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Sunday 11th December 2016
Picking over the bones of an annus horribilis
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

When we moved into our Herefordshire farm more than 20 years ago, four huge cherry trees stood around the house. They produced bountiful crops of cherries, of which we tasted very few. The birds for miles around came for mass feastings. The farmer before us conducted long campaigns to secure a few cherries for himself. Edmund Wall (said farmer) hung a sheet of corrugated iron in one of the trees with a rope attached. When his work took him past the tree, he would tug the rope, sending clouds of birds into the sky. Not for long, though. He even put a car horn in the trees, with a wire running to a switch by his bedside. When he awoke at first light, he would start sounding the horn at intervals.

We haven’t tried to beat the birds and instead have just marvelled at these great creations. Now there are only two trees of the original four left, but they provide gifts and delights in so many ways. In winter their zig-zag branches amaze against a blue sky; in spring, they have a profusion of white blossom, lifting the spirits after the dark days. Their fallen blossom covers the ground like a snowfall. Then there are the berries - anything that sustains the wild birds sustains us.

The two fallen trees have gone on giving. We called on local woodman Andrew Hewitt, who came with a giant contraption that cut the great trunks into one-and-a quarter inch planks. We hauled the planks to a dry barn and then stored them for two years, each plank separated by a series of one inch sticks to allow the air to pass around them. A few months ago, expert furniture maker Tony Ellerton took delivery of them. He has created three beautiful tables, one of them seven feet by three, each with the rich hue of cherry wood. Another craftsman, David Barnforth, has made a superb strong and handsome bookcase. We will call on David for one more bookcase from the cherry wood. 

Such benisons. In the hope that future dwellers in the farm will benefit as we have done, we have planted five more cherries saplings that will grow into great trees. 

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We need all the sustaining that we can get, with this annus horribilis. I am still amazed that Mrs May, our unelected leader, continues to present herself as just the Prime Minister for Leavers. After the very close Brexit vote, she makes no attempt to heal the divisions. Her rhetoric of going for a red, white and blue Brexit is as infantile as it is destructive. 

I was cheered up briefly in Hay on Wye by meeting a friend who declared roundly : “It will never happen.”  His reasoning is that the courts and Parliament will so screw up the process so that even Article 50 would be beyond declaring. I am not sure I share his confidence, even though the Brexiters are making a pig’s breakfast of the negotiations. Matthew Parris may be near the mark when he wrote in The Times recently that we are heading for the biggest national humiliation since Suez. 

I am aware that this doesn’t reek of optimism and I am constantly urged to be optimistic.  I agree pessimism is corrosive and destructive: at my secondary school we had a Latin teacher named Bolly Lamb who used to look at his class and say; “You’ll fail… you will all fail.”  Some of his pupils promptly did so. (Poor Bolly’s pessimism did for him too. One day he went into nearby woods, shot his dog and then himself.)

However, the critic Philip Toynbee once wrote memorably of what he called 'cowardly optimism’… a determination to look on the bright side when in fact the sensible perspective was to realise how dangerous the prospects were. Who was right in the run up to the last war? The credulous optimist Neville Chamberlain or the woe sayers on the left and right?

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Another of the pleasures of looking after a few acres is finding one benefits aspects of nature without wholly intending to. Years ago we restored a battered hedge by putting in new hedging plants in the numerous gaps, laying the hedge and protecting it from livestock with a stock-netting fence a metre away from the hedge. Someone suggested we put in some Spindle (Euonymous europaeus). Today the mature plants are great flourishes of coral-pink berries, visible a few fields away. The very sight of them lifts the gloom.  What we didn’t know is that the Spindle is immensely valuable to wild-life – a number of moth caterpillars eat the spindle leaves while the flowers are a great source of pollen for insects. And  a few sprays in the house are a tonic for people too.. 

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And then there was Trump. I do not share the view of some that Trump-in-Office will be a tamed Trump. He is a man of bad character who brings out the worst in people. His appointment of the climate change troglodyte Scott Pruitt to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency presages the US undoing years of progress under Obama. 

I am wondering about the received view that President Trump and Brexit have happened because of globalisation and the sense that many voters have of being unvalued in a neo-liberal world. Wolfgang Streek in his book 'How Will Capitalism End?' is just one articulate proponent of the theory.  There’s plainly a lot of truth in this explanation but it’s not the whole truth. Take this fact: a large majority of white men earning more than $55,000 a year voted Trump - hardly the rust-belted victims of globalisation. By the same token, I am not entirely persuaded that those who voted Leave are largely those who have been left behind in modern Britain. Most of them are not racists, of course, but in my experience, drawn from more than twenty years of South London living, a significant fraction of the white working class entertain an element of racism (I still remember the shock when the London dockers marched in support of Enoch Powell). The tripled-locked gerontocracy of course played a part….older people largely voted Leave as did the dwellers of the Tory shires, who rarely see a non-white person from one week to the next.and are nearer to being on the gravy train than the breadline. Together they made a narrowly decisive mix.

Where do we go now? Armando Iannuci wrote powerfully in The Observer that we should reach out to Brexiters. He advocated Guardian readers picking up the Daily Telegraph and New Statesman subscribers trying The Spectator, all in the cause of reducing the divisions now so severe in the country. His article met an enthusiastic response, including from my great friend The Surgeon. Up to a point, Lord Copper. Papers such as The Daily Mail need to be opposed more than read. Its relegation to page 30 of its report of the sentencing of  MP Jo Cox’s murderer is a low point in contemporary journalism. I advocate robust opposition to intolerance, and measured welcome to those who think differently... and getting stuck in. We need to become active. Let me quote The Guardian: 

“Now is the time to get involved in politics. Insist progressive parties work together. Donate and volunteer with organisation such as Refugee Action, Calais Action, Women for Refugee Women… support groups such as Hope not Hate. True, not everyone who voted for Brexit or Trump is a rabid misogynist racist but these wins allow rabid misogynist racists are to believe people are behind them. It doesn’t have to be like that.”

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Our most active cause at the moment is the rainforest campaign The Size of Herefordshire  through which we are trying to raise funds to help two indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon fight off loggers and miners. More on its website www.sizeofherefordshire.org. Note: You don’t have to be a Herefordian to pitch in.  You can choose ten hectares of the county to sponsor and know that you have protected at least that area of the Peruvian rainforest.

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It is fascinating how many good thinkers and writers are turning their attention to the world fast developing before us.  From Stephen Hawking to Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, both of whom are awake to how automation is going to leave many people without jobs and purpose, high intelligences are grappling with what is to be done to make the future bearable. For a vivid setting out of what our different futures might be, let me recommend 'Four Futures: Life After Capitalism' by Peter Frase (Verso). Warning: we really (really) don’t want, the fourth future. 

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Let me end on an upbeat: reasons to be cheerful:

  1. Trump may not last a full term.  I will take a bet that he will be forced out of office before the end of his first term. He has too many bodies buried to escape terminal scandal. If clever Richard Nixon could be de-fenestrated , then Trump is on very thin ice too.  (Health warning: I once bet that Thatcher wouldn’t be re-elected. Then came the Falklands War and “Rejoice! Rejoice!”)

  2. Trump can surely not be re-elected for a second term (see health warning above).

  3. Jeremy Corbyn at one point will realise that he’s not a leader, only a bolshie old opposer, and Labour can rebuild.

  4. Marine Le Pen will not become President of France.

  5. Angela Merkel will be re-elected.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Wednesday 14th September 2016
Struck down by Brexit Brexitus.
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

I must explain the prolonged silence since last I blogged.  I have been struck down by a virus, bred by Etonians, hatched by zealots. I refer of course to the Brexit Brexitus.

A quarter of British people, it emerges from a recent poll, have considered leaving the UK following the referendum result.  For myself, I am trying to become an Irishman.  “If you have an Irish granny” says your man in the Republic Government “you’re in and welcome. Just bring along her birth certificate.”  I responded “Her certificate was stored in the Irish Public Record Office, which was blown up by the IRA in 1922”.  Your Government Man: “Ah, that’s bad luck.  A real blow, I’d say. Pity, because we would have loved to have had you.”

Complex routines are now underway to legitimise my descent from Rose Florence Murray, born in Limerick on 25th March, 1873.

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The result has re-inforced my understanding that through most of my political life I have been on the losing side. In the exhilarating sixties, my friends and I had a strong sense that society was going to change radically and that Britain would become a much fairer, more egalitarian, less class-ridden country.   Private schools and Oxbridge would no longer have their hands around the throats of ordinary people; business would be socially accountable; a genuine equality of opportunity would be achieved and the huge variations in wealth would diminish. 

After the Wilson and Callaghan premierships, these prospects started to dim,  becoming still dimmer after Thatcher and Blair’s embrace of neo-liberalism. They have continued to dim ever since.

What saddens the spirit is to see so much social regression.  It takes enormous and prolonged effort to effect progressive reforms.  Look at how hard it was to achieve protection for working people… From the corresponding societies in the early 1800s to the gradual recognition of trade unions and then with the arrival of Labour governments real protection from the whims of employers and markets.  It took a century and a half to achieve.  But it has been swept away in a few short years, so we are now in a country where employers offer jobs as gigs…short term hirings with no security or rights.  

Social progress takes decades of hard work; social destruction can be achieved in months… Sociopath George Osborne arrives…bang goes your housing benefit. Headboy Cameron gets a hair-brained idea: bang goes Britain as part of the European project.   

The most intractable problem is that radical social change is being effected by rapid technological development, which is hard to mitigate.  Technology permits the gig economy; technology in the form of Uber has destroyed the London cabbies monopoly. Of course, the most able can use the new technology and create enterprises for themselves; but much of society is composed of ordinarily-abled people.

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And of course, Brexit is an environmental disaster.   Why did most farmers vote Leave?  (The Herefordshire fields are around us were thick with Leave banners.) So that they can cut their hedges as hard as they like and when they like, so that they can spray chemicals currently banned in the EU. Ditto fisherman.  On Radio 4 this week, a Cornish fisherman was extolling Brexit because “now we will be able to catch what we like and not sprats.”

Weep for the bees and the non-sprats.  Weep for ourselves

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Good spirits I find can be maintained by the company of good friends, by nurturing the garden and the farm, and by some sport.   The new football season has not been a boost, the grotesque spiralling of English football down into the money swamp.   The Olympics last month, the cycling especially, were a boost and I have maintained the lift by prolonged discussions with my grandchildren as to what modifications should be made to future Olympics.  

We are agreed that tennis and football should go, since both have their own major summits and are in no need of more exposure.  Ditto golf, on the same grounds but also that it is not a sport at all, rather a pastime and a form of networking and environmental destruction accompanied by grotesque dress-sense and absurd mannerisms, waggling bottoms and so forth.  And we are amazed that Taekwondo was ever included, being a ritualised form of kicking people in the head.  The police should intervene whenever a Taekwonda event takes place.  

Our favourite candidates for inclusion are first, washing-up.  This can be played in singles, doubles, mixed doubles, all genders.  It is capable of fine gradations: not just the fastest but the most stylish and the cleanest.

Then there’s knitting.  Speed knitting would put the 100 metres in the shade.  And how about lawn-mowing?  Some mowers make lovely patterns.This would have the advantage of actually being useful.too.  Like washing-up.

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The jury obviously is still out on Theresa May.   Give her a chance, says a good friend in West Wales.  I recall the early days, and hours especially, of Margaret Thatcher.  After she appeared on the steps of Number Ten and uttered her emollient quotes from St Francis  (“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony…where there is despair, may we bring hope.”), my old pal Richard Boston and I were listening in the offices of The Vole, Richard’s wonderful green magazine.    Perhaps we should give her the benefit of the doubt, we said to each other.  Perhaps she’s not going to be so grim. The Vole’s money man was listening.  “Mugs” he said.  “She’ll be dining off the babies of the poor in no time.”

I am not going to make the same mistake twice.   Mrs May looks very bad news.  She started badly by accepting the referendum result and pledging to exclude Parliament from any say in the invoking of article 50.   Then came her idiotic appointments of Johnson, Fox and Davies.   She plainly has no understanding of climate change, abolishing the department of energy and climate change was a poor decision; She has appointed the knuckle-dragging Angela Leadsom to run the department of the environment, a woman without a green bone in her body. 

She seems illiberal, rash, very right-wing.  I take no comfort at all that she is a vicar’s daughter.  It is a little known fact that Lucrezia Borgia and Lady Macbeth were both daughters of Anglican vicars.

Saturday 10th September 2016
A temperature timeline to put things in perspective
Contributor: Will Bugler

This timeline of the Earth's average temperature really puts the last 100 years into perspective, showing just how much human CO2 emissions have affected out climate. Also note how stable the climate has been througout the entire development of civilisation. 

Sunday 8th May 2016
Herefordshire folk launch innovative campaign to save the rainforest
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

The countless millions who follow this blog will be aware of a rainforest campaign that I and some mates have started, named The Size of Herefordshire. Its aim is to help protect area of rainforest in north eastern Peru the size of the county in which we happily dwell. This part of Peru is the terrain of an indigenous people, the Wampi. Not long ago, the Wampi got together and declared their territory an `autonomous region’ within Peru.  Basically, they are singing the old Woodie Guthrie song “This Land is Our Land”  - they are exerting their right to resist the loggers and miners and oilmen who have their eyes on their 1.4 million hectares of their rainforest. The British charity The Forest Peoples Programme is helping them do this, not least by getting their legal rights to their land mapped and accepted. 

The Size of Herefordshire is aiming to protect little more than a fifth of this land but in truth in the nature of rainforest is such that we will possibly protect much more by feeding money to the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) and thence to the Wampis. Our principle fund-raising tool is ingenious – an online interactive map which allows people to choose parcels of Herefordshire, click on them and cough up a fiver.  The parcel is then theirs and corresponds to helping protect at least that amount of rainforest. The fiver plus gift aid goes in its entirety straight to the FPP.  (All can be seen at www.sizeofherefordshire.org).

I think this is a diamond-brilliant concept. It came not out of my head but those of clever people working in Cardiff for Acclimatize, the climate change consultancy.  Two weeks ago we publicly launched the campaign in Herefordshire with articles in the local papers and interviews on BBC Hereford and Worcester. 

Already the concept seems to be catching attention.  The online map, developed by the ingenious Ian Short of Pragsys, is starting to show dark green squares where people have sponsored their land parcels.   There are a few major blocks where hugely generous people have dug deep but largely the squares are being filled by small donations. 

Last Saturday, The Size of Herefordshire had a stand at the River Carnival, a wonderfully varied festival of fun and good causes along the banks of the River Wye.  People made nice noises when we explained how we are trying to help the Wampis and the rainforest, on the health of which we all depend of course.  Some even pledged to cough up as soon as they got home.

More on this campaign’s progress later.

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To London recently for a book launch, those occasions when the circle of friends around an author gather to celebrate the new book.  This launch was for Camille And The Lost Diaries of Samuel Pepys, written by Bob Marshall-Andrews, the QC and former Labour MP who did so much to defeat New Labour’s endless attempts to restrict our liberties.

One might have thought that after such a distinguished career Bob might rest on his laurels a little, just taking the occasional rewarding brief between sips of Chateau Margaux. Not Bob: Camille is his second novel and it’s extraordinarily clever and inventive.  Bob supposes that Pepys is despatched to France to negotiate a treaty with Louis XIV.   There he meets a French actress as intelligent as she is beautiful and the narrative runs like a stag from thereon. It’s very funny to boot and the praise on the front cover from a Telegraph writer  - “in fecundity of imagination he invites comparison with a Graves, a Vidal or a Burgess” – is very little over-stated.

It would make a cracking movie, with perhaps Mark Rylance cast as Pepys and Marillon Cotillard as Camile.  I can’t recommend the book more highly. 

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Not long ago, I reached a landmark, that of breathing the air of this planet for three quarters of a century. Doing so, I recalled a remark by Nigel Nicholson on becoming old, that though he looked very different to how he did as a young man in his twenties, he didn’t feel different.   He still saw himself as a young man.

I know what he meant, though with qualifications.  I am startled by being old, and especially by the perceptions of other people.    I spent part of a recent morning shifting 25 kilogram feed sacks from the back of a car down into a shed.  Later that day, I went to the supermarket.  At the checkout, I was asked: “Do you want help with loading your shopping, sir?”  I was nonplussed.   I’d put the shopping in bags in the trolley by this time. “I mean, lifting the bags into your car” she explained.   I muttered that I thought I would manage, but the damage was of course in knowing that’s how I looked to her.

I’ve become used to getting on buses and finding decent people offering me their seat (usually women, often ethnic, very rarely young white men.)  Even so I was I bit dismayed when getting on a Kensington bus recently, three people leaped up together like salmon engaged in synchronised swimming

I read recently that a man aged 75 has a life expectancy of a further 11 years (for women it is 13). I remembered this when ordering some wine recently.   The particular was good to the year 2030.   That’ll cover it then, I thought. 

Real insight into the condition of being old is hard to come by, but I ran across some wisdom in Julian Barnes’s new novel about Shostakovich The Noise of Time.

He has Shostakovich reflect “The self-doubt of the young is nothing to the self-doubt of the old.” 

Of all the changes in my 75 years, the advent of IT has been the most startling.  The change though that I have found most burdensome, day from day, is the steady, unremitting loss of the wild.  When I was at school, the Marlborough Downs were teeming with hares; the school even had a beagling club to try to hunt them.  (Some chance.)  Today, hares are a relative rarity – we exclaim with joy when we see one. I recall cricket fields thick with swallows and clouds of butterflies along the hedgerows.   Even twenty years ago, when we came to our farm, there were curlews in the water meadow and house martins galore.  My younger son counted 14 martin nests under the eaves of the house, for a school project.  Today, we may get two or three.

An Australian philosopher has coined the word `sostalgia’ to stand for “a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental damage.”    He’d seen among communities in New South Wales ravaged by droughts and mining.  Well, sostalgia sadly has a presence in Herefordshire too.

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A good friend of mine died the other day, defying the stats by reaching only 65.

I shall miss many things about Nicky Daw and not least her full-hearted sense of humour.  I shall always remember her glee in telling me about living in a house with the unusual name of Hicockolorum.  She and her husband Pete received a letter addressed to Mr & Mrs Daw, High Cock or Low Bum.  It was from Barclays Bank. 

She laughed like a drain.

Saturday 13th February 2016
Will this warm winter silence climate deniers?
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

I wonder if we have reached a turning point - perhaps several turning points - this winter. The weather has been so continuously, so protractedly, so mercilessly weird for the last few months in Britain that I am sure I am detecting another phenomenon: the vanishing of homo negatio, the climate change denying human being. Earlier last year, one could run across home negatio at any turn; in the Hay tapas bar, a quiet drink could be savaged by someone telling you that there was no such thing as climate change. In a small fishing village in West Wales, old folk might mutter ‘we’ve seen weather like this scores of times.’ 

Quite suddenly, the voices of denial have gone quiet. The Today Programme runs items on climate change in a sensible way, without Their Man in Denial – i.e. Lord Lawson of Naysaying – on the programme. The BBC’s environment correspondent Roger Harrabin has taken at last to talking about climate change as a blunt fact, without his yesteryear qualifying “if it is taking place...”

It is remarkable what a few weeks of continuously wild and warm weather can do, the flower power of the daffodil blooming in late December, the crocus and primrose in January.

The statistics of “the warmest ever…” are indeed remarkable.  For instance: in the Central England temperature series which has been running from 1659 this has been easily the warmest December.  Locally, the mean temperature of 10.5 C was 5.4 C above the average. Amazing. On Boxing Day, we had 15.5˚C or just 60 Fahrenheit, which counted for a warm May morning in my youth.

But let’s not get carried away. Although the deniers have slunk back to the undergrowth, it’s probably the case that climate change is a peripheral problem for most Britons, west, east, north or south.  They’d put housing, jobs, the NHS, schools above the even more important and decisive factor of climate change.  (See Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall. )

I am at a loss to imagine what will make us all think differently.

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I had a shock yesterday, when trying to sort out something on Amazon. My laptop screen was suddenly hijacked by coarse and lumpen features. That’s right, it was Jeremy Clarkson.   Can we never escape this dreadful man? I thought when he was sacked from the BBC for punching a colleague I would never have to see in motion that loutish assemblage again. I think the least Amazon could do is put up a full screen warning before the man hoves into view:  “The following video may cause severe distress for anyone with an IQ score above that of a Ford Escort”.

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Which creature has the greater number of genes, the nematode worm or homo sapiens? Neither in fact. It’s pretty much a dead heat. Clarkson, however…

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Nothing causes the bowels of politicians to go into meltdown faster than the thought of power cuts. In this highly inter-connected world, that is understandable. The outcry on February 2nd when BT had trouble with its broadband for a few hours only shows how dependent we have become on the internet and of course electric power. At the end of January, an official report suggested that with the phasing out of Magnox reactors and filthy coal powered stations we might be heading for a period of power cuts. New power sources are being slow in coming on stream. 

In his very valuable book Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air David McKay looks in one chapter at how demand can be managed - so that if there’s a surge in demand, the lights won’t go off.  He examines ingenious ideas such as using the batteries of millions of electric vehicles as energy stores, able to pump power back into the grid when it’s needed.

Yet I’m struck how very little is done to encourage us to use less electricity.  Tariffs are constructed so that the frugal user pays more in proportion than the profligate. No politician suggests that heavy users ought to pay penalties for their extra demand. Well, let me suggest it.  It would be a form of progressive taxation, as well as having environmental benefits. The mansion tax failed, but whopping electricity bills for the houses of the rich (to be spent on helping poorer households) could be an answer.

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