Leaving the workhouse, only to return: Some reflections on Britain’s housing crisis

In 1996, I bought a small house in the village of Bridge, not far from Canterbury. It was what real estate agents call a “character property,” a former chapel built in the 1830s as part of a workhouse complex to house the rural poor. The complex now consists of 26 dwellings whose residents share responsibly for its management and upkeep. Things were very different 190 years ago.
Continue reading

Life after Coal: A Kent mining village looks to the future while honouring the past

There is evidence of human habitation around Aylesham dating back to the Bronze Age, but the current village is less than one hundred years old and owes its existence to just one thing – the discovery of coal under the Kent Downs.

The village was purpose-built to house miners working at the newly opened Snowdown Colliery in the 1920s. The new settlement attracted miners from across the north of England and south Wales who were struggling to find work at home. Many landlords in nearby Kent towns refused to accommodate these “dirty” migrants so Aylesham provided a welcome sanctuary.
Continue reading

The never-ending cycle of car dependency in England

Living in Hong Kong, I never needed a car, in fact, I hardly ever needed to take a taxi, just about everywhere was accessible by public transport.

My apartment was a ten-minute walk from the nearest MTR station in Tsing Yi, from where it was just a 15-minute ride to both downtown Hong Kong and the airport. My office relocated twice during my 15-year tenure but the commute was never more than 40-minutes door-to-door.
Continue reading

An unwitting witness to history: How I almost crossed paths with a Soviet double-agent

In late July 1985, I arrived in Moscow after a week on the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing. I was hoping to be met at the station by my friend Valery, who had been studying at the same university as me in Beijing and had invited me to stay. Instead, I was immediately surrounded and interrogated by half a dozen KGB agents demanding to know what I was doing in the Russian capital.

I was eventually rescued by Valery who arrived with a sheaf of documents from his boss at Radio Moscow authorizing him to host this suspicious looking foreigner at his apartment for the next week.
Continue reading

Becoming a medical dataset: The digitization of modern existence in England

One of my first tasks on returning to England after 15 years in Hong Kong was to reregister with my village health clinic. In order to do this, I had to fill out an exhaustive questionnaire to determine my basic state of health. Since then, I have been bombarded by requests/demands for blood tests, various cancer screenings, heart rate and blood pressure monitoring.

This is partly due to my advanced age (over 60), as well as the lack of any National Health Service (NHS) records for me over the last two decades. In order to fill in the gaps, I offered to provide my medical records from doctors in Hong Kong but this proved to be a remarkably complicated and time consuming process. In order to get my Covid-19 vaccinations recognised by the NHS app, for example, I had to travel to London (one hour on the train) and locate one of the few hospitals in the capital authorized to scrutinize non-UK vaccination certificates.
Continue reading

Stelling Minnis: A rural relic and monument to continual class struggle in Kent

If you glance at a map of the East Kent Downs you will notice several settlements with the suffix Minnis. The name probably stems from the Saxon word (Ge)maennes, and refers to areas of open heathland that once played a key role in the medieval rural economy, providing spaces for landless peasants to graze their animals, forage and collect firewood.

Over the centuries, the minnises were gradually “enclosed” by the lords of manor who owned them and vital access to the commons was cut off. This process was accelerated as the rural population grew and demand for land increased, and the privatization drive was eventually legalized by a series of parliamentary acts of enclosure. By the mid-19th century, nearly all common land in Kent had been parcelled up for private property owners.
Continue reading

Consume less, care more: The case for degrowth in England and Japan

Frankly, the left has to start caring a lot more about growth, about creating wealth, attracting inward investment and kick-starting a spirit of enterprise… It is the only show in town for those who dream of a brighter future.

This, believe it or not, is the leader of British Labour Party, Keir Starmer, writing in The Observer in July this year.

I expect this kind of nonsense from the Conservative Party but for the leader of the Labour Party to parrot it so enthusiastically is utterly depressing. I guess that after 13 years in opposition, the party has decided it must rebrand itself as Tory Light if it is to have any chance of winning at the next election.
Continue reading

The Old Road: A tale of Britain’s first settlers and later pilgrims

When I was about ten-years-old, I had a secret hideout on the chalk escarpment above my primary school in Folkestone. My gang and I would sneak out the back gate of the school, across the fields and up the steep slope to the World War Two pillbox that was the base of our operations.

I did not really appreciate it at the time, we were too busy playing war games, but from up here you can get a distinct sense of just how connected this corner of Britain is with mainland Europe. On a sunny day, you can see the white cliffs of Cap Blanc-Nez gleaming in the distance, cliffs that are composed of exactly the same Upper Cretaceous rocks that you are standing on. If you follow the contours of the chalk ridge from my hideout to the east, and out across the water, it does not take much imagination to see how intimately the two sides of what is now the English Channel were once linked.

Continue reading

La Familia es Todo: The ties that bind in Better Call Saul

In Season Three of Breaking Bad, Hector Salamanca brutally demonstrates to his young nephews that “family is everything.” The sentiment is reciprocated later by his nephew Lalo in Season Five of Better Call Saul when he vows revenge against Gus Fring.

Better Call Saul is not a traditional family show, but at its core it is a show about family, specifically the disintegration of the toxic McGill/Wexler family that leads to emergence of Saul Goodman. But there is also the corporate family represented by Howard Hamlin, the Cartel, and tying everyone together is ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut, a man so fiercely protective of his family that he will go to any lengths to keep them safe.

Continue reading