A Taste of Wessex


Political fiction has a long and influential pedigree, from More’s Utopia to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  One of our aims is fun: to make politics relevant and enjoyable.  So here’s a brief glimpse into one possible Wessex of the future.  A very Happy Scottish Referendum Day tomorrow to all our readers: may all be inspired by the dream of freedom.

“’Ark ee all a-I.  Train now standen a’ Pla’vorm 3 be th’ 08:49 Wyvern Ways service gwain vrammards Bris’ol Temple Meads t’wards Bournemouth Central.  Thic train d’call at Nailsea an’ Backwell, Yatt’n, Winscombe, Cheddar, Wells, Shep’n Mallet, Evercreech Junction, Wincant’n, Templecombe, Stalbridge, Sturm’ster Newton, Blan’vord, Broads’one Junction, Poole an’ Bournemouth Central.  Jange at Yatt’n vor inbetwix stations to Templecombe.  Jange at Wells vor Glas’nb’ry an’ Street.  Jange at Evercreech Junction vor Yeovil an’ stations to Bath Green Park.  Jange at Templecombe vor inbetwix stations to Poole.  Jange at Broads’one Junction vor Swanage an’ Wimborne.  Jange at Poole vor Drakkar Verries sailens to Britt’ny an’ Norm’dy.”
Great to hear at least some of the old accent making a comeback, thought Edwin as he ran up the steps to the platform.  It’s not quite what it was, but so much of an improvement on that ghastly Estuarine whining that filled the airwaves when I were a dapper.  He paused to run an engineer’s perceptive eye over the elegant lines of the freshly delivered locomotive, resplendent in red with its name in gold lettering on the side.  Eric Pickles.  One of the new Alexander Thynn class, 30 electric locomotives named after individuals who played a pivotal role in the renewal of Wessex.  Eric Pickles – nicknamed The Fat Controller – finally had an engine to call his own.  Of course, it was his actions in support of the Wessex flag that had earned him a place in history and not his I-know-best attitude towards local autonomy.
Edwin settled down in his seat and opened his briefcase to take out his complimentary copy of The Times.  He could see by the headline why it was given away free these days: ‘Wessex show trials: confessions mount’.  It was such a shame the Marnen Post had sold out today; he always relied on that for accurate coverage of happenings outside what was left of London.  Show trials indeed.  Nobody was on trial.  These were simply the hearings of the Truth & Restitution Commission and all those who appeared before it did so voluntarily.
Ably chaired by the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, the Commission was at last uncovering what really went on in the last days of the London regime.  Former politicians from the London parties were queueing up to spill the beans.  A recurrent theme had been their sense of helplessness as they tried to run a ‘democratic’ form of politics in which property developers and financiers were the ones who really called the shots.  They seemed genuinely relieved now that all that was over and done with.  As for the restitution part, they were putting their names down for community and environmental work not just in their home areas but right across Wessex.  There was a waiting list for those wanting to go to Twyford Down to dig up the remains of the M3 motorway and help with the re-landscaping work.
Most of The Timeswas advertising, for things that didn’t interest Edwin.  The sports pages included some reasonable coverage from the English inter-regional competitions, in which Wessex was currently in second place, behind Northumbria but ahead of East Anglia.  Edwin folded the paper and reached for his briefcase again.  He checked his phone for messages.  Two.
Tilly Hibbs, Development Manager at Wyvern Ways in Exeter, wanted to discuss the energy implications of some ongoing schemes.  Phase II of the repair workshops at Yeovil.  Was Edwin being unreasonable to demand a bigger contribution from on-site renewables?  He didn’t think so, if the alternative was a major upgrade to the local distribution network.  Electrification west of Okehampton.  Could he support the use of surplus power from Cornwall?  On a small scale perhaps, if a continuing supply could be guaranteed and if the imports could be offset against exports to Mercia.  He’d phone her once he reached Poole and wasn’t constrained by the ‘noise-free’ rule on trains.
The other message was from LAMMAS, the Land & Marine Management Advisory Service in Southampton, confirming the date and time of a video conference call early next month.  It would be a link-up with all the Wessex county councils to discuss the balance between food crops and fuel crops in their areas.  Afforestation was moving up the political agenda again, after the recent heavy flooding.  Edwin would insist that everyone think long-term, planning for needs 100 or 200 years ahead.
A steward entered the carriage, pushing a refreshment trolley.  Edwin asked if there was any coffee today.  No such luck.  Tea and coffee, once everyday items, had reverted to the luxuries they’d been a couple of centuries ago.  Africans didn’t grow crops for the European market now.  They had their own millionsto feed.  As well as those of their Chinese masters.  Yet the English still had ‘tea-time’, even without their tea.  One of the functions of language is to reassure us that things haven’t changed all that much, even as meaning imperceptibly shifts.
Edwin settled for an apple juice and a sandwich.  Cheddar cheese and Wiltshire ham.  At least there were some things you could always rely on in Wessex, always provided that London wasn’t allowed to mess it up again.
Spetisbury.  The station nameboard flashed past as the train raced for the Dorset coast.  The Bristol to Bournemouth service – often jokingly referred to as the Spine Express – linked two of the main urban areas in Wessex without having to rely on routes directed towards London.  Its very existence would have been laughed at in the days when London ruled Wessex.  Back then, regionalists had been used to hearing themselves described as dangerous men and women, plotting constitutional experiments unprecedented in modern times, dabbling in ideas that could undermine the priceless nonsense of national cohesion.  ‘Unity’ is such a pleasant-sounding word, when you live in London and expect your lead to be followed without argument.
Edwin was reading through his speech, making final adjustments.  At Poole he would catch the ferry to Cherbourg, where his Norman hosts would collect him.  He hoped they’d forgive his French; Normanwas now the official language of Normandy.  French was despised there, as in most of France, as the favoured tongue of the Jacobin oppressor.  Norman was now an option in Wessex schools, along with Welsh, Cornish and Breton, but those of an older generation were disadvantaged by speaking only the languages of the former imperial capitals.  Edwin consoled himself with the thought that at least everyone at his level would understand Latin, even if their accents differed wildly.
Tonight there would be a buffet reception at the hotel and then the conference tomorrow.  Having decided to decommission the nuclear power plants they’d inherited from the defunct French State, the Normans were keen to compare the approaches to renewable energy embraced by different regions across Europe.  Edwin was the star attraction.
‘Tidal power and the Severn Estuary: challenges and solutions’.  That would define the subject nicely.  By Edwin Brimble, Director of Strategy, Wessex Energy.  Edwin thought about Trydan Cymru and the work they were doing on their side of the estuary.  He ought to acknowledge them.  Perhaps a brief mention, after the discussion of why a Severn barrage was a bad idea, compared to alternative technologies with less impact on wildlife, navigation and national/regional identity.  He could refer to the joint meeting in Gloucester of the Welsh Senedd and the Mercian and Wessex Witans that had agreed the way forward.  Should he mention Project Olympus as well?  His audience would be familiar with the plan to strengthen the Europe-wide interconnector network and develop pumped storage, to even out the peaks and troughs that inevitably came with reliance on intermittent sources of supply.  Then finally a word or two about some of the major users of the power generated.  The railways and tramways in Wessex and Mercia, without which he would have had great difficulty in being where he now was.  The Wessex canal system, even after the recent re-openings, was much smaller than Mercia’s and, like the cycleway network, it wasn’t the way to travel any great distance in a hurry.
The speech read fine but there was something missing.  Perhaps he’d said too much about the technical issues and failed to mention the frame of mind that was crucial to addressing them.
First of all, the holistic management of resources and infrastructure in Wessex, wary of what’s lost by compartmentalising specialisms.  Transport depended on electricity, which came from renewable sources, with water a crucial contributor to generation and storage.  Joined-up thinking was what Wessex did best.  Partly this was because so many environmental organisations and their associated research teams had based themselves in Wessex, ensuring that connectedness had become a way of life.  Networks, not hierarchies.  Thinking globally, planning regionally, acting locally.
Then there was the commitment to maximise self-sufficiency in energy, nutrition and all essential manufactured goods.  From the beginning, there had been a consensus in the Witan that this was the way to go, the only alternative to having terms dictated by despots and markets.
The corollary was that ‘living within environmental limits’ really had to mean what it said.  It was why no new houses had been built on farmland in Wessex for over a decade and why it was unthinkable that they would be ever again.  The London regime had ordered that they be built in their millions, mindless of the consequences.  Now new houses were built at the rate of a few hundred a year and then mainly to replace old ones conclusively shown to be structurally unsound.  In some of the most heavily overdeveloped areas the housing stock was at last going down, allowing the environment to recover, and there was talk of rewilding, even of eagles returning to Wessex skies.
One question that used to be heard quite often was ‘where will my children live if we won’t trash fields to build more homes?’  It was a question that it would now be embarrassingly stupid to ask, given that births and deaths were roughly in balance and net migration was zero.  The Witan had issued a stark warning that if everyone attracted by history, beauty and tranquillity were to move to Wessex then these were the very things that collectively they would surely destroy.  Consequently, the housing market was tightly regulated to prioritise local needs.  No-one from outside could buy that old widow’s cottage as their weekend getaway while village newly-weds were confined to mum and dad’s spare room.  The parish council wouldn’t register the sale, and the parish council was the ultimate law.  Its power to commandeer empty property was one it didn’t shrink from exercising.
So lastly, there was the core belief that the territory and resources of Wessex belonged to the community of Wessex and were not for sale to outlanders (or anyone else) who wished to exploit them for private gain to the disbenefit of the community.  Except for the shire-based savings and loans co-operatives, which only dealt with individuals, the ‘financial services’ sector had been largely abolished.  Any need for it had been eliminated by the introduction of a guaranteed basic income for all.  If any good had come from the British armed forces presence now receding into history it was the view that control over the use of real stuff is what makes the difference and that money is just a means to one of many possible ends, not a few of them contradictory.
It hadn’t been easy.  Democracy’s struggle against continuous global robbery had been worldwide and prolonged.  It had been a rough ride for everyone but the world was a more settled place at the end of it, finally convinced, in John Ruskin’s words, that there is no wealth but life.  Today a ‘moneyic’ – a combination of ‘money, ‘maniac’ and ‘alcoholic’ – could be diagnosed early and treatment for their addiction was available.  Free of charge, obviously.
There was now an acute sense among Wessex folk that all the good things arising from self-government could easily be lost again by taking a wrong turn politically, from which it would be difficult to recover.  Ideas like centralised rule from London or by ‘free’ market corporations were treated as toxic by all those elected to protect the community-benefit State.  Only obvious charlatans on the political extremes still advocated them and those who bothered to listen were generally regarded as a bit odd.
Edwin struck through the earlier passages.  He’d use the material in answering questions if they arose and put it on online later.  The philosophy was the thing to impart.
He was looking forward to hearing the other speakers too.  Hints had been given that Catalonia and Lombardy had interesting things to say about energy-from-waste and the Silesians would be sure to have something new to report on district heating.  Conferences like this – real face-to-face meetings – were so rare now that energy was scarce yet so useful when they did happen.  And then it was back to Wessex, where he’d promised his daughter that for St Ealdhelm’s Day this year he’d take her to Windsor Castle: “a well-arranged store of antiquities of various kinds that have seemed worth keeping.”  Maybe they could fit in a day trip across the border to explore some of the fields and forests that were slowly taking the place of London as its villages re-emerged.
He made a mental note to get her something by William Barnes for her birthday, now that she was interested in his poetry.  Views of Labour and Gold, perhaps.  It was never too early to think politically.  Without politics, Edwin thought with a shudder, without the Revolt of the Regions, Wessex and its heritage would long ago have been washed over by the suburbs of disdainful, global-hub London.  Even in deepest Devon you wouldn’t have found a native, not with the second home problem being as it had been.  If the Wessex Regionalist Party had given up the fight, that’s exactly what would have come to pass.  It was everyone’s good fortune that it hadn’t.

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