Friday, 30 May 2014

A new poem…


Hale: sound of body; sound of body breathing
in with out; a lifetime’s lifetides ebb with flow,
full with empty; inhale, exhale; endlessly
repeating, pulsing, pushing the breath that moves
the brain; the source; the beating drum; ceaselessly
calling the surge within marking mariners’ time.

Friday, 23 May 2014

An open letter to Waitrose customer support…

Yesterday – as I have done on many Thursdays, since the store opened – I went to buy my weekly Stratford-upon-Avon Herald from your Stratford-upon-Avon store.

Usually, I would park my car in one of the many disabled spaces (I walk with a stick, because of various “neurological deficits”); amble the few yards to the front door; collect my paper; hand over my 60p to someone at either the basket tills, or, occasionally, the customer service desk; and then womble back to my car.

However, the store now seems to have given priority to coffee-drinkers (to which group I admit I belong…) over that of your disabled customers: and I had to fight my way through the checkout queues and other shoppers, and walk almost the full length of the store, to get hold of my paper – as they have been moved near to the café. The quick-check till operator would not let me pay there: so I had to make my way back to the basket tills, to hand my money over – again having to struggle past the checkout queues.

This morning, as I am also deaf, I tried completing your online contact form. However, all I received in response was: “There was a problem. Your request could not be completed.” As the only alternative is to telephone you, as you can imagine, I was rather peeved; and, as I said to my partner, your “feeble attempts at accessibility suck big-time”.

However, refusing to be daunted by any of this – as this is not the first time (by a long way) I have encountered issues with contacting businesses over the Internet (which, obviously, in the retailing world, is too newfangled to operate correctly… – even though I somehow managed to institute a successful customer-facing website back in the early 1990s, with only one other colleague to help me…!) – I then went hunting for other means of access. (I am nothing if not stubborn.)

On this webpage you say: “If your enquiry is about something you bought in a Waitrose supermarket, please contact that store. Find the telephone number, address and email of all our Waitrose shops….”

However, on the subsequent page, there is no such email address – making the store even more inaccessible to the deaf and disabled (e.g. me).

So what’s a (deaf and disabled) man to do? Well, in this case, find a general email address, and hope that there is a human-being at the end of it.

Sooner or later, though, I will lose the will to keep writing such long emails, and will, instead, make use of the Equality Act 2010 – and let someone else deal with such issues. In the meantime, I suggest you get one of your colleagues to read the Act: so that, in future, you pay more than lip service to customer service.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Eroding the cliffs of pain…

The more we learn about climate change and its effects, the more we realize – simply put – that…
  1. we still have a great deal to learn (as with most – if not all – areas of science);
  2. it’s not just about “global warming”;
  3. it’s already here;
  4. what were acute once-in-a-century events – such as flooding, large coastal storms, widely fluctuating seasonal temperatures – are becoming more and more frequent – if not the norm; if not chronic (you only have to look at the record of flooding in Stratford to see evidence); however,
  5. once the effects of these “events” wear off, we carry on as if the crisis were over – seemingly, we learn nothing from the experience.

A recent article by George Monbiot sums the situation up perfectly:

Sustaining interest in this great but slow-burning crisis is a challenge no one seems to have mastered. Only when the crisis causes or exacerbates an acute disaster – such as the floods – is there a flicker of anxiety, but that quickly dies away.

Why is it so difficult to persuade people to care about our wonderful planet, the world that gave rise to us and upon which we wholly depend? And why do you encounter a barrage of hostility and denial whenever you attempt it (and not only from the professional liars who are paid by coal and oil and timber companies to sow confusion and channel hatred)?

I have hinted before that, as well as the persistent pain (described as “background pain”) I experience, on top of it I then have “breakthrough pain” events) – which are akin to the usual, acute pain that most people experience. Dealing with these is a lot more difficult than the constant, thrumming discomfort: because of its suddenness and unpredictability – but there are precautions (and medications) I can take to lessen their impact: although, sadly, unlike preventative measures for unusual weather events, they do not work long-term; and only (if I am lucky) take the edge off my pain. (I sometimes think a sharp knife is preferable to such a blunted one – usually because of the accompanying side-effects.)

However, for most people, when you cut yourself, suffer a bruise or even a broken leg, you understand – from experience, or from your mum kissing it better… – that its impact on you will be finite; that you may end up with a scar (visible and external; or invisible and internal), but the pain will recede, then disappear; and you may well even forget what caused that funny mark on your left shin, or that cut on your finger. Was it the dog? A foul, when playing football? A careless collision with the furniture? A paper cut, perhaps?

For me, though, obviously, the pain has never gone away; and, after nearly eighteen years, it is still with me, getting microscopically worse with each passing day. The British Pain Society, defines such “chronic pain” as…

…continuous, long-term pain of more than 12 weeks or after the time that healing would have been thought to have occurred in pain after trauma or surgery.

The funny – if that’s the right word… – thing is that, eventually, you do learn to live with it (although it has taken me a very long time to accept this…). You can’t ignore it, but you can cope with it. Turning this back to our climate, though, we don’t seem to be coping at all; but we are ignoring it extremely well – now that the floods have dissipated; and the crisis is over… – and I struggle to understand why we (meaning government, as well as the majority of individuals) seem so keen on keeping our empty heads buried so deeply. A little (relatively) long-term (preventative) investment, now, would be a lot more effective – but less expensive – than dealing with each individual weather event, piecemeal, as it occurs (with repeated (cosmetic?) surgery, if you would...), in the future.

When we discuss climate change – the chronic pain we cause our planet – we’re not really talking about saving the Earth, though, are we? Just as I care more about ameliorating my experience of inhabiting this body; we only care about our experience of living on this planet: not the planet itself. As James Lovelock has posited, it can probably get by quite well – if not better – without us; and I have wondered, for a while, if my body would be better off in the long term if I stopped trying to make my life easier for myself in the short term….

For the last eighteen years, I have fought this pain – and my disability – daily; but it was a war that I always knew (if I was honest) I could never truly win. There have been some landmark victorious battles – for instance, eight years ago, I could barely move, or feel, the left-hand side of my body; or move my neck to the left: but a major operation resolved these problems (now, inevitably, returning slowly). Occasionally, medication, or physiotherapy, would help – usually temporarily – with a particular symptom. But the fighting has caused problems of its own – quite frequently a hefty dose of disappointment when I have set my goals unrealistically high (my theory having been that aiming high, stretching myself, was the only way to achieve anything); or raising my blood pressure with a self-defeating rant of blame at the people responsible for the accidents I was in.

Now, though, I have finally accepted my plight; I have come to terms with it; signed a truce, a peace pact. In a way, it’s similar to the last stage of grieving: and I feel a huge weight lifting from my shoulders. I’m not quite there, yet: but, instead of concentrating on the things that damage my quality of life, the things I can’t do, I shall – as Christopher Reeve once wisely said – think about all the thousands of things I can still do.

In a way, it’s not just about tolerating and understanding my situation, or even ignoring it – especially as I know, as with old age, that continuing deterioration is inevitable… – it’s about focusing my energies elsewhere. Yes, there may be medical advances in the future that could help me (the operation I had would not have been possible, twenty, thirty years before…) – but there’s no point constantly stressing about something “possible”, vague and intangible.

The thing is, though, when you consider the status of the health of the planet we live on, there are things that we could (should) be doing (or doing at much larger scales) to make things better; to improve our stay; things that are worth “stressing about”. But we are ignoring them – we have passively drifted far too early into that “acceptance”… – and relying on the fact that “things” will not get much worse during our lifetimes. What about those who follow us, though? They will not thank us for abandoning them and their planet when there were so many proven ways of stopping the damage we have caused; so many ways of even turning things around.

The breakthrough weather events are becoming chronic; and a lot of damage has been done. Now is not the time to stand idly by, or just throw our arms in the air in desperate acceptance; or in the hope that someone else will ride to our rescue.

What is needed is a collective decision as momentous as my personal one feels to me (and those close to me). As a rule, most people don’t like change (I know I am an odd exception…) – but change is already here; and will only get worse… unless we change our attitudes, our behaviour, the way we live our lives. Instead of accepting the status quo, we need to start fighting with all our might, hearts, minds, actions; rather than just vacantly mumbling about the weather, and attributing the liability elsewhere.

Friday, 16 May 2014

An open letter to Ed Miliband…

Dear Ed… – is it alright to call you “Ed”? I don’t know you – although you seem a decent enough chap, with a sharp enough brain… – but you seem happy to address me by my given name: so I’ll assume it’s okay.

Firstly, many thanks for your recent email: Ten steps to rebuild Britain: Sign my cost-of-living contract and let’s commit to change Britain together. And I’m sure you’ll be delighted – even though the message itself is actually quite depressing – that I do agree with you, when you say…

In Britain today, we face rising inequality, a cost-of-living crisis for the many and an economy that works only for a few. The link between the wealth of our nation as a whole and the lives of British families has been broken.

You then go on to outline those “ten steps I will take immediately as Prime Minister” to tackle this crisis; and ask if I will “commit to change Britain” with you.

Sorry, Ed: the answer is “no”. And here are my reasons.

Working Men of All Countries, Unite!
In an earlier email to me, you said that you “want to give working people a real choice about joining Labour and a real voice in our party because politics is too important to be left to politicians”. Although I agree with that last part – in which case, you seem to have sacked yourself with your own rhetoric…! – you made a big mistake when you assumed that all Labour party members and supporters are “working people”.

“Hardworking Britain Better Off” is your latest – ungrammatical – slogan. But we’re not all employed, are we – therefore not “hardworking” in the sense that politicians currently employ (sorry) that word? Not all working class heroes are in work. Some of the proletariat pay monthly direct debits to support Labour – because your party appears to be the only credible alternative, at the moment. However, for some of us, this takes a sizable chunk from our benefits – in my case, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – and your regular pleas for extra donations is insulting enough, without you appearing to have withdrawn your support from those most egregiously damaged by the Coalition Government – not the “squeezed middle”, but the long-term unemployed and sick, and the permanently disabled: both of which groups’ members I know would love to be in a job; but for whom merely existing can be extremely “hard work” indeed. (Getting out of bed is hard work, for me; putting on my shoes and socks deserves at least time-and-a-half; smiling, when pain riddles my body – which is always – deserves the massive bonuses I used to earn as a communication consultant. I loved my work. I loved the people I worked with, and for. Yes, the money was nice – but more so was the sense of achievement, the sense of meaning, the reward of graft and creativity, that employment gave me. Now, all gone.)

Who are we to turn to? Why have you fallen in to Dave and George’s heffalump trap of only discussing those in paid work (even if some of these earn less than the Living Wage – which all companies need to provide: not just those incentivized by “tax breaks” – or those on “exploitative” zero-hour contracts: which you say you are going to “ban”, but seem a little fuzzy when it comes to the detail…)? Shirkers and workers? What about the lurkers on the fringes of this cruel capitalist society?

The greatest challenge of our time is to create a new kind of economy that works for working people. The Labour government I lead will rise to that challenge and this contract is our promise.

Labour will deal with the cost-of-living crisis. We will take immediate action to deal with the pressures facing families, and make the big long term changes we need so that hardworking people are better off.

What about pensioners, like my mum and dad? What about those unemployed and/or disabled who rely on the State because they don’t even have families to look after them?

Sorry if I sound ungrateful. But I hope you can understand why.

The common account, according to a common plan
I am thankful, though, for your promise to “Freeze gas and electricity bills until 2017 and reform the energy market” – although I don’t suppose this means that you will revert to nationalizing the suppliers (or public transport, for that matter), to bring them under formal control?

Labour is a commodity
You say that you are going to “Cut income tax for hardworking people… and introduce a 50p top rate of tax as we pay off the deficit in a fair way”. Does that mean that we disabled and unemployed will not have our taxes cut?!

Seriously: it’s not just about funding the deficit, is it? Real socialism – the sort that, I think, your dad would be proud of; and that I imagine still flows through your veins… – would ensure that everyone could afford to live; that food-banks would be an historical blip. Are you courageous enough to make that happen?

Great palaces as communal dwellings
I also appreciate your pledge to “Get 200,000 homes built a year by 2020” and “Stop families that rent being ripped off and help them plan for the future with new long-term predictable tenancies”. However, how are you going to ensure that these houses and rents are truly affordable – and I mean so that real people can live where they want and need to; so that our children are not forced to rent in perpetuity (and not pay allegedly “affordable” monthly sums as defined by the current Government as 80% of the market-rate – i.e. sky-high…)? How are you going to ensure that housing developments are truly sustainable; and suitable for the area they are built in? Are you going to be the saviour that reinstitutes council housing; that sponsors a massive programme of state-funded residential development for those that need it; who finally pricks the seemingly permanent, expanding housing bubble?

Educating children on a communal basis
Ironically, even though all the children in my family are now grown-up, one of the vows you make – to “Help working parents with 25 hours free childcare for three- and four-year-olds” – does fill my heart with joy. A positive note to end on. Sort of.

My partner works in early-years education; and recently lost her job as a family support worker – employed by the local county council – because of the massive cut in funding for Sure Start Children’s Centres (one of the best ideas Labour has had since the introduction of the NHS…).

Please put these back on an even keel: by financing them as they were originally intended to be. In a rural community such as ours – where childcare costs are proveably higher – sometimes the few social, medical and education workers remaining, who travel out to see struggling, isolated parents and their families, are true lifelines: the only source of support and help; and the Children’s Centres themselves (where such workers should be based, and in much greater numbers) provide a resource that helps put disadvantaged young children on a firmer footing. The centres need to be local, though – not three bus-rides away, at the other end of the county: and therefore pretty much inaccessible to a young mum with a pram.

I think that’s enough, for now: so thank you for reading it all, Ed. Even if I sound negative, I hope my questioning will lead you to reconsider your party’s concentration on those gainfully employed (and therefore its shadowing of Conservative mores…); and widen your views to all levels of society, all classes of people. I believe you are more than capable of this; but I think it requires a strength, honesty and integrity currently lacking from mainstream UK politics to publicly discuss and implement the ideas that are really needed to get every single inhabitant of this country back on their feet (figuratively speaking, anyway).

Are you such a person? Is the Labour party willing to be so brave? Or will it continue to disappoint those who need it most?

I look forward to your reply. You know where to find me…

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Green versus brown…

With the decision to support the development of thousands of homes on productive agricultural land at Gaydon and Lighthorne Heath, rather than the brownfield Long Marston Airfield site, you have to question if the ruling Tories of Stratford-on-Avon District Council (SDC) have actually read (and/or understood) the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF):

Core planning principles
17. Within the overarching roles that the planning system ought to play, a set of core land-use planning principles should underpin both plan-making and decision-taking. [Two of these] principles are that planning should:
  • encourage the effective use of land by reusing land that has been previously developed (brownfield land), provided that it is not of high environmental value; [and]
  • promote mixed use developments, and encourage multiple benefits from the use of land in urban and rural areas, recognising that some open land can perform many functions (such as for wildlife, recreation, flood risk mitigation, carbon storage, or food production)….

No wonder Chris Saint had to – figuratively – get the whip out to corral his fellow Conservative councillors: as those on the planning committee, when Tysoe’s decision was made, re Gladman, obviously knew the NPPF back to front. No wonder, too, that there was rebellion – although the thought of two councillors (whose wards were involved) having to prostrate themselves to obtain “special dispensation” makes me feel very ill indeed; and proves that true democracy died a long, long time ago – and that the twisted precepts of national government have infected regional and local politics (as I have long suspected).

It makes you wonder what Councillor Saint really means when he says that he “shall be arguing strongly for Gladman’s Appeal to be dimissed”: especially when – as was pointed out by Mike Lane, of Ilmington Parish Council, in this week’s Herald – SDC’s methodology for distributing large chunks of unsuitable housing across the district’s local service villages (LSVs), such as Upper and Middle Tysoe, is so flawed and unbalanced. I know we desperately need the Core Strategy in place… – I just don’t like the way it’s being achieved.

As Ken Livingstone said: If Voting Changed Anything They’d Abolish it – and with no Green candidate (the only party that seems to make any sort of sense, nowadays – and, yes, I am still in possession of my Labour membership card…) standing in our local council elections, next week, it’s very difficult to know if there’s anyone who will not only truly represent and work for us, as a community; but will also stick to their promises, and principles (if they actually know what that word means, and had any to begin with…) – especially when it comes to sustainable and affordable development, and protecting our countryside and our future.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Come swiftly…

One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.
– Aristotle

With apologies to the great philosopher and teacher (although I always preferred his master, Plato), a few days ago, there was a lone swift, performing its typical fly-catching acrobatics, over the fields between Tysoe and Oxhill. That day felt like a nascent summer: it was warm; but there was still a hint of spring rain in the cooling breeze. Yesterday, though – when we suffered cold winds, heavy rainstorms, and some absolutely glorious, mountainous cloud formations – the swifts were back in number: dogfighting and shrieking (like Goa’uld death gliders) with joy above Tysoe, as they reunited with their life-partners; or, for the youngsters, attempted to form new bonds, and agree on – and maybe fight for – suitable nesting sites.

They must have known – somehow – that the weather was about to change: as the waxing moon that accompanied their return, grew to full, tonight, and brought with it a temporary hint of the season to come: with rising temperatures and easing, warm, westerly breezes.

Where I used to live, in Wiltshire, it was the re-emergence of water-birds in the brook that flowed through my back garden – swans with their cygnets; mallards with their fluffy custard and ermine-specked brown ducklings; or even the occasional, lost little egret – that defined the phase-change; along with skylarks ascending and burbling on the ancient hill-fort, high on the chalk downs above the village where I lived: their invisible nests disturbed even by careful ramblers. Swifts and swallows were rare visitors; although housemartins – now mingling with the swifts above Tysoe – seemed to love the eaves of the local flint-and-brick barns.

When I was a small child, though, it was the chattering of tree-sparrows with their young, that I most remember: lured from their park- and woodland retreats by the tasty morsels my mum would routinely leave on the bird-table: bravely defending their young against rapacious starlings. However, it is a long time since I saw one, with its distinctive brown cap, Edwardian sideburns and moustache (resembling many of the retired railway and mill workers of my grandfather’s generation) – although house-sparrows and dunnocks are a constant soundtrack, here: often hiding in the hedges as you walk by, on Main Street; or scurrying away through the grass verges, as you drive by.

It’s so very good to have the swifts back. It means that – in a world where climate change is blurring the seasons together – summer is definitely around the corner!

PS: Bye-bye, Stephen Sutton – a short life packed with intense meaning, humanity and courage.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Wide World arrives...

The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event.
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

It was a cold, spring day, and the Mole, the Water Rat and the Badger were sat around a blazing log fire in the Badger’s kitchen: the Mole and Rat perched on one of the high-backed settles; the Badger sunk into his customary armchair. Half-drunk refills of coffee, and the remains of a plain but ample breakfast – bread crusts, and the odd, crispy bacon rind – lay around: evidence of a long and deep discussion, requiring much sustenance.

“If only life were ALWAYS so simple and satisfactory,” muttered the Mole, wiggling his outstretched feet; but with regret etched into his sad eyes and drooping whiskers.

“But it never is,” stated the Rat, wearily, “when the Wide World moves through the Wide Wood, and an evil wind blows through the willows.”

The previous evening, the monthly council of animals had met, and – contrary to the promises made to the Badger: their saviour, the first time an invasion had appeared at their borders… – they had entrusted their defence against the Wide World, this time, to the Chief Weasel.

“I’m so sorry,” said the Mole, directing his sad gaze at the Badger: “you must feel awfully let down – especially after everything you did for all us weaker, less clever animals, before. I know you don’t care one fig about glory; but to be betrayed like that, when you gave so much of your life, your solitude – and even your hibernation – for us all; and in favour of the dastardly bully who nearly ruined things the first time around. Damn them, I say: damn the lot of them.”

“Don’t fret, my little chap,” replied the Badger, soft and smoothing in his tones – not, for one moment, displaying any of the deep, tortuous feeling that both his friends knew was searing through every bone, sinew and nerve in his body. “If all they care about is themselves; and the kudos they think will come from associating themselves with the Stoats and Weasels of this world; they will get what they deserve – and not the peaceful time they think will come.

“It does seem, sadly, though, that coercion and tyranny now rule not only in the Wide World; but that it has crept through the Wild Wood – where my word was once cherished, was even law; my actions praised… – to the local animals, to the riverbank itself. Even Otter acts like the most feeble Mouse, when picked on…”

“…as he knows you are too noble to act the tormentor; too dignified to remonstrate or complain,” interjected the Mole, anxiously.

“You are SO right, my furry chum,” added the Rat, patting the Mole generously on the arm; and glancing for approval at wise, old Badger – who, it seemed, did not mind the interruption one jot. “But I wonder how many of the other animals, down by the river, know what is REALLY going on?” He stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “Just because Chief Weasel has taken over Toad Hall surely doesn’t mean that all the others think he is now Lord of the Manor…?”

“Not that there ever was such a thing, really,” stated the Badger, almost to himself. “Although they tug their forelocks as if he was KING! If ANYONE is due allegiance as Lord, then it’s the fine gentleman that lives in the big house over the hill. Mind you – sensible chap that he is – he keeps himself very much to himself; and that’s what I shall go back to doing, too. Living here, in the Wild Wood, I am still an outsider, and always was: ’though I fear for what will become of the river, the willows – to you two, my companion friends and campaigners – when the true spirit of the water, the grass, the air, the hearts that beat in all true country animals, is represented in the Wide World by something so selfish and ignorant – so utterly unrepresentative – so arrogant. It is not in our nature to fight even the cruellest enemy but with wisdom… – and, yes, I do see you, Ratty, looking meaningfully at the cupboard where our stash of cutlasses and pistols lies from the last battle!

“But we MUST NOT fight our fellow creatures. They have made their decision – however badly and stupidly it was reached. It is THEY who have divided US; and we should not fall into the trap – especially as we do not have it in us to act the bully; to crave fame and glory; to desire to crash and bang about like Toad in one of his infernal motors (oh, how I miss silly old Toad…!) – of following in their footsteps, and applying the tactics of the frightened, OR the frightener.

“We must keep our wisdom and wits about us for when the realization dawns that intelligence, graft, research and application of knowledge are what is REALLY needed – even if my now very full stomach tells me that I should close the door FOREVER on them: Stoats and Weasels that they have all become.”

There was a keen silence: a quiet which seemed to stretch out from the crumbling ashes of the fire, beyond the breeze creaking at the door at the end of the passageway, to the very river itself – listening not only to the murmur of the water, the whispering of the willows, but for the very thoughts of the local animals themselves (many of whom were still asleep; most of whom were yet to learn of the far-reaching decision the council believed – wrongfully – they had been forced into; and had not had the courage nor integrity to fight: not having learned from the exemplary comrades now on the verge of sleep themselves…. It might be division they had wanted to AVOID; but it now seemed inevitable that, instead, they had CREATED such division…). Empty-handed, the draught returned, to spark the glowing embers for a moment, and then die.

“Fie!” exclaimed the Mole, from nowhere. “O blow; and bother! What a load of idiots they are. Otters reduced to Mice; Stoats made Toad. So this is what the Wide World is like. You were right, Ratty. I want NONE of it. Hang the council; and hang all Weasels.” He ran out of breath as quickly as he had started; and all the energy slumped from him, from his shoulders to his now-still toes. “Onion-sauce,” he finally whispered, fitfully.

“Aye to that,” said both the Rat and Badger, quietly together in thought and deed. “Onion-sauce.”

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Changing English Village (Part 1)

History, at least in its state of ideal perfection, is a compound of poetry and philosophy. It impresses general truths on the mind by a vivid representation of particular characters and incidents.
– Thomas Babington Macaulay

Thirteen years after writing the biography of her father, Kathleen Ashby authored The Changing English Village: A History of Bledington, Gloucestershire in its Setting 1066-1914 – published by Gordon Norwood, at The Roundwood Press, in Kineton – an immensely detailed and objective work; and yet, at the same time, full of love and respect for the place she had made her home; and filled with the same heartfelt humanity as her earlier book. It is an ideal sequel, therefore; and, in some ways, is a perfect companion (offering a complementary perspective and yet similar sensibility) to Ernst Gombrich’s classic, A Little History of the World.

As the blurb on the dust-jacket says:

Miss Ashby’s book is the story of an English village through nine centuries; but it is more than this: it is the story of the ever-changing pattern of communal existence as reflected in the lives of the inhabitants of a typical parish of the English midlands. The name of the village is unimportant: what is important is the way in which the lives of its inhabitants are shaped by external changes…: Acts of Parliament, national movements, economic, religious and social, have moulded the lives of its inhabitants. Therefore – and this is the importance of the present work – it can be considered as the archetype of all English villages in its development through the centuries. Miss Ashby’s prose is compelling and eminently readable. Here is a book which all who are concerned with the future of rural England would do well to ponder, considering as they do so whether the English village community has come to the end of the road, and whether it will ever exist again as a separate entity.

It would be easy to imagine, from these descriptions, that this is quite a scholarly work – which, in many ways, it is: but any trend towards academe is buried deep beneath the ubiquitous fellow-feeling; and the immense amount of detail it contains therefore lies lightly – each fact being a small, solid, necessary brick that contributes equally to the solidity and beauty of the whole structure – simply serving its order as part of a wonderful travel through the chronicling of what could almost be, as described, any village in ‘middle England’ with deep roots in the past. Such as the three Tysoes, for example!

Kathleen Ashby makes a good wayfaring companion, as she explores Bledington’s relationship with its surroundings, its context, happenings elsewhere that have impact on it and its people, and their contribution to the wider world: putting you in their shoes (when they had any); enabling you to see their growing awareness and environment – cultural, religious, geopolitical – from their perspective, and with their mores. Wherever – and whenever – you open the book, little jewels emerge, small plums of delight; and it soon becomes apparent that, although Bledington is her great love, as a place (equally with Tysoe, where she grew up, I think…), it is England’s history – and that of its inhabitants – that she is narrating.

As Dr Joan Thirsk, then reader in Economic History at the University of Oxford, says in the book’s foreword:

While Miss Ashby writes about the past, she writes unwittingly about herself and her vision of the future…. So [her] history of her village cannot fail to cast brilliant shafts of illuminating understanding through the reflections and memories of every villager who reads her book. The problems of every village community are the same though the solutions vary…. Miss Ashby clearly owes her sharpened vision of this matter to her family and the village of Tysoe in which she was brought up… [and Bledington is a village] that is significantly not unlike Tysoe in its essential lineaments. It was a lordless community, master of itself.

She also sounds a topical warning note…

Our planners would be more wary if they read more history.

…a statement I can only concur with! And then finishes her foreword with typical foresight – which I hope, we, as a village, can continue to bring life to –

There is clearly no reason why the sense of community that pervaded life until the end of the seventeenth century, and the individualism that swept all before it in the eighteenth and nineteenth, should not be blended again into a new harmony in the twentieth or twenty-first century.

Friday, 2 May 2014

When we had given our bodies to the wind…

I was reminded – by yesterday’s Country diary column in the Guardian – both how lucky we are to experience the wide range of wildlife we encounter, almost on a daily basis, living in the heart of the countryside; and how easy it is to take this for granted – until some rude awakening disturbs our reverie.

Red kites – the subject of that column – have become a common sight, in some areas: especially noticeable if you drive up and down the motorway between here and London; their supreme, natural and fluent command of the air, with their “ever-twisting forked tails”, too easily becoming a distraction. (It is so much better to be a passenger, on these occasions!) And I have a friend, living not far from High Wycombe – and, therefore, the most kite-populated section of the M40 – who is lucky enough to have them frequently swoop down on the grassy area in front of his house (an almost equally serious diversion for someone who earns his living working from home…).

But they are still a relatively rare creature – living and visible in small (but, thankfully, growing and overlapping) pockets of the country – and are nowhere near the ubiquity of pre-Tudor times, before ‘vermin laws’ introduced bounties for their deaths. Back then, they were seen as ill omens, as well as a competitive scavenger (as it appears they may be, still…): and it is no wonder, therefore, that Shakespeare used them as a strong term of abuse – for instance, in King Lear – and King James II of Scotland decreed that they should be “killed wherever possible”.

On a recent walk up to the windmill, I was therefore incredibly pleased to see one practising its acrobatics over the emerging oilseed rape – enjoying the challenges and opportunities that a strong, varying breeze presented. I wonder if it is the same one that I saw, a few days later, as I drove down the side of Broom Hill, past Compton Wynyates?

The Windhover (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
      dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
      Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
      As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
      Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
      Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

      No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
      Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Seeing a red kite, like this, calls to mind another unforgettable local encounter I had with a bird of prey: this time, a kestrel, a few months after we moved here – another raptor with such supreme mastery of the air, it is no wonder it was once christened ‘windhover’ – “No other hawk has so perfected the art of stationary flight…” – nor that Hopkins revelled ecstatically in its multitude of movements and meanings.

The garden has become eerily quiet: an absence of birds all the more marked by their earlier presence in the year. However, autumn is coming; they are stalking the stubble fields – especially the suicidal pheasants… – and mustering for migration.

I don’t know if pied wagtails emigrate [as a rule, they don’t – much…]: but I saw a large flock of them on my way over to Shipston, this morning – bouncing and hopping in the road; and then bobbing, out of the car’s way, in the air, to hide behind the hedges at the side of the road….

However, today, I witnessed one of my favourite birds, much closer ‘in the flesh’ than I would ever have thought possible. As I approached – slowing to a stop – at first, I thought it was an owl on the post by the side of the road: it was so very still. But, as soon as I got nearer, I realized it was an adult kestrel; and we spent all of ten to fifteen seconds (although, of course, it felt much longer…) staring at each other, before it gracefully (seemingly in slow motion…) ascended into the air, over the bonnet of the car….

Never before have I witnessed the exquisite face markings (strangely reminiscent of that rarity, now, the tree sparrow…); and the almost ermine-like, black flecking on the wings and body…. Stupendous…! (As a result, another close encounter, with a buzzard, on the return journey, seemed almost mundane.)

Kestrels are such magnificent birds: perfectly evolved for their purpose; a beauty to behold. Those gleaming eyes (in those yellow-lined sockets…) will stay with me for a very long time.

It seems that even the kestrel population is dwindling, though; and a recent study found that every kestrel sampled was contaminated with highly-toxic rat poisons, first introduced in the 1970s, called Second Generation Anticoagulant Rodenticides (SGARs). As many other raptors are affected, the Barn Owl Trust is running a petition to stop this poisoning.

I know that it is hard (although it would be wonderful…) to obtain an even balance between agriculture and caring for the environment: rather than it sometimes being seen as a competition – as symbolized by the recent badger culls. I also know (and understand – having once lived and worked on a mixed arable and dairy farm) the challenges our farmers face; the permanently increasing pressures on them to contribute to the required sufficiency in our domestic food production (whilst land is removed from their purview for the development of yet more subtopian housing); and yet how they tend to be more in touch with nature than most. But a part of me – the romantic idealist, perhaps… – wonders if a return to a less industrial approach to land management and productivity would have beneficial effects for everyone – and for every thing.

Maybe, then, red kites and kestrels, peregrines and sparrowhawks, goshawks and hen harriers will flourish – especially as birds of prey, at the top of the food chain, are such “valuable indicators of the health of the environment” – and seeing them will not be such a rare, and unexpected, pleasure.