Sold down the river

photo by MLP

photo by MLP

This week I sat in a meeting with the Environment Agency. We were there to discuss my plans to restore the River Stour through Canterbury. I was polite as I listened to plans to install concrete walls where I would like to create soft banks with wetland plants. I said that I understood it was hard to give the go ahead to plans which would increase the wildlife of the river when people were on the phone screaming at you because their riverside garden was flooded and their garden gnomes were floating out to sea. I was courteous to all those at the table, after all these were not the rule setters just the people forced to abide by them but the truth of it is I don’t believe what they believe. I don’t believe that protecting every property against a 1 in 100 year flood is correct. 1 in 100 year floods are massive and very rare. Why are we allowing the wildlife and health of our rivers to suffer for 99 years just to protect the interest of a very small number of water front properties?

Millions of pounds of public money are sucked up to protect the interests of a small minority while instead it could be used to give life back to our rivers so they could not only benefit wildlife but the many more people who enjoy our beautiful rivers for recreation. When are we going to accept that we have built too many properties in the flood plain and some of them are just going to be too expensive to protect?

I appreciate that my property is far enough from a river that it is only likely to flood in a 1 in 1000 year event but if you knocked a 0 off of this, I’d take it. I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t protect people or their properties from flooding at all. Protecting properties from regularly flooding is correct, maybe accepting that your living room is going to float out to sea every 10 years is too much to expect of anyone. But personally if I owned a property that backed onto a river I would accept that a soggy garden and yes, maybe even a soggy cellar was part of the bargain. Fair payment for the day in day out enjoyment of enjoying a healthy river system which benefits everyone.

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To write and be read

writing students, hopefully not having their hopes crushed.

writing students, hopefully not having their hopes crushed.

School has a lot to answer for. How many people have had their abilities mocked or their hopes crushed by a teacher with more ignorance than knowledge and more cruelty than compassion. I know there are lots of good and worthy teachers out there but I come across too many people still suffering from the ravages of bad schooling.

One of these came up to me during the writing class I was teaching at the weekend. She wanted to write, she had a great idea for a story but she found, when she sat down, she couldn’t do it. All those voices from her childhood crept into her head telling her that her spelling was appalling, her grammar poor, she had no talent. What could she do?

I sympathised, I too had been marked down in English classes because my characters spoke in the accent of the people around me. This my teacher told me was incorrect. My characters had bad grammar. Now I think, ‘ignorant bleeder. What did she know about writing? Where would Irvine Welsh be if his characters had all spoken the Queens English?’

Another teacher, later on, at university, told me that I would never make a journalist as I ‘had no grasp of the English Language.’ Yet, here I am writing for the BBC.

Of course, over the years I have worked very hard to improve my spelling and grammar and punctuation. Those teachers would undoubtedly be proud of me, but their lack of ability to see that there were things of quality in my writing was their own failing.

What advice did I give to my own student. I told her to sit down and very consciously think of all those negative voices, picture those people who had told her that she couldn’t write and then think ‘balls to them. Those people tried to limit me but I am about to prove them wrong.’ and then write and then, beyond writing, let other people see your work.

This brings me to my second writer of the week, my assistant who also writes, whose writing sounds really interesting, but who never shows his work to anyone. He says this is not why he writes, but somehow it sits uneasily with me and I can’t put my finger on why.  I don’t write for fame and I certainly don’t write for money but I do write to be read. I want to be read and enjoyed and I want to know if my writing is any good or not so I put it out there, into the world to be judged. For writing not to be read somehow feels wrong, it feels like hiding something in the darkness which should have light.

But maybe some of us were just crushed too much by those voices from our youth, our thoughts, our words are all wrong in some way and we have learnt to keep them in the darkness.

Teachers, parents, authority figures have a lot to answer for and I hope I can do better with my own students.

Book Review – Walden, Henry Thoreau

Walden by Thoreau

Walden by Thoreau

‘I borrowed an axe and went to the woods,’ wrote Henry David Thoreau and so begins his two year experiment in living simply. Thoreau felt that man wasted his life by working to pay off a large mortgage and acquire material goods so he could keep up with his neighbours, where as, if he only lived simply, worked with his hands to grow and catch his own food and gave up the pursuit of stuff he did not need, then he could devote his time to the things he really wanted to, which in Thoreau’s case was the study of nature and writing.

Here was a man years ahead of his time, both as an environmentalist and anti-consumerist, living by ideals which are all the more relevant today. At times, the writing of Walden is overly dense by modern standards and is more of an educational lecture than entertainment but there are moments of true beauty and insight in his writing and his delight in the natural world and love of Walden Pond races off the page.

Thoreau died an untimely death at 44, having gone out in a rain storm to count tree rings, but, by all accounts, he was at peace with the world when he died presumably because he had succeeded in his quest to live deliberately and did not find, when he came to die, find that he had not lived.