Things Fall Apart

From time to time I used to suffer from what doctors call “anxiety” – I guess a form of mild depression, which I’ve learnt how to manage over the years. I’m now feeling something rather different and rather more alarming; a sense of foreboding.

We’re in one of our favourite places – Italy – for a few days. I’m writing on a sunny terrace with glorious views of violet hills, against a soundtrack of sparrows. There are clouds of butterflies about and – later this evening – a mob of unruly swifts will close the day.

We have lost all these things at home.

We have the odd swift, the odd sparrow. A hot dry summer will be good for our beleaguered butterflies, and I can hear people saying now that they seem to have turned the corner where they are, etc. etc.. Nature friendly farmers tell me how much they’re doing for wildlife. Enthusiasts click on online campaigns. The numbers remain pretty awful though. Biodiversity has collapsed in the UK and many species numbers are still in sharp decline. The short story is that there is still no concrete strategy in place to reverse this.

I’m sure, too, that many will say that the recent weather – all over the world – is just weather, and nothing to do with global warming. In any event, people still don’t care enough about global warming to even list it in their top 10 concerns at the ballot box. As one who has canvassed with spectacularly poor results around Langport in the Somerset Levels this is something I know at first hand. The U.S. Administration, of course, doesn’t even acknowledge climate change exists.

My concern about these two things – mass extinctions and catastrophic climate change – have, to be honest, marked me out as a bit odd among my friends. Even more bizarre for them has been my trying in a practical way to do something about them in the UK over the last 10 years.

This has been very depressing. It’s not too much of a stretch to see people’s lack of reaction to the rise of populism (is this the right label?) as similar. Right wing extremists are murdering our MPs, elements of the Press are calling the senior judiciary and our Prime Minister “traitors”. Both Left and Right are polarised; it’s a type of politics familiar from the Europe of the interwar years. The current struggle in politics is not between Left and Right; it’s between the Centre and extremists. Our political class is manifestly failing us – not just in the UK, of course – and destroying public confidence in our institutions. Doubly concerning, this is coming at a terrible time to deal with the consequences of climate change, which will fuel extreme political views.

Why do I have to be an eccentric / snowflake if I am doing things about stopping climate change, mass extinctions and neo-fascists/Stalinists?

There are (some, at least!) bright, well meaning people in parliament, of different political persuasions, who need to completely refocus their agendas. We ALL have to get involved. In a hurry.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.



I like a bit of craft. I’ve been on dry stone walling and hedge laying courses, and afterwards really enjoyed trying to impersonate someone who knew what they were doing. I suppose I had the same kind of idea in mind when I signed up to a blacksmithing course in Devon over the weekend.

Blacksmithing 2
Blacksmith Manns

Earlier Manns were blacksmiths in the East End for at least three generations in the 19th century. I wondered if it might be a genetic thing. It turns out it’s not. Even if they were twice as naturally talented as I am at it, they would still have been as hopelessly impoverished as they were.

Predictably, for someone whose last formal instruction in this kind of thing was being banned from doing O Level woodwork, I was pretty er… average. It turns out you don’t just heat lumps of metal up and give them a good bashing. There’s measuring and precision involved in blacksmithing, for a start. Then artistic interpretation. All things I am comfortably an E for.

Having said that, I had a lovely time, made some twirly and functional artefacts, and was made to feel like someone who could make a very good blacksmith if only I had the time. My delightful fellow students all looked like they would make very good blacksmiths.

BlacksmithingOur teacher was John Bellamy, a bluff but kind and patient Northerner. This makes sense; I always thought Moria was somewhere under Yorkshire. John wouldn’t mind me describing him as apparently completely physically square. He would be more embarrassed to be described as one of the country’s leading blacksmiths.

These crafts are fascinating – they are a real bridge to our common past. Medieval apprentices would have been taught to use the same tools as my great great grandfather used in Cable Street, and which I now have a passing acquaintance with. I’ve laid hedges in the style used hereabouts since – goodness knows – the Iron Age? We too often lose that sense of continuity .




The Tragedy of the Commons

To get a break from Donald Trump at Davos I’ve been learning about the “tragedy of the commons”. It’s an idea coined in the 19th century and revived by ecologist Garrett Hardin fifty years ago.

The concept originally referred to the over-grazing of common land. Farmers’ rational self-interest inevitably lead to their putting too much livestock on commons. Which were then trashed. The animals then starved. While society believes in the freedom of the commons, individuals will pursue their own best short term interests. These are contrary to the common good. In the long term, everyone loses.

Depressing stuff, and of course applicable in all sorts of areas.  There’s fossil fuels, deforestation, traffic congestion, antibiotic use in animals, over-fishing, etc etc etc. More recently, social media has, inevitably, faced the same problem.

The interesting thing is that now – for the first time in human history – we are beginning to understand this principle. And when we understand the environmental consequences of our actions we can change our own lifestyles to mitigate or negate them. We can vote for politicians who use stick and carrot to get people and corporates to act for the common good.

By definition, though, it’s a tough ask in a democracy. Mr Trump is living proof of that.


Green Crap Redux

David Cameron’s “green crap” moment was deeply depressing. Not just because of the policy change it indicated, but because it suggested the electorate didn’t care about it. The environment had never been a vote winner, and here in 2013 was proof the Conservatives realised it still wasn’t. Now it looks as if green crap is coming back, with a vengeance.

Green Crap
Thanks for everything, Dave.

Michael Gove’s startling speech on farm subsidies post Brexit was met with a cautious but universal welcome from the environmental lobby. Today we had the government’s 25 year environmental plan. There’s lots in it which is bang on in terms of aspiration, but as the Conservative chair of  the Environment Committee commented, desperately short on detail.

It begs far more questions than it answers, and its credibility, given the government’s track record in funding the Environment Agency, energy, pollution, etc. etc., is – well, let’s just say the jury is out. Theresa May’s own voting record is hardly suggestive of hidden eco-credentials. In fact, it’s a shocker.

There’s no joined up thinking in the plan either. Plastic waste in our oceans is a secondary threat after acidification and climate change – an area where UK policy has disintegrated.

In future times, if genuine, I suspect the government’s Damascene conversion will seem absurdly modest and overdue. On the other hand, it may just be political opportunism. Whichever, it is, however, a watershed moment.

It’s important because senior ministers suddenly seem to think the environment is a vote winner.* Let’s connect with millennials in an area where Labour, too, have been weak. Let’s convert all those millions of young Blue Planet watchers into turquoise Tories. Hugging a husky in 2006 looked like naive, off-script green wash. I have canvassed on environmental issues on the Somerset Levels. Even there – perhaps amazingly – issues like climate change didn’t seem to matter very much.

Today’s plan may or may not be green wash, but it’s calculated and very much on script. That’s what’s exciting about it.

*Credit for this seems to go to Conservative think tank Bright Blue.

Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson was the jokey boy at school. He kept you amused by taking the piss out of teachers and less popular kids. He wasn’t the sort of bloke who got caught doing anything really naughty though because…well… he didn’t actually do anything very much, come to think of it.

And he still trades on the same talent. He’s hilarious on all sorts of topics, particularly variations on the “it’s political correctness gone mad”, “snowflake” and “treehugger” themes. He makes tonnes of money, lives on the Isle of Man, has a good time and does…well… not very much else.

Clarkson has written an odd column in the Sunday Times in treehugger attack mode complaining about something in Blue Planet 2 . I’m still not sure what it was about other than to wind people like me up. It worked a treat. It was the usual b****cks, I assume written after lunch. Am I surprised that a bloke who makes a living out of messing about in cars knows not very much about nature?

Treehuggers can be eccentric, self absorbed and over-earnest. They can be humourless, patronising and sanctimonious. They’re also an obvious target in the playground, rich in comic potential. It’s a well worn genre – AbFab, The Young Ones, The Good Life, and, before TV, noted newt fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle.

The point is though, Jeremy, that this doesn’t necessarily make them idiots or – more importantly – wrong. Because they’re concerned about the environment doesn’t necessarily make them mad or threatening.

And why should I bother with what you have to say about nature conservation? Why should I bother listening to Nigel Lawson on climate change? Why should you listen to what I have to say about Wankel rotary engines? Contrary to popular belief, the world really does need experts. Or at least people who know what they’re talking about and don’t spout – as you would put it – complete cock.

Because you’re funny you have a column in a national newspaper.  You reinforce a set of casual stereotypes from fifties suburbia to a particular audience. They are at once entertained but also comforted by your rubbishing alarmist and outlandish theories about the state of nature.

Sadly I don’t think their children will find you as amusing.




Green Thursday Good, Black Friday Bad

Green 50A very jolly green outing yesterday threw today – Black Friday – into even sharper perspective. Habitat Aid made it into the top 50 green businesses in the West and I toddled up to Bristol for a prize giving event.

It’s always nice to meet the kind of enthusiastic people who were there, even though it makes me feel like I’m a very weary 150. There was a tremendous range of businesses represented.  You can be doing all sorts of things and be “green”. There were sandwich makers, printers, water companies, PR companies, banks.  These were companies in traditional areas doing things in a more sustainable way or promoting/servicing “green” companies. By the end of the evening I wasn’t even sure what “green” meant.

At the other end of the spectrum were businesses firmly entrenched in recycling, alternative energy – you can imagine the kind of thing. I think my favourite firm was Geneco, quite rightly one of the winners.  Oddly – which gave me pause for thought – we were the only people doing anything directly related to the natural environment.  There’s money in all this other stuff but not in plants. *Sigh*.

Anyway, it was a genuinely inspiring evening, and in sharp contrast to Black Friday today. Where did this wretched nonsense come from? It leaves me with the same kind of unpleasant taste as the Sunday Times Rich List. Are we come to this? It would be nice to think it will die a death.

I’m pretty confident that millenials will lead a move away from price driven consumerism and value ethical businesses more and more. As one such, it’s our challenge to provide them with choice and reasonable prices. We simply can’t provide the same slick level of service that Amazon does, but it’s my hope that customers increasingly value the quality of our products and how we source them.

Peaky Blinders

I’ve just watched the first in the new series of the brilliant Peaky Blinders. If you’re not a fan, it’s a sort of historical drama set in the Black Country in the 1920s. “Sort of” because it does bend credibility in the service of a good yarn, but it’s a cracking piece of TV drama. The cast is fab and the production terrific; it has a real period feel to it.

The opening episode of Peaky Blinders series 4 finished with a cliffhanger. A bunch of Italian hitmen gun down two of the leading characters outside a farmhouse, seemingly fatally. It was a dramatic scene. Gunsmoke drifted over the bodies. The climbing rose on the farmhouse wall was in full flower. The hedges and trees were that bright green of midsummer.

Slightly confusingly, the hoods hid in a cart carrying hay bales. A bit early in the season, to be honest. No matter. Utterly bizarrely, though, was that the scene was specifically set on Christmas morning. And, apart from me, no-one seems to have noticed how strange that was. I guess the producers just didn’t realise. Or they thought viewers wouldn’t notice that Christmas in 1925 fell in June. Or there was some weird local climate change thing going on around 1920s Birmingham.

It’s another small but telling example of something I’ve been rattling on about for years. From the 2.3 million people who watched it there seems to have been nobody who noticed this bizarre lapse. Does this make me a sad freak? I can only guess the producers gambled that most of the folk who watched it don’t know what nature in England looks like in late December.  They can’t have a clear mental image of what nature in England looks like at all.

How depressing that everyone is so disconnected from their natural environment.

Climate Change, Hen Harriers and Bees in the Post Fact World

I had pondering time on my hands today at hospital in Bath, recovering from a minor operation. It went swimmingly, all well thank you – let’s just say it was an old bloke issue. I was very grateful to be in the hands of Mr. Courtney and not Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mystic Meg or Michael Gove. Perhaps we do need experts, after all.

Climate Change

Certainly Breitbart don’t. Scribbler James Delingpole has written regularly on climate change in this news organ. Like many things in the post truth era, he seems to see climate change as some kind of political opinion – which he doesn’t like in this instance. He is in hot water with that subversive left wing political news outlet, the Weather Channel, for misrepresenting them in his most recent article. are furious. Looking at the video of an exasperated weather forecaster and reading their response, you’ve got to admit they have a point.

Driven Grouse Shooting

Hen Harrier on moor
Hen Harrier (Image: RSPB)

On a much smaller scale there is a similar conflation of entrenched political views and “scientific facts” going on in the conservation world about driven grouse shooting. Unsurprisingly the Left hate it and the Right love it. I’m no expert (!), but there is good evidence that raptors are puzzlingly absent from grouse moors, including rare species like Hen Harriers. In some quarters this has just been denied point blank. Keepers are shooting a lot of Mountain Hares, and there’s little doubt that grouse moors contribute to flooding.

There was an article on this by Matt Ridley in The Spectator which included some apparently spurious statistics to support his view. He claims that these moorlands are better at retaining water than forests. Better than spruce plantations possibly, but generally no, this is complete nonsense. The government itself has recently acknowledged this by announcing a £15 million tree planting programme as part of its flood prevention strategy.

The whole issue has fallen victim to shouty Delingpole style politics. If Matt Ridley sees an insidious left wing plot, then George Monbiot sees it as an example of the establishment elite trampling the people. It turns out Paul Dacre (Daily Mail editor) owns a grouse moor. Chris Packham is unhappy with the shooters and the shooters are certainly unhappy with Chris Packham, who they think is a metro luvvie who doesn’t understand country pursuits. And so it goes on.

It is more important than ever for experts and proper journalists to be precise and informative about conservation and environmental issues. They must also avoid confirmation bias. The rest of us to have to amplify good information via social media.

Different Bees Please

To take a small but nonetheless annoying example, I would say the MAJORITY of articles I read about bees on Facebook confuse honeybees with solitary bees and bumblebees. They’re often also illustrated with a photo of a hoverfly. People are interested in bees and want to do the right thing for them, but end up confused. They sign petitions purporting to be about all bees which are actually about honeybees. They share helpful Facebook posts about feeding dying bumblebee workers in autumn and funny cartoons about how good bees are and how bad wasps are. People spend hours making bumblebee nesters – which don’t work – rather than solitary bee nesters – which do. We should be following the Bee experts.

A Christmas Tale

I went Christmas tree shopping this afternoon and, as you can see, bought a beautiful tree.

I’m always a bit nervous about buying the family Christmas tree as I usually get flak for it. The trees I bring home are either too skinny, too bushy, too short or too tall, so I was mightily relived to have found such a fab tree – and a non dropper to boot. It was a good price and I found it at a reputable local supplier. They only had bigger trees left, which was even more amazing as I wanted a good sized one for the hall.

As you might expect from someone who makes a living out of promoting and selling plants and seed from British growers, I asked where the tree was from. It was British, I was told – and indeed there was a label proclaiming its Britishness in prominent pride of place.

The label was green, which helpfully told me how tall the tree was according to a key. The perfect size.

Christmas tree label 1

As we were finishing decorating the tree we found another, more generic label:
Tannenbaum 2

The label seems to have come from a Danish company, according to one of my readers. There’s probably a perfectly innocent reason for finding this on my British grown tree. With a stroke of marketing genius, I bet the British grower decided to put a Danish label on the tree to show it was specially “selekted”.

I do hope the tree is really British. One of the reasons I set my business up was to make folk aware of the need to buy British plants and seeds and then actually get what they think they’re getting. I sometimes wonder whether that’s a more radical idea than I had thought.

A Sense of Perspective

WildflowersI’ve just got back from an indecently long hols in France, which, yes, was lovely thank you. We did a round trip, with three days of World War One battlefields before heading down south for some sun (and fab wildflowers!), then up through Brittany after dropping our youngest off for his French exchange.

Joseph Charles Smith
Great Uncle Joe
The first leg was pretty sobering. I’d done some homework on relatives in the war before leaving; all the men of that generation in the family fought on the Western Front. I had grandfathers who somehow survived and great uncles who were killed. I won’t bore you with the details, but their individual stories are both unexceptional and moving. In particular, the odds of my father’s father surviving* were very long indeed. It’s a miracle I’m here.

The stories of these men put current worries into perspective. Is this something we have trouble doing, in everyday life as well as in politics? In a complicated and news saturated world we increasingly just respond to simplified cues suggested by the media.

It happens on the environmental front too. Dave Goulson, in his new book “A Buzz in the Meadow”, asks why we are apparently so unconcerned about collapsing insect numbers while at the same time as getting in a state about the cuddly panda, an animal with no known ecological value other than just existing.

In a similar vein, I was talking to the MD of a renewable energy firm about the abuse he has had at planning meetings. He has even had death threats, bizarrely. He runs a genuinely ethical business and is committed to community engagement, reducing fossil fuel emissions, etc etc. He was at a dinner where he sat next to a director of BAT, the cigarette makers. Out of curiosity he asked him how many threats he had had over the years. None. How weird is that? Our local town has a FB page and the size of the threads on potential nearby renewable projects dwarfs anything else on it. Apparently folk are as hostile to renewables as they are to fracking – when they’re proposed on local sites. They’re a lot more wound up about it than any other issue out there.

Come on people, let’s think about what history and science can teach us and get our sense of perspective back.

*Cpl. A.B. Mann, Machine Gun Corps (36% casualty rate), served with 51st Highland Division (25%), 1916-1918. Fought at the Somme (High Wood and Beaumont Hamel), Passchendaele (Pilckem Ridge), Arras (Roeux), Cambrai (Flesquieres), Bapaume, etc. As a completely irrelevant aside, somehow the thought of this 18 year old from Streatham fighting in the desperate circumstances of industrialized war to the skirl of the pipes makes me very opposed to Scottish independence… And talking of the pipes: