The next legs of the journey will take me through Buckinghamshire. This being the case, I have picked up a guidebook of sorts: Buckinghamshire Footpaths, by J.H.B. Peel, found in Wigtown (‘Scotland’s book town’) while on holiday. Buckinghamshire Footpaths was published in 1949, when a Britain battered by war was re-creating itself, and part of Peel’s purpose is to prompt readers to see preservation of countryside as an essential part of that re-creation: ‘Unable ever again to conquer others, let us now conquer ourselves.’
Peel, a poet whose work included Mere England, a long work about Buckinghamshire, sees parts of his county as examples of the kind of countryside that needs preserving. Whereas ‘The Londonward side of Amersham…is marred beyond mending’, ‘the northern half of Buckinghamshire is curiously ill-served by railways and main roads, and has therefore retained a relatively high degree of civilization’. For Peel this meant a lack of ‘Cosy cafes, palaces-of-dance, super-cinemas and other attributes of progress’, a place to experience ‘that sense of peace, which is an Absolute of Life’.
Of course, things have changed in the three-score-and-ten since the book was written. Peel could not imagine there being a reason to change the ‘unsophisticated’ nature of the county, giving as a hypothetical example the absurdity of running a bus service between the small hamlets of Milton Keynes and Woughton-on-the-Green. These days, the number 18 runs on the hour, reaching Woughton without ever leaving the huge version of Milton Keynes that now embraces the whole area.
Personally, I can see a beauty in many of the things that Peel would deplore – motorway services, gigantic New Towns and all. And yet I see myself in this picture:
To the quiet man who in these unquiet times is braced and made whole again by contact with things strong and steadfast and English, his County…is a very haven, in which he will find, not escape nor mere distraction, but the still, small voice of reality, cool and unwavering and melodious amid the vast mirage of contemporary arrogance and haste.
Although I now live in Lancashire, and have fond memories of boyhood holidays in Bucks, my county will always be Sussex, the destination of this walk. There I might find the ‘still, small voice of reality’, perhaps in the ‘cool and melodious’ spring that emerges beneath the escarpment of the Downs at Fulking… but perhaps in the foyer of a ‘super-cinema’ on the seafront.
Arguably I am one of the ‘good English folk, or proud Britons’ Peel writes for, mongrel quarter-Jap that I am; I am certainly glad enough that there are woods, fields and old buildings around. However I can’t bring myself to believe in a pure, essential set of ‘things strong and steadfast and English’, unconnected from other ‘things’ and somehow unchangeable. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist: I’ll keep an eye out for them as I wander through Bucks and beyond…
But it will be a careful eye. With concepts like ‘Britishness’ being grasped at by charmless fascist-wannabes and latter-day Thule Society types – cueing late-70s memories of Anti-Nazi League rallies in Brighton and London, a bloated man mouthing abuse at the marchers from the patio of a famously Hitler-loving south coast B&B, the long heat of the Rock Against Racism carnival in Victoria Park, Bernie outside Hassocks station batting away a skinhead with his skateboard, Pils-soaked gigs in the Vault and the Hanbury Arms, the Resource Centre getting trashed – in such times I guess it is important to try and distinguish between one’s own romantic fantasies, and other people’s manipulative dreams. As for ‘reality’, I may not know much but I do know that it can’t be tamed, packaged or colonised.
I think I can spot my own fantasies and, to some extent, the paradoxes and contradictions within them. On the one hand, I can fill with emotion at the thought of English lanes in ‘Hardy’s Wessex’, pints of ale in Tolkien’s Shire, the England depicted in the fat ‘Books of…’ and ‘Guides to…’ published by the AA and National Trust that arrived at our house through the 1970s, TV’s luminous Larkrise with Gary Dobbs looking at vegetables in a sunlit square, and countless other lovely, idealised pasts. At the same time I can join the Hope not Hate people in celebrating a diverse ‘modern’ Britain, and yearn for the lost Utopian possibilities of the 1960s mourned in the works of H.S.Thompson and M. Moorcock, transforming, exciting futures. Meanwhile Brighton, my lodestone, offers as a kaleidoscope of images, ideas and subcultures, unfixable and therefore endlessly desirable. Earthquake, storm, fire – then the still small voice.