Sunday, 14 September 2008

Belonging - a forgotten art?

Among her multitude of acts against this country in the 1980's, one phrase uttered by Margaret Thatcher probably goes to the core of the the way life seems to have changed for the worst:

"There's no such thing as Society"

This gave permission to those who wanted to get ahead at the expense of others, and paved the way for many of the problems we are experiencing today. Houses became little more than a commodity, to be traded for the most profit to the detriment of those who most needed them. Education became a status symbol, as parents decided their precious darlings were too good to mix with the locals and either drove them for miles or removed them from the secular state system entirely. We now have children who can't cross the road on their own, are unwilling or unable to make friends at home, or join gangs in an attempt to feel wanted or part of something.

Another major crime of those years was what MacMillan called "selling the family silver" - the privatisation of the many nationalised industries and utilities. The short term benefits are long gone and we are now reaping the whirlwind - especially with the energy companies. It is difficult to go off grid or use solid fuels such as wood if you live in town, so most of the country, and in particular the poorest sectors, are being held to ransom by energy companies who claim they have to raise prices because of the cost of oil. In reality a) they stockpiled oil before the price rocketed, b) the oil price has gone down substantially and above all c) they don't want to drop the price as it would mean lower profits and less money in dividends for their shareholders.

Over the years, many sections have been targetted for abuse - single parents, asylum seekers, disaffected youth, the unemployed. All have been the scapegoat of a given moment, blamed for any given problem. One section of society that has never been singled out in this way, but truly are Parasites are those who gain money by holding shares in companies they have never worked for. The dividends they earn are taken from money that should either have been used to pay better wages to the workers, or to reduce prices. If the great lie on the early 20th century was (as written by Wilfred Owen) Dulce decorum est pro patria more, then the lie of the past theiry years or so is that the Captains of Industry are the wealth creators, as opposed to the shop or office floor workers, or consumers in general.

It is often, and probably accurately said, that the British don't have the stomach for protest, but we do have the ability to ask awkward questions. Ask you energy provider what proportion of your bill went to shareholders and directors' salaries. Ask them when you will get a refund to take into account the drop in the oil price. If you have a pension fund, ask your provider if it is an ethical fund which excludes shares from former national assets.

Coming from Gordon Brown, suggestions to cut down on energy use are patronising, bordering on Marie Antoinette land. This government, as any other, is beholden to, if not controlled by big industry, and afraid if not actually unable to act i a way that will benefit the majority of voters. However, using less energy will be to the detriment of the energy companies, and where your health allows it, there are many enjoyable ways to stay warm without turning up or maybe even switching on, the heating. Cosy socks, snuggly jumpers, hot drinks, home made casseroles, porridge in the morning, a brisk walk to the next stop rather than waiting for the bus, an early night under the covers. All save money and keep it from the corporations.

I was lucky this weekend to mix with people who in spite of this every man for himself ethos, are happy to do something for other for no return:

Yesterday morning I pottered about, deadheading and tidying my herb bed at the front of the house, and chatted to the man next door. He was adding a few thyme plants to his front garden, and I gave him some pot marigold seeds. He has taken it upon himself to start planting up an untidy grassy patch at the end of the close, by a block of garages, so we were discussing what else could be planted there. It's a patch of ground that could be really lovely, south facing and sheltered in the main, about 5 foot deep and the width of the three houses it backs on to. I have offered a couple of my hollyhocks from the front bed, as they have romped away and smothered my bay bush. Everything planted so far has been cuttings, divisions and spare seedlings, including Acanthus, Rowans and Kerria, so that would fit in. I'm tempted to lift the Bird Cherry saplings at the allotment to plant there and provide colour from blossoms early in the year.

Later in the afternoon, we went to our allotment society's show. We didn't enter anything, but it was a chance for everyone to get together and chat. We were walking to the bus stop and a couple who live in the next street and have a plot near ours offered us a lift, which was really nice. Even the prizegiving was fun. There's one man who's really serious about show vegetables, and wins almost everything he enters. Thanks to him, our society is in line for the best club prize from the town show. Anyway, they read out a list of all his wins at the start, so he collected all his to get them out of the way. There was someone who won almost as many in the fruit and cut flower categories, but for amusement value they called him up for each prize individually. Everyone, whether they had an allotment or nor, whether they had produce entered or not, was made to feel welcome and part of the event.

This is in a suburb of Greater London. Not everyone has surrendered to the every man for himself ethos, and they're not all of an older generation. Our neighbour of the same age, if not younger than us, and the winners of the main allotment prizes (not including the children's competitions) spanned several decades.

After that we went down to the allotment to plant our first batch of Autumn onions. Seemed appropriate - the show signalling the end of one growing season, and the onions the first crop planted for next year. One of the women on the plot came down with a couple of friends after the show and had tea on her plot, with one of the near tame foxes (she treated them for mange last year) hanging round on the offchance of leftover cake.

Our new little allotment pal, the ginger near kitten, popped by when we were filling the watering cans and came to investigate. He was most upset that the dip tanks didn't contain fish Laughing

As we left the site, the moon was rising over the woods, all big and butter yellow. A lovely end to the day.

Was up early today as Sheba has taken to sneaking onto the pillows and I was woken by fishy breath in my face. I can hear wrens and woodpeckers and have just watched a squadron of geese circle and land on the lake. We'll be heading over the allotment later (hope to catch Countryfile first as they may be footage of the Rare Breeds Show we went to a couple of weeks ago) and hopefully it will be as productive as our last visit.

The Wartime Weekend Gardener also reflects that the year is turning. The only task given for this week is to thin the winter roots, such as turnips and swedes, plus a quick run over with the hoe to keep on top of any weed seedlings are they emerge. It may have been a bad year for many crops, but the weeds always thrive!

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