Thursday, 27 January 2011

Cameron – spare those trees

We have nothing in England to equal la France profonde. Nothing – geographically – as remote and deep. But were we to look for an emotional equivalent (I was going to say “spiritual,” but I don’t want to frighten the unicorns) then eyes, feelings and folk memories might light on our woodlands.
If I start to warble about the forests of Arden and Dean, the yew of Agincourt and the oak of Trafalgar, you’ll probably have me down as some kind of sub-BNP nutter. And yet, how to explain the extraordinary chord that’s been struck by the campaign against the Government’s intention to privatise our woodlands?
Within moments of reading the Woodland Trust and Save our Forests appeals I was signed up and circulating the links. And within the day, I’d had dozens of responses, some friends sending proof that they in turn had forwarded the websites to dozens of their own friends.
Is it just that here, on this issue, the Tories have spotlit their essential Tory-ness, heirs as they are to predecessors two hundred years before whose Enclosure Acts fenced off and privatised thousands of acres of land that had been enjoyed and farmed as common property for generations? That smug, mostly, in the contentment of their own gated, landed, propertied possessions, they’ve betrayed their contempt for the rambler, their indifference to the stressed and straitened urbanite, their tin-ear for the lyricism of shared and unowned beauty (true possession, William Blake says somewhere, consists of the imaginative power to enjoy, and not the material power to buy, a truth which Tory philosophy will never comprehend).
It is a recurrent phenomenon of capitalism that, when in crisis, it will seek to legitimate the seizure of others’ property. Or, as Benjamin Kunkel writes in the latest edition of the London Review of Books: “the privatisation of public or commonly owned assets, including land... offers instances of the accumulation by dispossession that has accompanied capitalism since its inception.”
Woodland and forest, however, aren’t simply material assets. They are also salutary for the physical, mental and cultural well-being of the nation, which is why the intention to inflict this particular wound is felt so keenly.
What the woods represent beyond the trees is hard to define except obliquely – but I’ll try, through brief extracts from three poets, four centuries apart, who seem to me to come close to capturing the mysterious romance between the English and their woodland.
First, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599):

Much can they praise the trees so straight and high,
The sailing Pine; the Cedar proud and tall;
The vine-prop Elm; the Poplar never dry;
The builder Oak sole king of forests all
The Aspen good for staves; the Cypress funeral;
The Laurel, meed
[reward] of mighty conquerors
And poets sage; the Fir that weepeth still;

The Willow, worn of forlorn Paramours;
The Yew, obedient to the bender’s will;
The Birch for shafts; the Sallow for the mill
The Myrrh sweet-bleeding in the bitter wound;
The warlike Beech; the Ash for nothing ill;
The fruitful Olive; and the Platane
[Plane tree] round;
The carver Holm; the Maple seldom inward sound.

What makes this so quintessentially English, I think (I can’t speak for Scots or Welsh or Irish) is that it asserts the practical beside the poetic, getting towards the heart of the relationship. Particular timber is craft-stuff, good for making particular things, while particular trees are also soul-stuff, whispering to us of other things that matter in parallel with the practical – love, conquest, virtue, song, sorrow, sustenance, death.
Secondly, a poet almost forgotten – the Dorset parson William Barnes (1800-1886):

So, who would heed the treeless down,
A-beat by all the storms, O,
Or who would heed the busy town,
Where folk do go in swarms, O;
If he were in my house below
The elms, where the fire did glow
In Liddy’s face, though winds did blow
Against the Winter’s Willow?”

In Barnes’ world, trees aren’t just part of the landscape – they’re actually and metaphysically integral to hearth and homestead, part of structure and shelter and essence (if you’re wondering why the sixth line doesn’t quite seem to scan, say it again and give “elm” the same two-syllable stress that an Irishman gives the word “film” – “elem,” as they say, or once said, in Dorset).
Lastly, Sir John Betjeman (1906-84):

Soft the light suburban evening caught our ashlar-speckled spire,
Eighteen-sixty early English, as the mighty elms retire
Either side of Brookfield Mansions flashing fine French-window fire.

The spire of St Anne’s is still there, and so are Brookfield Mansions, not far from where I live. But of course, all the elms are gone (which is why I wrote, of “elm” and “elem,” just now, “as they say, or once said, in Dorset”).
I was moving from adolescence into adulthood in 1965, when the great plague of Dutch Elm disease hit Britain. Seventeen million elms died in fifteen years. British landscapes were transformed. The tall, billowing, sumptuous elms which had been a commonplace of my childhood were gone, every one. “Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat/Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe.” Even now, the recollection is benumbing – three decades pass, and I still feel the loss.
Privatise the nation's forests and woodlands? Fence and fell even a few of those eloquent, enigmatic, sylvan sanctuaries of nature, language, history and culture, and render them instead into coniferous deserts?
“Earth trembled from her entrails, as again/In pangs, and nature gave a second groan.”

Thursday, 20 January 2011

News from the Witchfinders General (a kind of homicide)

So keen are the new Puritans to stop our ears with their horny fingers that often they don’t bother to listen in the first place to the material they’re rushing to place under interdict.
A song is the latest victim of their asphyxiation: Money for Nothing by Dire Straits. According to The Guardian (January 17):
“Although it has become a rock'n'roll anthem, Money for Nothing contains three instances of the anti-gay slur 'faggot'. Last week, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) reviewed the song after receiving a complaint from a listener in Newfoundland. Its lyrics were found to be 'unacceptable', contravening the human rights clauses of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' code of ethics. It has been banned from radio stations nationwide.”
“But it is a homophobic song,” said my son. “No it’s not,” I replied. You see, in our contemporary world of accelerated judgment and instant opinion, the CBSC has typically failed before condemnation to allow its victim any kind of close defence, close cross-examination, close reading.
Money for Nothing is a story. Its principal voice belongs to a rancid working class man, red-necked, blue-collared, who’s doomed to spend his days shipping electrical and white goods in and out of a megastore:
We got to install microwave ovens, custom kitchen delivery; we got to move these refrigerators, we got to move these colours TV’s...
MTV is playing in the store – playing, as the story unfolds, the same driving rock anthem we’re listening to. The anti-hero looks, listens and recriminates, reflecting on his own life of hard labour and meagre wages:
That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it – you play the guitar on the MTV. That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it – money for nothing and your chicks for free...
Then he turns bitter, and we hear the familiar equations our parents snarled at us in the sixties: long hair=ambiguous sexuality; rock music=primitive, animal rhythms (there’s an intimation of racism here as well, which the CBSC seems to have missed):
The little faggot with the earring and the make-up – yea buddy, that’s his own hair – that little faggot got his own jet airplane, that little faggot, he’s a millionaire...
What’s that? Hawaiian noises? He’s banging on those bongos like a chimpanzee... That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it &c...
Observe briefly the confusion in the anti-hero’s mind (what pleasures, exactly, can the “little faggot” realise with his free chicks?) and then ask yourself, Q: who is actually singing the song? A: Mark Knopfler. Q: and the character whose complaints, regrets and prejudices Mark Knopfler articulates? who is this character attacking? A: why, the singer-guitarist on the MTV: Mark Knopfler.
It’s a superlative piece of rock music. And it’s a satire, although not without compassion. But homophobic? Should we ban the plays of Athol Fugard because, in denouncing apartheid, he introduces into his drama players who espouse apartheid’s philosophies?
By the way, whose voice do you think it is in Money for Nothing that chants the ethereal refrain – “I want my, I want my MTV”? I’ve always believed that it is the stifled soul of the redneck himself, the vestige of his infant lyricism, which the capitalist system, in preparing him for his treadmill, willfully left unkindled; for a true lyric, as Shelley shows us, is often sung to a lyre draped in a red flag.
As another revolutionary wrote:
“Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. .. We should be wary, therefore, what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom; and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself; slays an immortality rather than a life.”

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Brave, Weird, Heroic, Creepy

Story Worknotes: It was barely light, and he was just at the brow of the hill when a huge shadow overarched him and there was a stupefying thud. Puddle water sprayed his face and shook the red valerian in the wall against which he cowered. The wheel of a coach had crashed into the kerb.
Looking up he saw – “like an illuminated tableau” – the terrified faces of the children and the coach driver, dazed, dishevelled, apparently drunk, crouched over the wheel, one eye shut.
“I didn’t really think,” he said later – and observed how the Press used that line, but not the one that followed: “it only took a moment,”; used “anyone would have done it” (he said, modestly) but not, “anyway, it wasn’t particularly difficult.”
Not really thinking, he stepped up onto the running board, twisting his boot so he didn’t slip on the wet metal, pressed the emergency button, pushed through the opening door and, because the coach was beginning to gather speed and slalom downhill, he wrenched the driver from his seat, took his place, changed the gears down slowly and gently braked, steered the coach from the centre of the road into the side, stopped it, and removed the ignition keys.
He called the police. They came quite quickly, took his statement, thanked him, and he went on to work.
Then came the interviews, photographs, profiles, a court testimony and more interviews. “Friends,” sometimes anonymously, fleshed out the portrait. He’d given up lunch on Fridays at his comprehensive and donated the equivalent cash to Biafra’s poor (but that wasn’t his idea – so did everybody in class). He’d helped with meals-on-wheels (but that had struck him at the time as the least onerous D of E option). He’d once rescued a cat from a pond (had he? He didn’t remember that at all). As a boy his favourite book had been The Scarlet Pimpernel about “the archetypal hero who hides his light under a bushel”(well, he’d read it, but he’d preferred Biggles – easier prose and a less discreet protagonist).
He had to listen and respond to the headmistress’s thank-you speech at the primary school’s end-of-term assembly and collect an award at the Lord Mayor’s Parlour. There were invitations to address Rotarians, Round Tablers, the Women’s Institute and the Townswomen’s Guild.
“Is this the John we know and love or some other bloke?” joked a friend in the pub, pushing the local paper at him, page folded at his photograph, which was under the headline: “Brave Secrets of the Shy Hero.”
The space between the public persona and his understanding of his self widened and disconcerted him. He started to feel like his own body-double. He began one speech, “I’m sorry I can’t be with you tonight,” but the audience must have thought they’d misheard him.
Anyway, his disorientation overflowed one night when he was trying to watch a Freeview channel biodrama based on his life which culminated in his adventure with the coach. Without quite realising what he was doing, he finished the whisky bottle and fell asleep before the programme ended. A reporter woke him, ringing to ask for his opinion. He must have slurred.
“Are you alright?” the reporter asked. “Not really,” he said, and put the phone down.
Two nights later, already rather lit and on his way back from the off-licence, he was recognised by a couple of hoodies, who hooted and jeered. Rage triggered, he gave one of them a push, and the boy fell under an approaching bus.
... “a loner”... “a moody adolescent who had difficulties with girls” ... “a weirdo who fantasised he was the Scarlet Pimpernel.”
Closing Sequence: in the prison bus, approaching court. The sparkle of the stills photographers’ flashbulbs, the glare of video-camera lights.
My story-in-progress reverses and improvises around the story-so-far of Christopher Jefferies, 65, who was arrested last week on suspicion of murdering his tenant, Joanna Yeats, questioned for two days and then released.
It has, after all, been both instructive and depressing.
Scavenging through the private life of this retired Bristol schoolmaster, talking to “friends”, colleagues or ex-pupils, the journalists were only interested in material which pointed in one direction.
As Peter Preston wrote in The Observer, the purpose was to characterise Mr Jefferies as “Professor Strange,” aka “The Strange Mr Jefferies”, and a “suspect peeping Tom”. Peter Wilby in The New Statesman made the same point: the Mr Jefferies who came out of the media alembic was “weird, posh, lewd, creepy.”
“Innocent until proven guilty” was once a cornerstone of British liberty. Seems it ain’t no more.
Even the books on Mr Jefferies’ shelves were called down to denounce him. What leapt out at me at once was that poor, pious, lonely Christina Rossetti, in whose work he specialised and about whom I wrote in my last blog, was recast as a sinister, death-obsessed sorceress.
Another of his favourites, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, was described by The Sun as “a Victorian murder novel.” It isn’t. The plot hinges on a stolen jewel. And do you recognise this classic from a Daily Mirror headline?
That’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde.
We do not know what the next act of Mr Jefferies story will be, but in the meantime, the episode has given us the makings of a new library game in which our volumes are called as witnesses against us:
In his favourite novel, a “bachelor” felon kidnaps boys and grooms them for life of crime. Meanwhile his accomplice is a prostitute murderer: Oliver Twist.
This sordid tale of a raped and strangled woman: Tess of the D’Urbervilles .
A drunken amnesiac wills own death: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam .
Sick parents leave kids to risk drowning: Swallows and Amazons.
And so on. Were I young and free again, I doubt if I’d go into journalism. I could just about cope with the irresponsibility, but not the wilful illiteracy.
Footnote: Mr Jeffries was completely exonerated and released without charge on March 7, 2011.