Ring of Bright Water, An epitaph

It has taken me a long time to read Gavin Maxwell’s  Ring of Bright Water.  I remember the book coming out.  I even remember the film with Virginia McKenna and the infernal song! Now that I’ve read it the thing that fascinates me most – more than the story about otters more even than its Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity –  is the poetry of the writing.  I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of the new nature writing but Maxwell’s writing feels different.   As if he writes from the inside out, rather than from outside looking in as most do.

I didn’t even know that the title of the work is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems.  Ignorant? Probably.  I thought I could dispel my ignorance by reading a biography.    There is only one that I could find -that by Douglas Botting – read that I told myself and all will be revealed.    Well, no.  What is revealed is that Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland; a wartime instructor in the  Special Operations Executive, Guards Officer, adventurer, traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond) there is no shortage of material here. The  authorised biography  is by Douglas Botting who explains that other would-be biographers of Maxwell came up against the twin obstacles of family and literary estate,  but that his own application was granted because he had known Maxwell personally during the last years of the author’s life. 20060630-Hampton Court -DSC_0337

It is clear both from Maxwell’s own work and from Botting’s biography,  that this fully paid up member of the hero club was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals.  These aspects of his life being more acutely realised in the work than human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful.  At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for a trip or adventure – there usually seems to be the odd old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.

What is not revealed because of course no-one knows is where the writing comes from.    Ironic also that the overwhelming success of Maxwell’s book and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved.

It is almost as if the difficulties of the life he chose in remote Camusfeàrna – with no made up road no electricity one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop – were a metaphor for his own life struggles.  These books were an elegy for a way of life which was vanishing even mid-20th century during the author’s lifetime; but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has taken place,  they now feel like an epitaph for a failed conservation movement.

 

 

Grassroots is us

 

How modern we like to think ourselves. How clever.  We know about waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery. Whatever else we in the UK may die of we won’t at least die of those. We beat those years back. Dragged ourselves out of our 19th century health ignorance, discovered new medicines and technologies needed to keep our water and air clean. Health and long life – a massive reduction in child morbidity and mortality – these were the prizes to be fought for and won.

Yet here we are in the 21st century and our air and water quality are under threat again: our water supplies at risk from the Government’s fracking cronies while our air is being poisoned by emissions of nitrous oxides and particulates PM2.5, so liberally handed out to us by diesel cars and a greedy, expansionist aviation industry with shareholders to feed. As at 6th January London has already exceeded its illegal air levels for the whole of 2017.

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The Government that was elected in this strange ‘democracy’ is no longer interested in supporting us, in caring about our health or our children’s education. Instead they follow the money and back the big boys, for example, taking away the right of local Councils to refuse planning permission to an untried and untested fracking industry, while in other cases forcing individuals and local Councils to Court to defend the freedoms of their communities against the violent noise and choking poisons belching out of Heathrow airport and its dirty energy planes. Client Earth has twice taken the Government to Court over its failure to protect the quality of our air in accordance with EU regulations. Twice they have won. May’s response? To announce a 3rd runway at Heathrow.

Apparently, we must show the UK is ‘open for business’ particularly after the result of the EU referendum. Although it is not currently known how many business people wish to come to the UK wearing gas masks or carrying their own water supplies.

Far from fighting to keep its communities safe and healthy, this government is siding with those who completely disregard communities as interfering nuisances to be brushed aside and/or intimidated into submission. The need to show that the UK is ‘open for business’ does not excuse the poisoning of our air.   New energy sources cannot be found at a cost of fouling our water supplies or with a total disregard for the health and welfare of communities that have to live alongside massive infrastructure projects.

When climate justice wins we win the world we want.  We can’t sit this one out, not because we have too  much  to lose but because we have too much to gain….

Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything

So who will protect us now? We will. The granny that Cuadrilla tried and failed to get put in prison; the very ordinary people that chained themselves to Heathrow’s railings or lay down on the M4 motorway; these unlikely heroes are the new guardians of our air and water.

Communities of unimprisoned grannies are being protected by the Courts against land and air grabbing corporates prepared to go to any lengths to get what they want. In the absence of a political solution, there will be a people-centred movement. It has already started. A coming together of community groups united by a desire to be treated as citizens with rights and responsibilities (rather than that favoured Thatcherist term ‘consumers’).

What does it mean to consume? To use up air and water and spit out foulness? To take the money and run?   It is not the people that are doing that.