The Old Road and a New Path

So after many months going through the process of approaching publishers, I have decided to launch a crowdfunder for the book I wrote about here earlier this year.  I intend to launch the campaign early next year and will be providing more updates closer to the time.

The new book was always partly intended as a means to break out of an apparent cast set by my previous writing, not least ‘Nine Miles’; my account of the British roads protest movement of the ‘nineties.  That does not negate the value of those times but as anyone who has read the book will know, those protests took their toll on many and for my part I have carried those scars a long time.  However much I hold true to what happened all those years ago, however much I believe in the power of protest, however much I believe that the spirit of those times can inform anyone acting on behalf of the environment and society at every level, it was always difficult, in some respects for me, to continue to – in any explicit or inadvertent way – advocate a particular means of action I am no longer in a position to engage with myself.  I can’t expect or encourage anyone to do something I am not able to myself and so some kind of change of tac has been in order for some time.

The new book is a product of that desire for change and that of several years of writing and research.  We all know the seriousness of the times we are in regarding the climate.  For my part, in so far as I have the space and capacity to do so, I have chosen to put my shoulder to the wheel of civic engagement: protest is nothing without the role of civic society.  The latter to my mind offers the best way ahead as we move forward to collectively tackle the crisis.  Protest and civil disobedience can certainly serve to up the anti and help stir us out of our slumber.  It is understandable that so many people may choose to engage in them.  But equally the message has got through to every level of society by now about the immediacy of the climate crisis.   We do not need, and it may well be counter-productive, to seek to set the way ahead by constant disruption, however understandable the wish to continue to do so may be.  And to my mind, defacing irreplaceable art really does not serve the cause.  At times like these, communication and clarity counts for a lot.  We should be realistic about that which we face just as a better sense of direction is always helpful.  But ultimately the need for mutual survival should inform us all.

Given the pace of change needed we need good catalysts.  For my part, to some extent, I always felt that that with Nine Miles I was preaching to the choir.  The new book is an attempt to help broaden the message and not continue to be defined solely by those things I took part in a long time ago.  I believe there is still time to turn this ship around but only if we can act with sufficient alacrity and pace.  Efforts like that of ‘Zero Hour’ – the cross-party campaign behind the Climate and Ecology Bill – hold great potential.  The campaign is one we can all easily play a part in, whether that part is sharing a link, setting up a local group or actively lobbying your MP.

Such are my thoughts in these times.  But – as figures like Greta Thunberg and others are quick to point out – it is not, and never has been, for one person alone to help carry these things forward.  We can all play our part, bolstered by the best elements of our collective history.  There may be a long way to go but, as I hope my new book – which after all recounts a tale of pilgrimage – can help show, we can meet those miles with pace and will and some kind of sure determination.  It falls to us – to all of us – to now do what we can, without a sense of any guarantee but bolstered by the moral need to do our best.  When all is told it’s always been that way, only now we can all see it all the clearer.


Can anything surprise us anymore?  As we all hunker down and attempt to deal with the realities of the omicron surge, another threat to national society is not far from the horizon.  Specifically, as I write, the Lords are debating the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – often dubbed simply the ‘Policing’ Bill.  Last minute amendments by Priti Patel have made the Bill all the more controversial with critics likening it to a power grab worthy of Putin’s Russia or Egypt.

Salient among the justifications are the touted necessity of robust response to the activities of the likes of Insulate Britain and XR, famed for their acts of disruption.  Protestor tactics have changed in recent years, the thinking goes, and the police need the powers to respond effectively.  While there is no doubt that obstructing stretches of motorway, blocking trains into the capital and shutting down various printing presses are far from popular, the case made for the kind of legislation we’re currently looking at tends to gloss over issues as to what constitutes ‘legitimate’ protest, how much power is to be handed over to the Home Secretary and the police and what she and they might – or are perhaps even likely – to do with it.

As Monbiot has pointed out, proposed police powers would include being able to ban anyone from protesting who has previously committed “protest-related offences” or who has even “contributed” to a protest “likely to cause serious disruption”.  If you thought “serious disruption” counted only as sitting on a tube train roof or gluing your face to the M25, consider the breadth of the remit.  If a protest is simply noisy enough to cause “serious unease” it could be banned.  But it is entirely up to officers’ discretion as to how many decibels this might entail and ignores the fact that creating some noise is often half the modus operandi of many given demonstrations.

Other, just as worrying, and imbedded ambiguities remain.  Associating with particular individuals or using the internet to encourage a “protest-related offence” for instance.  And police could effectively impose any restrictions they like on a protest and ban static demonstrations altogether.  Other sweeping statements include mandates against causing “serious disruption to the life of a community” and “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation”.  Stop and search powers could be used without given reason and the legislation as a whole would put many more protestors at risk of arrest.

The problems with this go beyond simply an attack on our rights, as disturbing as this may be.  The Bill would undermine the relationship between police and the public and frequently place impossible choices in the hands of those officers trying to do the right thing.  Relaxing of conditions for stop and search would undoubtably impact even more heavily on ethnic groups and curtailment of protests would hinder the ‘pressure valve’ they have always historically afforded.  Pushing dissent underground and radicalising its expression even further serves no one except, perhaps, those charged with drafting even more stringent legislation in response.

Protest, not unlike the British ‘constitution’ itself has long been subject to certain, generally unclarified, understandings.  Like those of the constitution, these understandings have always been vague, have relied to a large extent on a degree of goodwill or at least the acknowledgement of their likely popularity at large.  But equally, protests have traditionally very often entailed policing costs and a degree of disruption.  To argue otherwise is to endorse their restriction to a saccharine enfeeblement that many charged with managing them would undoubtedly welcome.  There’s always been an element of metaphorical push and shove. 

Given that protestors are often driven by the scale and immediacy of planetary crisis, it’s understandable some of them resort to disruption in the face of apparent media indifference.  But while it is true that (as Digital Rebellion have stated), activism can fill gaps in public awareness left by the press, strategies as to how to bring that public awareness on board are ignored at collective peril.  Though the need for greater traction and swifter change at large is sorely needed, no one should underestimate the extent to which people in general grasp the scale and import of the climate crisis.  The question is not whether we should act but how we should go forward.  And we stand to achieve far more with greater unity.

Activism can only ever be at its most instrumental when coupled with – in service to – wider civic society.  That our ecological situation is urgent, desperate is not in doubt.  It is right that people should find and utilise channels to continue to highlight this, to push for faster and greater change.  We can all lay a hand to that and there is as great a need as ever for those in a position to do so to dedicate themselves.  And mass demonstrations to urge on and hold politicians to account are needed today like never before.

Attempts by our government to clamp down on protest would negate all this.  The PCSC Bill is drafted in a way that would at best cause confusion in its implementation and in all likelihood represents a power grab that must be considered along with other proposed legislation including the Nationality and Borders Bill and ‘amendments’ to the Human Rights Act.  When concern about these laws includes even that of a former prime minister, and in quite forceful terms, the alarm bells for us all should now be ringing. 

Acclaimed film producer and long-standing peer, Lord Puttman, has studied the German descent into fascism in the ‘thirties in some detail and his leaving speech from last October, where he says that we’re in a “very bad place” and need to “wake up” is well worth the read.  With government placemen increasingly embedded in the hearts of our institutions, with broadcasters cautious and cowed and dissent barely more than a whisper, if it were judged alone by bulletins and headlines, it’s more important than ever we stand firm.  For all the fear of diatribes, understandable caution over an undue alarm, the biggest threat we face remains that insulant complacency that clings to the assumption it could never happen here.

Please consider emailing your MP about the Bill and signing this petition.

The Haven

And so, the Spring is with us once again.  In just a few days the restrictions will ease, we will stumble into gardens, drink beer or wine or otherwise and many of us will choose to count our lucky stars.  We’ve come through a terrible time.  We don’t need reminders of what we have been through, the people we’ve lost, the bewildering attrition on our patience and reserves of fortitude.  During the winter’s high tide of cases we knew that for many – the nurses and doctors, the patients themselves, it must have been like a kind of white heat while all the rest of us could do was wait.  

But, the sun shines again, we venture out onto the greens, blinking and buoyant or simply taking it in; the seeming unlikeliness of it; the actual Spring, the tangible immanence of life restored to something much closer to normal.  Finding our feet on the way out of this may be like limbering up after a long convalescence.  After all, how do we expect to stride full tilt into a return to old ways after so much solitude, so many hours whiled away or spent in furious or steady enterprise?  It may take time: we should be patient with ourselves. 

In the meantime, is it too much, too soon, to wonder just how we go forward, to think on the things we have learned, how we choose to calibrate our lives; tempered or battered as we may be but still enduring or champing at horizons so newly redeemed?  It’s tempting now to holiday and surely many will do so.  But will we forget those little points of newly discovered significance upon our daily walks, urban or rural as they may be?  Will those young shoots, the weeds in the pavements, the actual woods help inform us as we step into our renewed freedoms, as we cast off the shackles of life lived indoors for so long?

If we can retain a little poise, we may be able to integrate our reflections of these last twelve months as life cranks up another gear or two.  We may be able to remember old and new acquaintances, fresh resolutions, priorities granted by the bedrock of life that sustains us, the knowledge in uncertain times when old securities are stripped away: the land herself still underpins the basics of our lives.  Without her we are almost literally at sea; her fate is ours just as sure as the dawn.

It’s far from an untimely reminder.  As we emerge from one crisis, we are called to engage once again with that much greater emergency, however slow burning – the future of the biosphere itself.  The greatest dangers here barely need stating; they are to be found first and foremost in ourselves.  We can wilfully ignore it all, perhaps because it seems so large and so intractable a problem, perhaps because we like to think that someone somewhere has it in hand and we need not exercise our own agency.  Or perhaps we feel so overwhelmed, so caught-in-the-headlights we don’t know which way we should turn, or we feel it is hopeless or we despair at humanity at large in our apparent heedlessness.  Or we stare at it all like a mountain we haven’t yet climbed and wonder if it’s still within our gift.

For many, it doesn’t need stating – those taking to the streets for the climate in some of the biggest protests ever seen in that distant summer of 2019 for example.  Or those living out a bitter winter in those many woodlands cut into and despoiled by HS2.  Anyone who’s ever been engaged in protest knows the sense of liberation it can bring – that, after the anxiety and soul searching of what’s to be done, action brings catharsis, even peace.

But, of course, to place yourself on any actual front, to witness face to face the destruction and perhaps, historically at least, the brutality of those charged with its execution, is no easy thing and many know only too clearly the toll it can take.  But such protests are a reminder, certainly, of everything at stake.  They can serve to make society that much more conscious, that much more determined to do what we can.

However much we may like to, we can’t all go off and set up in the woods, whatever the value of life out of doors.  But, as this last year has reinforced for so many, time spent in nature can bring a great boon and can certainly help should the going be hard.  And it can inform how we act, what we do.

One thing anyone concerned with the climate can do is get behind ‘Zero hour’; the campaign for the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, currently making its way through the ‘Commons.  The Bill is principally concerned with picking up where the Climate Change Act and the Paris Agreement left off; pressing for targets bolder than ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050; a target that has been described by Caroline Lucas as “calling for the fire brigade thirty years down the line”.  The campaign is principally calling for people to write to and lobby their MP’s to urge them to support the Bill (140 MP’s and Peers already do so).  But there is an almost infinite scope of other means to lend your support, from banner drops to holding public meetings and principally spreading the word however you can to help make the campaign one no politician can afford to ignore.

For those younger, or more inclined to get their hands in the earth, there are all kinds of tree-planting initiatives, including ‘The Children’s Forest’ project, affiliated with the Forest School Association and which I will be writing more about soon.  For now, it may be enough to say that it is rooted in envisioning a positive and bountiful future and to let that inform our actions, in this case creating abundant forests for future generations, borne first and foremost in our imaginations.

Perhaps that’s as much as we need to go on for a guiding light; we all know the pitfalls of despondency, denial and despair.  But if we can picture the world we would like, strive for it sinew and soul, perhaps that can give us not only the wind in our sails but can help to tangibly create a kind of harbour for our future, however distant arrival may be, however much work it will take.    

The Great Re-Imagining

Is this the time to look for compensation?  At least we finally can say it’s truly Spring.  Those that can will walk and listen to the birdsong and maybe even find a little peace; unlooked for or prayed for, unlikely but making a pure kind of sense.  God knows we need such moments.  A friend of mine watches a raven for how long he doesn’t quite know.  Others gather weeds along newly familiar paths.  I shelter from the suddenly seasonal sun, think about summer, feel a strange sense of assurance that might have nothing and everything to do with my own one temporal fate.

Will things be different after all of this?  Will the flights resume, the factories stutter back into some kind of life?  Bars, cafes, shops stammer open like nothing has happened at all and we’ll wipe away the salt of weeks alone or crammed in close confinement?  Gratitude right now seems pretty likely; a bloody-minded courtesy, acknowledging we still can breathe, we still can take in each day in the air like it was our first.

And somehow we must al of us come through; survivors, witnesses, beleaguered or hopeful and strong.  It’s no time for sweeping statements, triumphalist crows that we know when the end is in sight, or that this is all part of some grand scheme of nature, that there is reason for this other than some random roulette.  We can give in to terror, despair but we might as well be optimistic or look for very major silver linings.

It’s not some random fantasy to say there might be some grace in all this, or chance of it, if we can take the perspective that we might in the long run be getting thrown a line.  A frenetic world of global commerce, global travel has just hit the brakes.  We might as well enjoy the sudden peace.  We have a chance to stop and think, reflect on the lives we’ve been leading.  Can we imagine our way out of this?

Maybe we’ll be able to step forward into a world where just-in-time networks of supply and demand are replaced by something more resilient, that we can source and grow the goods we need a little closer to home, where we’re all weaning off a glut of luxury but still live well and maybe a little more honestly, not dependent on imports whose source we can’t name, where conditions of labour or livestock are hushed out of sight.  Maybe we’ll see a return of the domestic economy, hollowed out in the 20’s and 30’s where we’re all a little more self-reliant.  How many containers of latest electronics does the world really need? How much of our once-innate ability to source our needs at home or close to it are we happy to continue to relinquish?  How much do we really want to spend large parts of our working week in little boxes, hurtling their cargo to horizons whose value we’ve only too nearly forgotten?

No one would wish these times on another or any others we do not consider our clan.  For we are all connected now, connected in brightness and grief.  But we owe it to ourselves and one another, to every huddled in hospital beds and most of all to the children to see there are gifts here if we can only see them as such.  Somebody somewhere appeared to hit pause and now we can think and plan and even dream.  We can think on the state of the planet today, her all-too-clear signs of distress, how we can help her, the habits we can break, how we can renew our commitments (or make them at all if now new), how we can seek to redeem the unspoken bond we have broken, a rift that may have something to do with our current plight, as if collective survival rests in a natural corrective.

Whether we see the virus as a desperate manifestation of the will of the world to endure or something far more arbitrary in arguably besides the point.  Whatever the reason for it and whatever our thoughts, we can see that while no one would wish for the virus, it’s still giving us a chance.  The kind of world we all step into when the threat recedes may depend on the degree to which we can reimagine our world, reimagine our place upon it, how we serve it, cast away the things that hinder or obstruct.

We’re used at times like these to being told we are enduring a great trial, are being put to the test, tempered, told we must be strong.  And all of these are true.  We can pull upon the deep well of our inner reserves; our patience, compassion and will to endure.  We can show the extent of collective resolve, our ability to adapt and our strength in adversity’s face.  And we can meditate on that which can bring us all peace; our own peace of mind and that of those all around us; at times like these its necessity is only made clearer than ever.

But there’s another element as well; that we are being given opportunities, if we can see them.  The degree to which we make the most of them may depend upon our ability to walk with eyes open, to imagine and dream again, dream harder.  Our future remains a thing we can all of us shape.  We now have a chance just to stop and slow down and reflect how we do so.  We have a little time.  And perhaps time is all that is called for, for now, that all our haste and rush, our daily and global migrations, our obsession with temporal efficiencies has been for so long such a part of the problem.  We have the chance to remember to just be ourselves; an estrangement it’s high time to heal.

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.