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Sunday 1st November 2015
How Melvyn Bragg keeps Mr Reynard from the door
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

Every farm is a scene of battles - against weeds, against aphids, against red tape, against rustlers even. One of our enduring battles on our farm is against Mr Reynard.  He preys upon our chickens and there is a continuing battle to keep him at bay. We don’t always succeed. This year, we have lost several fine birds to foxes, though usually they pick up the old and ailing, like some population purifying agency.  We were dismayed couple of months ago when we found a pile of feathers on the grass, all that was left of 'Handsome', a Voerwork cockerel of quite magnificent beauty and gentle temperament. We have replaced him with another Voerwork cock, not quite so good looking, who is called, a bit obviously, 'Less Handsome.'

Our chickens are at risk because we let them out of their run every day, figuring what they lose in security they gain hugely in enjoyment of chicken-life. Watch them scratching up ants or chasing caddis flies (daddy-longlegs) and you’d have to agree. One of the finest chicken-sights is to see the hens sunbathing – laying on their sides, wings spread out, basking in the warmth, like ladies of a certain age on a Florida beach.

We have various strategies to unnerve Mr Fox. We have the dogs out free to wander most of the day, which worked when they were young but is less effective now that they are variously crocked or stone deaf.  We set a light at night near their run.  Jimmy-riddles around the run are also thought to deter Reynard.  “Oh my God” he mutters “These people…” 

My favourite defence though, is the radio  - specifically a radio tuned to Radio 4. From a distance, it sounds as if there are people chatting in the middle of hen territory. Now some people on Radio 4, I am certain, are good fox-frighteners, and others useless.  Gentle Matthew Paris, a good man fallen among Tories out of sheer contrariness, is far too soft-voiced to scare.  Melvyn Bragg on the other hand is terrific  - I can swear to it that I have seen a fox fleeing the field as Melvyn’s intro to an In Our Time wafted over the air. (My wife asserts the fox was running because he thought that edition of the programme pretentious.)  Most effective of all is, of course, that trousered fool Jeremy Clarkson. A spat between Jeremy and George Monbiot cleared all the foxes from West Herefordshire.

We recently bought six beautiful point-of-lay pullets, whose breeds originate Italy. North and South America. I do not want them to die in the fox’s jaws.  I wonder if the Clarkson is now up for hire?


The Blakemere Black Poplar, which towers over our village green, lives to sprout another day, I am very relieved to be able to report.  This poplar, one of only two on a village green in England, was threatened with felling after it shed a large bough earlier in the summer.  Blakemere’s villagers responded superbly.   First, they told fell-it-quick boyos to buzz off.  Then they commissioned a full report from an excellent local arboriculturalist called Jeremy Ross. (These Jeremy’s are everywhere these days.) Mr Ross came back with a careful 8 page report which showed that if the tree was pruned and its crown was reduced, there was a good chance it would put new shoots and become a healthy and less dangerous tree.

At a meeting on the tiny green last Monday, Blakemere’s villagers voted 2-1 to keep their poplar.

Some voted yes out of British fairmindedness, to give the tree another chance. Others perhaps because it is cheaper to prune it than fell it, at least in the first instance.  Most Blakemere people voted, I am pretty sure, in respect of its beauty and rarity.  As one visitor to the previous meeting about the poplar had said: “The only really distinguished aspect to Blakemere is its Black Poplar”, a remark which was borne with modesty and good humour by the village’s recently ennobled Lord Lisvane, formerly the Chief Clerk to the House of Commons, Sir Robert Rogers.  In his position, I would have been tempted to interject: “Now, come on my good man…” 

Over the next couple of years, we shall see if the Blakemere Poplar seizes its chance for a longer life. On this matter, I am an optimist.


I have been fascinated not just by Jeremy Corbyn’s victory and its dimensions, but by how it has thrown the commentariat.   The BBC’s political staff, who breathe only Westminster air and rarely venture beyond SW1, has been at sixes-and-sevens.

Norman Smith, usually so acute, at one time could only deal with it by implying that Corbyn was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Scary Lorna Keunnsberg, the BBC’s newly appointed political correspondent, thought it was good journalism to ask Jezza five times whether he would kneel before the Queen. Her question to Corbyn  on hearing that he would not press the nuclear button was as biased as it is possible to be: “So you would put your principles before the safety of your country?”

New Labour of course has been in collective shock and what a joy that is to behold. I laughed out loud, I confess, when I read of a New Labour group being turned out of a Brighton pub and forced to hold its meeting in the street. The ultimate control freaks defenestrated.

Peter Mandelson was not slow in offering his lofty insights, cautioning his pals to wait and keep their powder dry, but also saying the vote was another two fingers up to the electorate.  Here he was a bit dim, or at least set in his ways.  New Labour famously was built on the concept of tailoring itself to the new middle class, following Philip Gould’s work for Tony Blair which showed that once the working class had got wealthier, they switched to voting Tory.  Interesting how Blair was not interested in chasing the votes of those feeling so marginalised by society that they didn’t go to the polls at all.

In some strange way, I think Corbyn is a little like Thatcher. She was not concerned in accommodating her party to the post-war settlement. She wanted a different kind of Britain, individualistic, selfish even, made up of families and individuals out to become prosperous without the lead weight of social obligations.  Corbyn too wants to change the ways contemporary Britons think  - away from behaving as atomised individuals with the goal of self-enrichment, towards a country concerned more with the state of all its people, losers as well as winners.

Will Jezza succeed in re-invigorating the social fabric?  It’s as tall an order as it is possible to find, but I wish him well.


Thursday 22nd October 2015
London's oldest bike co-operative under threat
Contributor: Will Bugler

Brixton Cycles is more than just a bike shop. it is London's oldest worker-owned bike coop and an integrated part of the Brixton community. For 32 years it has been serving the cyclists of South London, supporting them to live a healthy, eco-conscious lifestyle, as well as encouraging young people in the local area onto two wheels, lending them tools for free.

Unfortunately, in January the shop is being forced to leave its current premises, which is being converted into luxury flats as part of the gentrification of the area. Brixton cycles has played a key role in the development of this community over the last 32 years and now it may be excluded from the next chapter of the area's story.

The folks there estimate the cost of moving as between £120-£150,000, including renovating a new space to fit our needs. As a co-op, this is money they don't have... 

So they've started a crowdfunding campaign to help cover some of the costs to help #savebrixtoncycles!

Watch the video below to find out more, and pledge some money to save them (in return for some seriously cool sh*t!) over here: 

Saturday 12th September 2015
In praise of unattended monuments.
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

A snake came to my water trough… Well, I didn’t quite replicate D.H. Lawrence’s experience in his celebrated poem, but not far off.   A snake came to my tomatoes.

I was watering the outside tomatoes the other morning, when my eye was caught by a movement in the grass beside them.  I looked closer and saw the long shining yellow-green back of a grass snake.   My eye went up its length to its head, which was hugely extended.  It was in the act of swallowing a frog.   All I could see of the frog were its back legs, waving outside its gaping jaws.

The frog-swallowing must slow down snakes because I had time to run, call my grandsons off the lawn, and run back to show them the drama.   They were enthralled.   We all felt somehow privileged, to have a grass snake co-habiting so closely.  The frog of course was not so impressed.


One of the greatest pleasures to be found is surely the Unattended Monument.   The small Norman church with rich carvings which you can enter just by pushing the door.  The remains of temples on Greek islands which you just stumble across on afternoon walks.  The Roman ruins, in Rome, which just lie beside a busy road, unmarked because so omnipresent.

I enjoy such sites and sights partly because there are no crowds, no attendants, no ticket collectors, no warnings and signs.  The most ghastly artistic experience of my life was in the Sistine Chapel, jostled amidst a foetid mob of tourists and deafened by the repeated shoutings of Vatican officials “No fotographia!!!” 

Every summer I relish a visit to one of the most unattended monuments in Britain.  It’s a small cromlech or dolmen on the west coast of Pembrokeshire, between Fishguard and St David’s, a few hundred yards from the sea.  It’s called Carreg Samson and consists of a huge capstone, nearly five metres in length and two metres wide,  supported by three of six upstanding stones.  Once, very long ago, it was a burial chamber for the Neolithic people who lived around the coast.  Much more recently it was a sheep shelter.  Today it stands in a field without any fence around it,  the cattle and sheep free to rub their sides against it.  You can take it in peace, seeing the great majestic sweep of Strumble Head beyond it.

I sometimes encourage walkers on the Pembrokeshire Long Distance Path to take the small diversion to see it.  Words I use that never fail are: “It’s older than the Egyptian Pyramids - and by more than a thousand years.”

Its name is part of the pleasure. It’s called Carreg Samson, because St Samson is rumoured to have put the great capstone in place using his little finger.  Quite a liar, St Samson.   Not only did he turn up 4,000 years late, he must have been a weedy specimen, since he devoted his life to prayer and abstinence. For a time, St Samson lived with St Pyr on the monastic island of Caldey.  I know who I would have preferred for company - St Pyr died when he got completely sozzled and fell down a well.  A pint with Pyr must have been as good fun as there was to be had on a monastic island.

Of course, the Samson that the legend refers to may have been the biblical Samson, he of the long hair and the attraction to untrustworthy women. He perhaps could have lifted the capstone, but the question remains: what the hell was he doing in Pembrokeshire when he was meant to be protecting the Israelites from the Philistines?  While philistines are plentiful in west Wales, Israelites have always been thin on the ground there.


The Labour leadership election has handed Corbyn a powerful mandate to lead the party. Broadly, I am a supportive of him, restrained by fear of the party splitting and concerned that the man is a teetotaller.

Amid the thousands of words on the subject, I’ve seen little on the root cause of Labour’s troubles.   In the mid-90s,  Labour’s leadership was captured by neo-liberals, by people who believed that the free market is the great benison.   When Blair took office, he was a fully paid-up neo-liberal.  Hence that notorious Thatcher visit.  There was just one big problem for Labour  - the free market is not compatible with socialism, with the aims of creating a fair and equal society and protecting the weaker in society.

For years, New Labour ignored this truth, scorning the views of most of the party’s members. The arrogant and languid figure of Peter Mandelson exemplified in human form this contempt for the ordinary membership. Now it has all blown up in their faces.


I have been struggling to learn patience.  As I have written before, I am the Emperor of Impatience, and this fault has cost me much in peace of mind.  My good friend The Surgeon has told me that Impatience is the enemy of Happiness and I am sure he is right. I have been practising patient disciplines.

A recent visit to Bristol tested my new patience to an extreme.  Now I like Bristol.  If I ever had to move back to a big city, I’d move to Bristol.  But Bristol has a fault.  It thinks it knows best. Take its bus pass system, as unfortunately I did. It is amazingly complex. Bristolians climb on and then have to press their bus passes against a reader.  The reader machinery then pauses and eventually cranks out a paper ticket.  Not only that, the reader will provide weekly bus passes, if tempted with dosh.

I recount my recent experience: I wait in queue not far from the Bristol Museum, for a bus to take me to the railway station. I am patient. I breathe in and out gently, focussing on my breathing and ignoring the presence of a svelte young woman obviously trying to edge in ahead of me. I concentrate on the back of a tall handsome woman in front of me. 

The bus arrives.  I shuffle forward gently.   Blood and sand! Svelte has nipped in ahead of both Tall Handsome and me. Be patient, I say to myself.  What does it matter?  A few seconds here or there.  God’s Teeth!  Svetle is asking to renew her weekly bus pass.  She and the driver disagree how much it should it cost.  They discuss the matter, with all the lack of urgency of the South West.  Behind the bus, the traffic is backing up the hill.  By the Guts of St Samson!  She presents her bank card and it doesn’t work.   My breathing technique is struggling, my pulse rate rising. 

I recall some words of Mathieu Ricard, author of The Art of Meditation.  “Concentrate in the air flow as it passes through your nostrils. Calmness will follow”. Mathieu Ricard has been called the happiest man in the world but plainly he was never in a Bristol bus queue.  That would have wiped the smile off his face.

By the blessed bottles of St Pyr!  Svelte is now taking out £20 bank notes.  Even Tall Handsome, up to now a calm person, is holding up a Senior Bus Pass, hoping the driver will let her through.  The traffic has now backed up to Cobb’s Corner, perhaps the M4.  The bus driver struggles to find change. Eventually, his eye is caught by Tall Handsome and he waves her through.  I just barge past in her wake. My pulse rate is stratospheric and I can barely breathe at all.

Amazingly Svetle is completely undisturbed by taking almost ten minutes to board a bus and jamming traffic as far away as the Severn Bridge.  She just takes a seat and starts texting.  (My guess?  “Running late, darling…”)

Of course, if Bristol were a different place, its city fathers would have travelled up the M4 to London and discovered Transport for London’s Oyster system.  Quick and speedy and requiring no recourse to paper or Tibetan meditation methods.  But then it wouldn’t be Bristol, would it?


News of the Blakemere Black Poplar.  In my previous blog, I described how a branch had fallen off our famous, remarkable, wonderful village green tree, how Herefordshire’s road contractors Balfour Beatty had planned to have it felled within a few weeks.  Then a meeting of the villagers (population 74) decided to tell BB to buzz off and commissioned an arboriculturalist to do a full report on the tree.

This report, by Jerry Ross, has just been circulated.  In it, Jerry Ross comes down against a brutal felling, even though the tree is old and hollow, saying it is still a vigorous tree of “county-wide if not national importance.” And that every effort should be made to save it.  He suggests a plan of radical pruning.

His report now goes before another meeting of the villagers on September 28th.

I am hoping that the Blakemere Poplar will be with us for many more years. 

Wednesday 12th August 2015
The Black Poplar of Blakemere
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

The self-sufficiency writer John Seymour once named his choice for the curse of mankind:  couch grass, the weed that bedevils the kitchen gardener..  My choice is different: it is Creeping Thistle, or to give it its Latin appellation Cirsium Arvense, which I take to be derived in turn from its Mediaeval English name, Kick in Ye Arse. On our farm, creeping thistle constantly creeps.   We have conducted several kinds of warfare against it: manual, mechanical and chemical. 

Our manual phase was just after we bought the farm, more than twenty years ago.  Armed with stout gloves, we marched into a field and pulled up the thistles by their roots.  After a time we had piles three or more feet high over the field.  Then a kindly neighbouring farmer pointed out that the creeping thistle regenerates from the smallest fragment of root left behind.   He was right:  next year the thistles were as thick as ever.

Reluctantly, we tried chemical warfare, hiring a man with what’s called a weed-wiper, a clever device that wipes the top of the thistles with herbicide while sparing the grasses and clovers that grow beneath it.  Weed-wiping is much better than spraying, which can get drift into hedges and get blow around by even light winds.

But the Man with The Wiper gave it up.

So I bought a topper, a large cutter that you pull around the field with a tractor.    Topping is a very pleasant activity… the tractor chugs along up and down the field, the creeping thistle falls before it and clean sward is left behind.  An afternoon’s topping is pure therapy.  You finish the job with an unblemished field and a mind that is rested, far away from worrying about Greece and its debt, and where to hide if Donald Trump becomes US President, or Liz Kendall, something of a creeping thistle herself, becomes leader of the Labour Party.

Yet the real creeping thistle is good at surviving topping.  Next year, our topped thistles will be back, not quite as strong as before, but raring for another tangle with the topper.


In the last few days, I have seen the future. And it worries.  On July 31st, the thermometer in our greenhouse fell to 4.3C.  It must have been even colder outside.   To have a temperature that close to a frost in the height of summer seems to me to  indicate how unstable our climate is becoming.

At more or less the same time, the news was dominated by the migrants, largely from Africa, try to storm the Calais terminals and get through the Tunnel to the UK.  All TV channels and the papers, from redtops to broadsheets, lead with the story.   This migration appears largely to have its origins in ghastly governments, not least in Eritrea and South Sudan.  But while climate change is having severe impacts in parts of Africa already, it will likely get much worse… We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.


I measure my ageing by my grandsons.   More specifically, by my swimming grandsons.   A few years ago, I raced Matty, then twelve, a length of a pool, watched by The Surgeon.  As Matty won readily, The Surgeon remarked “When your grandsons beat you in the pool, Jerry, time is marching on.”

This week I challenged two other grandsons, Joe who is 13 and Pierre who is 11 to race a 20 metre length.   I swam purposefully, with strong and rapid strokes, pulling the water behind me.   When I arrived at the far end, both Joe and Pierre were sitting on the edge, dabbling their feet in the water and looking faintly embarrassed.

I am not sure I will throw down this challenge ever again. Next time, I could arrive and find the grandsons had finished, dried themselves, set up a barbecue and were grilling Merguez sausages.


The small Herefordshire village where we live has not much to distinguish itself from many other Herefordshire villages, being set in lovely countryside with a few decent old buildings.   But one aspect of Blakemere is unusual: its small village green is dominated by a magnificent Black Poplar.   The Forestry Commission says the Black Poplar is the most endangered hardwood tree in Britain.  Only one other village in England has a mature Black Poplar on its green.   Moreover, the Black Polar is a wonderful host tree…it’s the food plant of caterpillars of many moths including the hornet moth, the wood leopard and the polar hawk and it’s an early source of pollen for bees. 

A few weeks ago, our Black Poplar shed a large branch, which came down with a crash.  Of course, no one was hurt because, apart from at the time of the village fete, villagers don’t hang about on our green.   But the fall of this branch set wheels in motion.   Balfour Beatty, who have the contract to look after the roads in these parts, sent an employee along to look at the tree, who quickly communicated “I have inspected the tree and arranged for its removal in 28 days”  Amazing indeed.   What drove this judgement of course were our old friends Health and Safety.  Balfour Beatty doubtless would urge the removal of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral if a stone from it was dislodged.

Fortunately, a meeting of the village was called to discuss the situation. We gathered around the Black Poplar.   We got there shortly after a high wind had torn through the village: it threw down all the safety hurdles which had been erected around the tree   - the tree itself was fine.   To the surprise of a few, the mood of the meeting quickly became clear: Hands Off Our Tree.   Local architect Roger Gell had had the enterprise to get an expert dendrologist to look at the tree.  Roger read out his report to the meeting and the effect was devastating:  the Tree was in essence sound, but need rebalancing, with some branches removed to restore its equilibrium.  Collapse of the Health and Safety faction, who were left muttering; “I wouldn’t want it on my conscience if that tree came down and took a human life.”

Well, no one would and trees can kill.  But I wouldn’t want it on my conscience to have the Blakemere Black Poplar felled without very good reason.

The villagers sensibly decided to commission a further report from a tree expert to confirm or contradict Roger’s dendrologist.

I will keep this website informed about the Blakemere Poplar. Watch this space.

The Blakemere Poplar stands on the Village green. It has seen a fair few high winds since this photo was taken: Credit: Andrew Dally


It was cheering last week to hear Barack Obama speak so passionately about climate change, his line about us being the last generations who will be able to avert its worst consequences was particularly memorable.   I was cheered also to read of the polls showing that populations generally are more convinced about climate change than their politicians.  For every Redneck Republican and Denying ‘Kipper, there are many sensible people with open minds. 

Sunday 26th July 2015
Enjoy life, while you can....
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

There can be few centres of resilience-in-action as useful as the vegetable plot, whether an allotment or in a garden.  If social breakdown occurs in Osborne’s Britain or Merkel’s Europe, we shall cherish our home-grown veg.   Indeed, we do so every day in these weeks of amazing fecundity.  Our house is lucky enough to have a vegetable garden, created by generations of previous diggers and planters (and I should say, groaners and cursers. Turning our soil from Herefordshire red into its rich dark colour was the work of nameless heroes.)

It is extraordinary how much veg can be produced from even a modest row.  One six yard row of Charlotte salad potatoes has produced 42 pounds of peerless spuds.  Once lifted, their growing space is now occupied by 80 young leeks, which will nourish us through the winter.


I have a problem with impatience.  I am to impatience what Mark Cavendish is to Tour de France sprinting or Vermeer is to painting household interiors in 17th century Netherlands.  I was hopeless as a tv director because I could not abide the endless fussing that cameramen went in for as they set up for a shot.  And when the shot was finally finished and the cameraman turned calmly to say “We’ll have to do it again. There was a hair in the gate”, I was fit to be tied, as the Irish say.

Impatience, as my good friend The Surgeon said only this week, is a main menace to happiness.   So I am, even this late in life, turning over a new leaf.  I am practising patience as assiduously  as a spin bowler on a difficult wicket.  I let other cars out in front of me, even if I am running late.  I just breath in deeply as the person in front of me at the supermarket checkout looks for his loyalty card, can’t find it, can find it, drops it, picks it up, can’t find his credit card, can find it but has forgotten his pin number….   I just smile gently now.

The veg garden of course is a great help.   You can’t rush a lettuce.   You just have to prepare the soil properly and plant it with care.  And patience.


Sign in Mike’s Café, the best for the full English near the Portobello Road.  “Enjoy life while you can.  For one thing is certain: none of us get out of this alive.”


On a recent weekend, we went visit the graves of two relations.   This is not one of my favourite pastimes.   Indeed I hadn’t been to the grave of my closest relations since the first of them was interred 43 years ago.  Shame I know but we have kept the grave in good repair and I am pretty sure she wasn’t lying there waiting for us.

The second grave we visited was remarkable for the loveliness of its setting.  My sister-in-law is buried in a natural woodland, with trees planted at the head of each grave, simple wooden plaques which will rot away, and designed in glades and sweeping curves.  She has a hawthorn at her head, a tree which will be a glorious sight to see in May. The Closest Relations, in dull contrast, are lying in a 'burial ground, a dismal plot some distance from the over-flowing churchyard. The graves are set in straight lines, all for the ease of the lawnmower.  The place looks like the setting for a carboot sale.  I shall not go to this again. 


In the organic cider orchard on this farm - the apples end up as Dunkerton’s Cider, hard to beat – there are a number of hives, looked after by Dave, who runs the British Black Bee Company.  As the name suggests, Dave only cares for the native British bee, black in colour and some would say temperament. 

I have remarked before on my experience that bees tend to conform to their national stereotypes.  When I kept bees myself, I found that bees with an Italian queen were  easy to work with but too laid back and relaxed to get in the honey.  They preferred lying about in the sun, hanging out the washing and so on.   The Israeli bees, in contrast, were ferocious workers, hard at it from first light till dusk, taking over other people’s hives, etc etc.

And the British black?  Well, I am not sure these days what the stero-type would be.  Staying at home and waiting for the benefit cheque?   Joining ASLEF and coming out on strike?  Or working long and uncertain hours on zero-hour contracts and poverty wages?   Probably the latter, in Osborne’s Britain.   However, I am glad to report that Dave’s bees don’t conform to the stereotype.  They appear to busy when one would expect it.  But I haven’t tested their temperament.  Cutting the grass in the orchard the other day I kept well clear of the hives.

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