Archive for April, 2013

Larks Ascending in the Fen Country

28/04/2013

Over in Peterborough for a week’s training. The first day over, I drove out into the fens, that ever strange (to a northerner) yet beguiling landscape. Roads that run Roman straight for miles, or twist and turn sharply for no apparent reason; flat as far as the eye can see and beyond, the only raised land the straight lines of dykes; vast fields, some a lush green, some bare, the naked earth dark, while others are a yellow wash of daffodils; many places or streets that have “drove” in their names, like French Drove, Hull’s Drove, Falls Drove, Dog Drove, or my favourite: Milk and Honey Drove; straightened enclosed watercourses called drains or cuts. And the huge skies. A landscape that baffled, even repelled, me the first time I encountered it twenty years ago. Having always lived near hills or mountains, this vast flatness was a complete mystery, with its seemingly infinite horizons, where sometimes even trees were unusual. Even now, it still surprises me when I see it, though I’ve now been here a few times. This flatness still seems strange, almost wrong.

I was looking for traces of the abandoned railway line that ran from March to Spalding. I didn’t have the local OS map so had to rely on the road atlas. I found two old stations: French Drove & Gedney Hill (in the middle of nowhere) with both the building and the signal box lived in, with two armless signal posts close by, leaning drunkenly; and another at Cowbit (pronounced “cubitt” I understand), the signal box extant and covered in scaffolding, the station an immaculate dwelling, its platform still standing. Such a shame I didn’t bring my proper camera, with only the one on the phone.

After the second day was done, I headed out again. It was warm and sunny. I stopped the car by a level crossing, and stood there in the sun. On the moments when the breeze fell away, I could feel real heat on my face. A rediscovery of a favourite thing, thought lost for years, then serendipitously found in the bottom of a drawer; or a lost friend met again after many years: some minutes of frantic catch-up conversation, then fall into gentle silence, contented in each other’s company. Though the signal box declared the crossing to be St James Deeping, the name of the village was Deeping St James, which was confirmed by a newer railway sign on the fence. After a few minutes, the signaller climbed down the stairs in his high-vis jacket and languidly pushed the gates closed across the narrow road and bolted them shut. Back in his box, levers clanked and the old signal jerked upwards. Once the train had glided past, and with the gates open again, the road resumed its late afternoon slumbers. Such a timeless scene, one that has been happening several times a day for over a hundred years, though there is no longer a station for the trains to stop at.

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Deeping St James is one of a few villages with “Deeping ” in their name, along with Market Deeping and Deeping St Nicholas. Some road signs, as I’ve seen elsewhere, refer to them collectively as “The Deepings”. I lingered a few more minutes then drove on. Through the quiet village centre with its fine grey church, then the road followed the river Welland, glittering in the sunshine. Swans were gliding along its gently rippling waters, close to what looked like a sluice, partly choked with weed. I passed Deeping St Nicholas, then turned onto the road towards Crowland. This too ran Roman straight between wide fields. I pulled over again, next to a field of bare, dark earth. And in the silence, drifting down the great azure canopy of sky, a skylark’s song. Gentle, delicate notes falling on and around me like the softest, warmest rain, or a shower of April blossoms. It’s a sound that puts me in mind of a sweltering mid-summer day in the Derbyshire hills. No wind at all, even on the top of Mam Tor, the hang-gliders failing to take off. Roasted by the climb from Edale, I lay back in the baked dry grass and listened to the larks’ song, the birds either invisible or tiny dots high above in a sky of milky haze.

And now I hear them for the first time this year, and in a landscape that couldn’t be more different. The day at work hadn’t gone well, and my mood had sunk well below periscope depth. First the sun, and now the birdsong helped to lift it. The lark’s “silver chains of sound” also brought Vaughan-Williams’ beautiful piece The Lark Ascending into my head. The notes of this mingled in my mind with the birds’ and I gradually calmed. Bobbing gently in a boat in Hickling Broad in the sun, the wind rattling the dry sedge, another afternoon of heat.

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My final pausing place was on Gunthorpe Road, near Newborough. This narrow lane runs straight for a mile or so, but is uneven, with much bouncing in the dips. The wind had risen and was enough to sway the car, a trusty old ship softly rolling in a limpid sea. A few yards from the lane, a small overgrown hump the remains of some building. All that was standing was an irregular column of battered red bricks, with too little left to provide any clue of what it had been. On the way here I had passed tulip farms, though none were in flower yet. I wonder what a kaleidoscope of colour there would be if I came back in a few weeks? Between gusts, more birds: larks, a great tit, a cockerel and the strange dot-matrix squawk of a pheasant.

A couple more days, and I would be able to go home, a hundred miles to the north west. There would be much cursing and annoyance on the drive and I would end it in a bad temper and relief that it was over. A shabby city long past its best set between the sometimes steep sides of the Trent valley. Another landscape formed by water, but one very different to the Fens. These brief visits hadn’t reduced my sense of strangeness, but as I left, I knew I would come back. Come back and sit once again by the straight road, feel the breeze straight off the North Sea and look towards the measureless horizon. And beneath the huge skies, forget awhile.

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A Period of Silence Please

17/04/2013

So it’s finally over. They’ve held the funeral. Perhaps the media will now shut up about Margaret Thatcher. Or as Clement Attlee said A period of silence on your part would be welcome. The BBC, after gutlessly bowing to pressure over the Ding Dong The Witch is Dead song, excelled itself again today: it cancelled its normal programmes for two hours of the funeral. I’ve had enough of the endless beatification that’s been going on since her death was announced last week. And more than enough of the attempt to silence any critical voices by labelling them as disrespectful to the dead.

Any politician is open to criticism: it’s a public life they have chosen, so they must expect it. Such criticism should not cease on their death. The right’s call for “respect” is just another piece of hypocrisy: they were quite happy to put the boot into Michael Foot after his death; there was no call for “respect” then. Another trend I particularly dislike is their criticism of younger people who have commented, just because they either weren’t born in the 1980s or were very young. You don’t have to have been present to have a view. I wasn’t around during World War Two, but that doesn’t make my views of Churchill, Stalin or Hitler any less valid. Never mind any figures from further back in history. If you take this foolish argument to its logical conclusion, then there would be no study of history, and no learning from it.

What really disgusts me is that the taxpayer is paying for today’s ceremonies, possibly as much as £10 million. To say it’s not a state funeral, but a ceremonial one is mere semantics. It was public, with military honours and held in St Paul’s cathedral with the Queen in attendance. It was a state funeral in all but name. It was also a piece of triumphal political theatre. Coming at a time of appalling austerity, and on a day when it was announced that unemployment had gone up again, it was also spectacularly tasteless.

Stoke Writes Off Millions of Unpaid Council Tax, Again

16/04/2013

I read in today’s Sentinel that Stoke-on-Trent City Council has decided to write off another £6 million in unpaid council tax. This comes only a few months after an earlier decision to write off £7.5 million. The Council apparently claimed that the debts could not be recovered owing to chargepayer death, bankruptcy or absconding. This seems too easy an excuse to me. It sends out a strong signal that they won’t try very hard to recover unpaid tax, and that they will easily give up and write it off.

If it’s true that some unpaid tax goes back twenty years, then it’s clearly never got to grips with the problem. Having worked in Council Tax while I was with the Council, I know the collection rate has long been poor. This is not to criticise the hard working staff, the blame lies squarely with poor management, especially in recent years. This problem will only get worse with the abolition of Council Tax Benefit this month: people who previously didn’t pay anything will now have to pay one third of the charge. If the Council already can’t collect what it’s supposed to, how will it manage in future? Or will these multi-million pound write-offs be a regular feature from now on?

Instead of wasting huge amounts of money on endless restructures, obscene senior salaries and vanity projects like the business district, perhaps the Council should concentrate on collecting more of the money that is owed to it. A lot more. Each write off is money that could have been spent on services and that could have eased some of the cuts. I appreciate that many people struggle to pay the charge, but there are many who can pay, but don’t. One unfortunate legacy of the poll tax fiasco was that a culture of “can’t pay won’t pay” grew up, and it has now firmly taken root. By consistently writing off such large amounts, the Council is nourishing this culture when it should be attempting to kill it off.

Dawkins the Evangelist

14/04/2013

Watching a recent programme on BBC1 about sacred places reminded me of when I started to read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. At that time, I was firmly in the atheist camp, so looked forward to the read. After two or three chapters, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth continuing. “OK professor,” I thought, “I get it, you don’t believe in God and think anyone who does is a deluded fool.” You don’t need a whole book to tell me why. Trying to apply scientific reason to the existence or otherwise of God, or to religious faith, struck me as a pointless exercise. It’s not comparing like with like. Faith is, of its nature, unprovable. You can apply as many rational arguments for or against it as you like. It’s a leap beyond the provable, that’s why it’s called faith.

The main problem I have with Dawkins is that his militant atheism is as intolerant as the religious extremists he often derides. It brooks no opposition, treats as invalid any arguments to the contrary. I’ve never cared for evangelicals. I will respect others’ views and their right to hold them, but I expect the same in return. Dawkins wants converts as much as any other missionary. He is fired with similar zeal.

He clearly thinks religion is a thoroughly malign force, and that science is the only true path. Such a crudely manichean view is surely too simplistic, especially coming from a scientist of Dawkins’ eminence. Yes, of course religion has blood on its hands: from Christian persecutions of what it perceived as heretics to modern Islamist terrorism. That’s undeniable, but science isn’t squeaky clean either. Take the development of weapons like the atomic bomb. While it is fair to argue that the decision to use such weapons would be a political or military one, the weapons would not exist to be used were it not for scientists. Scientists cannot operate in a moral vacuum.

Since abandoning Dawkins’ book, I’ve reconsidered my atheism. His sheer intolerance and fundementalism repelled me, too fanatical, too unyielding, and it offered me nothing. In the otherwise execrable film Angels and Demons, the Tom Hanks character describes religious faith as a gift he has yet to receive. That’s a view that would match my own. I still have doubts, but I no longer share Dawkins’ arrogant certainty.

Beat your drum professor. I’ve listened to you as I have listened to equally strident religious voices, but your way is not mine. I prefer tolerance. A plague on the houses of all fanatics.

So Long Mrs T, It Hasn’t Been Good To Know You

08/04/2013

So it’s finally happened: Maggie Thatcher has snuffed it. It was only announced at lunchtime, yet I’m already bored with the non-stop coverage. Much as I love the BBC, it excelled itself today, with Radio 4’s World At One stretched to an hour and talking about nothing else. I suspect the PM programme will be the same and I hate to think what the TV will be like. I don’t intend to find out. I’ve declared my flat a news free zone until further notice.

The worst thing is the largely uncritical, sycophantic and even affectionate nature of the coverage. She was always a divisive figure, and this hasn’t stopped just because she’s dead. Criticism of her should not cease merely from a misguided sense of respect for the dead, as Glenn Greenwald writes in The Guardian today. She wasn’t a saint while she was alive, and she certainly isn’t one now.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this is that (as I suspected in my blog entry on 26/01/13), she is indeed to get a state funeral. Just why should she be so honoured? There is already an online petition against this, which I have signed and would urge anyone who reads this to do the same.

While I wouldn’t go as far as some in wanting to dance on her grave, I certainly won’t be mourning her. Her policies caused misery for many and devastated communities, and led to the mess we are in now. We should be trying to find a fair solution to her poisonous legacy, not beatifying its creator.


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