On a stage at the Festival of Nature – one of Bristol’s many, many spurious summer festivals – a man and a woman wearing flat caps with fox ears were performing a song about a rabbit going hop, hop, hop.
My girls were hopping away on the Floating Harbour’s cobbled ground. C, who is nearly five, hopped as if carrying out a grim duty; two year-old E was more of a happy clappy hopper. I was sitting behind them squinting into the sun and sweating gently into my shirt, wondering how old the singers might be. The man could have been anything from twenty-five to fifty, but that’s often the way with vegetarians. Solace was provided by a pint of pale ale in one hand, and in the other a pitta containing a lightly-grilled, responsibly-killed trout, freshly cooked for me minutes earlier and indescribably delicious.
The Festival was a sprawl of marquees concerned with wildlife – or, more commonly, with environmental campaigning. There’s always something new to environmentally campaign about, isn’t there. The BBC had a marquee, as did Bristol Zoo, the RSPB and many others of that ilk. Each had a fun activity for the kids to do, like making a falcon mask, tracing a leaf pattern or screaming in terror at a big cockroach. While having fun we were encouraged to recycle more, become more self-sufficient, use less water, become more aware of climate change, get closer to nature, leave nature alone by not building over it, be more local, be more global, and worry more about the prospects of various creatures including elephants, penguins and bees. I did my best, but as Sky Sports football pundit Paul Merson might say, it was a Big Ask.
The best thing in the Festival was a giant vinyl maze-tent on College Green called a Colourscape. The four of us trotted round the interconnected chambers in our capes, changing from red to pink to yellow to blue as we passed from one colour cube to the next. Some sort of zingly-zangly ethnic music floated around, and we followed it until we came to a larger, light grey chamber containing a bald man sitting cross-legged on the floor playing a… oh I don’t know, let’s call it a Mongolian Glockenzither. We sat to listen along with other Colourscape visitors and then a beautiful, sturdy, café au lait-coloured lady with curly hair began a languid barefoot dance. How nice it must be, I thought as I watched her contort and writhe in the space before us, to be so utterly devoid of a sense of embarrassment.
Back on the Floating Harbour I wandered over to the poetry stage, where a student was performing rapid cod hip-hop verse to a small nonplussed audience made up almost entirely of other performance poets waiting for their turn. He was a brilliant rhyme-jockey and very funny, but kept forgetting his lines in his nervous state. I congratulated him as he had sat down again, flushed and quivering. Googling his handle, I was pleased to find some of his work on Youtube, and then saddened to read a strikingly ill-informed diatribe about Michael Gove, Islamic extremism and Academy schools that he’d written on Facebook. But at least he’s got time on his side. As for the rest of these Green types, if their anti-trade, anti-growth, anti-globalisation ideals were put into practice we’d all be living in filthy poverty and disease with the life expectancy of cavemen. Quite bonkers, the lot of them, as unworldly as hoppy infants pretending to be rabbits. But they do put on a good Festival.
In her Boys of Summer post Rita observed that it’s surely “a quintessential mark of Britishness” to resist efforts to “instil a strong sense of ‘Britishness’ in the populace”. A valid remark, though in the context (radical Islamic nutjobs taking over primary schools), David Cameron’s comments about the desirability of teaching ‘British values’ are understandable. By British values he doesn’t really mean Magna Carta or the Rule of Law so much as the ‘post-Blair’ virtues I described in a recent Diary: anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, anti-racism. The conflict between these values and Islamicist views of women, gays and infidels has been a sticky wicket for the metropolitan Left for years now. Well, we call them the ‘Left’ and they self-identify as such, but the ‘they’ we mean here have minimal interest in such traditional left-wing preoccupations as, say, worker control of the means of production. They are, however, prigs.
Anti-racism, anti-homophobia and anti-sexism are very fine values and they are now accepted as essential elements of the prevailing morality. Prigs misapply the values of the prevailing morality, or enforce them too zealously, or fail to discern the difference between important transgressions and trivial ones. They take a zero-tolerance approach to irreverence, eccentricity, cantankerousness and any form of apostasy. They make accusations to shut down debate. At best priggishness is incredibly annoying…
…At worst it undermines the very values it professes to defend. Accusing recent UKIP voters of being ‘racist’ because they oppose uncontrolled EU immigration is an example. The UKIP protest vote was primarily white working-class people objecting to white working-class immigration. ‘Racism’ means discrimination against a person or group because of their race. So either that UKIP protest is not racist, or the term ‘racist’ has been watered down until it is simply a synonym for ‘small-minded’ or ‘insular’ or ‘being a Little Englander’. So what can we call the BNP to indicate they are categorically worse?
Funnily enough, the England football team has in this World Cup been a victim of post-Blair priggishness when the FA sacked their captain and best defender John Terry after he was subjected to trial by Twitter. The criminal courts acquitted him of racial abuse, but out of fear of the Priggerati and on the grounds of ‘no racist smoke without a fire’, the FA punished him anyway. Habeus corpus was chucked out the window – and what could be less in tune with ‘British values’ than that? On the other hand, what could be more English than a soccer self-destruction, I thought as I watched Terry’s stand-in Phil Jagielka flailing around helplessly against the actual racial abuser Luis Suarez. Add Twitterprigs, then, to the long and multifarious list of sufficient but not necessary causes of English football failure.
In the midday sun of the last glorious day of last week I took a lunchtime stroll from my office up Lansdown Lane. As I passed the farm shop a farm dog – a mature border collie bitch, with the colouring of a Jason – came loping out to greet me. I acknowledged her presence and carried on walking, and the dog carried on with me. After an initial moment of wariness (as one always feels when approached by an uncertain hound) I was sure that, unlike Luis Suarez, she was able to control her instinct to bite human flesh and I began to enjoy her company. It was pleasant walking with a dog without being responsible for it. We were equals.
The tree-shaded lane was spotted with drops of sunlight and horse dung. Unseen birds twittered away, and for once I gave not a fig about my inability to identify them. The warmth was snoozy, the hills around as green and hilly as in children’s drawings and across the valleys distant sheep were groaning. At the peak of the hill I took the last chomp out of my apple and hurled it over a gate into the meadow. The dog and I watched its arc until it landed and, for all I know, brained a shrew or something. We felt at peace with nature.
‘Come on then, girl,’ I suggested after a while, and we headed back down the hill, me occasionally stooping to pick up and throw an increasingly disgusting stick she’d taken to. At the farm shop gate I bid her goodbye but, reluctant to part so soon, she followed me all the way down to the office and even into it, much to the amusement of my colleagues. Eventually I managed to usher her out of the door. “Go home, girl, go on. Home!” She slunk away, looking hurt. “We’ll go again tomorrow,” I promised. “I’ll pick you up, same time same place.”
In a life-changing development – as life-changing as having children, or that day I discovered the trick of freezing lemon slices to add to G&Ts on demand – Mrs B and I have entered into a reciprocal babysitting arrangement with another couple. First Friday night we got we high-tailed it to King Street, which contains the highest density of great pubs in the universe. We had a quick drink in the King Billy then in scorching evening sunshine mooched across the crowded cobbles to Renato’s to eat a salty pizza and relive our student days.
When we used to frequent it in the mid-1990s, Renato’s was the only place on the street that could serve booze after 11pm but smoking was permitted everywhere. Also we had lots of friends to go with. That’s all changed but nothing else – the staff are as comfortingly surly as ever, the Funghi still contains your month’s recommended salt intake, and there are still the same signed actor photographs from 1980s Old Vic shows on the walls, including a callow Jeremy Irons and Josie Lawrence in a pair of unforgiveable dungarees.
Alas, we had no time to pop into The Famous Royal Naval Volunteer, the new Belgian-style Beer Emporium or The Llandoger Trow, so after our pizza we elbowed through the outside drinkers and into The Old Duke, for a live dose of that age-old English cultural tradition, New Orleans jazz.
The Old Duke is one of those rare places that, when it is packed and swinging, makes you feel like there’s nowhere better you could possibly be. It is small and grubby and it takes an age to get to the bar, but what a vibe. The clientele ranges from adolescent to geriatric. There are jazz folk in porkpie hats and grungey men with Christ beards, crimson-haired girls with nose-rings and public schoolboys in blazers, there are gorgeous Hispanic students and a corner for fading white-haired homosexuals in attire ranging from motorcyclist to theatre director to antiques dealer, one of whom made an optimistic attempt to chat me up as I leaned over to order my round. Couldn’t blame him, I was pretty devastating in my new red checked shirt and navy jacket. “That’s a nice shirt, where’s it from?” he asked, inoffensively patting the sleeve. “TK Maxx, my friend,” I replied, winking. “Nothing but the best, that’s me.” I clapped him consolingly on the back and sauntered back to my wife with a pair of G&T like the heartbreaking sonofabitch I am, just as the band segued into a jazzy version of You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.
But she was not there at the farm shop gate when I walked past the next day. I looked about the yard for a few minutes, then carried on up the hill alone. The sun was behind clouds, there was horseshit a-plenty but no sundrops on the lane. A whooshing wind in the branches muffled the birdsong and sheepgroans. At the top of the hill I looked over the grey hills under a heavy grey sky. Dull light on the dab-fish ponds. Perhaps this is the afterlife we dread, I thought suddenly, not hellfire but an eternity in an empty landscape, with no lovers or children or friends, or crazy greens, or hapless queens. Just you on a hill, alone, forever, without your dog.