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.


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.”

Guardian Angel

I am not really sure why I bought this book.phillips-195x293 Certainly it was not for any affection towards Melanie Phillips who I often find rather strident and dogmatic in her television appearances. My instinct might well have been to avoid her autobiography. However, I am aware that she has become one of the bogey-men of the left, whatever she says is dismissed outright, and she receives a degree of venom and hostility which is usually reserved for the Daily Mail and Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps this is why she needs to be so strident and forceful during her media appearances.

But I had an uncomfortable feeling that, often, what she was saying concurred with my feelings at some level and it was unpleasant watching someone attacked for views that I felt were, at least in part, reasonable. She worries about the education system failing our young, she feels family life is changing for the worse with regard to the needs of children, she has concerns that through multiculturalism we are developing ghettos rather than a more diverse society, and she thinks that there is a strand of anti-Semitism in the anti-Zionist posturing of much of our politics. Though my analysis of why such changes are occurring may differ from hers I too share these concerns and feel we need to discuss them. It has been the failure to discuss these issues which has fostered the growth of right-wing populism. We have seen the effect of marginalising debate on these issues in the election and referendum results in America and Britain and in many of the changes in the political landscape in Europe (As I write the Italian election results suggest this trend shows no signs of burning itself out).

When I was a young man and viewed myself as a “left-winger” my house journal was The Guardian newspaper. Well, to tell the truth, it was my second, or third, house journal after the Socialist Worker and Morning Star which were more important to me at this time as they were more likely to hold strictly to the party line. I remembered Melanie Phillips as one of the Guardian’s regulars from those days; in her youth, although no Trotskyist, a fully paid up member of the left and can recall watching her drift away during the late 80’s into the sunset on the right followed by a barrage of catcalls and name calling. It was probably this memory that prompted me to buy her autobiography, this and my suspicions that, when somebody is attacked to vehemently and their character decried so vociferously, there is usually some ulterior political motive for the character assassination.

The book details the her working life. There is some information on her early and family life which is interesting but not very revealing. The book is short and written as one would expect a journalist to write being easy to read and engaging. In essence it is a short read, a couple of evenings, describing her conversion from the left to the right. She would not agree with this usage of the left-right spectrum. However, like many other “apostates of the left”  (See Nick Cohen,  Dave Rubin,  and many others) she largely feels that she has been consistent in her views while the left has abandoned these and drifted away from her. She has always held the liberal, enlightened position which is no longer held to be appropriate to the politics of the left which is in the thrall of identity politics and intersectionality. During the book she describes her political views and the principles which act as her moral lodestar. Anyone familiar with her work will know and recognise these but, if you haven’t read her work or heard her speak before, this would be a good place to find a summary of her views.

All in all I find I have warmed to Melanie Phillips after reading this book. It is clear that she still has the same concerns for the poor and disadvantaged as she always did but simply sees the dangers facing them as coming from a different source. I see her now as less the shrill harridan warning us of our moral failures and rather more as the Sybil trying hard to warn us of future calamity should we fail to correct our course. We need engage more with ideas like hers and find ways to meet the concerns she raises. We need to find how to maintain the best aspects of our civilisation and culture as it changes and evolves.





Dr Zhivago

Dr Zhivago

I never thought it would happen. I almost thought it was impossible. But, I have found the situation when the film was better than the book, and not by a small margin : Dr Zhivagio the film is much better than the book. Dr Zhivago is a classic of the film-makers art, the book, on the otherhand, is an overlong and maudlin saga.

I remember well when I saw David Lean’s “Dr Zhivago” as it made an immediate impact on me. The photography was spectacular, there was an epic tale of revolution and chaos, upon which was played a moving love story. The whole thing was bound together by the magical music particularly “Lara’s Theme“, by Maurice Jarre, the leitmotif that glued everything together. Even today I only have to hear a few bars of this, or the opening of “Somewhere my Love“, to be instantly back remembering this film. Although I enjoyed and regarded the film highly it was initially a difficult film for me.

When I first saw the film I was a youth, a teenager, and a firebrand for the left. I found it difficult that a film as powerful as this was not a paean to the great communist revolution, but rather a shocking indictment of the treatment of the individual at the hands of the state. Being obstinate and foolish, as a lad, I omitted to read the book as I had the habit then of only tending to read what confirmed the prejudices I already cultured. I was therefore delighted when our bookclub decided to do Dr Zhivago, it gave me the chance to rectify a wrong and I would read Dr Zhivago, the book.

I knew the history of the book, I knew it had won the Nobel Prize for Boris Pasternak, and I knew that it was an important text in revealing the problems of totalitarianism. I had mentally filled it alongside George Orwell’s “1984” and  Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch“, both of which I had re-read recently and found excellent. It was therefore with expectant optimism that I started “Dr Zhivago”.

The first couple of days were fine, but as time passed my spirits sagged and my reading slowed to a barely perceptible crawl. I found the text dense and difficult, there was far too much detail which failed to add to setting scenes or developing characters or relationships. The frequent use of multiple, different names for characters was occasionally confusing. The story was rather jumbled in its chronography and relied heavily on coincidences for plot development, many of which were very contrived. None of this was helped by the poorly drawn characters who failed to engage with me. In particular, our hero, Yuri Zhivago, is rather dislikable; arrogant, self-opinionated, a philanderer and user of women. He is a poor example of the individual in a book promoting the Tolsoyian ideals of the individual.

I have to confess that I could not continue reading after a third of the way through and I cheated. I switched to Audible and had Philip Madoc read the remaining two thirds of the book to me as I walked the dog, fleshed the sheepskins, or cooked the meals (It’s 18 and a half hours long on audible). But this was the only way I could have completed my task. I found it difficult to see why the book won the Nobel Prize for Literature as I agree with Vladimir Nabokov who found it “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic” and presume it won for its political impact rather then its literary merit. All in all a great disappointment but did reveal that my earlier prejudice that the book is always greater than the film was wrong.

P.S. Since then I have started to reconsider whether Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin” is better than Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret“, this is a tight contest.

The Death Of Stalin

The Death Of Stalin

We try to go to our local cinema in the town on a fairly regular basis as we wish to give it our support. Like many small communities we are loosing many of our services as they are concentrated in the cities and larger towns where the economies of scale make them viable. So we go regularly, not because we are film buffs (though we do enjoy cinema), but to try and keep up the audience numbers. It will be another thing certain to disappear in the near future.

The car and personal transport led to the decline of public transport systems; the railway has long gone and the bus services are very rudimentary. Shopping malls and internet shopping have decimated the local towns shops. Internet banking is now taking the banks and building societies away from the small towns and, at the moment, plasma televisions, film streaming and on-demand viewing are banging the last nails of the coffin of our local cinema.

Therefore on a cold Friday night in January we joined the six others who made up the audience to see the latest film on offer. Including the two staff on the evening the number of people just, and only just, made it into double figures ! The cinema itself is pleasant, the seats are comfortable, the screen is large, the sound is state of the art and the prices are reasonable. The film we saw was also very good, but  I fear our hopes of saving our cinema are rather forlorn.

The film was saw was The Death of Stalin by Armando Iannucci. This is a comedy and political satire based on the events surrounding the death of Stalin and the consequent scramble for power after his demise. The script is historically accurate and the tensions and power-plays of the time are used to good comedic effect. In the early part of the film the difficulties of knowing Stalin are well shown, how do you live with a paranoid psychopath who has total power ? The feelings of tension and fear that this would engender are skilfully drawn. The acting is first class and it was a wise move to forgo using Russian accents as it left a natural feel to the performances and allowed some excellent comedy turns (especially Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov). It was a pity there were only eight of us in the auditorium to enjoy it.

However, after the film I noticed I had a nagging doubt. There had been nothing amiss with the acting, direction or production and, as I said above, the script was extremely funny. The anxieties of some of the characters was revealed but there was a huge gaping hole in the story. The experience of Soviet citizens living through this nightmare. Although there were scenes which alluded to the terror, these were slight and almost dismissed at times. The assassinations, the firing squads, the tortures, the secret police, the destruction of families, the corruption and the sexual abuse were there but only on the edge of the frame.

While recognising that this was a comedy I can see why many would say that there is no need to spend time on the horrors of totalitarianism. But would we have made a film of this nature about the difficulties of power battles in the Nazi high command ? Would we have had a comedy character for Mengele ?  Lavrentiy Beria was at least Mengele’s equal. Stalin introduced him as “our Himmler“, at the Yalta Conference, and he would not allow his daughter to be alone with this known sadist, rapist and mass murderer. This man was the head of the dreaded NKVD which organized the terror which engulfed Russia and he was also responsible for the ethnic cleansing which followed after the Second World War. Is this really a suitable subject for a skit?

It is surprising that we have quite clear double standards when we look back at the atrocities in our recent past. We have no difficulty in condemning the horrors of Nazi Germany but seem to have a blind spothouse-of-terror-2084 when we remember the horrors which arise from the left field : the horror of the Gulags, the horror of the cultural revolution in China, or the horror of the killing fields in Cambodia. The totalitarianism of the left has not been kinder than that of the right nor has it been less industrious. They are equally responsible for mass murder and abuse. The House of Terror, established in 2002 by Maria Schmidt in Hungary reminds us of this fact lest we forget. So, although I concur that this is a well-made and successful satire, I was left feeling uncomfortable as I am not entirely convinced that life under Stalin was a laughing matter.



Boys will probably be boys.

Boys will probably be boys.

I am obliged to go against the current cozy consensus, to say something different to the accepted viewpoint and, in the process, lay myself open for criticism. I am going to say something that is shocking, probably heretical, and in the current climate may lead to my being ostracized. I am going to say that there are differences between women and men, between boys and girls, which are not socially created but relate to our biology. There are innate differences in a some of our behaviours, our drives and our instincts which arose after millennia of evolution as a species. There, I have said it, let the heavens open. This is simply a fact, although unusually for one of my opinions, a fact with which most of science agrees.

Why have I found myself spouting heresies today ? Well, it all has to do with a racing car driver. I can confess that I actually felt rather sorry for Lewis Hamilton today. Why do I feel sorry for the handsome, wealthy, skilled and famous car racing star ? I felt sorry for him as he was forced to make an apology for a piece of playfulness with his nephew which revealed he did not toe the party line. In a piece of family banter, in a jovial mock-angry voice he said that “boys don’t wear princess dresses” while teasing his nephew, who seemed to be enjoying the attention from his famous uncle. Cue synthetic shock and horror from the social media watchmen who called out his “horrific” “transphobia“. After a short period of sustained attack, Lewis Hamilton came back with the required abject grovelling apology. However, it seems that this may not have been an adequate Mea Culpa as he is now being criticised  for inadequate sincerity in his shame. The intolerance of the social media clerisy is quite remarkable, they will not tolerate any views which deviate from the current accepted norms, no alternative views will be brooked.

Now I think Lewis Hamilton was wrong, of the things which might be social constructs I am pretty certain that styles of clothing is amongst them. In different cultures, and across different times, that which is suitable for girls and boys to wear has varied; style sense is not inherited (Although I can’t think of a culture promoting princess apparel to its boys). But it does not matter that he is wrong. He expressed his opinion and he has hurt no-one. He should be free to do this without the fear of mock outrage. Further, it is the family’s role to rear children and to instil values and attitudes in them – nobody else has that right. I disagree with many religions but believe that religious parents  have the right to instruct their children as they wish. I disagree with my conservative voting neighbours but do not feel that I have any right to stop them passing their opinions onto their children. Indeed, as long as they are not harming their children, I want families to instruct their offspring as it is them who teach the young how to be good, how to be moral, how to be a good man or a good woman. Sometimes their views on morality and goodness will not concur with mine, but these differences are the grit in the oyster of our culture which generates discussion and change. Tolerating these differences is one of the hallmarks of a civilised and open society. Watching people publicly shamed for unfashionable opinions is reminiscent of the stocks or the show trials and should cause free thinking people to be concerned.

The rights of the individual are closely allied to the family unit. The family unit allows us to act and exist outside of the state and the state has, for a long time, had an ambivalent view of the family : positive in that it cares for the young and the sick, negative as it may instil ideas of which it disapproves. It is still largely within the family that we develop our moral compass although the state’s roles in education and healthcare have reduced this somewhat. Capitalism sees less need for the nuclear or extended family, from the market’s viewpoint the more people producing and the more people consuming the better. Traditional families are perhaps inefficient in market terms in the developed west, the family model works best as a unit of production rather than as a unit of consumption. Socialist thinking has been more generally hostile to the family, it recognised that the family is a place of education and instruction which is not under state control and therefore potentially problematic. In 1920 Alexandra Kollontai wrote the set text on family organisation under communism. She wrote :-

The old family, narrow and petty, where the parents quarrel and are only interested in their own offspring, is not capable of educating the “new person”. The playgrounds, gardens, homes and other amenities where the child will spend the greater part of the day under the supervision of qualified educators will, on the other hand, offer an environment in which the child can grow up a conscious communist who recognises the need for solidarity, comradeship, mutual help and loyalty to the collective.

 and promised that :-
She need have no anxiety about her children. The workers’ state will assume responsibility for them
The woman who takes up the struggle for the liberation of the working class must learn to understand that there is no more room for the old proprietary attitude which says: “These are my children, I owe them all my maternal solicitude and affection; those are your children, they are no concern of mine and I don’t care if they go hungry and cold – I have no time for other children.” The worker-mother must learn not to differentiate between yours and mine; she must remember that there are only our children, the children of Russia’s communist workers.
Unfortunately it seems that this attack on the family where different opinions might flower continues. If we allow this censorious and intolerant development our future abilities to recognise and defeat authoritarianism will be sorely damaged.  Policing the family has always been a priority for authoritarian regimes, recall the importance given to the Hitlerjugend and the Komsomol in Germany and the Soviet Union, and remember that these were very early developments of fascist societies. A society which will not allow dodgy joke between family members is treading a dangerous path.