My Countryside

The countryside isn’t the countryside. Not really. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that much of the countryside isn’t my idea of what countryside should be. Allow me to explain…

If I asked you to think of the countryside, what would you imagine? My guess is that many may think of the things that they can see from the car window. Woodlands, lakes and mountains would hopefully feature heavily, but I suspect that vast, rolling fields of farmland would be the most common response.

I want to be very clear in stating that I have nothing against agriculture. It is hugely important to sustaining the population of the UK, and indeed some of our farmland is exceptionally valuable to wildlife. There are large numbers of species that wholly rely on farmland, including some of our most beautiful bird species and our most charismatic mammals. I have no beef with agriculture (excuse the pun), but I have a real problem with the bastardised form of agriculture that dominates many rural parts of the UK. Endless fields where ancient hedgerows have been deemed an inconvenience and ripped out. Fields that are cropped to their boundaries to maximise yield. Tracts of grassland given over to sheep and castle grazing to keep our failing dairy industry alive. The increasing trend towards crops such as oilseed rape and maize, both of which are like wildlife deserts in comparison to more traditional wheat or barley crops. Each of these practices has dealt a harsh blow to biodiversity in this country, sterilising huge areas of land for native wildlife and destroying valuable topsoil. This topsoil in turn is washed into our streams and rivers as silt, where it it clogs the gills of fish and contributes to our ever growing problem with flooding by reducing the carrying capacity of the wetland infrastructure upon on which we are so reliant. In addition, the use of pesticides and herbicides that are needed to keep these areas at their most productive has an equally devastating effect on nature. We’ve all heard about the extent to which bees are being damaged by pesticides, but the same problem extends to a myriad of other species. Fish are poised, insects are wiped out, and in turn the species that rely upon them for food slowly starve and reduce in numbers. Intensive agriculture is tantamount to concreting over our green and pleasant land.

The farmers aren’t to blame. The blame lies with the politicians that have created an economic race to the bottom, wherein farmers are under extreme pressure to produce more and more in exchange for less and less. Money is pumped in via subsidies to create an illusion of a healthy, functioning market, but it’s not hard to see beneath the veil. Farming in this country is broken, and the farming communities and our wildlife suffer equally. This is the true price of a cheap loaf or bread or pint of milk.

It’s heartening that many landowners are in agreement that the current situation is unsustainable, and that there is a better way. There is an observable trend towards lower intensity land use, and in recent years EU funding has seen an increase in better environmental stewardship. It’s incredible what the retention of arable field margins and areas of set-aside can do, and it’s also evident that there is a market out there for ethical produce. People want to support sustainable farming and wildlife, but that’s still not enough. Without a fundamental sea change in policy and the economics of farming, the rate of biodiversity loss will continue. I’m optimistic that we can make real improvements, but it’ll be a long road.

My perfect countryside is an unachievable utopia, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

My countryside is one of ancient woodland, of hedgerows enclosing small fields, of wildflower meadows and field margins, of rare breed livestock on organic land.

My countryside has clean water and rich soil, and crop fields are thick with skylarks, pipits and partridge.

My countryside is one where foxes and badgers can sleep safely at night, without fear of being murdered to appease a vocal minority.

My countryside is driven by self sufficiency and a love of nature, rather than tariffs and quotas.

My countryside is about 500 years in the past. Let’s make it the future too.

Threnody for the White Queen

The lanterns burned brightly over the marsh, illuminating the only dry path through a sodden expanse of sedge and rush. The soldiers trod carefully, a sparse vanguard clearing the way for the six hooded men that followed. These were the holiest men of their order, the men with the grave responsibility of carrying her body to its final resting place. They bore her prone form at shoulder height on a crude wooden palanquin, lovingly wrapped in a snow-white shroud.

The White Queen had been beautiful, but more than that she had been honourable and just. A true leader, who had negotiated the longest period of peace between the twin cities in written record. Her death had been as shocking as it was sudden, a brief illness that had taken away her lustre and eventually her life. The rumour and speculation regarding her decline had already started, but today the voices had fallen silent as the people lined the streets to pay their respects to her cortège.

One might think that a leader of her stature would be given an appropriately grand funeral, but those in power were still very much wedded to the old ways. The monks would carry her body to the coastal cave to perform the ritual, as they had done for her father and for countless generations that preceded them.

The procession moved slowly on, silence broken by the sporadic chanting of the monks, their close harmonies given sombre resonance by the bleak beauty of their surroundings. They were close to their destination, moving slowly through the peatland bog that would soon give way to a treacherous path down to the cliffs. All the while the lanterns continued to light their way, some glowing an eerie blue as the spongy peat gave up mysterious gases underfoot. The chanting grew ever more intense as their journey neared its end.

She had achieved so much in her lifetime, and yet she was still in her prime when death’s hand had taken her. Men, women and children had wept openly in the streets upon hearing the news, as though a much loved family member had been snatched away without warning. Her first-born was only twelve years old, and the debate around his succession already raged. She herself had been but fifteen years when she became leader, and her son showed every sign of continuing her legacy. They had never yet crowned a leader that was not of the holy bloodline, but with every succession the murmurings grew more vociferous. Times were changing. A decision would need to be made soon, but not today.

The friable stone of the sinuous coastal path was made slippery by the coastal spray, slowing the caravan yet further. They wound their way down to the coast at a glacial pace, waves being born and dying in a thunderous churn below them, eventually reaching a grassy plateau that sat above the rugged granite outcrop. The trail down from the burial chamber led south away from here, but the soldiers would go no further. Only the holy order could enter the cave.

Four monks with blazing torches formed a guard of honour at the cave entrance, flames casting grotesque shadows on the dark granite walls. Her body was laid gently on the cold stone dais in the centre, the same final resting place that had welcomed her predecessors for time immemorial. They gathered around her, performing the sacred ritual that would sever her ties with the realm of the living and commit her to the pantheon of the gods. One final prayer was uttered, and the holy men left the cave.

The sky darkened as they made their way back to the cliff top to join the rest of the party. Lightning split the sky as the waves rose higher, flooding the cavern where her body lay. The men stood watch as the storm died as quickly as it had come. None returned to the cave, but they knew that if they did they would find it empty. The gods had observed the ritual, and had come to claim her. She was one of them now, and the people would remember her in their prayers.

Nautilus

Entirely by accident he found himself in his early 30s, a fully grown man with responsibilities and a crap beard.

He was older now than his parents had been when he was born, dragged kicking and screaming into a bleak world of Thatcher and synthpop. He still felt like a child in many respects, and he supposed that his parents must have felt the same way back then. He had always assumed that there was a hard divide between childhood and the realm of grown-ups, a point of crossing the rubicon where innocent thoughts were left behind and you were issued with a mortgage and a poorly-paid job by a man in a grey suit. It had never really happened that way though. His experience, and he expected the experience of a great many others too, was one of perpetual childhood around which he had formed a concrete shell to protect him from the hammer blows that the past few years had dealt him. Behind the emotional wall he was a little boy, weak and fragile. He was glass.

His childhood memories were bizarrely selective, his mind having disposed of or suppressed huge tranches of what he assumed must have been banal normality. The bits that he did remember, however, were rendered in vivid technicolour. Each of these memories was linked to extreme emotion, moments of heightened joy, sadness and despair that had remained with him as if experienced only yesterday. A painful fall, a moment of embarrassment, a cruel insult or a death, each given equal emotional weight and importance by his odd mind. He could only assume that his brain knew what it was doing, as he had very little control over it. The abiding memory of his childhood was one of failure to live up to expectations, and being crushed beneath the weight of them. He was held up as the golden boy, only for the lustre to fade to grey. His mother had only lived long enough to see him disappoint, and sometimes that still troubled him.

His late teens and early twenties had been a shambles, characterised by confusion, loneliness and a pathetic absence of focus. He didn’t know who he was, or indeed who he wanted to be, and he drifted around the fringes of academia, overweight and angst ridden. He was arrogant enough to know that he was more intelligent than most, but what intellectual capacity he had was wasted within a shell that lacked emotional maturity and social skills. He could mask these flaws to some extent with alcohol, but when sober he was at best tedious, and at worst, plain bad company. Still childlike at this time, but without the self awareness to start building the shell.

His mid to late twenties were a brighter period, and a time when he experienced some of the emotional development that should have happened years before. His life was changed by two things: a girl who taught him to see himself from the outside, and a job that gave him the sense of purpose that he’d always lacked. His confidence and self belief grew exponentially during this time, aided by great friends and new experiences. This buoyant period would be shattered in time by tragedy, but the progress he made would stay with him always.

His mother’s unexpected death would change him profoundly. Perversely, through the sadness and confusion the defining feeling would be one of acceptance and defiance, firing his desire to move on, to set aside the last vestige of childishness and to look forward rather than inward. More difficult times would come in the following years, including a formal diagnosis of the depression that had lain dormant for years, and the slow decline and eventual death of his father. It would be logical to assume that the hardships of the past decade might have broken him, and he wouldn’t deny that there were times that it came close, but entering his 34th year he found himself more confident and buoyant that ever. Certainly more comfortable in his own skin, and more optimistic than at any time he could recall. He had realised recently how primitive he was, how his spirits could be lifted instantly by a ray of sunlight bursting through the clouds, and this primal kinship with nature gave him great comfort.

He was me. He still is.

Casseopeia

The boy with the low voice sits hunched by the window, gazing up at the night sky. The girl who spreads happiness is out there somewhere, separated by time and distance, but beneath the same cloudless vista. Their minds are filled with the pain of another recent parting, the tedium of reality putting an ocean between them yet again. Each time the wound is more ragged, and every time they wonder whether the pain of separating is too much to bear, but the pull of love always wins out. The raw grief of parting is ever present, and each time the ache lingers yet more.

They could stop the pain easily if either was brave enough to punch through the inertia, but for now fear holds them rigid. Neither of them know yet, but two short years later she will make the bravest decision of her life. For now though, they exist in a sickening limbo of mutual adoration and suffering. If he wasn’t such a coward he would fly out there permanently and build a life for himself, but fear of change paralyses him. He’s a boy pretending to be a man and failing, or at least that’s how it feels. He’s never believed in himself enough to achieve anything, and perhaps he never will.

The nights are when it hurts him the most, and he knows that she’s suffering too. She’s a time traveller, living two hours in the future, but although kept apart by time and space they take comfort in sharing the same sky. They’ve taught each other the names of the familiar constellations that stretch out over the northern hemisphere, forming a celestial bridge between them. Her favourite is Cassiopeia. He likes Orion. The seven sisters look down on them both kindly, two lost souls both seeking the answer to an impossible question.

The clouds roll in, leaving the sky starless and obsidian black. Their connection gone, for now.

“Until tomorrow, my love”.

I Was Only Stroking It, Guv’nor!

They’ve written about me in the paper again.
They say I love wildlife a little too much.
I’m the innocent victim of a media campaign.
I admit I like to look but I try not to touch.

They won’t let me into the zoo any more.
My annual pass has been revoked.
They say I made a pass at a labrador.
They say I was present when a panda was poked.

I assure you all that my intentions are pure.
I vehemently deny all allegations.
They claim I’m excited by the scent of manure.
Allow me to explain, forgive the alliteration.

I HAVE NOT:
Spooned with a seal, southwest of Swansea.
Kissed a kestrel in a kimono called Keith.
Ogled an octopus wearing a onesie.
Held hands with a hedgehog on Hampstead Heath.

I STRENUOUSLY DENY:
Cuddling a caribou in a canoe.
Fondling a ferret in a frumpy frock.
Buggering a badger in a bright blue bra.
Wanking a walrus into a sock*.

*It was actually a tea towel. Not to be confused with a teat owl.

My passion for nature has killed my reputation.
I promise guv’nor, I was only stroking the dalmation.

U ok hun?

He remembers a time when this was all fields.
Halcyon days when the internet was new.
He remembers the day of the dawn of the smartphone
He watched MySpace die as Facebook grew.

He was happier then, with his primitive access.
A handful of friends and nothing to say.
He handed out pokes with reckless abandon.
He checked his phone about twice a day.

It’s all very different now, of course.
He’s plugged into the matrix near constantly.
Eternally scanning to fuel the addiction.
He thinks:
“It.
Might.
Be.
Killing.
Me”.

Sometimes he wants to watch it burn.
Sometimes he needs to let off steam.
The friend requests from his school day bullies.
The casual racism. He wants to scream:

FUCK YOUR MILLIONS OF MEMES OF MINIONS.

YOUR KIDS ARE UGLY AND THEY ALL LOOK THE SAME.

YOU SPELL LIKE SOMEONE WITH A BRAIN INJURY.

THE COUNTRY IS SCREWED, BUT THE MUSLIMS/GAYS/LIBERALS* AREN’T TO BLAME.

But he doesn’t say a word.
He just keeps it all inside.
I ask him “u ok hun?
“I’m ok”, he lies.

*delete according to preference/prejudice.

Credo for Hugh Manatee

Try to be kind to unkind people.
Read more books and make more art.
Learn the names of the things around you.
Always take time to laugh at a fart.

Don’t fret about work, it doesn’t define you.
Select yourself a favourite tree.
Read a poem, then try to write one.
Be you, not what they want you to be.

Believe in the things that you want to believe in.
Accept that others hold different views.
Never be violent, don’t be oppressive.
Be selective about where you get your news.

Say something funny to break the tension.
Watch the sun rise whenever you can.
Surround yourself with interesting people.
Wear handsome trousers. Eat more jam.

Find enjoyment in the ridiculous.
Imagine a badger in a jaunty hat.
Don’t be afraid to be an outsider.
Most important of all, don’t be a twat.

The Park

This is a piece I’ve been sitting on for a few weeks. It was written as an entry to a competition for an anthology of stories by amateur writers to raise money for PTSD victims from the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Sadly it wasn’t good enough, but hopefully you can find some pleasure in it.

The girl sat on the worn wooden bench, gazing out over the small parcel of green and brown that the council called ‘the park’. It paled in comparison to London’s other great parks, of course, but to the local community it was everything. It was Hyde Park, Green Park and Regent’s Park all rolled into one, and it was their little patch of urban wilderness. A garden for the gardenless.

She’d been coming here for as long as she could recall, but over the past five months she’d found herself drawn to the same spot almost daily. Early morning was her favourite time, when the park was empty and beads of dew glistened on the unmown grass. London was never truly silent of course, but at this hour the sounds of traffic and life were an unobtrusive hum, yet to reach the discordant crescendo that would last until nightfall. The hum of the waking city comforted her in her parkland sanctuary. It had been almost six months, and she thought about them every day.

A small number of regulars used the park at this time, and she’d come to recognise them all. The young man with the briefcase was usually first, dashing along the central footpath towards the bus stop on the main road. He never spoke, but they occasionally exchanged a friendly nod if eye contact was made. The elderly lady with the tubby beagle was an ever present, shuffling slowly through the east gate at around half past six before completing a slow lap around the small, unimpressive pond. The lady puffed, and the beagle panted, but they always made it round. She’d known of the lady for years, a local character, but they’d never spoken. Not until today.

It was the dog that stopped first, coming to a wheezing halt on the path in front of her. “Lazy sod” the old lady remarked cheerfully, gently lowering herself onto the bench beside the girl. They exchanged pleasantries, passing comment on the weather as all Londoners are duty bound to do. A brief lull in the nascent conversation followed, only ended with an excited whoop from the old lady. “Orange tip!” she cried, startling the girl and making her jump. The old lady’s eyes shone with delight. She seemed to be watching something, but the girl couldn’t see what.

The source of the excitement soon became obvious, as a small white butterfly took to the wing from a nearby mess of nettle and bramble and floated lazily over the concrete path past the bench. “Just look at that. Beautiful”. The girl had never paid any attention to the myriad of bugs and beasties that shared the park before but, enthused by the old lady, she looked at the butterfly. What had originally appeared to be a floppy white smudge was revealed as anything but. As it’s name suggested, the butterfly had vivid orange tips at the end of each wing, as if carefully dipped in paint by a skilled craftsman. The underside of the wings were equally beautiful, etched with a calligraphy of rich greens and yellows. The butterfly was a masterpiece, and the girl felt a knot of excitement in her stomach. It had been months since she last had that feeling.

“They’re common, you know. One of the first signs of spring”. The girl confessed that she had never noticed butterflies in the park before, in fact she’d never noticed anything beyond the ubiquitous pigeons that covered every inch of the city. Sensing that the girl was interested, the old lady began to talk. Clutching the girl’s arm she told of the wildlife that inhabited the park. Their park. She spoke of hedgehogs and house sparrows, of bees and blackbirds, of peregrines and parakeets. She described the old dog fox, a mange-eaten shadow that slunk around the park at dusk. She even described the trees, giving names to the vegetation that surrounded them. Faceless forms became oak, sycamore and rowan. The untidy hedge became hawthorn, masses of white buds preparing to burst into flower. Sensing that the old lady was in storytelling mode, the beagle lay spreadeagled and began to snore softly.

She had lived in the same part of London all of her life, born in the mid 1930s less than three miles from where they sat. The borough has been very different back then, of course, with factories and terraces occupying that land that the high-rises would later colonise. The war would change the landscape irreparably, and she described the sounds and smells of the blitz as remembered from the bedroom that she shared with a younger brother. The blitz had devastated the area, whole streets flattened in the blink of an eye, but she seemed to remember this period with an unexpected fondness. “We were like a family, everyone helping everyone else. There we no squabbles or divides, just a sense of togetherness”. She explained that it was during the years after the war that her life-long love of wildlife had taken hold. “The plants soon started to grow on the bomb sites you see, fireweed and poppy turning the ground mauve and crimson. Then the plants brought the insects and the birds back. They’ve been here all my life”.

A ring-necked parakeet, one of London’s newest and most beautiful arrivals, shot overhead like a noisy green firework as the lady got slowly to her feet. The beagle barked excitedly at the prospect of returning home for second breakfast, getting tangled in his lead as they bid the girl farewell. “It’s nice to have someone to share this place with. Nature has been a friend to me all my life, through bad times and good”. After a few steps she hesitated, turning back to look at the girl, still sat on the bench. “Things will be alright”.

The girl sat thinking, long after the old lady had gone. The old lady’s spirit was infectious, and her unexpected introduction to the healing power of nature filled her with an excited glow. The community would always remember, but she knew that they would heal in time. Old and young, black and white, united by a shared experience. She resolved to spend more time in the park, observing and enjoying, and she knew she would bring her friends here too. Love and nature would be her constants, just as they had been for the old lady.

A robin sang joyously from the top of a dog bin, and the girl felt happy.