Thoughts from the Attic

This past weekend, I doubt I could have been more away from it all: I stayed in a holiday cottage in the middle of Cumbria. When I looked out the window, I could see the mountains rising in the distance, with rolling fields below. On Sunday, the landscape was blasted by wind and streaked with rain, adding much more wild to the wilderness. Autumn is here, but those fields were still green, hanging on to the last lingering colours of summer.

It’s good to get away. Sometimes the traffic gets to be too much, the honking horns, drivers not being able to signal properly and sitting in jams for hours on end are all tiresome. Sometimes it’s nice not to stand in a long queue at Morrisons; rather, it’s preferable to take a day trip to Cockermouth for the Taste Cumbria Food Festival, and to sample Loweswater Gold ale and pick up some genuine Cumberland sausage (only seasoned with salt and pepper, no other spices) at Harrison’s the butcher. The tempo of life slows to a crawl, sleep is smooth and even, and mornings climb into the bedroom softly rather than crash in.

St Margarets Church WythopNevertheless, the world keeps turning. I felt as if I was sitting in a pleasant attic of an old home, with much to delight and fascinate around me. For example, on Saturday, I went to St. Margaret’s Church in Wythop, and photographed its exterior and interior: it was pristine and resplendent both in and out, a relic which had last been retouched in the 1920’s. The winds picked up as the sun set, and I returned to the cottage just after dark.

Beneath that comfortable attic, there was a lot of turbulence. Deep in the cellar, the case of Jeremy Forrest and Megan Stammers appeared to be finally resolved, more or less: Forrest is likely going to prison. There is some debate as to whether or not it was abduction: statutory rape will likely be difficult to prove without a confession of some kind. What is certain is that what Forrest did was completely unethical. As a teacher, he was in a position of power: it can be argued to what degree students look up to their teachers these days, but officially, Forrest had a charge to keep. Namely, he was supposed to open the doors of knowledge to his students and be an impartial guardian. It was right and proper that he care about his students, but that concern had to be independent of any personal gain or desires. Instead, he apparently succumbed to weakness and caused that vital barrier to collapse. I can only speculate that his separate life as a musician indicates some longing for lost youth and a need to be idolised; Ms. Stammers may have been a symbol to him of days past. In turn, she probably is still caught up in the adolescent idea of idyllic, worshipful love, which bears little resemblance to the mature variety: there is nothing wrong with such crushes, provided they are not acted upon, as coming to terms with the imperfections of love is part of growing up. However, given his responsibility and her immaturity, the relationship was shamefully unequal, and Forrest took his failings to a strange and terrible conclusion. Regardless of the illegality or not of what he’s done, he certainly should not be allowed near the young again. Perhaps prudence will triumph and just such an exclusion will be put in place.

Ed Miliband with a purple tieThere’s also a great deal of noise from the ground floor: the Labour Party conference has just begun in Manchester. On Sunday morning television there was a gaggle of politicians from a variety of parties wearing purple ties, perhaps because purple reaches back into our historical memory. Roman Senators had a purple stripe on their togas, Emperors adorned themselves in the colour; Emperor Justinian’s wife Theodora once stated while her husband was under threat that purple made a fine funeral shroud. Or perhaps some media consultant merely told our politicians that it as a neutral colour: red says “Radical”, blue says “Reactionary”, gold says “Liberal Democrat”. The desire to find a neutral position seems to be reflected in some Labour statements; yesterday, as I wandered the Taste Cumbria stands, Twitter told me that Labour would not be reversing many of the current government’s NHS “reforms”. This morning, Ed Miliband said they were. Which is right? Well, full reversion would likely be difficult as the old structure was more or less demolished: so in essence it could be a reform on top of a reform. There is also a question of how much would be spent to achieve this and the instability that would result: would this be throwing good money after bad? Yes, no, maybe?

Similar confusion prevails over university tuition fees. Labour introduced these fees in the first place; the policy was put on steroids by the current government. Ed Miliband has spoken of replacing the current system with a graduate tax. It’s a maybe. But would it cost more for the graduates? Less? How long would they have the millstone of additional tax or debt around their necks? Is it merely a change of name, a bit of re-marketing in order to make it more palatable?

And what about public sector jobs? Miliband was adamant: pay freezes should continue in order to preserve jobs. The two are not necessarily linked: pay has been frozen for a time and yet there are still many more public sector jobs that have gone and will go. The unions pointed this out; will they get a hearing from their own party? Possibly not. After all, if Ed Miliband wants to please the media, he will go back and tell the unions which created the Labour Party in the first place and fund it now that they are wrong. No doubt the ghosts of Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin despair from beyond.

But never mind, put on a purple tie, clamber onto the stage at Manchester and say something which doesn’t grate on anyone’s ear. Offer micro-initiatives like using the proceeds from the sale of 4G bandwidth to mobile phone companies to offer a stamp duty holiday; heaven forfend that industrial scale tax evaders like Vodafone should be made to pay their fair share. Bash the bankers because everyone hates them anyway, but make threats which are sufficiently hollow not to rouse them. Perhaps in 2015, David Cameron will have offended so many that anyone who is more pleasant than he will be a shoo-in.

Never mind. On the first floor, there is a bigger issue banging and raging; the sudden floods in Spain after a prolonged drought are indicative of a less predictable climate. On Sunday, the BBC weatherman said that a year ago the weather was much warmer than it was today, indeed it hit 30 degrees Celsius in Gravesend, Kent. The weatherman said it will be below the seasonal average of 17 degrees Celsius today. Locals have told me the weather in Cumbria is more extreme than it used to be. What is happening? “Global warming”, “climate change”, whatever label it bears, the whole issue of the environment has been universally embraced by the politicians in purple ties but perhaps also been smothered by them. We have targets to reduce emissions, but limited means by which to achieve these goals: every time a windmill is erected, a politician in a blue tie and tweed will bang on about how a historic and beautiful view is blocked and how the noise arising from the turbines is a form of pollution. The government hesitates, the opposition wants rural votes, the NIMBYs often triumph, the cheap and easy option is the one generally taken: we will get more gas fired power stations and we’ll miss the target completely.

In short, it’s a home full of trouble. Even locked in the attic and relishing the rain and cool breezes, it’s not possible to completely shut out the thuds and yelling from below. But being at a remove for a time is helpful; yes, there will be time to be upset and angry and to honk on the horn while trapped on the road to Leeds city centre. There will be time to pick apart Ed Balls’ plans and think of the word “bumptious” every time he opens his mouth. There will be an opportunity to dread the leaden celebration of greed and mendacity which will occur at the Tory Party conference next week. The weather report will always be there, reminding us of how unpredictable the climate has become. It’s impossible to shove all this completely out of sight and it would be irresponsible to do so: but at least if one travels up the road, it’s possible, if only for a little while, to keep it at arm’s length.

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