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Posts Tagged ‘England’

great wave croppedI lost an evening writing because my laptop, which runs on Windows 10, decided to update itself. I’ve tried various ways of stopping it from doing this, but it’s smarter than me and it will have its updates when it wants them, whether I like it or not, even at the cost of periodically throttling my machine and rendering it useless. Then I have to spend another evening undoing the update.

I don’t suppose it matters – not in the great scheme of things, anyway. I mean it’s not like I’m up against any publisher’s deadlines or anything. I feel it more as an intrusion by an alien intelligence, adding another non-productive task to the list of other non-productive tasks of which my life largely consists these days.

No, in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter if I write, or what I write, or how I write, because there’s this aphorism that says something to the effect that in spite of how we feel, virtually all the time, things can never be more perfect than they are right now, that attaining this glorious state of being is simply matter of removing the scales from our eyes, of seeing and feeling the world differently. From that perspective, blogging’s just a big box I dump my spleen into now and then and my novels, what I once thought of as my reason for being – struggles for plausibility, for meaning, authentically channelling the muse, desperately seeking the right ending and all that – I mean,… really, who cares? It’s just some stuff I made up.

As you can tell, I’m feeling very Zen at the moment. Either that or depressed. The difference between Zen and depression? Depression is to be oppressed by emptiness. Zen is to embrace it. It’s to do with the same existential conundrum, I think, just opposite ends of the scale.

The writing life is one of negotiating distraction. You hold the intention to write at the back of your mind while being diverted by all these other activities – making a meal, washing it up, You-tube, Instagram, mowing the grass, cleaning your shoes, scraping the squished remains of that chocolate bar from your car seat,…

Such tasks are not unavoidable. You could simply ignore them, flagellate yourself, force yourself to sit down and write, but sometimes if you’re too disciplined, you find the words won’t come anyway because the muse is slighted, or out to lunch or something. So you fiddle about, you meander your way around your distractions, all the while building pressure to get something out, to sit down when you find a bit of space and peace, usually late in the day when you’ve already promised yourself an early night, and you’re too tired to do anything about it anyway. And then you find Windows 10 is in the process of updating itself.

Damn!

So what is it with this technology anyway? Does a writer really need it to such an extent? I mean, computers seem to be assuming a sense of self importance way beyond their utility. I suppose I could go back to longhand, like when I was a schoolboy, pre-computer days, or for £20 I could go back to Bygone Times and pick up that old Silver Reed clatter bucket and eat trees with it again – do they still sell Tippex? Neither of these options appeal though, being far too retrograde. No, sadly, a writer needs a computer now, especially a writer like me who relies upon it as a portal to the online market – “market” being perhaps not the best choice of the word, implying as it does a place to sell goods when I don’t actually sell anything. What do you call a market where you give your stuff away? Answers on an e-postcard please. But really, it doesn’t matter, because remember: nothing could ever be more perfect than it is right now.

Except,… everything is weird. Have you noticed? America’s gone mad, and we Brits, finally wetting our pants with xenophobia, have sawn off the branch we’ve been sitting on for forty years, gone crashing down into the unknown. And if this is the best we can come up with after all our theorising and thinking, and our damned Windows 10 with its constant updates, it’s time we wiped the slate clean and started afresh with our ABC’s, and a better heart and a clearer head.

I don’t know,… if I actually I knew anything about Zen, it would be a good time to retreat into monkish seclusion, compose impenetrable Haiku, scratch the lines on pebbles with a rusty nail and toss them into the sea. We’ve had ten thousand years of the wisdom of sages and the world’s getting dumber by the day. How does that happen?

Not to be discouraged, I bought a copy of Windows XP for a fiver off Ebay. It’s as obsolete as you can get these days while remaining useful. Indeed, it’s still probably controlling all the world’s nuclear power stations – except for those still relying on DOS – so I should manage okay with it. I have it on an old laptop, permanently isolated from the Internet, so the bad guys can’t hack it, and it can’t update itself. It responds like greased lightning. Okay, I know I still need Windows 10 to actually publish stuff, but at least I have a machine I can rely on for the basics of just writing now.

But did I ever tell you I don’t like writing about writing? Well, here I am doing it again aren’t I? But have you noticed, if you search WordPress for “writers”, or “writing”, that’s what tends to pop up, all of us writers writing about writing, when what I really want to read is their actual stuff, what they think about – you know, things, what the world looks like from their part of, well, the world, and through their eyes and their idiosyncrasies, and all that, which is what I thought writers were supposed to do. Or maybe that’s it these days and, like Windows 10 we’ve been updated beyond the point to which we make sense any more, become instead a massive circular reference in the spreadsheet of life, destined soon to disappear up our own posteriors.

Okay, we’ve tripped the thousand word warning now, when five hundred is considered a long piece these days – just enough to sound quirky and cool, while saying nothing at all.

Brevity, Michael! No one likes a smart-arse,… especially a long winded one.

Graeme out.

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s-port cafeSouthport, Easter Saturday afternoon. I’m crossing the square in front of the Town Hall, thinking of lunch, when a woman steps out of the crowd and offers to pray for me. I thank her kindly, but tell her I couldn’t possibly put her to so much trouble.  She hands me a leaflet which I fold and pocket with a parting smile.

The town looks poor still, nearly a decade after the crash. There is an eerie Parisian beauty about Lord Street, but it is long past that time when people dressed up for Saturdays in town. Some make the effort but they stand out now, look ridiculous even in their finery, like peacocks strutting among pigeons. Or perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I only notice the haggard expressions and poor pigeon-clothing we wrap ourselves in. Or is it a myth, this hankering after a nostalgic vision of an England that never existed – and really we have always looked and dressed this way?

In Chapel Street, the air is lively, cut by the jangle of buskers. And there’s this wizened beardy guy shouting passages from the Old Testament – the end is nigh, that sort of thing. I note he has a bigger crowd than the buskers. But he sounds angry. It’s our stupidity perhaps he takes issue with, our refusal to be saved? Whatever that means.

It’s unkind to make rash judgements of course but I have an instinctive aversion towards angry, shouty people. And I’m only here for the cash machine, so I can pay for lunch.

Lunch is a ham and cheese and mushroom toastie. They put it in fancy bread and call it a Fungi Pannini. It grants it a certain altitude, but it’s as well not to get too carried away with these things. Obviously, I am not a gastronome. Still, it’s flavoursome, and nicely filling, and the coffee is deliciously aromatic. This is my reward after a week of six-thirty get ups, and long days that are leaving me increasingly knackered. It’s worth the wait, and the sheer quiet pleasure of it revives my spirits.

I take out the ‘droid for company. Out with it comes the leaflet from the lady who offered to pray for me. She’s wanting me to join her Evangelical Church, but it’s not really my scene. They’re heavy on the healing stuff – a long list of things they can cure by faith, but the small print cautions me to seek medical advice as a first recourse. The legal escape hatch is somewhat deflating. Even the religious fear litigation it seems. Does this mean that for all of  their assertiveness this afternoon, they lack the courage of their convictions?

I flick through the headlines on the ‘droid. The Times and The Mirror seem excited by the possibility of nuclear war. Meanwhile the Guardian has its knife in the guts of the leader of the opposition. The collective subliminal message here is that we can forget any realistic prospect of a return to calmer, more reasoned discourse. Instead we shall be distracted from ongoing economic and political turmoil by increasing talk of war. There are historical precedents for this phenomenon and we should not be surprised. These are ancient daemons, hard to outwit, filled with an infectious loathing.

I have no particular business in town other than lunch, but I visit the bookshop while I’m here. I’m looking for something by Sebastian Barry. They have nothing in the second hand section. They might have had him among the new stuff, but I do not buy new books any more – my little contribution to Austerity and my own knife in the guts of the economy. I’ll find the book I want for a couple of quid in a charity shop, when the time is right.

sport pierMeanwhile, it’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon. The trees on Lord street are budding and there is blossom aplenty. But there are more angry voices here, more shouting about God. The words are incoherent but the tone is clear: Fess up, submit, or else!

I escape up Scarisbrick Avenue, heading towards the light and the sea, but there are drunk men here with pints of beer. They are staggering, arguing volubly, incoherently. Fuck this, fuck that. Fuckety fuck it. Fuck, fuck, fuck. It’s not yet two pm, the sun a long way from the yard arm. There is no wisdom in such heroic quantities of beer, no real escape in it from the misery of latter day working lives. Only hope and the dignity of decent wages will cure it, and both are in short supply.

Along the front, by the King’s Gardens, the greens are littered with chip cartons and cellophane wrappings. It’s my eye again, black dog stalking, showing me only the decay, the despair, the sheer hopeless void of it. The pier affords an arrow to the sea. The sandy tide is in, a scent of briny freshness at last. I walk the bouncy boards at a brisk pace, breathe in the sea, take it down deep as the only bit of the day worth holding on to.

Well, that and the coffee, and the toastie.

Small pleasures amid this talk of God and War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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barn

Rivington Barn

Friday, and a late lunch at Rivington Barn. It’s crowded, bikers slurping mugs of tea outside, and a clamour of woolly hatted conversation within, the place clogged with skewed  buggies and children whining as if it were a half term holiday, but it isn’t.

I order my egg and bacon butty and I sit, number poised clearly on the table’s edge. It is a long, raised, communal table, empty when I sit down but soon to be dominated by a nuclear family: corpulent dad, mute, invisible mum, and a pair of hyper-active pre-pubescent nitwits who enjoy banging about in their seats so the vibrations travel the length of the table and into the bones of any unwitting neighbour, such as myself. Notwithstanding this endless, tedious violation of my repose, there is also the threat of a sticky soaking from the pop bottles said nitwits take delight in shaking up into a fizz and from which they then squeeze off an ominous, hyperventilating hiss.

Oh, I know, long week and all that, and all I want is a bit of peace, sitting on the end of this table, first come, and already my body space is invaded by Corpulent Dad’s ever spreading bulk. Some people seem to take up much more space than others. It is a kind of biological imperialism. He pretends to take no notice of me, but he’s a nosy bugger and I can feel his eyes over my shoulder as I scroll the news on the delightfully ergonomic Washington Post app. Yes, I’m with Sheldrake on this one – the sense of being stared at is a reliable instinct.

I know, the Washington Post, it’s not your usual media for informing the rural north of England, but America appears to have gone mad and I’m trying to understand what archetypes are afoot here, if they bode ill for my retirement nest egg or not and if we’ll have Russian tanks across the Rhine again like we did in the bad old days, which curiously enough seem more and more like the good old days, days when there was at least a kind of certainty to world affairs, grim though they were. And my egg and bacon butty is taking an age, and my cup of tea is already half gone, and these kids are banging the table, cutting clean though my pre-weekend ease, and my desire to just settle in for a bit and think.

The Post, though earnest and informative is of no help to me, this lone Englishman, and only confirms his suspicion that even America cannot quite believe it. Jung would have had an insightful take on things, but voices like his are few. While the kids continue to fizz the life out of their bottles, I try Chompsky, a familiar guru in these troubled times, but there is little comfort there either. Corpulent Dad is talking, winding his kids up into ever greater heights of irritating behaviour. Mute mum says nothing. Neither make an effort to check their offsprings’ rudeness. I recall I made no effort with my kids either, but I could at least take them anywhere without worrying they’d annoy other people. But then again Corpulent Dad isn’t worried they’re annoying other people. We are the same then, he and I. We simply differ in our approach to life.

What?

My egg and bacon butty arrives and I wolf it down to the point of indigestion. This is sacrilege. These are the finest egg and bacon buttys in creation, not to be rushed. But I am rushing, a voice in my head screaming for air now. So I head out to the car, relieved to be shot of my obnoxious interlopers. Such is the lot of the misanthrope, I’m afraid. Nothing is resolved. For all the seriousness of my intent to understand, all I have now is indigestion and the first stabbing throb of a headache.

The weather had been clear, encouraging of a certain optimism, but during my brief stay in the Barn, it has clouded, the air turned grey and cold. I am not encouraged to don my boots and climb the hill, so I drive to Chorley instead, to the Autofit place. I have two nails in my tyre. It’s been holding pressure, but clearly needs attention if I am to avert future calamity. I am expecting it to be irreparable.

The guy does his plucky best, but pronounces it goosed. There’s a tone of apology I read as genuine. My shed of a commuter-mule wears Michelin Premiums. They come at a premium price: one hundred and nineteen pounds each. These are supercar prices for a car that has proved itself to be anything but a super car. I really must get rid of this thing before it bankrupts me. It is becoming my own personal financial crisis.

“Is that fitting and everything, I ask?”

“Sure,” says the guy, “we’ll even put air in it for you.”

There is the ripple of a smile about his lips as he speaks, as if trying to winkle out the humour in me. The place is grey and February cold, overhung with a century of grime, his overalls seriously besmirched with his labours, but there is also something Puckish about him, defiantly irreverent. He mends cars.  He smiles a lot, and jokes. I drive a PC. And don’t joke much these days.

But, wait. There it is. My smile comes up like something fondly remembered. At times like these we need a sense of humour. It’s just a question of having the courage, or the sheer bloody mindedness to let it in. The lid is off. The trickster is risen from the collective and is laying waste to the convention of entire continents, destroying the perceived corruption of the world with a less subtle corruption of its own, and we’d better get used to it because I’ve a feeling it’s going to be a wild ride.

I’ll see you on the other side.

 

 

 

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throstle's nest

So, today I went back to Marsden, setting for my novel Durleston Wood, also the place I was born. There’s a walk here I’ve been doing since childhood -woodland, meadow and riverside. I used to walk it in company with the Faery. Don’t believe in the Faery? Doesn’t matter; they don’t live here any more.

It’s impossible to overlook the changes that have taken place, the suburbanisation, the population increase, and its effect on the quiet places. Durleston is tattered around the edges now, and worse, it has been labelled by the council as amenity,…. as uggh,… country park. Meanwhile the spread of neighbouring Middleton drifts south year on year, its developments an artist’s impression, cast upon the blighted green; another meadow gone, and then another, until we reach the bounding Saracens – waste bins overflowing with bags of dog waste. Little wonder then the Faery have fled, gone gagging for cleaner air.

There was a time when Durleston meant something. Entering the wood from the hurly burly of the world you could feel the silence. It slowed the pulse, slowed the pace, drew you into the gentle currents of its ancient spirit ways. And there were voices, whisperings of imagination, of ghosts and sometimes you would hear the song of the Faery.

durleston wood cover smallBut to know Durleston, even as I knew it in the 60’s, was to know it in its dog days. Its intimacy was a comfort through the trials of childhood, its Faery song a familiar refrain, but a song also in part a lament, foretelling the subsequent decades of decline, of insult and injury. And my grief for its loss I have long carried like a thorn in my heart, long before it was lost, but lately I feel something else, too, something hostile, as if Durleston itself is rejecting me. It feels now like a former lover possessed by an unfamiliar and disturbing spirit. Her emissaries are the troll, the gnome, and their minion – the yapping dog.

Of which:

Descending into the wood today, I am accosted by a dog. It runs loose, aggressive, teeth bared, yapping. And ambling along the path comes the gnome. He is a corpulent youth, sweating in shorts and tee shirt, supermarket-bag of junk to hand. The gnome speaks:

“Better watch him mate,” he says, “or he’ll obliterate you.”

He seems a pleasant enough simpleton, sees no need to control his dog, thinks perhaps if it bites, it is my fault – not his concern. He does not think ahead, or through the consequences. Notwithstanding his odd and pointedly literate use of the word “obliterate”, his ignorance is his bliss.

My canine assailant is not a fighting dog, not a Pit Bull. Thank heavens then for small mercies. No, this is just a small yappy dog of indeterminate breed, daft as a brush, and domesticated only in the most token sense of the word. But even such dogs as this can draw blood, and draw it quick. I risk a nicked vein, torn flesh, and a trip to casualty. Some dogs too have a penchant for the buttocks. Perhaps the gnome would laugh at that.

“Got you there, didn’t he, mate?”

None of this is inconsequential, but neither is it the dog’s fault. The dog is being a dog, runner and rabble rouser in a pack of ignorance.

man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsIn quieter times, before the spread of Middleton, before words like “amenity” were dreamed, I have meditated for hours in the dappled, shady quiet of Durleston, times when the wood revealed its hidden treasures: the nuthatch, kingfisher, water-vole, all the shy creatures, and sometimes the perception would broaden further to reveal the Faery.

Now the paths are torn open, deep wounds oozing mud, cut by the passage of muscular men in fetish gear, on bicycles. You cannot meditate for hours in the silence of Durleston any more. A minute is your lot between the passage of town folk in their careless packs, yapping as loud as their dogs.

So,…

I’m thinking I should say something to this man, ask him to put his dog on a lead, but he has a plump child in tow and might be inclined to yap assertively in order not to lose face, and his dog might take his tone then as permission to engage. I say nothing, feel instead my magnanimity ebb, my greeting smile fade to stone. The dog stands its ground. I have seen a dog, like this one, attempt to bite a passing lorry, so I do not suppose myself immune. Nor am I confident I could dispatch my assailant as efficiently .

A child was recently mauled by a dog running loose like this amid Durleston’s amenity. There were many dogs loose that day. The owner melted into the crowds and did not come forward to claim the child’s blood as his responsibility. But children are small, men are big. It is a doggish thing, and natural to take down the easier game.

That I do not threaten its pack permits the dog’s attention to wander. It loses interest, shoots away into the wood. What larks! I am saved, and move quietly on, but have lost my train of thought now, my ease, my meditative stride. Where was I? Believer in Faery, indeed! Where are the buggers when you need them!

The route is busy today, more packs of careless, flat-footed folk with loose dogs at every turn. I find it tiresome, negotiating safe passage in a kingdom to which I once had free reign. A springer bounds towards me – not aggressive this time, so I an not afraid. It leaps playfully, splats a dash of drool upon my pants, slaps there also its filthy paws then bounds away. It is with a fixed grin I ready myself to accept an apology from the lady owner, but none is forthcoming. Perhaps she is embarrassed. Perhaps she feels I am the strange one here, a man alone, walking without a dog.

I abandon the route, come up instead by the Throstle’s Nest, a less trodden way. In the long ago, the meadows here were a steaming tip. The plough still brings up fresh shards of pot and glass with each pass, so that in the early spring, when the sun hits right and the crop is low, the way is all a glitter. The plough also breaks the shards into a fresh, keen sharpness, so I would not like to lose my footing for the ground is seeded here with teeth. It ensures I am little troubled by dogs though.

rye3I concede the loss of Durleston, conceded it even before it was lost. I got a novel out of it, so I count my blessings – parting gift of the Faery perhaps. There is town and country, and their ways are not alike. The country that abuts the town will always suffer the town’s corruption. Unlikewise, the town is never healed, never cleansed by its proximity to the shady dell.

The Faery shake their heads, bewildered. They move on at the sound of our footfall, and at the yapping of our dogs who seem more often our delinquent masters. I understand I too must move on, that this lament for a lost Arcadia is part of the human condition, something welling eternal from the soul of the world. Indeed I have moved on, moved away, feel it now on the in-breath as this antagonism in the spirit of Durleston, as on the out I still grieve its loss, feel myself floundering and in search of something I was surely nearer grasping as a child than I am now.

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chinookAfter a quieter day, one in which the village clears away the mess from recent floods, we are unsettled again. It’s not so much the weather forecast which promises storms, but the arrival of the army and the Chinook helicopter. Stealthy the Chinook is not, and the steady, thudding rhythm of its rotors has been compressing my eardrums since noon.

There are holes in the flood banks, and the Chinook will plug them by dropping grab-bags of something or other – the media say sand, but this sounds inadequate to me and I’m hoping for something rather more substantial. The media, who have by now invaded the village in strength, also tell us the banks are to the south, when in fact they are to the west and the north. This lack of accuracy is disconcerting but not altogether surprising.

The flood banks have been breached in two places. Further meaningful information, such as the extent of the damage, the resulting danger, and the feasibility of repair is unavailable. The public, those threatened by these breaches, are advised to keep away from the “area of operations”. This is sensible, I suppose. But there is also a risk here to each of us, personally, and the media can be relied upon for nothing more than emotive garbage – pictures of Christmas trees being chucked into skips and our womenfolk dutifully choking back tears for the nice journalist bastards.

So, I set out to learn what I can by observation on the ground. There is a highpoint to which I might walk and maybe glimpse what is going on,  but I fail to get through a police check-point on the main road. There’s a bigger police presence now and a WPC has me dispatched in short measure by one of her community support minions. The young man peremptorily delegated to tackle me is polite, apologetic. His accent betrays a drafting in from far away.

I try another route, threading along a network of farm tracks, out across the flooded plains. The waters have receded a little, leaving the tracks passable to Wellington boots, though the meadows are still like lakes. Here, reflections in the water have brought the sky down to earth. The effect is dizzying, beautiful. Murmurations of birds have begun to explore their novel bounty.

By this somewhat open subterfuge, I am able to approach quite close, in fact, to the “area of operations” and, through binoculars,  learn the extent of the breach. The hole in the river’s flood banks is of awesome proportions. I am humbled by it. These banks have stood for centuries. I have walked their tops on balmy summer days, confident they will stand for ever. Why now such a dramatic collapse?

Here also, I find a handful of  moss-dwellers, with whom to swap stories. The best information, the most useful, is that gained at first hand and “local”. The usefulness of information decreases the more removed its source. Information on the TV or in the paper press is of course not information at all. It is infotainment, possibly manipulative, and worse than useless.

I watch for a while as the Chinook drops its bags, four at a time, sending up an almighty splash. It is more likely building aggregate, I think, than sand, which would simply be washed away the moment it hit the water. The roar of outraged river is drowned by the roar of the Chinook’s engines. I estimate it will take a thousand bags to plug that hole, five minutes per drop. You work it out. Operations have just begun in earnest, but there’s only ninety minutes of daylight left, then the Chinook will be going home for its tea. I am  not hopeful the hole will be plugged in any meaningful sense by nightfall. This is useful information.

I’ve seen enough now, and turn for home, the light fading.

The Chinook is a mighty bird, noisy as hell and ungainly to look at, but steady as a rock and graceful in the air. A daunting job, that pilot has, stopping the next tide from coming in where it ought not to. But those bags of dropped stuff looked pitifully small, beneath its belly, and that hole dauntingly big. On the plus side the tides are tending now towards the neap rather than the spring, and the fire brigade’s massive pumps are making a difference. This also is good information.

Meanwhile, in the village, more sand has arrived, donated by builders’ merchants. Local people organised by Twitter and Facebook, shovel it into bags. Anyone with a van or a tractor and trailer tours the village, dropping off bags wherever they are needed. Unsolicited, I have acquired a pile of ten. They look inadequate, but I’m grateful, and anyway I’m sure I won’t need them.

We are all a little jumpy now, feel irrationally threatened by even the promise of a spot of rain. But the river levels have dropped to no more than boisterous levels. Only the media  insist we’re doomed. I’m sure they hope we are. Great story isn’t it?

As I write a reporter stands not fifty yards from my home, talking empty nonsense to the entire nation. I see him on the TV in realtime. It’s disorientating. Shall I run out and photo-bomb? Offer him a cup of tea? He says nothing I can remember even five minutes later.

Dark now, 11:00 pm, a storm moving over – for some absurd reason they are calling it “Frank”. It’s raising a roar of wind in the chimney, promise of more rain tomorrow. But I note there has been an adjustment in the psyche’s perceived threat level. The risk is still severe, according to the Environment Agency,  but on the front line we are less reactive, no one staying up until the small hours this time. There is less traffic on the little road outside my window. Normality is relative, and human beings are adaptable creatures, defining their normality by whatever circumstances they find themselves in at the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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aysgarth upper fallsThe climate is changing. It’s becoming wetter, the rains harder, longer and more frequent. They saturate the ground, the rivers rise, then spill, bringing mud and ruin. Such events were rare, they were a once in a generation thing, but now they happen so frequently, even a year without a flood is counted as a blessing.

I live in a bungalow in a village suddenly prone to annual flooding. Everything I own is at ground level. If the floods come through my letter box, I lose it all. Fortunately my abode rests on a modest high spot, an understated quirk of geography, one that has never flooded in living memory. But weather “events” are so spectacular now it renders the unthinkable thinkable and the phrase “living memory” less of a comfort.

And as I write, my home is under threat from rising water. Three overburdened rivers have burst creating lakes which pool over the escape roads, rendering them impassable to all but the army in their big trucks. And the army have gone home after attending record breaking floods on Boxing Day. We’re cut off from the world, at least for now.

I’m thinking we’ll probably be all right, except I’ve just had a recorded telephone warning from the Environment Agency – flood threat, severe, my area, risk to life, cooperate with the emergency services. These warnings are a one size fits all kind of thing and, though undoubtedly necessary in some circumstances, I feel they are unnecessarily alarmist in others. I suspect the latter is the case now, but one can never be certain. It is in my nature to hope for the best, until the worst is staring me in the face.

I have been to check the spread of water around us, though it’s pitch dark and much of the power to the village is still to be restored. This makes it hard to see anything at all. The encroaching waters are discernible as patches of paleness in the black, seemingly huge spectres laid across the usual pitch void of meadow and moss. I see distant lights reflected in them. It’s hard to tell how they are moving, or if they are moving. Darkness and imagination – still ringing from the Environment Agency’s warning – adds to the possibly inappropriate sense of threat.

There are other people about, roused by the same warnings, gathered mostly into small groups. The mood is generally calm but quietly anxious. There is a murmur of voices, faces occasionally lit by the flash of a mobile phone. Some wave their torches, loosely focused shafts of light, beaming uselessly into the darkness. They seek perhaps to probe the incoming water – measure its depth, its speed, its intent. Now and then you see someone in a hi-vis jacket running, shouting unhelpfully, breaking the quiet as if with a pointed stick. They are not officials, but easily mistaken as such – their skittishness betrays their imposture.

The flood warden passes sedately on his bicycle. I recognise him. He bears an uncanny resemblance to John Le Mesurier’s Sergeant Wilson – same looks, same voice, same gentle manners. He tells me all the sandbags were taken in the preceding days of flood – these were days that saw hundreds of properties in other parts of the village washed out with silt and sewerage. He tells me there’s nothing we can do, is apologetic. I admire his stoicism, am inspired by it.

His walkie talkie scratches to life, a garbled voice speaks to him of something incoherent, he cycles off. I note homes nearer to the front line have improvised their own defences from polythene sheet, which they hold up around their door frames with bricks and planks. They might as well have saved themselves the effort, but at times of crisis it is easier to be busy, harder to be still.

By 2:00 a.m. I am alone by the silty water’s edge, the village having given up its vigil and gone to bed. Here, the tarmac of the little road disappears under an alien plane of rippling murk that spills from a meadow, and may as far as I know stretch all the way to the sea, some five miles away. I poke at it with my toe, make ripples, suspect the level might be falling. Can’t be certain. It’s been three hours now since the recorded warning of imminent threat to life and property. What are we expecting here? I imagine a tsunami bearing down on me in the still of night. It does not come.

The emergency services arrive, but International Rescue this is not. It’s just the one night-duty policeman in a minibus. He cruises down to the waterline beside me, stops suddenly when he sees it, looks surprised, gets out, shines his torch. He says nothing to me, as if a gulf of language separates us, yet we are two men alone at dead of night, on the edge of the unknown. I thought he might at least have nodded his fellowship. I leave him to it, return home to my desk.

So, here I sit and ponder what, among my belongings, I should rescue.

In a house, one can move valuables upstairs, but the best I can do is put things on the table-tops. Beyond that, the accumulated paraphernalia of my half century of life must take its chances with the goddess of destruction. I must face the possibility that this ephemera might not be here in the morning. What I can keep of it must go into my pockets. So, what shall I take?

What would you take?

Wallet and phone; these are the obvious, ubiquitous items, but I shall take also the little black codebook in which I keep passwords for my various online accounts. Computers are replaceable. Insurance documents are online now, but I have them copied for convenience to an SD card which I keep in a folder in my wallet.  I am portable, capable of letting go of what I cannot carry.

But evacuation is slow in coming, and I’m losing interest in staying up all night. I strip to teeshirt and trunks, lay my clothes at the bottom of the bed in case I must get into them quickly. Wellies and a torch are by the door. The village is quiet now, at last. I snuggle under the duvet and drift eventually to sleep and dream of mermaids.

Dawn comes, and there is no sound of lapping water around the bed. My ‘Droid assures me the imminent risk to life and property is still pending. I lie in ’till mid-morning, then walk down to the water’s edge once more. It has not receded much since the small hours, but looks less threatening in daylight. It is not the wide inundation I had imagined. There are corners to it, patches of dry.

A helicopter flies low, buzzing officiously. It loiters over breaches in the flood defences. Far away there are the flashing blue lights of a fire engine, pumping furiously. Water is still pouring in where it is not wanted, but seems to be finding a level that brings it no closer to my doorstep. For now at least.

One of the inroads to the village has cleared. We are accessible to the outside world again. The milkman delivers to those houses he can get to, the bins are emptied. The press will be here soon with their clownish satellite vans, po-faces pressing for their sound-bites. Nothing like pictures of flood and tears on the teatime news, is there?

 

 

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rtpI was given this book in 1983, a time when British Socialism was on the wane and Thatcher’s blue revolution had already lit the touch paper to a firework of freemarket capitalism. It was odd then to be given a book of this nature, one that explains how and why Socialism came about, at a time when Socialism seemed to have burnt itself out in a muddle of lunacy.

The story is written in the decade preceding the first world war and concerns a group of painters and decorators in the employ of the unscrupulous firm of Rushton and Company. Day to day, they are at the mercy of the ruthless hire-em and fire-em foreman, Mr Hunter, or Old Misery as he is known behind his back. Jobs were scarce. Then, as now, it was strictly an employer’s market, the only difference being that then to lose one’s job was an infinitely more serious matter with bastards like Old Misery literally holding the power of life and death over you and your family.

Our hero Frank Owen is seemingly alone in his understanding of the causes of the deprivations and humiliations he and his colleagues suffer. His frequent brew-time lectures on the evils of unbridled Capitalism are met with derision. It seems to Owen that his workmates are blind, that even though they grumble and suffer terribly at the hands of their money-corrupted masters, they are at pains to maintain the status quo, to “know their place”, to even vote for the very system that perpetuates their oppression. Thus Tressel labels them the titular philanthropists, making do with rags and starvation, so their masters can thrive and grow fat.

Clearly a political book, Tressell’s work is a classic for all students of the history of British politics, left or right, and for anyone seeking a more visceral understanding of the origins of Socialism and the trades union movement:

A snippet:

Owen saw that in the world a small class of people were possessed of a great abundance and superfluity of the things that are produced by work. He saw also that a very great number – in fact the majority of people – lived on the verge of want; and that a smaller but still very large number lived lives of semi-starvation from the cradle to the grave; while a yet smaller but still very great number actually died of hunger, or, maddened by privation, killed themselves and their children in order to put a period to their misery. And strangest of all – in his opinion – he saw that people who enjoyed the abundance of the things that are made by work, were the people who did Nothing: and that the others who lived in want or died of hunger, were the people who worked. And seeing this, he thought that it was wrong,…

Re-reading the story now, it’s comforting to know the likes of poor Owen and his crew would be spared many of the indignities and premature deaths they suffered in those days, Socialism now having won the fight for access to free healthcare, welfare, paid holidays, a state pension, and strict health and safety legislation. Such things did not exist at the time of writing. But while much has changed, it’s striking how some things remain the same, such as the ease with which a country’s ills are apt to be blamed by certain factions of the press on all these “damned foreigners”. It’s also interesting to see how the principles of Capitalism, carried to their extremes ensure that a decent job of work never gets done, that it will always be scrimped, and bodged, the cracks papered over in pursuit of maximum profit. Tressel’s book also serves as a sober warning that the gains of Socialism over the last hundred years cannot be taken for granted, that they can be lost, and in this way the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists gives us a glimpse of a world to which we risk returning.

Socialism has enjoyed something of a reawakening this summer, and for those perhaps confused by it all, or who are too young to have lived it the first time around, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is an enlightening text, one that will explain much of what is going on today, the same as it did a hundred years ago. But this not a dour political treatise. It is a story, engagingly written, with a clear, concise prose and characters both sympathetic and repulsive. Nor is it without its moments of wry humour, all be it usually at the expense of the employers.

We have wonderfully blunt and descriptive names for characters such as Slyme and Crass, also Mr Oyley Sweater, Didlum, Grinder and the monstrous Sir Grabball (Bt). We are left in no doubt where Tressell is coming from, but it’s also sobering that he has no sympathy either for the working man, who, when presented with the means of awakening and doing something about his suffering, makes no effort to do so.

The Church, Private Rent Landlords, the drinks industry, corrupt councils, the tendency among the more affluent classes to dismiss the poor as shirkers and scroungers, all these things come under the microscope as social and cultural vultures which in some way demonise and prey upon the working man, and here too, the book has maintained its relevance today.

Owen is depicted as a bit more of an artisan than his fellow painters. For him are reserved the jobs that require more skill and an artist’s eye, not that these attributes are appreciated by his employers, at least not to Owen’s advantage, who is left as impoverished as his workmates. His employers value him only to the extent his skills can be exploited to undercut the work of other firms. Sickly and possibly even consumptive, Owen’s future looks bleak. What then of his wife? What of his young son? What future for any of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists when they are only a twist of old Misery’s bad temper away from being laid off, and no Welfare State between them and starvation? Tressell says we would be better dead than suffering this kind of life, and it’s hard not to disagree with him.

This book still arouses and inflames opinion. Whether you agree with it or not will obviously depend on your politics. If you are to the left you will find nothing here to disagree with, if you lean to the right, you might gain some insight into the reasoning and the suffering that underpins the passions currently arrayed against you. The problems of inequality and economic tyranny in society are not, as has been alleged recently, “yesterday’s problems”. They are cyclical, born of the natural swing of the political pendulum between the parties of the rich and of the poor. It remains to be seen if we are doomed to repeat history of Tressel’s day, or if the forebears of Owen and his crew can redress the imbalance and prevent that pendulum from smashing us all in the face once more.

Get the text here (legally) for free.

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