Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Good Weather for the Garden

The past month has been pretty wet hereabouts. Barely a day seems to have passed without rain; payback perhaps for the long dry spell we had earlier. The ground has been saturated and combined with a little warmth most plants have flourished. My garden seems replete with moist, green fecundity. Five weeks ago my mower broke down and the lawn has retaliated by becoming a meadow.

We live on the side of a drumlin and have about half an acre of grass around us dotted with trees and shrubs. When I moved here the house hadn’t been lived in for months and the grass was over three feet high. A farmer friend of my neighbour's was enlisted to cut the grass with his tractor and disc mower. Afterwards I had to manually rake the grass and pile it into stooks which were then picked up and carried away by the tractor. This was an insight into the agricultural labour that my forefathers had done for generations. The haymaking was very hard work over several days which left me with an aching body that took days to recover.

I was advised to get a ride-on mower to keep the grass in check. I bought a second-hand Honda but it couldn’t manage the steep slopes of the garden. So they took it back and sold me the toughest mower they had, a Snapper, made in Georgia USA to a 30 year old agricultural design. It was red and chugged up and down the steep slopes munching the grass as it went. Over the years my Snapper has proved to be very robust until it stopped suddenly five weeks ago.

I took the mower to the repairers, they already had a backlog to fix and said they would try and do it in two weeks. At the end of this time I rang to find it still wasn’t fixed. They had first ordered the wrong part and then, because it was an old mower, the part they needed wasn’t in stock. Two more weeks passed and the grass grew and grew. It was about a foot high and meadow flowers had begun to proliferate in it: yellow vetch, ox eye daisy, white and purple clover. Without trying I’d got a very large bee garden.

I rang the repairers again, they had fixed one problem and the mower was operational, but they were still waiting for several parts to finish the job. We agreed that I would take it back to cut the grass and then return it to them when the parts they needed had arrived. My obliging neighbour took me to pick it up with his trailer which had a ramp at the back. The trailer was littered with sheep shit from its previous occupants, but no matter the mower slid in nicely.

I pondered how the mower would manage to pick up the grass when it was over a foot long. It won’t, said another neighbour, what you need to do is to mow the grass and blow it back out onto the lawn. Let it dry for a few days and then you’ll be able to go around again and pick it up with the mower. Seemed like a good plan.

I waited for a dryish day and late in the afternoon I set about the cutting. Even the trusty Snapper laboured through the long grass. The engine grumbled but the grass was sprayed about fifteen feet into the air, landing in heavy green clumps on the lawn, the mower and me. Then the mower ground to a halt. The grass was only dry at the top and kept clogging up the blades. I had to keep stopping to pull handfuls of matted wet grass from its innards. Slowly the Snapper did its job. I didn’t feel good chopping through the wild flowers, so I left a strip along the edge of the garden for the bee meadow.

It rained solid for two days and then it was dryish for the next two. On the first day I raked the clumps of grass to help them dry. On the second I got out the mower to pick up the old grass. Trouble was the lawn had also grown a couple of inches so it was a mix of dry and fresh grass which took double the normal time to cut and pick up. T helped me dump the grass into the field at the back hedge. And to add insult to injury there was a torrential downpour for the last ten minutes of our work. But we just kept going and flopped indoors: drenched, covered in grass cuttings and knackered. Even with labour-saving machinery, a country life isn’t easy.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

History Repeating Itself

We seem to have been reliving our past. There are so many points of connection between the national politics of the past six years and the 1980’s. To begin with: austerity. Or as this was known in the 1980’s ‘the cuts’. Then, Margaret Thatcher led a government which made deep cuts in public spending year on year. As have Cameron and Osborne. And what is more, the electorate kept voting for these cuts, then as now. Indeed, it was Mrs Thatcher who coined the phrase ‘there is no alternative’.

With rapid falls in public and private investment, poverty, inequality and unemployment all massively increased during the 1980’s. Since then high levels of unemployment have become normal. In recent times this pattern has repeated and levels of poverty and inequality have spiked again, as the national need for food banks has shown.

In the 1980’s there was widespread opposition to austerity and this was focussed around metropolitan local authorities, such as in London and Manchester (where I was a PhD student). But perhaps the greatest emblem of this opposition was the Miners’ Strike, which the Thatcher government managed to successfully undermine through union constraining legislation and politicised policing.

Recent public opposition to austerity in Britain seems to be relatively cowed. Perhaps it has become refocused around single issues, like benefits for the disabled or funding for the NHS or environmental protest. In contrast to the 1980’s, the highest profile union struggle in recent times has been between the government and the BMA, an elite professional union.  

Throughout the 1980’s the Labour Party was riven by struggle between right and left. At first Michael Foot and Tony Benn were in the ascendancy and led the political opposition to Thatcherism. This undoubtedly implacable opposition did not lead to success in any general election and the party’s manifesto for 1983 was called ‘the longest suicide note in history’. So is Jeremy Corbyn a new Michael Foot? And is Momentum the new Militant, yet to be proscribed by a new reforming leader? Might there be a putative Neil Kinnock about to emerge on the scene or is Jeremy going to change his spots?

During the same period the Tories were split over Europe. Under Thatcher the Euro-pragmatists were in the ascendancy and she used this, and the rise in poverty, to negotiate a large rebate on the UK’s annual payment to the EU (which still remains). During the 1980’s the migration problem was in the other direction, conditions in the UK were so harsh that more people chose to leave than stay. And this unremitting harshness eventually told on public opinion.

In the run-up to the 1992 election Thatcher was deposed by Tory MP’s scared of losing their seats. The reformed Labour Party under Neil Kinnock was in the lead in opinion polls, but the tabloid press came to the Tories aid. The front-page headline in the Sun on election day was ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’, with a caricature of his face on a light-bulb. And the Tories under John Major scraped back in.

The tabloid press played a similar role in last week’s referendum. The Daily Express front page had a Union Jack backdrop with the headline ‘Your Country Needs You: Vote Leave Today’. And when this war was won, the Express (like the Sun in 1992) crowed that they had played the decisive role in this xenophobic victory.

So now there is to be a new Tory leader and PM. Apart from Cameron, the Tories have a recent tendency to choose those who have been cut from the common cloth and made good: it reinforces notions of social mobility and disguises their patrician power base. Thatcher and Major both fitted this bill, as do all of the current candidates. The Bullingdon boys have decided to hold fire until the dimensions of the mess that we all have been left in become clearer.

And what happens next? Well, who knows? Leaving the EU is definitely dangerous, uncharted, territory. And I still hope that this can be avoided somehow. Whatever path we take we will surely need to work through the confused mix of nostalgia, prejudice and protest that has brought us to the current predicament. I think it was Santayana who said that ‘those who fail to learn from their history are doomed to repeat it, first as tragedy and then as farce’.