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.

The L-Shaped Room

We have just finished making hay. This is perhaps the busiest time of year for us and is certainly the most laborious task we have. We must spend three to four days in the fields cutting, turning and moving hay under a scorching sun – if there isn’t the heat the whole process is rather pointless. The power scythe largely held up after its repair though it did lose a few teeth on stones in the field which has left the main slope looking as if it is wearing a Mohican haircut.

We did manage to get all the hay in although img_20190705_111459_3422155165393471256542.jpgwe had a delay of a day because of an unexpected cloudy day which brought some showers. We kept the hay in wind rushes in the field during this day and resumed the turning and drying the following day.  Although we feel we are not using much modern technology, and think our work looks like something a medieval peasant would recognize, during the rainy day I realized just how reliant we still are on modern technological developments.

We require at least three consecutive sunny, hot and preferably breezy days to make hay. Modern farms who take a lot of sillage can wrap  the produce up in huge, black, polythene bales and allow anaerobic digestion get to work. The rain doesn’t worry them as much. We can’t do this and need to be able to predict the weather over the next few days. I just don’t have the skills for this, despite knowing many of the old rhymes which are meant to help, and rely on AccuWeather or the Norwegian meteorological site (yr.no) which is unnervingly accurate in our patch of North Wales. It is my opinion that our ability to make our own hay reliably, and hence feed our stock over the winter, without this aid would be severely compromised. I am going to have to look and see if there is any way I can learn some of these old skills and see if we can become a bit more self-reliant and independent.

In any event, we are still pretty primitive and manual in our hay making and by the last night I was dog tired and wanted to do nothing more  than to eat some hearty but unhealthy food and sit and ache and throb in front of an undemanding film. The film channel that runs nostalgic material seemed a good bet and it was showing “The L-Shaped Room“. To tell the truth a number of British films from this decade blur into one in my memory. They all become a black-and-white, rags and riches, melodramatic morality tales. I knew this was not “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” but half-remembered it as “Room at the Top“.mv5bndflzgzjyjatmti2zc00owm2lwe3nmytodg2yjczmje2n2i3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtmxmty0otq@9205484766079009546..jpg

‘Room at the Top’ is a wonderful film and I initially thought I was going to be disappointed when I realized, after a few minutes, I was not going to watch a working-class anti-hero, fighting for power and philandering with an older woman. Instead I was settling down to watch the sad tale of a single French girl living in poverty in the seedier area of London and coming to terms with an unplanned pregnancy.  I was thankfully very wrong. “The L- Shaped Room” is also a wonderful film. It too has excellent acting and in particular Leslie Carron shines and carries this film throughout; although it has to be said that all the actors warrant praise. The script is accurate and the moral and practical dilemmas facing the characters are well explored. All human life is here, the unmarried pregnant woman, the jobless men, the black immigrant, the old and lonely lesbian lady, the prostitutes working at the bottom of the house, the failed writer, they all play their parts. But interestingly they are not stereotypes, they are not there to be pitied as victims, but rather they are there to remind us that we all human and all have something to offer.

Though sad and downbeat in the main the thread which ties the film together is the ability of people to make connections with each other. These can be connections we would never anticipate, but they form the mesh which supports us  in our day to day lives. Friendship, love and affection come from all sorts of people and when it is honest and true its source does not matter. I can not say much more about the film without risking giving away the ending (if it has an ending!) and can only say that it is a warm and enveloping film which you should consider watching if you have not already seen it. In theme and feeling it is akin to “Midnight Cowboy”, this might not seem likely but if you watch both you will understand what I mean. 5star

The Silence of the Lambs

One of the primary reasons that I was keen to move to the country was to escape the noise of the town. Over the years I had become aware of the increasing cacophony that surrounded my daily life. My penultimate house in the town had been sandwiched between a railway line bordering the garden and a dual carriageway at the front door. I had become inured to the noise and after a number of years only really noticed it if the trains stopped running or the traffic abated. It was eerily quite and normally presaged knowledge of an accident or problem. Our last town house was less troubled by railway noise but the noise of the town was everywhere. Cars revving, horns tooting, kids screaming, drunks singing, planes landing, families arguing, ice-cream vans luring, football fans cheering, metal workers banging – there was always some noise and something going on. This all seemed so different to the silence we experience when we ventured out of the town and into the country where we started to hatch our escape plans.

If I had to choose a single noise which prompted this decision it would be fairly easy. It was the sirens. A day would not go by without hearing a siren, there would always be a reminder from at least one of the emergency services. This sound was always depressing as it alerted us to the fact that somewhere somebody was having a terrible time. Somebody was being rushed to hospital gravely ill or injured, or someone was waiting for the fire brigade to come to help as their home burned, or the police were rushing to help someone who was being assaulted or robbed. There is never a ‘nice’ reason for a siren to sound, they were a daily reminder of misery and misfortune. Indeed, after we moved, the absence of the sirens was something I did, in fact, notice and welcome.

At first, we used to marvel at how quiet was the area around our house. We used to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet. Until we noticed the obvious – the countryside is not quiet. The noise is different but it is not absent. We listened to birds overhead, the animals in the fields, the wind in the trees and the noise of the river passing by the house. These noises never stop. They change through the day but it is never quiet. Even at night, after the evening serenade from the birds as they settle down for the night, the sounds continue: owls hoot, foxes scream, the river gurgles and snuffling, scurrying animals pass by you in the murk of the hedgerows. Different noises; some pleasant and some scary.

Indeed, during the day, especially in the summer, the animal noises are quite loud and prevalent. Cows, horses, goats, dogs, poultry and sheep all add their bit to the daily background thrum and in the main it is quite pleasant. It is the sound that things are as they are meant to be, that the world is running as it should and not a siren in earshot. But there is a fly in the ointment. Most animals have a happy noise, a noise that reveals them to be contented. There are many examples : cats will purring in the sun, cattle lowing as they graze, the whinny of horses at play, chickens contentedly clucking as they find some interesting morsel to eat. Even the waking cockerels greeting a new day ,or excited dogs yapping as they see their friends, are sounds of happy animals and pleasant on the ear.

However, sheep do not have a happy sound and unfortunately it is with sheep that we have arranged to surround ourselves! Sheep bleat and they bleat incessantly. It is no surprise that we use the word ‘bleat’ both for the noise made by sheep and the noise made by whiny, demanding people.  There is no happy, cheerful way to bleat. A day in the country beside sheep is a day of “Meh Meh, I’m hungry”, “Meh meh meh, where is my mum”, “meh meh meh where’s my lamb”, “meh meh meh I’m still hungry”, “meh meh I’m stuck in the brambles”, “meh meh did I tell you I’m hungry”, “meh meh meh don’t forget now”, “meh meh meh still hungry here”, “meh meh..” There is no variation to this song even if you appear with a bucket of food “meh meh meh only one bucket meh meh where’s the rest“.

So after our move we still value peace and quiet. It is nice sometimes to notice that there no real noise and the farm feels serene. Until we realise the sheep aren’t bleating ! They are quiet, something must be wrong as they are never quiet, they are never not hungry ! They must have escaped or be taken unwell. That absence of bleating kicks a hole in our tranquility – the silence of the lambs is our new siren!

 

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Sheep temporarily quiet as even they have difficulty bleating while eating

Goat Willow

Goat Willow

I find it very difficult to express the differences that have occurred in my life over the last five years but this pick-up full of goat willow might help. It might not be obvious on first glance but bear with me.

About a decade ago I experienced a crisis of faith. I had progressed well in life. I had a well paid job as a consultant in the NHS, I had fairly good health (or so I thought), my children were grown and doing well for themselves, my marriage was sound and I had no debt. I enjoyed regular holidays and gained pleasure from the status of my work. I was a technophile and the Koreans could not invent gadgets and novelties quick enough for me and, fortunately, living in the centre of the town I could shop at any hour of the day or night. No appetite needed to wait to be sated.

However, despite this I found that I was often unhappy, frequently disgruntled and usually felt aimless and bored. I thought that my relative affluence was part of the problem as was the inauthentic nature of my life. I lived most things though the eyes of others. I had realised that many of the moral and political views I had were incorrect and unhelpful. I decided that I need to change; so I left my post, headed out of the town, and sought a new life. I often think it has worked and my current happiness seems to support me in that belief. However, it was my neighbour’s goat willow that let me know how much life had changed.Untitled picture

My neighbour has a great deal of what she calls pussy willow (salix caprea), but which is also known as goat willow. It has the latter name because in Heironymous Bock’s herbal it is shown in a drawing being eaten by goats, and I can confirm that goats are very partial to it.  Now my neighbour needed to clear her garden and saw the goat willow as garden waste destined for the bonfire. When she told me I felt my spirits jump.

With the very poor summer, with little sun and very few dry spells, we have not been able to take a crop of hay. As a small scale enterprise we can not use silage and big bales of hay, we require to  make small bales of hay by hand.  This has left us short of goat food and sheep food for the winter ahead, so the idea of all this forage going free was exciting. I was round within minutes to collect it and get it back to the goats. They, in turn, picked off every leaf of the first batch at their first sitting leaving me shafts which I can dry over the next year or two to create kindling (Willow needs seasoned for a long time before it burns satisfactorily). I was feeling very pleased with my discovery thinking, I’ve saved my neighbour work, reduced waste, fed the goats, saved some of our hay for the sheep and started to provide fuel for 2019.

Not a leaf left
Not a leaf left

Then it struck me. Five years ago I could never experienced such pleasure from such a simple days work. At that time, I would have been trying to convince myself I was happy while  unpacking a gadget I had bought following yet another shopping excursion.  I would have been trying to convince myself that the increased speed or memory size the thing had would improve my life, but would still be vaguely aware that it was simply another gewgaw that I’d replace with a newer version next year. Now finding simple pleasures in simple activities lets me lead a freer, more settled, life. It has allowed my appetites to shrink to more normal levels so that now I can gain as much pleasure from finding a supply of edible leaves as I did before at much greater expense. This may have been the insight that William Morris had when he wrote “Free men must live simple lives and have simple pleasures