What are you for ?

What are you for ?

Sometimes it is simple things which encourage the deepest contemplation within us. Last night I went walking while my wife took the larger of the two dogs to their dog training class. As I walked around the town I was struck by the similarity of it to the many towns I recalled from Scotland, before our relocation to Wales. This similarity brought home to me what they meant by the “flyover country“. Although this term was initially American in origin it is equally applicable to swathes of the United Kingdom. The name relates to patches of the country, on which people might look down through their aeroplane window, as they fly from one major city to another, and are areas of the country of which they have no real knowledge.

The central belt of Scotland, where I grew up, and north Wales, where I now live, have very many towns like this. In Scotland they had grown around the pit-head while in Wales they grow around the slate quarries. The only reason these towns were where they were, often in the middle of beautiful countryside, was the natural resources buried under the ground. In Wales it was the slate and gold, in Scotland the coal and iron. I grew up in these coal mining towns and remember them fondly. They were, during my childhood, vibrant communities buzzing with industry. The towns had everything one needed to live well. The town centres had shops, banks, schools and churches. Professional services of doctors, dentists, veterinarians and lawyers were all available. The society was boosted by the presence of churches and chapels and communal life improved by the working men’s and miners’ institutes which did so much to improve the communal life of the area.

During my working life I had watched these towns in Scotland die and had mistakenly thought it was a localised problem; a facet of the death of the UK coal industry. However, as I walked around the ghost town, while my wife was at her class, I realised that this town was exactly the same as the ones I had left, and also the same as towns I visit in northern England when we visit our son and his family. It is not one industry that has fallen, it is all heavy industry that has gone. I had personally seen the effects of the death of coal, now I watch the effects locally of the death of the slate industry, and on my travels it is the death of the steel industry, or ship or car building. Whatever the industry the effects are always the same.

These towns are sad reminders of our industrial past. Often a government money has been used to try and use the scars of heavy industry as exhibits for a new heritage industry. As I walked around there were signs describing the powerhouse that previously had been here and old pieces of heavy machinery were pressed into service as art for the benefit of tourists who rarely call. The shop fronts were mostly empty, a mini-market or corner shop might survive but all the banks have closed. There are no drapers, butchers, bakers, or ironmongers. The only shop fronts lit at night on the high street are the fast food take-aways; there are no restaurants and very few pubs. During the day it is left to the charity and second-hand shops to try and give a semblance of commerce in the main street. The only professionals still represented on the high street are the funeral directors as people continue to die. The working men’s clubs and churches are derelict or, if lucky, pressed into service as storage units. If one looks up at the door-frames and lintels, if one looks closely at the heavy stone architecture, you can still see the buildings that once stood imposing and grand. These buildings designed to stand proud as symbols of permanence and importance look especially depressing. It is hard not to think of the proud lady descended into harlotry when one looks at the marble and granite frontage of the building society now framing the take-away for kebabs and chips.

However, the most striking similarity between this old slate town, and the deserted coal towns I knew, was the change in the population. Those able to work, the young and the fit, have moved to find it. The elderly are left behind as are the disabled and ill. As one walks around the time the levels of disability are visibly high. If your income is limited to welfare benefits then there is less cause to move, indeed as a cruel twist of fate it is possible that collapsed property prices and lower rental rates may make your staying in the town make economic sense. The poor are hindered in leaving by the disparity in property values which mean they can not either sell their property, or afford higher rents, and move to where there may be work. The streets of cheap property and vacant houses also acts as an attraction for others who are less economically able to move into the area.

One has the feeling, as one meets people, as if everyone is in limbo, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the old times to return or waiting for the young people who left to come back with news of plans for a better future. There are no signs of faith or optimism. We have exported our wage poverty to Asia. People there now work for low pay doing the work of heavy industry in the factories or mines. But that doesn’t mean we have seen the end of poverty. While there is plenty of food diets are poor and unhealthy with an epidemic of diabetes coming in its wake. Likewise, while there is plenty of “entertainment”, with round the clock television and internet, but it is rarely uplifting or improving. There is plenty of medication, both prescribed and self-organised, but still the rates of depression and anxiety continue to rise. We have inherited a poverty of the spirit. No amount of fast food, video games, nor reality television will plug the hole left by having no job. No amount of opiates, or other psychotropics, will remove the feelings which arise from having no purpose in life. People often talked of the dignity of labour and its importance is now becoming horribly clear – this type of ‘life of leisure’ will suck people down into despair and depression.

Agriculture in these areas no longer provides the levels of employment needed to support these towns. The raison d’ếtre of these towns has now gone and can’t easily be replaced by other industries. The new light industries and digital economy thrives best in cities where the mass of people and connections help them grow. These towns need to find a way to return to being villages with the quality of life that can offer its inhabitants The hardship faced by people living through this change needs to be understood. Ignoring their worries about unemployment, the destruction of their communities and their dislike of damaging cultural change needs to be recognised. If we fail to do so then these towns, which make up a large fraction of our population, will be easy targets for extremists peddling glib and easy answers.

I don’t know what the answers are. How do we restructure our economy ? How do we regain optimism and faith in the future? How do we support communities which thrive and prosper? But I do know what is the major questions we must face : “How do we ensure people have purpose in life ?” Our pleasures and material needs are important, but above these we all need to feel that there is something we must do, otherwise what are we for?

Thoughts while shearing

Thoughts while shearing

I have found that I have mixed feelings after the annual shearing. During the year any dagging (removing the soiled wool at the rear end) or crutching I do myself by hand, but for the annual shearing of the fleece I rely on a young lad on the next farm to do the work.

He has all the equipment; a shearing trailer (which acts as a holding pen while the work is going on), the electrical shears (which give a neat trim) and moccasins (so that he might hold the sheep with his feet without hurting them). But more importantly he has two other advantages. Firstly he has the strength and stamina; shearing is hard work, grappling 50kg of reluctant, wriggling ewe or ram and trying to operate heavy electric shears at the same time is a young man’s job. It is difficult for an old codger like me. Secondly, and most importantly, he has the skill. Knowing how to hold the animal, how to turn them as you shear, how to avoid cutting the animal and managing to take off an entire fleece intact is a hard earned skill. Watching someone who knows their craft is very impressive.

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I usually like to use the least technology possible, to try and find the most natural way to do a task. However, there is no way to shear a sheep without tools and modern tools make this easier. Primarily they make it easier for the sheep. The procedure is painless but it alarming to the animal, it has no conception of what is happening and is afraid. There is no way to share, with them,  the knowledge that they will feel better during the summer and be at less risk of fly-strike, lice, ticks and a variety of other plagues. It is always stressful and therefore anything that shortens the time it takes is good news. Hand shearing by an expert takes about 15 minutes, hand shearing by me takes about an hour, electrical shearing by our neighbour takes about 2 minutes. There is really little contest, electrical shearing wins hands down.

So why then do I have mixed feelings about it ? Well, this time it started when another neighbour, who was helping, recalled shearing when he was a boy. On the shearing days up to 20 men would sit in a line on benches at the edge of the field and shear the flocks by hand. During the season many hands were needed to do the work. Now one or two men, with good machinery, can do the same job with less effort and stress. It is the reason that agriculture, though it produces much more than it ever did, uses less labour. It is why there are few jobs in the countryside and why the population has shrunk. Though there are less jobs in farming this mechanisation has created its own jobs – there is now a need for factory workers to work the lathes and milling machines that make the equipment. There is less call for young men to learn how to shear in Wales but the demand for young men to work in factories, often abroad. With less people living and working in the countryside there is less call for shops, schools, churches, doctors and the like and this is why we see that now the majority of people live in urban areas.

This specialisation is at the core of capitalism and it is the great irony of the twentieth century  that it has been capitalism, not socialism,  which has pulled many people out of poverty. Through mechanisation and specialisation great increases in wealth have arisen. This increase is so great that, even when it is badly and unevenly distributed, the majority of us benefit. In the west, going back 100 years, no-one could have anticipated our current wealth. The idea of personal transport by automobile, central heating or air conditioning, personal computers and telephony would be unimaginable to people who thought that books and electric light to read them by were a luxury. So it seems I cavil , especially as I post this on the internet, when I cast doubt in these changes. However, I’d argue that not all of this progress has been without cost and, although agreeing that a market economy is the best way to ensure efficient production, I’d propose we have to be careful that we know where we’re heading as individuals and as a society.

It was often said that these mechanised and specialised changes would benefit us because they are “labour saving“. Each new gadget, from the washing machine to the smartphone, has promised to save us time and to leave us more leisure time for ourselves. This should lead to increased pleasure as we do things we enjoy rather than need to do.  However, our pleasures are relative. Once we become accustomed to something it changes from a luxury to a necessity (People will not venture outside now without their phones). Thus the prior luxuries become part of our life and, if missing, a source of our unhappiness. There is no evidence that individually we are any one jot happier than people 100 or 200 years ago. The Victorian got just as much pleasure from his night at the music hall as we do from an evening at the 3D IMAX cinema. The Victorian felt as euphoric when his lover agreed to become his partner as we do now (Well possibly they had greater pleasures in this area as society was more restrictive on the whole).

Our luxuries don’t seem to bring us pleasure but perhaps they at least give us time. It would seem unfortunately this is not the case. As we have more, we need more and want more and thus we work more.  In his book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari notes that the time we spend as a species working for others has always increased and certainly if one were to look over the last two generations this trend is evident. 50 years ago a skilled manual worker, working well, could expect to provide for his family to the standards of his day. Now both parents will have to work outside the house to provide for their family with all the consequent changes that we have seen in child rearing and family life.

It seems that once we have escaped scarcity, once the basics (hunger, thirst, safety, warmth, etc) are dealt with we do not know what is “enough“. We are good at acknowledging what is too little, we have built in warning systems in our biology when there is too little food, or water, or heat. However, we don’t seem to be able to determine what’s enough in term of what is “too much”.  Consequently in our post-scarcity world, in the west, our major problems are those of excess – obesity  or substance abuse as individual problems for example and global warning and the plastic pollution of our seas as global examples.

This is possibly the reason that all the major religions had as an important focus the advice to avoid excess. Gluttony, avarice, lust and covetousness are sins to be avoided and all the main religions advice that we should try and control our desires.  Going back to the stoics, they advice that we should try to have and want less, to not be controlled by our desires. It is possibly a perfect storm in the developed world, that as the productive powers of capitalism reaches its zenith the advisory power of religion  plumbs its nadir.

Thinking about the changes that have occurred in how we shear sheep has made me think that if we want to survive we need to change. As individuals we have to learn to rein in our desires which I think will require a rebalancing. We will need to rediscover localism so that our wants and needs play out on a smaller stage. We need to reduce the size of the states we live within so that they are no more than is necessary and allow individuals to create small communities on a more human scale. We have to learn when enough is enough and this going to be difficult. As individuals we are going to have to break out of the role of being primarily consumers and reclaim our private lives. This is no easy feat but as Tolstoay said “In order to land where you wish, you must direct your course much higher up.”

Sheep and true democracy.

Sheep and true democracy.

It is fair to say I will never be described as saintly; I have never mastered piety, my good works, such as they have been, are mundane, and  I too easily slip into my vices. I imagine, that the majority of us, I am better described as a sinner than as a saint. However, over the past year and a half I have developed a saintly aspect, rather small but perfectly formed, I have developed the patience of a saint and I have needed it.

I live and work in a rural, agricultural part of the country where the majority of my neighbours, mainly farmers, voted in favour of Brexit. I tend, like my friends, to have liberal views and to be welcoming of change. I also voted in favour of Brexit. Since the referendum there has been a steady barrage of complaint – “How did you come to make this dreadful mistake ? The area you live in needs EU money. Farming can’t manage without subsidies ?Without the EU illiberal policies will threaten the fabric of our civil society”

Now it is perfectly reasonable that after a vote discussion will continue. I am sure that, had the vote had gone the other way,  I would still have argued my cause. But the wilful blindness which refuses to see any shades of grey in an argument is starting to become irksome. The tendency  so see every mishap as a consequence of our impending exit from the EU is largely boring. Having kept up with the newspapers,  I am sure after we leave, by failing to be part of the European Weather Consortium, we will be prone to worse winters and plagues of frogs. The Guardian and Independent, in particular, now have become almost mirror images of the Daily Mail in their search for hysterical straplines.

This, however, is not the problem. This is just the normal push and shove of political debate and anyone with an IQ adequate to be literate can see this and handle the details appropriately. Where my patience is stretched is peoples’ inability to see the larger issue. Again and again it was stated that people voted for Brexit to “take back control“, some people argued the issue in terms of ‘sovereignty’ others in terms of a ‘democratic deficit’ which had developed over the years. All argued that democracy was less effective in the EU as decision making had become remote and removed from the people. For most people who voted for Brexit this was the single biggest issue – Democracy works when people are involved in it, not otherwise.

Now this is the first stress on my saintly patience.  I like others voted to improve democracy but now I am told I voted for lots of other (usually disreputable) reasons and we really need to look again at the vote because we got it wrong. So, just like the Irish after their wrong decision in their first referendum on the Lisbon treaty, we are being encouraged to “do it again but get it right this time“. I am sorry if this sounds harsh, but can these people not see the irony of questioning a referendum that voted for greater democratic involvement and suggesting that the “experts” know better and we better vote again.

The second stress on my saintly demeanour is when we are rebuked for failing to see the financial benefits that the EU gives us and, without which, we would be in dire straits. The maths are easy, the UK is a net contributor to the EU, so we give more in than we get out. Precise figures aside we can decide how to spend this money. It is suggested that this will be better done by bureaucrats in Brussels rather than bureaucrats in London, especially when this argument is played to a Scots or Welsh ear. Why on earth should this be the case ? Apart from having a racist tinge to it, “Those terrible English”, it also seems so improbable. A bureaucrat in London has a shared history and culture with us, he has probably heard of Falkirk and Fishguard, he probably has family members and friends from our area of the world, he may have even had a romance with someone who hailed from our neck of the woods. This bureaucrat might just conceivably be on our side! But even if not we could vote them out if they let us down, something impossible for the politicians making the decisions in Europe.

And finally, there is the stress to me and my sheep. My activities, and my neighbours, are controlled by the Common Agricultural Policy. For over a generation this has set all aspects of agricultural policy in the U.K. –  No planning, no development, no vision, no change has started here. Do you know who is the Minister of Agriculture ? (*)  When was the last time you heard discussion of our farming policies ? In a rural area, such as where I live, we need to be able to think about agriculture, it is the very stuff of life and not something that can be left to bureaucrats. Especially when the plans these bureaucrats create result in subsidies to Lord Iveagh of £900,000 a year or the poor racehorse owner, Khallid Abdulla Al Saud, getting only £400,000 annually. If public money is going to subsides agriculture we need to democratically control how it is used. This means bringing the control back to the area where the activity occurs and to the people who do the work and know what can and should be done. No-one wants subsidies that allow inappropriate businesses and practices to thrive, we don’t want a repeat of butter mountains nor wine lakes, and we can only avoid this by closer democratic scrutiny and accountability. The same fate that affects my sheep has also affected the fish through the Common Fisheries Policy and many other areas of industry.

Tony Benn was right when he said that the suggesting EU membership was “asking the British people to destroy democracy” because if ‘you cut the umbilical cord that links the lawmakers with the people, you destroy the stability of this country’. So, as a first step, let is get power brought back from Europe to Westminster, then from Westminster to Edinburgh and Cardiff, and hopefully later even more closely to home. We need to review and improve our agriculture and stewardship of the land. The changes needed will be best decided locally and what works well in Meirionydd may not be the best plan for Morbihan nor Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Brexit is an opportunity to refresh our democratic involvement and to refresh our industries, let us not waste it.

By all means point out my errors and explain why European Union can be a beneficial thing. I know the reasons I voted and, I am sad to say, that I am more certain as the  undemocratic nature of the EU has become evermore apparent; in its both its handling of the Brexit negotiations and its stance towards Catalonia). Explain routes to counter these problems, see if you can get the EU to rekindle interest in subsidiarity, suggest alternative plans, but lets be constructive in our debate on the future. Don’t force sainthood on me by testing my patience by obdurate calls that the majority of the populace was stupid and hoodwinked. Please don’t repeat your mantra “forgive them, for they know not what they do”, I did know and if necessary would do it again.

 

 


(*) A trick question as it has been merged into the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and it is Michael Gove, for the time being


While the Daily Prompt prompted this tirade it was also triggered (and there was no trigger warning!) by the excellent article by Jon Holbrook on spiked-online.