Where do we go from here?

This is a long post, and I apologise for that. But there is a lot of ground to cover. The 12th December election was a turning-point. I want to establish points of departure. To put down, issue by issue, policy area by policy area, where we are now, as I understand it. And to take a view, from an avowedly liberal standpoint, on whether the government on the evidence available is competent to handle those issues.

Over the coming months I mean to return to some of the points made here, and see how the government is faring – and see if my judgements are correct. Or otherwise. I will try and be fair!

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The key issues for the next five years: should we rejoice, be angry, or simply despair?

Did I collapse in despair, or rise up in anger? No, I surprised myself. Two days before the election, I’d been talking to LibDem supporters in Cheltenham and they were gloomy: their polling put the Tories 2% ahead. On my drive back home that day I reconciled myself to the reality, that politics would be anything but Zen-like in the years to come. The Tories would win, and handsomely. I could continue to be angry, or I could keep my cool. Hold firm to my ideas, beliefs and aspirations.  Let events unfold, influence them in my own small way if I could, and see where they take me.

Boris Johnson thought Brexit an impossible idea when asked at Davos in 2014. Who knows where we might be in 2024?

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‘Should we rejoice,’ I ask above. Well, hardly. But let’s be positive. There may be, just maybe, some good news. The Tories will have to tack to the centre, even to the left, to keep on board the support that’s been loaned to them in Yorkshire and the North East. The NHS will get extra funding. But not at Blair-years levels of increase. And will it be thrown at the existing players – GPs and hospitals, when it is health and social care at every level that Tory administrations over the last almost ten years have brought into crisis?

Where are the beds for those well enough to leave hospital, but with nowhere to recuperate? Will the funding be there to relaunch the childcare, daycare and other facilities closed down during the austerity years?  To match the spending assessments allocated to local councils for social services not just to existing expenditure, but to the higher levels of expenditure that everyone recognises are required, not least for support for the elderly? Put another way, will the funding be token – or transformative? Will it be case of, ‘what can we get away with’? Or will commitment be total, and even passionate?

Johnson has promised proposals for later this year, but ‘asked for a date for action to finally be taken to improve social care, Mr Johnson said: “We will certainly do it in this parliament”.’ (Independent). The vagueness is absolute.

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Infrastructure: big investment is needed, and might be good news, although HS2 is a poor starter by way of priorities. An infrastructure plan needs to be pumping funds into the North-West, well north of Manchester, into the North East, well north of Leeds – and it may be fifteen years before a link to Leeds is completed. And the South-West.  And Wales. The big hubs already have train and air links. The areas in between and at the peripheries should have equal if not greater priority.

Race and gender: there’s no evidence that the Tories will seek to unwind any of the changes of the few decades. But there is a hard core of Tory support that is seriously socially conservative, and wary if not intolerant of change. Arguments will be heated on the subject of political correctness, campus bans and the like. (Social conservatism is a fundamental instinct, and one I connect to. Not all change is wise! How far can we take the absolute liberty of the individual? When is intolerance just that – intolerance?)

Referenda: the curse of our political system. The one-off vote driven by half-truths, lies and misrepresentation, to which we all have to hold as if it is the voice of, the will of the people. The good news – the Tories sure as hell won’t want another for a good few years. They have the parliamentary majority, and it isn’t going to go away in a hurry.

Mandate: however much we might query his means Johnson has a clear mandate. From that comes stability. Things can at last get done. And we’ve a sense of urgency, or at least the appearance of one. Will it all in the end be dissipated by the muddle and machinations of Brexit? Will things indeed ‘get done’?

Luck:  Johnson has also had luck on his side. The caution engendered by the financial crisis and austerity has disappeared as in a puff of smoke. A fairy godmother? Does Johnson have one? Is he lucky, or does he make his own luck?  Greased pig was the appellation The Economist gave to him a month or two ago. He slides through obstacles, and nothing sticks to him. Is he that rare thing, a genius, as Charles Moore suggests? Should we give him his head, and see where he takes us?

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Which takes us to the bad news.  There are vast issues out there, and I touch on many, maybe most, of them below.  There are few signs, as of now, that the new government has the nous or the commitment to deal with them. It is in fundamentals a continuation of what has gone before. Ten years of Tory rule. (The first five years somewhat constrained.) The government would have us believe that it is entirely new, and its ministers a new breed. Taking a fresh look at all problems. A dubious proposition. But let us, for now, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Leadership: Johnson is talking of a Golden Age, when first we have to climb out of a mire which he maybe more than anyone has dumped us in. A leader who took up the cudgels on behalf of ‘the people’, as the tabloid press defined it, against parliament, and against the Supreme Court as well.

So, to return to my question above, do we give him his head? As an opportunist, without any broad understanding public affairs, on all evidence to date, of course we shouldn’t. Do we have a choice? No, we don’t. Compare Churchill, Johnson’s hero, we’re told. Churchill anticipated a crisis and was brought in to resolve it. Johnson was a prime mover in creating our current crisis – and now he’s proclaimed as new Moses to lead us out of it.

The total dominance of one party. The utter incompetence of the main opposition. The side-lining of the LibDems. BBC won the election – Boris, Brexit and Corbyn. Corbyn won it for the Tories. All the other Far Left madcaps who think that all they need to do in time is somehow infiltrate the institutions, take over the system. Achieve ‘cultural hegemony’.  (This was Gramsci’s term. Gramsci was a Marxist, but it has a resonance for a few Tory ideologues as well. See below.)

Education: more money, but if that old Govean (Michael Gove ‘deserves an adjective) shibboleth of choice continues to hold sway then money will go to the good and excellent schools, and the free schools. Schools only registering satisfactory or below will find funding reduced still further on a per capita basis. Pupils from disadvantaged areas will continue to be disadvantaged.

Four years, maybe five, maybe longer: that’s the period of time Brexit has dominated affairs, and taken out minds off all the big issues we should have been focusing on. Important issues haven’t been addressed, important legislation has simply never happened. It will be hard to catch up.

Meritocracy: social mobility will get lip service and no more. The ordinarily well-off, the top quartile maybe of the population, will make certain they hang on to what they’ve got. Independent schools offer big advantages. Rather than their abolition (which simply at a practical level would be massively damaging) and trading down we have to focus on the state sector trading up. But there’s little sign of it happening. No government in recent times has come anywhere near getting the measure of the problem. State education may be marginally better funded under Johnson. But the benefits of the best teaching, the best preparation for university, good contacts when you leave university – they all work, and will continue to work, to the advantage of the affluent.

Social justice: where do you draw the line between ensuring people have incentives to work and providing safety net in the event of misfortune? George Osborne muddled austerity with cutting back benefits. Skivers were a popular theme in the press. Benefit fraud. Benefit tourism. Universal Credit has been implemented with a startling lack of understanding of its consequences, or the suffering caused. The bedroom tax was a mean spirit incarnate. There are no plans for any of the cuts in benefits to be re-instated. What I don’t see in the new Tory dispensation is much sign of compassion for the underdog. If Johnson wants to be a one-nation conservative he needs to strike a better balance between enterprise and compassion than his predecessors. This is difficult territory. But the bottom line has to be – compassion. Without it, all else that governments achieve is worthless.

Enterprise: maybe this should be under the ‘good news’ section above. Cutting business rates, which is in the Queen’s Speech, and maximising incentives for small businesses, are essentials. I’m a great believer in not-for-profit social enterprises, but the pursuit of profit is, for now at least, what drives this planet. The issue is how this can be squared with a vast reduction in emissions, a radical approach to conservation and resource depletion, and a re-balancing of wealth, in a way that improves living standards worldwide whilst avoiding crippling the planet.  The longer-term issue is how the planet can be re-educated away from its delight in profit and ever-increasing consumption. Is, indeed, there a remote chance of it ever happening? Don’t expect to see this government leading that debate.

The media. Johnson is talking of decriminalising non-payment of the BBC licence fee. The Tories grumble about BBC bias. So does Labour of course. And the LibDems don’t even get to join the big boys’ debates. (How much did being pushed to the margins affect the LibDems final vote?) Decriminalising will be a first step toward turning the BBC into another pay-TV channel, another Sky or similar. That’s a popular scenario with the Tory right. They have their newspapers, maybe 80% of the press is Tory-owned and wears its allegiance in a very public way. The centre and left have the Mirror and Guardian, and the ‘i’. But they are, in terms of absolute numbers, small players. Check out any newsstand.

The right-wing press will, as they have during four years of Brexit argument, continue to control the public debate through tub-thumping and a cavalier approach to truth. It will take multiple disasters before the Mail abandons its allegiance to whatever prejudice or distortion is likely to have the biggest appeal.

[20th December] The government has now banned cabinet ministers from appearing on the Today programme. (Nick Robinson was an ardent Tory at school.) I guess they don’t want to be interrogated and found wanting. Ensure, with the tabloids on your side, that your press is always favourable. Sky, being Murdoch owned, will never push criticism too far. ITV and C4 have good reasons to be cautious. The Tory take on the BBC is that it’s part of the urban liberal establishment. The rest of us may view it as the last best hope for intelligent debate in the country. But that is, of course, what’s at stake. If the anti-liberal establishment trope really takes hold then plans to scrap the licence fee will become even easier to put into law… That’s the way, no doubt, Tory thinking goes.

[20th December]  Matthew Goodwin, an academic at the University of Kent, came out for Brexit as a populist revolt a while back.  He did his own polling, he tells us. ‘Leavers knew what they were doing,’ as he put it. People were well aware that Brexit involved ‘risks’. So they factored that into their vote for Brexit. But ‘risk’ as we know was played down so as to be almost non-existent in Brexit propaganda. Risk can only be quantified and made real if people see it at work in tangible form in the day-to-day. And poor economic performance is easily disguised: we trundle on as ever. But put us against other countries: we’ve failed by that test already and there’s little doubt based on all independent forecasts that we will slip further behind in future.  (The government promises us the opposite of course: ‘a glorious future’. We shall see.)

There is a further worry. As long as the press is solidly right-wing, and even more now that the press and the parliamentary majority are aligned, there is a real danger that the balance of opinion in our politics, the frame within which it operates, may shift rightwards. (See the reference to ‘cultural hegemony’ above.) Liberal values of openness and equality may be risk if a government forces through a hard-right neo-liberal agenda. The British electoral system, with its five-year election cycle, has in recent times always held parties in check. The electorate has to be persuaded, cannot be bludgeoned. I’m less sure that this will still be the case over the next five or ten years. This could be the biggest and most worrying game-changer of all.

Roger Scruton, the leading Conservative philosopher, died a few days ago. I’ve long recognised him as a redoubtable advocate of Conservatism , with a capital C, and disparager of the values of liberal democracy. ‘The two goals of liberation and social justice are not obviously compatible, any more than were the liberty and equality advocated at the French Revolution.’  I’d seen him in fine form at the Cheltenham Literature Festival eighteen months ago. But his obituaries also highlighted his recent receipt of the Hungarian Order of Merit from Viktor Orban, the ever-more autocratic prime minister of Hungary, and champion of ‘illiberal democracy’. Given Hungarian attacks on a free press and the judiciary under Orban this is a worrying connection. We are a long way from an Orban-style democracy in this country, but there is a strand of Conservative thinking that gives cause for concern.

Democracy is also about local government of course. There’s much talk of a Northern Powerhouse. Direct funding for infrastructure. Major funding increases for the NHS and in time we’d hope social care – but this is central government funding. Will any consideration be given to extending local democracy? To involving people more closely with what happens in their own backyard? Or will localities be bought off by a hike in central government funding?

If the divide between right and centre and left in the media was no more than political we could all relax just a little. Focus on the arguments. But fake news and false alarms, marginal opinions consistently given equivalence with mainstream, the disparagement of expertise, they have been Brexit bread and butter over the last four years.

Law and order. There’s already talk of ECJ judgements being brought back under UK jurisdiction, with serious and unthought-through consequences. The Oxford historian Vernon Bogdanor suggests that in a post-Brexit world we will need some kind of British constitution. Sections of the press may for now hold off from further attacks on judges and the rule of law. But legislating for a constitution might open up a vast new can of worms. That apart, parliament and the executive shouldn’t be at odds for a few years. There should be no need for the Supreme Court to be involved. On the debit side there’s a worrying Tory manifesto promise to ‘update’ the Human Rights Act: intervening to achieve the ‘proper balance’ between the rights of individuals, national security and the government. Whatever ‘proper balance’ might mean.

The prison system: building more jails, locking more people up. Prison welfare, and rehabilitation, and increasing the number of prison officers: that’s not the way Tory talk about the system goes. The Tory knee-jerk response to the London Bridge stabbings suggest that we may well move rapidly in the wrong direction. Likewise Priti Patel’s comments on wanting criminals ‘literally to feel terror’ before breaking the law.

I mentioned fiddling the system. Under Cameron there was much discussion about boundary changes. Advocates on the right have claimed the system penalises them. It takes fewer Labour voters to elect an MP than it does Tory voters. I’m not sure that overall figures bear this out, or if they did once, they may do so no longer – but with one party in power for long periods who knows what might happen.

Brexit itself. I thought for a moment Johnson might feel able to sideline MPs the European Reform Group (ERG). Keep open the option of extending the departure date after 31st December 2020. But he’s legislating to tie himself into that date. (Legislation can of course easily be rescinded by another Act.) Is he playing a game here? Playing tough for now, more moderate further down the line, when the ERG have all but gone to sleep? (Unlikely, I have to admit.)

Once upon a time Johnson was a liberal, centrist Tory. Has he cast off this cloak for good? If power is his aim, then principle may be secondary. A cavalier approach to a hard Brexit suggests opportunism, and a ‘beggar the consequences’ attitude. It may on the other hand be pragmatism. Johnson likes sailing close to the wind, and tacking only when he has to. He’s been clever at ensuring that opprobrium doesn’t stick to him. See earlier my comments on his ‘greased pig’ attributes.

Acolytes: I have in particular Dominic Cummings in mind. Who was at Johnson’s side on election night? Dom, of course. With his laptop.  ‘Taking back control’ was a great slogan. No matter that any gain in ‘control’ is minimal, and our loss of influence a disaster. But he’s the kind of guy who does ‘cut through the crap’. I read that he’s been telling senior civil servants what they should be reading. And he has big ideas on military procurement, and wants to take on the generals and military establishment. See below.  And there’s also Isaac Levido, the Aussie who organised polling and research for the Tory campaign. He it was who was behind climate-change-sceptic Scott Morrison’s surprise victory in the recent Aussie election. He may be a decent guy. But supporting Scott Morrison?

Immigration will be based around a points-system. Aussie style. (Aussies again.) We will get only the brightest and best. I haven’t yet heard how we will get our fruit picked, or our hotels manned, or how other concerns which rely on cheap immigrant labour will function. We will be even more nation of parasites: attracting the best from elsewhere, the cost to the countries giving us their trained and educated doctors and technicians and nurses, and whoever else, being of little concern of us.

Immigration control can be dressed up as an entirely necessary response to job losses (for which there is little hard evidence) and EU citizens’ access to the NHS (though immigrants are in reality net contributors). But it is at a deeper level a fear of foreigners, a closing of doors. The UK recast for our time as ‘little England’. (I’m leaving Scotland and Northern Ireland out advisedly.)

Influence. Johnson will make his mark on the world stage through his bluster. But will anyone listen beyond what they have to? Has he – will he have – any moral authority? Will other countries look to him as someone who might lead? Can we regain the influence we had in Europe? Or the UN? Can we justify any more our permanent seat on the UN Security Council? Once we wrote or co-wrote the rules by which the EU ran itself. Now at best we will be lobbyists. To be listened to, or not, as others dictate. To move beyond that is perhaps Johnson’s greatest challenge. If he succeeds, as some believe he might, if he halfway succeeds, that will be a mighty achievement.

Trade: Brexit deals with the EU. Or not, if we can’t agree to align with EU regulations. Forget about services for now. 330 million Americans and a big-stick president. 447 million (not including the UK) citizens of EU member states. 1.4 billion Chinese. 67 million Brits. Wonderful trade deals are guaranteed. The best terms. And if another party wants to cheat or offload or renege or cancel, we can shrug and walk away and find someone else to do business with… There is madness here. And what kind of deal will we ultimately get out of Trump? We have few cards to play, and much to lose.

Business: ensuring that corporate taxes are paid in the countries where sales happen, and aren’t routed though low-tax countries. Issues of pay and business ethics. The priority given to dealing with vast and growing inequalities, as much in the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1%, or indeed the 5%, as in salaries.

Social media and automation: should the big social media companies, Facebook and the like, where there are issues of both taxation and size, be broken up? Where their influence is malign, how can that be tackled? Automation – the other great transformative issue: what will the workplace look like in ten and twenty years’ time, and how can we best prepare when there’s so much uncertainty around the issue.

The European Union: maybe this should have come at the head of the list. But I’d have been re-running all the reasons for not leaving. The question has to be – how to retain what influence we have left, and regain some of what we’ve lost. We have made ourselves look foolish in the eyes of EU countries, and the wider world. Decisive government now will help claw back some credibility – but prestige and influence are another matter. Beyond lip service, does Johnson really want to be good neighbours with the EU? (He and the new Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, were all smiles recently.) Or by preference a nagging offshore critic? How ‘open’ does Johnson want the country to be.

Peter Pomerantsev in the current Prospect has a definition of the European project which I can subscribe to: ‘… a project whose aim is not some woolly cosmopolitanism, but a way of squaring the circle of nationalism and the need for cooperation in a crowded continent. “European” is a way of doing things, a constant effort to understand others and compromise, to smooth polarisation.’

Can we continue to support this idea, without having any direct involvement in its realisation? Is it a project that Johnson and his government can in any way, even as outsiders, subscribe to? We will be big losers if we can’t.

Brexit has seen the EU compared to the 16th century Papacy as a malign force. Free trade as Brexiters interpret it and free trade following the Repeal of the Corn Laws have also had an airing, as if there were a relevant connection. And recently we’ve had comparisons between the gloom about Britain’s future after losing our American colonies and pessimism about our future post-Brexit. If we were wrong to be gloomy back then, then we are wrong to be gloomy now. The logic is overwhelming…  That misuse, misreading, of history, is one of the troubling aspects of the new Tory dispensation.

[20th December]  USA: how will our relations with the USA evolve over the next five years? Does any of this matter? There is a little discussed instinctual divide in the UK – between those who are natural, for good or ill, Europeans, and those who feel more attuned to the American way of life. Johnson claimed in 2016 that he could sing Ode to Joy, from Beethoven’s Ninth, with the best of us. But that’s not the point. We’re endlessly doused with American popular culture. Not the high-brow stuff. And the American economy is a gung-ho unregulated paradise, isn’t it? Tory free traders have no choice but to love America: all other boats are burnt. A tilt to America is certain to happen: how blatant it is, how much we have to toady to Trump, we will see. And if a Democratic president gets elected next November… well, that will be interesting.

[2nd January]  The American election primaries are about to get underway. I reference a Californian friend in her Christmas letter. She hopes that the hit taken by a hard-left-dominated Labour in our election will get through to an American left seeking to secure the nomination for an Elizabeth Warren, or someone of similar opinions. If the left comes over scary then centrist opinion might yet plump for Trump.

[2nd January]  Defence: where does the recent announcement of the sale of the British defence company, Cobham (aerial refuelling an area where they are world leaders), to the American company Advent fit in the scheme of things? ‘It came [quoting The Times] after Advent proposed a series of legal undertakings designed to mitigate potential national security concerns, including protecting sensitive government information, and giving notice to the government of future sale plans.’ Rarely have I read anything less convincing. (Expressions like ‘mitigate’, and ‘giving notice’.) It is the business secretary, the redoubtable Andrea Leadsom, who announced the deal. Not, note, the defence secretary. Business, to be entirely cynical, comes first. But does it matter if the long-term plan is to tie our defence ever-more-closely to the USA? France and other European nations may see the advantage of an alternative EU defence establishment given an increasingly untrustworthy transatlantic partner. But not the UK of Boris Johnson.

[14th January]  The UK sits on the fence over the USA taking out  Qassem Soleimani. Johnson hedges over support for the Iran agreement of which, with the USA, the UK, France and Germany were co-signatories. ‘Mr Johnson said the Iran nuclear agreement should be scrapped and replaced with a superior “Trump deal” – as he shrugged off being shut out of the decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani.’ (Independent)

Agriculture: Michael Gove had big ideas as Environment Secretary for a subsidy scheme based around environmental impact rather than acreage of land under cultivation. How this works out now we shall see. The polluter pays principle would be a useful one to enshrine in policy – big farmers/landowners would take a hit. On the other hand sheep farmers and the Welsh rural economy could also be hit hard. I rate Gove’s competence, though not always his ideas – thinking back to his time as Education Secretary. He is of course no longer in charge of agriculture… The jury has to be out on this one. Fishing: there will be a big squabble between the EU and the UK.

Defence [2]: I mentioned above that Cummings wants to take on the generals and military establishment on policy and procurement. With two hugely over-cost mega-sized aircraft carriers … the American strike fighters (with problems of their own) which fly from the carriers not yet delivered … and only three destroyers available to defend the carriers when even the six there should be might not be enough given the capabilities of the long-range missiles both the Russians and Chinese have in development  … You can see his point. If Cummings can help Johnson make better sense of our defences then they will both deserve serious accolades. That is a very big ‘if’. But better the Tories on defence than Labour, who would have been clueless.

Civil service: Cummings also wants to take on the Civil Service. We can all agree that tenures for both politicians as secretaries of state and civil servants as department heads can be too short. We need expertise. But as Matthew Parris and others have pointed out, the difficulties lie more with politicians. The Civil Service has to advise on what’s feasible and what can indeed be actually implemented. The argument is worth making, but Cummings, I fear, is showing off.

Climate change: no such qualification on climate change. Can we have any confidence in the Tories? Maybe Johnson will blaze a trail, show his centrist, liberal, wide-world-aware credentials. But to his right he has the doubters writing in the Daily Mail and Telegraph: the British public we’re told just won’t wear all the disruption that would follow from serious engagement with climate change. Business, a Telegraph writer argued, is taking the lead – when it is increasing pressure from public opinion that’s driving business. Yes, the government is committed to zero net emissions by 2050. But we need to be radically engaged as of now. Carbon trading, support for countries at risk from sea level rise, tighter targets all round. The big issues left unresolved in Madrid recently.  

And what of conservation? The decline of species as mankind penetrates ever further into the last recesses of nature. And the other big issues of our time, closely related to climate and habitat – population growth, migration, and associated resource depletion. Are we now in the hands of a government and ministers who are at the ‘technology can handle it’ end of the spectrum? Trust technology to find a way. Whatever the cost. Or will they seek to take the lead on the world stage – and in Glasgow, at the next climate conference, next autumn. Have no truck with Trump.

There’s one big issue I haven’t mentioned. It could dominate the headlines in a year of two’s time. Scottish independence – the possibility of another vote. If Johnson refuses, how will the SNP, how will an all-SNP city like Glasgow, respond? Scotland wants of course to stay in the EU. As does Northern Ireland: the Irish border may become a big issue sooner rather than later, as for the Northern Irish closer relations with the Irish Republic come to seem a better option than a dysfunctional GB.

And finally, what about values, about who we are as people? Will we be, as is claimed, as open to the world after Brexit as before? Or will our focus be on self-interest, on narrowly defined UK interest? Will equality of opportunity and capability be core values? Social justice. Social mobility, with all its implications for a balancing of education provision and employment opportunities.  The dignity of every human being, in the poorest corner of our own land and every land. That’s easy to say of course, much harder to act on. But it’s not a bad starting-point. When we put care and compassion ahead of fear and anxiety and a closing of doors.

Citizens of the UK, of Europe and the world. Not for Theresa May, but for millions of us that’s who we are. And will remain, EU member state or not. That will for me the ultimate criterion. How we, and how I as a citizen, fulfil each of these roles.

The beech and the oak – and the ash

So much going on out there… and a nature diary?

Yes indeed – time to walk, or if you’re so inclined, as I am, to run, out into the hills, through the woods, and the farmland. Seek out another perspective on the world.

Six weeks ago the first pale green leaves showed on the beech, now the wood is dark, and the light seeks out chinks, or clearings where the foliage is less intense. Many climb tall, planted close together. In time, many years hence, they will be harvested, fuel for our wood burners.

But, given the chance, beeches spread their trunks wide. On one, pollarded long ago, I counted ten trunks. It and its fellows mark the edge of the woodland, where it meets the big hedge-less field, where the barley now four-feet tall is growing abundantly.

Oaks are fewer where I run, but they are there. I know of none of the old, the 500-or-600-year-old, oaks. But across the Severn estuary, into the Forest of Dean, they are abundant. Felled for shipbuilding – and replanted (at Nelson’s instigation, so I read) for the same purpose. But by the time the trees had matured iron had become the main building material.

Can you mention the oak, without mentioning the ash? I often wondered about the old saw, ‘when the ash’s before the oak, there’s bound to be a soak’. When in my experience was the ash in leaf before the oak? Never. (I read that, back in the 18th century, the ash did sometimes beat the oak. But our climate has changed.)

The ash. … the ash is in crisis. They always gave a lighter cover, with their compound leaves. But now leaves are fewer, twigs and branches bare.

I used to sing the old Welsh folk song, The Ash Grove, at school.

The ash grove, how graceful, how plainly ’tis speaking;/The harp through it playing has language for me…/I lift up my eyes to the broad leafy dome…/The ash grove, the ash grove again is my home.

The lover found solace beneath the ash. And now it seems it is the ash itself we must weep for. Our only solace – there are resistant strains, we can replant.

The ash is woven not only into song but into our history – and Norse mythology. What off Yggdrasil, the great ash if Norse mythology? Must the tree of the gods also suffer dieback? (There is a symbol for our times!)

‘The ash is of all trees the biggest and the best. Its branches spread out over the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree’s roots support it and extend very, very far. …The third … root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root … [there] the gods have their court.’ (Extract from the Prose Edda, see also below.)

Tree recognition hasn’t been a strong point of mine.  How might ash differ from sycamore or oak, or lime or white poplar? I knew the shapes, sort of, but I guessed. Now I know the ash. They are in groves, and near me, lining hedges, and especially, they’re where local farmland rises to a gentle summit, prominent, lording over the land. They are thinner now, you can see through them. When they go, so will our landmarks.

(Ash and sycamore – I puzzled a day or two ago over two trees apparently growing together, their trunks conjoined – it’s called inosculation.)

At a more mundane level, we were wondering over lunch – is there a plan, a national plan, to replant? Or at least recommendations? Or guidance? None as far as we can tell. A recent report in Current Biology estimated a total cost to the nation of the loss of trees (no mention as far as I am aware of replanting – of ultimately restoring the landscape) at £15 billion.

And the ash trees that line our lanes? Are they the farmer’s responsibility? The local council? Primarily the latter, according to the report. I’m told when they’re felled in the diseased state, weakened by fungus, they shatter, and there is a mighty mess.

I’ve recently returned from the Hay Book Festival. Robert Macfarlane was there, talking about his new book, ‘Underland’. There’s a marvelous chapter that focuses on the ‘understorey’ in woodland, where fungi spread their hyphae, a network which not only consumes dying matter but also supports the living.

‘The relationship between plant and fungi is all about exchange, swapping chlorophyll for nutrients, but far more than this, ‘the fungal network also allows plants to distribute resources between one another … sugars, nitrogen and phosphorus can be shared between trees in a forest:  a dying tree might divest its resources into the network for the benefit of the community, for example, or a struggling tree might be supported with extra resources by its neighbours.’ (Underland, p98)

But the dieback fungus is at another level, a fungus which feeds only to destroy. A dead-end fungus.

So I despair to see the ash die back. And I wonder what lies ahead. But I also wonder at what lies beneath. My eyes have been opened to something extraordinary. But as town-dwellers, most of us, we take it all for granted.

We take the ash for granted.

**

(Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, 15) “The ash is of all trees the biggest and the best. Its branches spread out over the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree’s roots support it and extend very, very far. One is among the Æsir, the second among the frost-giants, where Ginnungagap once was. The third extends over Niflheim, and under that root is Hvergelmir, and Nidhogg gnaws the bottom of the root. But under the root that reaches towards the the frost-giants, there is where Mimir’s well is, which has wisdom and intelligence contained in it, and the master of the well is called Mimir. …The third root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root is a well which is very holy, called Weird’s well (Urd’s well). There the gods have their court.

Impermanence

We conjured a turtle on a Cornish beach last Sunday, and slates gathered on the beach were scales for its back. Five hours later, in the gloaming, I watched the incoming tide, the waves creeping, maybe one in three or one in four, a little closer, until they trickled into the ditch we’d dug around the turtle. The shell held out a little longer, maybe ten minutes, until a small wave sloshed gently over the top, and then the undermining was really underway. By the time I took my leave, reluctantly, ten minutes later, there was barely a hump to be seen, as the tide pushed further in.

Impermanence… I’ve also been walking the coast path, from Trevose Head to Morgan Porth, and back, the same terrain, yes, but different perspectives, as if two separate journeys. The coves bite deep, and the caves and sink-holes provide sounding-boards for the waves. The rocks break and twist, as the strata and lines of weakness, and all the vagaries of weather and climate over many millions of years, dictate. And yet it all seems so permanent. Even the flock of oyster-catchers, which piped on a rock platform far below: they were there both outward and inward, though inward the black-backed gulls had flown.

Looking down on Bedruthan Sands from the cliff top, the sand was fresh-swept – the tide bites the cliff, no soft or littered sand, and four girls were playing boule, and their cries just carried to me. The waves which had been a high surf were lapping low, or seemed to from my elevation, and all seemed … well, yes, permanent.  I didn’t want to walk on, and lose that sense of forever.

I found a grassy slope, and sat and looked out to see, blue under blue, aquamarine closer in, where it shallowed, and the rippling smoothness extended in a great curve around me. Another cliff, another cove – snorkellers were taking advantage of low tide and swimming out to a sandy beach.

Where the cliffs come down to Treyarnon beach there’s a steep gully which you can swim through at lowest tide. This, my imagination tells me, is what they do, what I could do, as the observer, every day, and yet – such moments, such times, are rare. The tide will rise, the mists sweep in, and the storms, and the winter …

Joy and a gentle melancholy combine, and a sense of peace, and fragility … that sense of living in the moment, and yet living forever.

 

 

The Hay Book Festival 2017 

It’s May 2017. The Hay Book Festival surprises yet again. You know it will, one of the great joys is turning up to talks you may have booked in advance – but you never quite know what to expect.

And what you can do of course is not book in advance, head for the box office, see what’s still available, which is most talks, if you’re early enough, and simply take pot luck. Serendipity can have big surprises in store, and rarely disappoints.

Hazel and I took in some talks together, for others we split up and compared notes afterwards.

For anyone interested in getting a flavour of Hay Festival, and not averse to reading something of the ideas and arguments, and the sheer variety of subjects, and the passionate advocacy of many of the speakers – please do read on!

*

Wednesday 31st May

11.30. I began with Cambridge historian John Guy on the subject of Thomas More. He traced the remarkable history of More’s ‘Utopia’, its influence worldwide, and disabused us of the notion that More was a serial torturer. John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, hagiography of the Protestant reformers who suffered in Catholic hands, had a vested interest in accusing More. Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall follows Foxe, but Guy holds back from criticising her too harshly. Like all of us he’s in a little in awe of her ability to brings characters to life. Guy is also an admirer of Paul Scofield in ‘A Man for all Seasons’, but he stressed that More as a man with an individual conscience that he could not deny (Robert Bolt’s spin on More in his play) is a misrepresentation. More belonged in a 1500 year old Catholic tradition, and his conscience was formed within the church’s teaching.

Why did More write ‘Utopia’? A radical democrat? The reverse is closer to the truth.  He was an elitist, who feared the demos, just as Plato had done, and saw a guardian class as the natural protectors and rulers of the land.

Hazel skipped Thomas More and took in Artemis Cooper (biographer of Patrick Leigh Fermor) on Elizabeth Jane Howard, author The Cazalet Chronicle, the wife of naturalist Peter Scott (when she was still a teenager) and Kingsley Amis, and lover of Arthur Koestler and Laurie Lee. Sounds like someone it would have been interesting to know….

*

1pm. We followed with Alistair Sawday, famous for his Special Places travel guides. What struck me above all is Sawday’s ability to talk in a relaxed conversational way, and I could imagine him talking to hotel and inn owners all over Europe, charming, enthusiastic, interested. Pulping 25,000 copies of an early travel guide almost brought the company down early on. He’s an enthusiast for earth closets. He fears that special places, which aren’t smartened up and denuded of character, are getting fewer. But they survive. Telling a wider world where to find them is a double-edged sword – great for the hotels, helping them survive, but a wider awareness and clientele can damage that sense of places apart.

*

2.30. My day’s highlight was Cambridge lecturer (in public policy), Finbarr Livesey, in conversation with Andy Fryers. ‘From Global to Local.’ Is globalisation the only paradigm, is hyper-globalisation inevitable?

Livesey puts up powerful counter-arguments, well summed up in one comment: ‘As countries commit to harder, binding targets for emissions reductions, the ideas of reuse, remanufacturing, circularity [as opposed to the linear nature of globalisation, long lines of travel across the ocean] and zero waste will all gain more currency and increase the uptake of these ideas across industry.’ In the light of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (yesterday, 2nd June), Livesey’s comment finds an even sharper focus. Industry around the world, we must hope.

Hazel took in Mary Aiken on The Cyber Effect, on how human behaviour changes online, taking in the impact on the developing child to teen sexting. Quoting the Hay programme: ‘She examines the acceleration of compulsive and addictive online behaviours (gaming, shopping, pornography) and the escalation of cyberchondria (self-diagnosis online), cyberstalking and organised crime on the Deep Web.’

Hazel was impressed – wished I’d been there. An example of how you can’t be everywhere at Hay!

*

4pm. We ended our afternoon with Hazel listening to Roy Hattersley talking too fast and quietly about his new book in The Catholics, ‘history from the Reformation to the present day’ – and I took in (Thomas More enough for me for one day!) Jeanette Littlemore, professor at Birmingham University, with a talk entitled The Way You Tell It. Her subject being non-literal expression, in this case metaphor, metonymy, irony and hyperbole, in everyday life. College students who don’t have English as their first language can radically misinterpret metaphor. Parents can enjoy themselves on touchline shouting encouragement to their children – but do their children understand? Advertisers have thought it through rather more – one example was a wonderful Boddingtons ad from the 70 with the head (appalling froth to the modern ale drinker!) combed into a quiff, with a comb nearby.

She brought in a wide range of research findings, could have been too many, but she was mistress of her subject, and handled questions brilliantly. Makes you all the more aware of the way we use language.

**

Thursday 1st June

We stayed down in the Usk valley, amid pasture and woodlands, with a trip in bright morning sunshine through the Black Mountains back to the Wye valley and Hay. Valley to valley…

11.30. We began our day with an inspiring talk by doctor and pyschiatrist Lynne Jones on her work with her work in disaster zones from Bosnia, to Indonesia, to Haiti, to the Jungle in Calais. The title of her talk (wait for it!): Outside the Asylum: a Memoir of War, Disaster and Humanitarian Psychiatry. PTSD and counselling is what a lot of funding goes into, but Jones provided ample evidence that listening, patient listening, is what’s required more than anything else. She recalled how a Bosnian man apparently objected to her taking photographs – it turned out he wanted his photograph taken, in front of the ruined house where his mother had been killed. He wanted someone with whom to share the experience. Where there are real and serious psychiatric problems it’s above all medication that’s needed.

Jones has a history as a passionate activist, doctor, psychiatrist. She was probably the highpoint of our Hay visit. She is only happy when involved, when engaged, and she puts politicians who rejoice in a narrow homeland focus to shame.

*

1pm. Jeremy Bowen talking about his many years as BBC Middle East Editor was next. Title: Our Man in the Middle East. He’s informed, wide-ranging, tolerant, a natural talker, and I’m sure a listener, and one of the wisest voices on the BBC. That came over strongly. I’ve been critical of (sometimes angry at) the BBC’s coverage of the Middle East over the years – too much focused on immediate calamities and picking up the latest Western government line, which has often been too much focused on the horror of it all, and apportioning blame, at the expense of hard and difficult talk about solutions. Talking to a Hay audience Bowen allows himself a broader understanding, the Saudis in Yemen and Assad in Syria both perpetrators of appalling violence – taking sides and demanding retribution something he avoided. Bowen has to practise his trade in a world of instant news which sometimes runs counter to a proper understanding of the issues – and he copes with this probably as well if not better than anyone else. In short – he’s a good guy.

*

4pm. Hugh Warwick, on Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain’s Fragmented Wildlife, was our next port of call. Passionate and amusing, he’s probably our greatest expert on the hedgehog which for him is an emblematic animal, which has suffered more than most from our practice of dividing the land by way of roads, canals and railways. Hedges, walks, ditches and dykes are a man-made but natural landscape in which wildlife flourished. Take out a hedge and build a fence and wall – and don’t expect to find hedgehogs in your garden. Warwick is passionate about raising awareness, and optimist about solutions such as the wild areas left by motorways along which wildlife can travel, and green areas left on the margins of cropped fields in which plants and habitats can flourish. He argues passionately against the fracturing of ‘wildlife habitats into ever smaller and increasingly unviable habitats’.

*

5.30. At the end of the day Hazel headed for ‘Countryfile star and visionary farmer’, and all-round good guy, Adam Henson, on the subject of his Cotswold farm park, set up by his father (‘Like Father, Like Son.‘) And I went for something TOTALLY DIFFERENT! Physicist Roger Penrose talking to Marcus du Sautoy about string theory, which posits too many extra dimensions to be convincing for Penrose, though he’s a fan of the theory, as a theory… about quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics and their incompatibility when it comes ‘reasonably massive objects’, and the predilection among many scientists that it must be Newtonian physics that ultimately must adjust (must they be compatible?)… and about cosmology, and the origins of the universe, and his own theory that mass may ultimately simply fade away, with only photons surviving, and at that point the universe returns to a singularity, out of which a new universe is born, and that process is beyond either birth or death of the universe… I don’t claim reliability or accuracy for my summary!! Roger Penrose is like Stephen Hawking a marvellous example of mental acuity remaining as sharp as ever with advancing age. And good to see Marcus du Sautoy, who took over as Oxford’s professor for the public understanding of science from Richard Dawkins, and whom I’d not come across in person before.

**

Saturday 3rd June. We decided two days were not enough. So on a brilliant sunny morning we took the road to Hay in time for a coffee and then three more talks.

10am. We began with Nick Crane and a talk based around his new book, The Making of the British Landscape. We’re back post Ice age, after the Younger Dryas period, 9,600BC and a time of rapid warming, then almost 4,000 years in the blink of an eye to the major inundation (possibly the result of giant landslides which saw 180 miles of Norwegian coastal shelf slip into the North Sea) which finally put the Dogger Bank under water, and turned us into an island. An island of only 12,000 people, on one estimate, no towns, so Roman towns were a radical landscape change. I’ll have to read the book to discover how he thinks villages changed the landscape, and to compare with WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape, which has always been my bible in the subject. One question I tried to ask – but you have to be aggressive waving your hand! – was whether he thinks the proposal to make the Lake District a World Heritage Site is a good thing. George Monbiot in a powerful and I think misguided piece in the Guardian argued against. Monbiot fears stasis, and would like to ‘re-wild’.

Crane, intentionally he said, didn’t mention either the Bronze Age or Iron Age. He put his reason in the context of politicians misrepresenting history. I should have asked a question – I am of course with him all the way. I’m assuming the issue for him is too-easy and misleading labelling.

*

11.30: Hazel checked out a hero of hers, Noel Fitzpatrick, Channel 4’s Supervet, on the subject of ‘Global Health in Man and Animal’. He’s arguing passionately for ‘a single shared medicine linking human and animal health’. Cancer in a dog is almost identical to cancer in a human. Medicine would be shared between species, not one species exploiting another for its own gain. How this might work in practice I don’t know – again, wish I could have been there.

Instead I chose almost on a whim to head off to hear the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak talking about her new novel, Three Daughters of Eve. It was an inspired choice. She talked brilliantly about Turkey, about the language (modern Turkish has been pared back to exclude Persian and Arabic words, to its great detriment), about liberals and academics operating in a hostile world where loss of job or imprisonment could follow any kind of mis-step. (Turkey she pointed out has long had a sense of being threatened by hostile countries on all sides, which puts recent events in an interesting context.) English is a third language, and yet she writes her novels in English – writing in a foreign language heightens your awareness – translating, from my very limited experience, does likewise. But Shafik is operating at a whole other level.

Her novel has three Turkish girls, brought up in Istanbul, studying in Oxford. She describes,a seminar where the lecturer tries to separate the pursuit of an understanding of God from religion. Without success. I’d have asked her about the Sufi tradition in Turkey had I had the chance – how it links with the current resurgence of Sunni Islam. Shafik had earlier brought the 12th century poet and mystic Ibn el Arabi into her talk.

If you think that all this suggests she lives in a rarefied world, you’d be wrong. She’s a powerful advocate of feminist and minority including LGBT rights. A long queue formed for her book signing: when we returned to the bookshop 1 ½ hours later she was still signing – and still talking.

*

1pm, positively our last talk! QC and human rights lawyer Dexter Dias talking about his new book, The Ten Types of Human. Trying to illustrate some of the ten types in response to questions from an interviewer initially made it hard going. What Dias has done is use the structure of the ten types, all the product of human evolution, to produce a 800 page book passionately arguing for our engagement – the engagement of all of us – with human rights. The case he took up for the mother of a 15-year-old boy who died in custody, the victim of prison officer violence, was his starting -point for both his advocacy of human rights, and for the book.

I found this summary online of his work, and it’s very helpful as background to a remarkable man: ‘As Queen’s Counsel, he has been involved in some of the biggest cases of recent years involving human rights, murder, terrorism, crimes against humanity and genocide. He chaired and co-wrote the influential Bar Human Rights report to the Parliamentary Inquiry into FGM, has briefed and written reports for the UN around gender-based violence, and works pro bono internationally with survivors of modern day slavery, human trafficking and Violence Against Women and Girls.’

It’s encountering people such as this, and being inspired by them, that’s one of the glories of Hay.

**

And that’s it. Another Hay, another year. If you’ve stayed with me this far, thank you – and well done. If you not a Hay habitue, then do head off there, one year, some time soon.

Hay’s slogan this year is Hay 30: Imagine the World. Hay is thirty years old this year. But Hay does more than encourage us to imagine – it inspires us to change it. Advocates of the status quo, or turning inward, of identity politics and self-interest, would get short shrift.

Dawn chorus

The dawn chorus – we all listen in from time to time, often unwillingly if we’re lying wake, sometimes thinking – one day I’ll get up and get out there and …. just listen. You can’t worry about stuff when the trees enclose you, or the garden’s dew-covered in the dawn, or there’s a big sky and the last stars are losing out. You can’t worry about stuff when all you’re doing is listening. And maybe you’ll identify one or two birds amid all that joyful cacophony.

So one Sunday morning, early in May….

4.45 in the Buckholt beechwoods, the rain not long stopped, just enough light through the trees to see our way along a slippery path and avoid the roots. A tawny owl with a too-woo answers his mate’s too-wit. No too-wit: we only hear the answer. The thrushes give voice to the morning ahead of the crowd: their repeating phrases are mesmerising.

Robert Browning: ‘That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,/Lest you should think he never could recapture/The first fine careless rapture!

Browning was thinking of April, and we’re one week into May. But it’s been such a chill spring, April is still the abiding spirit.

A blackbird starts up its more random and fluting song in competition – as we hear it – with the thrush. For him it just might be competition for a mate, or setting out his territory.

It’s many years since I’ve walked through woods at this hour. Back in 1975 it was the tropical forests of Guatemala, and I remember a firefly that startled me, and listening for a jaguar, just in case. The dawn silence broken as I remember more by monkeys which took to swinging through the trees. My destination then was the vast temples of Tikal, in a clearing cut back from the jungle. My destination today – no more than a bacon sandwich, or maybe a return to bed.

But who needs destinations. Enough to be in the wood, and listening to the chorus. A great tit starts up, easy to recognise, then much too easy, and intrusive when we want space for other birds. Maybe take out the robin as well – which I love but its tuneful meanderings sound out from every direction. Without the great tit and robin, we novices would be able to focus more readily on other species. The coal tit, also a repeating call, but more mellifluous. The wren high-pitched, rapid and loud for a bird so small, so difficult to see. The chiffchaff chiff-chaffing. A goldcrest? – but maybe it’s pitched too high for me to hear – so another bird? But which?

We hear no more owls, but there are wood-pigeons, and collared doves. And by the side of the path Roman snails, tough-shelled and edible and enjoyed by the Romans who introduced them, and found more abundantly near Roman sites to this day. Too early for the adders and grass snakes, but who knows, later in the day, beneath the mats which are put out on the common, where adders find shelter.

‘It is the bright day that brings forth the adder. And that craves wary walking…’ (Julius Caesar)

But this is a dawn chorus walk…

The enemy – the pheasant. (We hear them but they belong on the woodland fringes.) 25 million introduced into the countryside each year, and they’re protected. There’s evidence they eat snakes. Which do we prefer? As someone said, you can see who drafted the legislation. Money of course comes into the countryside from the shooters, so the arguments aren’t all one way.

And habitats – we love our woodlands, but a hundred years ago great swathes would be taken out – clear-cut or coppiced or pollarded. The woods were resources not a place for recreation. And a place of mystery and seclusion, a place apart. There were the working woods, and the deep woods. And the deep woods still stir our imagination. One reason I love Buckholt and Cranham woods is that you can get lost there. There is always that frisson.

We try now, as Natural England does, to re-create the wildlife habitats of a one-time working woodland, without the working population. So we take out the saplings, we cut clear and we coppice – but it’s not easy to re-create habitats when we want them for recreation, not for work.

The chorus is better on bright mornings, than on wet, or cloudy. Better where the mix of habitat is greater – meadows next to woods, or gardens. Maybe. But there’s a magic in the woods at 5am, and at 6am – no sunlight reaches path or canopy (the clouds have yet to break), but the pale green, the bright new green, is illumination enough as I lift my eyes from the path. And to either side, a stretch of woods where bluebells thrive. This is mixed-habitat wood, and meant to be that way – there aren’t the great expanses of bluebells we can see elsewhere. Or wood sorrel. And only in a few places is wild garlic abundant.

Near the end of our walk, one crow. Only one. Distant. Too raucous. Round a corner, a field, scouts stirring from their tents – maybe collecting wood for a fire. Takes me back a few years. Then back to the road, and the village.

Fifteen hours later, sitting out on a patio, looking north to the woods where we’d walked. A song thrush strikes up, always inventive, compulsive listening. First bird of the dawn, the last (almost) of the twilight. 9.25 he flies down from the tree to roost. There’s a distant blackbird, and an early owl in the woods, a few seconds, then he’s quiet. And an evening crow. Like the morning just a single caw-caw, and that’s it. Then all is still. 9.30 a single bat flies past. There’s a breath of wind. 9.35, another bat and, a minute of two later, more than a breath of wind. Not only the leaves but the branches move.

All the while I’ve been contemplating a sunset sky which held its colour, its luminous reds, for at least half an hour, and above, alto-cumulus, a gentle bank of grey cloud against the light blue. The sky is as quiet as the land, and I feel I could step off into the woods and around the globe without disturbing a soul. Nearer at hand the oaks and ashes still gaunt in outline against the sky: the day (the 8th of May) has been one of summer warmth, out of the blue, out of the ether, a surprise and a wonder, summer in spring in winter.

It had rained before we began our morning walk, and after we finished. And it will rain tomorrow, then turn cold…

with thanks to Kate Gamez, of Natural England, our walk’s organiser, inspiration and guide

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…

The Lake District – Langdale valley, April, inclement

3pm said the forecast for the weather to go downhill. It’s 1.30 and we’re sheltering in the Sticklebarn pub in the Langdale valley. Only sheep and walkers and rain, or hail and snow and rain, happen in the Langdales. The seasons arrive late, but the weather arrives early.

Climbing up to Crinkle Crag – all hail and snow and gales, all hail Macbeth, and it’s rocky, and I’m wet, but there’s something bizarrely joyful about it all. What – in weather like this – the hell am I doing here?

Lichen, extravagant orange, marks marks grey stone – as if the farmer had thought a stone to be sheep, but his palette, equally extravagant (poor multi-coloured beasts) is red and blue. (And not just the sheep – for tractors his palette is red, yellow and green.)

A line of trees marking the road heading away down the valley appears to be a natural extension of our mountain path – but we must allow for a 1000ft drop down to….

a drowned landscape – every field waterlogged, patterning the land, picking out the rain sky, and the cloud sky, and the fleeting sunlight.

Screes emerge out of rock valleys and spill down the sheer side of Pike o’Stickle – once fifty years I ran the screes but could I have run these screes as once I thought and if I did how come I’m now alive?  Memory playing false. 

We met two other walkers, one having left at 7 and now wet and joyful and talkative and springing done the mountain, and another on the way up, gloomy, a grunt returns a greeting, a plague on other walkers – dealing with inner demons.

We have no inner demons, but it’s our fear of outer demons, interlacing the gale and hail, that drive us off the summit ridge. You can see the lines of hail on a photo of me, bedraggled, smiling – slow exposure (photo not me) in the gloom.

(Four years ago we were here, and walking down to Three Tarns we met someone who’d climbed Everest the previous year – and all four of us took a wrong path down. It was summer, and a 10-minute mistake. But I’ve always felt reassured that we shared our error with an Everest mountaineer.)

We’re back in the hostel. Once a Victorian baronial pile. Silence and you hear the wind in the high-vaulted roof. Talk and words resound – you hear life stories, and they echo round. Hotels are for privacy, hostels are for sharing histories and exploits.

Youth hostels – almost fifty years on, and we’re all ages, and school-holiday children are belting around, making noise, and no-one cares. Who needs hush inside, when all is gale outside. Or in the morning after the gale, when all is still.