• The Holes in Blackburn, Lancashire

    It only really adds to the sense of the surreal that seems to grip British politics these days that, behind the grinding headlines of Brexit, an issue every bit as important - not least due to its immediacy - has not gone away and for hundreds of people forms part of their daily lives as they man the cordons up and down the land, desperately trying to hold off the man-made catastrophe that fracking for gas still presents. In many ways it’s a struggle that defines our times.

    Our society for the last two hundred years has been predicated on cheap fossil fuels. We face a huge task to somehow provide for the shortfall as we move away from their use. Once, I thought the necessary spur from the anticipated crisis of these fuels running out was the thing that would ultimately save us. But where it’s increasingly clear that the extraction of our remaining fossil fuel reserves would lock us into climatic disaster, fracking only demonstrates our species’ capacity to fail to adapt, the death-grip instinct to cling onto old models in how our system continues to function, the belief that all will be well if we only don’t look down or stare at the cracks.

    But as efforts to divest from fossil fuels gather pace from all quarters, as this week’s announcement from the World Bank only helps reinforce, the writing would appear to be on the wall. Governments and institutions across the world are beginning to see we have options, or in a sense a lack of them; for continuing with business as usual is less of an option than ever. Admittedly, our heating infrastructure in the UK is largely wired to the use of 'natural' gas and moving beyond it and adapting its use requires an extra challenge. But it's imperative we do so as soon as we can.

    At such times we’d do well to consider that the prospective effect of shale on our energy security is overrated, as a report by the UK Energy Research Centre makes clear. The report stated unambiguously that shale gas will not reduce energy prices or reduce the UK’s reliance on foreign gas, most of which currently comes from Norway and Qatar. In any case our climate commitments mean we need to be phasing out gas by the mid 2020’s (unless CCS proves to have any traction at all). The particular impact of methane emissions is also real cause for concern as is the fact that shale gas has been deemed more harmful to the climate than coal. Consider too that one gas well would only provide for 2.5 hours of UK consumption. The situation is complicated by the vagaries of the European gas market, where gas is sold to the highest bidder. It seems ironic that we currently export 30% of the gas we produce.

    If what is at stake in a very immediate sense is in any doubt, think about The Yorkshire Dales, the wild hills of Lancashire, Sherwood itself and some of our most iconic beauty spots. All of these places are first in line for the rolling out of the process. And these are just the gateway schemes; if unopposed they only herald the way for many more drilling sites, each of them posing huge risks to our wildlife, to say nothing of the visual, aural and infrastructural blight of thousands of well pads.

    To anyone paying attention to the issue over these last several years none of the above should come as a surprise. But the industry is less popular than ever; people are waking up like never before to the far from abstract repercussions of its looming impact. This is in no way assuaged by the well-documented behind-the-doors influence of the fracking lobby, or the flawed thinking that touts fracked gas as a clean ‘bridging fuel’. Questions over the process’s tenability are being posed at the highest levels.

    Renewables are increasingly proving their worth and viability and if seeking to modify our existing gas infrastructure presents a unique task we should remember we still retain choices. We should be going all out for research and development of other resources; wood-burning stoves can be installed in many homes as a backup and boost to - if not a full replacement of - central heating without the need for an overhaul of boilers and pipework and there is the potential for other technologies waiting in the wings. In particular, the potential for green gas grows stronger by the year. It’s also disingenuous of the government to say they are simply concerned with heating our homes; the planned round of gas fired power stations are explicitly tailored to generate electricity and only lock us in even further to what could become a dependency on shale.

    We have it in us to find a way forward and the struggle to do so will determine the kind of world we leave behind. No one can say that providing energy security is always a straight forward thing, or that we don’t live in unprecedented times. But the amount at stake for our health and environment means we need to ratchet up the pressure to pursue other options. We need innovation and boldness, not a bolt for easy money and a quick fix. How much do we value our water, natural habitats, the landscapes formed from thousands of years of careful husbandry? Do we really want to ignore the clear warnings from other countries as to fracking’s effect on people’s health? Can we find it in us to heed the experts and help forge ahead with the best of burgeoning technologies?

    We have to all of us face the fact that we still need huge change in how we go about procuring our needs. The price of not doing so is only too starkly illustrated by processes such as fracking. For the sake of that which we love most dearly; the icons of the natural world that help define too who we are as a people, we have to help call a halt to a process whose only good point is that it is only too clearly a clarion call to wake up. To make such a move would be the best thing that could possibly be done to restore trust in a Westminster that respects the will of the regions. It would state the case that we can find the way forward into a future whose only real limit is that of our imaginations, collective will and willingness to change. The cost of not doing so is etched in every angry cry at protest sites throughout the land; voices who care because they still carry the hope that we can collectively see sense.

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    Please the sign the petition against drilling at Leith Hill.

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  • After Article 50

    Spring appears almost quietly, like a kind of unlikely dream, like it was beginning to seem that winter would never really end. It’s a very welcome antidote as we gear up to face these new times. We are finally leaving. Nine months’ phoney war of triumphalism and dismay, of hectoring headlines and cries of betrayal, of regret, of buoyed enthusiasm have lead us now to the point where there’s apparently no going back.

    It’s only too easy to seize upon and help expound divisions. And anybody not seduced by the lack of a reality-check knows we face a sobering horizon. But we know too that those supporting Brexit weren’t all from a rabid far right, even if steadfast libertarians helped swell their ranks. But there’s no doubt that many in the country felt betrayed. Or perhaps bewildered is a better word; bewilderment and ire whipped up and directed towards an entire political class, towards those who were - many were told – out of touch with the wellbeing of ordinary people. Towards distant institutions seen as floating in an ivoried insulation that somehow, the narrative went, threatened common decency itself, that threatened a vague sense of undefined values nestled somewhere in a nineteen fiftied halcyoned delusion.

    Deregulated global finance - whose probably inevitable crash sold so many down the river in the first place - helped set the field. And even if this was worlds away from UKip’s core message, the discontent this brewed meant that all they had to do was to mop up dissent, direct it at a flag with many stars. It was a rallying cry that many more comfortably off took to heart.

    Beneath all of this, at the very root of this bewilderment, was a world moving faster than many could quite understand where all it took was an apparent outsider to lay a proverbial punch against those in government many saw as unfit to still serve. This was augmented by unprecedented levels of immigration that were treated as almost too hot a topic to touch and rarely argued for rationally in terms of the benefits they brought to our country, or of the need to be candid about these levels – difficult to stem in any case - and invest resources towards them to help ease the strain. If some immigration is to an extent a factor of life in a more globalised world, it’s true too that freedom of movement within the EU is a tenet of membership we stand to reject at a cost that is only growing clearer by the day.

    And now, with renewed calls for a second independence referendum in Scotland, with the prospect of a new land border in Ireland, with a palpable sense of dismay among many in Europe, we may be left with a newly independent England. If nothing else, the current situation throws into stark relief the arguments for and against further devolution. It may be true that the best chance the UK has of surviving is as a federation where English democracy is given its true place. In the balance perhaps is an idea of the UK where the English have still not quite shed the idea of Empire in our subconscious. It’s all very well if our Celtic neighbours have their own parliaments, this thinking goes; we don’t need an English equivalent because somewhere deep down we still think of England as Britain; the distinction has never been as integral for us as for the other three nations in our fellowship, and no wonder, as this blurring of identities stretches back hundreds of years, to at least the inception of our hegemony on the high seas and probably way before that.

    The best hope for the peoples of these islands to share a common future lies in a true sense of our mutual equality. In England certainly we have a renewed opportunity to look at our country again, to help re-imagine what it once meant and still can, lifted from a history of so much subjugation; of our own people originally and that which we inflicted on others. We have a new chance now to shake all that off, to help conceive of an idea of a nation truly suited for this century’s potential.

    Though much about the referendum has been distressing we can at least see how it reflects the ironies and inconsistencies of a globalised world. That the resistance to this fell to an overly glee, beer-swilling ex-City trader only too willing to cheer on Trump and forces allied against the liberal world order is highly ironic. It reinforces the knowledge that, where core concerns are ignored, it can strengthen the hand of those whose interests are far from those of the people they claim to represent. An apparent vacuum in the body politic was subsumed by a rightwing and populist heist.

    I fear for this country. I fear what may happen without the benevolent checks of decades of environmental and workplace legislation, of what may happen if we are forced into a no-holds-barred race to the bottom for any kind of global trade, of the repercussions of a potential regulatory iconoclasm where corporations write - or dispense with - the rules. I deeply regret any kind of extra distance between us and our European neighbours, or any further repercussions on the wider European economy and upon its politics in general.

    But it would be churlish too not to acknowledge that, things being as they are now, there are potentially opportunities here too. Only time and determination will tell what the result will be for our country. Will we find ourselves in a bolstered UK, or even a newly independent England, no longer in hoc to the worst diktats of global finance; a pared down, more equal, but still thriving country living in its means that can help lead the way in a more ecological world? Or will it be a shabby shadow of its former self, ruled by veiled or blatant corporate agendas?

    Where we can help determine this we surely ought to stick our oar in. But perhaps at this stage we would also do well to remember our options; if a second referendum is a long way off if not a tall order, we can all still do what we can to help ameliorate the way ahead, to push for the softest Brexit possible, to seek to perpetuate existing beneficial regulations as they are rewritten for these shores. Perhaps above all we have to counter the cabal of ideologues who seem to be dictating our collective trajectory at present.

    Whatever doubts we may hold about the democratic and environmental credentials of the EU, even those who do not feel that our departure’s a massive mistake can still cherish the principles it stands for; a world of ever closer cultural ties, of peace, freedom, tolerance and solidarity. It’s never been more important to stand up for those things, to let them become a foundation of a new narrative as we seek to shape an uncertain future. Because it’s clear that if we continue to be bound by disbelief and regret we only give ground to those who’d push us further to the right at any cost.

    Sovereignty does not rest simply in populist outcries, or even in a stressed executive. If Parliament’s voice has been battered by Brexit, it’s perhaps time to think of replacing the ‘unwritten’ constitution of England, as it has effectively existed since the settlement of 1688, with an actual codified version. That could help enshrine the kind of narrative and aspiration written of above. Meanwhile, it should be more than obvious that continuing to tacitly defer to those under the influence of right wing media moguls is less of an option than ever. However visceral last year’s result, we all of us still have a voice. In the months and years ahead it will be more important than ever to use it.

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  • Mutual Survival

    As another year begins, we’ve had more cause than ever to reflect. Even discounting the elections and their repercussions, it’s a sobering time for anyone concerned with our environment. Most immediately, in the UK, fracking is perhaps the most salient threat. When you read through the latest information what strikes you most is the seemingly casual dismissal of concerns for our ecology in the face of considerations for energy security. It’s an understandable logic in a sense but it speaks of the huge dichotomy that is as acute with fracking as in any other sphere where a desire to keep the wheels spinning in our anthropocentric industrial paradigm trumps, if you’ll pardon the phrase, concerns for the land which sustains us.

    Yes, our domestic infrastructure is largely hooked to gas for cooking and heating and power. Yes, we currently get much of our supply from regimes whose democratic credentials and record on human rights leave much to be desired, nevermind the damage gas extraction there may be reaping on their own environment. Yes we need to decouple ourselves from a future with coal and that leaves a massive deficit it’s a challenge for renewables alone to assuage.

    But we have to balance against that the very real costs to our country that fracking would mean – the massive spike in lorry traffic, the liberal littering of well pads the size of two football fields, access roads, demands on our water supply, the visual impact of gas flares at night, the constant noise. And that’s before we even get onto the toxic waste and controversy over the dangers of contamination of water supplies, dangers that the tally of experience abroad only makes all the more pressing. To bring home the impact of all this, the industry standard for well distribution is 8 per square mile – that means a massive imprint however long each gas well lasts.

    All this should mean that, if we care about our own health, nevermind that of the country around us, we have to up the ante in terms of what we are not prepared to accept. With this knowledge, our current dependence on gas should be seen as a thing we have to find our way beyond. If regimes abroad appall us, that should only inform our need to do away with our tacit support – we need to get beyond the extraction of gas on a global footing; wherever it comes from its impact on the biosphere is constant. If we seek a bridging fuel we have to remember, as I’ve said many times, that all gas wells leak (given time) and methane is a greenhouse gas that - over the first two decades after its release - is 84 times more potent than CO 2. And it ought to go without saying that we are at a truly pivotal time for energy procurement in this country and that the continued subsidies for the fossil fuel industries and the evisceration of financial backing of the burgeoning renewable sector ought to be a full blown scandal.

    There are other avenues for procuring gas, just as there are for heating our homes. But rolling these out requires courage and vision. It should be clearer than ever that we cannot continue as a society to meet our needs with myopic planning, a blind struggle to plod along with one foot barely in front of another, a shrugging of the shoulders when it comes to the future itself. The Paris agreement should to hold us to this: is it really too much to expect that we ought to be good as our word?

    Most people still don’t want fracking here, making it an issue of democracy itself. But there are still things we can do. We can press for greater uptake of renewable systems wherever they are needed in our communities; cutting out altogether the top-down impositions the decision to frack is so indicative of. These edicts from on high are a huge part of the problem in that they frequently pay no heed to their impact where they count; in our localities, in our communities themselves. They’re symptomatic of an industrial mentality of scale, where costs are removed for the consumer, unless you happen to live around Bowland or the Weald. And when you look at the vast swathes of the country already ear marked for drilling, you realise the threat is much wider than that.

    But if change is not forthcoming we ought to remember we have options. It looks as though a new generation is being compelled to discover again what civil disobedience can do. However we do it, they deserve our support: they carry a truly great hope. But they shouldn’t have to face the stress or cold, or conditions of hostility or the harrowing experience of being the last to live on pieces of land before they are taken forever. We owe them much better than this.

    We face perhaps the ultimate test: can we as a society possibly imagine and engineer our way beyond the quick fix? Can we decouple ourselves from business as usual? Can we actually remember en masse what lies outside our windows and walls as we flick another switch or turn up the dial? And can we convey this determination to those at the top before we plunge over the cliff of ecological havoc? The protestors remind us of everything at stake. But procuring conditions for genuine change is a thing that every one of us can help with.

    At times like this perhaps a seemingly single issue can still somehow save us all. It can bring us together, make politicians see sense, give us the knowledge of what can be done when people cooperate, when we avoid cycles of division and make people see we’re all concerned with the common interest. As with other things this year, it would be foolish to think that we’re not up against it. But perhaps that can help our resolve. And perhaps that resolve can start with a very simple thing; to remember that this world has given us so much and that that which we owe in return is a question of our mutual survival.

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  • The First Hill in the World

    In a lecture given in the Ulster Museum in 1977, Seamus Heaney said that there are two ways in which a place may be known and cherished; the lived, illiterate and unconscious and then the learned, literate and conscious. It was a tension that certainly preoccupied him. Perhaps it defined him as well; his ability to resolve apparent contradictions without necessarily ever laying them to rest. Heaney’s life was full of such tensions or at least was characterised by differing forces, territories and loyalties. Part of the Catholic community in Ulster, the sense of straddling boundaries was somehow always more ingrained for Heaney, right from the very beginning.

    He grew up on a farm at Mossbawn, County Derry. A stream ran close to the farmhouse, dividing the townlands of Anahorish and Tamniarn, which belonged to two different parishes and which were themselves in two separate dioceses. Amongst other things, this resulted in learning – and needing to know - different catechisms for church and living in the Bellaghy district but being part of a different region’s football team. In his own words he was always “a little displaced; being in between was a kind of condition”.

    This only amplified later in his life; his loyalties tested as the civil rights movement he spoke out for gave way to the Troubles, his decision to move to the Republic, his later teaching in America. And he wrote in English, was offered a place at Oxford (though conflicted, he turned it down from a desire to stay close to, and give back to, his people and roots), was part of a literary world where the English and the Irish cultures met. He returned to teach in Belfast and was instrumental in a greater recognition of Northern Irish poetry in general, part of a tradition of poets from both communities; poets like Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague and John Hewitt.

    Heaney was part of a world that reflected older literary lines; in particular the resurgent Irish identity of the Nineteenth Century that resulted in a new literature, set against an increasingly secular world where those like Sir James Frazer (and his Golden Bough) sought greater standardisation and the demythologisation of traditional beliefs and the places inspiring them. The new literature was part of a counter cultural movement that sought to reinstate the importance of the native tradition, of old places, old faiths, fairie lore and the legends whose entomological associations echo in the landscape even now; place names redolent with battles and saints, flights and homecomings and the steady pattern of an ancient way of life.

    One of Heaney’s greatest acts of straddling different worlds was his relationship with landscape and the land itself, between the geological landscape and that of the mind. He wrote of this relationship as a kind of marriage. He thought that just as marriage is sacred, so too is this sensing of place. The landscape was “sacramental, instinct with signs, implying a system of reality beyond the visible realities.” For Heaney it possibly stemmed from a kind of almost formalised betrothal, bathing as a boy in a moss-hole, “treading the liver-thick mud, unsettling a smoky muck off the bottom and coming out smeared and weedy and darkened.” The poems of the bog, the bog oaks, the very bog people that formed such a rich seam in so much of his later work are surely touched by such an intimacy.

    It’s with a profound sadness then, if with a sense of no longer being surprised, that I heard of plans to build a dual carriageway within one hundred metres of his childhood home of Mossbawn. The impact of the landscape and ecology there can only be imagined. That landscape helped inspire poems such as ‘Anahorish’ (with it’s ‘First Hill in the World’, and also the name of his very first school), ‘Broagh’ and the ‘tattoo’ of its vocal, low ‘O’, the Strand at Lough Beg, a poem dedicated to his cousin Colum McCartney, murdered in the Troubles that Heaney always treated with both care and a rare kind of grace.

    The water pump in the yard at Mossbawn once marked the centre of his world. He drew on the experiences there for his early work – his first collection, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ was published fifty years ago this week. It is full of descriptions of that way of life; his father ploughing with horses, the rituals of butter churning that could be from the sixteen-hundreds, his early disillusionments in ‘Blackberry Picking’ and in the title poem itself. They are borne out with an intense and almost cinematic detail, testaments to a very different life. He writes too of another juxtaposition as he watches his father digging, aware that he himself will now work - and dig – in another fashion.

    These were the worlds that Heaney found himself both between and a part of above all the rest; his writing and the farming life, the old world that even then seemed somehow irreproachably unthreatened by modernity. But though he chose, or was destined for, a life that was at one remove from the rest of his family, he remained wedded to the land and the people he lived amongst, enshrining the culture and places of his original home. But he often lived in cities, understanding Kavanagh’s internal quarrel with “the illiterate self, tied to the little hills and earthed in the stony grey soil, and the literate self that pined for the ‘city of Kings/Where art music and letters were the real things’ ”.

    It’s a quandary that in some respects affects us all today. But amid the pull and tow of cities and hills, farming and art, landscapes and the pressures of a modern world that it often seems only grows harder to understand by the day, we shouldn’t forget that we all of us have choices, that the division between the world we enshrine and that which we continually create – one way or another - remains a still malleable thing. It’s simplistic to say that roads don’t get congested or that new infrastructure doesn’t sometimes have a place. But cars remain one of the ultimate mixed blessings of our times. Surely we have it in us still to value the green and the good and not be subservient to tides of tyres and metal that hook us in with their convenience but stand to take away so much?

    It’s a tragic situation that the love of so great a man; the landscape in which he grew up now stands to be desecrated (a word he himself used when he heard of the plans) by a literal inroad to a vision of modernity borne, at best, of an utter absence of imagination. In a world increasingly defined by manufactured needs we should all remember our options, look for every avenue for change, hold onto that which we value and love. Heaney’s work is a testament to those values, to a world that is carried in our culture and our hearts. Nothing can touch that. We owe him so much.

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    To object to the road through Mossbawn please sign the petition.

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  • We're All Environmentalists Now

    In summer the dog days persist but it feels as though things have not been the same for a while now. And I don’t just mean the referendum. Protests continue, campaigners crack on but somehow, for my part, it’s as if other things are calling, some sense that all of this, certainly for now, is no longer for me. Partly that’s from necessity’s sake. Partly it’s that all the old issues are now well rehearsed, however current they remain. But they’re being increasingly taken up to a place and pitch and time beyond their inception, better for a wider audience, in no way reduced for being removed from those early warning signs which did so much to stir us all up.

    But maybe too, I’m coming to a fresh appraisal of just what the kind of change we need can look like and how old mantras serve to help or hinder this. For many it’s a question of staying engaged; ‘we have to be active’ the mentality goes, nothing means anything if it is not carved out from our efforts and stress. But what if it is this very act of exclusion - where activists are rendered some kind of high caste, doing the right thing for everyone’s sake, absolving wider society of all its sins, a minority acting so the rest of us don’t have to, tipping the scales without opening up – what if this mentality of expectation of the active and concerned is as much part of the problem as anything else?

    It would be easy to misunderstand such a sentiment. And it may seem perverse when there are no shortage of issues that must be contended or engaged with. Environmental concerns in particular present us with a kind of white heat. The urgency of the threat of irreparable harm builds up on our consciences. It’s all or nothing, now or never, an unparalleled cause for alarm. But my point is that we should respond to these things as a wider society and culture, not hold out the hope that a relatively small group of people, and especially any one person over anyone else, hold the key to our deliverance.

    Protest can be utilised, can become a kind of repository for a people’s wishes and concerns. If only Swampy rose again, the thinking seems to be, and rid us of the problems we all face. So many people abdicate their power in this way. There is some other agency still out there they believe, who stand to do what each of us would like to. Despite such mindsets, activism will always retain a great force. And while its role can set any given activist apart, it can also help galvanise so many others in its wake. Clearly, now, the need is as great as ever. But we should not let the power of a people be carried by only the ‘usual suspects’; buoyed or weary as they all may be.

    As far as all the issues go, nothing now can change our wishes or intent, except the knowledge that, however we respond, we must never lose sight of our humanity, whatever the scale of that which we face. And while those issues may still stay a current force, other ways to make our voices heard remain. Active hope is a close cousin of involvement. But art and prayer and daily choices as to how we lead our lives still have their place among seemingly more immediate currencies.

    I have no doubt that every one of us can make a difference, whether in our actions, our speech or simply our intent. At this point in time, the need to create such a difference is huge. But however we do it, we can all still engage with the things that we know to be true, things that may lift us above a given ‘us or them’ or ‘you and I’ or any other ‘other’ than a face of faceless corporate greed.

    In the meantime it may be enough just to walk, in fortitude or stubbornness, without expectation but with the knowledge that somehow, somewhere down the horizon we may get to a place more fitting for the real potential of these times. This may not be an easy thing that we can take for granted but it still sits as a promise, or even something more immediate, if we can only see it and will it and bring it to bear.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At it’s broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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