I took a walk this morning along the upper reaches of the Aeron valley; an area of gently sloping pastures grazed by sheep and cattle, rolling land with sunken trackways and woods, scattered cottages and old chapels. It has been one of my favourite routes for years, but it starts with a challenge. The bridleway (unsigned from the road) follows a track that curves between the fields to a small, well-maintained farm of white-washed stone buildings nestling idyllically on the valley side with trees and hedgerows and small fields all around it. Not a place that seems to hold any threat, but I always dislike passing it.
A couple of years ago, the owners – who were out in the yard when I walked through – had completely blanked my friendly hello and looked at me with silent hostility. Nothing much, but it left a bad feeling, and made the walk up to their gate a little less enjoyable than it otherwise would be – would they be there? what would their reaction be? Of course, on point of principal I never stopped following the route – there is a bridleway there and I wouldn’t want to reward their behaviour by not using it anymore.
Today – bank holiday Monday – was bright, grey and white clouds ballooning against the blue, the air still, enough freshness in it, along with the feeling of coming autumn, the blackberries in the bushes, the turning leaves, to give me a sense of exhilaration as I walked briskly up the lane, looking forward to the route and the chance to relax and think. Still, coming to the farm and hearing a quad bike buzzing around I felt a slight concern. In the farmyard all was quiet, a Landrover parked up, the sun warm in this sheltered spot. I moved through quickly and quietly, with relief opening the gate at the opposite side, and passing through into a little enclosure that opened onto a field, the bridleway to the right.
My relief, however, was premature. As I closed the gate carefully behind me, through another gate to my left a small flock of sheep bounded, the farmer on his quad bike behind them, his wife close by with a crook. She shut the gate behind them and they headed away from me. I held back where I was, not wanting to get in the way or disturb anything. But as the flock swung round towards me and the farmer shouted, I realised that, as fate would have it, I was standing exactly where he wanted to take them.
The chances that he would be moving them to this spot just as I walked through must have been vanishingly small – especially as this was a route that I hadn’t taken for a year at least. There it was though – the farmer shouting, me standing transfixed and the sheep, perfectly marshalled until then, dividing and running helter-skelter away across the field.
“Well thank you” He shouted sarcastically – frustrated, and understandably so – the situation would have annoyed me too.
I put my hands up in admission and walked over “I’m sorry, I didn’t know where you were taking them – I was trying to stay out of the way”.
My voice shook a bit, which I wasn’t too pleased about and of course he made me repeat what I’d said. He had a square, red face and small, clear blue eyes. I wondered if I should offer to help round the flock up again – I’ve worked a bit with sheep in the past and I felt pretty bad at having caused him so much trouble. But his response changed my mind:
“Get effing back where you effing came from, and don’t come walking through people’s effing homes. And take your effing disease with you” He shouted into my face.
I made sure I met his eye as he said it. Behind all the hatred in those eyes and voice was the fact I was English, the assumption I was a tourist, the resentment at having a public right of way through his farm, but – adding another layer to the fear of strangers and the hatred of the English – was Covid.
The disease was another reason to hate an outsider and to hate the English – more than that, it was a justification of that hatred – everything that might have been at least partly hidden before, out of vestiges of politeness or residual feelings of guilt at expressing prejudice, was now out in the open – Covid made it OK to show it and say it. I am not proud of it, but I responded with a short but instructive bit of Anglo Saxon and he buzzed off on his quad.
It was an unpleasant way to start a hike and I fumed about it as I walked along between grass banks and gnarled old trees with the valley sloping away on one side, marshy fields and woods on the other. I was still angry and upset when I reached the little chapel that lies out on its own at the end of a lane about halfway to Llangeitho from my starting point. I was going to walk on, but I felt that this might be a good place to sit for a while and reflect and calm down. I pushed through the rusty old gate and walked round the side of the grey-walled church to sit in the sun on the step near the door, beyond the gravestones the Aeron valley curving away between the arms of wooded hills, a hum from tractors cutting silage in the background, a sense of silence and stillness in the churchyard, a statuesque pine tree to my right, the graves sloping down and away from me towards the track below.
It was a good place to think. Oddly I thought first of a story I once heard about Pope John Paul II, who, when he was shot by a gunman responded by giving the man a blessing – I realised how deeply faithful and kind someone had to be to have that reaction first, and not a reaction of anger. But I stopped myself from being too self-critical – I was starting to think that I should have realised what was happening with the sheep sooner, that I should have offered to help immediately, that I should have explained that I had lived in Aberystwyth for 17 years, and that for the last seven I’d been doing research aimed at helping farmers.
I stopped myself thinking like that, firstly because it came to me that coming to terms with past events is not just about reconciling ourselves to what has happened to us, but also about reconciling ourselves to our imperfect responses to it. Secondly, I saw that I had been the victim of prejudice, and that all those potential responses I had thought through would have been appeasing that prejudice. I shouldn’t have to defend who I was to a stranger just because he didn’t like the way I looked or my accent – because he hated the English and hated people coming through his farm. Even if I had caused him a problem, there was no excuse for his outburst, and even if my response hadn’t been perfect, it was certainly understandable.
All of that led me to another realisation – that for people in minorities around the world, this type of encounter was an everyday one, and probably at the least serious end of the range of experiences they might have. That for those people making a mistake, not acting perfectly, might trigger the kind of outburst I had received from anyone they met. Worse, if the incident had got out of hand, as a white, middle class man I would have been pretty sure that the police would treat me fairly and listen to me – but for an immigrant or member of a minority group, the intervention of authority might bring even more dangerous prejudice. How would it be to face that every day, for a lifetime?
A few weeks ago, in the UK, crowds came out onto the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Knocking over a statue was their response to continual prejudice – they had run out of patience with justifying themselves and explaining, with placating and accommodating to enable them to exist with that prejudice. They had run out of patience with spending every day trying not to give anyone an excuse for abuse or violence. The government told them they were naughty for damaging statues and called them thugs – and changed nothing.
It goes without saying that that isn’t good enough. And just learning how to keep prejudice ever more perfectly hidden is no solution either. Neither is a painstaking hunt through historical media for any word or phrase which might unintentionally cause offence. Instead, when we find ourselves in the powerful majority, we must face head-on outbursts of prejudice from those in ‘our’ group. We must not only stamp them down but also get to the heart of them and pull apart the twisted logic and assumptions that drive them.
And when – on the odd occasion – we find ourselves in the minority, we must take from our experience a better understanding of what prejudice can do, and a stronger resolve to challenge and face it down when we find it in ourselves. Right now, we must also make sure that Covid and all it evokes are not used by the unscrupulous and the self-interested to deepen old divisions and open up new ones.