Reactionaries Renamed

Reactionaries Renamed

A long, long time ago, when I was an adolescent, and later a young man, there was a terrible swear word we could use in political discussion. When someone did not see the obvious, blinding clarity of “the party line” on any issue then we were free and quick to call them “reactionary“. Much like the use of ‘fascist’, ‘nazi’ or ‘racist’ today the simple use of this adjective was extremely powerful. Calling someone a ‘reactionary’ instantly revealed that you were in the right (having recognized a reactionary, like a witch, when you saw one) and completely obviated any need for further discussion as this single, powerful, word settled fully any debate. I can remember spotting reactionaries. It was remarkably easy; if somebody was older, more experienced, and unable to immediately fall in line with my current Marxist philosophy they were almost certainly a ‘reactionary’. It is amazing how many debates I won by this simple rhetorical device. It is therefore with some embarrassment that I have found that I, with some justification, could warrant the ‘reactionary’ tag.

When young I was naive enough to know that there was an “arc of history” which “bends towards justice”. That the future was almost already written, and the important thing was to be on the “right side of history” as we progressed onwards. Those of us in the vanguard could be expected to meet people who would try and stop our progress, but we would soon dismiss these reactionaries as we marched ever onwards to our utopia. It was simple really, we were on the side of progress and therefore good, reactionaries tried to thwart this and therefore were bad. But unfortunately this all has a fatal flaw. Namely that, change and progress are not synonyms. Whilst the progress is towards making life better for all, then those pushing this are indeed on the side of the angels. However, if the change is dangerous or likely to bring future harm then good people have a moral duty to try and oppose it. Reactionaries are simply reacting to proposed change; if the change is bad then they are the good guys.

At present we are witnessing an extremely dangerous trend in our culture. The idea of free speech is being eroded: authors and commentators are being pressured to talk within narrowing guidelines; the public is being advised to censor itself, by shaming and bullying, and the state, in the form of the police, is increasingly deciding the limits of acceptable discourse. While this important liberty is being eroded an important advance is being turned back. We are watching a return to racist and sexist thinking as we define people, and their actions, increasingly on their biological groups rather than on their thoughts or actions. This tends to fracture our humanity and fragment us into small groups. The net effect of this is to damage the idea of community. Through the mechanism of this change and increasing consumerism and individualism we are also witnessing a weakening of the family structure with little evidence that we have any though of what will take its place in the roles of mutual support and child rearing. On a larger scale the advance of globalisation threatens, and has seriously weakened, national planning giving capital the whip hand over labour and undermining the practice of democracy. When capital and wealth are globally mobile it is very hard for national democracies to hold them in check.

All of these changes demand a reaction and for this reason I am a reactionary. However, as this term still echoes in my psyche unpleasantly I might have to find a different moniker. After thought it was obvious, that as a reactionary, I was resisting change. Therefore, I was part of the resistance. Indeed, as I was trying to preserve freedoms, the freedoms of thought and association as well as the freedom from prejudiced appraisal, I was also a freedom fighter. A member of the resistance and a freedom fighter, now with that title I’ll sleep happily.

Re-reading Struwwelpeter

Re-reading Struwwelpeter

Our neighbour is a author, most celebrated for her books for children and young adults. She recently had discussions with her publishers about new book ideas and had been informed that they advised against discussion of death or themes of mortality in books aimed at a young audience. This rather surprised me as most of the books I read, or had read to me, when I was young were primarily concerned with the grisly fates of bad children. All the fairy tales I can remember were light on fairies and rather heavy on wolves, ogres and axemen. I recall when I was reading the “Big Book of Children’s’ Tales” to my three children that these were not fantasy stories; these were largely morality tales, heavy on judgement and often quite gruesome. I remember the kids preferred the most gruesome ones the best.

I think her publisher might have been surprised had he seen my recent purchase. Stuwwelpeter by Dr. Heinrich Hoffman. I was able to find a hardback copy of this in good condition on ebay and have thoroughly enjoyed re-reading it. Published in 1845 this was one of the earliest children’s’ picture and story books. It was written by Dr. Hoffman a psychiatrist who was disappointed by the lack of good books for children. Unable to find one suitable for his own son’s birthday present he wrote his own which was subsequently published to great, international success. This is a collection of ‘improving’ tales with clear moral messages for the young reader.

It is still the case that children’s books often have an educational aspect and often have an ethical and moral message woven through the story. When I looked at the shortlists for children’s fiction this year in Britain it was clear that the majority still had such a message. However, there was a significant difference. The books were less concerned with a range of moral dilemmas but rather focussed on a very few themes. Indeed, if nearly all of them concerned the theme of tolerance of diversity and even those concerned with mental illness, or gender identity, also took this tack.

Tolerance of diversity is very obviously a good thing and we’d wish our children to be open minded and not to be prejudiced. However, I am not sure we need to inculcate this. The scientific evidence would tend to suggest that children are intrinsically open to others and do not fear or dislike people who look different to them. It seems very likely that racists and bigots have to be made, we have to teach these sins, children are not born that way. That this theme predominates in these books probably reflects the preoccupations and concerns of the writers, publishers and buyers of these books – this is a fear of adults rather than children. Having said this even in this collection there is one cautionary tale warning children against judging people by the colour of their skin.

The ten tales in this book tackle a wide range of concerns and give a range of instructions : Don’t be cruel (to people or animals); Don’t be greedy; Be prudent and careful; Be honest and don’t lie; Listen to good advice and Always remember your actions have consequences. This is an effective moral toolbox for young children and as useful today as it was then. More importantly the stories are told in rhymes that just cry out to be read aloud and are accompanied by illustrations which wonderfully detail the stories. As I have discovered, even the oldest decrepit grandfather can become an accomplished thespian when reading these stories with the powerful rhymes and the correct hand gestures. I think you will be able to guess the hand movements that accompany this part of “The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb”:-

The great, long, red-legg'd scissor-man.
Oh! children, see! The tailor's come
And caught out little suck-a-thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cried out --- Oh! Oh! Oh!
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast,
That both his thumbs are off at last.

When my daughter saw that I had this book as bedtime reading for my grandchildren, I saw a worried frown pass over her forehead. I could see a question of “Is that suitable ?” cross her mind. I reminded her that she had grown up unscathed by its effect and had developed as a mature moral individual. Then as she looked again, and saw the pictures, the memories rushed back. She could remember the stores especially the tale of ‘Henrietta and the matches ‘and particularly recalled the kittens crying for poor deceased Henrietta. She remembered also that it made her very wary of playing with fire or matches, which was largely the point.

The acid test for this book, however, was not my opinion although I did enjoy it greatly. More importantly my two young grandchildren now look forward to reading from this book and have it as their bedtime favourite. They have no awareness that it is nearly two centuries old despite the dated pictures and the clothing of the characters. To them they are simply fun stories with engaging pictures which is largely what Heinrich Hoffman called it originally.

Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder
mit 15 schön kolorierten Tafeln
für Kinder von 3–6 Jahren

Funny stories and whimsical pictures
with 15 beautifully coloured panels
for children aged 3–6

Perhaps current manufacturers of children’s book could have a peek at Hoffman’s book (or those by Grimm, Andersen or Aesop) and realise that children can cope with the important themes of life and are receptive to thinking about moral issues.

In praise of the boring walk

In praise of the boring walk

In my language class we were discussing our favourite walks. One after another we recounted our tales of when we climbed Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, the Himalayas, the Alps, Ben Nevis, or Cader Idris. We all had stories of the landscapes, the geography and the breath-taking views. Some even had stories of the breath-taking altitude sickness that accompanied these treks. It was clear from the tales, and stunning photographs, that these were pinnacle experiences, the high-points of a vacation and events that will take prominent place in their memories, conversations and photograph albums. I was certainly aware that while I may not be a great mountaineer and may not have scaled the highest peaks as we discussed things I was as able as anyone at telling tall tales.

But I also realised that these were not the important walks for me. These were holiday experiences and once in a lifetime events. While they were enjoyable they were not important. Had any one of them not occurred, another memory would easily taken its place. Though they contributed a little to who I am it was only a little. If they had not occurred I’d be only slightly different and in no way diminished. I am sure there are many well-rounded individuals, with full inner lives, who have never watched the sun set over the Andes or seen it rise through the mist of Snowdonia. These, in fact, are not the walks that can make us. That needs a totally different approach to walking.

We all know that we should be more mobile and walk more. Millions of us wear electronic tags to count our steps and nag us to ensure we make our 10,000 a day. This exhortation to walk more is wise if more of us are to avoid early death and disability through the consequences of obesity and our sedentary lives. But there is more to walking than this. Regular daily, boring walking is important for our mental health and our souls (if not our soles). This doesn’t depend on steps or energy expenditure – this won’t take place on a treadmill with earphones playing a podcast – this needs repetitive, solitary, unstimulating walking. This is easy meditation. An easy way to be by yourself, removed from the pressures and stimulation of the world and to be in the company of your own thoughts, and your god if you have one.

I walk the same 3 kilometre route twice a day. It is extremely unlikely that I will encounter anything I haven’t seen before. I won’t turn a corner to a stunning new vista. Anything new I do encounter will be small scale – such as “I didn’t notice that branch has fallen“, or “look, the primroses are out!” This avoidance of novelty, or large scale discoveries, allows one to walk by habit and give more of your attention to your inner world and your thinking. Similarly, for these walks you must avoid it becoming something else, something less boring. If you plug in your earphones you will find you are listening to music, reading a book, or following a conversation rather than being obliged to talk to yourself. This is the key to a boring walk; you talk to yourself and discuss your own thoughts and feelings. You try and explain to yourself, why do acted as you did, or felt how your did. You can start to plan with yourself,  how you will be. You can start to create yourself anew. But none of this will happen if someone else is there, either real or virtual, as you will have to give your focus to them. The only companion that works on a boring walk is a dog with whom you are well aquainted. They physically help the walk by keeping the pace. They make the walk safer by alerting you to dangers and they will listen when you need to speak out loud to express your thoughts. They never insert their opinions into your train of thought and are the perfect sounding board. (If they do answer back, then seriously consider specialist medical advice).

The boring walk is perfect meditation without the need for gongs, mats, robes or any added philosophy. It fits any culture and any geography; everyone has a circuit they can walk that will become boring after it has been circumnavigated a few times. It just has to be long enough to allow you to throw off immediate practical concerns but not too long that it becomes physically challenging. I’d suggest the same circuit for about 30 minutes a day, repeated twice if you have more personal issues you need to address. Your best days will be those when a light drizzle and stiff breeze force you to wrap up and ensure you are further isolated from external distractions. Regular boring walks are much more important than flamboyant bursts of exotic trekking , and in any event, you will make your 10,000 steps and improve your physical health. Remember Mens sana in corpore sano cuts both ways.

I am non-binary

I am non-binary

Who would have imagined that, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, I would discover that I am non-binary? We are in an extremely important phase of the pandemic at the moment; the nightmare of the first wave is subsiding and we are entering the lull before the probable second wave comes towards the end of the year. We have, perhaps, three months or so, to plan and prepare for the winter onslaught. We need to have fortunately bought a period of grace in which we might, if we work cooperatively and diligently, be able to limit the damage that the next wave of the virus will do.

It is not very likely that any vaccine or effective treatment will be available in time so we need to make other contingencies. Having our health service capacity enlarged is already well under way but this needs maintained and we need to start addressing non-coronavirus morbidity as well. Contact tracing needs developed but, vitally for this to work, we need to have low levels of infection as we go into the next phase. If our base rate of infection is too high then any track and trace system will be unable to cope and be ineffective. At the same time as all of this we need to restart our economy and society and find new ways to co-exist alongside the coronavirus, at least in the medium term. This creates a tension between the desire and need to open-up society and the economy and the worry and caution promoting prolongation of the lockdown.

This is increasingly being argued as if it were a binary choice: open or continue the lockdown – the economy or public health – money or lives !

Those wishing to relax the restrictions correctly remind us that without manufacturing there will be no consumption, without wealth there can be little health. The point out that if we continue the shut down then people will die as the death rates from poverty start to rise. They will also point out that failing to treat many conditions, for which we do have effective treatments, will cost us in avoidable deaths over the years to come. They will stress the adverse effects that a closed society will have on our mental health and the long term sequalae we might expect from this, as well as the horrific prospect of a “lost generation” of children and young people deprived of an education at the most vital time of their development. They will show us all of these numbers and tend to minimise the risks of a second wave. They will tell us we must gird our loins and forge a new way ahead out of this pandemic and advise us not to listen to those advising caution as they are just cowards afraid to take the necessary steps en route to victory.

On the other hand, those appreciating the danger of a second wave will point to all the dangers we ignore at our peril. The recent localised spikes and outbreaks when restrictions have been eased. They will correctly let us know that the likelihood of a vaccine is far from certain and extremely far from being close at hand. They will point to how poorly we have coped with following the rules and advise us that we can’t trust tour fellow citizens to take the degree of care necessary – ‘It is bad enough that they don’t take care of their own health but they also jeopardise the health of everyone else.” Correctly they will point out our great ignorance of many aspects of this disease – which groups are vulnerable? what behaviours are the most risky? What strategies reduce my risk? They will argue these are all largely unknown and, as a consequence, any opening up is cavalier and reckless.

Alas, these positions are often seen as binary opposites and people and politicians are taking their positions on either one side or the other. Debates are largely about whether one or the other approach is correct. Facts are massaged to support one case or another while other facts are generated to show the danger of the opposing view. At a time when we should be trying to understand, debate and work out an effective strategy we are treating this like a political hustings – denigrating everything the other side offers as stupid, at best, and possibly evil, at worst, while proclaiming themselves as our only saviours.

This is not a binary choice. We need to release some of the restrictions so we can build up our strength and armamentarium for the next round of the fight but we must also be vigilant and careful so as not to give away any ground or be caught of guard. If the analogy is a door, then it is indeed time to unlock it, but there is no need to leave it open. We can start to return to our work, our schools, our hospitals and our shops but not in the way we did before. We can start to consider non-essential activities to get some recuperation but these need to be different to how they were before We can’t suddenly start long-distance travel or tightly packed mass events. This is a period of respite not a victory party. This is also our time to try out new ways of living that might prove better in the long term: a time to find pleasure in smaller scale more local events; a time to review if our supply chains need to span so far across the globe or whether we could be more self-reliant; a time  to see if there are ways that the ecological benefits we have seen through reduced consumption could be made permanent.

No matter what the politicians tell us, it is not ‘A’ or ‘B’, not their way or their opponent’s way, it is a mixture of both. What we require to do now is to find out just what ratio is needed. This is difficult and we may find that our present politicians are not up to the job and that we need new voices. It will not be easy but, as they say, ‘If you can’t ride two horses at the same time you shouldn’t be in the circus

A tale of two stabbings

There was period at the start of the period of lockdown when there was hope that something good might follow all of this. People noticed the clearer air, the reduced traffic noise and smog, they discovered aspects of family life that had been lost to the daily grind of work, and noticed that many things which had once been seen as important were in fact frivolous and wasteful. But as the lockdown progressed we started to chaff against the restrictions and to desire top get back to our “old world” and its ways. It seems that, alas, we are rapidly doing this. The last days have seen the return of mass stabbings to our cities with killings in London and Glasgow. Horrible as this was to hear of the return mass murder; almost as depressing has been the realisation, in its telling of the events, of how debased and partisan our news media has become.

Throughout the lockdown the media has performed poorly. It was outraged and shocked when Dominic Cummings seemed to break the lockdown rules and warned that he was almost single-handedly creating a second wave of deaths. They lost this concern about the breaching of social distancing rules when thousands demonstrated for the Black Lives Matter campaign, only to rediscover their shock and horror about such behaviour when working-class city dwellers went to the beach, and just in time for Trump’s disastrous rally. At a time when we need to be given facts and details we can trust, when literally our lives depend upon it, we have a media that spends more energy in ensuring the correct political spin on a story than on its value for public health or safety.

The stories of the stabbings were unintentionally revealing. When the news initially broke in both cases the media’s call was initially for silence. The initial responses from the Scottish Government and the London Mayor’s office was to advice people to say nothing. There is always an awkward period just after an atrocity when the victims are not known and the intentions of the perpetrator are unclear. During this time, the media doesn’t know if this story fits the narrative or not. The range is horrifying to the media; it could range from “Islamic fundamentalist slaughters gays” to “White supremacist slaughters black men”. The media doesn’t know if the killers are the kind of people we are encouraged to hate (right wing, racists) or not and whether the victims are the right sort of people. There is during this time the great worry that killer could be one of the folk from ‘your team’ and it is best for everyone to be quiet until the correct story has been decided. Really there is no need for this. There is never a situation, outside of war, where the person doing multiple killings is the good guy, and, even in war, those killed are clearly the victims and deserve our sympathy.

Our initial responses should simply be our natural one’s; shock and horror that people have been killed and anger and outrage at the person who did it. We don’t need politicians to tell us to wait until they know the details so they can tell us if we are angry or not. It is our anger which worries them. They are worried that the conclusions we draw may lead us to be angry with the wrong people. We might be angry that our communities are breaking down, that our police force is underfunded, that our involvement in foreign wars has brought echoes of these wars to our high streets, or that there are groups promoting intolerance and division with impunity. These might not be the story as it is meant to be told, so we should shut up and wait.

The media wants to keep to its narratives, and this can prove awkward. What if the man killing the asylum seekers in Glasgow was another asylum seeker and not a rabid local bigot? Where is the story then? What if the killer in Reading did kill the three gay men in the park because of his own Islamic intolerance of homosexuality? What about the view of the religion of peace then? To control the narratives the media must either alter the attacker or the victim. It will either convert the attacker into a “madman”, so that insanity is the cause of their evil, or remove the features of the victims (“The police report that the victims were not attacked because they were gay”). Anything to remove discordant facts that might make the overall stories being told less consistent. In London the gayness of the victims was less important than the refugee status of the attacker (as they were also white, middle-class men) so it is more important to avoid the possibility of increasing islamophobia than it is to avoid appeasing homophobia. This is intersectionality at work; weighing up our value on the victimhood scale and seeing where we sit – sometimes our victim status is too low to be worthy of attention.

Thankfully, most people can see past this. Most people know that every person has the right to life and that any ideology which results in hatred and killing is shameful. We see past the reports that we receive to the truth behind the headlines that groups exist which wish to divide us up and control our lives. Sometimes we only see it “through a glass darkly” and it takes us time to appreciate what is going on. In difficult times, like the present, we need facts and open discussion so we can grope our way out of this dreadful situation. The same old stories that got us into this mess do not help.

Beauty persists

It seems that, unfortunately, normal service has been resumed. We again have reports of terrorists running lethally amok in our capital city catching us unawares at rest. Three are dead and other remain critically ill in hospital. The public have decided that mass demonstrations are now safe despite what the medical experts warn. Each day reports of crowds packing our town centres show us just how transmission of a virus can be facilitated. Even the Germans have got in on the act with rioting reported in Stuttgart yesterday. Never one to follow experts, Mr Trump has decided that, like the other demonstrators, he can hold rallies without even insisting that masks are worn. It seems that surprisingly his supporters had more sense than he did and stayed away in their droves. The R number has jumped up again in Germany after initial excellent results, and we can see the increasing rates of infection in America especially in the South where it is going to play havoc with an elderly, diverse population with high levels of disadvantage. There is little to lift the spirit watching this slow-motion catastrophe unwind

This was never going to be a short game. We knew from the start that this we were in this long haul. We managed phase one but seem to be failing in the second round. We are acting as if we have won and starting to celebrate. It is a little like the scene in the movie when the psychopathic killer has been beaten after the lengthy fight. The heroes, in victory and relief, don’t watch as the dead villain’s hand creeps towards the gun. Like them we are about to discover that round two has just started. This is the round when we try and create a new way of life despite the presence of the coronavirus. It is no longer just adequate to hide away, we did that and regrouped, now is the time we need show we have learnt the lessons on social distancing and changing our behaviour. It is now we must learn how to live and work without being physically close. We have to find alternative ways of doing things. We shouldn’t be waiting for the pubs to reopen, or the package holidays in sunny climes to restart, we should be thinking what we can do instead of those activities.

There are potentially many improvements that might follow these changes; necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. There will be unexpected bonuses. It is highly likely that Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is going to lose him the election later this year. While not a foregone conclusion it is nice to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. I am not sure Biden will make a great president but feel pretty confident in saying that he (and just about anyone else) is going to be better than the present incumbent. But there will be major challenges. The economic downturn that we are about to face is going to demand major political change if the years of increasing inequality and globalisation (which has benefitted capital at the expense of labour) are to be reversed. Other wise we can expect that the debt, as always, for the pandemic will fall on the shoulder of the poorest in our societies – the people who worked to pull us through this nightmare will be the one’s who have to pay to ensure that the wealth of the privileged is not threatened. When I look at the parties on the left in Europe and America, I am not sure that they are ready for this task. Unless they drop their focus on identity and individualism and regain their focus on the structural class and democratic issues, they will prove to be irrelevant. Not just irrelevant but worse – counterproductive – as they set one group of the working class against another and fail to mount an effective fightback. If they fail, then there are groups emerging on the right who will propose themselves as the saviours of the poor. The greatest risk factor for the development of fascism is economic collapse and the fear it engenders which make strong, tough talking leaders dangerously attractive.

While I get depressed, I try to take my own advice and try to find new ways to live happily. My social activities are minor and infrequent now, and I need to learn how to find pleasure in other ways. I used to enjoy concerts but these are unlikely to be a feature of my life for some time. However, we have thousands of hours of music and concerts available to us already. I have found that going back to look and listen to some old favourites obviates the need to find the new and fashionable. There is so much music I have never heard already recorded and available that I could never sate my appetite even if another new work were not created (Though I am sure that they will be).

It is a shame, but I can never describe music to someone else. The pleasure that it gives is personal and, I find, impossible to put into words. I am going to end this piece with the gift of a piece of music for you. I could use words such as sublime, beautiful, heart lifting, magnificent and they would all be correct, but they only tell you what the piece does to me. However, I trust that most of us are in essence similar and, whether you like this piece or not, that you will recognise the emotion and hope in this piece. A species that can create something as beautiful and powerful as this is surely going to knuckle down for the long battle against this virus and win.

Voces8 with Edward Nimrod (Lux Aeterna)

Bursting the bubble.

Bursting the bubble.

I was walking around the lanes by our house this morning. This is the usual way I start the day; I walk the lanes around the perimeter of the farm. Earlier in the year it was good to make a check first thing to ensure there were no new lambs born overnight. It is always good just to cast an eye over the stock and the fencing. Later in the year it is vital to check for wind or flood damage and to check no trees have been brought down. It is the start of my day’s routines and, these times of lockdown, it is my social life. I will often meet a neighbour, usually the smallholder down the valley checking his fields, walking or occasionally driving past. Keeping 2 meters apart we can pass a pleasant half an hour so as we share whatever information we have of the goings on locally. This morning it was the girl from the top of the valley en route to collect animal feed. I was surprised to see her as she has just recently got her driving licence and was using her mother’s car, so I had not expected to speak to her when the car stopped. I had expected one of her parents. She was enjoying the freedom of being able to drive but had not been able to use it properly. As just after she gained the right to drive, the lockdown started, and nobody was able to go anywhere. Even now we are limited in Wales to travel of less than 5 miles. We had a pleasant chat, discussed when shearing might take place this year and we went on with our days. It was an unremarkable to start to the day, but as I walked home, I realised that it was much more significant than that.

As I walked, I realised that, for all my adult life before moving here, I have lived in a variety of bubbles. It started after I left school and went to university. During my time at medical school I mixed with students, nearly everyone I met was within 5 years of my age and all had similar backgrounds; we were all swots from school starting out in the big wide world. Then after graduation my bubble became even more tightly defined. As a junior doctor my life became the hospital, I mixed almost exclusively with NHS employees, I had very few friends who were not healthcare professionals of some sort. Later, as I bought property and had children the bubble changed but didn’t really expand much. Life became focused on childcare and work – so now most of my acquaintances were still healthcare professionals but limited now to those with young children (Those without children were doing things like travelling or having fun. They also could not feign adequate interest in a conversation about the best playgroups in the area).

The children grew up and escaped, I progressed in my career and moved house a few times but latterly, before I moved here, my bubble was still around me. I now lived in a quite grand house in an area of the city where all the houses were quite fancy. Hence all the people were people who could afford fancy houses, that is, middle-aged middle-class people like me. I didn’t know my neighbours well but did join clubs and societies as there were many options for this in the city. However, these were places where I met people who had similar interest to myself. So, I met a more middle-aged, middle-class, professional people like myself. They tended to have the same set of worries and concerns as me, read the same newspapers as I did, and increasingly held the same views as me. In the days before twitter and facebook we already had echo chambers, it was rare to meet someone out of your own class, or age-group, or to hear discordant views. If people held them, they were too polite, or frightened, to express them. In the city there were so many people I could choose my friends but this simple act of choosing meant I tended to gather with people I anticipated I’d like. This reduced the diversity of my social circle and, I suppose, narrowed my life.

I would never have stopped and had a half hour chat with a teenager when I lived in the city. This is a difference in small towns and the country. In this setting we have less people living adjacent to us but paradoxically this promotes a wider spread of friendships. In the city I could elect to mix with a certain group of people, chosen by my employment or interests. Here this is not possible; my neighbours and acquaintances are who they are. They are chosen by geography not by me. In the village hall committee we have doctors, farmers, teachers, labourers, electricians and carpenters. The age range in the committee is from 17 to 80 something. A similar range of ages and occupations are involved in the local show organising committee or in meetings for the town council. I was first struck by the class differences in meetings as, before moving, I had been sequestered in a little urban enclave with little variation. However, over the years it has been the intergenerational communications that have impressed me most. Age is no real barrier to communication possibly simply because the old know the young. An older person, like myself, walking through the town doesn’t just see ‘kids’ or ‘youths’; I see Geraint’s son or Ceri’s daughter, or perhaps the guy who sheared our sheep or limed our field, or perhaps Meilir who works in the insurance office who organised our woodland cover.

As I walked home this morning, I was glad I’d heard a 17 year old’s views on lockdown and the protesting in London. Yesterday, hearing a sheep farmer’s views on Brexit was helpful in broadening my perspective, as it was when I talked to our local electrician about the organization of the Health Service in North Wales. If I’d stayed in the city, mixing only with the likes of myself, and getting confirmatory views from the media I’m sure I’d have been a bitter, angry and opinionated man railing against the stupidity of a world that doesn’t see things my way. Thankfully now I hear enough views to know that there is always more than one way to look at things. I also know that a feeling of certainty and confidence is often the feeling that presages disappointment. I am glad I have burst out of the small bubble I used to inhabit and now have a more diverse set of friends. There is a lot to be said for the wisdom of crowds.

Discriminating Goats

Discriminating Goats

Not one of these ruminants is a goat

Not one of these ruminants is a goat

Continuing my series on basic animal husbandry I move to a serious technical subject – telling goats and sheep apart. Often, just after lambing, we hear people passing by our field and pointing out the animals to their children. A common mistake that they make, is that they mix up our sheep and goats, more specifically they don’t see the difference between the lambs of our primitive sheep and our goats. People have stereotyped views of lambs and sheep (woolly, cuddly, round and white – very occasionally black) and goats (horned, smelly, and angular) and this throws them, as our primitive sheep are multicoloured (browns, blacks and whites) and have quite spectacular horns. (The sheep assure me that they are not, however, smelly). This has been a long-standing area of confusion and we have records going back over many years on how to tell sheep and goats apart. Perhaps the most famous of these was in the Olivate Discourses when, in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Mathew, they discussed the separation of the Sheep and the goats in the Judgment of Nations. In this section the animals are used to make the point that while they may look and sound alike (four legs, furry, making bleating noises) some are good while others are bad. I always thought that this parable was rather unfair on the goats. Mathew sees the goats as the sinister, evil half of the pair, who will not be saved nor be let sit on the right-hand side of God. Though wise on so many areas I think he made a mistake here – I think Mathew mixed up his goats and sheep. How can we avoid this error?

Some of the confusion is because of obvious similarities. They are both ruminants that chew the cud, they are both cloven hooved, they are similar sized, have the same number of legs, and both cook well in a slow oven. But they are not interchangeable. Goats have 60 chromosomes as opposed to the 54 of sheep. Goats have hair rather than wool. Goats have beards while sheep have manes, the goats’ upper lip is solid like ours while sheep have a split upper lip, and goats’ tails tend to stick up while sheep and lamb tails tend to dangle down. However, when you are peering over a hedge with a young child on your shoulders the number of chromosomes may not be a helpful method of discriminating goats and sheep. And despite all these other differences I would like to propose a different way to separate them which is not only easier but also more valuable.

The biggest difference by far between these two species is in their character. Although sheep are almost entirely domesticated, and very rarely seen in the wild, they remain fearful of man. Indeed, this is the character of sheep; they are timid and fearful. Anything that isn’t grass, or another sheep, is a worry and source of anxiety. Left with enough grazing sheep will happily get by eating and being sheep; disrupt this with anything other than a bucket of food and they will panic and run. In addition to being timid they also have little interest in what is going on. If you work in the field, putting up fences or pulling thistles, the sheep in the fled will be as far away from you as they can manage. If you pull down a tasty branch, they might venture close enough to eat some leaves but as soon as they are gone so are the sheep. The commonest view you will have of a sheep is of its rear end, with a bouncing dangling tail, as it runs away from you.

Goats being ever helpful

Goats being helpful

Goats, on the other hand, are curious and brave animals. They see the world as their buffet, everything might be food and thus is worth exploring. While sheep graze, plodding along eating the grass, goats browse – eating upwards, climbing and reaching for anything that might be edible. No matter where they are, they will find something of interest and try and eat it. Anything new in their environment intrigues them, whether it is a new gate or a new chainsaw it is worth exploring, it could just be edible or have edible bits to it – it is worth checking, just in case. This curiosity relates to people, if you are in the field working the goats will be beside you (you might be making something edible) sticking their noses into your business. They will taste everything your hair, your watch, your vest, your trousers. The only time your goats will be running away from you is when you want them to go in a different direction; they are stubborn and will always think that a different way to the way you suggest might be superior.

So, if the animal you are trying to determine is a small dot in the distance running away from you with a look of terror on its face then it is a sheep. If the animal is right beside you with its nose in your pocket testing if your wallet is edible then it is a goat. How did the Bible get it so wrong? Surely the brave, curious and intelligent animals are those we wish to emulate not the rather dim, timid creatures with no ability to smile.

Back to normal – worse luck !

Well, unfortunately, things are getting back to normal. I know that we need to try and re-establish some semblance of normal life if we are to survive, and that we must find some way to coexist with the coronavirus if the societal and economic damage that is developing doesn’t end up killing more of us than Covid19 itself. I always knew that the return phase might be the more difficult – if you terrify people so that they stay at home then, once the fear of death has been instilled, it might be difficult to get them to come back out again. Perhaps I needn’t have worried we seem to be rushing back to normal quiet quickly.

I had hoped that our “new normal” might have be rather different. I hoped that we would have learnt a lot during our incarceration and might come out refreshed and determined to build a better society. I’d envisaged that after our war was won, we would start to build a new world “fit for heroes”. I had hoped that we would have seen the need to improve our health and social care provision and felt grateful so that we would respect those that worked there better. I’d imagined that we might have seen the recklessness of long supply chains and vulnerability of food production and decided that we needed to ensure more self-reliance and better food security. I was certain that the dangers of the mass transit of people around the globe, again proving itself to be the best vector to create and distribute a pandemic, would ensure we looked at ways to reduce this type of travel. I was also sure that overcrowding and high population density, which already knew were bad for us, would be addressed when we saw the impact it had on the death statistics. However, it seems none of these are our immediate priorities.

Initially it looked promising. We organised ourselves to support each other, neighbours collected shopping for neighbours. We avoided waste and learnt how to cook from scratch. The government sat down with the trade unions and found ways to try and mitigate some of the effects of the lockdown. We went to our doors and windows to pay respect to those who were working to keep us safe and our society ticking over. There was an explosion of charitable feeling and actions. Scientists, as always, started to cooperate to find treatments but companies stopped competition and worked together to make ventilators and protective equipment. We felt as if “we are all in this together” and concerted efforts would pull us through this difficult time. But now that we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and have the scent of freedom in our nostrils, it seems we are willing to jettison all of this and resume some aspects of “life as normal”.

We have taken to the streets with cavalier disregard to restoking the pandemic and have started to fight each other. Those not actively on the streets throwing punches and bottles are on social media throwing invectives and threats. Our media has decided to raise the temperature by partisan reporting; the BBC describing one event as “largely peaceful” when 28 police officers are injured and another as “violent protest” when 2 officers are injured. Any observer could see it was pretty equal thuggery on both occasions, but our media has stopped holding impartiality as a standard and no longer reports ‘without fear or favour’. In addition to this many of our politicians have decided that this is a way to court popularity and see riding this wild horse as a way to electoral success. They have made barely disguised calls for action to their favoured side of the public – these dog whistle calls have had their effect and packs of wolves have gathered on the streets to pull down lumps of carved stone. The culture of one group of people has been held up, like a rag to a bull, to inflame the passions of others in our population. Neighbour has been set against neighbour as the common ground of our society, our shared values and heritage, has been ripped up and thrown away.

Our early promises of working together to overcome the predicament we find ourselves in, as well as the promising to cooperate to build a better future, now seem increasingly distant. Powerful forces seem intent on dividing us up into smaller, increasingly hostile, groups. This may be in their interests, but it is not in ours. We need to reject this agenda; however it is presented, and focus on our common humanity. It is by doing this that we might have a chance or progressing, we don’t have to accept the bleak and depressing future that it being painted for us.


 

An ill wind ..

Only a short note today as we continue to be battered by the storms. Storm Dennis has not shown himself any milder than Storm Ciara who blew through last week. Though Dennis’s winds might be a little weaker he has brought a great deal more flooding in his wake. Although his wind speeds might be slightly less, his effect, on top of a week of heavy rain and sodden ground and pre-existing damage following Ciara, is proving to be fairly widespread.

When I go outside, when there is a lull in the noise of the wind or the rain, all I can hear is the whine of chainsaws. I don’t have to walk more than a few hundred yards to see the telltale sawdust of where someone has cut and tidied a fallen tree to keep the roads open.The fallen trees have brought many fences down, hence sheep, liberated from their fields, are often our company as we walk around the circuit.

I thought possibly Storm Dennis had put paid to the old adage “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good“, surely, I thought, there is no-one who has benefited from this. This must indeed be an ill wind. But then I remembered the ducks. The wind damage had caused a break in the banks of the stream above the duck house. This coupled with the high volume of water had lead to the formation of a pool across the path into the duck yard. This appeared to the ducks like a purpose built en suite, they didn’t even have to walk down to the river to perform their ablutions. Though my wet feet made me curse the damage they, on the other hand, were perfectly happy with the new arrangement, “it’s an ill wind etc etc ..