The following blog post is based on a conversation between Stuart ‘The Wildman’ Mabbutt (in black text) and William Mankelow (In green text). This conversation featured on an episode of their podcast: The People’s Countryside Environmental Debate Podcast. The episode, titled ‘Rebuilding Bridges with the Russian People’, was released on the 20th of June, 2023, and you can listen to it here on Podfollow, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Should we walk away from these connections?

© Oxford Mail

Stuart: “We are The People’s Countryside Environmental Debate Podcast. Today we’re going to be talking about towns and cities in the UK that are ‘twinned’ with towns and cities in Russia. Should we be walking away from these connections?

I’m Stuart ‘The Wildman’ Mabbutt, one of the co-hosts of this charade. It’s my job to connect people with nature in as many ways as I can! What is a connection with nature, you might ask. Well, the answer to that question varies just as much as each individual does. Who’s the other co-host?”

William : “My name is William Mankelow! That connection to nature is something we talked about at a talk we did in Poulshot very recently. We’ll talk about that at the end of this episode.

The question we’ve got today is coming from Tony in New Hinksey, which is in Oxford. I’ve got a very quick anecdote here: this reminds me of my grandfather, who grew up in New Hinksey and had to travel to Cowley Road to get us to the school that we went to. He used to have to take the ferry before that bridge was built.”

Stuart: “Across the Thames.”

William: “Yes, exactly. It was a footbridge to begin with. It’s very likely the ferryman who took him across the river was my maternal great-grandfather. I just love that connection.

Tony’s question, then, is as follows: ‘You may have covered this, but I see on the signs when entering Oxford that the city is twinned with a large number of cities and towns across the world. The twinning with Perm in Russia has been blacked out, possibly because of the Ukrainian invasion. Is it right to walk away from this connection?’ What do you think, Stuart?”

Stuart: “I think this is a bigger issue than it may appear at first glance, which is quite good because the remit of this podcast – even though we’ve moved away from talking about the countryside a little bit – is to broaden narratives, and to try to normalise the big issues by talking about them. Talking about Russia on the road signs coming into Oxford is normalising it, because we all see that every time we drive past.”

William: “Exactly.”

Stuart: “Hopefully we’ll be able to come up with some sort of action for our listeners to take whilst we’re discussing this.

It’s a very powerful statement, blocking out the name of a Russian city when the Ukrainian war began, but I’m not sure it’s a wise move. You could freeze that twinning. What is twinning anyway, William?”

William: “As far as I understand it, twinning is a way of creating a connection between the two towns or cities, for whatever reason. It could be to share information, or to share resources.”

Stuart: “Or culture.”

William: “Culture in particular. A large part of it is the cultural link.”

Stuart: “Oxford is twinned with a number of cities all over the world. Leiden in Holland is one of the most famous ones, but Perm is one. Now, you could freeze that and then pick it up after the conflict has passed, because we will need to rebuild bridges.”

William: “The Wikipedia page which covers Oxford has links to all the twin cities. They are: Bonn in Germany, Grenoble in France, Leiden in the Netherlands, Manizales in Colombia, León in Nicaragua, and Ramallah in the West Bank, Palestine. There’s a Polish city here, W-R-O-C-L-A-W, which I will not even try to pronounce, and then Padua in Italy. I butchered a few of those names there. Perm, according to this, is suspended from the list of twin cities right now.”

Stuart: “The one you won’t pronounce is Wrocław.”

William: “Thank you very much. The L is like a W.”

Stuart: “Yes. I’ve got a speedway track there, so I know how to pronounce it.”

William: “Well done. There’s quite a few twin towns here. According to this Wikipedia article – and Wikipedia is not the gospel, is it? – the relationship was suspended in 2022, so it’s not completely cut.”

Stuart: “I don’t mind it being suspended. I’m quite comfortable with that, because it means it’s not cut off completely. But I don’t like the idea of blocking them out on the sign because it still exists.”

William: “So the connection is…”

Stuart: “It’s still there.”

William: “Yes, it’s just been suspended.”

© Wikipedia, Alexxx1979

Stuart: “By blocking Perm out on the sign, though, it gives people the idea that they’re cut off completely. There’s a bit of bigotry there, so that sentiment can start creeping in. I’m not comfortable with that, so that’s my take on it. What’s yours?”

William: “There were some conversations happening about that around the time it was blocked out, with some people saying, ‘Oh, we definitely should be cutting ties’. It’s possible that there may have been some financial exchange between Oxford and Perm. I understand Perm is actually an industrial city, but I don’t know what they actually make there.”

Stuart: “Cutting ties is very final. At some point, we’re going to have to rebuild those ties, so if you don’t cut them in the first place, there’s less building to be done.”

William: “So it would suggest to me that the reason why it was blacked out… well, we say blacked out, but these signs, when you look at them…”

Stuart: “They’re blue.”

William: “They’re blue with yellow writing.”

Stuart: “So they’re blued out.”

William: “Yes, pretty much. It’s almost like it’s been erased.”

Stuart: “When you get close, you can see it’s actually being covered by a piece of tape.”

William: “I suppose that’s how you would do it, because then you can remove it again. I think it’s more of a PR thing, overall. Would you really want to keep a town or city connecting your council to Russia on that list?”

Stuart: “Yeah, but the thing is, it’s not the whole of Russia that’s at war, is it? The people aren’t at war – it’s just a few leaders. I’m an Oxford resident, and I don’t want the city to be removed in my name. You could leave Perm and write something next to it, saying ‘suspended’, instead.”

William: “That would probably make a bigger statement, too, because it’s still recognising that there’s a link.”

Stuart: “Absolutely. There is a link, of course there is. There’s friendships, too, being built on that town linking, and they don’t just disappear.”

William: “That’s often the reason for the links between the two in the first place. I mean, if you think about the different places that I read out there, like Grenoble, Leiden, Bonn, León, they are four names that I know very well, because there’s Bonn Square, Grenoble Road, Leiden Road, and Leon Close. These places have names which I know because I know Oxford.”

© Oxford Mail

Stuart: “Yes. So, to read that question from Tony again… ‘You may have covered this, but I see on the road signs when you enter Oxford that the city is twinned with a large number of other cities and towns across the world. The twinning with Perm in Russia has been blacked out…’ – or blued out, as we say – ‘…possibly because of the Ukrainian invasion. Is it right to walk away from this connection?’. I suppose my conclusion is that no, I don’t think it is right. You might think otherwise, though.”

William: “I would say that, privately, those connections are still there.”

Stuart: “Yeah, they are, but it’s very damaging pretending that they’re not by blacking the name out.”

William: “Those signs are blacked out for one reason and one reason only: the city council doesn’t want to have a connection with Russia.”

Stuart: “Unfortunately, that connection still holds, because you can remove that tape. The plaster is still there! As my grandad says, ‘**** stinks, don’t poke it.’”

William: “We’ve got an explicit episode now.”

Stuart: “Pull the plaster off, and reveal Perm! …You know, there’s some dodgy perms out there, but I’d like to reinstate Perm and put ‘suspended’ next to it.”

William: “A suspended perm.”

Stuart: “My mum had one of those in the 1980s. She used to take her wig off and hang it up on the coat hook inside the front door. Am I painting a picture of my childhood? I had a bald mother… Anyway, the next episode we’re going across the pond to Florida, Tampa. If you’ve sent in a question, this could be yours.”

William: “We’ll just briefly talk about an event Stuart and I did in the village of Poulshot, in Wiltshire.”

Stuart: “Near Devizes.”

William: “Just outside there! We did two things there, didn’t we, Stuart? In the morning, we did an alphabet walk in nature around the village.”

Stuart: “Thirty odd people came. Families, with some kids squawking very loudly.”

William: “Yes. It was an interesting walk around, and then, in the evening, we did a talk about what a connection to nature is, which was a much more intimate affair. There were seven people at that talk, weren’t there?”

Stuart: “Yes. As we say, we gave a talk, but William and I were at the same level as the audience, and we were facing them. We had a conversation about the different aspects of a connection with nature, and a lot of it was related to confidence. After that, we involved the audience. I remember there was an American lady there, so she could provide an American perspective, which I thought was quite good. We had already written down a conclusion before we even started, though. It said: ‘A connection with nature is as individual as us, as people.’ Nothing in that conversation swayed us from that idea, but it was a nice, thought-provoking, intimate session, as you said.”

William: “It was a discussion rather than a talk, wasn’t it? One thing I did notice was that Stuart and myself both reflected on our childhoods when we were talking, because that’s where our connection to nature began. Like you said, though, the walk in the morning was quite a big bunch. There were a few raucous, noisy kids there, but there were some really great connections to nature being made in that as well.”

Stuart: “Another interesting thing was that we met the Vice-Chair of an organisation which encourages people in wheelchairs to get out into the countryside. She was called Destiny, and she parked right next to us. We also met an occupational therapist that wanted us to lead more sensory walks for people with mental health challenges through Green Social Prescribing.

So, we just wanted to say that we’re available to connect you, the listener, with nature. If they want to get in touch, how can they contact us, William?”

William: “You can email us at [email protected]. Alternatively, you could email me at [email protected], or Stuart at [email protected]. If you’re interested, get in touch. We’re quite bespoke, aren’t we, Stuart?

Stuart: “Yes! And with that, we’re going to sign off now!”

If you’re interested in listening to The People’s Countryside Environmental Debate Podcast, you can tune in on Podfollow, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

This transcription was created with the help of Lukas Seifurt who was a micro intern and Suzi Darrington who was a Crankstart intern, both from the University of Oxford.