I am being astounded at my own land, my country folk and the diversity of settings in England.
Much is going on presently with regard to migration and who belongs where. Taken aback by the private hire driver as he recounts two stories with dawn appearing my first Sunday back in England in 2016. I do not think we are allowed to call them taxi drivers since the laws of this land change according to the manner we contact the person driving us from airport to home.
I have lived abroad for the last twenty years and have a home and family who see where we currently live as home; we are a cosmopolitan family with roots across cultures and within different communities. This means I possibly have increased my awareness of passports not being symbolic of cultures and nationalities but only being indicators, and not predictors of, wider values. Maybe it is because of recent work being done on migration and related issues of seeing people as this or that passport holder, but I am very aware of people around me as I travel.
I go no further than the spine of England, do not travel to the areas geographically peripheral to the sceptred isle nor the other key places around which other national ethos occur as we enjoy Rugby Union’s Six Nations competition (Leave France aside, although the influence is heavy for so many of us Brits) English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish then define themselves nationally when carrying a United Kingdom passport and enjoying the Schengen and Syria migration headlines atop of European Union in our ‘in or out’ debates
Back to arriving into Heathrow and moving swiftly through the immigration controls. Thanking the automation of passports while knowing the connections such automation allows has surveillance services knowing this person, name and individual number recorded, is back in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. No bad thing? I certainly do not mind, those with an easy mind can be thankful for connectivity; until it is commercialised and we get advertisements on our computers and phones trying to sell us a hotel room, taxi (or private hire facility) or even a ‘wealth creation manager’ on tax avoidance.
The gentleman I have contacted to get me from Heathrow to Newport Pagnell is standing looking cold in the harsh lights of Terminal Three in the predawn of a March Sunday morning. A taxi driver? A private hire driver? A chauffeur? A courier and conveyor of people on an individual, bespoke basis? Pick the manner to describe someone who offers quality service in terms of logistics for me. Why this seeming convolution? It seems, what constitutes a taxi in Bedford is not the same as Luton, both in the County of Bedfordshire and, last time of checking, both in England and the United Kingdom. I am all for subsidiarity and definitely delegated responsibility however, surely we have some common standards across England if not the United Kingdom? We appear to have made the world of politicians increasingly remote from the everyday issues we face. Their distance from us has increased as they continue to become ever more superficial with their election promises. Increasingly, they are elected by smaller numbers of people within the overall the overall population. As I sit to complete this, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stands to tell us there will be a ‘mayor of East Anglia’. Get real, what is this about? Or are we going to divide the state as it was when the English language shaped from Norse, Germanic tongues, different types of French and assorted English parlances? More layers of (nonsensical) promising politicians without the necessary technical competences to deliver on their garrulous verbosity.
Heading north, I have my first shock to the system as I arrive at Milton Keynes Central train station 06:45 on a cold grey Tuesday morning. The place is buzzing with cars pressing to get to prime parking spots cutting the walking to the needful, passing of your favourite barista for coffee and, it seems, porridge and ensuring the return, pushing past people on the way off the train and up the steps, is complemented with a fast getaway into the evening traffic and home for an M&S packaged meal (M&S? Almost a universal acronym surely? Marks and Spencer). No stranger to the place, the automation and machine driven approach means we are becoming ever more efficient travellers and ever more insular in our travel. Gone the days of Reggie Perrin and knowing others well enough to talk positively on any given day rather than the foreign view of London commuters as only talking when the wrong kind of leaves/weather/voodoo forestalls the train running on time. We are functional as we stand in queues to collect tickets, watch the screens to decide when to rush to the cold platform where texting fingers will suffer further. As a coincidence, if not a consequence, London does not feature in the top thirty friendly places on the planet; visitors from Pluto, take note, get your ticket and ensure you have downloaded an automated voice to guide you through the sites when travelling in.
I fall into line, pass the data to the machine and it spews out ticket after ticket after ticket – seven pieces in all for my journey to Sheffield. I join the barista favouring going for a Costa served by a set of guys epitomising the points on job, passport, nationality and culture. Maybe all carry a UK passport, maybe one of them is from a refugee family from previous crises. Maybe they are go-getters simply following the next trend in movements to the UK, to key places in the UK, seeking opportunity and, quite possibly, finding the realities entail serving this or that frothy milk, water and flavouring to people rushing through and now sold the idea of coffee and snacks on the move. Interesting to see porridge is there, everywhere it seems, in these coffee shops and stands. Coffee spouting from the machine and porridge out of the microwave; onward into the day as we all do our individual thing within the overall marketing machine – my choice of coffee or tea and, of course, I just know I am doing well by myself eating porridge. Read the ingredients lately?
Arriving in Birmingham, central, if not centre, to England and Wales, http://visitbirmingham.com , I take advantage of the facilities. Interestingly, go to our capital and you will be charged a minimum of thirty pence, 30 P, to pee. Not in Birmingham where there are clean facilities, no grubby turnstiles, with the opportunity to wash my hands before moving on. So where is the capital of English culture? Making money from bodily functions or in being hospitable? I have to say, on my return, I have a bit of time and head upstairs in New Street. A revelation, fantastic blending of the modern and efficient throughput of travellers with those who just have a few moments to dwell. There are people meeting up here, taking a coffee, tea or even something alcoholic and talking. Me? I am taking pictures since I feel proud to be standing here. None of this was my work, but I feel people have put something in so we do not have to stick with curly railway sandwiches. Sleek and smart, not out of place from the Dubai connections I used to make. Nice one Birmingham. People put something in so people get something back. Altruism but one we have let go in so many machine driven (human) exchanges
This is the second string to the travel. My private hire driver had recounted a story of a lady working for a famous UK store. A store started by immigrants to these green and pleasant lands. She tells the driver her theories of migration which build around we all should stay where we are start. Swiftly hoisted by her own petard, she has already told how she is living in the Yorkshire Dales, lived and educated in Southwest England and now realising what rubbish she is talking not answering the gentleman as to where she was born. Heaven help if her theories roll on and we have to work out conception; Joseph and Mary’s 21st pretenders would need the inter-city trains alongside the latest school test results and some job prospects for 20 years future to decide whether, after coffee or cocktails above New Street they decide on some conception engagement.
We are all on the move, rural to urban started some three hundred years ago and the flow toward nodal points has possibly accelerated more recently despite the rise of global communication and the all pervasive ‘web. To an extent, the centralisation of people allowed some to centralise control and this has, then, allowed some to be more footloose. We have people, such as this lady, holding high-powered positions able to own a place in the Dales, a functional apartment in London and, quite possibly, a holiday retreat for some sun in the Mediterranean. What would happen if this lady finds herself on Lesbos with people migrating from, if not emotively fleeing, Syria? I am sure she must have passed through Birmingham with the cosmopolitan feel generated not just by its centrality but also by it being our second city and a great draw for people through the last, three hundred years. A mixing bowl to savour, a rich heritage of production. And now? What has the Birmingham stamp on it?
Burton-on-Trent, ‘gateway to the National Forest’, so the signage proclaims. Please let me know when we had reached the nadir of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, http://jonimitchell.com/music/song.cfm?id=208 , and now have ‘a National Forest’. Maybe better to talk of Robin Hood the legend and the underlying intent in these days of talk on taxes, freeloading and people working themselves into poverty. Burton-on-Trent, home of some iconoclastic beer marques, http://allaboutbeer.com/article/burton-on-trent—the-worlds-most-important-beer-town/ , now subsumed into Global brands with Coors Molson signs dominating alongside the rail track. We are becoming consumers of brands designed to offer some trigger inside our heads where we are individuals because of the brand we consume. As we lose the individuality of place and person, heavily damaged by industrialisation’s use of people in a collective fashion, and now, recreate a brand supposedly giving us individuality. The power of choice; choice decided by marketing and to build value for those with the power to so do? And move to the Dales with pet theories? Or perhaps run for Mayor of East Anglia? Boadicea, get your chariot out.
Next up Derby; thinking Derby County, and the iconoclastic Brian Clough, a gentleman from the North East with a talent reaching far beyond any geographic location. A gentleman is helped onto the train as I read the signs for Derby College – Investing in people and helping them shape their future. Practical courses offered to young people when so much of the practical work has been stripped away because of people who saw only making money short term from global brands letting the global brands we had, have, shrivel. Yes, Rolls Royce still in Derby; but what of others where managers and leaders did not have the vision of a Brian Clough? The gentleman who is helped on to the train? Who says goodbye with the phrase ‘Hope to see you again when I travel through’. He is without the use of his eyes but has sight in terms of social interaction many of us have lost.
Derby with its college motto of investing in people….the rest I have forgotten nor cannot find on the ‘web (no reference here since I leave you to search Derby College, Derby University – proclaiming to be first in graduate employment. Some interesting thinking being sponsored by competition and collective standards of employment education). Possibly a reflection of a vision being nothing without the necessary capability to back it with substance in terms of feeling what we see beyond the catchphrases. Substance of what it will take to regenerate, reinvigorate, redevelop the cities of the Midlands and south Yorkshire (and Lancashire) industrial heartland. These areas, along with the coast of the North East and the Clyde of Scotland, gave so much to the World and, now, it would appear, have been paid lip service yet to manifest itself in structural engagement of the Whitehall mandarins (beyond weekend holiday homes?). This is provocative since there are initiatives; but these pale into insignificance compared to, say, the HST1, high speed train, planned to take minutes off a journey between London and Manchester. Two cities already well connected, both within the European growth corridor and already serviced so people can work on the move. Where would Birmingham stand as trains whizz up this new link? Use the money wisely not to line the pockets of footloose companies. Have we not learned the lessons from industrial policies of the Sixties and Seventies? (1971 was the last time the major road link Manchester-Leeds saw appreciable upgrading – interesting 45 years?) The feeling is we have divorced ourselves from our industrial heritage as short-term profits were highlighted over the longer-term investments which, elsewhere, have produced far greater returns on capital; human as well as financial.
The BREXIT debate is here, signs with the blue background and the circle of gold stars adorn boards proclaiming new or re-developments. How many gold stars? Answers please and reason why we stopped there. Feelings from those who feel ‘their star’ is not figuratively on the flag? Do people know anything and care even less? Yes, Derby, and Sheffield, benefit from the European Union’s regional programmes. Who is talking about this among the Eton Wall Boys campaigning yes or no for us all being here or there? Whitehall, Brussels, Strasbourg – what difference when we do not feel a sense of belonging? Have a read and offer fresh opinion, not one mention of this heartland of the United Kingdom as services dominate and analogous with services is the City of London with its banking and financial sectors http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21693568-david-cameron-will-struggle-win-referendum-britains-eu-membership-if-he-loses
Sheffield, steel city, built on seven hills as is supposedly Rome and Kampala. Interestingly we are back to a government web link for visiting information, https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/out–about/tourist-information , saying something for the get and go? The place is making a good stab at changing for the new economy as old ways of working have been overtaken by efficiencies of production and innovation Sheffield itself made famous in bygone generations. Private sector development linked to different forms of worship as non-conformist churches appeared in the industrial revolution. Overtaken by staid collectivism founded not in the mutual support of the origins but in defence of a status quo being overtaken by others? Left behind in terms of infrastructure, Sheffield presents different faces as I walk through the city and take in the museum on the way back to the rail station.
‘A Sheffield knife or razor,
with the mark of a good firm upon it,
will hold its ground
against the world’
The Illustrated Guide to Sheffield, 1879
Yes, such quality work and this is the place to celebrate it. More to be made of craftsmanship ingrained in generations? I do not know, I am a day tripper feeling the differences in how we are seemingly making do in the industrial heartland as more and more is invested in making the heart of London ever more attached to other (financial) hubs. London, or more correctly the City of Westminster, is isolated housing our United Kingdom government but, somehow not truly serving any number of agendas we now face as Little Islanders if we are to remain together in spirit and sharing elements of body politick with social cohesion. The impending vote of yes or no on staying part of the European Union has already seen political grandstanding of the already ruling elite with much information but little solid data. This is to say, the data is filtered and regurgitated to fit with the information the yes and no camps want people to hear; get to the nub of the data and many of us will see neither of the camps at the political heights are truly empowering people. Where is the sign saying the UK is investing in Derby, Sheffield and other cities across the United Kingdom?
Sheffield and back to the blue and gold: a signboard on a newish development in the diffused centre of the city carries European Union flag again; the same flag and lettering seen on a mother and child health centre in South Sudan. The European Union is reinvesting UK taxpayer funds, and the tax receipts from other people carrying other passports, to assist (industrial) places seeking to change their raison d’etre; as well attempting to bring a bit of health to South Sudan. Not saying the two are analogous, rather pointing out why we need to come together then immediately delegate responsibility when ever possible. Sheffield and Derby have accountable government, why all the layers of civil servants and politicians in between? South Sudan? Another set of questions and quite possibly not to be answered by the European Commission; but Europe, together, in the Union, can place pressure on those who can, must, answer them.
Sheffield’s industrial heritage is being turned in to a plethora of offices blocks within a city that seems to be struggling to have a heart of distinction; a strange setting given the heritage and, surely, the ingrained learning within people to differentiate Sheffield from Shanghai? But who am I to talk? Stranger on my own shores and certainly a stranger back in these parts; a theme decorating the side of a Hallam University building.
A journey by train, by foot, in mind, to touch a few things and, most importantly kindle a few thoughts as to who we are, who we are becoming and where accountability lies.
To quote Ralph Stacey
‘The world people act in is the World they have created by acting in it’
Do we have equity in how our actions impact this World and our Futures?