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I found myself in a job the other day that I would never have imagined for myself. I had the role of holding up various objects – some commonplace, some bizarre – in front of an audience gathered in a barn. Behind me, standing on a trailer, stood an auctioneer, the very skilled Mr Ryan Williams of McCartneys in Hay on Wye. Ryan Williams shouted out the lot number and I went across, seized the object and paraded it in front of the good people of the local villages here. Sometimes this easy - a lovely print of a Pembrokeshire farm at night by the masterly John Knapp-Fisher – but sometimes I found I had bitten off more than I could chew. I lifted up an old Villiers belt-engine and felt my old hernia strain. A wag shouted out that he wanted to make a bid for my hat.
All this parading and shouting out for bids was part of an auction that my wife Sue and I decided to hold to raise money for a charity we favour called the Busoga Trust, which gets clean water to Ugandan villagers who otherwise would be drinking from swamps. We’d never organised an auction before and quickly realised it was much more difficult than we expected. We were rescued by the generosity of givers and of bidders. People were extraordinarily generous in giving us both good things to sell or `promises’ – two nights in a flat in Little Venice, for instance. The writer Jenny Valentine who was written wonderful books for children offered several hours of instruction for anyone wanting to learn this specialised form of writing. And she gave a big hamper of delights from her delicatessen. The Hay Festival donated a Golden Ticket, giving the winner and a friend access to any five events at next year’s festival. It went for £200.
The bidders were also generous, coming from a very mixed crowd of local farming families, villagers and people from Hay and Hereford and around. They responded often by bidding over the odds. Two elderly deck-chairs had so confused me that initially I had the idea of selling them outside the auction for £3 “if you can unfold them.” Our daughters over-ruled me, put them in the auction where they went for £50. Ryan Williams, who gave his time and skills for free, helped hugely. When a lady asked of a coat I was holding up what the size was, he came back immediately “Your size Madam”. It made £40. One great friend from Hay was so generous in her bids that her husband tried to seize her lot number from her. She even bought a horsebox - and she hasn’t got a horse.
What has all this got to do with resilience? Well, I think empathy is related to the resilience of societies. People who can think of the needs of others and give up something for them are contributing to the cohesiveness of society. Many if not most of the villagers of Blakemere (pop. 75) came to the auction, many to help in running it. They opened up hearts - and wallets and purses. The village, I think, got something out of it - we don’t have a pub and meeting neighbours is hard except at events like this one. And of course, two far distant villages of Uganda also got something precious.
We were aiming in the auction to get to £3,500, the money that a well costs to survey and construct and furnish with a strong pump. That sum also includes the costs of sanitation courses for the villagers so that their new clean water is accompanied by better hygiene. In the end, taking in the money from a bar and the teas, the auction fetched over £5,300. Together with £2000 that Sue had raised separately from friends, we have enough now for two wells – to bear small plaques saying “Donated by the Friends of Herefordshire.” We had gratifying messages from the Trust and also from the good people in Uganda whose job it is to put in the wells.
It can be objected that providing such wells is pointless in a country such as Uganda, which has runaway population growth, the second highest in the world. And indeed, the Trust workers are used to being asked by villagers for a second well, as soon as they finish the first. “Give us ten more wells please” was a cry at one village earlier this year that we heard.
It’s true that population growth in Africa is often a nightmare, which is why David Attenborough amongst others is concerned that so much of the West’s energy goes into feeding people and not limiting their numbers in the first place. But we saw earlier this year in Uganda how clean water is the start of a society being able to help itself. Without clean water, the children get ill, their schooling is interrupted. Girls especially suffer, being made to stay at home to look after the younger children. And the education of girls is the lynch-pin of a better future in Africa.
These insights and this auction indeed all have their derivations in the personality of one woman, Frances David of Skenfrith, Monmouthshire. Frances died last month and was buried in her local churchyard on Friday after a large attendance at her funeral mass. She was a force of nature. Her great attribute, along with her warmth and humanity, was that she believed in action as much as words. Like most people, she would talk volubly about a problem, an issue. Unlike most people, she would then do something about it. She hurled herself into many causes - CND, state education. After she retired as deputy head of the excellent comprehensive school in Ross on Wye, she took herself off to Uganda and taught at a school in the Jinja region - all alone, not as part of a programme, in a fairly distant village without electricity or any telephones. That took courage. She there became convinced that clean water was the starting point of a better life. She became a key member of the Busoga Trust and very skilled at getting donations. In her time, she raised money for 85 wells – clean water for perhaps 150,000 Ugandans. The well-intentioned but idle, people like me, she got going. Sue and I had an unforgettable trip to Uganda with her last year, taken by her into the heart of Ugandan families who had become close to her. We were privileged to know her.
So finally, the farmers have their badger hunt. Kick-off- 26th August. I view my fellow farmers’ interest in culling badgers with some puzzlement. It’s partly because, like the Republican Party and climate change, in going for a cull the farmers reject science. The careful studies indicate that a cull will make matters worse. It’s also because the cull is in essence dishonest.
Take our farm. We have a number of badger sets scattered about it. Badgers cross and recross the fields like pedestrians in the centre of Hereford. But despite all these badgers, in all the time we kept cattle on this farm, we never had a case of TB in our animals. Moreover, the good farmer who now lets our land and puts cattle on it has never had a case. He’s been closed down with TB … last year in fact when tests revealed positive responses on two animals. Yet when his cattle were slaughtered, examination of the carcasses revealed no TB.
Why do have we have badgers but no TB? My guess is that as we have low numbers of cattle in the fields, they have plenty to eat and no need to graze grass contaminated by badgers. It’s partly also because we never have feeding troughs in the fields, which badgers can use and contaminate.
I am not denying that badgers can be vectors for TB. But I am saying that cattle-to-cattle transmission is a bigger cause: farmers who trade cattle a lot, having animals coming and going, seem to be much more liable to TB problems. However, admitting this is hard for farmers and questions the very way they do business.
The National Farmers’ Union, inevitably, has come out in favour of a cull. The NFU is the most bone-headed of all the producer-interest organisations in the country - and in saying that I include the Police Federation, the coppers’ trade union. Remember the foot-and-mouth disaster years back? The NFU opposed vaccination and as a result the countryside was littered with pyres of burning animals. In Herefordshire, most of the condemned animals were found later to be perfectly healthy.
Since this a column which touches on the need for resilience, I must record that a few days ago, I broke my leg. (That’s the trouble with journalists, they exaggerate. Now be accurate.) All right. A few days ago, I broke my ankle. (Not good enough. Try again).
A few days ago, I fractured my ankle. ( Better. But say how serious it is). It is not serious. Already I can walk on it with the aid of one crutch, water the garden and tend to the chickens. (The truth at last. A minor injury.) Resilience Score: 5 out 10. Report; “Bugler is recovering well but one must question why he incurred this injury in the first place. He should desist from hazardous activities.”
It was interesting to see at first-hand how A & E at Withybush, Pembrokeshire’s main NHS hospital, dealt with the injuries coming in. It did so quickly and efficiently, sorting out the serious (head injury) from the trivial (wasp sting). I must record my thanks also to the plaster technician, Mr Terry Vaughan. He was shrewd enough to look closely at my X-Ray and realise what the docs had not: that the fracture had older origins… he made me remember that I had cracked the ankle with an iron bar a couple of months previously, the start of the fracture that I later made much worse by slipping when carrying a heavy ping pong table with the Editor of this website.
More on zero-hour contracts. It was well put by Seamus Milne in The Guardian the other day that such contracts are the result of the thorough implementation of neo-liberal economic thinking, which has being going on apace since being set off by Thatcher and fostered by Blair. Perceptively, Milne wrote: “What is clear is that the model of capitalism that crashed and burned five years ago - and they are now trying to resurrect – is unable to deliver secure jobs and full employment, or anything like it. If neo-liberalism were just a theory of economic management, it would have been discredited by its failure. What’s going on now shows that it is also a system of social power.”
Last time I wrote about a dear friend of ours who was working zero-hour contracts - sometimes up to 72 hours a week but no hours guaranteed. Well, he no longer has this job. I offer his new job as an insight into modern Britain: he has eight hour days, driving and delivering vegetables, but his day starts at 3 a.m. His rate of pay: £6.50 an hour.
Many years ago, when editing Weekend World for London Weekend Television, the team included a young researcher named Gerard Baker. He was personable, obviously bright, with perhaps a little more than his share of Oxbridge arrogance. (The team had a few of those first class honors brains that have armfuls of intelligence and absolutely no journalistic nous. Baker was better than these.)
Remembering him with some warmth, I was dismayed to see a photograph of him in the public prints the other day. A fearful attack was being made upon his person. Was he being spat in the eye by the poisonous Amazonian tree-frog? He was not. Was he being sprayed with tear gas in a demonstration against gas fracking? Not him. Was he on the receiving end of water cannon while protesting against Shell’s exploration of the Arctic? No again. His experience was much, much worse.
Head bowed, he was being sprayed with champagne by Rupert Murdoch on being appointed editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, bible of neo-liberalism. Oh my God! My heart went out to him. What a ghastly experience. What a terrible billet.
Someone dear to me has this pattern to his work. He leaves home on a Sunday evening and drives to a distant part of the UK, where he is put up in a Travelodge. He then works in that distant town for 12 days, with only Sunday off. Very often he works 72 hours in six days. One week recently he worked 76. He gets paid no overtime, just a rate fractionally over the minimum wage, plus a £15 a day living allowance. He gets no paid holidays or pension contributions and indeed is employed only eight or nine months in the year.
There is no active trade union amongst his fellow employees. People who complain tend not get taken on again. Now he has just been told that his job will not cease this year at the end of November but at the end of September.
Where on earth did the idea get around that trade unions are unnecessary, a barrier to progress? Why on earth did Ed Milliband get thrown on the defensive about Unite and Len McCluskey and declare that the Labour Party was now going to have a more distant relationship with the unions? One knows perfectly well why, of course. The idea came out of the dominance of economic neo-liberalism, which has become the prevailing ideology of the Anglo-Saxon West since Reagan and Thatcher (“the Dynamite Duo”).
It’s intriguing how ideologies persist long after they have been shown to be redundant. In a book just published, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (Verso), the historian Philip Mirowski examines the paradox that just as neo-liberalism should be dead in the water, after leading to the recession, bankrupt banks and massive unemployment, it still retains its grip over policy-makers. As the blurb for Mirowski’s book has it “…we’ve awoken to a second nightmare more ghastly than the first: a political class still blaming government intervention, a global drive for austerity, stagflation and an international sovereign debt crisis.”
Mirowski cites classic studies of cognitive dissonance to explain the paradox: “neo-liberal thought has become so pervasive that any countervailing evidence serves only to convince disciples of its ultimate truth.”
Meanwhile, the anti-trade union ideology results in scandals such as zero-hour contracts, in which the employed have no one to protect them from hard-nosed employers such as Sports Direct and (even) Buckingham Palace.
If there were a trade union for aged farmer-hacks, I’d join it.
Speaking of farmers, today is August 1st and the farmers of Britain are now free to go out and cut their hedgerows, such cutting being forbidden between the end of February and the end of July, to protect nesting birds. In no time, roads around us will be thick with hedge-cutting tractors, spreading thorns and punctures over the tarmac. Why are farmers so obsessed with this hedge-cutting? Some farmers near us in Herefordshire jumped the gun and started flailing hedges from mid-July. I stopped to ask one why he was doing it, didn’t he know of the ban till the end of July? “Road safety reasons” he said. When I expostulated that the length of hedge he was cutting was no safety hazard, he reverted to fundamental English expressions as old as Chaucer.
I have been thinking that hedge-flailing happens because farmers love their fields to look neat, just as they take pride in ploughing their fields so the furrows are dead straight. But a friend points out that farmers aren’t naturally tidy, many farm-yards looking rather like scrap-yards. I’ve tried asking neighbouring farmers and still cannot understand it. “They’re easier to cut when they’re green.” Me: “But why cut them at all and waste all that diesel? Why not cut them once every three years” (Many hedgerow species fruit on second year wood, cutting every year denies birds many berries.) Farmer: “Oh you’ve got to have them cut.”
One cheering aspect of this hot summer has been solar power having a field day. There are getting on for half a million solar arrays in the UK, mostly on people’s roofs. On sunny days, Britain’s solar panels have been kicking out six per cent of daytime electricity demand.
We have a couple of ground-mounted solar arrays at our farm, tucked away in corners. The first one we put up was a source of local interest; the second, when the high feed-in tariffs came in, a source of a little envy. In July they generated about 25 Kwh a day – or roughly five times what we use daily. The rest went into the grid.
I appreciate that David McKay in Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air has done sums to show that even if you covered every south-facing roof in Britain with solar panels, you still wouldn’t produce a major portion of Britain’s energy. But strangely, the Germans do not appear to have read the good Prof’s book. In Germany, they’ve covered endless factory roofs and town hall and school roofs with solar panels, with the result that on July 7th, for instance, nearly 40 per cent of the country’s daytime supply came from solar energy.
Most cheering of all is the fact that the costs of solar generated power is falling fast. It can now be generated for 10 euro-cents an hour. This is getting close to the costs of generation from new conventional power stations.
By the way, credit for getting Britain’s solar power going goes to Ed Milliband, when secretary of state at the Department of Energy. He just did something he believed in. An approach that would serve him well as Leader of the Opposition?
The kitchen garden is the theatre of a performance familiar to many gardeners. I had two plants, squashes, the delectable Marina Di Chioggia, queen of squashes. (A friend in Hay said recently that she didn’t like the taste of Marina Di Chioggia. It was like hearing someone say they didn’t like the frescoes of Piero Della Francesca.) Anyway, I planted the largest, strongest plant in an ideal position in specially prepared soil. The second weaker plant I just heeled in on bare ground in an odd corner.
Of course the weaker plant is now the stronger; the favoured plant moping like a spoiled child. I call this the Sod-You trait. Never a year in my garden without a Sod-You.
Last week, there was a sizeable gathering of Size Of folk at our farm. Size Of? Was this a gathering of Herefordshire’s obese, to hear news of surgical techniques and eastern therapies to reduce the size of thighs and stomachs? Not at all, though judging by the girth of a good number on the pavements of Hereford, such a gathering would have been a sight to behold.
Rather, the people who turned up last Wednesday came to hear two leading spirits of The Size of Wales charity address them. The Size of Wales was created by Heather Stewart, an admirable and decisive woman who four years ago decided that she was sick of hearing on the radio … “an area of rainforest the size of Wales was cut down in Brazil last year” or “the area of floating plastic rubbish in the Pacific Ocean is the size of Wales.” She set up the charity with the ambition of protecting an area of rainforest the size of the Principality - roughly two million hectares. Last March, the Size of Wales reached its target of raising £2 million to do this, and it is now supporting twenty rainforest projects, mainly in Africa.
A few of us in Herefordshire, inspired by the SoW, got the idea of a Size of Herefordshire, which conveniently is one tenth the area of Wales, and thus needs a mere £200,000 to reach its target. As we sat on the lawn, we listened to Hannah Scrase (the former director) and the current director, Claire Raisin. I think most of us were inspired to follow down the SoW path, but a sobering fact emerged. Under questioning from The Surgeon, we learned that an area of rainforest the size of the Wales is being felled and logged every two and a half months. That means that it is taking only a single week for rainforest area the size of our county to be destroyed.
I think there were two immediate reactions to this appalling news. One was, oh Jaysus, we’re fucked, what time does the Yew Tree open? The other was, hell, we’d better get a move on and then get other English counties to follow suit. For the moment, the second tendency is in the ascendant. I will keep you posted on Size of Herefordshire developments.
Speaking of being fucked, this earthy phrase is of course common discourse. I even once saw a piece of graphiti in the London Underground which went; “Re-arrange the following words into a well-known expression or phrase: OFF FUCK.” The most memorable and most powerful use of the phrase I have come across recently was by the head of Microsoft’s Computational Science Laboratory at Cambridge. Having looked at the world’s growing population, its burgeoning appetite for resources and the complete lack of leadership or even recognition of and about the problem, Stephen Emmott said, pithily: “We’re fucked.”
My hunch is that he is right. Homo sapiens plus consumerism is an equation that adds up to disaster. But what does it mean for us, of all our diverse ages, to live in a world that is being fucked, is fucking itself, is being thoroughly and comprehensively rogered? A woman at this year’s Hay Festival spoke for some when she said “I am really frightened.”
So we will live in increasing fear and anxiety. But what else will or should it mean? Should people try not to have children at all, as the likelihood is that they will live their lives in great turmoil? Is that responsible and caring behaviour – or utter defeatism? What psychological adjustments do we need now?
I will try to continue this theme - Living in A Fucked World - in later blogs.
The internet brings us many evils – re-runs of Top Gear on BBC iPlayer being one of its foulest abominations. But there are compensations. Downloading completely free David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air is one of them. Another is being able to get e-books, either onto the laptop or one’s e-reader. E-books are making it possible to get good books published which once would have died the death on the conventional publisher’s unsolicited Mss pile. An example is a crime novel called A Crooked Smile, written by Paul Barker, once editor of New Society and author of the classic Hebden Bridge: A Sense of Belonging.
The crime novel is new territory for Paul Barker, but the man has taste and style, as befits someone who once offered me a job. (I took it, gratefully). A Crooked Smile (published by eBookpartnership) moves the crime novel away from police procedural, which is getting very hackneyed, into a plot driven by character and motive and social context.) It is also liberally strewn with Barker’s interesting asides on the social history of neighbourhoods and districts, mostly of London. I was however upset to read one character reflecting that South London was a vast provincial city that happened to find itself moored along the Thames. What? South London - the home of Crystal Palace FC, the National Theatre, The Southbank, Bankside Power Station (sorry, the Tate Modern), the Imperial War Museum and King’s College Hospital? Some mistake there.
Feast or famine is a familiar down the ages. In my Herefordshire garden, the dualism is being acted out with passion at the moment. We were a few weeks ago eating only spring greens, everything else being late or dead. Now the crops have decided to fruit all together, choreographed. The runner beans have run so fast they have overtaken the broad beans, which are broadmindedly sharing their bed with fruiting French beans. The courgettes of course are everywhere, the marrows fattening, lettuces and spinach out of control. I mutter as I walk around the beds, eyeballing the Swiss Chard demanding to be picked. “ Oh, now you’re ready. Just when we don’t need you.”