Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Hard as Iron



Walking from Stunts Green to Cowbeech and back again this morning, the ground was unyielding underfoot. After three consecutive nights of frost, and with temperatures barely getting above freezing in shaded areas during the day, the earth stood hard as iron. The long-legged dog took this all in his stride but the little-legged dog struggled: the deep ruts from tractor tyres on the farm tracks had been frozen into hurdles, the clods thrown up by horses’ hooves on the bridle paths had become boulders and the boggy field at the foot of Kiln Wood was an icy no-man’s land. I could tell by his Scottish Terrier grumbling and chuntering, as he tried to negotiate all of these obstacles, that he was not happy. It was only when we got onto the worn-smooth paths of Scrip Wood that he was able to make any progress without complaining about the weather, and I was able to enjoy the sight of the blanched north faces of the sloping fields, hidden from the eastern sun.

As we came back through the wood and passed the allotments, I was in two minds about the frost: the low temperatures might have finally killed off the legion of slugs on my plot but the winter digging-over, which I had aimed to finish before the year expired, was going to have to be postponed yet again. Having only recently harvested the last of the leeks, there is still a whole corner to be dug. Despite it being bathed in a bright but low sun, it’s unlikely that the earth will have warmed enough by tomorrow and, with another frost forecast for tonight, it looks as though I will be spared some New Year’s Eve digging. I had never envisaged seeing out the final afternoon of 2014 with heavy spadework, so my plan to be warming myself in the kitchen, as the interregnum between Christmas and New Year runs out, seems to be safe. And the little-legged dog will be with me.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wan Light



Today is the winter solstice, when the Earth’s axis is furthest from the sun and, in the northern hemisphere, we experience the shortest day and the longest night of the year. But the solstice is not the point at which sunrise is at its latest, and sunset at its soonest. The earliest lighting up time occurred two weeks ago, and the latest morning appearance of the sun will not be seen for another two weeks. That is why mornings will continue to get darker into the New Year and why Celts and Pagans believed that the solstice marked the beginning of a period of time in which the sun stood still.

For 12 days, candles would be lit and an oak log kept burning to banish the darkness. Homes would be decorated with greenery, particularly mistletoe, and they would wait for the rebirth of the sun. They called this festival, Yule. There was nothing else to do at this lowest point of the calendar but eat the cured meat and pickled vegetables that had been preserved for the occasion earlier in the year. Oh, and drink. A lot. It sounds quite familiar.

When Christianity turned up, its main celebration was Easter. Having incorporated some of the Norse and Roman celebrations of the winter solstice, such as a decorated tree and gift-giving, Yule continued unabated until around 350 AD when Pope Julius I plumped for December 25th as the date of Jesus's birth; Christmas was born. It took a while longer to take hold in Sussex, of course, as the county was the last to convert to Christianity in the late 7th century.

Now, despite living in an established Christian state, hardly any of us go to church but most of us celebrate Christmas. There is nothing hypocritical in this; imagine what this time of year would be like if we did not have a fortnight of feasting and frolicking. It matters not what it is called; when the light fades outside, we need it blazing inside.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Last Post



On my drive home from work a few times recently, I became involved in a Mexican stand-off with a large TNT delivery truck in the narrow country lanes around the village of Bodle Street Green. With barely enough room for two cars to pass each other, this nine ton truck caused the closest you could ever get to gridlock on the road from Rushlake Green. Cursing modern satellite navigation technology for sending inappropriate vehicles along the most direct route, I thought no more about it until a later evening when I saw the TNT truck parked up at the top of Sandhill Lane. As I passed, I saw that the driver was emptying the Royal Mail post box and carrying out the last collection of the day.

Since Royal Mail was privatised on the cheap in 2013, by former Labour councillor and now coalition Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, Vince Cable, most of us will not have noticed too much change - except that the profit made by Royal Mail does not now benefit us as taxpayers but benefits anonymous shareholders instead (when I say “benefit”, this is a moot point: it was announced in November that profits have fallen 21% in the last six months).

What I was seeing on my journey home was one of the less visible signs of privatisation: parts of the service being sub-contracted out. But we will probably all be seeing more visible signs – or not – soon, as Royal Mail has warned that daily postal deliveries may not be sustainable in the face of competition from other private companies. Curiously, the private company Royal Mail says it is most threatened by is Whistl (sic), the mono-vowelled re-branding of TNT Post UK, a wholly owned subsidiary of PostNL, operators of the Dutch postal service. TNT has long been a friend of the privatisers and most famously drove their trucks through the Wapping picket lines to distribute Murdoch’s newspapers during the 1986 strike.

I am sure there is a perfectly good reason why Royal Mail’s biggest competitors were carrying out postal collections from rural post boxes on its behalf, but it seems a little strange to me. However, this is not the strangest thing about it: I was used to seeing postmen in their red-liveried Royal Mail vans, carrying out the last collection of the day from a string of post boxes attached to telegraph poles, embedded in hedgerows or, in one case, part of a garden wall – a very British image. And what strikes me as odd is that the forces of conservatism, the very people I would expect to uphold this idyllic scene, are prepared to forego it in pursuit of profit. However, this is all irrelevant now: despite the government’s assurances that privatisation would not affect the service, late afternoon collections from post boxes in my area have ended; if you want to catch the last post, you have got to get down to the post office.