Monday, 1 June 2020

TV's next Downton Abbey will be - not what you think, says Griselda Heppel

A recent newspaper headline caught my eye: ‘TV’s next Downton will be the American novel that inspired it.’ (The Times, 14th May 2020.)

Any guesses? 

Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey)
Intrigued, I read on to discover the novel in question is The Custom of the Country by one of my favourite authors, Edith Wharton. 

Now, this is a great book, but I would never in a million years have related its theme of unscrupulous social climbing to the golden atmosphere of benign overlordship that suffuses Downton Abbey. (Which isn’t meant as a criticism of Downton Abbey – I’ve basked in the cosy escapism provided by all 6 series.) Here, in all the plotlines featuring good or bad behaviour, whether among the upper or the servant classes, I can’t remember a single one in which a ruthless, ambitious, hard as nails nobody sets out to topple the ancient social order and succeeds. There are a couple of devious valets, one Irish nationalist chauffeur, some brave leftwing newspaper hacks and lots of scullery maids striving to better themselves, but not one of these ousts the kindly Lord Grantham from his place at the top of the hierarchy, nor would they wish to.

By contrast, Edith Wharton’s heroine, the gloriously named Undine Spragg, uses her beauty to carve her way to the top of American society, trashing ‘old’ aristocracy in New York and Europe alike, unfazed by the real human suffering she leaves in her wake. This is so opposite to the atmosphere and values of Downton Abbey that it’s hard to see how the one could arise from the other; yet here is Julian Fellowes speaking in 2013:

‘Undine has no values except ambition, greed and desire, and yet through the miracle of Wharton’s writing, you are on her side…. I want Downton to be a warm show and I hope I am kind to them in their weakness… I do feel it is a lesson I have learnt directly from the writing of Edith Wharton.’

This is splendid of Fellowes and also fascinating. Wharton’s writing is indeed miraculous, but I’m not sure it puts you on Undine’s side, any more than reading Vanity Fair makes you root unequivocally for the heartless Becky Sharp. Undine and Becky are both antiheroines, brilliantly drawn, sent by their creators as missiles to wreak havoc on traditional society, destroying good and bad aspects of it alike without a care in the world. Fellowes’s characters, on the other hand, have their faults; but Downton Abbey’s great appeal lies in the unstated assurance of all romantic fiction, that everything will work out all right. The characters we get to know and love will all end up happy and fulfilled and – this is the crucial bit – will deserve to. 

Since The Custom of the Country is no more a romance than Vanity Fair, I’m not sure Fellowes’s endorsement will help Sofia Coppola in her task of adapting it for television. Audiences expecting a similar feelgood story to Downton Abbey will be disappointed. Several previous attempts in the last 30 years to turn the book into film have foundered and I can’t help wondering if this is to do with the difficulty of catering to this kind of audience expectation.

Beautiful, scheming, ice-cold survivor Undine Spragg will be a fabulous role to play and if Coppola’s screenplay stays faithful to the spirit of Edith Wharton, this could be a terrific film. Yet I fear she may feel pressurised to go down the same road as every adaptor of Thackeray’s masterpiece has done, and ultimately ‘redeem’ Undine, just as Becky Sharp is always ‘redeemed’ at the end of films of Vanity Fair.

We shall see. I hope not. But I’m not holding my breath.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Creativity in the time of Covid: N M Browne

Checking on my last post, I am disturbed to discover  that to use a well-worn phrase from a
previous historical era ‘nothing has changed,’ or at least, not much. The camellias have died back, the rosemary is making a bid for world dominance and the birds are extemporising their own symphony. I have still barely read a book let alone started writing one.
 There are differences: I am writing this outside and  there’s a lot more traffic on the road, cars, motorbikes, buses intermittently drowning out the bird song, reminding me of our noisy normal. The clear blue sky above my house is tracked by planes and Trump’s ability to believe seven stupid things before breakfast appears to be contagious, though limited to the higher echelons of government.
 Friends of mine in mid novel are struggling with normality or rather with how to characterise it. Will we still be socially distancing in a year? Will we ever eat indoors in restaurants, drink in pubs? More pressingly for me, will I ever get my roots done, and will I, as seems increasingly likely, cease to care?  
   Like most of us used to solitary home working, what has been revolutionary for many people is just a modified more-of-the-same for me. Days slip by, as they always have, with large sections of the ‘to do’ list undone (and sometimes unwritten.)
    I am still writing poetry compulsively, but feeling less guilty about it. I imagine there is a glut of novels and the satisfaction of producing something small but complete almost makes up for its utter lack of economic value. Perhaps that is something else that has changed, not just for me but for lots of people: as a society we have begun to recognise the sustaining power of the arts even as all around us creative venues, and creative livlihoods are under threat.
   I know it is going to be even harder to make a living, but more important than ever to use our  creativity to  make living better. Sometimes when writing seems an indulgence it is good to be reminded that in times of trouble, music, literature, art of all kinds becomes an emotional life-line – a way of connecting people, a way of making some kind of sense of chaos.
 So, that’s what I’m doing as lockdown eases; sitting in the garden writing poetry, trying to make sense of chaos and listening to bird song battle traffic noise.

I know I’m privileged, I know that people elsewhere are struggling with bereavement, sickness, poverty, uncertainty and depression. I feel helpless to change any of it, so I do the only thing I can and write about it.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Editing old work, lockdown, and reading Hilary Mantel - WOW! by Enid Richemont

Once again, I go into a novel I wrote aeons ago with the honourable intention of editing. One glaring error of judgement jumps out at me - the quoting of the lyric of an actual song, which if published, would cost me an arm and a leg in legal fees, so I need to take that out, and just convey its feeling without the actual words. And then, as always, I go blank, because at the time, I was writing in a drug-like state, on a high with words - no problem writing them down except a physical one with speed, hand with pen or pencil on paper, then pounding them out on an electric typewriter, errors manually corrected if, indeed, they were even noticed, because I was unstoppable.

That was then, and this is now. After three decades of being rejected, then published - a lot, then going out of print, then experimenting with ebooks etc etc, I'm no longer unstoppable, and that old enchantment has long since faded to reveal a very harsh reality.

There's a very interesting discussion going on at present on ABBA - "A Great Big Blog Adventure", to give it its full credentials, and always a rewarding site to visit, although it does concentrate mainly on writing for children. The current post is around creativity, and especially creativity during the lockdown. One point that was made particularly struck me - that once the creative activity - writing, drawing, painting, whatever, turns into a mainstream job, the writer/artist needs to look for another source of creative satisfaction in order to compensate in some way. Interesting. The main drift of the blog wasn't this, but more about the obsession people have about 'being good enough' acting like a brake to any creative activity, which, important as it is, is not the same thing at all.

People say that you should write with passion and edit in cold blood (I can't remember the actual saying which was much more concise.)  "Kill your Darlings" comes to mind, but my problem with this novel lies much more with meeting the original author. There she is, punch-drunk on words - her first actually published book, a Middle-Grade novel (Walker Books) yet to come - confident, in charge of, and in love with what she was doing (the book's over-written, as many first novels are, and she'd never before done an actual book with real chapters and all that clever stuff, just short stories, but she thought it was great... oh, well.) It's that passion and that confidence I can't deal with, and the fact that she/I had so much to learn. I read a short story once, in which a very troubled and semi-suicidal teenager encounters a wise and sympathetic elderly woman who turns out to be her own future self. I am neither wise nor sympathetic - just envious.

One of my lock-down self-imposed projects was reading Hilary Mantel's final book in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell: THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT. I am not a lover of very lengthy novels, and this was very, very lengthy, but somehow reading it on the Kindle made it much more digestable. I recently finished it, and am now suffering withdrawal symptoms. What a feat of imagination and humanity this is! Cromwell is not a likeable man, but such an interesting one. In Mantel's first book, WOLF HALL, we see him with his wife and two little daughters, all three killed by the Plague (his son survived.)

Cromwell came from a peasant background - his dad was a blacksmith, and given to domestic violence and booze - but Thomas rose through a mixture of intelligence and adaptability to become the most powerful man in the land apart from the king, and we can see how important it was for him to hang on to that in spite of the inevitable casualties. Also, I never realised, until I read these books, just how ambivalent religion-wise, Henry was. This was one of our ages of religious extremism, our own Isis, complete with beheadings and burnings. I loved the images of the ageing Henry denying, as we all do, that his physical decline was happening at all, and Cromwell himself suffering possibly from the mysterious "Sweating Sickness", from which he was spared by being executed for political/religious reasons by the king he was so close to. These three books will stay with me for a very long time.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

If You Were Leader of the Whole World, What Would Be the First Thing You Would Do?" - Andrew Crofts

It started just before Christmas 2018 with an email from a Dutch publisher and author called Geert Kimpen, informing me that his client was looking for a ghostwriter to help him write a “thriller-like book about the return of the Messiah” and asking if I would be interested. I was.

On the 3rd of January 2019 I met Martin Van Es at the Stafford Hotel in St James’s, tucked away in a mews behind the Ritz, and listened to an outpouring of ideas about how mankind needed to adapt if we were to avoid self-destruction.

“If you were the leader of the whole world,” he asked at one point, “what would be the first thing that you would do?”

Good question.

“If Jesus was to reappear on Earth to give mankind one more chance to save themselves,” he continued, “what do you think would happen?”

Another good question. 

I was hooked. 

Martin had read my novel “Secrets of the Italian Gardener”, and wanted his story written in a similar style.

In March I travelled, along with Geert Kimpen, to the Dutch island of Terschelling, where Martin and his son own an events company and Martin has a house. For several days we sat in beach restaurants and bicycled around the island, all the time talking about the story and the characters and how mankind could be saved if we had one unifying leader rather than the divisive, nationalistic bunch that we have now. A strong friendship was formed and Martin generously suggested that I might be given equal billing as a co-author, rather than my usual, invisible, ghost status.

On June 4th 2020, despite the arrival of exactly the sort of global crisis we had been talking about and imagining, the book, entitled “Call Me Joe” is being published simultaneously in Dutch by Geert and in English by RedDoor Press and the first advanced review has appeared in Midwest Book Review:

“Readers who enjoy apocalyptic stories that focus on more than just physical and psychological survival alone will delight in the social, political, and spiritual entanglements ……. An involving, compelling read right up to the conclusion and a call for radical re-envisioning of mankind’s choices and social and political structures for the sake of the planet’s survival.”  

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Corona + Amphan -- Rituparna Roy

Photo from 'The Telegraph', Kolkata - 20 May 2020
Corona + Amphan is the worst double whammy one can think of - and we are facing that at the moment. By “we”, I mean Bangladesh and two eastern states of India – Orissa and West Bengal. Cyclone Amphan hit us on 20th May. Last year, a similar cyclone - Fani - had hit the coastal belt lining the Bay of Bengal in early May. It coincided with my daughter Srishti’s Birthday - so, the small party I’d arranged at home for her had to be cancelled. This year, a day after Amphan, with no internet, we could barely wish our niece in Hyderabad on her Birthday. While the ISD call did connect, all that could be heard from the other side were garbled voices… but at least, we could shout out a “Happy Birthday”! 

Privileged kids

Birthday celebrations are luxuries that can be done without for a year or two (though for children it can be a bitter disappointment; eagerly wait as they do for months for their BIG day). But even for them, a greater calamity is not having access to TV or the internet. While ‘connectivity’ is an inevitable part of their lives even in normal times, it has been absolutely indispensable during the lockdown – both for work and play. Home-schooling has automatically increased the screen-time for most kids: in addition to TV programs and WhatsApp/Gallery photos and videos on their parents’ mobiles, they have been attending regular online classes. A lot of the homework, too, is being necessarily done on the computer, as teachers send study material on Edmodo (often with a lot of YouTube and other links) and soft copies of worksheets to be worked on and submitted via email. While this exercise is increasing/improving the computer literacy of the kids, no doubt, they are left with very little work off-screen. Unless they practice things on their own… but that, obviously, is expecting too much from them!

In Srishti’s case, this has increased even more. With the printer at home not working, printouts can’t be taken – so she has ended up doing tasks on the machine that she would have otherwise written in long hand in her exercise copies. (That even those assignments would have had to be ultimately mediated through the parent - photos taken of the hand-written pages and then shared/forwarded in an email to the respective teacher - is a different story).  

Unfortunately, though, just as she got more attuned to doing things online, Amphan hit us. It is the worst cyclone in the Bengal delta in more than a 100 years. While it may belong to the same category of tropical cyclones as Fani, its impact on the ground has been far more severe. Its impact on families not directly affected by it, and on privileged children like Srishti (yes, that qualification is very important), has also been very different. For Amphan has come as a profound irony: after two months of being wholly reliant on the internet, of being told - “So what, you are at home? everything is still available at the click of a button”, all of a sudden, kids have been thrown back to a pre-internet era existence, to an altogether different mode of being. 

Throwback to a different era

As today’s (22 May) edition of The Telegraph succinctly put it, Amphan has done what even Covid could not – snatch away even the solace of virtual connection from many people’s lives. 

The very fact that I quoted TT is because the newspaper is now my only link to the world. I read the paper after I don’t know how long a time. Had almost forgotten how it felt like to hold it in my hands – opening out both arms to stretch the paper to its full length, and bending over a bit to read the text towards the top. Not just that; I also cut out a striking photograph ( the one above) from the front page of yesterday’s edition (storm clouds gathering against the backdrop of the Hoogly bridge) and a feature I really liked in today's edition (where a well-known academic pleaded for a “zero year” as a more practicable and fair solution to the academic crisis we are facing in India at the moment). 

One naturally led to the other; or rather, was a natural corollary to the other – reading the hard-copy and cutting out the favorite bits, that is. In no time, I morphed back to my student self – when I would routinely cut pictures (rather randomly – of advertisements, writers, film stars, cricketers, heritage sites, you name it) and articles (op-eds from TT, and prior to that, innumerable features/interviews from ‘The Miscellany’, the beloved Sunday supplement of The Statesman).

This sudden, pre-internet era existence (admittedly, temporary), thus came in with a whiff of nostalgia for me, however irritated I might be at the inconvenience caused to my routine – can’t take classes or even record lectures, send emails, read online resources, catch up with news, call up loved ones, watch videos, not to speak of google-ing n-times a day for all manner of reasons. 

The Betrayal

For my daughter (who just finished Grade II), however, and hundreds of thousands of kids like her (both older and younger), this sudden new mode of being is nothing short of a betrayal. For they are now being forced to realize that everything that has been promised to them can vanish altogether without warning. 

Kids obviously have individual preferences: for Srishti, the TV is more important than the internet, any day. Hence, it’s not so much the virtual connectivity with others that she’s missing these two days as much as bemoaning the fact that her chief source of entertainment - and frankly, of joyful sustenance - has been snatched away from her. 

She did everything I reminded her that could still be done – read, draw, exercise, play (ludo), watch her favourite cats from our balcony. But even after all that, she asked me so many times: “Mamma, shall I see if the TV is working?” It’s no use telling her it won’t; she needs the testimony of her own fingers, repeatedly – the remote button pressed, but the slim black rectangular frame on the wall yielding forth no visual or sound.

It’s difficult to convey the sense of desolation that TV-less days can bring to kids like Srishti – who have no siblings at home or playmates where they live (the latter is out of the reckoning, anyway, during lockdown), and have working parents who can only give them “quality time” (‘working from home’, unfortunately, doesn’t change that much). Of course, in normal times, there are nannies – but they come and go, and can seldom, if ever, creatively engage with the child. Some also live with grandparents – once again, not all grandparents are the doting caregivers that they are stereotypically made out to be. 

Peppa Pig, Dora, Masha and the Bear, Shimmer and Shine, Paw Patrol – they are just not programs with 20-minute slots, for Srishti. They are her daily companions, allowing her entry into their fun-filled/adventurous/fantastic/magical lives (with a lot of outdoors, of course), and filling her imagination with stories which she recreates at bedtime or in English composition.

At school, she may study the explorations of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama, create PowerPoint presentations on Rainforests, or try to figure out whether one-third is greater or smaller than five-sixth, or practice the difference between homonyms and homophones, not to mention learn poems by Tagore. It doesn’t matter. Her academic progress has nothing to do with her entertainment. They just don’t align. Her imaginary companions are simply her daily escape from a reality that is getting increasingly difficult to bear. Even for adults.     

Counting one’s blessings 

9.30 pm. I’ve just started writing this piece. She comes and sits on my lap. I leave the typing and hold her tight. That always helps – both of us! With her head still buried in my left shoulder, she says: “Today also there was no phone, no TV… can I at least do my ballet class tomorrow?” I don’t say anything about our snapped internet connection in reply. I just remind her of Wednesday evening – with the storm raging outside and we sitting huddled together for a few hours without electricity. We faced that for only a few hours. There are many who are still facing it – having to manage without electricity, without water. We are much better off than they, I tell her. She has never experienced water scarcity in her eight-year-old life, so I’m not sure whether she can fathom what it means. But the electricity part, she understands. The fan and the fridge are indispensable in summer - she knows that. And she could still do a PPT homework today on the laptop... she realizes that none of these would be possible without electricity. 

Then I tell her of the lakhs (many times hundred thousand, I emphasize) whose homes have been washed away – their roofs blown off, all their belongings destroyed. Strangely enough, on the evening of the storm, panic-stricken, she’d asked me precisely about them: “Mamma, what if our roof breaks?”, she’s asked first. I assured her it won’t. There are two more roofs above us, all tight and secure, she needn’t worry. She then asked, “What will happen to the poor?” I must confess I didn’t expect that question from her. She has very little idea of the kind of poor people who lose everything in a storm. Our domestic helps are not poor – they are just people who belong to a low income group, or else are facing reduced circumstances. But they all live in homes/rooms that can’t be blown away – though they may be shabby and small. Even the slum-dwellers that Srishti passes by every day on her way to school have ‘pucca’ rooms now. Srishti has watched the rage of the storm through glass windows on Wednesday, heard the howling wind despite everything being shut, seen our building being flooded that first night, photos of uprooted trees in the newspaper… but the devastation in our coastal areas… that is beyond the power of her imagination. Or, so I thought.

The very next morning, we heard of one such unfortunate home that was no more. A neighbour’s driver told us about his aged parents in Namkhana, in the Sunderbans, being forced to take shelter in a local school, after their mud hut got wiped out by the cyclone. He was determined to take special permission from the police and travel to his village to stand by his parents…. but he couldn’t get that permission.

Srishti knows him well. I tell her his story as an example of what she had feared (on Wednesday) coming true. I tell her, again, that countless others are now without homes– like his parents. She goes to sleep with that thought.

I don’t tell her the worst aspect of the double whammy of Corona + Amphan for these homeless people, though: in trying to seek shelter, they would face the palpable threat of Corona, as they would be overcrowded under whichever temporary shelter they hid. 

Monday, 25 May 2020

Wilding by Isabella Tree -- reviewed by Susan Price

The Purple Emperor: wingspan 8cms
'High up, skimming a tree's silhouette and framed against the sky, the emperors look black -- like a rainforest butterly. At a glimpse they can be mistaken for birds... The males attack anything that comes near them, defending their territory and the pick of the females. An unwary chaffinch is chased away. Blue tits shriek in alarm -- a comeuppance for them since, from October through to April... they are the butterfly's main predator. Emperors have even been known to attack sticks and bricks thrown up into the air. From time to time a couple , or even three, male emperors lock horns, tussling in flight -- 'having a bundle', as Neil puts it...'
 From 'Wilding' by Isabella Tree.

 'Wilding' by Isabella Tree.
Thanks to our destruction of the environment, not only by our roads and shopping malls but also by modern farming practices, this large, blue-tit bothering butterfly, the purple emperor, has become very rare. Thanks to the courage and initiative of Isabella Tree and her husband, the purple emperor is now more numerous on their estate of Knepp, in Sussex, than anywhere else in Britain. By allowing Nature to take the lead in wilding their land they, unwittingly, created the best possible breeding environment for 'His Purple Majesty.'

In the same way -- by being brave enough to 'sit on their hands'  and allow Nature to come back on its own terms -- they have created a haven for nightingales. And Tree has a whole chapter on turtle doves, which begins:

More exciting even than the  nightingales has been the arrival, from the very brink of extinction, of turtle doves. There are estimated to be fewer than 5000 pairs left in the whole of Britain and only 200 pairs in Sussex. Knepp may be the only place in Britain where numbers have increased in recent years...

Something they learned is that what we think of as 'natural behaviour' in animals is often only a sad and sorry shadow of  nature. 

We uproot and plough-up and spray and destroy and so force birds, insects and animals to struggle for survival in the tiny areas we have no use for or deign to leave for them -- and we then think this desperate, marginal survival is 'natural' and write it up in our text books.

If Tree and her husband, Charles Burrell, had consulted these text-books on how to create a habitat for nightingales, they would have planted 'close canopy woodland', since nightingales are described as 'a woodland species.'  And they would have failed -- as modern attempts to enourage the breeding of nightingales in other places have failed.

Tree wrote a biography of the Victorian naturalist John Gould, (who worked with Darwin) and so she knew that Gould had described nightingales, which were far more common in his day, as 'generally' nesting on 'the side of a bank and occasionally in a shrub or bush.'  That's a far cry from 'woodland.' When the Burrells allowed their hedges to burgeon and their land to grow up with scrub (to the anger of many of their neighbours), the nightingales voted with their wings and moved in. It turns out that they don't really like woods at all. They much prefer more open, scrubby land with occasional thickets.

The same short-sightedness is found with turtle doves, which are described as 'farmland birds' who feed on grain. Yet all over Britain they are failing to breed on farmland, whereas at Knepp, where grain is no longer grown but where there are many wild flowers (such as the vetch which John Gould described them feeding on), they are flourishing. Could it be, Tree wonders, that the doves only feed on arable grain in desperation, as they are no longer able to find enough quantity of the wild seeds and shoots they would prefer?

Frans Vera
It's a fascinating book, which describes how the Burrels broke their hearts trying to make modern, conventional farming pay on their 'Sussex clay', which was unsuitable soil for arable farming and only began to be so farmed at the outbreak of WWII, as part of the drive to produce more food. Farming had continued after the war, with plentiful (and expensive) use of artificial fertiliser and insecticides alongside heavy machinery which compacted the soil and pulverised the vital soil organisms, from fungi and bacteria to earth-worms. A horrifying fact is that, it seems, earthworms are rare on intensively farmed land. Earthworms -- as Darwin knew a hundred years ago -- are vital for fertile soil. What an indictment of 'conventional farming' which has only been 'conventional' since the 1940s when all those firms producing explosives turned to producing artificial fertiliser instead.

When the Burrells finally decided to give up the struggle, they looked round for some other way to use their land and happily came under the influence of  Frans Vera, who emphasises the importance of large grazing animals for the creation of the bio-diversity needed to encourage plants, insects and larger species to return and thrive. The different species tend to graze on different plants, at different heights, creating a range of mini eco-spheres for a variety of plants, small mammals, insects and microbes. The dung of the large grazing mammals fertilises the earth, restoring it, while their scraping, digging and rootling aerates the soil and turns over seeds, creating more opportunities for diverse life. An underlying idea is to recreate, as far as possible, the environment that existed when Europe was 'wild'. Then the landscape was created and managed by herds of many different, large grazing animals: wild cattle, wild horses, several species of deer, wild goats and sheep and wild boar. (In Holland, they allow animals to die if there isn't enough land to support them, as they would have done in the Ice Age, and they allow the carcases to rot where they fall, creating opportunities for scavengers. The Burrells didn't think the British public would support this much Nature at Knepp.)

When hedges aren't cut back and scrub isn't cleared, thorny plants thrive, protecting more tender plants from the grazers: 'thorny thickets are the forest's cradle.'  Remember that 'forest' doesn't mean a dense, trackless mass of 'closed canopy' trees (that's a wood.) 'Forest' describes a much more open and changing landscape with a mixture of trees, open grass and thickets, through which grazing animals move. It was originally the term for the Norman hunting grounds, hence 'The New Forest.' In such a landscape, filled with every kind of large grazing animal, dense trackless wood never takes hold. Nature, left to itself, both creates opportunities for life and controls the environment that supports it.

Following Vera's ideas, the Burrells released Exmoor ponies onto their land, because they are an ancient breed, closely related to the horses painted on the walls of caves. They also released an old breed of long-horn cattle, to join the deer who already lived in the park. These animals are left to look after themselves. They graze and browse on trees, are fed no grain and seldom need any attention from a vet.

Cave painting
Exmoor ponies, wikimedia

Over time, Tamworth pigs were added, another ancient breed. The pigs surprised everyone by diving into the lake to find mussels -- another example of animals, left to their own devices, behaving in ways unknown to text-books.

English longhorn cow, wikepedia
Tamworth Pig, wikepedia

Red deer were added to the mix of grazing animals that would naturally be found in any wild British landscape. Do you have the typical image of a red deer in mind? The one where the stag stands on a treeless, bleak Scottish mountainside? -- At Knepp, as soon as the red deer were released, they plunged into the nearest lake and, after many years, still prefer to spend much time haunch deep in water, grazing on water plants -- behaviour rarely seen 'in the wild'.

The Knepp estate now sells wild range meat that is about as organic as you get. Their animals are not injected with hormones to make them grow, nor with anti-biotics to keep them disease-free -- it's not needed because they don't live in unnaturally crowded fields and sheds. They are not fed on grain to fatten them -- they feed, as their ancestors did, on the grass, herbs, flowers and leaves around them.

Tree writes of research by the Economic and Social Research Council which shows that pasture-fed meat is higher in vitamins and 'good fats' and the fatty acid known as CLA which is anti-carcinogenic, strengthens the immune system and is anti-inflammatory. After all, this 'pasture-fed' meat is what fed the northern hemisphere for centuries before farming became industrialised. Winters in the past were often far colder than they are now with little available in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables.

In a fascinating chapter, Tree writes of 'rewilding the soil.'

The vast increase in number and varieties of insects at Knepp, leading to an increase in insectivores and then to an increase in insectivore-vores, was due, in large part, to an improvement in the soil.

It's ironic that modern farming decreases soil fertility. It becomes, as Tree puts it, 'a sterile medium in which plants struggle to grow without artificial fertilisers.' The depleted soil becomes a dust: water and nutrients run through it and it is easily washed away by rain. In 2014 Farmer's Weekly stated that soil depletion was so bad that the UK has only one hundred harvests left.

But at Knepp, they stopped the use of heavy machinery; they stopped ploughing up the earth and cutting its inhabitants to bits. They stopped using expensive artificial fertiliser.

Instead, they let plant material rot where it fell. Their grazing animals liberally dunged the soil as they wandered about, leading to the return of dung-beetles. Dormant, ancient fungi sensed things were turning in their favour and regrew. Earthworms thrived, tunnelling through the earth, dragging vegetation after them. This rejuvenation happened with astonishing speed: thirty years.

Tree quotes Gwilym Wren, a former senior adviser for Natural England. Since degraded land can be restored to health so cheaply and in such a short time, simply by rewilding it, Wren suggested that this be done with a shifting patchwork of land, all over Britain. Several areas of land could be rewilded for anything from twenty to fifty years. During that time, the wildlife would recover in numbers, whether by wildlife you mean microbes in the soil, wild flowers, rare birds and insects or badgers and pine martens.

At the end of the allotted time, the wild area could be quickly returned to agriculture with a newly revitalised, fertile soil -- while another, neighbouring patchwork of land entered into a rewilding phase, providing a new home for the wild life to escape to.

When you think about it, this is very like the ancient 'two-field' system which we're all taught about in school. Ancient farming villages had two fields. The first was planted with a crop (usually grain, such as wheat, oats or barley), while the other was left fallow. Grazing animals were turned into the fallow field, to dung it, and to scrape, dig and rootle about in the earth. The next year, the fields were swopped over. This meant that one field was always rewilding and recovering, ready to provide a crop the next year. An elaboration of this was the three-field system: one field to grow grain, one field to grow beans (which fix nitrogen in the soil) and one field left fallow.

Since ancient farmers weren't scientists, I can only assume they learned this the hard way: by starving when they got it wrong. They learned how to manage better by close observation and remembering what they observed, which I suppose does make them scientists. I've never been a huge fan of the idea that 'ancient wisdom' is better than modern science. Often ancient wisdom is just superstitious pants. But, y'know, occasionally the ancients were more pragmatic, long-sighted and wise than we are. There is no wisdom in paying great sums to turn the land you need to grow your food into 'a sterile medium' requiring yet more vast and expensive amounts of factory-produced imitations of the nutrition that should naturally be in the soil. It's good for the explosives manufacturers turned fertiliser magnates but for no one else.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could return the whole of Britain to the two-field system with, say, Herefordshire lying fallow while Gloucestershire is farmed, and Lincolnshire rewilding while Leicestershire is cultivated. And then, after thirty years, SWOP!

This is a fascinating, exciting book. If you're interested in ecology, in preventing flash-floods, in ancient trees, in rare breeds and a hell of a lot more, you'll love it.

If you haven't been able to get out to see a bluebell wood, you can find photos of bluebells on the Clent hills here.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Words, words, words ... and feelings. Jo Carroll

Words matter - as writers we know that more than most. And clarity of definitions matter as well - as the recent hoo-ha over the definition of 'alert' (here in the UK) shows only too well. I can't be the only writer who can spend half an hour thumbing through a thesaurus looking for a 'right word'.

Feelings matter too. As writers, we know there are times when we need to put words into a character's mouth while, at the same time, making it clear that they are thinking and feeling the opposite. On the page, we can use asides, parentheses, detours in the narrative to show that feelings might not mirror the words. When it's words we listen to, things can get complicated.

For instance - most mornings, I wake to the dulcet tones of Michal Husain and Nick Robinson on Radio 4's Today Programme (I need burbling, not music, in the morning). At the height of the pandemic their voices were appropriately subdued, full of grief for the dying and awe for the hopeless heroism of our health and care workers.

But things have changed. The lockdown is being eased. They need to sell us optimism, to forget how frightened they needed us to be (frightened people are more compliant), and get out there. The tunnel is short, they tell us, and the light at the end of it is tomorrow. Go back to work; prepare to open shops (but not cafes); send your children to school.

In my half-asleep state, I absorb the feeling before I listen to the words. But, once I can concentrate, there's an incongruity between the uplifting tones of Nick Robinson's voice and the words he is saying. Of course, the tone says, children are looking forward to going back to school - it is the right of every child, especially disadvantaged children (he reminds us, piously) to go to school. Parents will be relieved, he insists, to have their little treasures off their hands so they can go back to work.

Beneath his persistent bonhomie lurks a different message. For instance, all those children longing for normality - but this cannot be normality at they know it.

One of my daughters is a teacher - and so I have an inkling about how one school is tackling the possibility of children going back to school. Children will be taught in groups of 15, with one teacher staying with these children all day, every day, for a week. There will be no relief teachers who can pop in to give them a break (so no nipping off for a wee or grabbing a coffee). Each child will have his or her own working space, his or her own pencil, eraser, colours, pencil sharpeners, books etc. They will stay in their own space except during organised, carefully timed toilet trips - the loos cleaned before and after each visit (surely they know what happens when you tell a class of small children they can't go to the toilet for half an hour). They will have individual playground spaces. Nothing can be shared - so, for little children, no lego, no sand, no playing together in the home corner, no shared books, no counting blocks, no golden time (when children can leave their seats and choose something to play with), no taking shared measuring sticks into the playground, no games of tag, no giggling together in the corner ....

Some children will thrive in a quieter classroom. But, for many, their homes have to be truly grim (and I know some are) for this to be a better experience.

I know we need to reopen schools when the time is right (I'm not going to get into the testing and tracking challenge here); I know parents need to be working; I know we need moments of optimism to get us through this. We also need consistency in the message.

When we've grown accustomed to our politicians dissembling, it's all the more important that our journalists are clear. Nick Robinson's determined cheerfulness makes no sense when his actual words are unpicked. How many, like me, wake drowsily and listen to his optimism and take no notice of the words - and are more than happy to kiss their children at the school gates with no idea of the reality of their classroom days, nor the demands places on teachers.

We are writers. We understand fiction. But we need honesty from journalists.

My fiction? Have a look at The Planter's Daughter.