Posts Tagged ‘derbyshire’

I’m rarely spooked, but the guys discharging firearms on the other side of the hedge took me by surprise. I was on a public footpath. They were on private land – uniformed members of the armed wing of the Tory party. I presume they were blowing the brains out of rabbits. It had been a pleasant morning up till then – a hard frost, a clear winter’s day, crispy meadows and warm in the sun, birds twittering. It was peaceful. Then bang, bang, bang. That’s country life, I suppose. I thought it was against the law to shoot so close to a footpath, even if you’re shooting away from it. But I checked, and it’s okay, as long as you don’t actually shoot anyone in the process. So, that’s all right, then.

The footpath I was on was an attractive one. It threaded its way along emerald pastures. There were ancient oaks, and a sleepy river nearby. It was idyllic, I suppose, but I didn’t feel entirely welcome. At the entrance to the first meadow there was a sign, reminding me of my place. I was on a public footpath crossing “private land”, it said. I was not permitted to picnic, to gather in groups, nor even to venture by the river-bank, it said. Did the little flask of coffee in my pocket count as a picnic? The Derbyshire cops would have said so, at least in so far as the lock-down rules go. Thank goodness this is Lancashire then, and I was walking doorstep to doorstep. But that’s another story.

River banks are monetised, and most of them are a trespass if you’ve not paid your dues. How does one own a river? Who was the first Sir Grabball to claim the river? Who was the first Sir Grabball to claim the meadow? These things are mysteries the Great British public prefer not to enquire too deeply into. They are accepting of their place, and obligingly supine before the interests of perceived class, and money.

Ignore me. I’m sore because those gunmen gave me a fright. But I used to shoot too, a long time ago. Okay, I was just a kid with an air-rifle, so not exactly the same thing. But I had a farmer’s permission, of sorts, to roam a patch of woodland near what was my home back then. I would sit for hours in that wood, waiting for things to point my sights at. But the wood also had a watchman – a noisy old bird called a Jay. He’d always see me coming and send up an alarm. Then all the other creatures knew to keep their heads down, until they saw me leaving. At least that’s the way I interpreted my poor performance as a hunter, as a superior creature in the evolutionary pecking order. Beautiful bird, a Jay. And smart. Smarter than me anyway. As for guns, they can be a dangerous obsession for a young man, and it’s best he grows out of them before they damage his brain.

I was lucky. All it took was cars and girls. And then at some point you realize you don’t need a gun to stalk creatures, nor to feel immersed in nature. Nowadays the pigeons come and sit on my garden fence, brazen as you like. I could feed myself all week off them if I’d mind to, but they know I’m not like that. They also know I’m superstitious about birds. Birds tell me things. One of them is it’s a hard life being a bird, hard enough without being shot at for fun. They take a dim view of it.

There’s this thing at the minute about making trespass a criminal offence. Have you heard that one? So if I’d chosen to ignore that sign, wandered off the path a bit and went and stared all poetically at the river, perhaps sipped brazenly on my coffee while I was at it, that would make me a criminal. How do you feel about that? Would it put you off roaming the English countryside? Is that good for us, do you think? The Ramblers Association is upset about it, and they’re a powerful lobby, but we’ve the wrong lot in at the moment for protecting public access to open spaces, so I fear there’s a good chance it’ll pass.

For the landowners it’s about money I suppose. For the shooter, I understand the appeal, having been there myself. But it was different back then – working men and guns. My parents’ generation grew up with rationing, but if you had a gun and a bit of countryside out your back door, you’d not go hungry. Nowadays, though guns are more about class, or aping it, than supplementing your diet. It’s about rubbing shoulders with the County – or what passes for it now.

I’m still not good with the names of birds – just the common ones – and I saw plenty of them along the way today. They were keeping their heads down, loitering in hedgerows and among the tangle of a tree’s branches. It wasn’t the gunmen they were scared of though. It was something else. I heard it before I saw it.

The cry of a Buzzard is an eerie thing. I’ve been stalking one for ages in other parts of my locale, and didn’t expect one here. That makes three I know of now, and all within a small radius from my doorstep. They’re vulnerable when they stake out a territory that belongs to Sir Grabball. The birds have more natural rights to it, but he has the guns and the traps and the poisoned bait on his side.

Apologies, again. I didn’t mean this to veer into Ewan Maccoll territory. But anyway, for once everything came into place. I had the camera with the right lens on it. I had the shutter set on burst mode, by accident. The sun was lighting the bird beautifully. Now, would it grace me with a flyby, close enough to tell it from a sparrow?

Squeezing off those shots was a thrill. Maybe a man with a gun would understand, even though his endgame would be a dead bird. I took a lot of pictures in that burst, so it was odds on at least one would come out right. I admit, I wandered off the path a bit in my excitement. Yes, I trespassed. So shoot me.

A camera is so much better than a gun.

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So, the Derbyshire police reveal in dramatic fashion what I’ve suspected for a while. The cops have put surveillance tech into the air via the ubiquitous drone. It’s less expensive than a chopper but it can still read a car number plate or spot a person from miles out. It might even be able to read your face. And when the cops read a car number plate of course, they know who you are and where you live. The bad guys should look out then, except the cameras aren’t always used for catching the bad-guys.

I’ve been critical of people resisting this “lockdown” (hate that word), exasperated when I see people taking to the hills en-mass when we’re told to stay at home, except for “essential” journeys. But it has never been made clear what is and is not an essential journey. And now to see this tech unleashed on sparse numbers of non-criminal members of the public in order to “shame” them for taking a walk, well,.. it’s pulled me up short. More, it will be one of my abiding memories of this crisis, along with others that are starting to leave a bad taste, like how only the rich and famous are able to get a Covid-19 test. And all the while the usual sycophantic organs of the fourth estate are drumming up the Dunkirk spirit, assuring us we’re all in this together when we’re clearly not.

Freedom in the hills has always been a fundamental necessity for many. A journey to the hills might therefore be interpreted by such folk as essential for one’s sanity. Me too.  And we’re confused. Many of us are still expected to travel to work when we’d rather not, given the risk to which it exposes our selves and our families. But employers are thinking about longer term business viability and profits. That’s another interpretation of what’s essential. What’s the difference here?

So,.. the Derbyshire police shame members of the public for taking a walk away from home. But it didn’t look to me like they were risking increasing the spread of this contagion very much. They might have fallen, yes. They might have crashed their cars and needed the emergency services, tying up already overstretched resources. I get that. But something doesn’t feel right here. This feels like a distraction from other issues.

The real risks are what our health workers are exposed to daily on account of the shocking inadequacy of their protective equipment, also commuters being forced to share public transport, still travelling to jobs that employers are allowed to interpret as essential. Essential for whom? Where are the police drones shaming the slashed NHS budgets? Where are the police drones shaming employers for making people go to work, when they could and should be working from home?

If the Derbyshire cops have this technology, all the constabularies have it, and they’ve been trialling it for years. But its deployment in the midst of this crisis is both crass and high-handed, and it exposes far more than was intended. Yes, it might scare people off the hills for fear of that sinister eye in the sky, scare them back to their homes, but it also tells me we should be very careful of our freedoms in the future. We should beware allowing others to define, in the longer term, what is and is not a necessary action. Near martial measures such as these are quickly imposed and accepted by the public as necessary for our protection, but how quickly will they be eased?

When, in the coming weeks, the death toll from coronavirus escalates, be careful of who gets the blame. Yes, we should all be exercising close to home now, not driving out to the hills like we used to do. But the height of the death-curve will not be the result of that handful of walkers in Derbyshire interpreting their own essential needs as they have been left to do. Nor will it be the occasional lovers gone out to watch the sunset or post Instagram selfies. It’ll be the result of millions forced to work and commute in the name of profit, and our health workers having to improvise their own protective gear from bin bags.

I shall bear this period of isolation as best I can. I will stay at home, because I understand it’s necessary. But I’m not stupid either, and I know a curve ball when I see it.

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