Islamic State around here.’
‘Are they arguing for the same thing?’
While they had been speaking the sun had emerged from behind a big bank of black cloud and now its bright yellow rays flooded the air with light. The two of them pulled on walking boots and walked through the village, avoiding the lord’s hired timber-men and their machinery, before entering the woods where the National Trust owned its part. Being mid-May the deciduous forest was at its greenest, with the beech leaves in particular displaying an almost luminous quality.
‘Oh, my god!’
‘Look at it!’
The forest floor, as far as the eye could see, was carpeted with lilac-coloured bluebells, their own luminosity matching that of the leaf-filled ceiling above, while the undulations of the forest floor caused them to appear like waves, as though they were flowing backwards and forwards.
‘I’ve never seen such a spectacle.’
‘Ah, yeah, I forgot. The first time I saw them…’
‘Are these the woods Gee marched through – when he was seeking..?’
‘They sure are. Years – through all the seasons – he used to come here.’
‘No wonder. It is absolutely beautiful.’
After taking a picture on his phone to send back home, Robin was ready to continue and the two men continued to a stile leading out to a sloping field. Beyond were meadows, more forest, and then beyond the tree tops more forested rolling hills, all in differing shades of green picked out by the glowing sunshine. They rested briefly on the old wooden stile before clambering over into the field. The grasses were dried off from the sun’s heat but the earth below was still quite damp and slippery, so they had to be a little bit careful walking down the slope, then the terrain flattened and they walked in a westerly direction.
‘The ground here seems solid. Like an old road.’
‘It is. The government built it back in the eighties, to bring in building supplies for an underground bunker up at Strike Command, about a mile away. People were protesting at the entrance over its construction, so they found a way round it. This was the time of Greenham Common and so forth, when people were protesting about the increasing arms build-up with your country and threats of war and further militarisation.’
‘God, the eighties. What a time! Money, greed, war. We’d forgotten all the lessons from Vietnam.’
‘And still have. Britain’s always at war with someone. Always.’
‘Oh, it makes you tired, all these warmongers. These constant ‘threats’ to our ‘freedoms’. They won’t let us just live. – Hey, I’ve got a poster back home I ordered: Pink Floyd playing the High Wycombe Town Hall, back in 1969.’
‘Ah, fantastic. That was just before my time. The first band I saw down there were a local band. Round about nineteen-seventy-three. You were living in San Fransisco, weren’t you, around then? Did you ever get to see the Dead or Jefferson Airplane or whatever?’
‘Sure I did. I’m a few years older than you, so I saw Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead play in Golden Gate Park back around the time the Floyd were in your hometown.’
‘That must’ve been awesome.’
‘All that idealism. All gone now.’
‘But conservatism and materialism has pretty much taken over again. That and fear of the ‘other’. I honestly thought those days were gone.’
‘So did I. But, you’re right, they’ve come back with a vengeance. It’s like the last fifty years never happened.’
‘Trump. Brexit. Only Europe seems to be holding out for the greater ideal.’
‘I’m becoming Polish.’
‘Serious. If I want to travel in the EU, and maybe work there, I’m going to do it as a Pole. Not as a Brit. I’m a bit ashamed of my country, if I’m honest. Just as a lot of us were in the nineteen-sixties, sick of all that jingoism and the waving of the flag and about how great Britain is. I thought we’d eradicated that, too. But it seems we haven’t. Everybody’s back to being manipulated again just so those in power can keep their power, the rich can get richer, and the poor be done over all over again. I’m sick of it. At least my daughter and people like her seem to be seeing through it, but whether they’ll make the same changes again, I’ve no idea.’
They left the woods over another stile and again the Vale of Aylesbury lay stretched out before them, green and wooded in the continuing sunshine. A short walk through a meadow took them beyond the forest fringe and looking now eastwards across the Chilterns Arty pointed out the golden ball atop the steeple of St Lawrence’s church.
‘You can see it glinting – just.’
‘I’ve got it. Can we make our way there?’
‘It’s about ten miles.’
‘We’ve got all day.’
They headed down the slope and on towards Bradenham Manor, where the D’Israelis had settled back in the nineteenth century, across land that had once been a deer park, and was now used by an Arab sheikh to train his polo horses. Robin stopped at the graveyard entrance to St Botolph’s church.
‘How old is this place?’
‘The doorway is twelfth century. But Bradenham goes back to the Domesday Book, as part of the lands of Leofwine.’
They walked around the church interior before re-emerging, blinking, in the south Bucks sunshine.
‘You just don’t get that in the USA.’
‘Of course not.’
They walked along the front of the manor and Arty pointed out the cricket green and pavilion, promising to explain the sport’s rules should they manage to catch a game in progress. A steep slope took them back up to the Bradenham woods and they took a path west through the beeches.
After tramping a few more miles, their way was curtailed by a railway line, which they crossed cautiously before continuing out across a ploughed field and over a road to another sloping field which brought them to within a mile of their destination.
From a virtually sightless path lined with hazel and alder trees they came out to an opening and the tower of St Lawrence’s with the golden ball atop clearly visible. The sightline now exposed, they were able to see three-hundred and sixty degrees around the Chiltern Hills, High Wycombe clearly visible to the east.
‘There it is,’ said Arty. ‘One of the UK’s most boring towns. Twenty-five miles onwards, and you’re in the world’s most exciting capital city – arguably.’
‘England, oh England! Land of… What?’
‘Of city bankers and hedge fund managers. Of zero hours contracts. Of xenophobes and a Tory press. Of warmongers and jingoists. Of a backward-looking populace.’
‘For England and St George!’
And the two of them raced down the slope in front of the mausoleum, barely staying on their feet as gravity and momentum pulled them forward two hundred yards until a row of thorn bushes arrested their progress and they pressed further downhill, huffing and puffing a little, until a pavement took them through the village of West Wycombe and they could rest in a fine old pub, a pint of good, golden ale on the wooden table before them.
‘To the Queen!’
‘The Queen! God bless her – and all her land-owning heirs!’