How Peep Show showed us the horrible truth about life

Peep Show was an unadulterated work of comedy genius. This was partly down to the way it seemed to so perfectly capture the follies of living in 21st century Britain specifically, but more important was the way it articulated some of the horrible truths of human existence in general. Seemingly, the more depressing these truths were, the funnier the show became. Life is pain and that’s pretty hilarious, right?

In any case, here are five of the most terribly true truths that Peep Show helped us to see.

Truth #1: We’re all conflicted, all the time

Modern life is hard. On the one hand, we’re all just clever, horny monkeys barely out of the stone age, but on the other hand we’re members of an ordered society rich with rules and restrictions.

We all have to contend with this conflict the best we can. Mark and Jeremy however, are beautiful examples of what happens when this balancing act out goes out the window. In both cases, isolation and the contempt of one’s peers.

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Truth #2: We resent the people we love

One of the uncomfortable realities about human relationships is that we’re all basically in it for ourselves. We might like to pretend that we’re motivated by love and mutual connection, but if a relationship doesn’t offer anything to us emotionally then we’re generally not interested. Innumerable married couples live unhappy lives together, limping on regardless because the benefits of security and familiarity are too much to give up. Resentful dependency.

Mark and Jeremy basically hold each other in contempt. They have almost nothing in common. They are completely willing to horrifically screw each over. Yet they provide a weird form of stability to each other’s lives, which they rely on. When Mark mentions his potential move to India, Jeremy is immediately hurt and scared.

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They need each other. They mirror the experience of so many of us, engaged in relationships mainly because we’re afraid of being without them.

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Truth #3: Minor victories change nothing

We’re taught in the Western World that we have a level of ownership over our lives and that we can forge our futures as we see fit if we apply enough effort. This is essentially bollocks – we’re statistically much more likely to stay in the social class we’re born into, to struggle with the same shitty personality traits, and to repeat an identically dysfunctional relationship with various different people.

Our moments of success, where we seem to steer our ship in a better direction, are often nothing but fleeting anomalies. The cast of Peep Show have their occasional successes, which only serves to make the rest of their lives seem even more hilariously shit.

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Truth #4: Confidence wins over competence

The human brain is really rather shit at actually recognising competence, quality or talent. We’re much more impressed by sheer confidence, no matter how inadequate an individual might be. Think of the many millions of humble, self-effacing people who have loud, cockier bosses who are evidently far less qualified for the job. Awful.

For all Mark’s faults, you get the sense that he is essentially very good at his job. Still, he remains enamored by the Cult of Alan Johnson, who is himself evidently full of shit.

Similarly, despite the fact he’s crack-addicted lunatic, Super Hans self-belief means he always seems to land on his feet.

Truth #5: Things never really change

I’m 24, and obviously life feels a world away from my childhood – now I pay taxes and always get served at the pub. Yet I live in the same town I grew up in, sleeping in the same bed, walking the same streets, and socialising with the same friends. Life has changed, but everything has sort of stayed the same.

During the course of Peep Show various massive life events happen for Mark and Jeremy – babies, weddings and career shifts – yet the rhythm of their existence remains essentially unchanged.

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That being said, Mark does show a notable character shift during the course of the show. He’d always do shitty, selfish things, but it was usually accompanied with crippling levels of shame. By Series 9 he seems to have stopped caring, and just rolls with it.

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Perhaps therein lies the real wisdom to be had from the show; that all we can ever hope for is to accept our selves for what we are, as depressing a reality as that might be.

What Made Bellowhead so Special?

It’s been just over a year since Bellowhead, the almost universally beloved 11-piece folk band, put down their fiddles and trombones for the last time. They were unquestionably the most successful folk band of our time, and it felt so bizarre that they would consider stopping – their popularity was ever-expanding and none of them looked particularly peaky!

The band looking popular/healthy.

Apparently the decision to bin it off was made by Jon Boden, frontman and co-founder. He’s something of a cerebral introvert and it seems to me that he just couldn’t face the prospect of being an energetic main-man any longer. If you listen carefully to his jovial pitter-patter in the final few songs of the Bellowhead Live album, he just sounds mildly weary. I suppose putting enthusiasm into singing “Up to the rigs, down to the jigs, up to the rigs of London town!” seven thousand times would probably be enough to do anyone in.

Jon Boden looking a bit tired.

In any case, Bellowhead’s absence from our nation’s festivals and gig-spaces continues to leave a gaping hole in the folk scene (as well as the band member’s annual incomes presumably), and it doesn’t seem remotely likely that they’ll be replaced any time soon. They were something truly special, and I think it’s well worth the time to put our finger on why. What made Bellowhead so special?

Reason #1: TALENTED PASSION

Despite the presence of a 21st century ‘folk revival’ and the continuing chart success of folk-tinged indie bands, traditional folk music still lugs around a reputation for being horribly dull and made by/for old men with beards. In all honesty, there’s something to that; traditional English folk can feel a tad flat at times.

In fairness, none of them have beards.

Part of Bellowhead’s significance was how deftly and uncomplicatedly they proved that English folk music has fire in its belly. Their sheer musicianship and willingness to really pull  traditional tunes apart arrangement-wise lifted the whole genre aloft, and I’m sure that numerous cynics dragged along to their gigs ended up jigging about with the sheer exuberance of it all.

I’d like to say that I’m a passionate individual, but as a teenager that trait was all locked up within an anxious, badly-postured gamer. At aged 16, I wasn’t going to figure that out in nightclubs or ballroom dancing lessons, but Bellowhead’s gig provided a framework for it. They gave me the means to discover the fist-pumping happiness-hound within, and that will always mean something.

Me at Towersy Folk Fesitval 2010 #becomingaman.

I’m sure it wasn’t just me. I think it’s safe to assume that numerous dusty elderly couples will have driven home after Bellowhead gigs and collapsed into their wildest sexual intercourse since 1974. Right?

Reason #2: Englishness with Energy

What does it mean to be English today? What does ‘Englishness’ actually mean? Can you be patriotic without being an arsehole? Sociologists have spilled a lot of ink trying to answer these questions, seemingly to no obvious avail. Englishness is most definitely something real, but it’s so hard to get a hold of, and attempts to be ‘proud’ of one’s Englishness often just seem ridiculous or bigoted.

Yeah um, no.

With this in mind, I don’t think it’s absurd to say that Bellowhead were a rare means to enjoy one’s Englishness with enthusiasm. Our ancestral culture often seems to lack the same vigour and contemporary relevance as Irish and Scottish folk music, but Bellowhead showed that this isn’t inevitable.

That’s much better.

Their music was a wonderfully unencumbered celebration of traditional English music. It was traditional, but it was good; and you could leave their gigs with a sense that your national identity had energy, and joy, and meaning. Perhaps I’m over-stating it slightly, but I’ve always found this really rather important.

Reason #3 Real Uniqueness

It’s not as personal to me as Bellowhead’s Passion or Englishness, but it’s worth pointing out the uniqueness of the sound that Bellowhead created.

They started out as just a brassier extension of Spiers & Boden, but by the time they wrapped things up the sound had evolved many times over. It was folk, but also pop, and big-band, and jazz, and rock, and also none of those things. They had essentially formed a unique musical genre. Listen to the last thirty seconds of this live recording of Betsy Baker – what other band can you possibly compare that sound to?

 

This new-fangled Genre of Bellowhead was also unendingly flexible. The band obviously channelled the tradition of boozily jumping about, but they also held the quieter aspects of the folk tradition with as much confidence. The more delicate songs about forlorn lovers and restless ghosts were ever powerful and atmospheric, and the Genre of Bellowhead was always fit for purpose.

The tragedy is that the Genre of Bellowhead was essentially perfected. Are we ever going to see another 10+ folk band take to the stage with a brass section? I can’t imagine so. Bellowhead had the gall to get us hooked on something unique, but have now left us bereft.

Bellowhead’s final moments. John Spiers’ face speaks for us all.

So what is there to conclude from this unabashed display of fandom and nostalgic heartache? I suppose we can just take a moment to feel grateful that this band existed and that so many of us had the privilege of seeing them do their thing so well.

Now we just have to wait for the inevitable reunion and Eurovision entry. Right?

Meditating at the Dentists: or (the Unexpected Virtue of Going with the Flow)

I’ve been meditating for a year now, but I have to be honest – it still feels a bit odd writing a blog about it. In the West, meditation has tended to be left to the hippies and the Jedi, and it’s only recently that it’s swung towards widespread popularity. To be fair, it’s rapidly becoming fashionable – corporations are seeing it as a way of increasing the productivity of their workforce, and various companies are popping up to meet the corporate demand for easy, accessible lessons.

Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Focus your mind on the thought of fat profits.

Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Focus your mind on the thought of profit-creating synergistic efficiency.

I can understand why some would dismiss this as Buddhism-lite, and a passing fad, but I’m convinced that it’s anything, that it’s a profoundly effective way of changing your life for the better. You’ve probably heard somebody blab about all the studies proving its various benefits at some point, so I won’t bore you by repeating the same spiel, but look it up if you’re interested.  

Apart from its obvious role in stress relief, my main motivation to meditate is the extent to which it helps me avoid the fuckery of everyday life. Through meditation you’re essentially teaching your brain to accept the truth that how you feel at one moment isn’t really you, that all things pass in time, and that you’re better off being interested in what’s happening, rather than chasing or resisting it. We spend most of our time being swung around emotionally by circumstance – most of it doesn’t matter a jot in the long run, but it’s incredibly hard to understand that when you’re upset/offended/hungry-as-fuck. Meditation isn’t a sticking plaster for when you’re feeling stressed, it’s almost like going to a gym (a nice, easy, free gym), that trains your brain to get a grip.

Thich Quang Duc protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government by burning himself, in 1963. He'd have been amazing at going to the dentists.

Thich Quang Duc protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government by burning himself, in 1963.
He’d have been amazing at going to the dentists.

It takes years of dedicated training to master obviously, but even a small amount of practice helps life feel a little less overwhelming. When I visited the Dentist a few weeks ago, I was told that I needed to have one of my molars whipped out, and since it would be impossible to pull conventionally, it needed to be surgically removed. He also added that there was a chance they’d have to saw some bone apart to get at it. Bad day.

When it came to the appointment itself I was obviously a bit anxious (a little known fact about me is that I hate bone sawing). I didn’t really have a chance to think about it, since he quickly fired off two shots of anaesthetic into my jaw, and started hammering/hitting/hacking away without much of an ado.

Rather than squeezing my eyes shut and hating every minute of it, I tried to access the central principle of meditation: ‘This is here right now. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is. Soon it won’t be. Be interested.’ And you know what? It worked. I stopped gripping the arms of the chair. I went with it.

“That was a weird feeling. That’s a funny sound. Ooo I think it split in half. Neat. It made that cracking noise again. Cool. I wonder what’s for tea? Blimey. Is he done already? Nope. I guess not. How interesting.”

It still sucked obviously, but much less than it would have done a year ago. And guess what?

No bone sawing. Good day.

The Five Bizarre ways that The Beach Boys were Completely Revolutionary

It’s fairly common knowledge that The Beach Boys were revolutionary innovators within the context of pop music. The band (specifically, their leader Brian Wilson) introduced a complexity of song writing and production to the genre that simply wasn’t present before, peaking with the much-loved 1966 album Pet Sounds. What people probably don’t realise though, is that beyond musical composition the band often found itself innovating with ideas decades before their widespread acceptance, usually by complete accident. Some are pretty impressive, others less so, but it’s about time they receive some credit.

  1. Caring about the environment
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Here the band successfully figures out where the ocean is, an important first step.

Environmentalism is something we’re all aware of, even if we choose to ignore the spectre of climate change or the danger plastic bags pose to seagulls. This hasn’t actually been the case for long though, and it’s only been in the last couple of decades that celebrities have thrown their famous faces behind campaigns to protect the planet.

The Beach Boys however, found themselves waving the flag of environmental protection all the way back in 1971, the same year that Greenpeace was founded. In the album Surf’s Up they kicked things off with the song Don’t Go Near the Water:

“Oceans, rivers, lakes and streams

Have all been touched by man

The poison floating out to sea

Now threatens life on land”

One of Brian Wilson’s few contributions to the album was the bizarre A Day in the Life of a Tree, a song from the perspective of a tree wounded by human pollution.

“But now my branches suffer

And my leaves don’t offer

Poetry to men of song

Trees like me weren’t meant to live

If all this world can give

Pollution and slow death”

John Lennon lay in bed for world peace, when it was a cool thing to do. Brian Wilson wrote songs about the environment, when nobody was actually listening to his music. Beach Boys: 1 Beatles: 0.

  1. Healthy eating
"I love healthy food, I can watch people eating it for hours"

“I love healthy food, I can watch people eating it for hours”

In a similar vein to the above, the Beach Boys found themselves espousing the virtues of eating healthily decades before that became a widespread concept. In 1967, despite being rather overweight himself, Brian Wilson became so obsessed with the concept of health during the recording of his abandoned masterwork SMiLE that he insisted on gym equipment being set up in his house for his friends to use. He also penned the wonderfully eccentric song Vega-Tables.

“I’m gonna be round my vegetables

I’m gonna chow down my vegetables

I love you most of all

My favorite vega-table”

A few years later, as he steadily declined into mental illness, Brian actually ran a health store in LA called the Radiant Radish. He’d open it at different times every day, often in the middle of the night, usually wearing nothing but his pyjamas. The shop is actually mentioned in the unreleased 1970 Beach Boy track H.E.L.P is on the Way, a song that starts with:

“Stark naked in front of my mirror

A pudgy person somehow did appear

Seems lately all I’ve eaten is sugar and fat

It’s getting obvious that’s not where it’s at”

Brian’s appreciation of healthy living is somewhat ironic when you consider the incredible punishment he put his body through, but I suppose it’s contradictions like that which make him such a wonderfully enigmatic individual.

  1. Unplugged/Karaoke albums
"Wooooo"

“Wooooo”

These are really two different ‘innovations’, but since they’re both rooted in a desire to give fans a new album without having to actually record a proper one, they sit together nicely.  Unplugged albums are simply recordings of the band playing semi-live, allowing fans to enjoy the soul of the music without layers of studio polish. Before the concept was even about though, the Beach Boys released Beach Boy Party! in 1965 to placate record company executives irritated by the long wait for Pet Sounds.

The band (and pretty much everyone else they knew) camped in the studio for four days and bashed out some of their favourite tunes with bongos, their trademark vocal brilliance and a healthy quantity of fun. The most famous song from the session is the irritating Barbara Ann, but personally I love the Beatles covers and their total demolition of their own I Get Around, where they make up new lyrics as they go along:

“We always take my car although it’s a heap

And we never get turned down by the chicks we pick up on”

Brilliant.

Karaoke only really took off in the 1990s, but in 1968 The Beach Boys released Stack-o-Tracks, a collection of some of their most famous songs stripped of their vocals, complete with a booklet of lyrics for fans to sing along with. This was a completely unique release for the industry, and is still wonderful listening now, as it lets you enjoy the orchestral gorgeousness of Brian’s genius in its pure form. The backing track for God Only Knows is especially wonderful.

  1. Emotionally tortured singer songwriters

Eat your heart out Ed Sheeran.

The presence of the ‘sensitive singer songwriter with emotions to express’ archetype in the music industry seems like something of an inevitability, but when you think about it, it’s not always been the case. I can’t think of too many artists that fit that description in the 1960s – the Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, James Taylor types only really found their success in the 1970s. Leading the way for tortured introverts everywhere though, was Brian Wilson.

Even before his descent into a state of full-time vulnerability and self-destruction Brian was penning songs exploring his intense, yet gentle emotional experience of the world. The most beautiful example is probably Pet Sounds’ I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, the song that played in the background for most of my teenagehood:

“They say I got brains

But they ain’t doin’ me no good

I wish they could

Each time things start to happen again

I think I got somethin’ good goin’ for myself

But what goes wrong

Sometimes I feel very sad…”

This ability to articulate the pained thoughts of a young man in distress was evident early on, even when most of the band’s output was forgettable surf music. One track on the 1963 Surfin’ USA album, Lonely Sea, still has some real power to it, despite a cringey spoken word segment.

  1. Selling out
"Hello. We're the Beach Boys. Can we have our money now?"

“Hello. We’re the Beach Boys. Can we have our money now?”

With a few exceptions,  most of the big bands of the sixties and seventies have at some point been lured out of retirement to bash out their classics one last time. To be fair, some of them just never stopped – AC/DC have been bashing out the same formula for 42 years. It’s pretty clear why, people are willing to pay mad dollar to see their favourites go at it again – why be a creatively interesting musical unit when you can sell out stadiums by doing the same old stuff?

Unfortunately, one of the first bands to realise this was the Beach Boys. In 1974, after years of producing some damn fine music to little or no interest, a greatest hits collection was released and immediately rocketed up the charts. Despite the efforts of a few members, their march to becoming a creatively-void jukebox band has begun. For decades afterwards the increasingly aged and divided (the amount of inter-band legal suites was impressive) group would croon about the same fantasies of carefree youthfulness, which grew more distant with every gig. Insincere optimism is depressing.


Apart from the final point, the rest of the accomplishments are fairly impressive, even if none of them were innovative on purpose. So why were the Beach Boys so continuously ahead of the curve? It wasn’t as if they were great intellectuals, I mean, in a recorded interview in 1965 Dennis Wilson remarked “… of all of Europe the only thing that stuck in my mind is the bread.”

Much of the credit has to go to Brian Wilson’s unique, bizarre genius, but there is something to be said for the fact that the band spent much of their career either being overworked by a greedy record label or struggling for attention from an uninterested populace. Out of desperation comes innovation, and even if nobody has ever credited them as such, I take immense pleasure in the fact that despite their total lack of street cred post ‘67, the band was actually just being cool in ways that weren’t cool yet. Go them.

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It’s a long shot that anyone interested in this will also be interested in my new website, but it’s worth a punt. I’m setting up a website all about the best local history facts for pretty much everywhere in the UK, called Local History is AwesomeIf you’d like to write an article about your area, get in touch with me at willhazell1993@gmail.com

The Best British Folk Concept Albums

I wasn’t quite sure how to title this article – do people still use the term ‘concept album’? In any case, the British folk scene has seen some wonderful albums of a conceptual bent in the last few years, so I thought I’d give a roundup of my five favourites.

1. Songs From the Floodplain – Jon Boden

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“… and Abraham Brown is whistling Britannia.”

Songs From the Floodplain is essentially an album of post-apocalyptic folk music. The songs are meant to be set in a Britain that has gone into reverse, where globalised capitalism has broken down and people have begun to move back to a simpler rural existence. The lyrics describe a world where the traces of our existence are still clear – disused motorways are littered with cars, old factories are falling down and cities are destroyed by wildfires. At the same time an older way of doing things begins to come about, mixing the legacy of our civilisation with more ancient rural traditions.

It’s a wonderful idea. Some of the songs make it sound almost pleasant, but others talk about the struggle to survive, so it feels exceedingly real. Jon Boden’s vocal do a great job too, he’s best known for Bellowhead’s energetic foot-stomping brand of folk, but he injects a real tenderness to the words here. Definitely worth a listen.

Best Song: Beating the Bounds – a song that narrates a traditional procession around a village, where nobody knows quite why they’re doing it. It’s strangely uplifting.

 

2. Songs from the Shipyard – The Unthanks

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“A day lasts a lifetime, and life is a job, when you’re black trade… you’re just black trade.”

If Down on the Floodplain is looking to a Britain of the future, Songs from the Shipyard has both feet in our industrial past, specifically along the rivers of the North East. The lyrics narrate life in the grimy industrial hubs that were devoted to shipbuilding – indispensable to Britain’s rise to global dominance in the 19th century, but often deeply unpleasant for those who worked there. There’s more to the lyrics than just the nasty working conditions though, they convey the dignity of the communities themselves, and the effect that deindustrialisation has had on these places over the last seventy years.

In terms of the music itself, the voices of Rachel and Becky Unthank are hauntingly lovely, and the sparse backing of a piano and violin make each song intensely atmospheric.  Beautiful.

Best Song: Black Trade – a song about the many workers whose lives were tied to hard physical jobs, and the scant regard shown for them by their ‘betters’.

 

3. The Imagined Village – The Imagined Village

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“My name is The Reaper, The Leveller, The Light. I come here to claim you and make you my wife.”

One of the nice things about folk music is its willingness to blend age-old tradition with newer influences, and this album is one of the best examples of how well this can work. As a band The Imagined Village includes a number of trad stalwarts, such as Martin Carthy and Chris Wood, as well as ‘ethnic’ artists like Jonny Kalsi and ‘rasta-folky’ poet Benjamin Zephaniah. The songs are all fairly familiar trad favourites, but decked with dhol drums, sitars and electronicky sounds. Some tunes work better than others, and the occasional song bemoaning a loss of an English rural idyll doesn’t really fit with the theme, but the album is still fantastic.

Best Song: Cold Haily Rainy Night – one of the examples of how a bizarre blend of instruments can bring a trad song into itself. The story of the song is a fairly timeless one: in the middle of a storm a soldier calls up to a girl in her room, begging to be let in. When she finally relents he takes her maidenhood and dashes off, much to her distress. Such romance.

 

 

4. The Writing on the Wall – Tony Benn and Roy Bailey

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“If there’s anyone here from New Labour, your money will be refunded if you leave quietly.”

Tony Benn was famous for his eloquently espoused leftyness, which allowed him to feel very at home within the folk scene. This album is a recording of his live show with aged, angry folky Roy Bailey, made at Cambridge Folk Festival in 2000, the quality of which won them both the ‘Best Live Act” at the BBC Folk Awards.

It’s a simple format – they both take turns doing their thing, Roy Bailey playing rootsy tunes bemoaning the status quo, and  Tony Benn rousing some rabbles with a fiery speech or two. It’s completely eccentric, but definitely worth listening to if you’re not a Torie. If you read anything other than the Guardian I’d give it a miss.

Best Song: The Ballad of Vic Williams – a pacey song about a British soldier fighting in Iraq – “… and most of the Brits who never came back were blown to bits by Yanks”.

 

 

5. Centenary: Words And Music Of The Great War – Show of Hands

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The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
and there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

Folk’s focus on history, tragic tales and bashing the establishment made it almost inevitable that the Centenary would be marked by some brilliant folk albums. My favourite has to be Show of Hands’s offering, an attempt to blend some of the most poignant war poetry with the contemporary music of the era. The first half has actor Jim Carter (of Downton Abbey fame) moving from poem to poem, with quietly played music weaving its way amongst the words. The latter half has these songs by themselves, with the addition of some brilliant stand-alone Show of Hands tracks.

The nature of the subject obviously makes for a melancholy affair, but there are hints of the humour and humanity that came with the horror of the conflict. One of the most interesting tracks is a slowed down version of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, the cheery tune that proved so popular in the early days of the war. They mix in distortions and sound effects, bringing to mind the sound of artillery and machine gun fire, contrasting the innocence of the song with the war it’s linked to.

Best Song: The Lads in Their Hundreds – a brilliant song about the young men of Ludlow town, full of cheer but soon to be gone from the world. The lyrics are taken from a poem, but oddly enough it was published in 1896, a full eighteen years before the war began. It’s eerily affecting, and Show of Hands’ musical interpretation really gives it life.

 

Will Hazell 

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Witney’s Ghosts: Murders, Suicides and Vanishing Hitchhikers

I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about Witney’s history of war, murder and drunkenness, and I’m pretty sure people liked it. With that in mind, and even though Halloween has passed me by, I thought that a round-up of Witney’s more interesting paranormal stories wouldn’t go amiss.  My main source has been the brilliant Oxfordshire Ghosts book by Joe Robinson, but I’ve also managed to collect some stories of my own – one of them actually involves me. If you’re a stone-cold skeptic, you don’t have to click away, there’s some history  in here too.

The Bridge Street Corpse

Totally not photoshopped.

In the olden days everybody was very religious and behaved well, right? Well apparently not, a local legend holds that a drunken Witney mob once murdered a priest in the middle of Bridge Street in the 11th century. As messy as Witney can get today, even the Red Lion never got quite that bad.

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Sorry.

The story is centered on a religious procession that was once a major part of Witney’s annual calendar. It is reported however, that over the years it descended into an excuse for heavy drinking and the selling of cheap tat. Obviously, this offended the church, and so they tried to stamp it out. Joe Robinson writes:

“… so the church decided that the significance of the day had been lost to the irreligious mob, abandoned the day as a feast day and forbade any further processions.”

The story goes that as a result, a particularly pickled gathering of angry Witney-folk descended upon the bridge over the Windrush, on what is now called Bridge Street. The bridge traditionally played a central role in the procession, as participants would normally float flowers in the water with blessings and prayers. On this evening though, the crowd vowed to smash up the bridge unless the church reversed their ban. It is said that a pious young priest did his best to talk them down, and was hurled to a watery death as a result.

HE'S A PRIEST

HE’S A PRIEST. DROWN HIM.

In the years since, there have been several reports of a ghostly priest-shaped corpse floating in the waters. The sightings tend to take place at 8pm, on the third day after Easter – if any of you can take a (real) photo, I’ll buy you a pint.

Minster Lovell Hall

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Minster Lovell is a lovely village to visit in its own right, but it are the still-impressive ruins of Minster Lovell Hall which really deserve a look-in. It was the home of the powerful Lovell dynasty, a family that once held a position of great authority in England.  Francis Lovell (1454 – 1487ish) was a close personal friend of Richard III, and formed a central part of Richard’s court. He followed his King in a military expedition to Scotland in 1480, and fought alongside him in the Wars of the Roses – the civil war that would eventually lead to Richard’s death and the rise of the Tudors.

Richard III (boo hiss)

Richard III (boo hiss).

Francis Lovell’s whereabouts after the catastrophic defeat at The Battle of Stoke Field (1487) aren’t fully known, but in 1708 renovation work found a corpse walled up inside a hidden room in the hall. Local folklore holds that this was Francis Lovell, hidden for years, fed by a faithful servant until he died, leaving Francis to a foodless fate. There have been numerous reports of a ghostly knight riding towards the hall – it’s not clear who this knight actually is, but as it fits Francis’ story so well, it is easy to suppose that this is a ghostly re-enactment of his return from the battle.

The other famous story attached to the hall is that of the ‘White Lady’. Apparently, in the mid-1700s the wedding of a young William Lovell was held in the hall. After the ceremony, some of the guest suggested a game of Hide and Seek. The young bride had the clever idea of hiding in a large chest in an attic, but found that it locked upon entry.

I wouldn't look so pleased if I were you,

I wouldn’t look so smug if I were you.

It took two years for the game to come to an end, when her entombed corpse was finally discovered. The story was popular one, with Victorian poet Thomas Haynes Bayly immortalising it in a song, The Mistletoe Bough, performed here by the wonderful Jon Boden.

Here are a couple of verses if you don’t want to watch a video of drunk folkies:

“At length, an old chest that long laid hid

Was found in the castle, they raised the lid,

And a skeleton form lay mouldering there

In the bridal wreath of the lady fair.

Oh sad was her fate! In sportive jest

She hid from her love in the old oak chest:

It closed with a spring, and her bridal bloom

Lay withering there in a living tomb.”

The story is a horrid one indeed, but it’s not the end of it. Even more frequently than the ghostly knight, a cloaked white woman is often seen wandering the grounds, usually at Christmas time. Sierra Gaffney told me of one particularly memorable visit she had to the ruins:

“A few years back some friends and I drove over to Minster Lovell ruins at about 1am. We sat down on the grass behind the ruins watching over the river just chatting and laughing. Suddenly though, my eyes were drawn to the woods across the river. I stayed silent and watched as a white figure glided through the trees.

It must have been about thirty metres away but I recognised the figure of a woman in a flowing white dress. The strangest part was that I wasn’t afraid – instead I felt a calm, slightly sad feeling. It was only afterwards that I realised what I’d seen and the fear set in. We left soon after and I’ve never returned to the ruins at night since.”

I have to say, if I starved to death somewhere, I probably wouldn’t choose to hang out there for eternity. Each to their own I suppose.

West End – The Most Haunted Street in Witney?

West End in 1911. I didn't need to add any ghosts here, those kids are creepy enough.

West End in 1911. I didn’t need to add any ghosts here, those kids are creepy enough as it is. Cool dog though.

I didn’t originally set out to write about West End, but when I looked at the various stories I’d gathered, the amount set in this particularly lovely street was too impressive not to write about. It’s an interesting road in itself; Dr Patrick Steptoe, the inventor of artificial insemination, was raised there, and number 48 inspired the nation-wide smash hit “In an Old Fashioned Town”, first sung in 1914. They may not have realised it, but many of the British soldiers matching off to fight in the Great War would have been singing a song about Witney as they did so. Here’s a grainy recording of the song:

As interesting as these nuggets of history are, it’s the paranormal aspect of the street we’re focusing on here. The building that was (until a couple of years ago) the local Post Office had actually spent most of the last century as an ale-house, named the Jolly Tucker.  The building might be empty now, but a young woman, believed to be to a landlord’s wife, haunts the stairs up to the first floor. In fact, the pub’s landlady in the 1940s would reportedly have one-way conversations with the phantom when they passed each other.

I googled 'Jolly Tucker' and this picture came up. Tur hur hur, dog santa.

I googled ‘Jolly Tucker’ and this picture came up. Tur hur hur, dog santa.

A married couple, who wish to remain anonymous, told me of a bizarre meeting they had with a ghostly visitor in West End. In the house on the left, where the street meets Hailey Road, they were sleeping soundly one night. For some reason though, the female member of the couple woke up, and looking around the room saw a figure cloaked in white standing over her husband.  The weirdest part was that this figure seemed to be pretending to cut his hair with its fingers, and when she gasped with fright, the Phantom Haircutter turned around and walked out of the room. They also mentioned that since leaving the property, they’ve noticed that it keeps going on sale. Perhaps they’re not the only ones to meet this trainee barber from beyond the grave?

Google Streetview has yet to include a haunted house feature. Shame.

For me though, the most fascinating story associated with the street placed me and my Mum at the centre of things. I was a toddler at the time, so naturally I don’t remember it, so this is her memory of the event. She was visiting a friend one morning, with me in tow. The woman’s husband has recently committed suicide, and Mum recalled feeling a very bizarre presence when she walked up the stairs to the loo, despite it being broad daylight. I was playing happily in the corner with a doll’s house, but as we left and set off down the street, I turned to Mum and said quite innocently, “Mummy, who was that man standing in the corner?”

Me as a toddler, reacting to events.

Me as a toddler, reacting to events.

If you happen to live on West End and have spent your time there in ghost-free happiness, I’m sincerely sorry if this has freaked you out. Just keep the lights on all the time – then you’ll be fine.

The Hitchhiking Gypsy

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Most accounts of hauntings seem to involve ghosts either unaware of the people they’re terrifying, or as invisible sources of harmless noise. Occasionally though, you hear word of a ghost that seems very aware of the living. A frequently told tale locally is that of the gypsy woman that appears near Asthall, between Witney and Burford. She’s described as being of a dark complexion, dressed in a ‘peasant blouse’ and a loose fitting cloak. The accounts are quite something – she actually waves down cars from the middle of the road. ‘Terry’, one of the interviewees for Joe Robinson’s Oxfordshire Ghosts book said:

“I could see that she was dripping water all over the place, her dark hair was hanging in wet ringlets over her forehead and her clothing was soaked. It was as though the woman had just been dragged from the river… Suddenly the woman uttered just five words to me, ‘It’s too late, he’s gone’, and with that disappeared, leaving no more than a slightly misty haze in the car.”

There's nothing funny to be said here, it's too creepy.

There’s nothing funny to be said here, it’s too damn creepy.

Liz, another interviewee, tells a similar story:

“She just sat there and gazed at me with such a tortured expression that I felt she must have experienced something really dreadful. I thought I must be dreaming this until the young woman simply said, “The water, the river, he’s gone”, then she disappeared. All that remained to assure me that I wasn’t dreaming… was a pool of water, where her feet had been, and a soaking seat.”

If you happen to be driving that way and you spot a damp looking young lady, perhaps you should run her over instead. Although if you end up killing an actual person, please don’t bring up my advice in court.


Whether you’re a sceptic or believer, ghosts are intrinsically fascinating, especially when you’re living in Oxfordshire, the county often declared the ‘most haunted in Britain’.  So Witneyites, next time you feel a bit odd, keep an eye out – you never know what could be lurking. If you’ve any local stories to add, or have experienced one of the ghoulies mentioned here, feel free to get in touch at willhazell1993@gmail.com and I can add you into this article.

I am also looking to start up a website based on more light-hearted local history articles. If you’d like to get involved with writing one about somewhere nearby, please get in touch and I’ll talk you through the process.

Will Hazell 

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Many thanks to Sierra Gaffney, Krzysztof Bochonko, Sue Hazell and Joe Robinson.

Inchley. Lieutenant. Father of Three – A Poem I’ve Written, and the Story Behind it.

Firstly, many thanks to everybody who read my last blog post about Witney’s interesting local history. It’s currently sitting on 6000 hits, which when you compare it to the 30 I usually get, is insanely rewarding. I’m currently working on a piece about Witney’s ghostly past, so local history fans should find something of interest here soon enough.

In this blog entry I’d like to post and discuss a poem I wrote the other day. I don’t usually write poetry, but I wanted to express something far too sentimental for my usual writing style, so a poem it had to be.

It’s about a soldier from the Great War, Lieutenant William Inchley. I found him when I was researching the University of Nottingham’s role in the First World War for an article (that nobody actually ending up reading). My main source was the student magazine published during the war, The Gong. It featured many pieces about the ongoing war, and obituaries for each of the students and staff killed.

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The first issue of the war.

William Inchley, a 33 year old engineering professor (some of his academic work is still in print), was featured heavily. He wrote several letters from the front that were published in the magazine, and when he was killed in 1915, he received a lengthy and warm obituary. It details his general character and how he saved a fellow officer from a gas attack a few months before he was killed. I’ve put the scans I took of these pages in a gallery for your viewing pleasure:

For a reason I couldn’t fully articulate, I found myself very drawn to this guy. I was very moved by his story. He seemed optimistic and kind, and I’m convinced he was a thoroughly good person. I felt like I had to do something to ‘connect’ with him, but I wasn’t sure how. When I was in Ypres last month, his grave was literally one minute’s walk from my hotel, so obviously I paid him a visit. It still didn’t feel like I was doing much; looking at an engraved piece of Portland stone is a limited experience.

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My quandary was this. I didn’t want to reduce him to a symbol or an interesting story, but I didn’t want to over-sentimentalise him. After all, he died 99 years ago and I’ve never met him, any ‘connection’ is purely in my own mind. I wanted to remember the guy as a real human being, not just a canvas for me to project my interest in history. In an attempt to figure this out I wrote this poem. Skim it, hate it, whatever – anyone who writes about something they care about just wants it to be read.

Since 1915, you have been dead Inchley.

You were put in the ground, and that’s where you stayed.

Falling to bits, whilst Europe did the same.

Sorry about that.

I found you though Inchley, in an old magazine.

Your words and your photo, now covered in dust.

Your story was sad, and it hit me quite hard.

You were kind, I think.

So tell me Inchley, what do I do now?

How do I make sense of your life and your end?

I need to do something. I have to. I must.

You deserve that, at least.

But what are you to me Inchley?

Are you just a victim, of a war that went bad?

A symbol, of how things can go wrong?

I do not think so.

You are not just a story, Inchley.

You’re not a sad lesson, pulled out of the past.

Like me, you breathed as a man.

For a time, at least.

Because Inchley, you had morning shits.

You had erections that you hid ‘til they passed.

You were flesh. Gross and bizarre.

One of us. A person.

Your death was very sad Inchley,

Your story hits hard, I know.

But it is to the man that I raise my glass,

Inchley. Lieutenant. Father of three.

If you’d like to know more about him, give the gallery of pictures I’ve collected a read. Even if you’re not sentimental, or massively into history, an insight into the life of a long-forgotten individual can only be fascinating.

The story isn’t completely over. On his ‘Find a Grave’ page, a message was left by his daughter in 2010. She must be in her 90s now, if she’s even still alive. I’m not particuarly knowledgeable about such things, but I’d very much like to try and track her down – any advice in how to do so would be appreciated!

Will Hazell

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Witney’s History of War, Murder and Drunkenness

You’d be forgiven for imagining that Witney, David Cameron’s very own comfortable market town, has always been sleepy and dull. Didn’t it just make blankets for centuries and then become a pretty place for middle-class women to shop? Well yes, but it’s also had its fair share of drama. Here are five historical examples of Witney actually being totally screwed up.

WITNEY IS FULL OF… HOMICIDE

Well, when I say ‘full of’ I’m referring to one (particularly interesting) case, the Witney Axe Murder of 1871. It took right in the centre of town, in a cottage on Marlborough Lane, the little street to the right of the Blue Boar. It featured Edward Roberts and Anne Merrick – he was besotted with her, but she was reportedly cold towards him. One Sunday when she was cleaning the floor, Edward walked up behind her and hit her with an axe above the right ear. He then strode off to the Police Station (the front building of Henry Box School) to give himself up.

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The cottage where it happened.

The Jackson Oxford Journal article about the incident included an account of Superintendent Cope, the officer who interviewed him:

“Roberts said “I loved that girl as I loved my life, and I hope her soul’s in heaven … see what jealousy will do; jealousy has done this.””

It didn’t take very long for the event to spark a folk ballad detailing the event. It began with:

“You feeling Christians pray attend,

And you shall quickly hear,

Of a most cruel murder,

That occurred in Oxfordshire.

And when the facts of this foul deed,

To you I do unfold,

It will make you start with horror,

And your heart’s blood to run cold.”

It was instantly successful in Witney itself, and according to the Witney Express it proved especially popular at that year’s Witney Feast.

“Ballad singers – who introduced with indifferent rhyme and questionable taste the persons and scenes connected with the late murder in Witney – drove an extensive trade.”

That can’t have been much consolation to Edward Roberts – he was hung in Oxford nine months later.

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An artist’s impression of the scene.

WITNEY IS FULL OF… DRINKING

Market towns usually have a lot of pubs due the large number of agricultural labourers who meet there, but Witney seemed to have an especially intense taste for booze. In the early 19th century, when the population was about 4000, there were thirty pubs and inns. During the 1950s Corn Street has a reputation for having more pubs on it than any street in Britain.

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Down it you farmer.

Things haven’t changed too much, although no longer the case due to several closures, in 2012 Witney had the same number of pubs as it did thirty years earlier – an almost unheard of case in modern Britain. Go us?

WITNEY IS FULL OF… WAR

Well, not full of actual battles or anything, but Britain’s various wars have left their mark on Witney. The nasty dynastic civil war of 1134 – 1154 (known by the badass name ‘The Anarchy’) prompted the Bishop of Winchester, the Lord of the area, to fortify the hell out of his palace with a moat and defensive fortifications. The ruins can still be seen, just next to St Mary’s church/Church Green.

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What is this? A palace for ants?

The ‘proper’ English Civil War (1642 – 1651) placed Witney at the heart of things when Charles I made Oxford his capital. The Royalists made considerable demands on Witney’s resources, and hosted Charles and his army for a time. Charles stayed three nights in the White Hart pub, on the spot that now features the Witney Physiotherapy Centre on Bridge Street. It is thought that Cromwell himself may have passed through the town in 1649, but nobody knows for sure.

The massive campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815) impacted Witney by hugely increasing demand for blankets and thus wool, but there’s a far more interesting Witney-based Napoleonic factoid. Patrick Moulder, a Witney citizen who ended up being landlord of the Cross Keys pub, fought through the entire war in the 15th Hussars, from the ignominious retreat at Corunna (1809) to the final victory at Waterloo (1815).   Sadly, his story has a fairly tragic ending. In 1838 he shot himself in the head in the upstairs room of the pub – the servant who found him described that “his head [was] shot to atoms”. Despite the stigma of suicide his popularity in the town meant that he was buried with full military honours in St Mary’s churchyard. Over 3000 people attended.

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It’s definitely him.

The First World War had the same terrible effect on Witney as the rest of the country, but Witney did have some extra significance in the grand scheme of things. No. 64 Bridge Street housed a group of Belgium refugees fleeing the war and German prisoners were brought into the town to help the construction of an airfield on the ground now occupied by the industrial estate off Burford Road. Some American and Canadian soldiers were stationed at the airfield, and several baseball matches were played on the Leys.

WW1 fighter witney

A WW1 German fighter being displayed in Market Square for fundraising purposes.

Of course, the Second World War also hit Witney hard. The airfield was still used, so the skies above the town would often see Spitfires and Hurricanes. Witney itself was actually bombed once by a lone enemy aircraft – it didn’t kill anyone, but it did damage a number of buildings in the centre of town. Thirty-five of Witney’s young men were killed in the war, from the Far East to North-Africa, and six were killed in the fighting on and around D-Day. Some of those unfit for active duty formed a local Home Guard. According to the Oxford Mail, they participated in a simulated war exercise against imaginary airborne Germans:

“Much of the fighting was in West End and Mill Street, and it was in Mill Street that some tear gas was used, to the discomfiture of some pedestrians and motorists”.

Some military defences were set up in the town in case of an actual German invasion – a concrete pillbox can still be seen in Cogges guarding the river.

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Bring it on jerries – think you’re hard enough?

WITNEY IS FULL OF… REVOLUTIONARY FERMENT

It’s rumoured that some residents of Witney pitted themselves against the Industrial Revolution. The first mechanised wool mill in Witney was put in place on the banks of the Windrush (now known as Newmill, between Tower Hill and Crawley) – it proved to be destructive to the traditional methods of wool spinning, and caused much misery to local workers. The mill apparently caught fire three times and during the 1790s, Edmund Wright, the man responsible for introducing the mechanised system, plunged to his death in a pond nearby. Coincidences? I doubt it somehow.

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A painting of Newmill in 1830. Don’t be fooled, it might look nice but it was actually a source of misery to many. Not those cows though, they look chill.

It might not seem massively important now, but Witney has also been very welcoming to nonconformist religious traditions. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, frequently preached in Witney and had a great affection for the town and his large number of followers here. In 1783 Richard Rodda, one of Wesley’s travelling preachers, proclaimed to a crowd gathered at the Wood Green field: “My dear friends, take notice of what I am going to say: before this day next month you will hear and see something very uncommon.” Two weeks later there was a massive thunderstorm, and 84 townspeople became Methodists immediately – they were dubbed the“Thunder and Lightning Methodists”. Wesley’s mark in the town is still obvious, as well as the large Methodist church in the centre of town, the lane Wesley Walk was named after him.

WITNEY IS FULL OF… TRAGIC SCENES OF DEATH AND MISERY

No I’m not referring to a night-out in Nortons, I’m talking about an event that took place in 1652. A group of ‘mummers’ (a group of actors who would travel around performing bawdy plays) rocked into Witney and tried to hire a public space for their performance, but the town authorities deemed them unsuitable for public consumption. They ended up performing in the upstairs room of the White Hart (the same pub Charles I stayed in a couple of years before), but after an hour the floor collapsed, crashing the occupants of the room into the packed pub below. Five people were killed and sixty were injured. A prominent local Puritan John Rowe repeatedly preached that this was a punishment from God aimed at the impure nature of the performance.

stroud-mummers

Modern day mummers. Equally as unsuitable for public consumption.

So there we have it, indisputable proof that Witney has a history as meaningful and bizarre as anywhere else. Things aren’t exactly boring now, only last week a local man scared off some sledgehammer-wielding burglars with his sword. 

Will Hazell

Special thanks to Charles and Joan Gott, authors of The New Book of Witney and Joe Robinson, author of Oxfordshire Ghosts.

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Dear America: Learn to be Habitually Ironic or Your Civilisation is Doomed

Dear America,

Admitting you’re getting shitter is hard, I know. When you’ve experienced centuries of expansion, growth and ever increasing domination of the planet, it can be easy to accept that it’s always going to get better. The truth is though, it’s not. Your best days are over. It’s time to move on. If you can’t come to terms with that, you’ll feel increasingly insecure and do stupid shit to cover it up. Do you really want that?  There is some consolation; like an older brother who has made all the mistakes so you don’t have to, Great Britain has paved the way. As our global hegemony went to crap, we learnt to happily accept that we’re worth bugger all, so don’t worry – we can show you how.

Cringe.

British Victorian self-confidence racism.

From about 1815 – 1914 Britain was the undisputed top dog. Not in terms of health/social welfare/moral authority obviously, but at least economically and militarily. Victorians were convinced Britain was the best, and self-confidence was endemic. However, when the British Empire threw itself into the First World War, it destroyed many imperial fantasies of glory and created a generation of moody D H Lawrence types. A couple of decades of meandering decline followed by another nationalist-clusterfuck pretty much sealed the deal, and then we ended up just as a source of castles/palaces for the daughters of Chinese millionaires to get married.

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An extract from the ‘Wipers Times’, a satirical newspaper printed by British soldiers in the Ypres Salient.

Apart from the odd spluttering of nationalism (*cough* UKIP *cough*) most of us are happy enough though, and the days of imperial domination seem almost unimportant. How did we go from Victorian earnest self-confidence to a healthy acceptance that we’re shit? Well, the widespread deployment of irony. It popped up in the Great War, and has served the British people well ever since. When the First World War proved that everything was screwed, that patriotic glory was stupid and that the ruling classes were winging it like everybody else, being overly sincere became somewhat embarrassing. Earnest self-confidence in the future became laughable and millions of soldiers learnt to mockingly accept that everything was absurd.

These people didn't get the memo.

These people didn’t get the memo.

A Victorian soldier might say:

“Thomas, in one hour we attack the foe. I am afraid, but I’m confident in the morality of our nation and the glory of our army. God Save the Queen!”

A First World War soldier on the other-hand would say:

“Thomas, in one hour we go over the top. I can’t wait. I have a deep meaningful love of being shot at and I fancy the exercise. Any chance of a drink?”

This is the secret of our post-imperial success. As the Empire fell away and our cities became filled with concrete monstrosities, we tutted and said something self-deprecating. Now we chuckle at earnest moral-crusading Fox News presenters and feel culturally superior. It’s great.

Hur hur Fox News.

Hur hur Fox News.

I can understand why you’re not like this yet. The whole American dream was based on exponential growth. To be American meant aiming for a bigger car, a bigger meal, an even more screwed-up form of drug addiction. To be small was to be weak, to be weak was to be homosexual or French. This was all well and good, but now it’s run its course. If you can learn to ironically make fun of yourself, everything will be ok forever. There are already signs it happening – American internet culture is highly ironic and American comedies are starting to revel in a wonderful sense of world-weariness. It’s good to see.

Make the most of this America – this is your only hope. If you keep trying to pretend everything is going to get better you’re just going to feel disappointed and angry. As it becomes more unavoidably clear there are other powerful countries, full of people who’ve never seen Top Gun or watched Baseball, the neurotic flag-waving types are only going to be louder and more embarrassing. You’ll lose what international respect you still have. Wry self-deprecation may not fix anything, but it’ll feel… well maybe not better, but funnier at least.

Much love,

Britain

P.S If you could do that without a massive, demoralising World War, that’d be great.

How Should we Treat the Battlefields of the Past? Thoughts After my Trip to Belgium

I’ve just got back from a week spent feeling pensive around Belgium based British battlefields (mmm dat alliteration). I spent a good three days in and around Ypres, an area of the First World War which put roughly 200,000 British men in the ground. I also got to spend a day walking the Battle of Waterloo, the place where Napoleon’s ego got brutally tag-teamed by the British and Prussian armies in 1815.

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Tynecot Cemetery – ‘home’ to 11954 graves.

Something I really struggled with was trying to bring together my experience of the place (nice beer and good weather) with my knowledge of what has previously happened there. It can be easy to forget that when you read historical accounts of events that these places carry on existing (unless they take place on a rapidly sinking Pacific island – sorry Fiji). You can see the spot where Admiral Nelson breathed his last and stand where Churchill famously blathered about beaches and landing grounds – presumably you can find the toilet that Elvis died on if you did enough googling. In the footprints of each generation there is always another ready to live out their time. There’s no getting away from that. What do you do though, in massive areas of suffering? Should it change anything for us today?

Scotland_Forever!

Heavy Cavalry charges are what aristocrats used to do when they weren’t backhanding disobedient orphans and initiating bouts of group sex.

Waterloo is an interesting case study. The battle itself is one of the most significant in European history. In 1815, Napoleon escaped from his exile on the island of Elba, reclaimed his place as Emperor of the French Empire, only for the entire of Europe to declare war on him personally. His attempt to brush the British and Prussian armies out of the Low Countries failed in a maelstrom of musketry, and in the process ushered in a century of Pax Britannica. Considering its importance, I was expecting Waterloo to be cordoned off and persevered, but that’s definitely not the case. If it wasn’t for the big bloody memorial mound you’d be forgiven for not knowing a battle took place there at all.

1. Seventh Coaltion

Worth a punt?

To be fair, it did take place a (hefty) stone’s throw to the south of Brussels in the heartland of Belgian agriculture, not on some uninhabited island. Whilst there is a visitors’ centre and many memorials, the entire area is still being used for farming. The fields that thousands of British Heavy Cavalry pounded through are growing Rye for harvest, the same crop being grown 200 years ago. The farm complexes, La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont, both of which featured heavily in the battle, are still used as farms today – in fact La Haye Sainte is owned by descendants of the owners in 1815. On reflection, this distance from the battle makes sense. It happened over two hundred years ago. Belgium has been fought upon for centuries – why rob the country of perfectly serviceable countryside for one particular conflict? The needs of the present and the desire to remember can work in conjunction together quite nicely.

A photo I took of the gateway of Hougoumont with a painting of its role in the battle. Wellington famously said that "The success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont"

A photo I took of the gateway of Hougoumont with a painting of its role in the battle. Wellington famously said that, “The success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont”

The same logic should apply to the First World War, but it feels more challenging somehow. The fighting swept over large area of Belgium and France, so there’s no question of preserving the battlefields as they were, but there’s still something rather odd about moseying around an area that claimed 500,000 casualties from both sides over the war. It takes twenty minutes to drive from Ypres to Passchendaele, the village that gave its name to the muddiest, nastiest chapter in the salient’s wartime narrative.

Not a good place to be

Not a good place to be

As you drive it’s impossible not to imagine the pleasant countryside as the quagmire of mud it would have been. Every 100 metres would have cost thousands of live and been ripped apart by shells. None of the trees would have existed. Yet still, there are now charming little cafes and bars serving nice Belgian beer. It’s a lovely place to be, despite the constant reminders of the past. I suppose that’s a good thing. I’m very glad that Winston Churchill’s idea of keeping Ypres as a pile of rubble to serve as a memorial didn’t come about.

The same spot 104 years apart

The same spot 94 years apart

Really then, there’s nothing to work out – people died, we remember them, we live our lives. We have very little choice in the matter short of fencing off every geopolitical hotspot on the planet as a place of remembrance. I just can’t help but find it an odd experience, but then again, I suppose it’d be worrying if these places didn’t feel a tad uncomfortable.