All neat and tidy

During the 39–45 war the houses on our road near the southern edge of Lincoln were fortunate to have a long allotment appended to the end of the back garden. In childhood I loved this shaggy space, rows of vegetables and rhubarb, fruit bushes, a deep hedge where redcurrants and brambles grew, patches of weedy long grass, waggly old apple tree to swing on, and a chicken coop, until the fox got in.

After the war the allotments continued for maybe 10 years. Then the land was sold by the Council for house building. Our outdoor space was reduced to the back garden, with lawn, fruit trees and flower garden plus surrounding privet hedge, and the front garden with rose bushes and more privet.

As I got to help out, I soon realised that the purpose of gardening was to keep these spaces neat and tidy. The privet needed regular trimming, any ‘weeds’ appearing among the flowers were hoed away, imperfect leaves were removed, lawns were regularly mowed and plantains removed.

That was until my brother and I grew older and destroyed the lawn by continually playing soccer, or football as we called it. But that’s another story.

I’m led to reflect on this as I look at today’s English suburban gardens. Sadly, the modern trend has been to destroy many front gardens to create car parking, or simply to create low-maintenance areas of gravel or tarmac, even weirdly coloured synthetic grass. All neat and tidy. And lifeless.

Back gardens have also suffered to a lesser extent. Expanses of decking or stone patios create more lifeless, tidy spaces. Weeds and insects are destroyed with toxic chemicals from the Garden Centre. All this part of man’s apparent continued assault on nature. But all neat and tidy.

Thankfully there is increasing awareness of the devastation of insect and bird populations caused by this domestic obsession, and the equal dedication to low cost neat and tidy farming, with its sterile monocultures, hedges shaved to minimal depth, lack of field margins and spaces for field-nesting birds, no wildlife corridors.

It is clear that in this respect the trend of modern life is a sustained attack on nature. Nature is not neat and tidy with sharp edges. It’s alive and messy, with shaggy edges. Biodiversity needs to be encouraged everywhere. Gardens, fields and parks must include wild space for nature. Weeds are actually plants well suited to their environment. Within limits they can be tolerated, providing a variety of sustenance for nature. Crops will not thrive on denatured monocultures for centuries. This neat and tidy obsession needs to end. Now.

Featured image is Eden Park Recreational Area, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

Muck or nettles

My dad often said ‘muck or nettles’, usually when he was embarked on some diy project, although the term diy did not exist in 1950s Lincoln – people just did things and couldn’t afford to get others to do it for them. I took it to mean that after this stage of the project he was committed, and could not go back. On the web you’ll find the definition ‘all or nothing’.

I can’t find a derivation, but you can imagine that for country people to get anywhere two of the most daunting obstacles might be having to wade through acres of mud or having to push your way through large banks of stinging nettles.

I had a ‘muck or nettles’ moment the other day. I’d had a large desk for many years, but was becoming frustrated by the amount of space it used up in my study, so I bought a new, smaller one. In truth I was seduced by technology (and techno son) yet again, as the new desk can be elevated and used standing.

So the desk arrives and has to be constructed in situ, but first the old desk must be removed and I don’t yet know if the new desk will construct or operate correctly – although most of the review are fine some are not. The muck or nettles moment arrives as I tip the old desk on its side and begin to unscrew the bolts holding it together. Who know if I’d be able to put it together again – the odd creak of separating pieces and apparent cracks suggests this may well prove difficult. Ah well, muck or nettles, ever onward!

It works. First, the old desktop is dragged, half carried downstairs, helped by gravity and long-suffering she who helps when he can’t do it all himself. The new desk is constructed over a couple of hours, according to complicated instructions, and works first time. All thanks to muck or nettles!

Featured image adapted from Nettles, Belfast by Albert Bridge, via Wikimedia Commons

Give us back the dark

I am about 8 years old. We are walking through the partly built-up area between North Hykeham village and the edge of Lincoln. It is pitch dark, apart from regular pools of light beneath the gas-powered street lamps. I am astounded and inspired by the beauty of the heavens, as my dad points out some of the constellations – the Plough, Orion, the Pleiades… – and the Milky Way.

This was the inspiring experience of all our ancestors, yet within a couple of generations it has become a much less common experience for today’s children, because of light pollution. You just cannot see the sky with the same intensity, if at all, from most inhabited areas. We are losing contact with the heavens, and hence the sense of our place in the universe.

Light pollution is one of the scourges of our time see eg this excellent article by National Geographic, the Wikipedia entry, and the dark sky movement. Here are just some of the ways in which increasing light pollution is detrimental to (our) life on earth:

  • harming animals whose life cycles depend on dark
  • endangering ourselves by altering the biochemical rhythms that normally ebb and flow with natural light levels
  • losing our connection to the nighttime skies, the tapestries into which our ancestors wove their stories of meaning, timed the planting and harvesting of crops, and deduced the physical laws governing the cosmos
  • thus losing our connection with the Earth itself
  • artificial lighting of buildings kills migrating birds in their thousands
  • nighttime lights suppress fertility in wild animals, affect their sense of direction, disrupt their natural rhythms, affect the ability of moths and other insects to navigate, with knock-on effects on bird populations
  • studies show that light pollution increases atmospheric pollution.

All this is pretty well known science, and many local authorities have responded over the years. I well recall that in the 1980s there was tremendous publicity about the scattering of light around and upwards by street lights at the time. But increasing awareness and improved technology have led, over the decades, to today’s more sophisticated lighting which casts light downward, giving an effect more like the local pools of light I recall from childhood.

But recently the ubiquity of cheap lighting has led, at least in our area of UK, to a new source of this pollution: individual households putting up relatively bright lights on the walls of their houses or the end of their drives, and leaving them on all hours of the night, others leaving outside Christmas lights on for months on end.

This is totally unnecessary, as modern movement sensors ensure that lights are only on when needed – surely the only sensible approach. What is it about people who press on regardless, because they ‘like their house lit up’, or feel they need their driveway under permanent illumination? “It’s a free country, I’ll do what I like.” It seems like ignorance and lack of empathic connection with nature and other people, with perhaps an underlying fear of the dark. Could this relate to a fear of the inner darkness perceived within themselves, because the inner world is an unknown land? The outer reflects the inner.

The dark is necessary for our sanity, as well as for nature.

Featured image is from the website of Dark Sky Association.

Time for change, but will we?

When I was growing up in Lincoln in the 1950s, most people cycled, walked or caught the bus to work, few had cars. Cycling was safe. There was no air pollution, once the old coal-powered gasworks closed.

Even ten years later, when I visited Lincoln in the 1960s, the main route into town was beginning to be clogged with cars. Another decade and cycling was becoming a thing of the past. It was becoming dangerous, particularly as lorries got bigger and bigger.

Of course this pattern recurred in towns and cities all over the UK, and air pollution became endemic, particularly when there was the ill-advised shift to diesel fuels. The car was king and all bowed before it. Air became polluted and there was a surge in cases of asthma. Strangely, government did little about it, although some cities did a fair amount, within their allowed powers.

Then came covid-19 and lockdown. Suddenly air was clean, roads were quiet, it was safe to cycle. People were exhorted to cycle or walk and avoid cars and public transport. It was like the 1950s again.

Of course the natural reaction of government is to try to re-establish the status quo ante, because that was when the economy ‘worked’. But it didn’t – see inequality, polluted air, climate breakdown and covid.

So we really do need to take stock and set course for a more sensible world that is based on real needs of people and nature, not just on ‘the economy.’ All the ideas are there – green new deals, basic income, move to renewable energy, sovereign money,…

We just need to get on with it. But will we?

Photo of Lincoln High Street near St Peter’s from Francis Frith website – go visit.

 

Alcohol and gambling

We were sent to Methodist chapel every Sunday in 1950s Lincoln – morning service and afternoon Sunday School. This gave a good grounding in bible stories and hymn singing, and table tennis at the social club. Two messages became memorably ingrained into us – the evils of alcohol and gambling.

In the later teenage years, we tried beer at the local pubs. It turned out to be a good social lubricant, especially for a quiet lad like me, and we soon learned not to drink too much – the effects were most unpleasant. At university I discovered wine and that was that.

Gambling was a different matter. My dad did the football pools every week, so I got to looking at the weekly sheet that he had to fill in. At the back I noticed the ‘fixed odds’ where you could bet on the outcome of particular matches. This seemed more attractive to me than the general lottery entered by my dad. I used to notionally fill it in and then check on the results – I usually ‘lost’. But I became aware of the inner ‘pull’ of fixed odds betting, so never tried it out for real. So I can understand the attraction of the fixed odds betting terminals that have been the subject of recent controversy in the UK, where the maximum stake in a betting shop is being reduced from £100 to £2. Good thing too.

Gambling is highly regulated in the UK yet, since the relaxation of attitudes in the 1960s, plays a significant part in the economy. My own attitude to gambling has changed little since the 1950s, apart from the odd raffle ticket. Maybe that’s one up to my teachers at Chapel, or down to a wartime-induced attitude of frugality.

At times I’ve come across people who became addicted to alcohol or gambling – for them, yes these things really are evil. And Alcoholics/Gambling Anonymous provide a necessary salvation.

Featured image from 1857 report by James Haughton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Light and Dark

I have a vibrant memory of Sunday evenings in the 1950s, walking home after visiting grandparents in the nearby village. We walked on the pavement in almost complete darkness through the countryside. The stars were so bright, and my dad pointed out the common constellations (the Plough/Big Dipper, Orion…) and the Milky Way.

1280px-Another_Milky_Way_Shot
The Milky Way

There were street lamps, still gas powered in those days. They cast small oases of light in the pervading darkness, an essential aid when the Moon was not up. As we navigated from oasis to oasis, they gave a feeling of security.

In later decades street lights became ever brighter, until more recently people realised that this over-brightness was polluting any chance of being aware of the majesty of the night sky – the pervading influence for all earlier human generations. So, they’ve become more subdued and direct light downwards rather than everywhere. On our residential estate there’s now a small sense of those earlier oases of light in the darkness – although the power of modern leds is inevitably much stronger than the old gas lamps.

But there’s a new kid on the block: a proliferation of lighting from residential houses, notably porch lights, and lights at the end of the drive. Some throw stronger light than the actual street lighting. My senses are repelled by this unnecessary brightness and the accompanying waste of energy. Why? When a cheap sensor could turn the light on only when needed. If every house did the same we would rarely experience the darkness of night.

We need to make friends with the darkness, it is as much a part of life as the light. Only then do we and our children see those gems in the sky, perhaps inspiring an interest in astronomy or its twin astrology.

Human eyes are actually very good at seeing in low light conditions. So please can we turn those lights out, except when needed.

And make friends with the dusk, one of the truly magical parts of the day (I’m sure the dawn is also, but I rarely make it.)

Featured image of gas lamp by Tulane Public Relations (Uploaded by AlbertHerring), via Wikimedia Commons
Image of The Milky Way by John Fowler, via Wikimedia Commons

Mrs Cotton

I heard that Mrs Cotton died recently, aged 95. The Cottons were our next-door neighbours in 1950s Lincoln, ordinary people getting on with their lives, friendly enough but not intruding, helping out when help was needed, co-operating when necessary. Reliable.

Mrs Cotton had her mother living with them in the house, until she died. After Mr C died, she lived out the rest of her life in the same house. As you do, if there’s no reason to move.

Reminds me of the guy who served me a pizza in a Lincoln takeaway in the early nineties. He’d lived in Lincoln all his life and said he’d never been out of the city, not even once.

I was perhaps lucky that education gave me the route to escape! But maybe I should stress that the Lincoln of today is no longer so enclosed and provincial, now that it is a thriving university town.

Miss Abbott

The teacher I recall most fondly from my primary school years (ages 7-11, then called junior school) in 1950s Lincoln was Miss Abbott, probably then in her mid twenties. She was our class teacher in the second year, so I was probably 8-9. She was basically an effective teacher and a ‘nice’ person – a word I was subsequently exhorted to avoid by teachers seeking to encourage a broader vocabulary.

south common lincolnOn the most memorable day, the whole class went out for a walk to Lincoln’s South Common, where we had an outdoor lesson on nature, and particularly the wildlife in the ponds that are found there. This was my first experience of pond dipping. And we played games on the grass.

It cannot be a coincidence that my most memorable learning experience took place out of doors in nature, rather than all the many other days spent in the classroom in front of a blackboard.

Sadly, there may have been frogs, sticklebacks and damsel flies that subsequently suffered due to the enthusiasms stimulated, but the passion for nature has remained.

Picture of pond on Lincoln’s south common
by John Bennett, via Wikimedia Commons.
The pond in memory was smaller than this one.

Mrs Watty

Mrs Watty lived two doors away from us in 1950s Lincoln. She was pretty well off compared to the rest of the street, having a car long before anyone else and having people in to do things for her.

We had but a nodding acquaintance with Mrs Watty until I was an early teenager. She never seemed to go out of the house, other than in the car. Her age I know not; I just saw her as ‘old’.

Presumably Mrs Watty found out that I played chess at school, and she let it be known that she would like to learn to play chess. Thus it was that I embarked on a very brief career as a chess coach and went round to see her, along with my chess set.Read More »

Mr Stanniforth

Although most of the main adult influences on my life growing up in 1950s Lincoln came from family members, this was by no means all. Mr Stanniforth lived near us and was a Sunday School teacher at the local Methodist chapel. At a very young age my brother and I had laid foundation stones for the new Swallowbeck chapel, overseen by my grandma, a staunch Methodist. So we were duly sent to the service on Sunday morning and Sunday School in the afternoon.

To be honest, the services were a bit boring, apart from once a year when an evangelical circuit preacher gave us stirring sermons and a good singsong. At Sunday School, I guess I learned quite a lot about the bible and bible stories, useful background in later life. And I loved playing table tennis at the youth club when I was a bit older.

Mr Stanniforth was a jolly, balding, portly middle-aged man, always reminding us about next Sunday whenever he saw us. My biggest memory is of him repeatedly telling us that ‘alcohol is evil’. Even my young mind thought, can alcohol be evil, when many of the adults I know go to the pub from time to time? Maybe this set in train doubt about religious organisations from an early age, probably the opposite of what was intended.

 

Uncle Frank

Uncle Frank was actually my mother’s cousin, but older. His father was a brother of mother’s mother. The father was killed in WW1, and Frank grew up with my mother for a while. Despite this they were not close.

Frank had married Ivy and they lived by ‘The Ramper’**, the main A46 road between Lincoln and North Hykeham. We occasionally visited them. On one memorable occasion in the late 1940s/ early 1950s, we saw a television for the first time, in their house, after walking there across fields. It was one of those huge polished wooden boxes with a tiny 8 inch screen in the middle and a very speckly picture. It was quite impressive nonetheless. We only got our first television in 1953, in time for the coronation.

Ivy had somehow become Muriel, and seemed to have developed ‘airs and graces’, according to mother – who was not impressed by our being given tinned tomatoes on toast for tea. We did not see much of them.

**  The Newark Road was the old Roman road and was called the Ramper by my grandparents. I think this relates to this being an old Roman road, and the association of their roads with ramparts.

Featured image of an early television set, the RCA 630TS (1948) by Marcin Wichary from San Francisco, via Wikimedia Commons

Uncle Budge

We did not see Aunt Helen very often while I was growing up in 1950s Lincoln. Actually she was my mother’s aunt. Budge was her husband.

Although living in a terraced house near Lincoln City’s Sincil Bank football ground, Helen was ‘posh’, their child was a choirboy at the cathedral. It almost felt like visiting royalty. Budge was in contrast large, cheery, hearty, funny, apparently a normal working man.

I particularly recall visiting on a Friday – fish day. Budge always had fish on a Friday – I remember a large piece on his plate, maybe skate, which he soon demolished. A big thing was made about Budge always having fish on a Friday.

The rest of us, including Helen, just had an ordinary ‘tea’ – maybe potted meat sandwiches, cake if we were lucky, and a cup of tea.

This seemed odd to us, as we always ate the same stuff together as a family. I think we were seeing the vestiges of times when (a) men regarded themselves as special (b) there was hardly enough food to go around and (c) the working man’s life was physically hard so he needed extra food.

We were lucky!

Featured image of skate by Titus Tscharntke, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Uncle Paul

Uncle Paul turned up at our house on his battered old pushbike once a year in the 1950s. After a cheery hello to us kids, he’d have a cup of tea, maybe a piece of cake, and a chat with my dad.

Then the old bags hanging on his handlebars would be filled with apples from our trees, eaters and cookers – it was always that time of year.

Totally laden, Uncle Paul would set off ever so slowly, a bit wobbly at first, and gradually disappear off down the road.

Uncle Paul was a distant relative of my dad and, I think, lived out in the sticks of the Lincolnshire countryside. We were townies, on the edge of Lincoln. But this gave us a glimpse of life in rural Lincolnshire then – sharing natures bounty where possible, travelling everywhere by bike.

Next year Uncle Paul would be back again to repeat the ritual.

Featured image is not Uncle Paul but about the right age
– old man by Klearchos Kapoutsis, via Wikimedia Commons