Two regions, alike in dignity. And united only in their hatred of one another.

When I moved to the south of England five years ago, I didn’t realise that it would soon become my mission not just to defend my homeland but to repeatedly explain exactly where it is. I hadn’t thought about the fact that the British voting map divides as much by the north-south line as our accents do. Indeed, I hadn’t really realised that our accents were quite so different.

This is far from unique to Britain. I remember a few years ago being told by an irate French lectrice that the reason it was quicker to get to Paris from Bordeaux than Toulouse was because of the collaborators. (Yes, Bordeaux is apparently in the French north. Like the British north-south divide, that of our neighbours across the Channel doesn’t obey anything as obvious as the laws of geography.) And then, later, living in the southern north, or the bit south of that that might actually have been the south, that I should ask in bakeries for a chocolatine, not a pain au chocolat, because otherwise everyone would think I was Parisian. (I’d have been quite flattered to be mistaken for a Parisian actually, but apparently that was worse than being English. Which is saying quite a lot.)

To get to the point. Bolivia is also a divided country. Not north-south, but east-west. After not very long reading about the place, particularly in recent news, you come across a reference to the Media Luna (half moon – just as the French are a bit wobbly on their compass points, the Bolivians have some interesting visualisation going on. I’d be concerned if the moon looked like the map of the departments of Tarija, Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando.). And the angry political and historical and cultural and geographical and racial and culinary and just every kind really of divisions of a country that, much as I love it, I also feel is a bit of an odd construct.

It was 6 de agosto at the weekend (I come from a culture that doesn’t have ‘x of the month’ festivals (and, for obvious reasons, doesn’t have Independence Days. Other than those of countries that escaped our imperial rule. But then we don’t actually celebrate them.) – I mean, obviously it was the 6th of August in between the 5th and the 7th. But the 6th is more special than the others. I lived on the street named after it for a little while, so it must be important, right?). Having been through not-actual-independence-but-a-predecessor-to-it on the 16th of July, I thought this was going to be Actual Independence this time. You know, from Spain. Well, it is far from that straightforward. 6th August 1824 was an actual battle (Junín) that was won in the wars of Independence. But as signs everywhere told me, this was the 191st birthday of Bolivia. Quick bit of maths: they’re a year short. It took them a year to decide they didn’t want to be part of Peru, and the actual decision was made on the 10th of July. Nothing actually happened on the 6th of August 1825. But that’s the anniversary that’s celebrated. (I know, I know – next thing I’ll be telling you Jesus wasn’t actually born on the 25th December 0AD. Oh. Wait. Never mind.)

The brief history lesson was just me pointing out that Bolivia isn’t perhaps the most historically solid of nations. It got an illogical bit of coastline because Bolivar thought all of his new countries should have access to the sea. (It then lost it, but that’s another story.) It had large bits of Amazon that no-one bothered to map for a long time, and there’s some story about a dictator swapping some jungle land for a white horse. (And then the rubber boom happened.) And it got mountains and highlands and llamas and dust and wind and cold and, really, not the best deal in the whole break-up of the Spanish Empire. And most significantly for what I’m trying to say, it got a lumped together collection of various groups of indigenous people and the descendants of the Spanish occupiers.

When most people think of Bolivia now, it’s probably of the first half: of Evo (and his jumper), women in funny hats and skirts and plaits, coca and alpacas and mountains (and cholitas climbing mountains – I’m all for women breaking boundaries, but ‘women climb mountain’ is not news, no matter how flowery the skirts they were wearing) and protests and quinoa and mining and debates about free chickens and eccentric papal gifts (there was a lot of commentary about the exact significance of the infamous communist crucifix thing, and the Pope’s reaction to it. I personally think he was doing a ‘Why does no one ever just give me a box of chocolates? Has it not occurred to them that the Vatican has plenty of over the top religious artefacts, and I’m trying to downsize? Where on earth am I going to put this one? Maybe one of the cardinals would like it?’ But this may be blasphemy or Catholic treason or whatever obscure crime insulting the pope is. If you don’t hear from me for a while, the Swiss Guard have probably come for me.) That’s the half I know, the half I talk about, the half I (for the most part), study.

I’d heard stories of the other half. Some, rather unappealing: the climate is hot and humid, the mosquitoes rampant, the racist tendencies of the people even more so. ‘Oooh, you should go! You’d love it! The people aren’t like here. They’re more European. Friendly. Taller. Whiter.’ proffered one of my interviewees. I wasn’t sure whether to be more offended by the suggestion that I would be happier in an area with more white people, or horrified that this was the kind of conversation anyone would think you could have aloud, in public. And I’d read a lot about the politics of the region, and its economy, and it all sounded a bit industrial and commercial and conservative and dull and flat and unappealing. But somehow I managed to be persuaded into crossing over into the infamous region of Santa Cruz.

It was probably not as dramatic a transition as it seemed. I fell asleep on the bus, so to me it seemed like one minute I was in a dry, dusty, arid (but spectacular) landscape, and the next it was a river valley that was all green and full of citrus trees and vegetables and it all felt almost Mediterranean. I’d spent about six weeks in dry, dusty heat (and paceño dry, dusty, polluted cold), and then all of a sudden there was a thunderstorm and I was wading not-quite-knee-deep-but-not-far-off-and-I-was-wearing-sandals-and-everything through flooded streets and hearing horror stories of roads being shut off by landslides, and whizzing on a bus through a river gorge past roadside stalls of citrus fruit and plantations of peaches and vineyards and everything seemed green and fresh and not quite like the Bolivia I was used to.

There were just hundreds of little differences: I’ve got used to seeing the Bolivian flag flying alongside the wiphala, this checked flag that represents the indigenous nations of the Plurinational State. Not in Santa Cruz. There, it’s the regional flag (green and white stripes) that predominates. And then when someone innocently asked our tour guide what languages were spoken in the region: Aymara, Quechua…, he stroppily responded that you’d only hear those from immigrants to the area, and true natives spoke Spanish. I’m going to leave you to ponder the irony of the descendants of Columbus, Pizarro etc being considered more native than those of the people they found and killed when they arrived on this continent. It was warm, and people wore less clothes. This seems inherently logical, but when it’s warm in La Paz and I go out in just a shirt, without a jacket or a jumper, everyone rushes to tell me I must be freezing. I’m not. I could come up with some long analogy about a willingness to take risks, as characterised by going out in your shorts and flip flops when it might rain, compared to the playing safe option of the coat, scarf, gloves, shawl etc when it will probably be sunny and warm, and how this transfers into entrepreneurship and development and ambition and all of these things. But even if you’re sceptical of the concept of that, it has to be said that clothing and its acceptability is not just a reflection of the weather, but of culture: the conservatism of the altiplano is perhaps most evidently characterised by the fact that I have never seen anyone there wearing shorts.

As you leave La Paz, you plod through El Alto – a chaotic settlement with a permanent traffic jam. The further out you get, the less built the houses become. Other than the brewery there isn’t much sign of industry: a lot more informal shops (the row selling bricks, the next block where they’re all selling cement mixers, then on to ladders…) and market stalls and the wonderful improvisation that means minibuses carry tractor tyres and a stack of mattresses fit to satisfy the princess of pea fame can be balanced on top of a taxi. And then suddenly the houses stop and you’re out in the kind of bleak landscape you associate with Wuthering Heights. But without Kate Bush. And about 3500m higher up. And you go past the odd llama and settlement of houses huddled against the wind and there’s these big dominating hills and huge blue sky and a straight flat plain, but no landmarks, nothing really to distinguish one place from the next until you arrive at the outskirts of the next city 300km away. That’s what I know of travelling in Bolivia.

Leaving Santa Cruz, and its concentric circles that I’m sure made wonderful sense to whatever urban planner devised them but I don’t think actually serve any practical purpose (other than to give a vague geographical reference: ‘in the 2nd anillo’ is about equivalent to Parisian ‘5ème arrondissement’ as far as I can tell), is a somewhat different experience. There’s a dual carriageway that feels, lined with palm trees as it is, like it’d be happier in Miami or Los Angeles or somewhere. There are big processing plants for sunflower oil and soya and other big agro-industrial products. There are cattle. There is another brewery. There’s towns, with shops, and roundabouts, and the whole sprawl doesn’t just seem to extend further, but it’s closer to the kind of settlement you expect, the kind of place you would construct a settlement. I suppose Santa Cruz makes sense: it’s logical that this is the country’s economic hub, that it’s increasingly attracting migrants from across the country (and so messing with that neat dichotomy: there were as many women in Aymara traditional dress on my bus as there were people in jeans. And a lot of hats. If I had to choose one thing I love about Bolivia, it’s that hats are so prevalent, and so invested in meaning, in a way that we’ve mostly lost in Europe.), it’s logical that it’s expanding geographically, that its population is growing. And if you were going to set up a business in Bolivia, maybe you would do it in Santa Cruz – the only obstacle is that the export route out is either across the whole country, or through the depths of the Amazon and out through Brazil, but I’m sure if they could build a transoceanic road through Peru and Brazil someone would be willing to do the same in Bolivia. (I am not advocating this. Enough of the rainforest is being cut down as it is, and development of that kind is just not that necessary. Or necessary at all. But I am by no means naive enough not to think it’ll happen.)

It’s not that La Paz is inherently not-modern, but it’s a different kind of modernity: a kind that sees no problem with taking your lamb on the bus or whipping your mobile phone out from the folds of your shawl, cardigan, blouse, petticoats and who knows what else. Santa Cruz, on the other hand, maybe fits better into a narrative of linear development: yes, there are street vendors (although there was a poor choice of bus station snacks available at the ‘terminal bimodal’. Because although it’s a long bumpy bus ride to the altiplano from said lowland city, obviously there’s a direct train connection to Brazil. I’ve mentioned before that transport connections reflect political opinions and power.), but there are also long straight highways, malls and a lot of 4x4s. In short, the signs of money coming into a regional economy, and of the area’s cultural references guiding its trajectory. Santa Cruz looks to Brazil, the US, Europe, and uses its wealth to emulate them. La Paz, for the moment at least, hangs on to the traditions of its indigenous past. And maybe that’s the deep-seated root of all of the other divisions, one that causes any European regional distinctions to pale into insignificance. If they are debates about divergences in recent history, in the shares of the spoils of a capitalist model of industrialisation that is more or less universally accepted, this is a division that reflects an inherently different worldview. And while there are suggestions that it could be evened out as the country as a whole experiences economic growth and development (or, perhaps, that the highland vision, revived by Evo’s presidency and his economic development and cultural revaluation initiatives, will fade away if and when his administration comes to an end), my brief experience of The Other Side suggests that while the geographical boundaries of the divides may shift, the two visions are not just competing or opposed, but so utterly alien that reconciliation is impossible to even fully imagine.

The Ordinary Bus

I think there’s something weird hardwired in us that although we live in one, actually quite mundane, familiar, safe and comfortable place, the concept of travel (and especially travel to places that are markedly different from our home-place) is this kind of magical, mystical, otherworldly thing. Not when we’re actually undertaking it, of course, but when we hear stories of it, read about it, reminisce about it, dream about it.

I work on Bolivia. I currently work in Bolivia. This mostly involves digging through an overstuffed rucksack for the clean pair of socks I’m sure I have in there somewhere, and wearing those socks under my sandals as I stand shivering in a dodgy part of a city at the wrong side of dawn, wondering whether the bus or the sun will appear first.

I must admit I started this bus odyssey with a rather safe option: Coroico-La Paz. Coroico is that kind of small rural town near a sprawling city that the inhabitants of that city use as their getaway place at weekends. I was trying to think of a British example (it’s not Blackpool – no beaches (but yes donkeys), no casinos, no fish and chips – but the origins are probably not that dissimilar), and failed, maybe because the British examples may have applied a couple of centuries ago, and now everyone goes to the Costa del Sol instead. Essentially it has a decent climate, lots of trees, plenty of hotels, restaurants and cafes, and now that they’ve finally finished the road, good transport access to La Paz. So I ambled onto a minibus with my snacks and settled into my seat, with only the minor hiccup of an argument with a woman about which of us was taking the seat by the door (aisles?! Waste of space – if a seat will fit in it and a body will go on that seat, you can bet there’ll be a body on the seat in the space. I did once flag down a taxi and then realise there was no space inside. No worries, said the driver, opening the (actually quite spacious) boot – you’ll fit in here!) and which was clambering over someone’s shopping and someone else’s lap to wedge in the middle. I won. And we hurtled up the middle of this winding road (why slow down to follow the curve of the blind corners when you can just ignore them and take the most direct route?), out of the trees and past the llamas and over the top past the people drying potatoes and down into the city. And other than the bit where someone insisted on getting out and forcing everyone else to get out randomly by the side of the road so they could change seats, it was all pretty boring.

Minibuses, though, don’t count. I could spend hours telling stories of people piling onto city public transport minibuses – like any city in the world, it’s the quirky types who are determined not to confine their chaos-causing talents to their own private vehicle, and instead insist on sharing them with the widest-possible public.

But where it gets really interesting is not the minibuses, and not the inter-city buses that ply the double lane, newly asphalted, straight, flat, long roads, leaving from bus terminals that if not exactly salubrious are at least easy to find (read: actually marked on maps). I suppose public transport has tiers – express trains are perhaps the equivalent of the super-fancy buses that don’t stop to be flagged down by random people on the roadside, have working toilets and heating/ air-conditioning and food and, rumour has it, WiFi. Then there’s those funny trains that stop everywhere, but at least they’re more or less on the right track, sort of move at a reasonably steady speed, in the rightish direction, and are generally filled with people whose aim is to get to a place with as little fuss as possible. That would be the normal buses – slower and less clean and with more of a tendency to make odd creaking and whirring noises and stop in strange places, but you know they’ll probably get to the right place at roughly the right time.

And then you get the local buses, the odd buses, the ones that ply strange routes from offices with mysterious addresses, which don’t obey timetables but go when the driver (usually a member of some ‘sindicato’ – apparently this means he owns the bus and does the route with his own bus on certain days, and probably charges whatever fare he feels like, and the cleanliness of the vehicle depends entirely on his and his wife’s commitment to scrubbing it out after it has been tramped through by muddy campesino feet) feels like it, are flagged down by all and sundry in the most abandoned and desolate of places, and may or may not end up going where you were expecting. I thought of them for a while as the equivalent of British coaches: a kind of second tier of transport, used by the very young and the very old, those with no money but time, subject to the whims of traffic and weather and fate in a way that those with money but no time would rather avoid. But that’s not exactly the case, because while coaches and trains often serve the same places, these Ordinary Buses (remarkable, in my eyes at least, because they are extraordinary and unfamiliar because of this very plain ordinariness) go to places where there is no normal, regular, professional (in the sense of doing it for a job, with no other commitment than a regular wage) bus service.

In a sense, this means it’s a broader spectrum of people who get these buses. Unless you own your own vehicle, you’ve got very little choice: you have the 3am or the 4am to the city, or if you’re lucky there might be a mid-afternoon departure, but then you’ll arrive at 1am and be no better off than if you’d just braved the stars and the dawn and the sunrise over the misty mountains. (I was briefly roused from sleeping on a bus one morning – I blame the small child who had been wedged in between me and his not-inconsiderably-sized mother on two normal-sized bus seats, and who, despite my best attempts to discourage him, appeared to adopt me as another person onto whom he could spread out to ensure optimum sleeping comfort – and saw the most beautiful pink and orange spreading across the slightly hazy sky over the still-shadowy mountains in the distance. Then I went back to sleep.) But if it’s a broader spectrum of the inhabitants of the towns on these not-the-major roads, that might be as much because the composition of the town itself fits a narrower framework. The various times I have shuttled between the north and south of England by bus, supposedly out of choice but actually because well, have you seen non-so-super-advance-you-actually-bought-the-ticket-before-you-even-considered-making-the-journey tickets cost?, are not really a choice but a reflection of economic reality: if it comes to travelling without much notice, the train might as well not exist for a certain sector of the population, since its prices are so impossibly out of their spending capacity. I am not making judgements of the Bolivian government’s attitude to its transport network, or of how this reflects its attitude towards its population, but I cannot help but draw parallels between the pricing-out of undesirables from British trains and the failure to include certain places on any mainstream Bolivian bus route. If British coaches are full of students, old people and young families, Bolivian Ordinary Buses serve the inhabitants of isolated rural areas; the people who have been legally and actually discriminated against for, well, since Columbus was a sailor.

The other factor to include in this consideration is tourism. It’s not my area of expertise, but one of many examples is my journey to the small town where I’m currently staying. Said town is located on the ‘old road’ between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz – there is, of course, a better, newer, fancier, faster, flatter, cleaner, more desirable new road, plied by the kind of nice buses mentioned above. The logical option for my journey is supposedly to travel along said nice, sanitised, tourist-friendly new road and then, once in Santa Cruz, take one of the minibus/ taxi/ tourist-oriented transport options to a town that gets more than its fair share of foreign visitors. The infrastructure for tourists is there. And yet wherever I asked if there was a more direct option, a bus that plied the old route, I was told no.

There is, of course. Just because the road ceased to be the most frequently travelled, doesn’t mean it ceased to have a population, a series of agricultural communities with networks of family and friends and markets and produce to sell and buy and trade and barter. Doesn’t mean that the people who live along that old route cease to exist, or cease to move. And so I found the old road bus company and I boarded a bus with four people on (despite the chaos of around twenty times that many trying to press into the bus office at 6am, with or without sacks of potatoes balanced on their heads), which acquired more and lost some and picked up others and served so many unique individual journeys and requirements, and stopped in the most random of places (my favourite was the man who flagged the bus down from his moving motorbike, abandoning the two-wheeled option in some desolate outcrop to leap onto the bus instead), and was so evidently part of community life that in one place we stopped for the bus driver’s wife (the wife always comes along to collect the fares – you wouldn’t trust a man with money now, would you?) to hop off and pick up a dish of what was obviously driver-family’s lunch. And eventually, when I knocked on the hijacker-proof door that can only be opened from one side and politely said ‘I’ll get off here, please’, it dropped me off at the roadside by the town I was aiming for.

This kind of bus journey is perhaps a snapshot of a society in the midst of some Big Changes. The little girl behind me who kept kicking my seat (universal and eternal is that one) was called Britney, and when she and her mother got off the bus she was hoisted into the traditional cloth-on-mother’s-back; the woman in front of me was competing with one across the aisle to play wailing ballad music on portable speakers; the boys a few rows back, all spiky hair and swaggering walk and lounging in FC Barça tracksuits, glued to their phones, nonetheless interspersed their conversation with exclamations in Quechua. The luggage was a mixture of sacks of crops and smart wheeled suitcases – last week I shared another rural bus with a couple with a baby and a lamb (wrapped up in identical fleecy blankets: I hope they sold the right one). And when a woman got up and decided to share the Word of God with us (about an hour of Apocalypse, and a long ramble about the conversion of St Paul, who was then lucky enough to be killed for his faith: not necessarily what you want when the bus is bouncing over a road that was either only part-finished or falling apart – ‘diversion’ in Bolivia means ‘there’s stuff blocking the road, do your best to get over or round it’ – I’d rather my driver didn’t have scales on his eyes, imminently falling off or otherwise), those proudly raising their hands to declare that they too were believers and nodding in agreement with her experience of miracles were, just about, outnumbered by those awkwardly staring out of the window. But only just. And some of the awkward starers did give her money to pray for their lost heathen souls anyway.

I don’t know what comes next, whether the priority granted to urban centres and places of touristic interest will become so dominant that these small rural routes will cease to exist, whether the younger, city-oriented, urbanised and modernised people will opt-out of travelling by these old buses and old roads, or whether they will drag the route with them into a modernised, country-wide system. I must admit I’m not a fan of the awkward sales pitch on a bus, whether it be for God, a wonder supplement that will cure anything and everything from cancer to arthritis to indigestion, or hand cream. But they make the journey a bit like Bolivia itself is: full of vibrancy and informalism, with a culture of improvisation that allows for risks and spontaneity and unexpectedness.

And yes everyone is disorganised and I don’t know how many times I’ve been driven mad by the habit of gathering around chatting outside the bus until, say, 6:58, when you’re meant to be leaving at 7, and then suddenly it’s all rush and action and chaos and invariably someone running after the departing bus frantically waving their hat. But stuff gets on the bus. People get on the bus. It’s never too full, there’s never not wanting to stop and pick up a passenger (capitalism and financial incentive, of course, but also perhaps the knowledge that you may be the only bus for some time and they have no other choice, and to drive these routes on these roads means bringing wife and small children along too and it’s nearer a vocation than a job to safely steer your passengers over and round and through the typical obstacles, demise of the Death Road notwithstanding), and everyone’s foibles, loud and infuriating or quietly quirky are treated with the quiet indulgence that comes from the knowledge that everyone’s just trying to make a living and get along.

When your bus is always on time, you become scared of the unknown. When the journey time could be halved or doubled, and you’re more than comfortably aware of the skill of your driver as he guides you through impossibly narrow gaps and across and around all kinds of obstacles, and you’ll stop for toilet and meal breaks with the same people and one of them is liable to leap up at any time and share details of their religious conversion, terrible childhood or life-threatening disease from which they may or may not have miraculously recovered, you’re perhaps less likely to view everyone else as a threat. The only time people engage on buses or trains back at home is in the face of the unexpected: a troublesome passenger causing an argument with the driver, a burning tree on the line, an electrical failure, a homeless drunk. That is, when we are thrown out of our comfort zones, we are forced to communicate, to acknowledge one another. Our habit is to embrace anonymity, be afraid of curiosity, suspicious of one another. If the norm is the unexpected, however, the standard mode of behaviour is different.

I’m not saying I’d like all my bus journeys to have a 100% journey time margin of error, for them to always be crowded and muddy and noisy and smelly, to stop for an excessive amount of time when you know you’re only ten minutes away from your destination, to require you to remind the conductor halfway through the day that you’re still there and you’d rather your seat wasn’t sold to someone else, or to demand that you bring enough emergency snacks that anyone would think you were climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. (Yes, I am aware that all of these apply to anyone trying to take a bus down Manchester’s Oxford Road. But I see many parallels between South Manchester and South America.) But I am grateful for the Ordinary Buses, for the glimpse into other lives that they offer, for the incurable curiosity they allow me to indulge, for the opportunity to gawp and stare and shoot funny looks and be aware that I’m receiving them in equal measure, to see towns remarkable for their utterly normal unremarkableness and landscapes that I can never photograph but are stamped so firmly in my brain that when I close my eyes I still see the dusty hills. And for the relief the day after a journey, when I can sleep through the dawn.

‘I hate sitting backwards on trains’, or, what happens when you muse about politics in a cable car

I hate sitting backwards on trains. I also hate going back to places. There’s probably a link there, no?

Essentially I’m terrible at goodbyes, don’t like nostalgia and have this idea that once you have good memories of a place you should keep them and move on. And in complete contradiction to all of that, and in spite of my better judgement, I’m back in La Paz, a city where I spent two months two years ago. I write this from the ivory tower of my 22nd floor room, from which I watch workmen clambering on roofs every day, and my mind wanders away from the narrow boundaries of my research to reflections on what has changed and what is to come in this city and this country that defies both my neat analytical framework and the romantic literary musings that linger as a hangover from my undergraduate days. La Paz is neither a control case nor the subject of a novel.

‘It hasn’t changed,’ is my instinctive response when people ask how being back feels. Stupid really: of course the geography hasn’t fundamentally shifted – streets are still exactly where they were – and in essence it’s the same city. It’s at a crazy altitude, built on the rocky slopes of some weird lunar landscape. The streets are noisy and dusty and crowded, buses swerve across the street at random to scoop up passengers to travel routes the driver seems to make up as he goes along, the banks are guarded by men with shotguns and the pavements are filled with women selling everything from chocolate and cigarettes, fruit and bread, to chargers, USB sticks, phone top-ups and screen protectors. Oh, and there’s more stray dogs than you would have thought actually possible.

But of course it has changed. Or I’ve changed. Or I see things here now that I didn’t notice before. The most striking infrastructural change in some ways is the arrival of the Teleférico, a cable car public transport system (mad as it sounds, it makes perfect sense: the roads are overcrowded, there just isn’t space for any kind of street-level system (aside: I’ve now been to two Latin American cities (Quito and Bogotá) with a kind of express bus lane down the middle of the road, segregated from the rest of the traffic. Infrastructural investment: minimal. Effect: pretty impressive. In contrast, my beloved home city (only a trace of irony there) has effectively been at a standstill for what, a year? Two years? More? as millions of pounds are spent on digging up roads for a new tramway. Considering the main problem with the Manchester trams is that they have to crawl incredibly slowly through the city centre to avoid killing the gormless people who wander across the line, I think Latin America might have won this round… Traffic here stops for no man, woman or ambling tourist. But I digress.) and no-one in their right minds would try to dig an underground system on these hills. So cable car it was, and is.

Last time I was here, construction was in full swing, with the first line scheduled to open shortly after I left. There were still a lot of questions: who would take over operations when the Austrian constructors finished their role? How would maintenance costs be balanced with making it an affordable option in a city where a bus ride costs a maximum of 25p? Would anyone actually use it? I was sceptical of plans for WiFi, Oyster-type card payments, bike hubs and integration with the existing transport system: the chaotic, crowded, noisy experience of La Paz public transport seemed at odds with the PR spiel of a transport system that seemed too futuristic even for my own ‘developed’ country (see the London cable car link for what I basically envisioned: an expensive project without any real practical application). In short, I think my main stumbling block was the inability to envisage a little paceña lady in shawl and multi-layered skirts, bowler hat perched on her head, sack of potatoes strapped to her back, knitting in hand, calmly hopping onto a cable car and whizzing over the city.

I don’t have answers to most of my questions. A ticket is 3Bs (~30p): whether the volume of passengers is enough to even partially cover costs, or whether the entire thing depends on a massive government subsidy, I couldn’t tell you. The queue for one-way tickets was startlingly long at one station, the Oyster-type top-up machines unused – but then this was a Saturday lunchtime, and we’ve all seen (been) the lost tourist-types on the London underground, hunting through our bags and pockets for that ticket we definitely bought. I did flag down a minibus with astonishing ease when I left the cable car station, but then it was the main road, plied by dozens (or more) of said buses, who are constantly on the lookout for new passengers: how much design would be necessary for that to work, how much is top-down and how much bottom-up initiative, is a moot point. Everyone in one car I travelled in was on their phone (the tapping of keys at full volume breaking the slightly awed silence (even the teenage boys spoke in quiet whispers) – coming from a university culture where everyone is always on their phone but it’s always on silent, the range of beeps and swishes and electronicky noises that accompany every touch of a key is disconcerting. But then everything in La Paz (everything, apparently, but a Teleférico trip) happens at full volume: the soundtrack to my day is car horns, beeped as much for a reminder of the driver’s own existence (if a bus drives past and doesn’t make a sound, is it really there?) as for any highway code-related purpose.), but mobile internet is one of the changes I have spotted in the city, so that’s not really a surprise. And yes, the cable car is used. Mostly, it seemed from my much-less-than-scientific glance at the queue, by men and young families: one beskirted woman did prove me wrong, in part, by piling into one car with husband and son and then whipping out her bright pink knitting, calmly purling away as I clung to my seat on the dippy bits (I’m terrified of heights. Significantly more so than anyone else using this mode of transport.).

But I suppose where I’m going with this is that I don’t know it has profoundly changed the infrastructure of the city in the ways you might expect. The rest of the public transport system bumbles on, careering round corners and beeping its horns through rush hour traffic and empty nighttime roads. The cable car links top and bottom (social bottom and top) of this mountainside city, but has had little to no impact on the horizontal axis. The stations – bright, incongruously modern buildings (the three lines — red, yellow, and green, the colours of the Bolivian flag – identifiable by bright panelling of blocks of slightly different shades of the relevant colour), staffed by a small army of cheerful attendants in turquoise gilets and tiny security officers (mostly young women under five foot tall), accessed by gleaming pale stone steps bordered by grass verges and little rows of plants – are all located in slightly out-of-the-way places, and completely overpower their surroundings: you emerge from your space capsule blinking into the sunlight, noise and dust of La Paz, and the shock is oddly jarring.

I feel weirdly ambivalent about the whole thing (and not just because of the height and the cable-car-wobble and the being in a glass-sided pod you can’t escape and that forces you to look down – which I hate as much as, if not more than, looking back). In some ways I wanted it to be perfect: wanted it to be proof that this city can do modernity too, that my scepticism was ill-founded, based on the notions of linear development that I hate. And in itself, it is an island of that kind of obvious, European modernity: it feels transplanted out of a shiny ski resort (it was designed and built by Austrians after all). But I also wonder if it proves that La Paz, and Bolivia, and South America, and the world, do not obey that teleological concept of development. I found the buses quaint in 2014. Now I cannot help but notice their wonderful pragmatism, lacking in my own culture that clings obsessively to timetables and rules and in doing so fails to actually be practical. (And La Paz has introduced ‘normal’ buses with set routes that stop at stops. I can’t get my head round them. I’m happier with human free will and unpredictability.) Every city has its foibles, and La Paz will never be (can never be, should never want to be) London, New York, or Paris. I wonder how it took a massive project that was, at least in part, an attempt to symbolise the country’s modernity, progress, and development, to demonstrate that this city is, as it is, just as much a part of the 21st century as anywhere else.

One final thought (because this has been very long). I was about to write ‘this city functions perfectly well’ just there, and then remembered what perhaps struck me the most about the up-down trip I took on this cable car. Leaving Zona Sur – the bottom, the bit at lower altitude, the bit where the streets are arranged in a numbered grid pattern and the shops are US-ised and it doesn’t quite feel like Bolivia any more – you pass over a set of houses that wouldn’t look amiss in the affluent suburbs of just about anywhere, all grass and swimming pools, trampolines and conservatories, pedigree dogs, wrought-iron fences, private roads, security guards and electric gates. And the little boy sat opposite me tugged on his father’s arm and said ‘Daddy, why are all the houses nice down here?’. I write this just over a week after the revelation of the depth of divisions that exist in my own society (a topic that even here I am constantly asked about), and I’m not sure I’m best placed to criticise any society for its social stratification and inequality. But I’m battling with the symbolism of a mode of transport that flies over the homes of rich and poor alike, allowing everyone to stare at the grassy lawns and gazebos as well as the washing lines on roofs and dirty yards filled with piles of construction material. I want it to be a message of equality, but I cannot help but think that all the revolutions of history, Brexit included, come from those at the bottom seeing what those at the top have, and what they are barred (by custom and law and lack of opportunity and everything else) from having, and rejecting that privilege in whatever (self-)destructive means they can.

And I don’t want to end on a negative note so I will add only, by way of hollow consolation, that if you’re going to reflect on the inevitable failure of socialism, the cable car ride was quite a pretty way to do so.

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!

A quick Google search assures me that the French use ‘être une bonne pâte’ (to be a good dough, more or less literally) as a vaguely colloquial equivalent of ‘a decent chap’ (or female equivalent, no doubt. But we know that I could spend hours of agonising over register and gender-neutrality, and actually I’m just trying to make a joke about bread and the French.). This is not surprising, as the boulangerie remains an essentially ubiquitous feature of French towns and villages. Sensationalist headlines over the summer threatened baguette shortages in Paris, as some funny legislation that meant bakers had to follow a kind of rota for their holidays (ensuring a constant supply of baked goods to the capital) was scrapped, and flour anarchy was unleashed. Or, most likely, not, because there are SO MANY BOULANGERIES in Paris that it would be quite impressive if they all managed to toddle off to the Côte d’Azur at the same time. But anyway, bread is a thing. And that was great when I was cycling.

I mean, imagine this. You pedal into a small town, around lunchtime. You’ve already stocked up on cheese, tomatoes, other miscellaneous sandwich items, but you’re missing the carbohydrate base. Where do you go? Oh look, there’s a big blue sign helpfully pointing you in the direction of the boulangerie. Oooh, it’s full of people buying an incomprehensible amount of baked products. (Do they all have huge families? Are they freezing these extra loaves? Are they making fishcakes and thus need breadcrumbs? All of the above?) You join the queue. You agonise over which of the many loaves you actually want. You realise that the baguette is a ridiculous loaf form, because there is no way of discreetly carrying it anywhere. (Take it from someone who once spent several hours walking round a town centre with a baguette wrapped in the tiniest piece of paper you have ever seen. It was basically skimpy underwear for bread. And I kept wondering why I was getting white powder everywhere. IT WAS FLOUR, OK?) And then you buy it, hack it open with a penknife and with any luck it will still be warm and your lunch will be a million times better than anything you will ever buy from Tesco. Ever.

Task 2: Try and envisage that in an English town. No, better still, I’ll tell you how it rolls. (Disclaimer 1: I grew up in a grim ex-mill town in the north. I am allowed to be disparaging about such places. I know what they’re like. Oh, and Disclaimer 1.5: that pun was accidental.) On the way into town, you spot the dreaded sign: Superstore. You will have to negotiate a badly designed roundabout, nearly getting killed by people suddenly swerving into the petrol station and in search of a meal deal. Once past that particular obstacle, you will arrive in the ‘town centre’, which will be full of empty shop premises, at least three mini supermarkets (one a tiny clone of the large out-of-town establishment you’ve just passed), and, if you’re lucky, a Greggs or cheap equivalent (yes, there are places where Greggs is upmarket), or a Pound Bakery, a slightly terrifying place full of plastic-wrapped multipacks of baked products. (Think donuts and meat pies.) This is probably part of a much bigger issue about the fact that town centres no longer really exist in a lot of places, including in huge swathes of my formerly-industrial northern homeland, because all of the shops have been outsourced to retail parks or online suppliers, housing estates are oddly self-contained and accessible only by car, so being a pedestrian is not just a disadvantage but actually difficult, whilst closing sources of employment means that people no longer have any reason to be in the town anyway. What it means in practice is that some towns that might at one point have been nice places to live, at least for the sense of community and shared experiences, have become pretty grim. But I wasn’t going to go all political here.

Let’s talk briefly about prices. A decent baguette (I’ll talk about the vagaries of bread choice in a minute) costs about 1€10. Less than a pound. My guilty treat is a breakfast croissant/pain au chocolat aux amandes. (Frangipane makes literally everything better. Unless you have a nut allergy, obviously.) We’re talking 1€20, maybe 1€40 if you go to a bit of a fancy place in a big city, and that’s probably the most expensive breakfast pastry item they do. If I traipse across Oxford in one direction or another, I can get French bread, but it’s going to cost me double what it would in France. Why? Because it is no longer a staple that crosses class boundaries but a luxury product, a lifestyle choice, and thus priced accordingly, I would imagine. But one thing that did surprise me was the massive expansion of Lidl in France. It’s been a little while since I was out and about in the French provinces, but I don’t remember it being anywhere near as widespread. And I’ve nothing against them, especially since a lot of the kilometres I cycled were powered by their cereal bars and uber-cheap salted peanuts. But I’m fascinated and bewildered in equal measure by the success of their bread section. Where my parents live, near the aforementioned northern mill town, the Lidl recently expanded and put in a bakery section. It’s not bad. But I somehow wasn’t expecting this German chain to actually be succeeding at selling bread to the French. (There are definitely ironic war connotations to the whole thing, but let’s not go there.) It felt somehow wrong to see people loading up the conveyor belt with bags of 39 centime baguettes. I think because I had the nation down as arbiters of good bread taste (their odd fondness for crustless sliced bread (it looks weirdly naked and white and inedible) I had blamed on Americanisation. Because I can blame the US for everything.), and all of a sudden they, or some of them at least, were showing me that they were willing to ditch the local boulanger for the cheap convenience of a supermarket.

Just to clarify, it’s not just Lidl: Intermarché, LeClerc, Carrefour have all got bakery sections which, rather like those in British supermarkets, offer ‘loose’ baked products in baskets, somehow endeavoring to simulate the experience of a bakery and make the consumer forget that this is all produced on a massive, industrial scale. And this brings me to one of the central paradoxes I see in France time and again: the clash of the tiny and the enormous. There is no middle ground. Either I go to the local bakery (quick digression: the general presentation is ‘Monsieur and Madame X’s boulangerie’, which may or may not have a bread pun-related name. It’s suggested that Monsieur bakes, Madame is behind the counter. Their son will assist with the baking, their daughter will work in the shop, presumably until he inherits and she marries another baker’s son and moves shop. I’m wildly generalising and simplifying here, obviously, but I basically envisage it as a real-life version of those children’s books about Mr & Mrs Coffin the Undertakers etc.), negotiating its quirky opening hours (because yes, in France it is not uncommon for food shops to close at lunchtime. Although they do last out longer than the British 4.30pm – you can’t buy a butty at lunchtime but people need bread for tea.) and vagaries of stock, and queue if I arrive at a popular time, and various other inconveniences, or I can just grab a load of bread at the supermarket when I do the rest of my shop, freeze supplies for the week and be done with it. In short, I can go British.

That’s being sensationalist, of course. The French have more of a bread culture than we do, and that’s reflected by the range that’s still available at boulangeries and the general preferences people express. Ask a British person how they’d like their baguette cooked, and they’ll blink, confused, and possibly reply ‘in the oven?’. A French person will tell you ‘bien cuite’, ‘pas trop bien cuite’, ‘un peu plus cuite’ etc. (You are genuinely asked if the loaf is OK before you pay for it. And I have seen many a person request a different one. Because they’re not awkwardly sheepish like we are.) The standard baguette isn’t actually that exciting, but once you get onto ‘Tradition’, ‘Grand Siècle’, wholemeal, seeds, funny twisty shapes and whatever else they fancy, it gets a lot more interesting. French campsites tend to offer a bread delivery service, because it is unfathomable that you could begin the day without. Rural communities have a bread man the way Britain once had milkmen. And everyone, from the smallest child to old ladies or respectable looking businessmen types (if such a thing actually exists), struggles with the temptation to break the end off a fresh baguette and nibble it on the way home. I’m yet to meet anyone who rips open the Hovis bag to snack on the crust as they drive out of the supermarket car park.

I romanticise France and the French, and I’m fully aware of that: I travel through selected areas living a very particular lifestyle and I find it more appealing than the mundanity of my British existence. (Incidentally, I also bought the last remaining ham and cheese sandwich at about 2.30pm in the rain from a very grim Breton town. And I’m vegetarian. But that’s another story.) But it is genuinely true that in some aspects, and bread is very much one of these, they seem to belong to a younger, more innocent, perhaps more traditional age. And I’d really rather they didn’t grow up, didn’t get cynical and lose the sense of magic that surrounds this mystical craft and the wonder of eating something that is basically made from flour and water. Apart from anything else, have you ever tried to pack a sliced loaf in a bike panier?

On war, Corbyn and other things. (An ode to the children of the early nineties.)

Listening to a podcast today on, of all things, the evolution of superhero films (don’t blame me, blame the French, who are capable of taking just about anything as a serious art form, and going into great detail about the psychoanalytical background to such texts), I was struck by a throwaway comment about how attitudes and approaches had *obviously* changed in the post 9-11 age. Struck, because I was suddenly aware that we are constantly doing this, accepting almost without comment that the course of world history was as significantly and irreparably altered by the events of that day in 2001 as it was by a shooting in Sarajevo almost ninety years earlier. And yet I, and my generation, those around and younger and even a little older than me, can scarcely remember the pre-War on Terror (if I weren’t stylistically opposed to inverted commas, that particular phrase would be surrounded in them) era. More than once, on my travels through France and the south coast, the conversation turned to politics and I was asked if I remembered the Twin Towers falling, if I remembered the protests against the Iraq war. And to be honest, although there are fragments in my mind, names that resonate because of later studies of politics or facts that have come to light or the visceral hatred of those around me, there is no coherent narrative in my mind. I am simply too young.

Too young to have known Thatcher, the miners’ strikes or the Berlin Wall. Mandela was free, Yugoslavia was fragmenting, Franco was dead…  I was born under Major, Clinton, Mitterand, Yeltsin, Kohl, John Paul II, Fidel Castro and Alberto Fujimori (all, you will notice, men, although there was also Mary Robinson. But we’ll come to that.) And although I lived through them, I cannot remember the Labour party victory of 1997, the death of Princess Diana or the Dunblane shooting. The world I live in is largely shaped by forces and influences that have existed far longer than I have.

And Iraq? I sometimes think of it as my awakening, because I do have a memory of coming home from school and asking how the vote had gone, and being quite simply incapable of understanding how the country could be involved in this war I had so clearly been told was wrong. (I never said I lived in a neutral household.) Certain names chime with me: David Kelly (although that may be as much from this song, and for the haunting similarity with these conspiracy-type TV detective programmes, but without a whodunnit reveal at the end. Or maybe we just haven’t got to the last episode yet?) ; Robin Cook (classic A-level example of collective Cabinet responsibility: studying politics as a 17-year old you are not supposed to express a moral judgement on such a principled protest. Especially when your teacher is a Tory, and you nurse a hopeful fondness for Gordon Brown throughout an election in which you cannot vote. And write essays on how FPTP creates strong governments and the UK is really a two-party state, only for them to form a bloody coalition. The Coalition, as it appears to have become. But I digress.). Remember, I had known neither the Falklands/Malvinas conflict nor the first Gulf War, and never mind all of the guff now about so-called British values in the curriculum: the GCSE history syllabus I followed was the history of wars, and woe betide you if you conclude that the First World War was not inevitable because war is never the only option.

So what? Well, what this means in practice is that my attitudes towards certain topics and issues, and those of my age-group peers, differ markedly from those of the political commentators who try to comprehend them, often in paradoxical ways. I find it hard to hate Margaret Thatcher, still less Ronald Reagan, because she is not real and present for me in the way that, say, Cameron is. (Although I do think the shadow she casts over women in politics is far too long, and what is *with* the whole ‘Mrs Thatcher’ thing? Does anyone talk about Mr Cameron/ Brown/ Blair/ Major…?) Tony Blair is the man that lied about the weapons to get his war, but if the Labour Party is still wrestling with the legacy of New Labour, then I must confess that I do not know and cannot envision the Old. I do not know any union activists (Oxford not exactly being the hotbed of student unionism and solidarity), and more than one sociologist has suggested that the terms working- and middle-class no longer really make sense, largely because they ignore the precarity faced by huge swathes of the population, and working-class is an inappropriate term if you are long-term unemployed. In short, the political situation in the aftermath of my first general election is not the same as that experienced by my parents.

I suppose that in a long-winded way, I am trying to say that much of the coverage of Corbyn’s election has succeeded in completely missing the point. I am not afraid of nationalisation because I have never known it: nationalised railways sounds vaguely less confusing, and the French SNCF seems to work just fine. Apologising for Iraq is not particularly polemical, because I was never party to the patriotic fervour surrounding the invasion, never really believed what later turned out to be systematic lies. I am post-Cold War, and a nuclear deterrent seems to belong to a bygone age, something we should never have started and definitely ought to stop. But when I look back at the leaders of the early 1990s, I realise something else. I was born under a wave of leaders of the left, many of them groundbreaking in countries with a long heritage of right-wing dictatorship or political hegemony (Fujimori is, of course, a reminder that not all was rosy in this brave new world.). Twenty years later, the left has drifted to the centre, become complacent, lost its bite and its fighting edge. I mentioned paradoxes, and this is one of the greatest: you won’t be locked up for professing Socialism now, you’ll just be told you’re ‘old-fashioned‘ (ta for that one Mr TB: who came up with the transplant comment?), which is, of course, infinitely more damning. Bobby Sands was elected in prison. Out-of-date politicians just drift gently into vague obscurity.

I could not have imagined a more lukewarm response to what can only be described as an emphatic victory. (It’s not just me: the Observer points out that it couldn’t have been more partial if it had tried, and recognises a fault in that.) And it may well turn out that these wise people foresaw a disaster, five years of shambolic Corbyn and a convincing Tory victory in 2020 and Scottish independence and the Apocalypse with all four horsemen and the sinking of the whole British island and who knows what else. It might also be that they, at the core of the status quo, middle-aged and middle class, London-centric, bitten too many times and thus irreparably cynical, simply cannot see that for those of us that never knew the left of the 1980s, Blair’s warnings that we face a return to it might actually be quite appealing. (Plus, Tony love, your enemy’s enemy is your friend, so telling leftie pacifists that Corbyn is a public menace is probably not a good strategic move. Just saying.)

And as I said at the very beginning of this long, rambling post, the 21st century world is fundamentally different to the 20th century one, and there is no going back, either at a national or international level. Perhaps, strange as it may seem, for my innocent yet jaded generation, this bearded bloke who wears non-matching jacket and trousers is our ponytailed Spaniard, our jumper-wearing, coca-chewing Bolivian.

The Lesser-Spotted Woman Cyclist (or, why do we even need to gender that description?)

There are many gender gaps in life (and in my life): it’s not exactly the moment to rant about how a subject with such a female-heavy intake as Modern Languages at Oxford still has the statistical anomaly that men are significantly more likely to get a first (is it the girly handwriting that does for us?), but I am becoming increasingly aware of one in my day to day life at present. The cycling gap. At any given set of lights on my morning commute there may be a dozen or more cyclists waiting. I will often be the only woman. This is not a piece of feminist irrelevance.

Google ‘women cyclists London‘ and you are offered a range of news articles about the deaths of women cyclists, and why they are more likely to be involved in fatal collisions than their male counterparts. The most recent of these incidents happened last week, at Bank, in morning rush hour traffic, and it involved a HGV. A lot of ink has been spilled about this, so much so that a previous, apparently similar, incident, was described as having ‘all the hallmarks of a “typical” London cycling death – a woman cyclist killed by a tipper truck turning left’. No amount of inverted commas can excuse the way that phrase normalises an unnecessary and horrific death, and, whether or not this was the intention, how it allows for the implication that women, really, ought to know better.

Cycling has become another one of those areas where we need to look after women, because they can’t look after themselves. The Evening Standard article from last week quotes the cautious advice that the problem might actually be the lorries rather than the people (which is surely basic logic: who drives an HGV across London in rush hour anyway? Surely that’s just common sense?), but midway down, after rehearsing the usual arguments about a slower average speed, being more likely to hug the curb, less likely to run a red light, more ‘cautious’. The kind of casual generalisations supported, in fact, by the photos chosen to illustrate its article, which is headed by a photo of the latest cycling victim in her wedding dress, and then shows a selection of ‘cyclists at junction’ in which one woman appears, dressed in blouse, skirt and patent black shoes. The men around her (other than that one bloke in the beigey jacket with no helmet) are sporting a variety of sportswear. This, I think, is the image many people, many journalists, many drivers, have of The Woman Cyclist. It’s what we see here (note skirt, hair drifting around, cardigan), and it’s what allows us to suggest that the problem is somehow with being female, unavoidably associated with that second X chromosome, rather than being something we, you know, maybe ought to stop. I read a wonderful article the other day (and you really should too), but I somewhat object to the assertion that a six foot tall and, in his own words, ‘surprisingly hairy’ man is able to establish that women are given more room by passing cars simply by putting on a long wig. Are our assumptions about gender really that straightforward? (I’m not even going to comment on the quote in the BBC article about how women are less likely to cycle because they may be cooking, looking after their children or carrying shopping, or the comment that men have better spatial awareness and are more likely to be familiar with HGVs than women. I ask you this: in what century are we living?)

I think, in short, what I’m trying to say is this: I despise gender generalisations, and I think using them in the cycling fatality context offers the dangerous opportunity to apportion blame rather than admitting that our roads and other road users are a danger to cyclists. Yes, I see women heading to work in flip flops and frilly skirts, hair blowing everywhere, handbag over their shoulder. Yes, I see them hugging the curb, ‘pootling along’, as one article puts it, being slow and indecisive and annoying and potentially dangerous. I also see them whizzing past me, helmeted, like me, on drop handlebars, with clipless pedals and All The Gear. And I see wobbly men in suits, with headphones in, refusing or unable to look over their shoulder to check for oncoming traffic, a briefcase balanced on their handlebars. I frequently overtake men and am overtaken by women, which shows that the theory of going at 8mph or slower being more dangerous than going at 12mph or faster is all well and good, but more or less gender irrelevant (your age, your bike, your fitness level, the length of your journey and how fast you want to go are a lot more relevant in gauging your speed than your gender). There’s a wonderful ring to phrases like ‘Being highly visible in public spaces is something women are going to be less comfortable with than men’, but it doesn’t actually mean anything, doesn’t help with anything, does nothing but basically say that women have no right to be on the road, that if we don’t get ourselves killed it’s only thanks to good luck and the indulgence of male drivers who forgive us our traffic-delaying sins.

Cycling is ‘too young, too male, too middle class’, but the way to improve that situation is not to create a climate where every time I tell someone I cycle they wince and tell me to be careful (trust me, I don’t go out of my way to be reckless). Easy generalisations will not stop cyclists, male and female alike, being killed in traffic incidents involving roads not fit for cyclists (because, quite frankly, the cycle lanes of London are not fit for purpose. Superhighway? It’s a bloody blue cycle lane, and nothing more.), and they will not help to create a culture in which cycling is the norm and every investment in improving infrastructure and saving lives does not have to be justified.

(PS. Google ‘man on bike’. Then Google ‘woman on bike’. Then tell me our society doesn’t make unfounded gender generalisations.)

I didn’t know I had to vote for some basic humanity

I don’t tend to read BBC news: it’s a bit wishy washy, the epitome of dumbing down, failing to ask searching questions (or, from the looks of it, any questions) and way too fond of the over-simplistic bullet pointed list. But although I can dismiss and despise The Sun and the Daily Mail from afar, confident that my peers more or less agree (the debate over the problem of a two-tier media which feeds people what they want to hear and thus alienates the intellectual class from the rest of society is one that I am fully aware of, but we’ll leave that for another day, shall we?). The BBC is different, because it enjoys a certain degree of respect, taken as a benchmark of more or less neutral news reporting. (Again, the question of whether it panders to/ is run by the champagne socialist left-leaning liberals is one for another day, although here’s quick heads up: if that’s the current state of the left, I’m Karl Marx.) And it publishes the kind of mediocre tripe you see in that article there on a daily basis. And people read and absorb it and parrot it and are skewed by its attitudes, and we wonder where our basic human values went and when and why it became acceptable to start a sentence with ‘I mean, I would consider myself left-wing’ and end it with a disparaging comment about migrants, unemployed people or anyone from any kind of ‘marginal’ (if those inverted commas could get any more heavily ironic, believe me they would be) group.

This is a rant, I appreciate. And so let’s try a systematic dissection of this piece of dross, published in ‘UK Politics’, with 1640 comments to date and one of the BBC’s highlighted top stories of the day.

Headline: ‘Calais migrant scenes unacceptable, David Cameron says’. What exactly does that mean? Why do we have a hanging verb at the end of that sentence? And what exactly has it told us? PM is anti-immigrant. Yes, that is what I mean. Because he is quite clearly, there in his security-guarded house, not just opposed to the phenomenon of human migration but to the people it affects. Watch that video, watch that smug little man saying that his primary concern is security, that “we’ve got to do more to make sure that Britain is a less easy place for illegal migrants to come to and work in” and tell me that it doesn’t make you despair. These “illegal migrants” are people, for crying out loud! And quite frankly, I don’t want to live in a country where my so-called security depends on the expulsion of people who have suffered the kind of poverty I will never be able to imagine. So cheers for that one, Dave.

Then we have the strike bitMaybe it’s because I grew up in a northern mill town, but I cannot and will not forget that the right to strike was hard-won and fiercely guarded, as the one means of expression of the collective will of an oppressed mass of the population. And now we, with our petty bourgeois self-interest, bemoan queues on the M20 and mock the French for their culture de la grève. How did we get to the point where we feel so foundlessly secure that we can complain about inconveniences to our leisure time rather than standing in solidarity with the demands of our fellow workers? (And yes, I know that sounds like something out of the Morning Star. Get over it. Maybe accept it.) How have we lost the collective mindset to this extent, losing sight of the greater good and overall happiness to bury our heads in tunnel vision, forcing ourselves through work we loathe with the chimeric promise of a happy retirement, a pension and a home by the sea, private health insurance and a holiday in the sun twice a year? Why do we see a piece of news about the group, our society, our world, and think only of ourselves?

Cameron blames Italy. Having just said he wasn’t going to blame the French. Who clearly didn’t get that memo. It’s just a bit sad, how they all score points off one another and refuse to actually accept any basic responsibility. Maybe if you hadn’t fucked up the Middle East, actually sorted out climate change and done some decent development and aid work you might have helped people not need to come to the UK. Because if you really think they’re clinging to lorries and aeroplane landing gear as an easy option, then you’re unbelievably deluded. We need to ‘stop the problem at source’, he claims, ‘breaking the link between travelling to Europe by boat and getting settlement in Europe’. So, he made a sensible statement, and then ruined it by a needless bit of scaremongering. Yes, we need to fix the mess we made of a continent we ploughed into, ripped apart and divided amongst ourselves a few centuries back. And yes, if we do that, maybe less people will need to go to such desperate measures to get into our frankly overrated island. But let’s not do that because we don’t like the idea of these undeserving people scrounging off the taxes we would (and do) gladly dodge. Can we not grant them a bit of human dignity? And can we not try to forget about ourselves and our non-existent migrant problem for just a moment?

The Labour lot jump into the fray and repeat what the Tories said. With abuse of the word ‘integrity’, defined firstly as “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty”, and then and only then as “the state of being whole, entire, undiminished”, which is presumably what the shadow immigration minister means when he claims the French authorities should ensure the integrity of British borders. (And as the French bloke rightly points out, we’re an island. So if we can’t stop the people we don’t want getting in, that’s basically our own fault. And this is how we’ll end up sleepwalking out of the EU, as we casually blame our continental neighbours for everything we don’t like about everything that happens.) 

Then we get to the bit with stereotypical stories about migrants sneaking in by dodgy means. Seven people were arrested in Bedfordshire. Truck driver Andy says that the hundreds of migrants waiting in Calais just ruin his day. Good for you, Andy. I’m pretty sure they’d love to be in your place, but that’s OK, you just have a complacent moan about how you’re just doing your job and what they’re doing isn’t right. And let’s leave the horrifying fact that there are around 3000 migrants thought to be living rough around Calais to a caption. Because they don’t even matter enough to count them properly. We just want to stop them getting in, to send them back, to make them someone else’s problem, after all. And then, and then, the killer line. The ‘Sudanese man’, not even worthy of a name, who asserts his belief that “They will receive you with food… house, then after that you will get a chance to ask for asylum.” Anyone who’s ever come into contact with the asylum seeking process will want to weep at the unfounded optimism of those words. And yet, as the comments that spout bilious, hateful rubbish about do-gooders and vagabonds, so-called pull factors and ‘human mice’ reveal, a large proportion of the population is willing to read this as an indictment of human weakness, rather than the depressing precursor to the shattering of hopes. We claim that we are soft, that we are suffering, that building a fence is the answer. How about we tried a bit of basic respect, justice and humanity? Or is that too left-wing for you?

This was, I realise, a rant. But because I don’t want to end on a depressing note, I leave you with this. I first discovered it at A-level, and then I wrote an essay on French immigration policy which I sent to Oxford when I applied. And five years later, it’s truer than ever. The bit where he says ‘Nous avons le droit de choisir notre immigration’ [We have the right to choose our immigration]? Please tell me I’m not the only one who wants to stand up and say that no, actually, you don’t.

Dusty, much? (or, Ali in the London…)

And so… I’m back! After not-really-a-year of hibernation/ enforced shutdown that came from the somewhat abrupt transition from a pretty relaxed existence by the seaside in Anglet (reading on the beach) to *shudder* the horror of being an Oxford Finalist. (If ever a word deserved a capital letter it was that one!) My creative juices (and indignant rage) were being channeled elsewhere, and, to put it simply, when you spend your day staring at a computer screen willing the information to stick, you don’t want to waste your free time staring at a computer screen trying to think of something to say. And trust me, unless you wanted a regurgitated essay on Medieval Spanish literature, nothing blogworthy happened to me over this past year.

But now I’m back, from’t Finalist space (prizes if you suss out what tune you should be singing that one to!), and loitering in what my inexplicably French Wikipedia calls ‘Le grand smog de Londres’. This is not the first time I have been to The Big City (sorry, part of my chippy Northern DNA somehow compels me to dig out my metaphorical clogs and flat cap every time I go Down South, and so the vowels get flatter and the temptation to start exclaiming ‘ee by gum’ at key moments becomes almost irresistible. But more of that later.), but somehow age/ wisdom/ post-Finals weariness have tinted my rose-coloured spectacles a kind of grubby brown and I find myself quietly despairing at the thought of ever having to actually, you know, live here. I mean, who would choose to move to a place where your standard household chores include removing mineral deposits from the inside of your kettle?

I’ll be brief: much as I like the idea of London, I don’t like London. I’m not quite sure why, since Manchester is a big grimy city and my home and will always exercise a kind of visceral pull that means I instinctively tell people I live there (the day I say I’m from Oxford is the day the music dies), and I loved Paris (and the Parisians) despite my best efforts and their horrible driving. And I smile when I see the London Eye and have to cross the Thames and spot St Paul’s and get the train to Paddington (no bears, though) and follow road signs to Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace. But London itself is big and sprawling and dirty and noisy, its people are grumpy and never smile, its roads are a mess and I’d prefer it if it numbered its districts à la Parisienne rather than giving them less-than-logical names that don’t-quite-ring-a-bell. I spent about half a day revelling in having other cyclists waiting with me at junctions, before realising that selfish cyclists hogging the cycley bit in front of the cars, going on either side of lorries, suddenly stopping in front of you, swinging out, doing the macho man/ teenage boy overtake thing, not looking where they’re going and other assorted irritating things is not worth the brief feeling of solidarity you get hanging around with someone else waiting for this bloody bus to actually move. And as for those buses, in no other place has it seemed quite so ridiculous to put two such diametrically opposed modes of transport in one single lane; nowhere else is it so obvious that this isn’t urban planning but a wish and a (secular, non-denominational) prayer. Leaving aside the assorted grids, potholes, parked vehicles, random holes in the road (as in gas mains type holes, not just bad road surfacing) and mutant bits of melted-looking tarmac, to put it bluntly, bikes are small, travel at a pretty steady speed and are potentially vulnerable to being whacked by a great lumbering red double decker thing. Buses are big, unwieldly, forever pulling in and out of stops and have whopping great blind spots. Stick the two together. What could possibly go wrong?

I have too many opinions on cycling to wedge into this overview, but since it makes up a big part of my time here I thought it was worth mentioning. When people told me I was brave/ mad to cycle in London, I laughed and said I had done Manchester, Paris, Oxford (and not La Paz, because I don’t actually have a death wish). What I hadn’t taken into account is how a city can have so many people riding bikes on streets so unsuitable for them.

And then, of course, there is the gender politics, the class war, the regional prejudices. I’m currently working in a female-dominated office, with the growing realisation that I’m not a big fan (does that make me a terrible feminist?). I have heard the words ‘incomprehensible accent’ applied to just about everyone, from an elderly ‘Northern’ man at a wedding to the office building staff and someone on the phone (when was that ever an acceptable thing to do, to blame your inability to listen on their pronunciation? Why have the upper classes always felt the need to protect their superiority through mockery of their underlings, belittling them and thus undermining any prospect of respecting them and allowing for their own self-respect?), and I have silently willed people to understand that in my pre-Oxford existence I was state school educated and probably incredibly naive about contacts and privilege and such things. I sometimes wonder whether the fact that my heart sinks when I read the word ‘networking’ is part of my genes (the Irish farmer ancestors being too busy digging up potatoes to be handing out business cards. And yes, I’m being chippy. It’s my standard state. And that was a chip/ potato pun. Possibly intended.), or my upbringing, or simply a personal preference to avoid awkward self-promotion. In some ways I know that I’m the model of a supposedly aspirational generation that will leave the Regions (yes, that is more ironic capitalisation, well spotted) to move to London and live in tiny flats working horribly long hours and doing ridiculous commutes as we sell our souls for a slice of a dream that isn’t even ours and nobody will quite own up to having. But actually, if it’s alright with you I might give that one a miss.

Where did all the flat vowels go?

I suppose it’s partly my own fault: it’s what happens when you spend too long doing pretentiously highbrow things like listening to Radio 4 and taking a vague interest in culture. Such activities are the preserve of those with family trees the length of the average oak, whose university education was cheaper than their primary school, and who differentiate between the pronunciation of aunt and ant.

Anyone who has ever watched a film with me will know that there are certain actors I can’t abide. And yet, one of them actually came out and said something sensible this week. Judi Dench, she who has been found lurking in everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to James Bond, was quoted in an article that, quite rightly (although it is also stating the obvious, really), pointed out that, “the ever-growing list of public school-educated actors dominating British film and television is often offered as proof that posh actors are squeezing out working-class talent. Acting, some fear, is increasingly the preserve of those with cut-glass accents whose parents can afford to bankroll them when starting out.” Another Guardian article recently pointed out, more generally, that it is becoming increasingly different for people from working class backgrounds to become successful in the arts. When even the Daily Mail is offering lists of ‘posh people’ in the sphere, you know you’re in trouble.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a personal thing, some kind of bitter diatribe about being rejected by the establishment that controls the arts in Britain (well, not yet, anyway). It is a simple statement, or maybe a question: where did all the flat vowels go?

It is, of course, always dangerous to draw conclusions from anecdotal observations. But that’s what I intend to do. Because, to be honest, that’s how we form opinions, isn’t it? Now, living in France, I am reasonably isolated from the English language, certainly in a spoken context (hearing it spoken by the French doesn’t count, since they’re going for intelligibility, not the nuances and potential prejudices of implying they’re from a particular region or economic background). Maybe that’s what makes me a little more attuned, or maybe it just makes me chippy and/ or nostalgic. But either way, my daily podcast listen (yeah, I’m a glutton for punishment, and I listen to reviews of British cultural things as I walk to my French office), has, over the past few weeks, more and more frequently ended with me fuming at my desk. Why? Well, I’ve begun to notice a pattern, you see.

There are a selection of presenters. All of them have what I shall call, for the sake of (a vague pretence of) neutrality, an RP accent. And then they interview people, or get critics to give reviews of things. In theory, these are people from across the arts, and since there are, say, four to six of them each episode, you wouldn’t expect there to be much of a connection, right? Wrong: there is one key link. Almost without exception, they share that same accent, pronunciation, and, dare I say it, background. We have the bloke from Downton, two actors playing Prince William and Kate, an art historian, several TV critics, a poet, an author… All of them sound like they went to the same elocution lessons. And then, because we need to pander to the masses, after all, since they pay their TV licence fee and fund the BBC too, after all, and they might have accidentally been looking for something about fish and chips or the Job Centre or benefits or something, we throw in something regional. Doesn’t matter what. Scottish referendum next week? We’ll get Val McDermid to review a crime drama. Moves to empower the north? What about the drama about Cilla Black, that’s got Scouse in, that’ll do for them, right? Rural areas feeling neglected? What about something with farmer-y types from somewhere vaguely Somerset-cider-sounding? And so on and so forth.

Am I imagining it? Maybe. But I shouldn’t be able to. Because what this is currently telling me is that there is a hierarchy of culture that is still very much defined on socio-economic lines. I know that Matthew from Downton has an English degree (as in, the actor that plays him), but does that really qualify him for the Booker Prize judging panel? Or, to put it another way, would one of the actors who plays a Downton servant have been offered the post? I doubt it, somehow. But the one that really set my teeth on edge was the fictional Prince William from some faux-Shakespearean thing about the future of the British monarchy. Asked if the plot might offend the real prince, what does the actor respond. “Oh, I couldn’t disagree with you more. In a world of hysterical, ill-educated clamour over our “celebrity” royal family… this play is an educated and thought-provoking, thoughtful counterpoint to every hysterical tabloid headline.”

I nearly choked on my coffee. And yet the interviewer made no response, just moved onto the next question without batting an audible eyelid.

So that’s where we are, is it, as a country and a culture? We observe a dividing line, in which we can either be well-educated, intelligent, thoughtful, privileged and upper-class, or be part of the Great Unwashed, ignorant, hysterical and inherently Wrong.

I’ve said before that at times I feel that the great deception of my generation (because I suppose every generation must, at some point, realise that they do not live in a social utopia) is that we are taught to believe that we live in a post-class society, and then, suddenly, the scales are torn from our eyes and we realise that nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not quite as simple as me saying that I woke up and knew that I would never be a Radio 4 presenter. But it is about acknowledging that our inherently rotten society still makes judgements based on a whole host of irrelevant factors, puts us in boxes and then tapes up the top and leaves us to rot away in there.

Am I exaggerating? Possibly. But here’s something to think about. How often, when you watch a drama (I don’t mean a soap, I mean something that somebody might label with the eternally vague ‘critically acclaimed’) does someone have a perfect, private-school educated RP accent for no reason, when it is utterly incoherent with their character’s back story? And now think about how many regional accents, of any type, that you hear with that same lack of explanation. Noticing anything? Who decided what was ‘standard’, what was acceptable, and why do we still think it’s OK to complain that we can’t understand Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who and wish he’d ‘speak properly’ and ‘enunciate clearly’, as though we still believed, as we clearly do, that there is a hierarchy of spoken English, and that if an actor breaches the boundaries of what we consider ‘normal’, we have a right to complain?

Why do I care? It is, after all, just the wishy-washy world of the arts, nothing life-changing. Except maybe the arts are actually a symptom of a wider phenomenon. I challenge you to find me a regional accent in the three leaders of main British political parties. Ed Miliband has more problems than his accent, of course, but I can’t exactly say that his vowels scream ‘workers’ solidarity’. (As for David Cameron, he wouldn’t know a glottal stop if they sold it to him in a Portuguese fish market). The one obviously regional accent at the top of British politics at the moment belongs to the man who has brought a referendum to Scotland and led a campaign that is now ‘too close to call’. And could you really blame a Scot, of any age, looking at the ‘leaders’ of ‘their’ country in Westminster and failing to find any point of contact with them, for deciding that an Edinburgh government was the only solution?

I leave you with a final thought. 2011/12ish saw the meteoric rise of Danny Boyle and Guy Garvey (we say Elbow, of course, but I challenge you to name another member of the band). And when that first happened, it was a matter of pride for me, and a lot of other people from our area too, that they were ‘our’ boys. But you know what? We’re sick of it. We’re sick of them being identified as Northern, and us being identified as them, just as we’re sick of Oasis and Morrissey and Coronation Street. We don’t want to be loveable and bearded and bacon butty-eating, or, at least, that’s not all we want to be. We in the regions are not a novelty. And who decided where the centre was anyway?

A class act

It was, in the nineties, suggested that Britain was moving towards a classless society. A few years ago I read an article in which the journalist set out to find someone who self-indentified as upper-class (even the landed aristocracy, it turns out, are ‘middle-class’, at least in their eyes). In 2013, the BBC announced that there were now seven social classes, and made a little Internet quiz thing that, asked you five questions and then judged you based on whether you knew any bank managers or electricians, used Facebook or went to the theatre, handing out ridiculous-sounding titles like ‘Emergent service workers’ to state the obvious.

They were, of course, all hopelessly wrong, and desperately attempting to find a way to describe something that is hopelessly entangled in our heritage, and yet doesn’t quite fit into our current society. The traditional markers of income, social status, political affiliation and pastimes have, if indeed they ever existed, become so murky as to be almost incomprehensible, leaving the matter of class to be more of an instinct, a sort of self-definition that, nevertheless, still manages to provoke us.

I remember being at school, aged around 14 or 15, and a teacher remarking that the results of a social experiment carried out by our group proved that we were inescapably middle class. It seemed odd at the time, perhaps because it quite simply wasn’t something any of us had considered. The school was a comprehensive, its facilities not astounding (and a little dated), with its fair share of orange foundation, rolled-up skirts, nearly-shaved heads (number 1 cuts were technically banned) and other such indicators of not belonging to the leafy suburbs of middle England. We were, now I think of it, in the middle, somewhere between the privilege of our counterparts on one side and the deprivation of those on the other. And yet we lived in a Labour stronghold, our local history was of mills, factories and the Industrial Revolution, and at least some of our top-set double science, would, I suspect, if asked, been more likely to identify as working class than middle. And yet, this arbitrary judgement based purely on the level of our education was perhaps a hint at the odd situation we would find ourselves in a few years down the line.

Class is not about wealth. For if it were, surely East End gangsters would be in the same bracket as the Camerons, and bankrupt former millionaires grouped in with factory workers and the terminally unemployed. Nor is it political: a member of my former running club, a builder by trade, used to use our warm-up jogs to regale us on the greatness of Margaret Thatcher, whilst the allotment-going, Guardian-reading, nice-bit-of-London-dwelling (in their own home) parents of a friend were some of the first people I ever met who agreed with Ed Miliband. (Incidentally, before anyone explodes with rage at these generalisations, I know, and I’m getting to that.)

Is it education or employment? This is something I have debated for a long time, because it is where this really gets personal. Is it possible to be a working-class Oxford student? And, to fast forward (to where I will most likely end up in) five years, a working-class Oxford graduate with a London-based desk job? Where does it end? Are we born into a class, or do we decide for ourselves? Is there a system of promotion and relegation? Maybe it should be based on points – my degree is in the arts, but I’m entitled to ‘opportunity’ funding, so do those two cancel one another out? If I row but have flat vowels, what does that do? Where does that put me?

These are, of course, questions without answers, and slightly ridiculous ones at that, but perhaps the sentiments that lie beneath them deserve consideration. Oxford and Cambridge in particular are engaged in a drive to recruit students from ‘non-typical’ backgrounds, and yet what no-one has really stopped to ask is what we will do with them next.

There are often fears, fed by the media, of course, that the new working-class (sorry, non-typical background) arrivals at these great institutions will feel so out of place amongst the chandeliers, gowns and rowing regattas that we’ll take off immediately, our flat caps flying in the wind, leaving our whippets to shit on the previously-immaculate lawn. Or possibly that we’ll huddle in our damp-riddled windowless rooms for three years, living off Value baked beans on toast, then emerge with a Third and retreat back to our rightful place and begin a lifetime on the dole, or working at McDonalds. That we might actually enjoy the pomp and ridiculosity of dressing up and being waffled at in Latin, that we’ll happily absorb the odd terminology (and not be rusticated for failing to pay our Battels), that, heaven forbid, we’ll make friends and spend our summers on internships and sports training camps and at the houses of a whole string of people whose lives are utterly different to ours, never really seems to be considered.  Nor, indeed, worst of all, that we might accidentally end up doing quite well.

And yet there is something we tend to ignore. On focusing on whether those of us with state school backgrounds and regional accents will make it through those three or four years, we forget that university is the easy part. It is then, suddenly, at the end of it all, after all of the essays and the studying and the revision and the exams, when we emerge from an odd Latin ceremony, dressed, for (possibly) the last time, utterly preposterously, and clutching a piece of paper that seems too flimsy to truly reflect its significance, that we are thrust out into the real world. And then our class is suddenly, once again, brought to the fore.

I am just under a year away from the heady joys of graduation. And it is now, as I tentatively begin to realise that the question ‘what are you going to do afterwards’ cannot remain unanswered forever, that I start to understand this whole class thing, this whole question of an (un)privileged background. There is no obvious path amongst my family, close or extended, that I will follow. Nor do their friends offer any kind of clue. No contacts, no leg up, not even really a hint of where to start. The kind of jobs I ‘ought’ to be looking for, the ones I am apparently qualified and suited for, are utterly outside my personal experience. Even their location is strange: I had never considered living  in London, until I realised that it just so happen that I end up there. Social mobility is an ugly, awkward term, but even odder and clumsier and more uncomfortable is finding yourself in the midst of the process.

A friend once jokingly accused me of being ‘chippy’ when I described our school project on the mills. Another spent an inordinate amount of time getting his head around ‘t’ and ‘ta’. My grammatically incorrect use of ‘was sat’ has been queried, and my pronunciation of the letter ‘u’ in various words has baffled the unwitting South Americans, and the French, who attempted to learn vocabulary from me. I still don’t understand rugby, I first rode a horse aged 21 (and a half), I instinctively shudder slightly when David Cameron appears on TV or, infinitely worse, my Facebook feed. And yet I am Oxford educated, I adore literature and the theatre and Impressionism and drink wine and shop Fairtrade and travel. So where is that dividing line, the one that instinctively makes me tick one box, rather than another. Is it in the security of my past, a sense of belonging to a tradition, even if said tradition (of socialism and trade unions and solidarity) is a ghost, a faded, fleeting fragment of something that no longer exists? Or is it the uncertainty that I face as I stare into a future of uncharted waters, a fear that, like something out of an Oscar Wilde play, I will one day find myself at a dinner party unable to make polite conversation about golf and hold my knife and fork correctly? And what about the next generation? Does it all just begin again?