Final Bell: protestors at Harmondsworth in 2007 when it was under threat of being bulldozed for a Heathrow third runway. (Photo: Getty)
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Will Self: A field trip to Heathrow via Harmondsworth Great Barn

A picturesque anomaly near the airport, ever waiting to be submerged by the tarmac of runway three.

It’s a blustery grey day on top of the short-stay car park at Heathrow Central. Down below us the new Terminal 2 building is taking shape in a series of steely whale ribs and arabesques. It doesn’t look like it will turn out to be anything much, but then nothing in the built environment nowadays looks like anything much; or, rather, it all looks like too much – too much airy embellishment, too many wave-form roofs, too many great expanses of curved glass parametrically wrapped around hideous atria. At least Heathrow has this solid virtue: it’s an almost historic airport that has been subjected to over half a century of chopping, changing and concrete-pouring, so that its ugly hugger-mugger of buildings replicates the very disorder of the unplanned metropolis it was never properly designed to serve.

Heathrow is the fons et origo of British spatiality. It was here in 1784 that Captain William Roy measured out a baseline that became the starting point for all subsequent trigonometric surveys of the country. These grew in the years following his death to become the Ordnance Survey. Note the “ordnance” – Roy’s mapping was for military purposes, and really our commonsensical internalised sense of rational, three-dimensional space relates to the ballistics of death-metal.

At either end of Roy’s baseline stands a memorial cannon, and not far from the one in Heathrow (the other end of the line is at Hampton) is the café frequented by London cabbies doing the airport run. There’s a nice circularity to it, all those cab drivers with their posterior hippocampus enlarged by sopping up the exhaustive Knowledge of the capital’s streets and public buildings, homing in day after day on this: the point at which accurate mapping began.

We’d set our sights on Heathrow because, for the second year in succession, I was taking a group of my psychogeography students to visit the Great Barn at Harmondsworth, then walk back from there, through the watery edgelands to our campus near Uxbridge. We like to think that space is a predetermined category into which objects fit, just as events can be slotted inside incremental time – but of course this is the kind of nonsense we psychically resist the whole time. The psychoanalyst manqué Adam Phillips asserts: “All of us may be surrealists in our dreams, but in our worries we are incorrigibly bourgeois.” To which I would add: all of us may be Newtonian in our daily go-round of calibrating time, distance and money, but in our minds we are transcendent disciples of Einstein.

The problem is to actualise this innate grasp we have of the relativity of space-time, and to that end I lead the students down off the car-park roof and on to the U3 bus, which chugs back through the tunnel under the runway and drops us on the peripheral road. A short walk across a dormant field and we’re in the village of Harmondsworth. This picturesque little anomaly, with its flinty church and whitewashed pub, has long been under threat of submersion beneath a third Heathrow runway – a threat that, though temporarily lifted, still hangs in the sky overhead, like a cloud of tarmac in suspension, waiting to pour down and heat-seal a new Pompeii. We liaise with Justine Bayley, a local resident and one of the leading lights of Friends of the Great Barn, who has agreed to show us round.

The Great Barn was built in the early 1500s and is the largest timber-framed building in England. John Betjeman, in between calling for air strikes on Slough, described it as the “Cathedral of Middlesex”. The barn’s history recapitulates the sorry deterritorialising tale of our property rights. Built by a religious foundation – Winchester School – it was briefly in royal ownership, and then passed through the hands of only three families over the next half-millennium; it was still actively used for its original agricultural purpose as late as the 1970s. However, in recent years, property speculators bought up the barn, bargaining on a profit to be gained from its compulsory purchase in the event of the government deciding to build runway three. It languished until English Heritage managed to acquire it – but what they’re going to do when the ’dozers come a’rolling is anyone’s guess.

The barn is a beautiful structure that looks like very little. Its oaken pillars and mighty trusses instantiate a unity of form and function that endured through time because the productive basis of its spatiality remained unchanged: the sheaves of wheat that were piled along the earthen floor of its nave; wheat that was harvested where Airbuses now bombinate. Not, I hasten to add, that I bring my students here out of nostalgia for a time and mode of production that none of us ever knew – my aims are as contemporary as those of any Gate Gourmet worker stirring up a mess of airline pottage in a steel barn. By getting my students to use their own bodies to mediate between these two very different spaces, I hope to detach them from the man-machine matrix that keeps us all calculating our mileage allowance, rather than simply wandering through the world.

Three hours later when, muddy and footsore, they stagger back to the university, I think I can spy just such an epiphanic consciousness flickering in their young faces – but then again it could be just me who’s hopelessly spaced-out.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.