Out to the blue remembered hills

Ordered to exercise. That’s what it comes down to, and I am happy to comply. All that “stay at home” has a big proviso – “go out to exercise once a day”. Fortunate to live where the countryside still laps the lanes, I can head out far to the blue remembered hills, or at least the country lanes threading between the farms – this is not Housman country.

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Oh, but I can come again, and will do so. Those days I have spent on distant hills, basking in the closer sun or the driving sleet are what I dream at night, but closer to home I have the happy highways where I went when first treading the parish, and now I can go there every day finding new ways, commanded indeed to do so. No more the hours wasted in commuting to London, yet awhile, and the evenings drawing longer and opening those remembered lanes where I could not tread during the working week.

I have never walked so much in the week in all my life.

Yes, it is a pity that the whole kingdom has to go bankrupt just so I can stretch my legs. I just will not think about that.

The same paths are coming up again and again, but there are new twists and combinations, and maybe I can find new ways through to further and more exotic paths as I go, or run the path one day instead of walking it. There is a small but steep hill too, up from the river – if I climb that enough times it will be the equivalent of Ben Nevis.

This sounds too much like gloating. I resisted the clamours directed at me to fix my abode in the city and I live where these walks are possible from my own doorstep. Most do not – they live clustered in flats and townhouses with no escape from humanity swirling about around them, in the close, plague-ridden city stepping out straight into the crowd. London is quiet, but never far from anyone. We who are more fortunate in these times should not criticise those who live in gardenless apartments and grasp their last lot of freedom in the parks and riverside.

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Does anyone understand the rules?

A family of six shouted at for being too many; young women escaping from a stifling flat attacked for pausing in their walk to enjoy the sunshine; shoppers leapt on by the police for buying non-essentials with their food; an on-line delivery service railed at for being inessential.

Those are not the rules. The rules are unprecedented in their reach, but not unlimited. The rules were made to keep distances and slow the infection rate, not to give bullies an opportunity for power over the meek.

To put one rule to rest, inessential purchases are not banned: it is only that shops may not open unless they sell essentials: if they do, then they can sell whatever they have in stock. As for the online comments I have read suggesting that Next should keep even its on-line orders and its deliveries closed because they are inessential, what rule or guidance is that? It is nothing but bullying using purely invented rules.

We know about the police getting it wrong, and not for the first time, inventing laws that were never passed – the Home Office have tried to rein them in. Ordinary, private people are a problem. We do not have books of procedure and an understanding of the criminal law and may have no understanding of the new emergency rules, which I have read even if no one else has. That does not stop some people from taking the excuse to harry their neighbours for imagined breaches. In ordinary times a neighbour who tells you off for an imagined infraction of a rule can be told to mind their own business and ignored. They think they are being civic – officious is a word for it – but they have no authority and may not know what they are talking about, but that is not the point: the point is power over others.

There is a time and place for reminding straying neighbours of the law, and urging compliance, or stronger acts. This must be based on actual rules though, and on enforcing the rule for its own purpose, not for the sake of the dry letter or what you imagine to be the dry letter.

In the ‘good old days’ of the seventeenth century and the following Georgian Age, the petty enforcement of the law was given over to mobs, to ‘rough music’ or the ‘Skimmington’ band – a malefactor would be bound and hoisted up on a pole and paraded around the village in shame to a cacophony of jeers and banged pots. I used to think we were beyond that these days. Now I am not so sure.

We all play for one-upmanship from time to time, but playing at “the law” is at another level. The neighbourhood bullies try it, and in normal times are shunned for the game.

These are not ordinary times though. Now the neighbourhood bully can call you a would-be murderer. What a wonderful power that is to feel coursing through your veins.

It is a terror to such people that the infection will pass, and the genuine rules will relax and a large cohort of people will be immune and so unable to contract nor pass on the infection. This would explain the sudden spate of scare-stories about cats and dogs, about long-term immunity not being guaranteed, about hidden statistics, and all the doubts necessary to drive their meeker neighbours to lock themselves away for longer and call for the rules to be kept in place. It is a sociopath’s dream.

Shakespeare as ever puts it well, in Measure for Measure:

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant.

Hobbes has the measure of it:

I put for the general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.

Therefore, neighbour, do not think you can command me. I may know more than you do, and certainly I understand more about you than you do yourself.

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Enfolded in the divine

Do I have to go back to work in the morning? The Easter holiday might have passed by almost unnoticed in the general closing down of everything, one quiet day leading into the next, but Easter stands alone as the centrepoint of the Christian calendar.

We have had the services on-line, and Songs of Praise, and all is filled with the central Christian message, the Gospel coming to this point, of redemption by sacrifice and glorious resurrection giving continuance to the redemptive enterprise. You could avoid all this over Easter, looking only at chocolate eggs and films on the telly, but what a shame that would be.

There is such a difference between Easter and Christmas. For many, the only time Christian themes break into the consciousness is at Christmas, when a narrative is presented by tiny children with Jesus a helpless babe in a manger – and this presentation seems designed determinedly to keep him there. At Easter there is no keeping the baby in a cradle – he has grown, thriven, taught, healed, inspired and given his all for all. Keep him is his cradle? He cannot even be kept in his grave.

Work begins again in the morning, mostly working from home, but working. Those on-line services are still with me, full of joy and the message repeated through the familiar words spoken by familiar and unfamiliar preachers. Easter is not a moment that has passed. Easter is about a new beginning that continues forever, so after this message the rest of the year cannot be unchanged.

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Trade talks: Summer in the City

We have run out of money, which is to say that businesses big and small, have run out of money, and the government, pledging support, has no money of its own, and is running out of that. However, Europe has run out faster because of the greater panic and harsher measures there (apart from Sweden, which seems to be getting on well).

German businesses will need cash the moment they come out of lockdown, and for many years afterwards. They are not so naïve as to think that the wave of pent-up consumer spending that will be released will fill the ledgers again. There must be another source of cash or there is cataclysm.

In the meantime, the trade talks are continuing with the European Union. The coronavirus may have brought a pause but as I wrote earlier, the calendar has not stopped running out, and the EU’s negotiators know that Boris and his team are not going to extend it that way Theresa May would have done. A great deal of action has taken place by remote conferencing and electronic communications. There will indeed be a British text, delayed from the date is was to have been put down, but there on the table shortly.

Before the plague, Brussels had pledged to cut the City off, to force Britain’s hand in other aspects of negotiation. Behind the bluster there are real lives and livelihoods in danger, and Europe’s commerce has run out of money.

The lockdown recession empties the lungs of business and stops the breath and even the strongest are left scarred. For those which survive, filling the limp body with life again will need hard cash, and it is not in Frankfurt nor anywhere else in Germany; that money can only be supplied through the wide net and innovation which the finance houses of the City of London can provide. (Only New York comes close, which is equally outside the European Union, and six hours behind.)

The City brokers and banks trade in the long term. They are backed by the world’s most trusted courts and laws and speak the world’s primary commercial language. This is why London is the largest financial centre in the world. In a time of unprecedented crisis, the City institutions are more flexible in its ways than regimented German systems permit. All this though has been recited countless times in endless publications, and bears tedious repetition only to emphasise that there is no substitute for London: Paris and Frankfurt cannot ride to the rescue alone.

Wisely, the government included stockbrokers (those involved in “financial market infrastructure”) as “key workers” expected still to be working during the lockdown.

Germany and Europe can be rescued by London. The European negotiators might have sounded tough, but they are now faced with the starvation of families and the wholesale buying up the wrecks of businesses by outsiders. They should be begging for European businesses to have continued and freer access to the City of London.

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Waiting for the storm

I keep coming back to R S Thomas, and to the landscapes he described. These days remind me of his Abersoch, and every day of uncertain suspension of life it whispers itself.

I have trodden in his footsteps amongst the timeless crags of Lleyn and the little, ancient villages clinging to the coast endlessly more ancient. I have only walked there though in summertime, while he, the poet and pastor, served all year, in bright summer, industrious harvest and punishing winters and he saw more than a passing visitor may.

I remember Abersoch. It was not as he described it, but I was there in the summer, and the whole little town had been transformed by summer visitors. The fishing boats were there are the men working on their nets, but bustling all over the streets and beach were families in gaudy holiday clothes with buckets and spades and beachballs, speaking English. There was no gathering storm – it as bright and sunny. A clamber round the cliff presented a little more of what it must have been like, and as the wind began to rise, I remembered the Abersoch only read about in those pages.

Elsewhere on Lleyn I wanted to find the village of another poem “Scarcely a street, too few houses” or the places where he found the universe and all of history wrapped up in the stillness of the village church. In Abersoch though I wanted to find “that headland, asleep on the sea, The air full of thunder” and imagine the girl riding her cycle, hair at half-mast, as a carefree symbol, but found families busying themselves into misery with their determination to enjoy the day.

Instead, I found it at home in these recent weeks, enclosed but for long, daily walks, waiting for the stroke which might fall or not, or for the return of normality, or knowing that a release to familiarity may still be followed by the clasp of the deadly disease.

….. There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break

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