Saturday, 30 July 2016

Does Brexit mean Brexit?

I do seriously ask myself how I might have felt if the Brexit vote had gone the other way. Would I have been angry? Demanded another referendum? Insisted that the decision was not binding or legal? Complained that immature people had unfairly biased the vote or ‘educated’ people had been swamped by the ‘workers’? I do not think that I would, neither am I crowing over the victory of the leave campaign. But, to me the future does seem bright.

I recently had the temerity to attend a Fabian Society meeting titled the ‘EU Referendum and the Future’. The society’s strap line is ‘let’s shape the future of the left’ and the chairman told us that it was a long standing think-tank with loose links to the Labour Party. I was pretty sure that I was a gooseberry amongst the coconuts there, and this proved to be correct. The speaker was introduced as a man with many years experience working with and for the EU. As he talked it quickly became apparent that he was committed to the European project and resentful of the referendum outcome. His speech was full of gloom, despair and a litany of the problems to be faced.

Question time produced glowing support plus all of the moans and groans that I listed above. Someone even suggested a new political party aimed solely at remaining in the EU - I recognised him as local liberal democrat, hence doubly disappointed. The speaker glowed in the warmth of so much support but, in answer to the demand for another referendum or simply ignoring the recent one, said, quite reasonably, that MP’s could hardly ignore a vote by the population as a whole, Then, chillingly, he added, “but it is all a matter of timing.  Eighteen months down the line when the economy is going really badly may be the time to reverse this stupid decision”[1].

The second wave of questions proved to be more interesting. One man gave a long speech which could be prĂ©cised as ‘shouldn’t we search for a progressive Brexit’. Another gave an equally long diatribe on the need to redistribute wealth via punitive death duties – something that he thought would be impossible within the EU. The speaker agreed that the last point was true: it would be impossible. He then dealt perfunctorily with my two-part question. I asked him if, given the outcome of the referendum,­­­ he couldn’t find just one positive thing to say about our new direction, and also whether he might now direct his obvious talents and experience towards making Brexit work. He did not answer the first part, but did say that helping with Brexit would negate everything that he had spent much of his life doing. In other words he will presumably spend the rest of his life trying to prevent what the majority of the UK want. Such a great pity; he undoubtedly has a great deal of knowledge that could aid the transformation of the country and might help to find ways of working with the EU to our mutual advantage.
There was little doubt that this was a meeting of unhappy remainers desperate to find ways of preventing Brexit, and the speaker told them precisely what they wished to hear hence fuelling their denial. I was convinced that I was the only gooseberry present, yet, much to my surprise, when I put my plea for a more positive approach to Brexit it drew hearty applause – from two people of the fifty or so who were there. But then Oxford is certainly not the UK and, as Theresa May has said repeatedly: Brexit means Brexit.

Naturally the divorce will take some time, but a happy separation will not be helped by those who are too rooted in the past. Some compromises are inevitable but Machiavellian attempts to ‘fudge’ the issue so that we ostensibly come out yet actually stay in will fly in the face of a long, well-informed, sometimes bitter, referendum campaign in which the remainers used all of their ammunition (and more) but did not convince the people of the UK to stay, close though the outcome was.

[1] This is very Fabianesque. The following is quoted from early pamphlet published by the group: For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Geology rocks: A day on Dartmoor

Dartmoor, for me, presents a chilling childhood image of an impregnable and inescapable grey jail surrounded by inhospitable craggy moors shrouded in mist. A frightening place populated by bloodthirsty and indestructible criminals who did somehow manage to escape from that awful prison. However, my recent visit – a field trip with the ever-popular Oxford Geology Group – has created a rather different picture.

Geology fascinates me, that’s why I joined the group some years ago when it was a moribund interest group, running a monthly talk and occasional field trips for its ageing and unwelcoming membership. It has now been transformed into a buzzing society with a very active website, oodles of lectures, lots of young members, field trips to everywhere, and a nationally important annual colloquium. It was whilst I stood on Blackstone Rock a prominent windswept tor in Dartmoor, that the idea for this piece formed. The man who started and fuels this little revolution shouted, “How come there is nothing on our field trips in Rob’s Blog?” And now there is.

What I really aspired to in joining the group was to look at a mountain, a valley, or a landscape and determine its geological life history; I wanted to look at rocks and say what they were and know more about their composition; in short I wanted to know all there was to know about this little planet of ours. Hubris.

What I have learned is that, though based on science, geology is hardly a science itself. However, I do now know that the grander mechanisms of geological change: plate tectonics, lava flow and cooling, erosion and sedimentation are all visibly true; and the stratification so ably demonstrated by William Smith’s famous map of 1815 makes sense of it all. I have also convinced myself that this is not a subject for the amateur. A solid knowledge of geology crosses many scientific boundaries and can only really be achieved by years of study. Nevertheless, I still enjoy the geology field trips very much. With a good guide they provide eye opening tours through landscapes which you may have seen before, but could not understand. A good guide adds another dimension to a panorama, something that Richard Scrivener certainly achieved on the Dartmoor trip. Of course, I understand that he stands on the shoulders of Smith and the geologist who followed him; nonetheless to transform what is simply a rocky terrain into a fascinating and logical story is a rare talent. It’s like walking down a darkened lane, then walking back in full sunlight.

I now understand that Dartmoor was a vast pool of lava which formed below ground level some 280 million years ago. The lava cooled slowly producing granite containing very large crystals of feldspar which we could see clearly at Blackingstone Rock. I also learned that the formation of tin-producing minerals so important to Dartmoor’s later industry occurred 3 million years after the formation of this great deposit of granite, itself called by geologists a ‘pluton’ after the god of the underworld. This was then followed by millions of years of erosion removing the crust above the lava and then digging into the granite itself leaving the occasional outcropping or ‘tor’ of which the Blackingstone Rock is one.

What will always trouble me is a simple question: what is granite? OK, I know it is an igneous rock formed from slowly cooling lava, but that tells you little of its physical appearance. When I look at a metal I can often determine what it is by colour, hardness, surface appearance, and so on. Granite can seemingly be of almost any colour dependent on the proportion of the various minerals that make it up, it can also be coarse or fine so how can you be sure that a rock is granite? My investigations on the web only served to complicate identification.

That aside, this was a great trip. After a good pub lunch accompanied by excellent Dartmoor beer Richard led us across the moors pointing out the cuttings made by the tin miners of old (we did not visit any underground mines). The ore that contains tin is called cassiterite and it appears as veins in the granite. Richard did show us some, it was dark reddish-brown and not particularly impressive. On the other hand, many of the rocks in the deep cuttings glittered attractively. Unfortunately this had nothing to do with tin: the glittering was produced by specular hematite which is an iron ore! I picked up a small stone with a wealth of this shiny black stuff embedded in it and have now deposited it in the dark confines of my stone collecting tin along with the other neglected pickings from other trips.

After a visit to a quarry we began the long drive home arriving back in Oxford at about nine. I was dropped off at a pub then visited two more that night and, do you know, no one mentioned the hard hat hanging from my backpack. I thought that it would be a great conversation starter, but it was Brexit that took centre stage.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Our new life as peasants

With the storm damage to the roof of our Spanish caseta repaired we were able to begin our life as transhumants or at least sample the peasant life. You see, during late June in inland Spain the fierce sun burns its way through a clear blue sky making outside, unshaded work nearly impossible for us North Europeans and quite unthinkable for the locals. Even typing this blog brought on a sweat. So what to do? Change lifestyle of course. Wallow in the traditional siesta and work in the mornings and evenings.

Yes, well, that was the idea. Our dream was to live in the expanded caseta for a few days at a time, rising with the sun or even before it, sleeping when it was at its worst (when only mad dogs and Englishman are about) then back to work in the cool of the evening before bedding down as darkness fell.

The first night we were in celebratory mood, really pleased to be living in the extended and refurbished caseta with its little shower room under the stairs and the reclaimed bed and table now installed after their long journey from Oxford. Beer was cooling in the irrigation channel below, the solar lights were functioning and I even took a cold, but satisfying shower before lighting the barbeque. All thoughts of labouring on the land flew from our minds as we found ourselves in party, rather than work, mood. We ate we drank. Up on the terrace we listened to a strange animal screaming, a frightening and, at times, troubled cry. It was really rather frightening and so loud in the pine woods above the caseta. No doubt it was a fox though someone suggested it might have been a genet cat. By that time the evening had flowed into night, yet it was not dark. The high bright moon still illuminated the huerto guiding me to the free range toilets - I haven’t quite solved the organic toilet problem yet, but I will. At present it’s a walk in the woods or a wooden seat above a bucket.

I set the alarm for six but missed it and rose at eight to wander down to the third terrace with my scythe over my shoulder and sharpening stone in hand. I was leading the attack against the weeds that, during our year of absence, had overtaken the newly reclaimed area. My enemies were the barbed bramble, the sharp rooted pampas grass and tough-stemmed variety of grasses that had reinvaded our now desiccated vineyard and vegetable garden. I started valiantly, but they had the sun on their side. Even at this time in the morning my exertions with the scythe soon produced an almighty sweat. Droplets were running down my nose and plopping onto the thirsty soil at my feet. Feeling exhausted and somewhat faint I soon gave up and struggled back up the hill to the cool of the caseta where I remained for the rest of the day, working in the shade and taking a long siesta in the afternoon.

That evening I did some more scything in the shade of the big fig trees and the next morning I did get up at six and finished the job before the sun blasted me off the land. I also cleared a few of the olive trees in our overgrown grove below. Then, later that morning, we moved back to the cool of our village house, our first peasant period complete. It was enjoyable, but not a great success work-wise. Becoming peasants may take some time.