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30 August 2023

Leaving politics behind on a liberating coastal wander

Also this week: A close encounter with Labour luvvies, and chaos at the British Museum.

By Sasha Swire

My new book, Edgeland, is about walking the South West Coast Path. My husband, a West Country MP at the time, and I, his political researcher, wanted to get politics out of our heads. Westminster moves in a very different and artificial rhythm to real time. It can speed things up and even slow them down. That’s why politicians always want to be setters of clocks, to determine pace; it’s how they maintain power. The pleasure of taking a walk on the wild side is that you leave behind a world of quick fixes; you find time beyond the clock; you enter eternities; you become the steward of your own rhythms. 

Furthermore, when one walks the coastal edge, or ecotone, one enters a transitional and transformative space, a place between boundaries: sea and land, two completely different realms. It encourages not only the intermingling of flora and fauna but of people who gather, create, generate resistance and invent new ways of living and working. The word ecotone, like all good etymology, is better at telling you how it really is: a marriage of eco (“ecology”) and tone, from the Greek tonos, or “tension”. And it is this tension that makes this walk so utterly beguiling.

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Planes, trains and automobiles

Although I have written a travel book, I have no “disease of travel” as John Steinbeck called it, no wanderlust. Mostly because I loathe the moving machines used to get me places. I don’t like to be controlled and constrained by motions of any sort: boat, plane, train. I feel claustrophobic next to other people. The car is all right as long as my husband isn’t driving it. I don’t like to be nutted and bolted in by metal, switched on, bossily told to sit here, get out from there. I don’t like signage. Maps. I am a system with no moving parts. I exist in a solid state, at home, in Devon, close to my garden. I can no longer understand this obsession I once had of travelling to the Med and sizzling on a sunbed and then coming home looking as if I have been dipped in a pot of Ronseal. Of course, I did look a helluva lot better in a bikini back then, sipping the old “bitch diesel” (rosé) under an olive tree with the cicadas clicking overhead.

An audience with Wizzy Wes

I did get on a train, though, to attend an Edinburgh Fringe event with the Bennite Chris Mullin, on the art of political diary writing. We agreed on things more than we didn’t, which was surprising. He said he likes going to events like these because he would never meet people like me in everyday life. Snap, Chris.

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Talking of going where no man has gone before, the Labour luvvie Wes Streeting briefly flew into my orbit after we got off stage. Wizzy Wes is impressive, with so much gas and bubbles coming off him I think he might secretly insert himself into a SodaStream before leaving the house of a morning. He didn’t even sigh heavily when I bamboozled him with NHS reform ideas. I’ve seen this over-carbonated type come and go before, all that enthusiasm, before the pop in the fusebox of ministerial office, followed by the trailing but faint odour of burned Bakelite. I’m thinking of an equally fizzy former health secretary here – one Matt Hancock.

Nadine Dorries loses the plot

Back to autumn books. We await, with bated breath, the publication of Nadine Dorries’ hagiography The Plot: The Political Assassination of Boris Johnson. Second subtitle: Why the Posh Boys, and That Unelected Shyster Sunak, Wouldn’t Let Me Anywhere Near the Lords. Nadine staying superglued to her parliamentary seat despite rocket-propulsion efforts to eject her by Tory mission control certainly made good viewing. She always makes good viewing. But that resignation letter! Full Carly Simon. And quite the book promo, wasn’t it? Set quite a high bar for those of us coming out the same month as her. Labour was also expressing its thanks for the additional campaign material. Goodbye, Nadine – again – and I’m sorry it’s steerage, not a peerage.

Treasures and treachery

Boy George Osborne’s chairmanship of the British Museum is going well. Items worth tens of millions of pounds have reportedly gone missing, some popping up on eBay at a fraction of their real worth. A senior curator has been sacked after gold jewellery and semi-precious stones were found to have vanished from the vault shelves (though his family have denied he was involved in the disappearances). The curator is reported as having told the Times in 2002: “It’s chaos down there.” Surely, George, “up there”, should be focusing on getting the stolen objects back before offering up more of them to countries like Greece?

“Edgeland: A Slow Walk West” is published by Abacus on 7 September

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This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con