Centrism – dead or merely dormant?

This blog rarely ventures into the area of politics, which isn’t to say that politicians don’t get the occasional mention; but it is only occasional and invariably unflattering. Politics, though? That’s an altogether different matter – a place (to paraphrase The Joker) like Gotham; best avoided by decent people who’d be happier someplace else. So this is an unaccustomed foray into shark-infested waters – unarmed, under-equipped, it has ‘ill-advised’ written all over it…

I (and I promise this will be the end of water-based analogies) would happily admit to – in political terms – not exactly paddling in the very middle of the stream, nor indeed where the prevailing currents are presently at their strongest. That said, neither do I see myself as someone who gravitates to the extreme ideological margins; with that in mind, I’m a bit puzzled as to why I feel quite so alienated.

My view – and it’s a long held one – is that the vast majority of the sentient population occupy a relatively narrow segment of the political spectrum, roughly spanning the arc from social democrats (although in the UK we don’t call them that – it’s all a bit too Scandinavian) to traditional one-nation tories. I belong in the former group, which remains sadly, somewhat lazily, but perhaps understandably tainted by Blairism; I persist in using the term social democrat because I see it as quite distinct not only from socialism but also from the present leadership and direction of our principal party of the left.

My alienation – something I’m convinced I have in common with many of those on the centre right (at least those with whom I have some contact) – is the frustration which derives from being  inadequately represented by our parliamentarians; not because the parliamentary consensus doesn’t share our views, but rather because it quite probably does and seems too timid to express itself, thereby allowing the agenda to be commandeered by a vocal minority of lunatics on either flank. Until the moderates – maybe numbering about 500 out of the 650, but we’ll never really know unless they speak up – until they find their collective voice (and balls!) we will not have a properly functioning parliamentary democracy.

In part this problem has its roots in the use of lazy collective terminology – ‘the left’ being just one example; there is no homogenised left, any more than it would be possible to throw a small blanket over everybody to the right of centre. It’s a handy device if you want to appear dismissive, but it’s hardly contributing much to an informed debate. But, whatever the root causes, it’s a sad and dangerous state of affairs when both of the main parties appear to be operating in fear of a fringe who are neither representative of their traditional support nor even the majority of their own sitting MPs. Not really a functioning democracy in anything other than name. 

These battles, on both sides of the political divide, might not literally be as old as the hills but will probably last most of us a lifetime: often they are depicted as ‘struggles for the soul of the movement’, which sounds so much more benign and principled than the more truthful assessment that what they usually represent are shameless power grabs. Meanwhile we continue to hope that moderation – being still the majority mindset both inside of parliament and out – will somehow eventually reassert itself. How realistic a hope that actually is becomes ever more questionable while each of what we call “the main parties” appears susceptible to the influences of zealots of differing varieties – the disaffected anarchists who try repeatedly to attach themselves to Labour; the neoliberal dogmatists who find their host at the fringes of the Tories.

The latter are probably fewer in number, albeit often with the wherewithal to buy themselves a cloak of either anonymity or respectability; but the motives are the same – to operate outside the societal norms which constrain most of us, whether we like it or not. Using bought influence to manipulate the democratic processes might be less visible than throwing bricks at the windows of a bank, but just as destructive in its different way.

The counter argument to this gloomy prognosis is that in the end the ‘centrists’ invariably win; there’s truth in that, but, having won, to then have to expend so much energy battling with their respective fringes – relatively small in number, but disproportionately vocal and disruptive – is no recipe for effective administration, even less so for edifying public spectacle. So while it’s no real surprise that a great rump of backbenchers on opposite sides of the house frequently turn out to have – to quote the late Jo Cox – more in common, the problem remains that moderates are, by the very nature of being moderate, inclined to operate quietly, go about their business undemonstratively. Restraint and tolerance rarely make the front pages.

As I’m coming to the end of this – and it’s taken a while – we seem to be in the throes of yet another round of ‘what about?’ politicking: the apparent anti-semitism still perpetuated by certain elements of the left, countered by accusations of Islamophobic factions operating inside the political right. As if we have nothing more pressing or constructive to be occupying our minds right now. I smell burning, hand me my fiddle…

It does say something though for the state of our politics that it can seemingly be reduced to a hand of bigotry poker, with all sides apparently clamouring to be dealt in. Which is obviously hyperbole, but that’s what grabs the headlines.

Right, I’ve reached the point where it’s either publish or delete; I’d like to say it’s been cathartic, but one last read-through has just left me in need of a walk. So perhaps it hasn’t been entirely wasted after all…

 

Advertisements

A sense of place

The west midlands confuses people: not the endless proliferation of local dialects; not the eccentricities of the motorway network; perplexing though both of those can be. New York might well be “so good they named it twice” but The West Midlands (capitalised this time) is apparently such a brilliantly imaginative name for a place that to use it only once would have seemed wasteful; so it’s been applied to two completely different entities – one of which resides within the other.

First, there’s The County of West Midlands: neither small nor perfectly formed, this nondescript aggregation of bits taken from Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, all of which – reduced though they may be – still separately exist, managed to be a compromise of sorts in that it was held in almost unanimous contempt by residents of all three of its constituent parts. The reasons for their discontent might have varied – from the erosion of cultural identity to concern over the effects on property prices “If people get the idea we’re a suburb of Dudley” (yes, seriously) – but the thing that united us them was that we they just weren’t happy and that’s all there was too it. It doesn’t take much.

Then there’s the other ‘West Midlands’ which, according to Wiki is “One of the nine official regions of England”, stretching from Herefordshire and The Cotswolds to the edge of The Peaks and all points west, right up to the Welsh border. None of this is new, although it is to me.

Both versions of The West Midlands are officially designated as NUTS, which will surprise almost no-one.

Within about 10-15 minutes at a decent walking pace I can reach the remnant of an old Roman road, which marks the boundary with Staffordshire, just at the point where it is tapering down to nothing in the middle of some nondescript pasture; in rather less time again it is possible to exit Staffordshire and cross seamlessly into Worcestershire. So, I reached the Roman road, left behind the neatly suburban West Midlands (designated NUTS1) and crossed into the unkempt agricultural West Midlands (NUTS2), heading for one of those places where The Woodland Trust is doing some of its sterling work.

This is, for a while, an odd patchwork of an area: the clearly defined residential plots come to an abrupt end and are replaced by a chaotic, bits and pieces landscape of indeterminate ownership – a couple of small copses and a few fields which have remained undisturbed for, to my knowledge, the best part of 35 years. Vegetation comes and goes, proliferates, dies back, and the tracks which meander between the trees and brambles follow the same lines that they have followed for as long as I’ve known them.

At least over time the wildlife changes: the buzzards and ravens which would once have been considered exotic are now relatively commonplace, particularly the buzzards. The grey squirrel and rabbit populations ensure there is certainly no shortage of food; no doubt there are field voles out there as well, but they maintain a lower profile. These days the squirrels have to compete for cached food with the expanding population of jays – a bird with attractive plumage but frequently sounding as if it’s being tortured. Goldcrest are present in good numbers; possibly they always were and I never noticed them or, more likely, thought that anything so small would automatically be a wren.

Today the kind of snowfall we rarely see any more has thrown a pristine blanket over some of the less attractive aspects, like the unused rolls of razor wire and discarded feed sacks. The woods themselves seem to be groaning under the covering of snow and the goldcrests and wrens, as they flit between branches, set up small tremors dislodging many times their own body weight.


     

08/08/17: Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm, and…

… and a navigational cock-up.

The plan was to walk a circuit taking in the three summits of Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm and Craiggowrie, then make our way back to Loch Morlich and Glenmore, by paths passing close to the Badaguish Outdoor Centre. What could possibly go wrong?

We’d climbed Meall a’ Bhuachaille a number of times before – out past An Lochan Uaine and pick up the track just behind Ryvoan bothy. That bit passed uneventfully…

Ryvoan bothy

As did the next – the climb up to the summit cairn/shelter on top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille; a place where it is traditional for us to partake of food and drink. My kind of place…

Summit shelter – Meall a’ Bhuachaille

That was the high point already taken care of and, with good visibility ahead, what could – at the risk of repeating myself – possibly go wrong? The plan was to drop down from the top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille and continue across to Creagan Gorm and then the third summit (Craiggowrie) before picking up the path down towards Badaguish and Loch Morlich. However, in the planning process, a member of the party – and I won’t say who (okay, it was me!) – had failed to notice that although Craiggowrie is the third named summit on the route, there is an unnamed top between it and Creagan Gorm. In my defence – and, as defences go, this is about as thin as they get – the intermediate top is one of those anomalies where the ridge leading to the summit is named (Creag a’ Chaillich), rather than the top itself; I didn’t notice this on the map I’d printed out.

Just for confirmation – and because I like to plan my cock-ups properly – I’d read a couple of trip reports on Walkhighlands.co.uk and was sure that the descent route would be on the left, immediately after the cairns (plural). And so, arriving at the cairns on what I thought to be the summit we were heading for; and, by the way, why would an unnamed top have four cairns? Yes four! Isn’t life difficult enough? I began to look for the downward path, in the relaxed manner of someone about to enter a very large doghouse.

We looked, didn’t find; pushed on a little; looked again, still didn’t find; saw a group below us who had decided to just yomp through the heather and bilberry and wondered if the path we were looking for had become overgrown (it’s called clutching at excuses) and eventually decided to retrace our steps because we seemed to be heading for Boat of Garten by the pretty route. This meant we had to negotiate, for the second time, some very boggy ground and reascend the unnamed top – replete with its four bloody cairns! – then Creagan Gorm again, before picking up a path which at least we knew was there, having used it before and crossed it earlier in the day.

Later, looking at the printed Routebuddy sheet while we had a coffee and bite to eat, it was clear where we had gone wrong: allowing me to be the one with the map was the critical flaw in the plan. I probably chose the wrong time to suggest that days like this are character building.

Oops…

Heading off Meall a’ Bhuachaille and towards Creagan Gorm

Summit cairn – Creagan Gorm

There was no shortage of cairns – Lochs Garten and Mallachie beyond

A boulder which we passed (twice)…

Badaguish (below) – exactly where it was supposed to be

A rainbow which our original plan might well have missed

The route reacquired

Almost time for coffee and recriminations… 

 

Mid Wales

This has been a while in the writing; not that it’s been agonised over or “erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again”, like that mythical version of America, eulogised in James Earl Jones’ famous Field of Dreams soliloquy. Nothing like that, I’ve just been battling with… well, with inertia to be frank.

This all took place over a few days – four to be precise – between Monday May 29th and Thursday June 1st. On an impulse, we decided to have a few days in mid Wales; having left it late the first hurdle to overcome was finding accommodation and sometimes, as on this occasion, the internet can genuinely justify its existence. We found a promising apartment in Rhayader which, in the event, proved to be considerably better than ‘promising’ and to where we will undoubtedly return, both in print and in person.

First though, a word about Rhayader: on occasion I have had to confess to instances of oversight, injustice, omission: Machynlleth was one such – a place we’d invariably hurried through on the way to or from elsewhere and only came to appreciate after a long day spent at an event in the town. Meall a’ Bhuachaille was another: a fine hill we’d neglected for no better reason than it being overshadowed by loftier neighbours; all it took was one diversion up and over the summit to establish that size really isn’t everything. Rhayader was, like Machynnleth, a portal; somewhere to be passed through on the final approach to Elan Valley, Claerwen and the wild, remote hills beyond – Drygarn Fawr; Drygarn Fach; Gorllwyn.

The River Wye from Bridge Street, Rhayader

Well, Rhayader is actually a very agreeable base: we hadn’t actually appreciated that it’s situated on the river Wye, although the Wye that passes beneath the town bridge here is a rather quieter river than further downstream at Hay or Symonds Yat. There was a time when I’d make an early start, drive from home to either Claerwen or Llanerch y Cawr, walk a round of the hills and then drive home; not far shy of four hours spent in the car for a day’s walking, and sometimes a day’s soaking. I’d regularly do a similar day in The Berwyns (my favourite Welsh hills), but somewhere along the line I lost either the energy or the desire for days where the walking is bookended by a long drive before and after. I don’t see either (the energy or the desire, that is) as likely to return, so finding a convenient and hospitable place for an overnight or two will be a prerequisite in future.

Pied flycatcher (female)

The hill walking around Elan/Claerwen can mostly be categorised as arduous, often trackless, invariably boggy. On this occasion, with much rain having fallen in the preceding few weeks, we gave the trickier terrain a miss and stuck to the better made paths around the string of reservoirs, including some sections of the Elan Valley Trail itself. As it happened, mileage covered wasn’t the primary objective, although we averaged around 9 or 10 miles daily; at least as important was the opportunity to see some of the resident wildlife – birds mostly – at what is a generally busy time of year. It probably goes without saying that there were red kite in abundance (Gigrin Farm being just on the edge of Rhayader), but there were also pairs of nesting peregrine and any number of smaller varieties – including redstart, redpoll, stonechat, and an abundance of pied flycatchers doing exactly what their name suggests they might.

An almost full Pen-y-garreg reservoir

The skies generally became more blue as the days progressed, although I was a bit previous with zipping the bottoms off my convertible trousers and triggered a downpour in retribution. Reattaching the dry bottoms to the wet upper part of the trousers was an exasperating exercise, so I gave it up. I could pretend that I’d persevered and mastered the knack, but I didn’t; I just thought “sod it” and stuffed the bottoms back in the rucksack. It was better than throwing them in the reservoir and looking petulant!

Pied flycatcher (male) with food supplies

Immediately east of the visitor centre, and accessed by means of the steel bridge which allows vehicles and foot traffic to cross the Afon Elan, there is a small managed reserve  – Cnwch Wood – with a nicely maintained network of paths and a high density of small woodland bird varieties. It would probably be difficult not to spot flycatchers here during the nesting season.

 

The dam restraining Caban-coch – the most easterly of the sequence of reservoirs

Walking beneath the crags immediately north of Caban-coch reservoir (the one beyond the dam which rises above the visitor centre) our attention was caught by the distinctive call of a peregrine and, within seconds, a pair passed directly overhead, barely higher than the treetops, separated and went their different ways. The female was a big specimen and it was noticeable that even the kite and ravens seemed to make themselves scarce for a time.

Pen-y garreg reservoir, framed by mixed woodland

Craig-goch reservoir

Road bridge crossing the point where the Garreg-ddu and Caban-coch reservoirs meet: the level is controlled by a submerged dam. The road eventually leads to Claerwen.

The inflow of Garreg-ddu at Penbont

Garreg-ddu showing the high water mark on the pump house

The Afon Elan, just west of the visitor centre

The Wye near Rhayader

 

 

Lazy stereotyping (23/11/2014)

There’s a lot of it about: certain politicians (and by certain, I mean most); smartarse television and radio presenters masquerading as investigative journalists; tabloid hacks masquerading as human beings; lobbyists, publicists, advertisers and PR flannel merchants; football people.

It would be easy to level some of the blame at Twitter, with its 140 character limit, but this all started long before the age of the tweet. Reductio ad absurdum – that’s nearly what I’m talking about; not quite, but I don’t know much latin. It’s more this modern day partiality for reducing even the most complex and nuanced of issues to a single, over-simplified, one line conclusion.

A few days ago – in the middle of a relatively low-key conversation about turbines – someone suggested to me that it was a “well known fact” that all environmentalists are in favour of wind farms. There was genuine surprise when I responded that I consider myself to be very much an environmentalist and that there are more definitions of caring for the environment than those promoted by the high-profile NGOs and their political allies. I pointed the chap in question in the direction of some of the outdoor blogs, with the assurance that he wouldn’t find a bunch of people anywhere who cared more about the environment. I know that he took me at my word, read a good few of them, had his eyes opened and will continue to read more.

But it’s apparently easy to sell a lie; and the more glib the deception the easier the sale seems to be. Terms like ‘The environmental lobby’ are bandied around, go unchallenged, and become part of the currency; it’s convenient, precludes the need for analytical thought, and suits a particular agenda.

The alternative – acknowledging that there’s no such thing as a single, homogenised, collective representing the complete spectrum of environmental opinion and thinking – well, that’s a lot like hard work and very difficult to condense into a soundbite. It’s disturbingly easy for those with access to the right channels to marginalise others who refuse to be compliant; disturbingly easy to bypass or subvert proper democratic and consultation processes. No need to win a debate if you can arrange for it never to take place.

Quite where I’ve gone with this I’m not sure; even less sure about where to take it next. Introducing new people to the outdoor blogging community is a small start, and an enjoyable one. It will have to do until I can think of something better.