The importance of woodland in a worrying world…

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin Birth
(Greg Lake ‘I believe in Father Christmas’)

unnamedIt is raining again, a fine misty rain that curls my hair and dampens everything, including my mood. I started this blog post before the additional chaos of a leadership challenge and more Brexit shenanigans, but also before the shooting in Strasbourg, a beautiful city in France, where we have recently settled. I realised this morning, as I sat gazing out into the forest, watching the slow tears of a wet Wednesday that it is harder than ever to see a real meaning in the Christmas holidays this year. In the UK, and in France, extremists on all sides are using politics as a vehicle to undermine fellow feeling, kindness and recognition that we are all inhabitants of one, enormous and very fragile planet. Nationalism rears up, obviously in riots and insidiously in parliament. We must take care of ourselves, and hold on to our values. Unless it seems, you are a Tory politician or a leading Labour member where the lines are blurred and everything is up for grabs. And as for Greg lake, well it was always an anti-Christmas song, and this year it seems we are definitely getting the Christmas we deserve.

So, back to the wonderful woods…

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The Ladybird Book of Trees

We have had two weeks of wet and windy weather here in Brittany and it has turned our wonderful forest into something of an obstacle course. Paths I walked in early summer are now lost under a thick carpet of leaves, once burnished bronze and gold but now slimy and brown, and I turn disorientated along a track leading me into clearings I don’t recognise and trees that, until spring clothes them in green again, all look quite similar. I know my ash from my oak and my beech from my horse chestnut, but that is about the extent of my memory, An endless reference to the Ladybird Book of Trees in my youth has taken me little further than a love of the artist who illustrated it, S.R. Badmin.

Yesterday it was dry, so I ventured out to enjoy the breeze in my hair and the fresh air in my lungs. I found, however, branches strewn across the path and the leaves hiding a multitude of trip hazards. Within metres, I went up to my poor sore ankle in a puddle of water after treading, as I thought, on firm ground. Sadly a thick layer of leaves was disguising said puddle and my mistrust of the carpeted forest floor was deepened ten minutes later, as I skidded on a hidden, huge pile of dog poo. I have become closer to the natural world here than ever before, but no longer am I gazing romantically at the treetops, listening and looking out for wildlife (we still haven’t seen a squirrel…) and instead am looking only downwards at my boring, brown walking boots, fearful of going base over apex, cracking ankle or skull.

I rarely venture off the beaten track on my own now, even with my trusty hound Teddy to keep me company. The shallow streams of summer are gushing torrents marking ridges in the paths as they overflow and take all before them. What passed for bridges just weeks ago are now slippery exercises in tightrope walking and the grasping fingers of fine branches whip across my face and the knobbly toes of the tree roots are eager to snare the unwary and unwatching.

korrigan
A korrigan

In the summer, when I wandered into darker places, the primaeval nature of the dense mixed woodland sent a shiver down my spine – it became quieter, less understood and full of the magical folk Breton culture has populated this area with. A rustle, a creak, a flash of colour – nuthatch or a korrigan (a Breton goblin)? That whispering around the stream and the pool amongst the rocks? Was it the wind or a water sprite?

Now the rustle of the leaves has diminished to the soft swish of the firs, and light has poured in, illuminating some of the dark corners and opening up views across the hills. It struck me today that we talk of trees being ‘bare’ and of their ‘naked’ branches’, like arms desperately reaching out to capture those weak rays of sunlight. It is as if by anthropomorphising them, we express our own fear of being abandoned there.

Commonly, a wood in winter is perceived as a cold, hypothermic environment, as wildlife hunkers down to hibernate, or to scrabble for the last energy-filled foods on the forest floor. We ‘trample’ and scrabble over the dying remnants of summer and autumn, and life feels suspended.

It can feel a little random, but I do like to pop a poem into my posts, just to catch you unawares, and perhaps introduce you to work you mightn’t otherwise see. This is a famous one but I always like to re-read it, less for the snowy scene it sets and more for the warmth it exudes. It is by Robert Frost, and I can now, even though we have no snow, appreciate the line ‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep’ and a sense of the benign nature of the woods and weather the poet is observing – ‘easy wind and downy flake’. The woods, even on these dark evenings,   are rather more lovely than the world outside them at the moment.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROST

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

fungiIn the older and less frequented parts of the forest here in Huelgoat the seasonal hover between life and death seems less evident. Despite the loss of leaves, there is an unexpected depth of green and a darkness that can still envelop the late walker (after 3 O’Clock in the afternoon). The tree trunks are covered to their tops with lichen, a mossy coat that gives them a warm-blooded appearance, at odds with the decay going on around them as winter progresses. Pressing a hand on the trunk fills one with a sense of the animal vitality of trees – borne out by their ability to communicate and their ceaseless chatter amongst themselves. Fir trees swell the ranks of the ancient deciduous woodland, clamouring together, often planted as quick growing timber, shutting light from the forest floor and knitting their branches into dark passages. There is still so much to see, hear and to smell, that rich scent of leaf mould, of decaying bracken and wet moss. Later varieties of fungi are still poking their caps out above the top layer of leaves, to enjoy their brief moment of youth before a rapid evolution and reproductive cycle turns them into shrivelled and warty masses.

We are approaching Christmas which is, to my romantic mind, always an imagined scene of frost and mittens, mulled wine and a low sun casting long shadows across a winter walk. Sadly, long-term weather forecasts are ever more accurate and I am not sure when we last enjoyed a crisp Christmas. Living in the South West of England and now Brittany, it is always far more likely to be mild and damp.

The forest here thrives in the damp, warm climate though and I am learning to love it, death-traps and all.

In trying times: Heberto Padilla on continuing to speak out…

Heberto Padilla
Heberto Padilla

I read this poem today, for the first time. As you may guess from the title, I was looking for poetry to support me through a period when world events seem to be spiralling out of control, when real news is more shocking than any ‘fake news’ the government is trying to counter.

It is a poem about revolution, specifically the revolution in Cuba. I think it is about the suppression of poetry, literature and the curtailment of freedoms. It resonated with me today when a terribly dangerous, but apparently charismatic world leader is ‘revolutionising’ US politics, when our own government are once again appeasing a fascist, even at a time when we commemorate the Holocaust, and when those that would challenge or speak out against the President are derided and persecuted, silenced and expelled. They are called liars – and eventually who will be left knowing the truth?

Sign petitions, march in protest, write and read poetry, show random acts of kindness in a world that has, hopefully temporarily, become much less kind.

In Trying Times

by Heberto Padilla

They asked that man for his time
so that he could link it to History.
They asked him for his hands,
because for trying times
nothing is better than a good pair of hands.
They asked him for his eyes
that once had tears
so that he should see the bright side
(the bright side of life, especially)
because to see horror one startled eye is enough.
They asked him for his lips,
parched and split, to affirm,
to belch up, with each affirmation, a dream
(the great dream)
they asked him for his legs
hard and knotted
(his wandering legs)
because in trying times
is there anything better than a pair of legs
for building or digging ditches?
They asked him for the grove that fed him as a child,
with it’s obedient tree.
They asked him for his breast, heart, his shoulders.
They told him
that that was absolutely necessary.
they explained to him later
that all this gift would be useless
unless he turned his tongue over to them,
because in trying times
nothing is so useful in checking hatred or lies.
and finally they begged him,
please, to go take a walk.
Because in trying times
that is, without a doubt, the decisive test.

What do you think? Does it feel relevant to you too? I would love to know what you think, and in the meantime I am going to read this a few more times and explore the world of Heberto Padillo in more detail.

The Courage of Cowards – Conscientious Objectors in the First World War

9472Today I am lucky to be hosting a guest blog by writer Karyn Burnham whose book The Courage of Cowards: The Untold Stories of First World War Conscientious Objectors was published by Pen & Sword Books earlier this year. I read it and learnt so much about the much vilified ‘conchie’ of the Great War, who faced bullying, ostracism and imprisonment for his beliefs. Here Karyn tells us more…

‘Your Country Needs You!’ was the message being shouted from the walls of most public buildings during the Autumn of 1914. ‘Boys! Come Along, You’re Wanted’. How could any patriotic young man resist such an enthusiastic call to arms? By the end of August, 300,000 men had willingly volunteered to take part in the great adventure. Let’s teach the Hun a lesson he won’t forget! Give him a bloody nose and be home for Christmas.

Cartoon mocking the masculinity of a COLord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, knew the war would not be over by Christmas and that the British Army was in desperate need of a lot more men if Britain were to stand any chance of winning. The recruitment campaign was stepped up, the pressure on men to enlist was increased. Words such as ‘cowards’, ‘shirkers’ and ‘slackers’ took pride of place in the British vocabulary as posters reflected the damage wreaked on civilian homes in Scarborough by the German Navy; women were told to be selfless and send their menfolk off to war with pride. White feathers were issued with anonymous malice to unsuspecting young men who were caught out on the street in civilian clothes while in the personal column of The Times appeared the missive: ‘Jack F.G. If you are not in Khaki by the 20th I shall cut you dead. Ethel M’.

Throughout the whole of 1915 this sledgehammer form of patriotism continued, but still there were not enough men enlisting to replace those being killed or wounded. For many, the decision not to enlist was a practical one; with a wife and family to support, a man would be reluctant to swap his secure, well paid job for a meagre army wage. For others though, the decision was more complex. There were those who believed that war was fundamentally wrong, for reasons both religious and political. Despite the ever growing pressure to join up, these men remained free to act according to their consciences without repercussions from the State.

This changed in January 1916 with the introduction of the Military Service Act which stated, quite baldly, that every unmarried man between the ages of 19 and 41 was ‘deemed to have enlisted for the period of the war’, though the scope was soon widened to include married men. The decision to introduce conscription had been difficult and unprecedented because, unlike other European countries, Germany included, Britain had never enforced military service on her people. However, the government accepted that for some, taking up arms and going to war was against their deepest principles and included a controversial clause for exemption to military service on grounds of a conscientious objection to war.
When called up, a man would register his claim of conscientious objection and appear before a local tribunal to justify himself. Between January and June 1916, the tribunal system creaked under the weight of around 750,000 claims for exemption (many would have been on grounds of ill health, financial hardship of dependents etc,) and the tribunals were ill disposed towards ‘conchies’. While there was some sympathy and understanding for religious objections, there was absolutely none for political objections. Of the 16,000 conscientious objectors registered by the end of the war, only 350 had been granted absolute exemption.

Absolutist COs at Dyce Quarry
Absolutist COs at Dyce Quarry

So what happened to the rest? Many would have accepted some form of alternative service such as the Friends Ambulance Unit, the Royal Army Medical Corps or even the army’s Non Combatant Corps. For some though, supporting a war they disagreed with was out of the question. Known as the ‘absolutists’, these men would not accept alternative service if it aided the military and were automatically conscripted into the army where they refused to co-operate from the outset. Refusing to put on a uniform, to follow basic orders or even accept army pay, the men would be court martialled and imprisoned. Upon release, the process would repeat.

The army would often resort to bullying, or worse, to pressure the COs into giving up as in the case of George Beardsworth, a political objector and absolutist from Lancashire. Beardsworth was dragged around an army training ground in full view of the public in Birkenhead Park; he was kicked, punched, stamped on, thrown over railings and pushed head first into water in an ordeal that lasted most of the day. The army’s treatment of Beardsworth, and others like him, contributed to a change in how absolutists were dealt with and hard labour in a civilian prison became the norm along with Home Office Work Schemes which aimed to provide the COs with work of ‘national importance’ which did not contribute to the war. This seemed a reasonable compromise to most COs, although it was hard to see the national importance of sewing mailbags or breaking rocks for 10 hours a day.

Conscientious objectors during the First World War were popularly regarded as cowards, but it is hard to attach such a label to men who were prepared to face ostracism, beatings, imprisonment and hard labour rather than compromise their beliefs. The easy thing, the cowardly thing, would have been to give in and go to war.

karynKaryn Burnham: Karyn lives in North Yorkshire and has written The Courage of Cowards: The Untold Stories of First World War Conscientious Objectors, (April 2014) and York In The Great War, (November 2014) both published by Pen and Sword Books. She has also written for Family History Monthly, Discover Your History and BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine as well as contributing to various history websites.

Teaching the First World War – engaging imaginations with historic newspapers

qnscabijelvfu9dudepk_thumb‘Will Dismal Jimmy Look More Cheerful Today?’

So reads the headline above the Daily Sketch title on Monday September 27th 1915.

I have no idea what that means but it certainly draws me straight in! I have been lucky enough to be sent an example of one of the free First World War packs offered by Historic Newspapers,  the UK’s largest private archive of historical newspapers to educational institutions as the centenary commemorations begin in earnest.

The First World War newspaper book, called 1914-1919 As Reported At The Time, aims to engage with young people in a way that makes the history real, rather than an abstract idea which they feel they have no links with. Reports in the media that kids are already being ‘turned off’ by the Great War are surely greatly exaggerated. Many of the projects being run in local areas are incredibly creative and have no problem involving ages from the proverbial 8 to 80+, but schools sometimes experience greater problems. The curriculum doesn’t always allow for similar expressions of the many feelings the First World War can bring out in the young. Curiosity, fear, anger, laughter (yes there is a place for humour – the troops found courage in it) all these things can make the conflict come that little bit closer – safely of course.

So this booklet begins on September 27 1915 at the Battle of Loos with first reports of British and French soldiers “on the road to victory” and finishes with the end of the war on Monday November 11 1918. Much happens in between, with reports on Gallipoli, and on Edith Cavell. But I love the way this offers a peek into the wider social history of the time. The wonderful adverts for Maypole margarine; how Violette starring Edris Coombs was on twice nightly in Drury Lane and what could be found in the Christmas Parcels offered by Selfridges.  Herrings in tomato anyone?

Thomas Walker, of Historic Newspapers, has said:

“The book can be used to discuss the changing nature of conflict, the cooperation between countries, the shift of alliances and the lasting impact of the war on national, ethnic, cultural and religious issues.”

I think he is right, and it is FREE. If anyone asks me to review something on my blog they have to expect me to be honest, and the only complaint I could have about this book is that it leaves me – an adult writer about the war and its aftermath, wanting more. It is just enough for those who just need to be inspired to find out more.

Hard copies of the teaching packs are currently available to schools, universities, libraries and accredited education establishments, and individual PDF files can be ordered if digital format is preferred. Enquiries should be sent to Thomas Walker from Historic Newspapers at: Thomas.Walker@historic-newspapers.co.uk.

 

‘Mental Cases’ by Wilfred Owen: Writing the horror of shell shock in poetry

Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920)
Wilfred Owen

On Friday 21st March it was World Poetry Day. It is often one of those ‘days’ that passes people by, especially if they do not consider themselves a poetry lover. (I don’t think anyone truly dislikes poetry; they just haven’t found the right poet…) The UN states that World Poetry Day reminds us that:

‘Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings’.

As anyone who follows this blog regularly knows, I would agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I adore poetry and like nothing better than a couple of hours browsing an anthology or looking at the Poetry Archive online and discovering someone new; or a poem that expresses just how I am feeling at that time.

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegA common humanity and a recognition of kinship is something I have been working through in my book, Shell Shocked Britain, which has been occupying a lot of my time recently. My editor is sending me her final edits and I am adding a few, last paragraphs that I have thought of since the manuscript was first presented in December. I have also started a twitter feed for the book and given it a Facebook page to ensure I can follow as many interesting First World War sites and projects as I can and offer tantalising snippets from the book and the research I have done for it. If you feel like following either then do ‘like’ or ‘follow’ for more details.

Anyway, as it was World Poetry Day on Friday, and because I was unable to post anything whilst in London for the day (and at the launch of Angela Buckley’s fabulous book ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’) I thought I would offer here a poetic tribute to the shell shocked men of the Great War in the words of the wonderful Wilfred Owen. Owen was himself hospitalised at Craiglockart in 1917 to recover from neurasthenia (another term for shell shock). A chapter in Shell Shocked Britain uses line 15 as its title – Always they must see these things and hear them. It sums up the enduring trauma the men experienced, during and after the war, and indeed the whole poem expresses vividly the horrors that haunted the men that broke down, unable to articulate their pain.

shellshcokIn my book I do recognise that many men came through the war and lived happy and fulfilled lives, safe with families and able to leave the war behind them. Some trod a path between the past and the futures they wanted – a narrow way that held dangers should life decide to deny them the support they needed to maintain their sanity. Others could never recover and spent the rest of their lives dismantled emotionally and physically – ‘set-smiling corpses’ that woke each day to face new torments. Ten years after the war 65,000 men were still receiving treatment and many broke down many years after the conflict ended.

These truly were ‘the men whose minds the Dead have ravished‘.

Wilfred Owen – Mental Cases

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, – but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

– These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them, 
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense 
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
– Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
– Thus their hands are plucking at each other; 
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness

The images Owen uses, of nameless men reduced to’slavering’ like animals and suffering an endless purgatory, is surely a metaphor for the de-humanising effects of the war and the resultant retreat inward to a hell these ‘helpless’ men cannot escape from.

Do read this poem through a few times if you can. It is shocking in its graphic description of the men Owen was treated alongside at Craiglockhart, under the enlightened care of psychiatrist William Rivers. It is a vision worthy of Dante and surely berates us should we forget these men who reach out to ‘paw’ and ‘snatch’ at those of us who might live on without giving them a thought….

Votes for Women! The Bristol Suffragettes on Talking Books

BristolsuffragettesOn last Friday’s Talking Books – my radio show on 10Radio.org -I interviewed writer Lucienne Boyce, who has recently published a wonderful book called The Bristol Suffragettes, the story of the women who took the fight for ‘votes for all ‘ to the streets of Bristol in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of us (myself included) have a narrow view of who the suffragettes were, what they stood for and how they took militant and direct action to the top of government. On Friday I learned how women in the South West of England made a real difference to the overall battle and how their determination took them to rallies and marches; how they felt forced to break windows and start fires; of their confidence to heckle politicians and, ultimately, their ability to endure prison (and force feeding) to keep the fight for votes for women at the forefront of the public mind.

Having read Lucienne’s book I am impressed most particularly by three things:

1. The amount of research that has gone into a book that is both comprehensive and immensely readable. It would be a terrific resource for anyone studying the subject at any level. The general reader – especially if they know the Bristol area or are planning a visit – will enjoy the storytelling, the photographs (so well presented on top quality paper) and the guided walk included in the back, offering the opportunity to follow the suffragettes on a walk around the city.

2. The production values. As I say the photos are presented well and the text is clear and easy to read. So many history books don’t get that balance right, having all the photos in one place surrounded by pages of dense text.

3. How grateful we should be to those women prepared to stand up and fight for us all to have a say in how our country is run.  Lucienne has balanced what was, sometimes, criminal activity, with the necessary fight that women had to take to the male establishment. They were also faced with hostility from women who felt that the responsibility was too much to deal with on top of their child rearing and housekeeping responsibilities.

I heartily recommend this book, and when you listen to the broadcast below you will hear how passionate Lucienne is about the topic. I have had some great feedback about the programme: ‘fascinating’ ‘we must have more history programmes on Talking Books‘ ‘I never knew that!’ and most importantly, ‘how can I buy the book?’.

As mentioned on the programme I always suggest ordering it through your local bookshop and even though it is not yet listed you can get it through www.localbookshops.co.uk. If you absolutely must you can get it through Amazon too!

Lucienne Boyce also has her own website which offers more details about the book and her research and also tells you about her fiction writing.  Set in the 18th century, To the Fair Land was published in 2012 to great reviews. Described as a ‘gripping, thrilling’ mystery, Lucienne also talks about the inspiration for the book at the end of Talking Books.

So do take a listen to the show, it was one that I particularly enjoyed. It is a fascinating half hour and ends with a very stirring song….

Why Mrs T should have left the room quietly, closing the door behind her….

Thatcher ThanksOk, I give in. I have to write something on the subject. The media are not going to shut up, as I had hoped. Days after Margaret Thatcher died we are still getting quotes, anecdotes  tributes, vitriol and all manner of unnecessary and prurient detail coming at us from all sides. It will undoubtedly continue until after the funeral next Wednesday when, once again, my daily dose of Bargain Hunt will probably be cancelled to make way for something I don’t want to be part of.

The debate in Parliament yesterday was full of sycophantic hypocrisy from all sides. Her gender was to the fore but the fact that she was born a woman has very little relevance to her legacy in my opinion – she didn’t exhibit any of those traits that make me proud to be female. It was likely that only those Labour members of Parliament who stayed away were expressing their true feelings and to many the gesture just looked disrespectful. But if you do feel as strongly as they do and believe someone destroyed your community it would have been impossible to sit and listen to all that tosh without a fit of apoplexy. They were looking after their health, if nothing else.

I was born and brought up in Margaret Thatcher’s constituency of Finchley in North London. When I was first able to vote, there was simply no point – she always won by a mile. However, my family did vote – Labour and more recently Lib Dem – and I distinctly remember my Mum saying that when Mrs T walked down our street she would have liked to throw a bottle of ink at her. No love lost there then. But Mum was no flag waving socialist; and my father had views I suspect would chime well with UKIP now. We lived in a relatively comfortable suburb, largely unaffected by her brand of conviction politics. Even if you weren’t a direct victim of her divisive policies there was something about her that just rubbed people up the wrong way.

And now we discover that she died at The Ritz. She is to have a ceremonial funeral that will cost millions and apparently this is being justified, financially, on the basis that she ‘saved us billions on our EU rebate’. Pardon me, but you can’t pick and choose on our austerity measures. If we are truly all in this together she should have been holding court in a Costa Coffee. Her ‘remains’ as they were frequently referred to by the ghastly Nick Witchell should be in cheap pine; the handles unscrewed and recycled before she goes through the curtain in the crem. There are many people in struggling communities quietly making this world a better place to live in who aren’t being paraded through the streets of London and eulogized before 2,000 people – including the Queen- in St Pauls. Even some of the most right-wing voices in the press are suggesting this is not appropriate. She may be an historic figure, but she was not a saint. By the end of her tenure at 10 Downing Street, even her friends knew she had become a liability.

So shouldn’t it be ‘Margaret Thatcher exits, quietly and with dignity, stage left‘?

The funeral will happen; we can’t stop it. But there has already been a backlash against the Conservatives in opinion polls as people are reminded of those years in which social cohesion was sacrificed in the name of opportunist greed. If only we could stand here and say that Tony Blair was not her direct descendant…..

But there is a tiny crumb of comfort. Let the last line of her obituary read:

“Jeremy Clarkson came to her funeral….”

Keats the Radical, or Where were those fields of mists and mellow fruitfulness?

At the end of March a blog appeared on the Oxford University Press website explaining the work behind a paper just  published in The Review of English Studies. The blog is entitled ‘A Keatsian Field trip’ and was written by Richard Turley, Jayne Archer and Howard Thomas, authors of the paper – ‘Keats, ‘To Autumn’ and the new men of Winchester’.

Despite the fact that it is hardly the time of year for considering the maturing sun or ripening fruit, such is the fame of the poem and its indelible place at the top of any list of great English poetry that the findings of this paper made national news.

Under such headlines as Ode to NCP? (typical of the Daily Fail) or Keats’ rural idyll now a car park, various British papers drew attention to the new possibilities raised by the authors of this paper – what was the inspiration for this great Ode ?

Previously considered as allegorical, commentators keen to highlight Keats’ interest in politics have generally assumed that his daily walk across  Winchester’s water meadows saw him take the fields around him as a representation of those recently trampled under the Peterloo Massacre. Or they were seen to symbolise the general state of British agriculture in the first twenty years of a century that was to see such a radical shift from agrarian economy to urban sprawl and financial speculation.

Continue reading “Keats the Radical, or Where were those fields of mists and mellow fruitfulness?”

Sir Robert Peel, riots & the role of the police. Why ‘zero tolerance’ shouldn’t be tolerated…

I have thus far resisted the temptation to rant about the riots and the response of both politicians and the press. As a Londoner by birth I was deeply depressed at the site of many of my old North and East London haunts going up in smoke and falling victim to looters and vandals. Then it spread. Lives lost, livelihoods in tatters and violence erupting in cities as large as Manchester and as small as Gloucester. I became lost in a confusion of conflicting reactions levelled at the perpetrators of the crimes, the press coverage and at politicians.

But I found it hard to condemn the police. At times it seemed as if in their anger people were suggesting the men and women of the Met police were sitting back toasting marshmallows over the flames destroying people’s homes and businesses.  Where were they? Why didn’t they wade in and do exactly what we criticised them for in the wake of the student riots and other recent protests?

Sir Robert Peel, who first established the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829 may or may not (there is a little doubt over whether 20th century historians put words into his mouth) have laid down what became known as the ‘Peelian Principles’, the  ethical requirements police officers must follow in order to be effective.

“The police are the public and the public are the police”

“the ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions”

“(the police) must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observation of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.”

Following the riots of the late 1970’s and early ‘80s and the use of the police as ‘bully boys’ by Margaret Thatcher to pursue her ideological hatred of the Unions, Forces across Britain have struggled to regain some measure of control in areas of towns and cities where that miserable Thatcher aphorism ‘there is no such thing as society’ was becoming increasingly evident. They made mistakes; they were occasionally corrupt and far too close to politics for comfort but over the past week community leaders have come out to say that many good police officers are genuinely working on fostering the mutual respect Robert Peel recognised as vital for effective policing.

This is why I feel far more anger at David Cameron, watching events unfold in Tuscany before reluctantly coming to the conclusion he ought to show some sort of leadership and return. So with others of his tribe of well-heeled men and women, he came back, tanned and puffed up to support community leaders and local people living in fear and desperately trying to keep a measure of control in their constituencies. The blame was placed squarely with the police. We got extra numbers on the streets, as if by magic, along with platitudes and quick fix solutions. We had mass arrests of not only hardened criminals but stupid children and young people, out of control, caught up in a mob mentality who have now been dragged before the courts, their young lives blighted further by a criminal record and time in prison to learn how to nick things and get away with it next time.

So what next? Things are returning to some sort of normality in a society that is, according to the PM, in terminal moral decline; broken by family breakdown (despite the fact that many wealthy single parent families do not seem to have the same stigma attached to their struggles to cope); suffering from a sickness that, it appears, the masses have brought on themselves; by wanting the sort of material wealth enjoyed by those that decide whether they will have a job next week, next month or ever.

I am no apologist for horrors we saw on our screens last week but for me it appears to be the 21st century version of drinking water from the filthy pump at the end of your poverty stricken 19th century street. A very bad idea, but if it is the only way to get what others take for granted, why are we surprised when an epidemic starts?

OK – old news, but relevant – MPs ‘stole’ plasma televisions via fiddling their expenses. Slapped wrists for most, the political wilderness for some and jail for a very few after long winded and undoubtedly expensive enquiries and trials. Similarly, bankers have wreaked havoc on the pension pots of ordinary folk whilst walking away with theirs intact, costing the taxpayer billions of pounds and still paid themselves huge bonuses.

But kids from the streets of Hackney, Tottenham, Enfield and Ealing are picked up, along with, homeless people and people with mental health issues within 24 hours, put before magistrates and held in custody because they saw the opportunity to grab a bag of perfume from Debenhams. It is worrying that they care so little for authority; horrible to compare the behaviour with that even of thirty years ago when I was in my teens. But surprising? It really shouldn’t be.

So now we are talking of ‘zero tolerance’, an American model that just doesn’t work.  It sits well with the righteous anger many people are feeling right now – the anger that has sent calls for National Service through the roof despite the number of ex-service personnel in prison or needing psychiatric care. Police should carry guns perhaps, in order to show the gang leaders ruining the lives of many communities who exactly is ‘boss’. It is a nonsense. How will that create a more egalitarian society?

Of course David Cameron may mean he will not tolerate further vandalism, looting and violence. If that is what he means by ‘zero tolerance’ who could argue against him? But with Home Secretary Theresa May saying that the police need to know what WE expect of them at a time like this, it suggests a response that will rely more on a simplistic hard line response than a considered long-term solution.

If we can support police to go back to those ‘Peelian Principles’, fund them and fund communities to work with them, perhaps we can really turn the lives of a ‘lost’ generation around.

 

 

AV – Who do we believe? I’ll go with Eddie Izzard….

I have to admit that I do like to be right. That doesn’t mean I have such entrenched opinions that others have no hope of persuading me of an alternative. A few of you may have read my Good Friday post which has been by some as ‘Suzie’s quest for truth’. I freely admit that I like what opinions I do hold dear to be based on a genuine truth. Not spin; not doom-mongering media; not right or left-wing dogma.

This can make decision-making difficult and I have been particularly confused by my emotional response to the upcoming vote on electoral reform. ‘Yes or No’ to the alternative vote?

I trust the BBC to give me a clear sense of the facts behind the arguments. They have a helpful web page ‘What is the alternative vote?’  which explains in some detail the different system that will result if the ‘Yes’ campaign gets its way on May 5th. I won’t go into detail here, they can explain it far better than I can, but suffice to say that I actually felt I understood what a ‘Yes’ vote would mean. So far so good.

However, the BBC also examines what difference AV would have made to recent general elections. It seems that the outcome would not have been any different, other than to inflict an even greater defeat on the Conservatives in 1997 and offer a few more seats to the Liberal Democrats.  It also seems that in Australia – one nation that uses AV to determine election results – polls suggest a preference for our ‘first past the post system’.  So, I wonder, what would be the point of changing things?

Part of me – that tiny little bit of my soul that enjoyed Constitutional Law at college – thinks we should stick with what we know. Tradition is not inherently fuddy duddy, stuffy and out of touch with the real world. Why make the BBC’s ‘swingometer’ even more complicated?

But yesterday two things happened. First I saw the Conservative party leaflet supporting the ‘No’ campaign. I admit I loathe the sight of waxy faced Old Etonian David Cameron. I acknowledge my bias. He may still have had my cross in the ‘No’ box on the 5th however if he had not spoken to me directly in print using clear untruths. He said of AV that the ‘Australians want to get rid of it’. He said that those that vote for the BNP will get their votes counted many times where nice, sensible, respectable voters will only get their vote counted once. This will therefore make it more likely that the BNP will win a seat in parliament. He suggests it is an expensive waste of time at a point in history when we should all be concentrating on tightening our proverbial belts.

My unscientific ‘truth’ monitor started bleeping straight away. Polls in Australia (and they are just random polls) only suggest that Australians might get rid of AV if asked to vote. There is no cohesive drive for change. Furthermore, research has shown and experience in Australia supports the fact that extremist parties achieve no benefit from AV. The BNP in the UK  is campaigning against AV because they know that there will be no one constituency they can target that will offer them the opportunity to shoe in a candidate on a minority vote. Lastly, I resent the use of cost in relation to electoral reform. It is either a better, fairer way to ensure my vote counts or it is not. Don’t tell me how to vote on the basis that I might or might not be contributing to cuts in public sector services. Stick another tax bill on Sir Philip Green or an investment banker. That will cover it.

Secondly, I saw that Eddie Izzard is covering 15 cities in 4 days to promote AV. Seen by the right-wing press as a last-ditch attempt to sway voters, I see this as another ‘marathon’ effort by a principled man who believes in the potential benefits of AV. I admit here another bias – I love Eddie Izzard. He is an intelligent man who makes me laugh, which is always attractive. However he is also willing to stand up for what he believes in. He is a long time campaigner against extremism, hate crime and racism. I trust him to support a system that would not make it easier for worms like Nick Griffin to achieve power.

So what now? Who do I trust? My heart says Eddie Izzard every time. Is that a good enough reason to vote ‘Yes’ on Thursday?

Trying to put things in perspective I urge you to consider here a fabulous programme on BBCThree last week that will be repeated tomorrow. Called So What if My Baby is Born Like Me? it follows Jono Lancaster and his partner in their discussions with experts about starting a family. Jono suffers from the rare and disfiguring Treacher-Collins Syndrome, the nature of which means that any child he has will have a 50% chance of inheriting it. I saw Jono interviewed about the programme. He said something that really resonated with me. The couple have not yet decided whether to try for a family because the issue has now become so knotted and thorny he no longer has a clear idea of the right way forward. He put it much more succinctly. He has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other and they have both thrown off their robes and discarded their halo and trident. He doesn’t know which is which anymore.

He is an incredibly brave young man who is struggling with a real dilemma. In his search for truth he has highlighted one for me. We live in a world where the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are now so mixed up, so abused and so spun that any decision we make one way or another can be transient in the extreme. What is right one week can seem a huge mistake the next. I say this as someone who voted Liberal Democrat at the last election.

Will this be the same of AV? Answers on a postcard please……