With ancient red tiling and whitewashed brick walls, perched beside a trout pond, amid rolling green hills, the Red Lion pub, you would think, as you loll in its beer garden, could not be any more English. Then, around the corner, comes a white double-decker bus with “Brexit” across it, and 80 sweaty hikers in blue “Leave Means Leave” T-shirts, various bits of union jack tat, and a lotta flags.
The few local drinkers looked up a little aghast, as the first part of the march hove into view. What the bloody hell is going on, one saw them thinking. Well-heeled villagers lingering over a Pimms. Then: Well, they are pro-Brexit. Bit bloody ostentatious! as a ruddy-faced northern chap lurched into the low-ceilinged bar.
“Four pints of lager please!”
At the wooden tables, you could hear the slight shudder. The long Brexit march had reached Little Missenden.
It’s Thursday, the day before the UK should by rights be leaving the EU. To coincide with that now non-event, a hardy group of protesters started a march from Sunderland in the north, headed for London. The march was organised by Leave Means Leave, formed after the “leave” referendum result, and run by business leader types. Nigel Farage, he himself, was the figurehead for the march, but the first days did not go according to plan.
Spring had not yet arrived in the north, and the march struggled through rain and mud. Farage, clad in the haute bourgeoisie’s country squire look of mustard, olive and grey, stared out at the camera like Toad of Toad Hall. He disappeared on day two, claiming ancient ankle injuries. The march struggled on down the country, as, in London, Brexit unravelled entirely, and the government with it. Nige did not re-appear; numbers dwindled to 40 hardy souls, and the media vanished.
In a final confusion, it became clear that the march couldn’t keep up the allotted pace of 20kms a day, and so jumped ahead by coach every morning. Today, it was coming from Buckinghamshire, the top of the south, to Little Missenden in the Chilterns. This is just north of Amersham, the end of the fabled Metropolitan line, and Metroland, the last stretch of London’s commuter belt.
I’d joined them in Great Missenden, about an hour before the end, stewards running ahead — with “Steward” T-shirts — clearing the streets for what was really a rather assertive nature ramble. They got a few hoots from car horns, the odd cheer from the village Costa coffee shop, but they were a little disconsolate:
“Where you from?”said a white-haired woman, using walking poles, who I could barely keep up with.
“Australia! We’ve got Canadians here, Danes, Japan. Everyone but the BBC.”
“They were here at the start,” I said.
“Why aren’t they here now?”
“Probably cos it’s not news your still going.”
She blew me a very British raspberry and strode on.
Bad move. I didn’t really want to antagonise these people. Leave Means Leave is pure right-wing “animal spirits” Brexitism, but I’m not going to sneer at anyone undertaking small-number protests, and I’m agnostic about Brexit myself. Besides, the next couple of people I interviewed were thoroughly rational, even wonkish, talking about the EU’s collective tariff rules, which apparently restrains the innate genius of the British lion.
What they couldn’t tell me was what Brexit Day One would really mean to them, in any concrete terms. It was always “sovereignty”, “democracy” and petered out from there. This has been the problem throughout: the sense got, again and again, that Brexit is a liberation without content, a liberation that consists entirely of feeling liberated.
Then, towards the end, as we trailed out towards the hills, and hedges and birdsong — and I felt my full Englishness, some melange of Anglican hymns, Bakewell tarts, the Beano — rise to the surface. And I found Barbara.
Barbara was a local property owner, self-described former journalist, in a sturdy rural tan leather outfit, which looked like she’d skinned another local property owner to clad herself, Boudicca of the Home Counties.
“Bananas. There’s an EU ruling about bananas…”
“Oh bananas!” I said. ‘The straight bananas thing! Hasn’t that been discredited, a story made up by a Brussels journo, one, er, Boris Johnson…?”
And on we went.
I looked around. This was very well, but I really needed to talk to someone who didn’t sound like they’d stepped out of a Joanna Trollope novel. Where were they?
“Oi! Want a lift to the end?”
There was a black minivan end-stopping the march. Walker frames in the back. Large men in football shirts. The halt and the fat. My people.
“Auuuuustralia,” said Danny, after hoiking me aboard. “We’ll be able to trade with Australia when we come out. Much talk of Brexit there?”
His face fell a little.
“Well, y’know China, we’re fairly relaxed.”
“You’re relaxed about a lot you Aussies,” he humphed.
This, it appeared, when we all hit the pub, was a theme. My Australianness teased out some remnant theme, underpinning the exit narrative. The Canadians got it, too. They were more polite — I’m not sure there is a Canadian equivalent to “ya great galah” — but equally bemused at how easily the old imperial narrative tumbled out. As the Pimms and ales flowed, the marchers became unguarded. The polls — suggesting Remainers were now in a majority — were a sham, done by the elites. Possible shortages? A beat-up by the elites. Politicians. All disappointing.
“I used to love Jacob [Rees-Mogg]. Now how can you love Jacob?”
“Boris. What’s he doing?”, “Boris is Boris”, ‘That’s no excuse”, “Still, Govey [Michael Gove, potential Leaver PM candidate, who denounced Boris], he’s dead to me. He shouldn’t have done that to Boris.”
And on and on.
Pub-talk of true believers of left and right, how, this time, we almost got it this time. “Nigel stiffed us again,” said a Worzel Gummidge type in the beer garden, of the absent Farage.
The wheezing afternoon bus arrived. Tomorrow these types will walk the final few kilometres (from Chelsea to parliament) just before the house rejects Theresa May’s bill for a third time, bringing crash-out, a referendum, a general election ever closer. Head for the hills, just not the Chilterns.