Simon Carr: Why sweat it out in a Turkish airport?

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The Independent Online

My God, this is what summer holidays used to be. Bowling down a 3-in-1 Gloucestershire hill towards the Daneway through the dappling sunshine. It's a cool, bright, August morning and so many of us are away, or in airports trying to get away, that the countryside is as it was 50 years ago. The beech leaves twinkle, the nettles bow politely as we pass. At the pub there'll be lashings of ginger beer, if we want.

The roadside cow grass is four foot high. I've seen a rat (it might have been an otter) in the Siccaridge wetlands. This is a sort of heaven. I could otherwise be stuck in a midnight regional airport in the south of Turkey, among my swearing, sweating, staggering compatriots. But this ancient country hill - and knowing I won't have to cycle up it - makes a fellow want to be in England. I want to process my tangled bloodlines and confused life into a tidy English skein.

The trick is to leave a car at the bottom of the hill by the bridge so you can drive back to the other car parked outside the church at Sapperton. There are extraordinary pew ends there in black Jacobean oak - some represent obviously naked women. You don't expect that in a church.

From Sapperton you bike through Hailey Wood (you're not supposed to), gaze in wonder at the classical pillars framing the canal tunnel entrance, follow the overgrown towpath, cross fields, ignore the "source of the Thames" (it's on the wrong side of the watershed, for a start) and come out on the tiny, traffic-free Gloucestershire roads. There's justone demanding hill before diving back into the steep English valley overlooked by Jilly Cooper's house somewhere up there on the wooded hillside, where we all want to live.

Back in Oxford, it's into the library. I'm writing a book about the delusions of the French, and for the first time in many years I have a reason to use my Bodleian card.

Five hundred-year-old steps. Whitewashed arches. Carved bookcases and signs saying Don't Touch the Books. Outside, the yellow stone of All Soul's glows when the late sun falls across the quad.

My book about the French is turning out to be a book about the English. What we're like. We change, we stay the same. Here's a line from a medieval incident when early satirists welcomed a bishop by nailing a parchment to his college door. It said: "Hail, mitred hog!" That made me feel quite part of an ancient brotherhood.

Yes, look, Henry VIII later passed an act against "Revilers" (only mild penalties). I sit there thinking about reviling mitred hogs. Also, I'm wondering what they're called, the little minaret-like things, like little decorated rocket-launchers along the walls of All Souls. How many scholars and students have sat sketching them while supposed to be working?

The books I've got piled up offer a run through Magna Carta, the early freeing of the serfs, the Protestant reformation, the Bill of Rights and the way parliament constrained the power of the king. How no British monarch was ever able to say, "L'état, c'est moi." It's a narrative about liberty. And how those country-loving, dog-loving squires dragged power from the barons that had been dragged from the king; and how the electorate dragged it off the gentry, all in an 800-year-long story towards political equality. They should teach it in schools. It's enough to make anyone want to be British.

A-levels are not the answer

A-level results allow newspapers to print pictures of pretty girls getting their results. It's a terrible time for any of us, but worse than it used to be now that you're supposed to get A grades in all the papers of all of your five or six A-levels.

I got two Bs and a D, if you want to know. But I never read Volpone, apart from the introduction. I did very much better than my friend Piers who managed an E. One E. He got a place a Hertford College.

But we had S-levels in those days, for which there was no preparation possible, and the Oxbridge exam, and then interviews. Why did we do away with that? From this distance, it seems an ideal way of choosing students for university.

* Public housing is ugly and needs to be replaced with nice looking houses, says the innovative David Cameron.

It's a very good campaign. After all, it doesn't cost any more to build a nice-looking house than a nasty one. China makes bricks and windows as cheap as you like to any design, and Polish bricklayers will work for cornflakes.

So why does mass housing look so depressing? It can't be that our architects aren't any good; obviously that can't be right. There may be a better reason for it. If council estates offer a variety of houses, some will be nicer than others. Who gets the nicest one? And who gets the next nicest? You've immediately started a class system. No public authority wanted to get involved in that argument, so they took the sensible way out and made them all as undistinguished as each other.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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