Inn-dependence Day. Super Saturday. The end of the lockdown brought to you by the marketing department of England. A week or so ago, the government announced they were to re-open the pubs and to market the fact like a televised sporting event—the ultimate cultural-capitalistic signifier of the age. Viewed critically they could be said to have begun a project late last year, beginning in fact with the very word ‘government’, to undermine, to deconstruct, at times even to turn surreal, the very process of governing, to the point where it feels a stretch to use the term, with people largely playing the risks of the disease off against their own individual financial or social needs, making their own decisions and calculations, the guidance long-since written off as bluff or bullshit, the gestures of support turned squalid and platitudinous in an air, so recently cleared of pollution, now thick with hypocrisy. The backdrop to a global pandemic is an utterly degraded American political landscape, mounting tensions on various Chinese borders, rumours of underage girls manipulated into sex parties involving oligarchs, magnates and minor royals, racist police forces, the super rich profiteering from a disease that has somehow, almost as if by design (the likes of Mark in the pub no doubt believing the fact), hit hardest among those already most put upon. Each generation, so they say, feels as if they are living through the end of history, but I find myself wondering if things have ever felt this overwhelmingly degenerate.
In the Lantern, the seating has been re-organised, spaced out, more tables set up outside. Hand-sanitiser on a small round table by the gents, behind the bar. Bottles of disinfectant to hand. The dray has delivered its first beer since the closure all those weeks ago, the cellar organised, the whole place as clean as I can remember it being. The rooms have taken on something of their old aspect, seem to anticipate the coming of people, of conversation, of the obscure meaning communal spaces somehow communicate. Chairs are back behind tables, the evidence of our domestic life here moved back upstairs, back out of sight. The morning itself is grey but dry. I wake early and walk downstairs. Out of the back door, across the road, up into the hills. There is something final about my steps, something changed, somehow. When the pub closed, I often wondered what it would feel like when we eventually re-opened. I imagined a sense of relief, of excitement blended with the sadness attendant with the losses the country would have experienced, perhaps there would be some devastation close to home. There would be, no doubt, a tint of remembrance in the air. As it happens the day feels strangely anti-climactic. The news surrounding the whole thing carries an undertone of disapproval. On the internet I see people making the kind of easy, oppositional arguments that have so devalued any public discussion over the past few years. Go to the pub, some say, and you are contributing directly to the death toll, you are irresponsible at best, and at worst openly callous, a racist, a murderer, a suicide, a member of a death cult. Millions of specific, different, individual experiences of the lockdown, and of its half-hearted, rather piecemeal easing off, millions of experiences of social and material loss, of isolation, of the impact of people’s livelihoods and culture and human interactions being stripped away, and yet the debate has turned an infinitely complicated set of ideas into simplistic binaries of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. For my part, I cannot begin to parse it. I have begun to experience all my feelings and my thoughts these days through a mist of confusion, of half-formation, perhaps of a half-heartedness of my own. I have lost any rigour I once had in my thinking, any passion I once had in my feeling. Perhaps the sharpening effect of conversation is what has denuded my thought, perhaps constant exposure to the news. Whatever it is I feel a kind of fatigue. Or perhaps I am being overrun by the ghosts of this place—passivity, malaise, stagnation.
I walk the Ridgeway past Chequers, past the box wood and Happy Valley and out to Whiteleaf Cross, a large chalk hill carving in the cliff overlooking a neighbouring village. It is a rather strangely proportioned triangular-based image of a cross, perhaps in imitation of a church building that the village once lacked, a gesture towards the spired skyline that once marked most of the settlements in the area. Nobody really knows when or how the cross was made and there are many stories. My favourite postulation, though, and a common one in the pub, is that originally the carving was a pagan fertility symbol that was later ‘christianised’—an enormous cock-and-balls in the hillside that offended Victorian sensibilities. Of course there is no evidence to back the story up, but it plays easily to the kind of simplified ideas of certain historical periods that people seem so keen to believe in. A sexualised paganism and a prim Victoriana. The cross is featured in a number of paintings by Paul Nash, despite not having acquired the same prestige as the white horse at Uffington, which can be seen a number of miles further along the ridge. I sit at the top of the cliff and drink from my flask of coffee. Kites and crows have followed me along the path all morning. Jackdaws half-cackle in groups of half a dozen. The year has mostly spent its birdsong now, though a goldfinch pipes up from the gorse and flies away as I walk past. This morning the path through the woods is quiet of human life too, the hills seemingly emptied, perhaps as people begin once more to live out a version of their old lives. The weekend processions of the high streets and supermarkets and shopping centres. The sports clubs have begun to gear up, the kids needing to be taken to matches and training. Dinner parties, BBQs, camping holidays. The old diversions of work and social and family life begin to resurface in the patterns of people’s time. Sunday takes back its old and rightful melancholy. Friday afternoon its old enchantment.
Walking back along the path, down in the gulch at the base of Whiteleaf hill, I come to a pub that has, much like the Paper Lantern, appeared among the beech trees these last weeks as a kind of spectre on my walks. Each time I have passed it I think of the opening lines in Edward Thomas’ poem ‘Up in the Wind’—more white horses, more chalk. A public house that ‘may be public for birds,/Squirrels and such-like, ghosts of charcoal-burners /And highwaymen.’ How could he know it, all those years ago and miles away? Here, the pub’s outdoor furniture has been piled up in the garden as if awaiting the bonfire or the fire sale. The windows dark. Today, though, there is a kind of re-animation. The furniture is set out once more, the door is open, the yellowed light of the tavern windows offers its particular welcome even in daylight. I contemplate stopping for a drink. This pub, of course, has its own stories, its own lore. On the internet it proclaims itself ‘probably the most famous pub in England’, and that might well be true, though these things don’t always mean what they might. Most people remember the pub, for instance, as the place where, while he was Prime Minister and staying at Chequers, David Cameron and his wife left their daughter behind after having lunch. I still remember the talk of it at the time, good-natured mostly, round here of course where David Cameron could largely do no wrong. Who hadn’t left something behind in the pub after a few too many over lunch? In many ways wrong is all Cameron has now been seen to do. Divisions across the country opened up by his disastrous decision to call a referendum on Europe, HS2 bulldozing through ancient woodland, but most of all, a kind of general sense that he was the blueprint for a specific sort of wealthy politician-as-mediocrity, an urtext version of the talentless, insipid figures that have, in recent times, emptied their own profession of so much of its previous and, one might be tempted to believe, rather necessary, esteem in the perception of the populace. No matter their broad or party-political allegiances, it’s hard to find anyone, even here in the right-wing heartlands, who won’t simply sigh into their pint and tell you across the bar that they’ve ‘had it with the lot of them’ or some such phrase. They were simply spivs who had long sold the country a parochial caricature of itself, under the guise of what Cameron’s own tutor at Oxford described as his ‘sensible Conservative views’, and then looked on as that sensibility was co-opted and moulded into a small-minded, reactionary, nationalistic breakdown. At the same time, these were the people who knew that for money and so, for those that possess money in the requisite quantities, borders meant precisely nothing. Continents, nations, regions, zones, blocs—more meaningless symbols, more categorical sleight-of-hand, the illusion of an order, of ‘reason’, of histories that can be put to work. I think of how, after a state visit from the Chinese president in 2015, with Cameron and Xi Jinping photographed with their fish and chips and their pints of brown beer, this little pub out here in a bland suburban wood, became a rather improbable tourist destination for Chinese visitors. In fact, a short while later, or so the rumours were, a Chinese company bought the pub, and took the landlord at the time on as a kind of consultant, helping them to open a chain of English-style pubs across China. I would think of that often when I walked past the place, or occasionally stopped for a beer. I thought of how at the same time, there might have been any number of versions of this very pub sign above a door in Beijing, or someone ordering a pint however many thousands of miles away. Perhaps we could be forgiven for not seeing the signs back then, subtle as they were, that we were heading for our current degradation. The pig’s heads, the forgotten children, the open, celebratory nepotisms, the clubbish-ness of it all. People who call their evening meal ‘supper’. In the Lantern I once heard someone say, that’s those cunts in the Cotswolds for you. My own categorisations of course, among these rather mean-spirited words, my own reductive and ultimately inarticulate grumblings.
I carry on past the pub, no beer this time, and take myself back to the village. The road at the bottom of the ridge is busy once again, the golf course at the foot of Combe Hill dotted with players like any other Saturday. Small groups of expensive bicycles ride past bearing their riders in bright lycra. A dog or two by the monument, a group of teenagers with a picnic blanket and a few cans. I walk with a strange, and rather dis-located awareness of these scenes as I see them, as if I am re-building images of the place from a period of my memory. There is nothing of menace here, nothing of anger, of death, of heartbreak. And yet, perhaps, nothing of joy, of relief, of wonder, of abandon. The faces are blank. The ground passes under me. The trees by my side. Willowherb, gorse, the first brambles. Peacock and red admiral butterflies fight over the flowers. My feet feel as if they are hardly hitting the ground. At the foot of the hill I reach the tarmac of the road. I pass the Railway Hotel, the little row of cottages on my right. I turn into South Street and see the A-frame standing outside the pub which simply says ‘Welcome Back’. I walk up the road and through the front doors. I see the Mexican ornaments above the bar, the old Metro-land travel posters on the wall, the map of the Thames valley, the black and white photographs of country music stars from the 60s. I feel, quite suddenly and quite acutely, the thisness of this place. The material fact of it. I think once more about the meaninglessness of words in the face of things. How they continue to slip out of the grasp of my mind. A pint of Landlord, please, landlord, I hear myself say.