Sunday, 29 August 2010

The road to Eden

Every year I like to ‘get back to the garden’ by spending a weekend at the Shrewsbury folk festival, which I've just got back from. Granted, I only camp out for one night and someone else kindly puts up the tent for me. But still I like to venture out at first light along with the other alpha male hunter-gatherers and go foraging at every corner of the campsite for the last copy of the Observer. We return to our caves triumphant only to find that we have earned the displeasure of the womenfolk by buying 4 copies of the same newspaper.

These thoughts about getting it together in the country have also been prompted by my reading of Rob Young’s excellent new book, Electric Eden, which is partly a twentieth-century history of folk music and partly an exploration of the idea of an English rural idyll. It begins with the unforgettable account of the long-forgotten – then remembered again through a mobile phone advert – folk singer Vashti Bunyan, who in 1968 set off on an 18 month trek along Albion’s roads, in a gypsy cart pulled by her horse Bess, heading for the remote Hebridean island of Berneray.

This chapter includes this eloquent summary of the anti-mythology of the British road:

‘The land mass of the British Isles is not large enough to have generated a culture of the open road. Leaving aside such one-off terrace chants as Tom Robinson’s “2-4-6-8 Motorway”, the culture of British travel is more commonly linked to the sense of a quest, a journey undertaken for purposes of knowledge or self-restoration. In that sense, the British road is a road to the interior, of the imagination rather than a physical coverage of distance. Its poetic energy is supplied by lanes, forest spurs and hillside tracks, not motorways and slip roads.’

Young also reveals that the Beatles song ‘The long and winding road’ was inspired by Paul McCartney’s purchase of a country retreat on the Mull of Kintyre. It is ‘the B842 from Kintyre to Campbeltown rendered in treacle’.

I loved the names of the more obscure folk groups from the sixties and seventies, themselves redolent of the Edenic ideal: Midwinter, Oberon, Dulcimer, Madrigal, Amazing Blondel, Wooden O, The Druids, Fresh Maggots, Alphane Moon, Our Glassie Azoth, The Owl Service, Plough Myth International, The Straw Bear Band, Stormcrow, Tinkerscuss and Trembling Bells.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

On kindness

I wrote this piece about kindness for the School of Life column in the Observer magazine:

Does modern society suffer from a deficit of kindness? In a recent book on the subject, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor argue that kindness is an unfashionable, endangered virtue. They attribute this to the ascendancy of free market individualism and the lack of trust it engenders, which creates “a life of overwork, anxiety, and isolation”.

It is certainly true that kindness is rarely invoked in contemporary public rhetoric. The voguish word for our straitened times is not kindness but “fairness”. When everyone must bear their “fair share” of economic pain, kindness is likely to be regarded as a luxury we can ill afford, perhaps even as a form of sanctimony or concealed self-interest. Kindness now tends to be outsourced to specific groups, such as care workers delivering “care packages”, or reduced to the scripted concern of the customer-server relationship: “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

But in our daily lives, there is no evidence that kindness is in decline. Each era creates its own types of kindness. Children, who consume more of their parents’ lives than ever before, generate networks of kindness as adults share chauffeuring, sleepover and cooking duties. And while the casual cruelty of internet comments pages might suggest that kindness requires face-to-face interaction, the internet’s interactivity also inspires random acts of kindness among strangers: the recent lovebombing of Keanu Reeves, after he was photographed looking fed up on a park bench, is an example.

Granted, it may be easier to be kind to glamorous film stars, but surely the point about kindness is that it is spontaneous and can’t be legislated for. If, as philosophers from the Greek Stoics to Rousseau have insisted, we have a natural empathy with our fellow human beings, then kindness will surely survive the temporary setback of hard times.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

My day out

This little piece by me appeared in the Guardian travel section yesterday under the heading "My perfect day out in the UK". Er, I'm not sure I'd go quite that far ...

I wonder if I am the first person who has ever taken the train to Spaghetti Junction. I got off at Gravelly Hill station, northeast of Birmingham, and walked down the hill through a quiet suburb with Tudorbethan houses, gravel drives and faded neighbourhood watch signs. Then suddenly it was in front of me, the parabolic curve of a sliproad on the Aston Expressway - and beyond it, all the other roads on stilts: 18 of them, on 559 concrete columns. A giant pub called the Armada marked my last human outpost before I descended into the morass of underpasses underneath the Salford Circus roundabout.

I’d been inspired by French travel writers like Francois Maspero and Jacques Reda, who make intrepid journeys to mundane places like commuter suburbs and the undiscovered lands underneath elevated roads. I wanted to explore this place at the heart of the motorway system that most motorists pass through in a few seconds.

I had read that in the mid-1990s the council created a gravel beach here, with brave locals bathing in the network of canals underneath the junction. I now wondered if this was an urban myth, a joke designed to lure unsuspecting tourists into this wasteland. There was some sand and gravel, but no evidence that it had been placed there on purpose. I wandered around the whole 30 acres of the junction, and I saw some strange human remains – a Loohire chemical toilet turned on its side, some ripped hi-vi trousers – but no actual human being.

After a few hours I realised I was lost. My atlas was, naturally, no help, because it only showed the roads looping above me. When I tried to retrace my steps I kept encountering unpassable pylons crackling with electricity. Eventually I scrambled through a gap in a fence and walked across a mudbath of football pitch which led me back on dry land recognised by the Birmingham A-Z. On the suburban train back to Birmingham New Street, I got some odd looks with my shoes caked in dirt. I had returned from another country: the terra nullius underneath our elevated motorways.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Whitsun Weddings

I did this piece about Philip Larkin for the FT last week:

On Saturday August 13 1955, Philip Larkin, the poet and head librarian at the University of Hull, boarded a train at the city’s Paragon station. The slow train was bound for London and this journey inspired one of the nation’s best-loved poems: “The Whitsun Weddings”.

In the poem, Larkin sets out from Hull on a “sunlit Saturday” and gradually realises that the train is being boarded at each station by newly wed couples, all brought together briefly on this “frail travelling coincidence” of a railway journey. With a sceptical but generous spirit, Larkin captures the fragility of the human search for love, happiness and community. “The Whitsun Weddings” had a long gestation, being first broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme in April 1959 and later appearing in Larkin’s 1964 collection of the same name.

Larkin’s fateful journey, it should be noted, did not actually take place at Whitsun. In his recent book, Family Britain, the historian David Kynaston pins down this three-month discrepancy, a forgivable piece of poetic licence. Larkin noted when he finished the poem in 1959 that he took the relevant trip in August 1955, and his itinerary that month means that it must have been on the 13th. Whit Saturday in 1955, meanwhile, fell on the day before a planned national rail strike, and the so-called “Hermit of Hull” would never have boarded a long-distance train without a definite means of getting home.

Larkin did not find his return journey quite so inspiring. “I had a hellish journey back, on a filthy train,” he wrote to the friends he had visited in London, “next to a young couple with a slobbering chocolate baby”. While Larkin’s misanthropy and casual racism caused a temporary dip in his reputation after his death, his status as one of the great 20th-century British poets now seems assured.

Hull is currently hosting a five-month festival marking the 25th anniversary of his death, culminating in December with the unveiling of a bronze statue of Larkin by the sculptor Martin Jennings at Paragon station. It will complement another Jennings sculpture, of Larkin’s friend John Betjeman, at London’s St Pancras station, just across the road from King’s Cross, Larkin’s destination in August 1955.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The ant and the grasshopper

I did this piece on the importance of play for the Guardian last week:

At this time of year, the out of office auto-replies ping back with the certainty of Federer volleys. Everyone is “away”. We don’t call it holiday any more, as if, even in August, we need an unspecific euphemism to assuage our guilt at being absent from work. I am not away. I am still in the office in high summer. My name is Joe and I am a workaholic.

I should, at least, feel at home in the current political climate. One of the side effects of the recession-led reiteration of the need for “fairness” is a moralistic emphasis on redirecting limited resources to the industrious and deserving. Incapacity benefit shirkers must pick up their crutches and work; university lecturers must forego their long holidays; idle, nest-feathering managers must be culled and Stakhanovite frontline workers retained. Whatever the economic rights and wrongs of these arguments, I detect a mean-spirited, puritan streak in them. We must work, work and work to cut the deficit. Like Vershinin in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, we believe that one day life on earth will be beautiful, provided we put in a few hundred years’ hard labour first.

“Why should I let the toad work squat on my life?” asked Philip Larkin, weighed down by his in-tray, in 1955. But Larkin was writing at a time when most people believed in an automated future, when labour-saving machines would rule over the workplace and the problem would be how to fill the endless hours of leisure time. They needn’t have worried. Today’s political culture is dominated by the middle-class conservatism of Thatcherism, which was born in a Grantham grocer’s shop and which believes that work, and receiving just rewards for it, are central to human identity. The clich├ęd way of complimenting key voters in the New Labour years was to call them “hardworking families”. Hard work has become the definition of citizenship.

In their recent book, Bugs Britannica, Peter Marren and Richard Mabey remind us that these anxieties about doing useful work are part of our folklore. Perhaps the earliest example is Aesop’s smug little fable of the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper spends the summer lounging about while the ant works away gathering food for the winter, when the grasshopper, unaided by the ant, dies of hunger. I prefer Richard Lovelace’s version: a cavalier poet writing during the civil war, he reversed the tale to castigate the sanctimonious ant who would not even allow himself an hour “to lose with pleasure, what thou got’st with pain”. Lovelace would surely have approved of the Muppet Show’s take on Aesop, in which the ant gets trodden on and the grasshopper drives off to Florida for the winter in a sports car.

The problem with work, as Aesop never acknowledged and it has taken me 20 years of work to realise, is that it never ends. This world is run by money, and there will never be a point at which money will say “enough”. The market goes on forever and it always demands more. The virtual markets which managerialism has brought to the public sector engage in a similarly infinite pursuit of “excellence” and “quality”. You could spend a lifetime of toil in search of these elusive abstract nouns.

Of course, work is a good and necessary thing in its place. It stops you from starving, directs your energies and can even, if you are lucky, offer friendship and community. But nature writers like Mabey have pointed out that seeing work as the meaning of life is a human, metaphysical invention; it has little basis in biology. Play, not work, seems to be the defining essence of life on earth. Elephants push over trees, penguins belly flop on the ice, birds chase each other or drop and catch sticks in the air, cranes leap up together like ballet dancers – and all just for the hell of it. While the new austerity requires us to put a price on everything, play remains priceless precisely because it is pointless: a way of simply enjoying and celebrating life when life is all we have. Play is also free, egalitarian and equilibrium-loving: it costs nothing and asks for nothing in return and is therefore an excellent model for sustainable living with scarce resources. “Thus richer than untempted kings are we,” writes Lovelace in his poem in praise of the grasshopper, “That, asking nothing, nothing need.”

At the beginning of the financial crisis two years ago, there seemed to be a brief possibility that it might allow us to reassess our priorities and value more those aspects of life – play, pleasure, friendship, free time - that do not show up in growth figures. But now the ants are on the march again, all of them warning that the grasshoppers will die in penury, just as Lovelace did. I don’t care for this joyless, ungenerous attitude in which we must constantly prove to each other how much useful work we are doing. I may be an honorary ant, but I have a soft spot for grasshoppers. Their days in the sun may soon be ended by the harvest sickle, or the scythe of government cuts. But until then, whether they are “away” or on holiday, I hope they can guiltlessly enjoy the sweet idleness of summer. Work is not the meaning of life. Take it from an ant who knows.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Not many dead

If only Charles Baudelaire, the author of today’s mundane quote, had lived into the 21st century, he would have been shocked by the capacity of modern news to regurgitate the self-evidently non-newsworthy, from the survey that reveals the bleeding obvious to banal details about the lives of the famous. Nick Davies has called this sort of thing “churnalism”.

Here are some of my favourite entries from Not Many Dead, an anthology of non-news stories from British newspapers collected by the Oldie magazine:

Fiona Bruce, the BBC Ten O’Clock News presenter, read the headlines last night assisted by a pair of glasses for the first time. – Daily Telegraph

Television entertainer Ruby Wax wrote the landlord of a pub near Bath an IOU for £3.15 after finding herself short of cash to pay for her bar snacks. – Western Daily Press

The letter “e” has mysteriously vanished from the side of the Tesco Express store in Thornwell. Someone who wished to remain nameless, said, “To be honest, I hadn’t even noticed it had gone missing.” – Monmouthshire Free Press

A garage on Silk Mill Road, Watford, was broken into. No property was stolen, only moved about in the garage. – Watford Advertiser

A windscreen wiper on a Skoda in Chapel Road, Brightlingsea, has been bent. – Frinton and Walton Advertiser

A police car sped to the centre of Wells on Friday afternoon after information that there was an incident and shouting was heard. But police found no trace of anyone. – Wells Journal

A housewife who reported all the washing stolen from her line to the police at East Grinstead phoned later to say she’d found it. – East Grinstead Courier

Lech Walesa, the symbol of resistance to Communist rule and former president of Poland, has shaved off his moustache. – Daily Telegraph

Mundane quote of the day: ‘Every newspaper, from the first line to the last, is nothing but a web of horrors. War, crime, rapine, shamelessness, torture, the crimes of princes, the crimes of nations, the crimes of individuals, a delirium of universal atrocity. And it is with this revolting aperitif that the civilized man starts his morning meal every day. Everything, in this world, reeks of crime: the paper, the walls and the face of man. I cannot comprehend how clean hands could touch a newspaper without a convulsion of disgust.’ – Charles Baudelaire