The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

Nature notes from Cranham Common

No more EU, no more referendum, for now.

On a very different tack, or since I’m on land not at sea, on a very different track – the track across the local common, with its glorious sense of space. The valley to Painswick opens to the south and beechwoods lie behind me and to my left and right. And underfoot the closest to a carpet of cowslips that I’ve ever seen. No fertiliser touches this land, and currently it’s grazed on a rotation basis by a few contented Belted Galloway cattle. I can see them often from the bedroom window, beyond the cricket field, each with its single wide white belt.

Last year cowslips just touched the land, now they’ve almost taken over, and I’ve never seen the like. They’re small and they droop, gently, and there’s a kind of mute acceptance, a contendness of place, about them. It’s almost as if they’re apologising for being there, for holding on to one stretch of country when once they covered the fields and meadows of England.

Spring has come suddenly this year. The chestnuts were late, and even now the ash is holding back, no leaf green yet emerging from the buds. But we’re high here, exposed to winds, and Spring is just a little behind the lower country. A few daffodils survive, and the bluebells and wood sorrel are abundant, the celandine reclusive, and the wild garlic anything but. They’re not quite in flower yet, but the smell in places is all-pervasive. Driving back from Oxford last night, passing through woodland, the smell invaded the car, almost as if we had a well-seasoned Sunday roast in the back.

On my morning run, down by the stream beyond the common, by the delightfully named Haregrove Cottage, the birds were in chorus, and it was 9 o’clock – four hours past dawn. How many decibels higher will it be tomorrow when we walk out at 4.30 on an organised dawn chorus woodland excursion? It amazes me how the birds launch into their chorus almost as soon as they stir, sing their hearts out, and then subside into a more occasional chirping and chirruping as the day takes hold.

And here I am writing. Outside she’s mowing the lawn – she turned down my offer. But you can clip the edges she said. So that I will do…

Norwegian wood 

And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown/ So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, norwegian wood? (Norwegian Wood, The Beatles, Rubber Soul)

One surprise Christmas bestselling book in the UK has been ‘Norwegian Wood’, which has the great virtue of being exactly what it says on the tin, or the book cover, ‘chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way’, and more particularly, the Norwegian way.

I knew I must have a copy. Why? In my partner Hazel’s Cotswold home there’s a woodburning stove, and a stack of wood outside, under cover, partly seasoned – that is, partly dried, and I have the regular and rather enjoyable task of bringing it inside and keeping the log basket by the lounge fire well-filled. Sometimes the wood – I believe it’s all local beech (though we have some old indeterminate wood recycled from the rebuilding of the house next door) – flames up and lights the room, and we damp it down, and the room warms quickly, other times it’s slow and we open the vents and still it’s reluctant to flame. It has a mind of its own. But then of course  – it doesn’t.

Read Lars Mytting’s book and all will be revealed. Wood as a highly practical activity, but also pastime, mindset, lifestyle, craft and (check out some of the woodpiles illustrated in the book) art form.

‘Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.’ (Henry Thoreau, by Walden Pond, in the 1850s.)

I remember my step-mother’s father, in his 70s by the time I knew him, building his woodpile along a garden path facing south, several hundred feet above Lake Lucerne, where his family had lived for generations. The woodpile may also have been there for generations. I was 13 years old, and impressed. I watched a total lunar eclipse from the same path, the woodpile, maybe I should call it a woodpath, behind me, the lake below, the mountains reaching up beyond, and the moon a deepening shade of red above.

‘The ideal way to dry wood is to stack it as loosely as possible.’ 

Keep the surface exposed to wind and sunlight. ‘Logs dry best when the surface contact between them is minimal.’ And I love this quote:

‘In Norway, discussions about the vexed question of whether logs should be stacked with the bark facing up or down have marred many a christening and spoiled many a wedding when wood enthusiasts are among the guests.’

There’s the sun-wall woodpile, the firewood wall, the round stack, cord stacking, the closed square pile – just a few of the stacking options.  There’s a wonderful photo in the book of a stack in the shape of a fish.

‘Splitting the wood is the part of the job Arne enjoys most.’ (Arne Fjeld, quoted by Mytting.)

And there’s sawing and chopping and splitting, though all are pretty much denied me. I don’t have a chainsaw, or a trailer, and that’s what you need in the Norwegian birch woods. But I do have memories of hand- and felling-axes from my Boy Scout days. How did we get away then with wielding such dangerous items? I loved the big felling-axe, lifting it up and bringing it down from well above my head, sliding my hand down the shaft, the smooth and mighty downstroke.

‘I don’t think people in the old days had a particularly personal or romantic attitude toward wood.’ (Arne Fjeld again)

These days it’s different, in England as well as Norway. Wood is a source of comfort, where once it was simply a matter of life and death over the long winter months. Piling and chopping and feeding the flames are these days recreation as well as necessity.

‘Wood is best when dried quickly.’

Drying gets conversations going. Cut trees down in the winter or spring, before the sap rises (and fungus and mould can’t get established in the cold) and let the wood dry during the summer for next winter use. And keep the leaves on! Strip the bark in two or three places and let the logs breathe. All apparently arcane but in reality hard, practical and close-to-the earth advice. (But not too close to earth – stack your wood off the ground.)

But many argue that you should leave it two summers. I guess it has much to do with space and time (a touch of relativity here): if you’re well set up, as a Norwegian farmer would be, then one summer’s drying may be enough.

‘Wood is the simplest form of bioenergy there is.’

Each wood burns in its own way, but what matters in the end is the density. An oak log will generate 60% more heart than an alder log of the same size, but ‘pound for pound (they) produce the same amount of heat’. The hardest wood makes the best firewood, but quick-burning woods may well be better for chilly early or late winter days.  Mix them with a harder wood of beech or oak.  For kindling use pinewood or twigs from deciduous trees. And there’s coppicing: ‘birch can have a rotation period of fifteen to twenty years and more.’

You can calculate how many kilowatt-hours of energy a tree can produce, and put a financial value on it.

Birch is ‘queen of the Norwegian forest’, not least because it grows tall and straight, with obvious advantages for felling and stacking. Ash is tough and strong, and ‘regenerates from the stool, and therefore is ideally suited for coppicing’. It’s also, for many cultures, Yggdrasil, the tree of life, so the symbolism as well as the reality of the threat from ash dieback is powerful. Green pine is almost impossible to burn.

I remember as a Boy Scout going on many a ‘woodfag’, and building fires for cooking that sometimes flourished and sometimes struggled. And with them the evening stew, and the immediate welfare of the small patrol of four boys in my charge. I’d have done well to know more about the kinds of wood I was collecting. But I do remember – we didn’t starve. The main criterion then as now is – collect dry wood. If you can break it with your hands, or it breaks easily under the axe, that’s what matters.

‘… thick woollen socks hung up to dry dripped and hissed onto the woodstove.’

Back to Gersau on Lake Lucerne, and my Swiss step-grandparents’ house on the hillside. Everything was wood-fired and there was a fine traditional stove in the sitting-room. (The earth closet extended a long way down into the ground, and was regularly emptied into a neighbouring field. But that’s another story!)

Modern clean-burning stoves compared to old-fashioned stoves have an extra supply of heated air. There are different kinds of stove: closed iron, soapstone, kitchen, tiered, tiled …. each with its own story. In so many areas of life we have lost touch with story, or we have story without history. Wood in Mytting’s hands, beneath his axe, is all about story, all about history.

‘Even in oil-rich Norway an astonishing 25% of the energy used to heat private homes comes from wood.’

Here in the UK woodstoves will never be a way of life as they are in Scandinavia. We’ll never have stacks of wood decorating our landscape. But as one source within an energy mix of renewables, with renewables part of wider mix of oil, gas, coal, nuclear, with the former growing as the latter diminish, wood could have a big future. Time is on its side, as stoves become more efficient, and if we take on board all the wisdom in Mytting’s book renewable woods might be more part of our own landscape, and carefully planned they wouldn’t need to be the scars on the landscape that pine forests have been.

And finally, there’s a poem I wrote a poem (The Woodman) two years ago, inspired by the sound of someone chopping one early morning, and that’s how I’ll end:

Across the field the woodman drags/ The log he would reduce with axe/ Raised high above his head it falls/ A wrench of sound breaks the still/ Of morning and there’s a rhythm/ As each repeated stroke is given/ A little extra force or thrust 

For he who cuts alone would still be best/ Of all the woodmen, though no-one knows/ But he how so sharp blade so cold/ Could cut to such design/ Or how he to such contracted space/ Could aim his axe and lay to waste/ In single moments a century of time 

Relentless carping….

I’m arguing against myself here. I want more balanced news reporting, avoiding the cheap populist headlines that the tabloids indulge, and the reporting and biases that go with it. And the broadsheets don’t do much better.

But I try and make this blog pragmatic – connected to the everyday. Zen isn’t a place for dreamers. Is there any point shouting into the wind, when I know little will change? Unless… but the press barons won’t sell up and  if they did they’d likely sell to worse not better. And post-Leveson the issue of press freedom’s died a death, as the likes of Paul Dacre knew it would if they stalled long enough.

And anyway, the daily press is all about stories, and stories don’t have two ‘sides’, there’s no even-handed treatment of the cast. They need a villain or two, they need endings, they’re not puzzles, arguments, analyses requiring a measured resolution.

I’m not talking here so much about left or right, more about story, and balance, and necessary villains.

Taking examples from last Saturday’s Telegraph, we find stories about substantial pay rises for NHS chief executives in times of extreme financial stringency, threats to company pension schemes from proposed tax changes (removing higher level relief), and ‘anger’ over the just-announced annual increase in train fares – 1%.

How are they linked? By the absence of any objectivity, of another side to each story. That’s where my heading ‘relentless carping’ – always looking for the negative, for villains – comes in. And it does turn me off newspapers.

And what might be the ‘other side’ to each story?

NHS: look into each salary increase and there’s often an explanation for the rise, and there’s also the brutal fact that to attract the best people to run organisations you have to pay what the market dictates.

Train fare increases: the headline focused on the aggregate increase over the last five years, not the 1%, the lowest for five years, just announced. And someone, a pressure group or two, is angry.

Company pension schemes: the story reflects the views of a trade body, an interested party.  Counter-arguments? I could guess at another side – but I’ve not yet seen it reported.

My favourite press quote (CP Scott), ‘opinion is free, facts are sacred’, missed out a third category, ‘context’, or ‘frame’. The frame is integral to the story. Facts are framed, kept within a limited context, and the best stories unless it’s a football result or a big cricket score are usually negative. And we may (see above) amid the superabundance of future news reports never find the counter-arguments, if indeed they ever get a mention.

The alternative? The Economist sometimes manages pretty well. Under the heading ‘Northern  waterhouse’, a play on the government’s proposed ‘Northern powerhouse’ it looks at government and local authority responses to the recent floods, highlights cuts in investment at both levels, and gives a context to the anger so often expressed in recent weeks. But… the December just past has been the wettest month on record, and would the investment which was cut have made any difference to the flooding that’s actually happened? That’s not mentioned. So no more than 6 out of 10 for the Economist.

I don’t want to be putting in a good word for overpaid NHS executives, badly run train companies, damaging taxation changes to company pensions, or cancelled flood prevention when it’s not justified. But I want more if I’m to have the full picture.

But again, that qualification: should newspaper stories be other than stories? With villains. Without villains they wouldn’t get read.

The Economist has the advantage of being a weekly. Daily papers are another matter. So in the end it comes down to the old proverbial pinch of salt.

And keep a set of scales to hand, just as a reminder – there is another side.

Wildwood

In a previous blog I mentioned Roger Deakin’s Wildwood…

He makes habitable the Tudor farmhouse he buys by keeping out the wind and rain but still allowing at least partial free passage for the animal and insect life who had been its previous owners. He sleeps in a caravan to listen to the rooks, he’s part of the moth-makers circle as they cluster round the bright lights that draw the moths in, he recounts the stories of willow-men and the basket-and bat-makers who work the willow.

His is a wonderful but all too little known counter-balance to all the damage we do to our world, to our climate, to our landscape. I wonder at times whether we could impose a back-to-nature requirement on all road-builders, all architects and town-planners, anyone who would spread bricks and especially concrete over the landscape without a thought for future generations who will be left with it when lifestyles and domiciles and transport have moved on. Where once we felled trees in Britain at least we now have open pasture and hedges and copses which hide and nurture their own wildlife. Where we put down concrete nothing can grow, save after decades in the slow-wearing interstices where weeds find a scraggy home.

It would be good to have a long-term damage assessment built into every new project, with a minimum threshold in terms of decay or decomposition, to remind ourselves of the duty we owe not just our children, but to many generations hence.

It seems that the Environment Agency haven’t a clue when it comes to considerations of this kind. Deakin quotes their indifference to the withy (willow) growing tradition in the Somerset Levels. Floods brought poisoned water which ruined the crop one year, and no-one from the agency visited, and now it seems they have plans to flood the withy beds permanently. When I’ve heard stories about the agency in other flood situations I’ve always put it down to shortages of staff, or local misunderstandings, but it seems that it goes deeper, to an institutional level.

On a lighter note, Deakin notes that cricket bat willow only grows really well in England, to the frustration of Australians who must import English willow wherewith to thrash, they hope, the Poms.  Louis MacNeice writes of the drunkenness of things being various. Here we have the singular, the co-incidence of place and time to play which led to a game where the spring of willow and the resilience of cork and leather make for a game perfectly matched to human strength and capabilities. A more stolid bat would propel the ball much less far, and vibrate the hand, a softer bat and the ball would die before it left the square. Without willow where would we be, without the game that’s an antidote to all the frenetic activity which characterises most popular sports. With maybe the exception of snooker, but that’s about paralysis rather than relaxation of mind. But I digress.

20:20 cricket is another game altogether, although it still requires the magic of the willow wand, which however brandished remains something it seems modern materials can’t replicate. Long may it remain so.