Through the Great Smoky Mountains

 

I spent most of today travelling through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is located between North Carolina and Tennessee as is perhaps most widely-known as the location of the Cherokee river and hence the associated tribe of Native Americans. While the drive wasn’t particularly long in distance it did traverse some pretty high peaks on some ridiculously windy roads so did took a bit longer per mile than the usual grind along the state highways. 

 

The rural road system in the United States has always puzzled me a bit. As a general rule-of-thumb there’s a lot less government oversight of day-to-day activities in the US than there is in the UK. Federal regulation is generally frowned upon and what individual states are prepared to do varies considerably. As a result there is significantly more freedom to do all manner of outside activists – with the whole gun control thing one of he more extreme examples. The exception to this is the rural road system, which seems to have a ridiculous amount of regulation associated with it. 

 

When I say ‘rural road’ what I mean is roads that are, at best, single lane state highways. They are the romantic US road, with the yellow line down the middle, that always appear on the front of US road trip guide books. There are two main types of rural road – those that are straight and those that are not (got that?). This may seem like a silly point to make but you’ve got to bear in mind that, in some western states, you can have single-lane highways that are dead straight for hundreds of miles (I know, I’ve driven down some of them). You will then have the winding mountain roads, like the ones I was on today, which are found all around the national parks. 

 

In the UK the speed restrictions are pretty simple: On a motorway the limit will usually be 70mph and, on a single track rural road, it will be 60mph. With managed motorways now that has got a bit more complicated but the principle still stands – you’re left to just get on with it. Even on the most windy, narrow, treacherous country road the ‘national speed limit’ will still apply and you’ll be hurtling towards other cars on a road that is only just wide enough for both of you at a closing speed of 120mph. The approach of he government seems to be to apply one limit to all of those roads and then let the new drivers figure out for themselves how quickly they can take corners of varying sharpness. The ones that survive become good drivers. Simple. 

 

In the US the rural roads are at the other end of the scale. The prescriptive nature with which speed limits are applied is astonishing. On a one-mile stretch of road you can find yourself going through twelve different signed speed restrictions. On a straight section of road the limit may be 55mph. If there’s a blind junction approaching the limit will be changed to 45mph. Another straight bit of road will see a 55mph limit again and then and sharp curve will see an explicit 35 or 25mph speed restriction around it. On a windy bit of road a blanket 35mph limit will be applied or indeed, as was the case today, 25mph if the windy road is going up a mountain. This results in it taking an age to get anyway as drivers religiously stick to these limits, taking a corner which you’d happily go round at 50mph in the UK at 25mph. 

 

I think this stems from the fact that US people seem to be generally less confident drivers on these types of roads than you might expect, maybe because they only drive them very rarely. The speed limits reflect this. On the flip side of the coin they see they seem to be borderline suicidal on the seven and eight-lane freeways to the extent that is frequently causes me minor nervous breakdowns. They’re unwilling to take a rural corner at anything greater than 25mph but will happy dive across six lanes of fast-moving traffic, cutting up multiple trucks in the process, to get to their exit on a freeway. It’s almost as if the US road network averages out: The freeways are basically a free-for-all rollercoaster of terror (maybe that’s why they’re called freeways?) whereas the rural roads are only to be driven at a leisurely pace while streaming Radio 3 on your satellite radio. At least it goes some way to explaining why the US business visitors I drove round the Lake District a few years back needed a heavy sedative and several stiff drinks after we got to our destination. 

 

In the middle of my journey today I stopped off at the town of Cherokee and spent an hour or so wandering around. I found the legendary Cherokee river and very nearly fell into it while trying to take some pictures. 

 

 

 

The whole town was actually quite pleasant. Sometimes these famous Native American towns go a bit too much down the tourist trap route but Cherokee has managed to strike a nice balance. The same can not be said for “Dolly Parton Ville”, otherwise known as “Dollywood” (I kid you not), which I had to drive through once I got into Tennessee. There are not sufficient words in the English language to describe how tacky that place was…

 

 

Standard

Going to the Seaside

Today was what’s known as a logistics day. On any road trip there’s always a day (or two) when you simply need to cover the distance to make the plan as a whole work. I started in Wilmington North Carolina this morning and needed to end up in Anderson, South Carolina, by the end of the day. To make things a bit more interesting I wanted to go via a beach, to see the Atlantic Ocean properly, but this added even more distance on. In total, I had to manage just over 370 miles today. 

 

The beach I chose to go via was Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. I primarily picked this one because there was a medium-sized state park situated on the coast. This meant there was a fair chance I could avoid the Blackpool-esque promenade and attractions that typically come with any East Coast seaside resort. We take the sea for granted in the UK as we’re never really that far from it. In the US you have to remember that the majority of states are landlocked, and for some it can be a drive of over a thousand miles to get to anything resembling a coastline. It’s for this reason that the seaside ‘resort’ is still a very big thing. 

 

The sun had decided to up its game today, probably to make up for the fact it’s going to be blotted out on Monday, and by the time I got to the state park (shortly before 11am) the temperature was already pushing 100F. State parks are the premium economy of US public parks (For reference: Economy = County or City Park; Premium Economy = State Park; Business = National Recreation Area or National Forest; 

First = National Park; Private Jet = Yellowstone) and this one lived up to the billing. There was a small entrance fee for parking but otherwise you could wander round several acres of forest and beachfront unimpeded. If you wanted to undertake any kind of fishing or hunting you had to purchase one of several permits and if you wanted to live in the park in your RV it cost a bit more.  

 

There’s a set of rules for what information state and national parks have to display about themselves and for this one it was no different. Even though it is,by definition, a beach park, it is still necessary to display its elevation above sea-level. I presume they measured to halfway up the sign:

 

 

You might think that this could be the record for the lowest altitude state park in the United States but I know there are some inland areas out west that are significantly below sea level. 

 

Wandering around the shore-based park area was a bit eerie. While the parking lots were all packed full of cars the park itself was deserted. There was nobody to be seen. I wandered towards the beach and it soon became apparent where everybody was: 

 

 

 

The beach was very much the selling point. As far as I could see in either direction there was a wide sandy foreshore covered in people with sun-loungers or parasols. There was a single pier that headed a fair way out to sea which seemed to be where you went if you wanted to do some sea fishing. The whole setup brought to mind the resort that’s the subject of the original ‘Jaws’ film – although i couldnt find the slightly-crazy local mayor. It was just a bit strange to see so many people sitting on the shoreline in the baking heat. Growing up in the UK, the seaside was always a place that you associated with the word ‘bracing’, whatever time of year you visited. 

 

Anyway, I was a British person at the seaside so I had to do the four standard things: 


  1. Go for a paddle.
  2. Have an Ice Cream.
  3. Walk along the pier.
  4. Buy a tacky souvenir. 

Point one on this list was something of a revelation. Again, primarily because I grew up in the UK, ‘going for a paddle’ usually consisted of five minutes of getting ready for the paddle (shoes off, socks off, trousers rolled up, trying to avoid walking on any stones on the way down the beach) followed by six seconds of actually being in the sea, one minute running back up the beach screaming how cold it was, fifteen minutes trying to restore circulation to your feet and then several months of touch-and-go therapy to try and reverse the severe frost-bite in your toes. At Myrtle Beach however the water was actually warm. Warm. Warmer than an indoor swimming pool. As warm as a hot tub. Although it may sound a bit stupid given how far south I was it really did take me by surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a warm sea before. 

 

I headed up to the pier and walked through the tacky souvenir shop to the ice cream stand. I was impressed at the vaguely proper ice creams they were serving – with cones and everything! The US sometimes struggle with how to do a ‘proper’ ice cream but not in this case:

 

 

Now, another thing I’ve never done before is attempt to eat an ice cream in nearly 40 degree heat. The simple process of taking the above picture led to pretty-much half the ice cream ending up in a melted puddle on the floor and the overall effect was what I image happens if you put an ice cream into a microwave. This probably goes some way to explaining why I was the only person on the beach who’d actually bought one. Ice cream gone, I walked to the far end of the pier and back and idly wondered if, having seen all the signs about shark-fishing plastered along said pier, I would still be happy to repeat my earlier paddle. 

 

I walked back through the souvenir store and picked up a suitably tacky souvenir:

 

 

Satisfied that I’d had the full seaside experience I made my way back to the car and steeled myself for the five hours of driving that lay ahead. 

 

Tomorrow I only need to cover a third of the distance that I did today but I’ll be going through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I don’t know why they’re called that but I’m presuming it doesn’t mean that they’re constantly on fire, as the ones up in the state of Oregon seem to be at the moment. Only one way to find out…  

 

 

Standard

How to Drive in North Carolina

Have you been thinking about travelling to North Carolina (or indeed he wider United States) but have been put off by the thought of driving on the notorious American road system? Fear not! I’ve put together a list of the basics of driving in the state of North Carolina and present it here for your help and guidance. Disclaimer: This list has been based on extensive and detailed observations carried out over a period of four hours. On one day. In August. 

 

 

Here we go!

 

  1. You need a truck. If you don’t have a truck don’t even think about entering the state. Ideally your truck should have an even number of wheels (not including the spare) but if you have one of the larger models with four wheels on the back axle only three of these need to be functional for you to legally drive around. 
  2. Your truck needs to be big. This is really important. If you can climb into the back of your truck without a ladder your truck is not big enough. Your status in NC is judged based on the size of your truck…so the less successful you are in life he bigger it need to be. Just got fired from your job? Get a bigger truck. Partner split up with you? Bigger truck. Just committed an armed robbery and about to be chased by he cops live on the evening news? Oh boy, you’re gonna need one of those special super-sized trucks with a triple back axle. 
  3. You need to be carrying something appropriate in the back of your truck. Farm equipment or a boat is allowed but, if you really want to get noticed, carrying a smaller truck that’s in a state of dis-repair will gain you extra kudos. 
  4. The roof of your truck is an additional storage area. Use it to carry beds, mattresses, other items of furniture or, indeed, children on a sofa. The only legal requirement is that you’ve at least thought about load-strapping it all down. 
  5. The back bumper of your truck is your own personal advertising hoarding. Use it well. Signs stating how many people are travelling in the truck (and how important they are) and how much you love your truck are pretty basic really. To get to the premier league you should have a series of contradictory religious and political statements as well as a state flag, American flag, information about how powerful your truck is and a humorous anecdote (in italics) about non-truck drivers. A license plate is optional. 
  6. You need a large mobile phone. This is mandated by state law. You have two hands when driving and one of them needs to be clamped to your phone at all time. Taking selfies while driving through a busy intersection is a must (‘YOLO’) and having an angry conversation with someone on the phone while simultaneously trying to take a picture of the ‘a-hole’ in the smaller truck who just cut you up is also an important skill. 
  7. Cigar. You need to ensure you’re always smoking a cigar. (This was news to me but  a surprising number of drivers in NC seem to be smoking cigars. I guess it gives you something to do with the hand you’re not using for your phone.)
  8. The number of large sodas contained in your truck needs to obey the rule N=H+2 (where N is the number of sodas you should have you have and H is the number of soda holders your truck actually contains). The sodas should be of the biggest size provide by the gas station and should be filled with mostly ice. You should hold one of the additional sodas in your spare hand (the one not being used for texting or the cigar) and balance the other one between your legs. You may need to move your laptop onto the passenger seat to accomplish this but, as long as you relocate the mini-microwave to the floor this should be ok. You don’t need to worry about what happens if you need to brake as all traffic lights in NC are advisory only. 
  9. You need to find an appropriate collection of country music songs and always have them playing whenever you’re in your truck. Loudly. The country songs should ideally be about trucks, the loss of a truck, why a truck is needed or an event that happened in a truck. 
  10. You should set your driving seat as low as it can goes. Preferably only the top of your head should be visible to anyone who looks into your truck. There’s no need to look at the road directly in front of your truck as that’s what fenders are for. 
  11. Finally you need to ensure that your truck has never seen any form of maintenance, ever. Before you set off you should walk round your truck and check that none of the rear indicators are functional. At least one of the brake lights should be broken and you don’t need to worry about the reversing light as a true truck driver will never back away from anything. As a contrast, you need to ensure that as many lights as possible are affixed to the front of your truck. These should be primarily white but can be accompanied by bright blue spots or orange strips. The intensity of the lights on the front of your truck should be such that any deer that wanders into your path is incinerated long before you get to it. 

 

And there you go! Simple. I wish you all the best in your attempts to drive round NC and expect to see you being chased on the evening news before the weekend is out. 

 

 

Standard

Man of the South

About an hour outside of Wilmington I stopped at a rest area for a bit of a break from driving and to further my fascination with these places. I talked about them a bit the last time I was out here and how, compared to UK motorway services, they are sites of wonder. They’re always pristine, beautifully landscaped and state-themed in some way. Each state seems to make a particular effort to ensure that the rest areas on the freeway as it passes through their territory are the best. This particular rest area had pieces of restored WWII artillery sitting around between the vending machines as North Carolina prides itself in its support to the military and its veterans. 

 

 

After stretching my legs for a bit I noticed a man standing next to a bench under the trees as his dog entertained itself on the grass beside him. The dog was a  Boarder Collie and this meant I had to go over and see it – North Carolina is quite far from home for a breed developed in the Welsh boarders. The man (who I later found out was called David) was in his late fifties, quite small in stature but with a sturdy frame that gave the impression that he’d spent a lot of time doing physical work outside. He was wearing a fading green cloth baseball cap, a thread-bare red t-shirt and a pair of beige cargo shorts. He had wisps of grey hair sticking out from under his cap and a wiry silver beard. We struck up a conversation about the dog and he spoke with a soft southern drawl. 

 

“You’re not from round here.” He observed. “Where’s that accent from? Australia?”

 

Swing and a miss. I told him I was from the UK. When this drew a blank I tried Britain and then, more successfully, England.

 

“Ahh England.” He said, eyes lighting up. “I’m reading a book about England at the moment. About how they built all the cathedrals in the 1100s – took them decades ya know.”

 

We talked a bit about England and the time and effort that had gone into some of the old cathedrals and buildings before he extracted from me that I was on a road trip and, more specifically, going round the Deep South. A flurry of recommendations about places to see spilled forth and he was particularly enthusiastic about Savannah, Georgia. Apparently it’s one of the best ‘southern’ cities and was designed back in revolutionary times by Lafayette, who laid the city out around a number of large boulevards, in the style of his native France.  

 

“So what about you then?” I asked. “Where are you from?”

“Georgia born and bred” he replied “but I don’t have a home anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s my home now” he said, gesticulating with his head towards a slightly battered motor home that was parked on the far side of the parking lot. It was cream in colour with a green stripe down the side and was towing a trailer with a very large motorcycle on it. 

“Sold everything and bought that. I’m just travelling round now, seeing what there is to see, while there’s still time.” 

 

We conversed about where he’d been and it soon emerged that, despite the number of years behind him (and the fact he had a motor home), he’d never been outside of what he called the ‘Confederate South’:

 

“I’ve never really liked the north, or northerners. They have no time for you. They’re always in a rush or too busy with their own affairs to notice the world around them and to be civil to others. If a southerner bumps into someone when walking they’ll say ‘I’m so sorry’ and ‘please excuse me’. If a northerner does all they’ll say is ‘get out of my way!'”.

He illustrated these points by physically demonstrating what happens if two southern people accidentally walk into each other in the street. There was much gesticulating, sideways dancing and apologising followed by a warm handshake with the imaginary 

person he’d collided with. 

“That wouldn’t happen in north.” He sighed. “People have forgotten how to be decent to each other up there. All they care about is themselves.”

 

The conversation moved on to the upcoming eclipse and the spectacle that it would be. His voice changed as he talked about it,  becoming slightly more heavy with emotion. 

“I hope the weather holds as, ya know, I won’t get another chance to see something like that.” 

I mentioned that there was another solar eclipse in the USA in 2024 but he cut me off. 

“I’ve only got a few months left. That’s why I sold up and bought that thing (pointing towards the motor home). It was after I found out about the illness. The doctors said I didn’t have long – maybe a year – so I quit my job, sold my house and decided to spend the rest of my days travelling. To see as much of the south as I could and meet as many people as I could.”

“My wife died five years ago so, apart from him (nodding to the panting dog), I don’t have much left anymore. I like the journey. I like not knowing where I’ll be tomorrow. It makes things less, final. Less routine. People like to think they’re in control of their lives but then something like that hits you and….and you realise that you’re simply a passenger.” 

He looked down at his feet for a moment and the (very hot) Collie wandered back over and sat down next to him. He continued:

“I don’t know what happens when you die. I used to think I did, I was so sure, but nobody knows really. I don’t fear it anymore though, no. I see it as another journey. Another adventure. Wherever you eventually end up it’s gonna be one helluva trip, you can bet on that, and I figure I’m just going to have to enjoy the ride”. 

 

We talked a bit more about his plans for the next few days and where else he recommended I went in the south. He asked me my name again and then we shook hands and wished each other well. He set off back to where his camper van was parked, dog in tow, and I tried to make sense of the conversation I’d just had. It’s oh so easy to pass judgement on someone before they even open their mouth and, I’ll admit, when he started talking about ‘the north’ I was ready to write off this man as your typical southern red-neck who had never been further than his own back yard. In reality though he was quite a profound individual with a very simple doctrine for his remaining days on earth. 

 

As I got back in the highway and drive towards Wilmington I linked some of what he said with the commentary that’s been coming out of every single media outlet about the eclipse on Monday. Apparently the experience can be so intense that individuals have quit their jobs, left their partners, had a breakdown or completely changed the direction of their lives after seeing the sun disappear from the sky. This is because the event in itself is a clear demonstration of just how powerless we really are. It is rare these days that an event happens that ‘people’ don’t have some influence over. On Monday, for three minutes in the middle of the day, the sun will be snuffed out and night will fall across wide swathes of the USA… and there is absolutely nothing, nothing that anyone can do about it. It is completely out of our control. 

It really does make you think: We could, between now and Monday, wipe ourselves out as a race in a nuclear conflagration and, come Monday afternoon, the moon would still move in front of the sun and the eclipse would still happen. It’s no wonder that previous celestial occurrences have caused the rise and fall of civilisations, religions and helped inspire England’s greatest writer (look it up!).

 

Maybe, come Monday, the people of the US will see that they do all have at least one thing in common after all. 


Standard

The Dulles Experience

For a brief moment after we arrived in Dulles I thought the plane was on fire. 

 

Slightly weary after the nine-hour flight from Geneva to Washington DC (Dulles), I was wandering forward to disembark from the back row of economy class when I was suddenly hit with a wall of heat. It stopped me in my tracks. It was as if someone had pointed a super-sized hairdryer at my head and turned it up to maximum. My sleep-addled mind couldn’t comprehend it and immediately defaulted to ‘Oh, the plane must have overheated’ before recalibrating a few seconds later as I realised that heat and humidity was, in fact, just Virginia in August finding its way in through the open cabin door: Thirty-four degrees and full sauna mode. 

 

Washington Dulles is an odd airpot. I hadn’t arrived there from an international flight since my first foray into the United States some ten years ago and had forgotten just how strange it is. When the archtects designed the international gates they didn’t feel inclined to connect them directly, by any walkways or monorails, to the main departure and arrival terminals. When you arrive you are directed down a series of corridors before arriving at what-looks-like a wall of elevators. You hang around there for a bit before some of the elevator doors open and you’re herded through them into what can only be described as a single-decker double-decker bus. Try to imagine what would happen if you took a usual London double-decker bus, removed the lower deck, kept the upper deck suspended at the same height as before and then made it twice as wide. Oh and added two aerofoils protruding directly from the bus roof, like an upside-down double-rudder. Picture that. Strange, isnt it? This mutant plane-bus hybrid ferries you across the tarmac, dodging real aircraft in the process, to the US customs internment and trial hall. 

 

I call it that for a reason: In all the times I have arrived in the US the worst queue through immigration I’ve ever experienced was in Newark NJ, at a shade under two hours. Today Dulles took that record and smashed it to pieces. The queue at Dulles this afternoon was such that, when the people on my flight first caught sight of it, all the British travellers felt the need to remark to each other about how impressive it was. Some took photos. One felt the need to take out a sketch book. Others just stood back and marvelled at it for a while. The British like a good queue. 

 

After two hours the novelty started to wear off. Muttering began. Watches were looked at. Conversations about the queue became more frequent and intense. Panoramic mid-queue selfies were taken. Loud phone calls about the impact of the queue on the rest of the day’s plans were made. 



 

As two-and-a-half hours approached I became convinced that the only reason the queue was moving forward at all was because the people near the front kept expiring. With three people having already collapsed while queing this was perhaps closer to reality than you might first think. 

 

Three hours and five minutes after my flight landed I came out the other side of immigration. The delay was such that my checked bag had been moved to the ‘lost property’ area in baggage reclaim. Knowing I still had a two-hour drive ahead of me I dragged myself out into the heat to find the rental car place. But of course, this is Dulles. And in Dulles they like busses. So the only way to get to the rental car place, a mile away, is by shuttle bus. Which you have to queue for. 

 

This is all well-and-good assuming that the road access to the shuttle bus terminals hadn’t been blocked off by the police due to a sizable car accident, which it had. So there were no busses. And the queue got longer. It was almost as if the staff at Dulles were taunting us as the busses that should have been picking us up were diverted up over a flyover just in front of us so we could watch them going round and round in a loop, while we baked in the sun. After thirty minutes a group of middle-aged men from New Hampshire, who looked as if they were late for a business meeting on a golf course, announced that they were going to ‘walk to the rental car place’. This drew gasps for the assembled queue-line. Not only was it ‘almost a mile away’ but, as there are no sidewalks at all around the airport, it involved walking a fair distance along the edge of an elevated freeway. We bode them farewell and they set off into the haze. 

A few minutes later myself and a group of individuals from Texas decided to try a different approach. I’ll spare you the details but, suffice to say, once we’d successfully scaled the flyover we were able to force one of the ‘on-a-loop’ busses to stop, pick us up and take us to the rental place. There was much excitement as, halfway to our destination, we came across the pioneer golfers wandering with their luggage along the elevated freeway. With much honking of the horn the bus stopped by each of them to pick them up and allow them to have a slightly cooler route to their rental cars. 

 

I picked up the car and drove the hundred-odd miles down to my first stop, in Tappahanock, Virginia. It’s now gone 22:30 local time and I’m sat in the local ‘bar and grill’ struggling to stay awake almost twenty-four hours after I got up this morning. Tomorrow I’m heading to the coast, and North Carolina. I’m hoping that maybe, just maybe, I won’t have to queue for anything. 

 

Standard

Heading East…

There’s an old proverb that states: “To go west you must first go east”. I don’t know who originally said it, or indeed if it is actually a proverb, but what I do know is that early tomorrow morning I’ll be embracing it wholeheartedly as I start my journey to the United States by flying to Geneva, six-hundred miles in the wrong direction. This is, believe it or not, intentional and is just one of the sacrifices you have to make if you want to pay only $80 and some air-miles for a return transatlantic flight. I’ll only be in Switzerland for a couple of hours but am hoping that’ll be sufficient time to set up an anonymous bank account and conduct some high-risk hedging on international gold futures. 

 

I’m currently at base-camp in a hotel situated just on the edge of Heathrow Airport. I’ve stayed here numerous times before but this is the first time that I’ve been treated to a view out my window of an active runway. Usually the best I can hope for is a car park, dual carriageway, patch of waste ground or (excitement!) combination of all three. This time though I can while away the hours watching plane-after-plane come in to land at one of the world’s busiest airports, with only occasional glances to see what’s kicking off in the car park. 

 

I’ll admit that I have a degree of trepidation about the journey I’m about to undertake. Logistically it’s probably the most complex American trip I’ve done to-date and there’s a fair chance that, at some point along the way, something will go spectacularly wrong…but it’s more than just that: It would seem that the US, much like the UK, appears to be losing its way. From the view we’re presented with by the media and online it is a country divided starkly in two, much more so now than ever before, and the divisions seem to be getting worse. When I’ve told people at work where I was planning to go for this trip their response was usually something along the lines of “I couldn’t go there now because of Trump”. While I can understand that view I think that is, in effect, an easy way out. 

In my mind, the fact that President Trump is a reality makes going to the areas that elected him even more important. His rise to power wasn’t an accident and I want to try and find out what’s happened in rural America to make them elect a man who thinks Defcon 1 is nothing more than an ill-fated boy-band from the early nineteen eighties.

 

Also, I want to see an eclipse. 

That too. 

 

With twelve hours on some sort of aircraft tomorrow, and most of that time spent doubling-back on myself, any topics to write about would be welcome! Comment below or wander onto twitter and tweet @themuscovyduck. 

 

Until tomorrow….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard

Back on the Road

On the 16th August I will be hitting the road again to finish what i started ten years ago:

Alabama, Arkensas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tenessee, Texas.

This ten-day jaunt through the ‘Deep South’ will complete my journey around the continental United States. With a total eclipse in the middle, a drive down tornado alley and a fair chance of encountering Trump supporters… what could possibly go wrong?

 

Standard

Referendum 2.0

Last time on the blog I talked about why the much-vaunted ‘Article 50 Day’ would be the high-water mark for the Brexiteers. We’re now a few weeks on and I stand by that claim; the only way is down now for the Brexit crusaders. On ‘A50 Day’ the press had its predicted party and reported on much joy throughout the land as people everywhere threw of the rusty chains of European oppression, painted themselves in red, white and blue body-paint and yelling ‘Freeeeeedom’ while listening to something by Elgar. Much was made of the letter from Theresa May being delivered to Brussels while the Royal Navy geared up for the resumption of that long-postponed war with Spain. Mrs May did her usual trick of making a centre-ground, pro-European speech while simultaneously briefing about how the UK was going squeeze those nasty Europeans for everything they’ve got and, in effect, take the lightbulbs with it on the way out. 

Since then though cracks have started to appear in the Brexit dream. It’s rapidly becoming apparent that all those other European countries may, in fact, be more concerned with how any deal that’s done affects them, rather than just giving the UK everything it asks for. Already the Government has hinted that we may not, after all, be able to do away with freedom of movement straight off the bat and those pesky lawyers have pointed out that the UK will be legally bound to make good on its various treaty obligations – to the tune of ~£50 billion (that’s just under three-years’ worth of membership cost according to the Vote Leave bus figures before the referendum). To distract from these pesky facts attention was shifted to that most important of issues – what colour our passports should be. Oh yes. Two more years of this. 

Before I continue to my main topic (the second referendum), I think the whole passport thing (and the associated grumblings about the metric system) are worth commenting on. 

Increasingly it seems like the UK is going through a mid-life crisis. Those noisiest on the leave side, and the Brexiteers in the press, seem determined to take the country back to their rose-tinted view of what it was like when they were young. I’ll admit that I wasn’t alive in the 70s but, from everything you read about the decade, I don’t know why anybody would want to go back to it. I know you may be nostalgic for a blue passport but, wait just a second, there’s a whole lot of people out there who have known nothing other than the red one we have today. I know you may yearn to go back to a time when ‘Britain ruled the waves’ but, again, there’s an awful lot of us who see ourselves as British and European. The two are not mutually exclusive. Leaving the EU is a backwards enough step as it is – please let’s not make it any worse by using the process as a substitute for buying a sports car. 

There seems to be a general knee-jerk rebuke of the modern world going on in both our country and the United States but, at some point, we need to have to wake up to the reality of the world we now live in. We are now a small fish in a global economy and an open, internationalist, approach to policy is the only way to prosper in such a world. This is not ‘talking the country down’ but simply saying it as it is. The UK is 0.7% of the worlds’ population. Zero-point-seven percent. We should be doing everything we can to embrace other cultures, new technologies and the world in general but, instead, we are turning away from our closest neighbours. 

And going back to the imperial system? Seriously? I can only assume that this was a joke rather than possible policy but, as someone who works in the field of science and technology I can honestly say that’s one of the craziest suggestions I’ve ever heard. Which probably means we’ll do it. And wave a flag as we do. 

 

Anyway, back to the thought I was going to spend some time discussing: Why the Government may, in eighteen months time, be the ones calling for a new referendum on the European question. 

At first glance that may seem like a bit of a crazy suggestion. Why would the Brexiteers, having won the vote they’ve been fighting for since the dawn of time, risk it all on a second referendum? Well the short answer is they wouldn’t. No chance. 

But I’m not talking about the Brexiteers, I’m talking about Theresa May and the Conservative government. Come with me, if you will, on a brief thought experiment and try to picture what position the UK may find itself in in eighteen months’ time: 

Imagine a situation where the Government has been engaged in over a year of hard-graft political, trade and sovereignty negotiations. Over this time the UK has not got everything it wanted to get out of the discussions – far from it – and public enthusiasm for the whole Brexit idea has started to wane. The Government has been pursuing a ‘hard Brexit’ stance, which has alienated some of the more progressive ‘leavers’ and the UK economy has slowed as companies try and second guess what exactly is to come. The real-world implications of what Brexit will do to the UK economy have become clear and the deal that has been landed upon is what is generally being described as a ‘bad deal for Britain’. Coupled with this is the fact that political opposition to the process has been building, with pro-remain candidates and parties doing very well in local and by-elections.

The above situation would put Theresa May in what was essentially a no-win scenario. On one hand she could take the UK out of the EU on the terms of the ‘bad deal’, satisfying the right of her own party, but leaving the Conservative government solely to blame for the economic shocks of this deal in the 2020 General Election. In addition, she’d be faced with a second Scottish Independence referendum, which in those circumstances the SNP would likely win, and would be labelled as the Prime Minister who broke up the United Kingdom. 

If the deal were really that bad she could, of course, take the UK out of the EU without a deal at all but the political consequences would be the same, if not worse than, the above. The unthinkable alternative is that she decides that the deal isn’t good enough and endeavours to keep the UK within the EU. This would be political suicide as it would be seen as going against the ‘will of the people’ and would likely see her removed from her job by the right of the Conservative Party. 

So what can she do? Leave the EU with a bad deal and you lose. Leave the EU with no deal and you lose. Remain in the EU and you lose. Each of the three scenarios results in the Conservative Party being ‘blamed’ for something and paying for it in 2020*. The thing you have to remember here is that the number one consideration of all politicians is to remain in power. Everything else is secondary. Losing the 2020 election is, therefore, something that has to be avoided at all costs.

So what can she do? 

Answer: She can go to the country. Holding a referendum on the ‘bad deal’ versus ‘let’s just forget it all happened’ (Article 50 is revocable, remember?) effectively delegates the decision out of her hands and takes any blame away from her government. If the result of the referendum is the ‘bad deal’ then that is ‘the will of the people’ and she’s just doing what they say. If the result is ‘please forgive us, we want to stay in’ again, that is ‘the will of the people’. 

The great thing about this option is that it also resolves the Scottish question. Holding a UK-wide referendum on the deal could be a shrewd way to remove the argument for a second Scottish vote. Line 1 would be: “Everyone’s getting a vote on the proposed deal so why do you need a separate one on your own sovereignty – we can put off the independence question until after the next Holyrood elections**”. If the UK voted to stay in instead of take the ‘bad deal’ (which I think it would) then Line 2 would be: “The need for the second referendum has now gone. We’ll ask the question again in a generation’s time”. 

Theresa May absolves herself of all responsibility and saves the union at the same time! All by going to the county once again after the negotiations have been completed. 

Of course the alternative to all of this is that the Government manages to negotiate a completely spectacular deal that everyone loves and there’s no need for any of the pre-described fun and games. I personally wouldn’t bet on that outcome. 

There is one important point to take from all of this: The stickier the political situation is for the Government at the end of the negotiations the more likely it is that the Government will ask the country to decide. That is why it is so important that the argument against leaving not only persists but gets louder. The ‘Remain’ argument is clear and those arguing for it united. The ‘Leave’ camp will increasingly become fractured between those who want a ‘hard Brexit’ and those who want the type of Brexit that was promised in the referendum campaign. To state a well-worn phrase: democracy didn’t end on the 23rd June and the fight needs to continue. It is a long journey but, ultimately, one that I believe will eventually be successful. 

The next stop on this journey is the local elections on May 4th – so I hope you’re all going to vote!

 

Footnotes

*When considering the next General Election you need to remember not to just focus on the Labour / Conservative battle. Pretty much all serious political commentators think that the Labour party will do well to equal their 2015 election performance in 2020 if they keep their current leader. Any chance of a Labour majority government requires them to do significantly better than 2015 and to re-take Scotland. The thing to remember though is that the Conservatives picked up an awful lot of seats of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 and it is increasingly looking like they will lose a fair few of these back, especially in the South West and city centres. Through this mechanism the Conservative majority could quickly disappear. 

 

**I believe that if the second Scottish Independence vote is pushed back beyond the next Holyrood elections it will never happen. The SNP no longer have a majority in the Scottish Parliament as it is and a resurgent Conservative Party in Scotland, standing as unionists, will chip away a fair few of the SNP’s seats. Also, the desire for a second Independence referendum is not as strong as the SNP make out and standing on that platform – as they would be forced to do – could cost them votes. I believe the UK Government is well-aware of this and is purposefully trying to ensure that this is exactly what happens. 

 
Standard

Buckle Up for Brexit

On Wednesday Theresa May will trigger Article 50 to begin the formal process of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. There will no doubt be much flag-waving, false-patriotism and baby-boomers getting teary-eyed as they sing along to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ while staring at a picture of the Cotswolds. It’ll be hailed by the majority of the print press as an event equivalent to when the colonies declared independence back in 1776. The Leave campaign will be at its most triumphant, most crowing: We did it, we won!  

If you are one of the large minority who did not vote for Brexit in June last year, the jingoism of Wednesday may all be a bit to much to bear. But fear not, there is cause for optimism: Wednesday will represent the high-water-mark of the Brexit campaign, ‘Peak Brexit’, if you will. It will represent the last point in time before the true reality of what this Government has decided to do becomes apparent. From Wednesday, the tide of public opinion will slowly, inevitably, shift away from the hard Brexit that is being pursued by Theresa May. 
 
Bold words you may say. Typical ‘Remoaner’. Fantasist. The people have decided! Why will they change their minds now?
 
If you have a few more minutes I will tell you why the separatist wet-dream being pursued by Theresa May’s Government will never be achieved and why, in the end, the arguments in favour of the European Union will prevail. I will do this by talking around three simple subjects: ‘The Will of the People’; ‘The Economic Reality’ and ‘Time’.
 
 
The Will of the People
 
A common line of attack by the Brexiteers uses this as a tag-line. The argument goes something like: “The people voted to leave the European Union. To argue against that now is undemocratic as it ignores the will of the people. Accept the result and carry on. The Government is enacting the will of the people.”
 
This is wrong on almost every count.
 
Firstly, let’s be clear on the result of the referendum. Looked at from an entirely impartial position, the referendum indicated one thing and one thing only: the country was split down the middle on this issue. The result did not give a clear mandate to head off on the decisive path now being pursued by our government and certainly was not so decisive that all opposition to that path should now cease. Likewise, it did not give a mandate to maintain the status quo. A reasonable government, in reasonable times, would have looked at the result and taken it as a very clear steer that the country is not particularly happy with the current arrangements with the EU and used it as a strong lever for a proper re-negotiation of the existing treaties. Exactly the same should have happened if the result were reversed. 
 
The Government did not do this. It took the result as an excuse to tear the whole structure down. Why? Because our government is now being run by the very right of the Conservative Party – a group of people who have been crowing against Europe for longer than I can remember and who should really have joined UKIP a long time ago. As a result we’re heading to the most extreme of leaving options: leaving the single market as well as the Union. 
 
Faced with a split vote the Government should have taken a third-way. They should have been brave and used he referendum as it was intended – advisory. They did not. They are using the ‘Will of the People’ argument to pursue their own personal political agendas. 
 
There is a tiny, but fatal, flaw in the rhetoric that’s being peddled to prop-up a hard Brexit: The overwhelming number of people in this country did not vote to leave the European Union. Only 37.7% of a somewhat constrained electorate voted to leave. The ‘will of the people’ was in fact to do nothing. This is important for one very simple reason: Brexit will effect 100% of the population. The effect will be negative. Consider how large a swing we’ve seen in recent General Elections, where 47% of people can vote of Labour one year but only 26% support them today. The electorate is fickle and, as the impacts of the government’s course of action start to hit home, their opinion will change. 
 
The referendum was a snapshot of views on a particular day in June. No more, no less. The ‘will of the British People’ changes daily and I can absolutely guarantee you that, if you’d held a second referendum on the day after the first, the percentages for each option would have been quite different. To use ‘the will of the people’ as the mainstay reason for implementing your policy leaves you very exposed when it starts to become blindly obvious that public opinion has shifted against you. 
 
 
The Economic Reality
 
On the day after the referendum the Leave campaign had something of a crisis on their hands: they’d actually won. This was an outcome that nobody had expected. They thought they would run a close race but nobody actually thought they’d emerge triumphant. As the implications of the result sank in those who’d led the campaign quickly manoeuvred themselves to positions where they’d have as little involvement as possible in actually implementing the result. 
 
Why did they do this? Why was the result a problem?
Simple: When you’re running a campaign intended to be no more than a protest vote you can promise whatever you like. You can make all kinds of wild claims and never have to worry about being held to account. You do and say anything you can to get that little-bit-more airtime. However, when you accidentally win, and are suddenly the ones running the show, serval million chickens start coming home to roost. As anyone who has owned chickens knows – this doesn’t end well. 
 
The classic example of this is the Liberal Democrats after the 2010 election. Always assumed to be a party of constant opposition it was easy for the Lib Dems to push through some quite outlandish or aspirational policies – things they’d do if they ‘ever got into power’ (knowing the odds of that were quite low). The problem in 2010 was that they actually ended up in government and, very rapidly, realised that certain promises were simply not financially viable given the state the country was in. Tuition fees was one example of this but there are many more. The electoral effect on the party was disastrous and is one from which they’re only just starting to recover. 
 
A second example, unfolding in front of our eyes as I write this, comes from our friends in the USA. 
Trump was never going to win. Not in a million years. It was unthinkable and most of the national polls had him way behind. Sat in this position he was free to promise the world: If he got elected healthcare would be ‘great’, immigration would be ‘stopped’, he would ‘build a wall’; all those jobs that had been lost due to automation would be ‘brought back’ and America would be ‘great again’. 
These are easy things to promise in an election campaign but very hard things to deliver in reality. Trump will not be able to accomplish many, if any, of the things he said he would because, like the rest of us, he is living in the real world. His failure to get healthcare through and to he rebuttal of his ‘Muslim ban’ are but the first examples of this. There will be more and, as a result, his support will evaporate. 
 
And then there’s Brexit. 
Vote Leave never thought they’d win and so, like Trump, were able to promise the world: Brexit will ensure that you all have jobs, British jobs, and that all those closed factories are opened again. Brexit will solve all the problems in the NHS as all the money we send to Brussels will be used to fix it. Brexit will prevent any more nasty immigrants coming to this country. Brexit will allow you to take back control and make Britain great again! Brexit will save you all.
 
But it won’t
 
Each one of these promises will fail to be delivered. There will not be an endless stream of new jobs. The closed factories will remain closed and more will follow them. Immigration will not drop off a cliff (we need it and a fair chunk of it is not from the EU) and the NHS will continue to lurch along in a perpetual state of crisis. The solution to the problems this country has are not going to be solved by leaving the European Union but, rather than focussing on actually sorting out these issues, the Government will now spend the next two years completely bogged down in a series of negotiations and desperate trade deals. Brexit is an unnecessary distraction and complication. 
 
As it becomes clear to the British people that they have been taken along on one of the greatest cons of all time the support for Brexit will falter, and then collapse. The problem we have is there isn’t currently going to be another referendum. In the US they can vote Trump out in three years. After the coalition the Lib Dems paid the penalty for going back on their pledges. Brexit will rapidly become a hugely unpopular policy that there isn’t a clear route for the electorate to do anything about. But that does not mean it shouldn’t be opposed. The 2020 election will be where the price is paid.
 
 
Time
 
This is a simple one: Time is on Remain’s side. 
The reason why the Brexiteers are so keen to move so quickly to drag us out of the European Union is because they know that time is their enemy. They know that every day that passes is a day closer to their false promises being revealed for all to see. They know that, after Wednesday, support for their cause is only going to decrease: No government has ever seen an increase in its poll ratings in the period immediately after it is elected as it starts to implement its difficult policies. 
They also know that the country may have been split down the middle on the Brexit issue but it was not split evenly: Those under the age of forty voted to remain, those older than forty voted to leave. As you go to each end of the age spectrum the split becomes even more extreme. Under thirties voted overwhelmingly to remain and the opposite is true for the over sixties. 
 
The leave camp know that, as weeks turn to months and months turn to years, their core vote shrinks. They know that the next generation, and the one after that, are fiercely pro-European. They know that, if the referendum had been held in 2026, instead of 2016, they would have lost by a mile. 
 
 
And that is why I am optimistic. 
 
We are at ‘Peak Brexit’. Leave have never had it so good. They’ve had a nine-month honeymoon since the referendum that’s about to come to a jarring end. Time is against them, the economic realities and ‘real world’ will soon start to bite and the primary argument about implementing the ‘will of the people’ will soon start to unravel. 
 
The British people are not fools. They have long memories and a track record of holding governments to account. They will not forget the promises that were made by the leave campaign and will soon realise that they’ve been taken for a ride. They will realise that the hard Brexit policy being pursued by the Conservative government is something designed to satisfy their own party urges, and not to do what’s best for the country. 
 
Brexit may have won the battle on the 23rd June but it will ultimately loose the war. Do not think that this is over. Do not be fooled by the rhetoric that states that opposing this act of national self-immolation is undemocratic. Opposing this mess is more important now than it has ever been. A strong and determined opposition to the Brexit process over the next two years will chime with public opinion and will leave government in 2019 facing a very difficult choice indeed. While the government may not be swayed, Parliament will be. Lack of opposition will allow the Conservative party do as it pleases and to leave the EU at any cost – a policy that will be as damaging for the country as it will be divisive. 
 
So grin and bear the ‘celebrations’ next Wednesday. Don’t get upset by the red-white and blue headlines on all the national press. Brexit as a cause is based on a series of populist slogans that it will be impossible to implement. 
Brexit is on borrowed time and is about to be very publicly exposed for the fallacy it is. 
 
 

 

 
Standard

Crufts – Judging

I spent most of the morning trying to fathom out how the judging system works and how a dog can progress from the first round through to ‘Best of Breed’ and, ultimately, ‘Best in Group’. I chose Greyhounds as the subject for my research as there were quite a few of them around and they are quite easy to see from a distance. Some of the minature-minature hounds don’t present themselves well to anybody who isn’t sitting in the front row; in row three, all you see is somebody walking round with a lead in their hand.

I said earlier that the dogs in Crufts are ‘special’. I stand by that statement although, walking through one of the holding shanty-towns of dog compartments it rapidly became clear to me that some dogs are more special than others. The dog shanty-towns are themselves a site to behold. They cover almost half of each of the arena halls and are made up of row-upon-row of little cubby-holes in which you can fit your dog:

The size of the cubby-hole varies depending on the size of the breed. Some are shoebox-sized and, even then, you still may need a search party to locate your Minature Bolognese (it is a real dog – I checked). The majority of the cubby-holes are the size of those pictured above: comfortable for a Boarder Collie but about three sizes too small for a Great Dame. As you walk through the dog shanty-town you start to get an idea which dogs you should be keeping an eye on. Some dogs simply sit on a blanket in their cubby-hole with their owner / handler perched on the edge. These are the dogs that will go out in the first round. 

The important dogs have a whole crew with them (and plenty of bling too). They’ll have their own embroidered matting and blankets and several crates-worth of accessories. If they are of the ‘small’ variety they will have a grooming table set up next to their hole complete with battery-operated hair-dryer. Chairs will be set out in front of the hole and, in some cases, wind-breakers to keep the crowds away. A couple of dogs in the Terrier section had a two rather heavy-set bald gentlemen in dark suits stood either side of their turf.

It became clear that dog-showing is an industry; an obsession. Everybody in a particular breed group seemed to know everybody else. As the crowds gather round the judging ring you can overhear hushed conversations about the background of the person judging the breed today – what they like and what they don’t like and how owners have picked out particular dogs to show based on who the judge was going to be. 

At first the judging process seemed a bit bewildering. I picked a seat in the front row next to the judges main table. This turned out to be quite a good choice as each dog would be examined by the judge no less than a metre away from me. For the first couple of rounds I had no idea what was going on: A large number of Greyhounds would appear, there’d be clapping, the dogs would run around and walk back and forth (more clapping) then they’d be a series of gesticulations from the judge, even more clapping, and all the dogs would leave. Much conversation would then erupt between the masses sat round the ring and people would furiously start scribbling down notes in their copies of the breed-listing book. 

I think what I saw first up were the preliminary ‘first-cut’ rounds, where dogs are brutally dismissed with the wave of a hand to try and get the numbers down to something more manageable. As the process went on the judging rounds slipped into a familiar pattern. First, fifteen or so dogs would be called out into the ring. They’d be asked to all walk round twice before stopping in a long line around the side of the arena. They’d each in turn be called up by the judge who would poke, probe and prod them for a bit, look at their teeth, and then ask them to walk away from them and back and then around the ring a couple of times. Once this had been done for every dog a shortlist of five or six would be made, parts of the process repeated, and then finally a first, second, third, forth and fifth place awarded. 

This judging was repeated for different age-ranges of Greyhounds, both male and female before, eventually, a best of breed was decided upon. The top three Greyhounds of the day are shown below, first place being on the right:

I quickly learned that I knew nothing about what the judges are actually looking for. As someone who owned a dog for over a decade I thought I might – but no. As evidence of how clueless I am: the dog I thought would win in each group was either eliminated in the initial cut or placed last. Every single time. 

Example: Take the Greyhound below. Lovely dog, lovely coat, lovely frame and lovely character:

Last place. 

There’s obviously a ‘type’, or some characteristics that I’m blind to. As the rounds go on this becomes more evident as the dogs start to look more and more similar to each other. In the final round for Greyhounds five of the dogs looked identical to the two which eventually placed first and second, so much so that I wonder if the owners ever take home the wrong ones. The other strange correlation I noticed is that, as the rounds go on, the handlers also seem to converge towards a common type. This is not the same across breeds but, for Greyhounds seemed to be women in their thirties in quite smart business suits. For Irish Wolfhounds it seemed to be men in their forties with very dramatic beards (I kid you not).

In fact, if you ever wanted confirmation of the old adage that ‘dogs look like their owners’, or indeed that certain dogs will have a certain type of owner – come to Crufts. The Irish Wolfhound was an extreme example (I do wonder if they orchestrated the whole thing – for those of you who don’t know, Irish Wolfhounds generally have quite impressive beards too – they were even colour-coordinated with their owners) but it was evident across the breeds. If the owners didn’t look like the dogs then there was, at least, a sharp correlation between the owners themselves. Perhaps the most bizarre correlation was that the Deerhounds, themselves huge dogs, seemed to be owned exclusively by very petite people in their twenties. I got the impression that if the dog decided, when out for a walk, that it wanted to go a particular route the owner would have very little say over the matter. 

The Greyhound judging took around three hours to complete. The comedy award has to go to the dog that decided to relieve itself whole it was being examined – it managed to miss the judges shoes but not by much! 

After the Greyhound judging I had a wander further afield around some of the other halls. In one hall, there is a section where you can go and see an example of every single breed entered in Crufts this year. To entertain myself after lunch I decided to undertake a challenge to find the dog that most looked like a mop. Here is the winner:

No plaiting – that’s its natural look!

Anyway, I must go now and find my way to the main arena. Best in show beckons and I’m hoping that this may be the Boarder Collie’s year!

Standard