A beautiful solution to crime

There was an instinctive sense of beauty in childhood years.

The countryside in mid-Somerset is not classic picture postcard stuff, but there are sights and landscapes that have a special quality.  Every village and every town has at least a handful of medieval buildings.  Daily life is lived in a direct encounter with nature.  Music and art and literature, the conventional channels for the conveyance of beauty, are often superfluous on spring and summer days when flowers and trees are a riot of colour and shapes.

How important is such beauty in creating a society that is safe to live in?

Crime rates were, and remain, low.  It is not that rural England is especially privileged: during the 1981 riots over poverty and alienation  in English cities, the unemployment rate in parts of Cornwall was over 20%. It is more that life is lived in a different context.  The brutal ugliness of many urban landscapes has no sense of timelessness, no sense that life is more than a banal existence.

Dostoevsky’s character Prince Myshkin is mocked for his belief that beauty can save people from the worst:

Is it true, prince, that you once declared that ‘beauty would save the world’? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he’s in love!

Myshkin’s concern with the reality of the Russia in which he lived and his hopes of transforming that world threaten his relationships:

If I hear you talking about capital punishment, or the economical condition of Russia, or about Beauty redeeming the world, or anything of that sort, I’ll–well, of course I shall laugh and seem very pleased, but I warn you beforehand, don’t look me in the face again! I’m serious now, mind, this time I am really serious.” She certainly did say this very seriously, so much so, that she looked quite different from what she usually was, and the prince could not help noticing the fact. She did not seem to be joking in the slightest degree.

Myshkin, The Idiot of the book’s title is naive in his understanding; the world is quite simply not the place he imagined it might be, but is he so wrong in his hopes?  Doesn’t the encounter with beauty change people for the better?

For generations working people organised to allow beauty to be accessible to all – the national parks movement in England from the 1930s, the reading rooms, the educational associations, the libraries, the summer camps, the ramblers’ groups, the choirs, the brass bands – yet having achieved the goals, it seems almost as though the struggle was given up.  Reality television and tabloid stories now fill the hours which were once taken with companionship and culture.

Would the world be a better place with a little less government policy and a little more beauty? Or is that just plain idiotic?

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Black Friday is about separating you from your money

The group of three students laughed and began to sing The Fairytale of New York.

If there were ever an anti-consumerist Christmas anthem, it must be it: two drunks without a cent to spend sharing their dreams on a cold and bleak Christmas morning, not much scope for success by slick advertising campaigns.

The need to constantly reinvent our consumerist culture underlines its essential futility. Despite there being no Thanksgiving holiday on this side of the Atlantic, advertisers decided there would be a “Black Friday.”

Even school students complain about the silliness of a day which is about no more than shopping. Presumably, these generations who are becoming streetwise at earlier and earlier ages will force executives to abandon that marketing ploy and develop some other excuse for bombarding communities with advertising for things that are neither wanted nor needed. Black Friday must already be waning in its influence because next Monday is “Cyber Monday.”

It is all baffling. What motivates the annual spending frenzy and burst of frantic hyper-activity?

Sometimes, people without religious convictions have articulated what it means for them, words like “family” and “childhood” are cited. People of a more pagan persuasion are more frank; it is mid-winter, the solstice is past, the days are lengthening, the sunshine and the warmth are returning.

Perhaps there is more integrity among the pagans and their celebration of the solstice than in those who persist in talking about “Christmas,” whilst doing everything possible to exclude its religious content.

There are often comments posted on social media suggesting that Muslims, or other religious groups, are responsible for such terminology as “Happy Holidays”, despite the fact that Muslims are explicit in their declaration that they have no problem with the religious celebration of Christmas (Jesus is honoured as a prophet in Islam who will return at the end of time).  The “Happy Holidays” lobby owes much more to those of an aggressive secular inclination than to any religious-based objection to Christmas.

The exclusion of Christmas cribs, and other Christian symbols, from places like hospitals, arises most frequently from those who are simply intolerant of Christianity yet claim their intolerance arises from a desire to be “inclusive.” Inclusive of whom? One might ask.

It would be interesting one year to monitor the seasonal activities of the aggressive secularists, theirs is  the most illogical of behaviour. What is it they are celebrating?

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the logical outcome produced by those whose only belief is in material things. They are about parting you from your money.

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Saying ‘no’ to veganism

I must declare an interest. My mother’s family have been farmers for generations, raising stock, milking cows, growing crops, in a small area of Somerset definitely since the Eighteenth Century, and probably for centuries prior to their recorded activities on the land.

Perhaps, then, I have accumulated centuries of prejudice against those who would presume to criticise my family.

I know of no-one who cared more about animals, or had a greater love for the natural world around him, than my late grandfather. I would defy anyone to claim they were better at caring for animals than a man who called each of the twenty cows in his dairy herd by name, or that they were better environmentalists than someone who would spend cold winter days laying hedgerows by hand.

It is galling, then, to see vegans present themselves as people who care for animals and as people who protect the environment. They do neither.

Human beings have been omnivores since prehistoric times. An omnivorous diet has not only been what has sustained humanity through millennia, it is what permits the survival of countless millions of people. Fishing communities, indigenous peoples in inhospitable terrains, there are numerous examples that could be cited of lives that could not continue without animal produce.

Veganism is not an option for many people, nor should it be for those who believe in the conservation of rural landscapes.

William Blake’s ‘Green and pleasant land’ was not something that occurred by chance, it arose from centuries of work by farmers, hard work, often unrewarding work. The vegan vision is of numerous landscapes gone to waste, for many areas are suitable only for grazing and without the work that goes into sustaining that grazing will become places of thistles and docks. The vegan vision is of the disappearance of livestock, for no-one can afford to maintain stock for no reason. The vegan vision would bring the destruction of rural England, the end of farming across much of the country.

There is an unscientific anthropomorphism in vegan objections to farming. Animals are accorded a status equal to that of humans. Given the choice between saving the life of a human and that of an animal, some vegans give the impression that they would save the latter.

Inevitably, vegan choices are choices that affect market prices, but they would be loath to accept that their desire for imported foodstuffs such as rice inevitably affects the cost of those staples for poorer people. Nor do they acknowledge that their diet requires the considerable processing of foods.

If vegans wish to pursue their anti-environmental lifestyle, rejecting millennia of human development, that’s their choice. I’m not going to go around putting up posters highlighting the destruction they would bring, perhaps it is too much to expect that they would show a similar tolerance in return.





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Learning lines

Fifty years ago this term, Miss Stanley was the English teacher for Form 1 Br at Elmhurst Grammar School. Miss Stanley loved literature and reading and words. Being among the dullest in the form, it was only in later years that I realised how good a teacher had taught us.

Fifty years ago, Miss Stanley taught us Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. Going through the lines of the Jabberwocky with my First Year class this afternoon, I thought it was probably the only poem I could remember from my schooldays.

Perhaps the learning of poems was not part of our education. More accurately, perhaps it was just not part of my education.

In schooldays, my daughter developed a habit of reciting poetry to herself while standing and waiting for things. There were two poems that recurred, both demanding greater skills of retention than the Jabberwocky.

The most frequently recited when we stood on railway platforms was W.B Yeats An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Perhaps Yeats’ protest against the pointlessness of the Great War had a point of contemporary reference for a secondary school student in the Noughties. The unwinnable conflicts being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed as futile as the wholesale slaughter of 1914-1918.

The other poem she would recite was more baffling.  Perhaps it was taught in school Irish classes, it was an Irish translation of Oliver St John Gogarty’s The Ship.

Tháinig long ó Valparaíso.
Scaoileadh téad a seol sa chuan.
Chuir a h-ainm dom i gcuimhne
Ríocht na gréine, tír na mbua.

‘Gluais,’ ar sí ‘ar thuras fada
liom ó scamall is ó cheo.
Tá faoi shleasaibh ghorm Andes
Cathair scáthmhar, glée mar sheod.

Perhaps its meaning was not important, how many people in former times understood Procul Harum’s song Whiter Shade of Pale? Perhaps it was the sound of the words that mattered. Perhaps to be always looking for meaning was to be too literalist.

Perhaps learning the Jabberwocky set off fifty years of not understanding poems.

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Doors of memory

There was an announcement to Sixth Year students on the school tannoy (does anyone still call it a tannoy?) The students were to go down to the football pitch for a group photograph on the grass bank.

Walking down with the group of students from my classroom meant passing through unfamiliar territory, the corridor passing the doors of the changing rooms. In English and Irish, metal plates on each door said which rooms were those of the boys and those of the girls.

Even at remove of forty-five years, the doors prompted feelings of fear, they an old and long-forgotten sense of apprehension was revived. I hated physical education lessons in schooldays in the 1970s.

PE was a favourite class for some people.  For the muscular and the strong and the athletic and the lithe, it was a chance to spend an hour away from the confines of the classroom. For someone who was frail and asthmatic, it was a time that could not have passed too quickly.

The PE teachers were not bad people; in fact, their understanding of the capacities and constraints of the human body probably gave them a greater sense of empathy with their pupils than was possessed by some of those who taught us more academic subjects. It was just that they could not make someone into something they were not.

Memories of the first year at Elmhurst Grammar School in Street are still haunting: football, basketball, gymnastics, athletics, cricket – it was hard to know at which I was worst. The only certainty was that my name would never appear on any of the team lists that would be posted each week on the school noticeboard.

Having the lack of an aptitude that demanded anything by way of physical strength, agility or speed meant that PE became a subject to be avoided as much as possible.

When my asthma became so severe, that I was sent to school on Dartmoor, the greatest disappointment was the amount of physical activity on the timetable. Exercises outside every morning, gymnastics on Wednesday, football or cross country running on Saturday mornings. Football, I enjoyed, but cross country running was torture.  Heatree House, High Heathercombe, Hameldown, Jay’s Grave, Heatree Cross – it was gruelling.

Relief came in the autumn of 1976.

Taking examinations a year in advance, I had gaps in my timetable. My teacher told me to adjust my timetable so as to attend the classes that were necessary. Her benign approach allowed me to attend classes that were interesting and to completely avoid particular teachers.

The year had well progressed before she realised that PE was one of the subjects I had decided was unnecessary. Her instruction that I might join the rest of the class at the gym was said with a smile.

Perhaps even the PE teacher had given up on me by that point – the painful memories evoked by changing room doors were not repeated in those final seasons of secondary education.

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