Saturday, 26 July 2014

Bard & Tew (Part 3)

With Mike Sanderson

The Bard was recovering, and decided, for the good of his health, to amble up to the windmill: something he hadn’t done for a while. And, of course, sitting in the midday sun, their backs against the old stones, staring up where the stocks used to be, were Tew and his grandson. As you would expect, ragged-trousered them both!

“Long time no see,” said Tew. “Likewise,” said the Bard. “Oh, and thanks for your call-out. Sort of sums up social well-being in action!”

“I liked what you wrote as well: about closing your eyes and remembering your first view of Tysoe. You asked what it was that made this place special; memorable; a place where you wanted to base your life. For me, it’s about the people, and their sense of community. A place to return to.”

“Aye. Even old Joseph Ashby talked about ‘the elements essential to the material and social well-being’ of the people – so it’s not as new-fangled term as you mighten expect,” said the Bard, wistfully.

“This NPPF puts it more drily, though – says how: ‘The planning system can play an important role in facilitating social interaction and creating healthy, inclusive communities’ – that, to me, is making places for people to meet, shop, work and play. Therefore,” added Tew, watching the sun drift behind a cloud, “we need to be active in making sure we all work together to keep what we’ve got; and build on that. We can’t just rely on philanthropy to keep Tysoe this way. The outside pressures for new houses might mean there are enuff of us to keep our school, and district councillor. That’s why we need our Neighbourhood Plan and for everyone in the village to have their say.”

“Nicely put,” said the Bard “and I say: all this walking and talking’s made me thirsty! The Peacock beckons I reckon.”

– Originally published in the Tysoe & District Record (August 2014: no.746)

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Other comments…

Tysoe has evolved steadily over the years – in the last century growing by just over three houses per year, on average – and, although we currently have to defend ourselves from “rapacious developers”, it would be foolish to swing too far the other way, and go all out to try and master such evolution. Yes, we have to put a stop to huge, unsuitable and unsustainable housing developments of buildings “made of ticky-tacky”; but that doesn’t have to mean being utterly restrictive in what we allow, or not, to be built; what facilities we decide can become (or remain) part of the village; or that a very small – and apparently élite – group of people should be in control.

Like most things that happen in most villages, residents will poke their heads above the parapet and show interest for a few moments, whilst something different, something new and exciting (or threatening), takes place; but then disappear to get on with what is most important to them: their daily lives; the struggle, in many cases, to endure with enough money and health that their existence is – by their own definitions – made meaningful, at most; and just about manageable, at least. (This is not apathy, by the way, nor selfishness: it is just the survival instinct cutting in. Take away people’s involvement in the decision-making process that rules them, and they will turn inward to the places where they do have power, however little….)

Their involvement is fundamental, though, in – if not deciding on whether planning permission should be granted to Mr Goggins’ twelve-storey extension on his two-bedroom semi-detached (I hope, here, that commonsense would prevail!) – ensuring that the village’s strong community and identity survive, whatever happens elsewhere. Although the Neighbourhood Plan is a very good starting point for this, it is a mere encapsulation of one of those “moments” in time; and, sadly, could be wiped out with a change of national administration, or overruled by the whims of a government minister.

I am not convinced that the current structures the parish has in place are resilient enough – or, dare I say, modern enough (or even savvy enough) – to cope with such extraneous pressures and influences; and – although I do believe that the village, in some ways, possesses a robust genius loci, which, Gaia-like, is at the heart of its evolution – I hope that the one thing that emerges from all this is a greater involvement in Tysoe’s future of all those who live here: not just greater than it is now; but greater than those who live beyond its boundaries, and therefore care little what becomes of it.

How we secure such participation – in the process; the strategy, and not just the individual tactics – I’m not that sure. (Nationally, there is a parallel growing dissatisfaction with, and disenfranchisement from, the Establishment: which, so far, no-one has shown any likelihood of addressing successfully.) Like alert meerkats, a huge proportion of villagers rose to defend the initial threat from Gladman – and, perhaps, it is only such a large peril that can achieve this.

However, I would hope that, within us, there is some way of – someone capable of – communicating (i.e. making people hear and understand) the fact that ensuring our village evolves as we would like – and that this relates directly to the minutiae of the meaning and manageability of our daily lives – requires us all to (re)act, and contribute our thoughts and actions continually – not just momentarily. (The Neighbourhood Plan survey is just one early stop – albeit an important one – on a long and arduous journey.) Otherwise, we will wake up one day to find a village that we no longer recognize, love, or wish to live in – its spirit of place eradicated.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The right to die the right way…

Thou know’st ’tis common, all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
– William Shakespeare: Hamlet

Having a slightly different, and particular, perspective on the matter than most, I find myself agreeing with, and understanding, most of the arguments (on both sides – apart from those based on evangelical posturing) concerning Lord Falconer’s attempt to get his Assisted Dying Bill through the House of Lords, today. David Cameron may not be “convinced”: but, then, I’m not so sure he fully understands what is at stake.

This is not to say that I’m straddling – or resting my bum on – the palisade of pointy issues this raises: just that, having lived my life for the last eighteen years in what I think most people would consider intolerable continual pain (along with other symptoms that can make life a challenge), I know that I can survive – albeit with diminished quality, sometimes – in circumstances that I previously wouldn’t have envisaged possible. I also believe that, knowing you can die in a non-excruciating, non-extended manner at the moment you choose – and in a manner you choose – when you eventually (over a period of time) do reach the point of intolerability in suffering (which is different – and changes – for everyone) – would give me great, deep comfort (which would also, I think, mean that I would put up with more agony that I envisage, even now…).

Desmond Tutu, in last Sunday’s Observer, wrote beautifully and meaningfully on the issue – from a personal perspective – demonstrating to me that his Christianity is more than mere religion, or even faith, but a true, humble belief in the value (sanctity?) of all human lives, a true empathy for the condition of others, and not just a set of old-fashioned rules:

This takes me to the question of what does it mean to be alive. What constitutes quality of life and dignity when dying? These are big, important questions. I have come to realise that I do not want my life to be prolonged artificially. I think when you need machines to help you breathe, then you have to ask questions about the quality of life being experienced and about the way money is being spent. This may be hard for some people to consider….

It is important for all of us to talk about death and our dying. A survey was done of doctors in the UK in 2008. As many as two-thirds of them said they had difficulty discussing end-of-life care with their patients. Physicians were once healers of life and easers of death. In the 20th century the training for the latter has been neglected.

Death can come to us at any age. The clearer we are about our end-of-life preferences, the easier it will be for our loved ones and our doctors. I am coming to understand the importance of having a living will or advance directive, as some people call it. I do not want artificial feeding or to be on an artificial breathing machine – I don’t want people to do their damnedest to keep me alive.

In the same paper, Daniel Boffey featured the words of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton: who “has spent a lifetime defying the consensus. When she was 11 months old, doctors diagnosed her with severe spinal muscular atrophy and told her parents her life would be short. At six she attended a school for the severely disabled, yet she went on to gain a master’s degree. She was later told by prospective employers she was too disabled to work, only to end up running major campaigning organisations and being selected as commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.” She said:

This bill is not safe. We know that the country is in crisis in terms of its social care and the choice they talk about will not be there for many people. So you can either have a lethal injection or go home isolated and struggling to get the care that you need. And it is ridiculous to say that a person should be eligible if they have six months to live when we know you cannot be sure when someone will die.

As someone with a progressive illness, I know only too well what that means. The medical profession have given me six months, one month, one week on many occasions. You cannot predict.

Stephen Hawking – who is obviously also similarly immersed in the issues such a bill raises – does back it, though: saying, in an interview with the BBC, that “it was “discrimination against the disabled to deny them the right to kill themselves that able bodied people have…” and that – although he once tried to stop breathing – it would be “wrong to despair and commit suicide, unless one is in great pain, but that is a matter of choice. We should not take away the freedom of the individual to choose to die.”

The words that meant most to me, though, come from Jo Beecham, who was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2011; and keeps a stock of drugs in her fridge that will end her life, when she deems them necessary:

I can understand people wanting to go down the palliative-care route. There is some part of me that thinks, “Oh, just submit to the care. Just allow yourself to submit to it.” (This is the route I’m going down at the moment.) They will take care of you. And I'm sure that people who are ill want the system to take care of them. But no one can guarantee I will have a good death. I’ve been told that the likelihood is I will need 24-hour care, probably sleeping for most of the time. I can see that some people might like that. And maybe, if I start taking morphine and drifting off anyway, that might be OK for me too. But I want to have the choice.

Putting aside any emotional arguments, for a moment – although I do not know how you can separate feelings from discussions of death – there is now a legal need to begin quantifying what can and can’t be done to help those who are terminally ill, or in great suffering (however you define either of those terms). As Lady Hale – one of the five justices of the supreme court who recently ruled on this matter – stated:

I have reached the firm conclusion that our law is not compatible with the [European human rights] convention…. Having reached that conclusion, I see little to be gained, and much to be lost, by refraining from making a declaration of incompatibility. Parliament is then free to cure that incompatibility.

And, as Saimo Chahal, the solicitor who represented Jane Nicklinson – widow of the right-to-die campaigner Tony Nicklinson – said:

[The judges] have given a clear message to parliament that it must review the ban on assisted suicide and the judges have said they may be minded to make a declaration next time around.

It creates a national debate and a necessity for parliament to look at it. Parliament must consider this group of people who have suffered catastrophic injury and who have a settled intention to end their lives.

To me, this is, firstly, then, about choice – as Jo Beecham and Stephen Hawking say. As is often mentioned, when assisted dying (not suicide) is discussed, some of the ways we treat humans, as they approach death, would be punishable by law if we ‘cared for’ the animals we are responsible for in the same way. Admittedly, this can be seen as a little simplistic – although, to me, all life is sacred (or, if you want a word without religious connotations, inviolable…) – but it does have an easily understandable ring of truth: we should be as humane with humans as we are with our pets. They cannot choose when or how to die. We can.

It is also about control. Unlike most other people in western civilization, I do not have that much control over my life. I do not get up every morning, knowing what I will be physically or mentally capable of; being able to make plans that I can fulfil. (In fact, on many days, I do not get up every morning. Full stop.) I really do live each day – sometimes each hour – examining (and stretching) my then capabilities; making constant risk-benefit (or struggle-reward) analyses about my next action, based on the whims of my health: an almost infinite decision-tree stretching, though – I hope – into a long and preponderantly enjoyable life (as it is now).

Some things are constant: the love and support of my family and friends; the wonderful place where I live; the growing piles of pills; the increasingly frequent medical appointments (when I can manage to make them…). But a majority of my life is spent trying to ascend and conquer what I know from my ‘previous’ life, the majority of people – those with their health (reasonably) intact – take for granted.

This is what gives me that “slightly different, and particular, perspective”. I know there are many people much worse off than me; but I also know – especially having witnessed some very cruel and prolonged deaths, at the end of cruel and prolonged illnesses… – that, when the time comes, I will know how much cumulative suffering I am capable of dealing with (almost certainly a lot more than I currently imagine…); and will make a decision: a decision that will probably be made many times – and has been made before… – to keep on fighting. But one day, I may decide – along with those closest to me – that enough is enough. I will have the choice; and I will be in control. I just hope that, when that time comes, the law agrees with me.

Jo Beecham died peacefully at home, in the company of friends, on 15 October 2014. The drugs stayed in the fridge until her friends disposed of them safely.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Depart at leisure…

If ever there was a bird which defined joy – and was defined by it – it is the swift, with its easy and enjoyed mastery of its environment; its life permanently airborne; its communal displays of skill. No braggart, though; just a natural exuberance. Aerial ecstasy.

It seems to me, though – and it is only a sense, a feeling that something has changed subtly… – that Tysoe’s swifts are preparing to leave for their southern wintering areas in Africa: a little earlier than last year, I think; but then, the fledglings have been exhibiting independence for a while, along with their parents’ effortless command of the air; and the youngsters’ numbers have noticeably filled out the ritualized evening ascent of the flock to their high-altitude on-the-wing roosting – spiralling and spiralling, the group shepherding and shrieking at the strays; then breaking stochastically (“we haven’t finished our suppers, yet!”); before spiralling again; breaking again; and finally rising out of sight… – as the sky darkens, joined by adults who no longer have to nurture or babysit; and joining the drifting, fading orange-tinged cirrus clouds and contrails.

The birds seem to have grown more gregarious as the summer has warmed, over the last couple of months, despite the breeding season now being well passed – and I hope that the good weather we’re currently experiencing will keep them with us a little while longer… – bunching together, this afternoon (as I sat out in the garden, reading), to bombard a feckless kestrel, overhead, that had strayed into their airspace, disturbing their aerobatic late lunching. The poor thing hurried off, ducking, twisting and spiralling out of the way of the perfectly-judged near-misses – each swift seemingly waiting its turn to dive – heading towards the fields in the west: probably regretting its diversion above the village!

Soon, they will be gone, though; and I will miss their squeaky-toy cheeps; and screaming challenges; their bluff, cheeky dogfighting; and periodic grouping and ungrouping (their celebrant patterns much less obvious than the famed massing of starlings: modern ballet to their ballroom ensembles…). The sky – and my world – will then be a sadder place; their absence a lessening of happiness.

This Nest, Swift Passerine [excerpt]
Dan Beachy-Quick

But how find how as it flew onward
& the mountains gave back the sound
to say what I mean the call of the bird
& the echoe after to say I’ve seen?

Raven hungers and calls and the mountain
Hungers back and calls
The whole range of peaks in the bird’s beak.
Raven lonely and the mountain rings
Loneliness & the echoe after we could see
him no longer

The echo after we could see      Light in echo the eye
also through the ear      a double infinity

Friday, 11 July 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch I; Leaf V

Not dark yet…

When the Badger called all the inhabitants of the river bank together, for the first time, under the ancient small-leaved lime tree, no-one could remember such a gathering happening within living memory; nor could anyone imagine what it would lead to.

The Mole and the Water Rat had enlisted the mice and rabbits to ensure that everyone was aware that the meeting was taking place: spreading the news keenly from burrow to hole to nest, hall and field, and beyond; and even nailing handmade notices to the willows. Some of the animals were still scared of the Badger, back then: but his sagacity, seniority and authority drew them in, nonetheless, to listen to what he had to say.

Raising himself up on a convenient mossy log, under the tree’s thinning canopy, as the sun started to bed behind the mustered, eager throng, the Badger repeated the grave news; and warned the river-bankers of the impending threat: an expansion of the Wide World – an invasion, in reality – encroaching on what they all thought of as theirs: their land, their territory, their homes. “But why is he doing this?” whispered the Otter: “HIS home is safe. No-one would dare attack the Wild Wood.”

“Because he cares, is the simple answer,” stated the Rat. “Because he cares not only for himself, his cosy seclusion; but because he cares for ALL of us; doesn’t want us – or our little piece of the countryside – to be hurt; to be damaged; even to disappear. Badger’s a noble beast; and would put himself out for any one of us. As he sees it: any harm comes to us, it comes to him.”

As the Badger delivered his speech, thoughtfully, and with measure, the animals’ fear of him faded away, and they started to gather closer: encouraging him to invite them to ask questions, to tell their peers THEIR thoughts: what could be done; and when; and by whom. Which of them would help him fight the battles that lay ahead?

For a moment, silence fell – not a harsh silence like the threatening stillness that arrives just before a summer thunderstorm; but a gentle, thinking silence, like the one that emerges just before a duckling leaves dry land for the first time, to discover the joys of the river; or a fledgling sparrow first takes to the air. This was a new situation for everyone: the making concrete of an idea of community that had, until now, just been a loose fellowship – creatures of passing acquaintance united by location, rather than in common purpose.

“What do you need us to do?” squeaked a small voice, hesitantly, instinctively, from the back of the crowd. The expectant calm was broken; and a huge feeling of relief and even comfort spread through the throng. If this small creature – “Oh, it’s one of the young rabbits,” murmured the Mole – was brave enough to stand up and make itself heard, then they could, too. Not that permission was needed; nor bravery; just that someone had to be the first to stand in the Badger’s rather large paw-prints – and not for fame, neither; nor reward – but because they realized the importance requisite in such steps; and knew that others would then follow suit.

“To be honest, at the moment, I’m not sure, young fellow,” smiled the Badger, thoughtfully – stretching his arm out generously towards the smaller animal: beckoning him to his side. “But if enough of us can get together to talk things through; discover how others have dealt with such menaces; how the rules of the Wide World can help us; then, presently, I’m sure we’ll be able to start working out a plan of sorts. We can then reconvene, and move those ‘things’ on: making sure we’re all in agreement.”

As he spoke, several others – including the Mole and Water Rat, of course; and even a pair of weasels – joined the Badger and the small rabbit by the sturdy trunk. Realizing that he was towering over them, the Badger gingerly climbed down; and sat on the thick fallen branch instead – by which time, he was surrounded by eight or nine volunteers: some of them not really knowing why they had walked forward; but understanding that this was IMPORTANT; that their lives were about to be altered, irrevocably; and it was up to them to make sure this was for the better, rather than for the worse.

“Thank you, all,” intoned the Badger, as stillness returned. “Thank you for coming” – as he looked around the wider group – “and thank you for making yourselves known” – bringing his gaze to those close by him. “It is, sadly, only in times of trouble, that we need to come together, like this; and it has been many lifetimes since last it happened; but I KNOW we will all do our very best – each in our own way – to protect what we have; what we river-bankers all stand for. I also know that this is far too big simply for the Council of Animals to address. Although they are known for being cautious” – a momentary glance towards the Otter inviting his tacit agreement – “I am certain they will help us in their own way: especially with their knowledge of the law…. But this is something different, something new; and it will take the strength at the heart of us all to fight and to win. I can make no promises, though. I just know it is better that we try, than stand idly by, and watch our beloved world fade away.”

As the gravity of these words sank in, the sun finally disappeared, the assembly dispersed; and, with the orange glow of the clouds reflecting in the Badger’s now glistening eyes, there rose a cooling autumnal wind: presaging what was to come, perhaps; and ensuring that supper, that evening, would be a more solemn affair than usual, all along the river, and in the meadows between it and the Wild Wood. Tones would be hushed; thoughts would rehearse themselves more thoroughly than of usual – anything flippant being held back for another day – and a new tangible mixture of solemnity and hope would suffuse itself through the air and through the ground, and through the very water. Change was coming; and coming far too soon.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Changing English Village (Part 2)

As I read more and more of Kathleen Ashby’s wonderfully detailed book – and wish that she had stayed in Tysoe, and carried out her thorough research and narration here… – it becomes obvious that certain themes echo down the centuries: some even remaining – or re-emerging – as contemporary issues. (To paraphrase Douglas Adams: For a few hundred years, nothing changed. Then, after a few centuries or so, nothing continued to change.)

One of the principal themes – Bledington, as Tysoe, being a rural economy – is, of course, land ownership (and the greed that can result); the continuing (if not growing) difference between those who have, and those who have not; and the attitudes of the richer classes to the poorer (never made quite so blunt, perhaps, as in the bearing and behaviour of the current, élitist, Tory-led government – and its continuing mission to boldly rid the poverty-stricken, zero-hour contracted, disabled, and unemployed of all their dignity…).

I know my place. I look up to them…; but while I am poor, I am honest, industrious and trustworthy. Had I the inclination, I could look down on them. But I don’t.

One of the earliest references to this concerns the fourteenth-century, Malvern-born poet, William Langland – most famous for the beautiful and dreamy poem Piers Plowman – and his “passionate concern for the well-being of ordinary folk”:

All around him, Langland sees superstition, greed and riches, together with poverty unrelieved. Pope, priests, bishops, have all failed the people. Greed is the basic cause of evil, affecting not only the great folk, but merchants and tradesmen, and in even greater degree lawyers, those flatterers and sycophants. Langland says clearly what he means by greed. He contrasts “measureless meed” with “measureable hire”. Here is more than a Marxian touch. The longing for unearned increment is in all men; ‘capitalism’ is only one of its results….

“The poor have no power to complain though they smart” but “Ye macemen and mayors that are midmost and mean The King and the Commons have power.”

Langland does not look to rural knights or to the lords of lands for help. In this, and in looking to the towns, he is prophetic. The nineteenth century saw terrible need for help and saw the towns indirectly give it.

Later, when Kathleen Ashby moves on to the sixteenth century, she discusses how…

The great struggles and developments of this period would continue and remain recognisably continuous through more than three hundred years, until the First World War in 1914. Villages would undergo changes apparently revolutionary, but never so thorough that many old patterns ceased to throw up problems, at least one of these, the relief of the poor, growing more acute and tragic for centuries and until 1918, never solved.

I think – as a social historian, very much in touch with the plight of those struggling to find meaning with and through their lives – Kathleen (especially given her heritage) would be heartbroken to see that we have, in the intervening century, regressed so terribly: with anyone who is different – because of unemployment, status, race, infirmity, etc. – being treated so badly, again, by those influencing – and letting themselves be influenced by – the modern press.

For a long time past the problem of poverty had grown more acute and more pervasive…. During the sixteenth century there were added to ‘God’s poor’ (the aged, the blind, the lame, the widow and the orphan) great numbers of destitute persons who were young and even, when not starved of food, able-bodied.

Will historians of the twenty-first century document us in the same way: with benefits sanctions and other measures forcing the ‘hardworking’ featured in political slogan-making to rely on food-banks and other charitable enterprises as leading examples of our belief in unattainable (but capital-led) supposed equality? What about our scurrying to spend increasing portions of our (hard-earned) salaries on property ownership?

In the course of the seventeenth century there came to be a score of freeholders. The husbandmen in their wish to be owners learned to borrow money: here begins the career of that potent and dangerous document… – the mortgage.

At the same time – eerily echoing the news stories and concerns of today – the numbers of labourers and the poor were increasing:

Some became casual workers, and vagrants and then destitute. This was an old problem. Henry VIII’s government had tackled it with some success, providing a parochial machinery and stimulating charity. Elizabeth and her Parliament had passed experimental legislation and checked its results…. But after the coming of James I these practices were discontinued and during the struggle between throne and Parliament the poor were left to parish officers.

The Restoration brought no return of systematic thought or planning…. Those who could have spoken for the poor were silenced and depressed; the idea of allowing or encouraging the poor to speak of their own condition was totally absent. On the contrary, under the dominance of the wealthy landowners who, now, in Boswell’s term “possessed” Parliament, and of industrial entrepreneurs and merchants there grew up an attitude to the poor of unheard of brutality and insolence whose development and spread would continue through the next century…

…and still be present today.

The move to enclosure, and private farming, and the concomitant removal of common land, also did nothing to help those at the bottom levels of rural society:

Arthur Young, the first great agricultural reporter was a propagandist for enclosure in his early writings and would later sum up the stimulating quality of outright possession in the well-known phrases “the magic of property turns sand into gold” and “the enjoyment of property… has clothed the very rocks with verdure”.

Beside the satisfaction of gain in produce or money, there were the more imaginative pleasures of ownership and mastery – of being lord of what one surveys and being able to say to one “Go!” and to another “Come!” and perhaps to a third “Vote!” Plainly, profit of this order helped to bring about… enclosure….

Sometimes it is said that the growth of the population of the country led to enclosures, but they were not advocated as a means of feeding the people: the absence of this motive is shown in the general absence of the wish to feed adequately even workers on the land.

There was in fact no adequate debate on the gains and losses from enclosures: exposition was one-sided. Enclosure would change the basis of thousands of communities but this fact was not to the front… landownership and therefore the management of land as property, rather than as soil for crops, was the ruling factor in English life….

The results of the enclosure were not in the economic sphere momentous: there was never emphasis on mere exploitation until the twentieth century. But the system which had come to an end was communal.

This dissolution of community – echoing my plea to the Planning Inspectorate re “the threats the cohesion of this community faces” – may be why we look at Mr White’s field of ridge-and-furrow, between Tysoe Manor and Oxhill Road, and see more than just lumps and bumps of earth. In our veins we understand implicitly what we have already lost; as well as seeing, explicitly, with our brains engaged, the need to preserve this co-operative relic from a long-lost time – the history and nostalgia that can be used in the game of planning poker we play against the likes of Gladman.

As some of us now fight for living wages, so, in the eighteenth century, the obverse: “Maximum wages were controlled by the landlord-magistrates, but not the minimum.” Only as the eighteenth century rolled into the nineteenth would Samuel Whitbread, “the rich brewer and humane man and statesman”, introduce a bill to the House of Commons “to end the fixing of a maximum wage and to institute minimum pay”.

The easiest way to reduce costs of production was by the lowering of wages and increase of hours…. Even the humane Arthur Young wrote that “Everyone knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious… they must (like all mankind) be in poverty or they will not work.”

It would not surprise me if Iain Duncan Smith recites this eagerly, every night, before retiring to bed: where, no doubt, he sleeps easily in his cruel, simplistic beliefs.

Other doctrines, however, did allow the poor to have, at least, souls. With the growth of Methodism in the eighteenth century, and the outpourings of John Wesley, one day his movement “would assist the widespread revolt against evil conditions of living”.

“Want of tenderness,” Dr. Johnson said, “was want of parts and no less a proof of stupidity than depravity,” but England would require most of the nineteenth century to learn the truth of that.

As hinted above, single mothers – as now – came in for particular criticism, as if they had made themselves poor on purpose:

Some have thought that the expectation of an allowance for each child from the parish, influenced unmarried mothers – a reasonable view in some cases but not here a necessary one and false in some parishes, e.g. Tysoe.

Here, Kathleen invokes the deep knowledge her father had of our village, our community; and it is easy to see obvious parallels ploughed between her adopted home of Bledington, and the village where she was raised; as well as between the past and the present.

One passage in particular raised my ire, though, with its modern equivalency in the “deep dark hell” of jobcentres – particularly for those suffering with mental illnesses:

The young and the lame went where their infirmities and capacities were not understood…. In many parishes when work was lacking overseers refused relief unless the men performed some set useless tasks or even actions that did not pretend to be work [including men being] set to lower the height of ridges in the fields by throwing soil into the furrows with spades; they might as well have been set [Sisyphus’] task of rolling a great stone up a hill.

I don’t believe all humans to be evil (although we all contain that seed…); but I do suspect that our tendency to selfishness, and the increasing mania for consumption, along with a parallel wish for ease and speed of delivery – of both goods and information (the received opinion seeming particularly popular – even though we have never had so much data readily within reach…) – have contributed to our continuing disdain for, and ill-treatment of, “anyone who is different” (especially those who we perceive to be beneath us): and particularly those who have less than we do.

These people frighten us, because they are an unknown quantity; but they are also easy to ignore, or, even worse, mistreat, because of their lack of similarity to us, to what we know and understand.

We are notall in this together”. And never really were.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Topping the Bill…

There can’t be many plays that leave you drenched in blood – we looked like we’d been incidental cast members for Titus Andronicus… – and yet where you also leave the theatre with a gentle, wistful English folk tune echoing around your head (courtesy of my hero, John Tams). And yet, a last-minute, off-the-cuff booking for the front row at Arden of Faversham (on at the Swan Theatre until 2 October 2014) did exactly that. (You’ll be pleased to learn that even pale clothes were cleaned to Lady Macbeth’s satisfaction, the following morning, after a quick wash: and all damn’d spots were outed…! Yet who would have thought the young man to have had so much blood in him? And survive!)

Is it by the Bard of Avon (whereas I’ll speak…), or some other famous contemporary; or is it by some talented, anonymous teller of tales? Who knows? There are certainly echoes of Macbeth in parts of it; and some of the writing is wonderfully crafted – although, even with references to Arden, Will, and Shakebag, most of it it lacks the density, complexity and inventiveness that I think are amongst Shakespeare’s trademarks. The mix of comedy and “most lamentable” tragedy is heady stuff; and there’s barely time to draw breath as events mount during the unbroken hundred minutes of plot and spiralling-out-of-control plotting. Be careful what you wish for….

Based on a gory true story, like The Roaring Girl (to which it is a companion piece, this season), it probably seems quite incredible, in our modern age, the lengths someone would go to in ridding themselves of one (albeit morally ambiguous, and land-grabbing) husband, simply to replace him with a newer model – especially considering the ever-expanding number of people who end up getting dragged into this sordid affair – and yet it makes for a great narrative!

The characters are not bluntly drawn, either – and the parts are given full, deep portrayals by the wonderful ensemble: Keir Charles, as Mosby, being a particular favourite; and making a swaggering entrance in an outfit that suits him perfectly, but will take a long time to forget! (Actually, the same can be said of many of the leading performers – including the scheming Sharon Small, as “sweet Alice” – and the set contributes well to the acceleratingly nightmarish qualities of the evening.) I just wanted to give Elspeth Brodie, as Susan, a big hug, though – as she gets forced into unwanted alliances, and punished unfairly, it seems to me: however innocent and reluctant she is as silent witness. Her almost permanent presence on-stage – an immensely impressive but subtle dramatic device: where she is constantly observing and trying to clean up everyone-else’s mess – is a chilling thread that runs steadfastly contrary to the guilt and evil being propagated by almost all around her.

In the end, it doesn’t matter who authored the script: it’s yet another rollicking good night out at the Swan; and, even if you don’t end up spattered in drops of blood, you may still find the odd tear (of both laughter and sadness) splashing onto your clothes.