UNORTHODOX BUTTERFLY NOTEBOOKS NO 1: THE EARLY 1990s

 

21st August 1994: Ilkley Moor, West Yorks

A foreboding the weekend with Zohra would prove dreadful. Dropped some Prozac, tried not to be negative but it was to no avail. She persisted in needling me. In the end I just wanted her to go. She left on Sunday morning before I went off to Ilkley. I was both relieved and depressed she had gone. This time I think it could be final. Forced myself onto Ilkley Moors. I knew if I went to bed I would only feel the worse for it. So I crawled up the moor, avoiding where I could, the popular paths, not wanting to meet people. Was it me or her, my mildly depressed state or the after affects of the ten days she had spent in Italy with her brother? She was reluctant to talk about it but made it appear that it was I that wasn't interested and that I was positively scornful of her family.

I found my first Northern Eggar caterpillar just before the highest point on Ilkley Moor. Appeared to be sunning itself resting on the ground by the side of the path. I took several photos. Others appeared to be basking in the sun and all were fully grown. One was close to an ants nest. I observed ants crawling under them and perhaps might even have been drawn to them in someway. Exceptional camouflage. Could easily be mistaken for withered tufts of heather especially those at the base of the clumps of heather. The lower I descended the fewer caterpillars there were. But I still found one near Tom Hudson's pub where the heather was starting to give out. Also found a crushed Emperor moth caterpillar. A young man stopped me to ask me what I was photographing. He said he had seen a caterpillar bearing the colours of the ANC. This I took to be an Emperor.

I felt better for doing all this, the sun, the heather, all the while becoming more absorbed and forgetful of my pain. I ceased to ask questions, questions, questions - a little at any rate. I was more able to respond to the beauty of the surroundings. After 5 in the evening, the moor emptied of people taking on an even greater charm.

On seeing a crushed Emperor caterpillar for a split second I had an hallucination it was a huge Emperor caterpillar draped over the heather like a giant sausage.

 

28th December 1994: are we gradually drawing closer to a mass sensation of nothingness?

 

23rd July 1995: Visit to Fairmile Common, Surrey

Found a Cinnabar caterpillar on Wimbledon station. No ragwort in the vicinity. How did it get there? Had it been transported there by train? Visiting Ashstead on the way back to Chessington along the Leatherhead Road I noticed a Hedge Brown lying either stunned or dead on a storm drain by the road side. Also found a stunned Holy Blue on the pavement, which I photographed. Later near Chessington, a White Admiral floated past us, presumably swept there by the passing traffic. How many butterflies are killed in this way as they get unexpectedly caught in motorway drafts? We alighted at Oxshott station, an unnamed halt with an extensive car park like most stations in the South East. The heath was beautiful and was beginning to bloom and the cross leaved heath also was full out.

After awhile we eventually located the habitat of the Silver Studded Blue. We had even asked the attendant on the gate of the American school that had obligingly produced a pamphlet of the common containing a photo of the Silver Studded Blue on gorse. In fact going back across the M3 there was a helicopter landing pad right in the heart of the Silver Studded Blue territory. American dignitaries could be flown in with ease and the Silver Studded Blue habitat thus destroyed. The construction of the M3 must have destroyed thousands of these rare insects, which are so environmentally sensitive and dependent on ants. Cinnabar caterpillars near a patch of marjoram. Three had strayed onto a dead leaf of stonecrop and another was on a leaf of agrimony. There were no other Cinnabar caterpillars in the immediate vicinity.

We had then slowly made our way back to Chessington. All the people on the various heaths that said hello had posh accents. The stickers on the cars carried the WWLF logo. On the way back we were surprised to see White Admirals on a quite densely forested path where I only expected to see Meadow Browns and Speckled Wood. Made me wonder how far Butterfly Conservation goes in its searches - or does it merely tread well worn paths from car parks to recognised sites - like the short walk from Ashstead station to the tall oaks at the highest point of the hill on the Common which opinion regards as the most favourable location for the Purple Emperor. David Elliston Allen maintained that the car broadened the horizon of the amateur naturalist. Today there is a good case to be made for the opposite assertion.

Whilst at this particular spot we talked to a couple who had stopped to look at me photographing a Purple Hairstreak. We had come upon them previously sitting beside a pond. The son was sitting a few yards away eating his sandwiches as if to assert his independence from his mother. They were a polite middle class pair – or at least appeared to be so because the son never spoke. We sensed he was on heavy tranquillisers or anti-depressants and probably incapable of doing any work. He carried the modern equivalent of a box brownie and looked at our telescopic lenses in awe. His photographs of insects could hardly have been more than an indistinct blur.

How different they were from 'Radical Selsdon Man' at Hutchinson's Bank slightly farter north but still in Surrey. We had seen him earlier and he suddenly appeared from nowhere when we were making our way back along the grass verge. He asked us if we had seen the Dark Green Fritillary. We told him we had earlier and that this was their habitat, which surprised him. He was a voluntary warden with a pronounced cockney accent. His enthusiasm was brimming over and proclaimed that it was "good to do something for the cause". As David said, 25 years ago he would have been an anarcho-trotskyist and unlike the people we met on the Surrey heaths, he was able to talk to estate kids. On the top of Hutchinson's Bank was the estate of New Addingham which even contained a couple of high-rise blocks. Rubbish had been thrown over the containing trellised fences and bindweed left to grow in choking profusion. Some kids had passed by us effing and blinding and part of the bank was worn away and used for sliding down on bits of card and chucked cupboard doors. Yet a boy racer on the bank had past us on a bike apologising for disturbing us. The warden had once stopped to talk to some kids who were catching lizards. He hoped they would be putting them back and they replied they would be. He was particularly indignant about the construction of a Japanese golf course on a piece of arable land. I had noticed it and judged it to be a gravel pit. It wouldn't have taken much to whip up his infectious enthusiasm and extend to a critique of capitalism. Had it been him, I wondered, who had erected a makeshift sign in a field just outside Selsdon, protesting against the proposed building of a Sainsbury's hypermarket on the site. I told him how a colony of Silver Studded Blues had been destroyed in Norfok by the construction of a greenfied Sainsbury's and David had mentioned that Butterfly Conservation had taken to occupying a site of the Marsh Fritillary in Wales to stop it being turned into an open cast site. He did not object to what we were saying at all, remarking how difficult it was to faithfully reproduce the minutiae of habitat. (The Silver Studded Blue had been translocated to another site but the colony did not survive).

Selsdon will be forever be associated with the name of Edward Heath who, for a brief period, anticipated Thatcherism before he was blown away by the miners and converted back to one nation Toryism. It is markedly less ostentatious than other Surrey suburbs, in fact typically petite bourgeois. There was even a faded graffiti, "Selsdon against the poll tax". Nothing like this was to be found in a village like Malden Rushett . Apart from the service station, there was not one village shop to be found. All the houses must have possessed large freezers, and just outside the village was a large notice advertising a restaurant where it was possible to eat ostrich, crocodile, squirrel and bison! Good taste wasn't in it,,,,,,,,,,,,

The same could be said of the roads surrounding Cudlington golf course at Banstead: Large palatial houses, a total absence of pedestrians, with either council or building workers the only people to be seen. On the forecourt of some houses it was sometimes possible to count up to six cars.

On Banstead Downs we had once seen an entomologist sweeping the grass with a net. I had been delighted at seeing my first Green Hairstreak and had intended to question him on the flora and fauna of Banstead Downs. He had deliberately moved away in a manner I can only describe as contemptuous. Of course I would not have known as much as he did about entomology, but I had a far more comprehensive grasp of other apparently unrelated things. I could have left him standing on many subjects; instead he left me standing because I was merely an enthusiastic amateur.

How different it had been when some minutes earlier a local had stopped to ask us what we were doing. He was dressed in a T shirt with holes in it and was probably unemployed. After telling him about the relative rarities on the down he asked us if we had seen wild deer. I immediately thought of the Enclosures and the Black Acts which made deer stealing a capital crime. This was the type of person who could easily have been conscripted by Winstanley to farm St Georges Hill which was close by. And one of the few ways I am able make these days enjoyable is by reflecting that essentially these downs and hills will have changed but little from the days of the Common Lands and the resistance to enclosure. In this person, unlike that of the entomologist, I felt its spirit lived on. And for anyone who knows anything about the Civil War of the 1640s - the first great dream of modern times -names resonate in these otherwise wretched places. Names like Burford Drive (which in fact now is an ultra posh private road) evoking the memory of the Levellers, their resistance to wage labour and dream of an independent yeomanry. Reading a notice in Fairmile Common, David had noted it had been put up by Elmsbridge Council. After the defeat of the 1640s revolution Winstanley had become Chief Constable (!) of the Elmsbridge Hundreds.

These notices are posted at the entrances to the commons and heaths. What struck me was the repudiation in each case of the name 'Commons' or even hint that once on these 'wastes' some kind of collective way of life struggled to be born. Their importance as nature reserves easily outweighed their other more potent significance (that also promises a greater diversity of species what's more) as living symbols of the battle against enclosure and private property.

On Banstead Downs I had been struck by the arid, stony nature of the ground, believing that the Diggers must have chosen a more suitable piece of land to cultivate and to proclaim their economic revolution. But it was not the case. St Georges's Hill even then was not especially suitable for cultivation, the best lands having already been enclosed. The abundance of wildlife on these wastes set me thinking about Winstanley's assertion, which looked forward to Kant, that it was up to man to redeem nature through infinite reason: "In the beginning of time the great creator Reason made the earth to be a common treasury, to preserve beasts, birds, fishes and man, the lord that was to govern this creation—not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another--. And here upon the earth - was hedged into enclosures by the teachers and rulers and the others were made - slaves. And that earth that is within this creation made a common storehouse for all is bought sold and kept in the hands of a few". "He that works for another either for wages or to pay him rent, works unrighteously----but they that are resolved to work and eat together making the earth a common treasury with Christ to lift up the creation from bondage and restores all things from their curse". This vision comes to Winstanley in a trance. It suggests that it is not only man that is bound but all of creation and that everything is awaiting liberation including the butterflies fighting for their survival on these wastes.

Preamble to Ashstead Common "the community woodland" (ugh - not common woodland) approach involves reviving local interest in traditional woodland management techniques. The ancient oak pollards are relics known as pasture woodland which provided grazing and shelter for cattle as well as fuel and timber for building. There is a voluntary warden scheme and a countryside watch initiative both involving local people".

 

20th August 1994: Ranmore Common, Surrey

Ranmore Common (especially Denbies Hillside: a photo of which is to be found in E.B. Ford's 'Butterflies'). First sighting of the Adonis Blue. Surprised by the number of naturalists present; they and picnickers seemed to be in there almost equal numbers. It was rather off-putting and we were stopped by one. He lived in Northholt. I think he originally had been a twitcher who had recently turned to photographing butterflies (birds were too difficult. He was competitive over sightings, name dropping about sites and had photographed a butterfly in the Cotswolds that had come from South America. Had been to Lulworth Cove to photograph the Lulworth Skipper and had seen an insect there which wasn't in any text book on butterflies. He even described its brown body and golden wings. He listed an endless number of birds - Crossbills, Red Backed Shrikes, a White Tailed Sea Eagle (describing how it came to the same spot day after day at the same time), Honey Buzzards, Rough Legged Buzzards etc. It was endless, a sort of Linnaean consumerism. He casually mentioned how the Marsh Fritillary had "disappeared" from a site near Basingstoke. Nothing more, not even a hint of why it might have gone. He seemed scarcely interested in the occupation of Sellar Farm to save the Marsh Fritillary in South Wales. Unlike the warden at Hutchinson's Bank, there was no passion for nature merely a desire to see, photograph and name.

Coming down off Ranmore Common at Box Hill there was a large house called "Milton", and then Burford Drive described as a private road (which it wasn't). Further down another private road called Pilgrims Close: The distant echoes of the Civil War yet again.

The twitcher from Northholt was anxious to photograph the Silver Spotted Skipper. While we were talking to him one landed on some scabious and even partially opened its wings. Because it meant climbing down a bank side with a few fronds of thorns, he decided it was not worth the bother and too difficult even though approving of Eric Hoskin's photos of owls and the enormous effort and sacrifice this entailed. It made me think how resourceful and determined naturalists must have once been in comparison to the park 'n' stroll naturalists of today. A professional couple on Denbies Hillside had brought with them the Observers Book of Butterflies. He could have been a headmaster. Asked us to point out the Adonis Blue. They too parted the scene come teatime!

I mentioned in passing to Mr Northholt the drought and how butterflies had been burnt to a frazzle and the dangers to the next generation caused by the withering up of the their food plant , particularly the Kidney Vetch for the Small Blue. He did not respond at all, as if oblivious of the potential disaster. He did say though how one thing led to another in nature: birds then flowers, then insects that feed off and pollinate flowers.

 

10th September 1994: Talk on butterflies at Holland Park Eco Centre, Kensington and Chelsea.

The audience appeared to be highly ignorant wanting the names of common butterflies spelt out. It soon became apparent the talk was a plea for butterfly gardens aimed at those privileged enough to possess a garden. Interest perked up once garden centres were mentioned and the type of plants that could be purchased there and that were attractive to butterflies.

The lecturer, a doctor by profession (not trade!) was keen not to offend his audience and was tolerant of the crassest questions. He had been instrumental in setting up the butterfly garden in Kensal Rise cemetery in a most inappropriate spot right next to the cemetery gates opening onto the busy Harrow Road. In an appropriate place it could well have been fit for purpose and attracted butterflies to its nectar rich flowers. But not there. Situated where it is, its prime purpose is as a demonstration to suburban householders who have paved area at the front on which to park their cars and to compensate, a wild flower garden at the back. Its perfumes are poisoned and only likely to attract the odd wind-blown migrant, probably swept along in the slipstream of the passing traffic.

The garden had been funded by Inner City Challenge - specialised garden contractors had been employed to lay out the garden. This may have been a requirement of the ICC that local firms were to be employed. It looks highly ornamental and not all that different to the typical municipal plot. A signboard has been erected that names the flowers and that indicates where they can be found. The lecturer thanked the 'artist' for her 'fine' work and he was himself a bit of a wildlife illustrator, displaying slides of his art work which were, to be fair, passable imitations of Frowhawk. He had even had postcards printed of his finest work. Unlike Frohawk they were not illustrations of life histories but were juxtapositions of different butterflies – a Red Admiral, a Holly Blue, a Small Copper. Typically included, Frowhawk-style, there was an aberrant form of the Small Copper.

However there was no doubting the guy knew his stuff and he had obviously read a lot. But any wider take was almost completely absent. He obviously was critical of the intensive cultivation of farmland but not a hint of the capitalist mode of production. He was also a negotiator seeking to influence the management of Kensal Rise cemetery. It was probably the reason why he was so accommodating towards his audience. These were the moneyed people of Kensington and Chelsea whose standing counted with managerial structures. He was distressed with the destruction of wild life habitat created by the need to make space for more graves. One of the audience in plummy tones spoke out loud and said we should seriously consider using the moon for burial purposes. Typical upper class crackpot - probably thought Mrs Thatcher ten years ago was saving the country from "the enemy within" whilst flinching at the coarse excesses of Essex Man.

 

18th June 1996: Visited Blean Woods, Canterbury, Kent

Whilst sitting on a bench commenting on the almost total absence of butterflies on a warm, breezy day, I noticed an 'amateur naturalist' inspecting the profusion of Spotted Orchids. Perhaps he knew of the Heath Fritillary and where it could be found? The conversation quickly turned to the survival of nature in general. He readily accepted that species would be confined to reservations kept alive solely by the labour intensive management of habitat. I mentioned the possibility of a 4th London airport on the Isle of Sheppey and he felt that the employment possibilities and conservation had to be balanced and that nature rapidly colonised sites like Stansted airport. However he did not dispute for one moment that despite the counter tendencies the dominant tendency was in the other direction because that was where the money was. At this point he left and I couldn't help thinking the conversation was drifting onto the dangerous terrain of political economy. And yet nature was a solace to him when faced with a "horrible world" (his words). As an ornithologist he likewise had a horror of twitchers who were unable to appreciate the ordinary. Twitchers for instance would approach him and ask if there was "anything good here". "Plenty" he would think "if it wasn't for you".

 

27th July 1996: Gait Barrows, Morecambe Bay, North Lancs

We took the train to Gait Barrows in Morecambe bay, changing at Carnforth for the second time. The day was cloudy, interspersed with intermittent sunshine. It didn't look good. We got off at Arnside and walked onto Silverdale Moss. Much of the moss had been drained and had come under the plough. The field where on a previous visit we discovered Painted Ladies laying eggs was now a heaving mass of caterpillars curiously not predated by the birds. I took a number to pay nature back, as it were, for having failed to properly care for the eggs I had taken several weeks previously.

We then moved off to Silverdale Moss and took a path marked Permit Holders Only. Once we were in the limestone clearings we immediately encountered the High Brown Fritillary. I at once changed my 50m lens having failed to photograph the fritillary. A little further on I noticed a man carrying a net with binoculars strung around his neck. I immediately knew we had met the warden! After a formal exchange of courtesies, he asked for our permits. We didn't have any and the atmosphere grew tense. So for the next ten minutes a strained conversation ensued. He certainly did not like having to exercise his policing function and excused himself by saying it is in our own interest as a permit would have informed of the presence of tics that cause Limes disease. His trousers were tucked into his socks for that purpose. He asked if we had seen the poster warning of tics in the car park. But when we told him we had come by rail he appeared impressed. He was youngish maybe in his mid thirties and had a posh accent. I immediately assumed him to be a southern public school product but I think David was correct in taking him to be a scion of the Scots aristocracy.

He had recently been to the Isle of Skye where he had seen some battered specimens of the Painted Lady. He turned out to be the head warden of Gait Barrows and was clearly proud of his position. He produced a little book and took our names and addresses. By this time I was already beginning to feel like a criminal trespasser which took the shine of the whole day. But one thing was for sure I was not going to leave the restricted areas of Gait Barrows. His name I think was Tom Petley Jones. When we later asked the birders on Siverdale station if they knew him one of them replied "Oh "Im"! David was more relaxed in his presence than I was because he had got the measure of the man having had more experience of his type than I on the fringe radical scene. David mentioned having met a "worker", a "mechanic", who was in the process of creating a nature reserve out of a tip in Northcliffe Woods in Shipley. Later David said he had deliberately said this because he knew Petley Jones would be more impressed with a worker having done this than with a bourgeois. He also spoke about how urbanisation and agribusiness was destroying nature. In order to show I was knowledgeable I asked Petley Jones about the presence of the Lancashire Whitebeam on Arnside Knott. He instantly gave the Latin name for the tree, to test if I was a bona fide naturalist. I humbly replied I did not know the Latin name.

And so this slightly hostile conversation continued for some minutes. I mentioned the number of Painted Lady caterpillars on Silverdale Moss, describing this phenomenon as a "plague". I was quickly picked up: the last thing they could be described as was a plague! So PC was penetrating the diction of natural description like we no longer are permitted to use the term alien species.

And so we parted, taking the official path only to enter the forbidden part of Gait Barrows once out of his view. Here we managed to photograph High Brown Fritillaries, Grayling (not mentioned as inhabiting Gait Barrows) and a battered Northern Brown Argus. I joked at one point, "Not bad, together we've bagged around 15 High Brown Fritillaries each plus two dead wardens". I fantasised about beating them up, an easy task because basically they were wimpish, forcing them onto their knees to kiss the ground in front of me. But we were in little danger of being seen again as we were off the beaten track and wardens, like the majority of visitors don't stray off the beaten track. But I disliked the idea of a permit - to me it was a prelude to paying for the privilege of viewing wildlife. Mr Jones had for instance objected to the manner in which Butterfly Conservation had hi-jacked the management of the High Brown Fritillary on the Barrows. He would have preferred if BC began to purchase land of their own instead of interfering with bodies like English Nature. In fact BC is doing that but again all they are doing is purchasing the future of butterflies when in the last analysis it is the commodity economy that has killed them off.

When we got back to Silverdale station a nutter on a push bike joined us. He was completely drunk and to get away from him we climbed through a fence into Leighton Moss RSPB reserve car park. There was a notice setting out the entry prices: £3. 50p per person! A couple of birders we met later said ever since the RSPB had purchased the site in the early 1960s there had been an entrance fee. The cost of the RSPB annual subscription was £20 and when they, the birders, wandered into English Nature reserves they just flashed anything if approached. The drunk took them for train spotters but as one of them said "everyone around here is spotting something". They weren't themselves twitchers but they couldn't help but be impressed by their obsessiveness. One mentioned a twitcher who failed to turn up at his daughter's wedding, driving all the way from Exeter just to get a sighting of the Hobby. A Spanish Sparrow had recently been seen in Carlisle and by the time one of the birders had got there, over one thousand twitchers were already on the spot. Twitchers were often unable to get car insurance and one had spent £100O on two successive journeys to the Shetlands, having failed to see his target species the first time round.

 

August 1996: Visit to Thorne Waste on the borders of Yorks and Lincs

One of those ever more frequent days I awake with a heavy heart, worse in many ways than awakening to a bad hangover. It would be nice to just recapture some normality, even the 'normality' of ten years ago and to have done with this endless bitter reflection and deadness. The sound of shunted goods wagons seemed to restore some life to me. And from then on things started to marginally improve. The walk from Thorne North to the pit, hoping to see the winding gear move, then foraging on the extensive shale heap looking for the elusive Large Heath, the sky was clearing becoming a vast sea blue canopy. The twin towers of Thorne pit, the hopes aroused by the miners' strike, "we could have built a tower to the skies" I thought to myself. Instead we have endless desolation. A man with a dog sitting on a shale ridge looking out over the marsh with binoculars showed us how to get into the nature reserve. Probably an ex miner.

We were to meet a former miner later in the day. He wore a nature badge and immediately swerved to stop when we asked where the Large Heath was to be found. Soon he was telling tales of dynamiting dykes to flood reclaimed land, of battles with the notorious farmer Birtwhiste, of cutting barbed wire fences and of adventures on the marshes at night with local eco warrior Bill Bunting (and his Beavers) who always carried a pair of snips in his pocket, taking the law into his own hands to fight the encroachment of local farmers.

According to the former miner, though English Nature owned the reserve, they did not own the mining right which belonged to Levingtons. So if they wanted Levingtons could destroy the reserve at any time. Also according to him, the peat workings were creating arid expanses because of the manner in which the work was carried out, not allowing the land to flood in between thus permitting the cycle of vegetative reproduction to continue.

He was an inspiring person and the whole encounter was a genuine encounter with a subversive drift to it. I came away feeling enlivened; an ex miner who did not want to reclaim the streets so much as flood the land. Though he referred to English Nature as his "boss", he obviously thought them utterly useless when it came to enforcing public rights of way, leaving that to the local council.

 

2nd September 1996: Ranmore Common, Surrey

The finale to the butterfly summer. Photographed a dwarfish form of the Meadow Brown (most likely a female). There was a couple sitting close by on a hillside. The woman made a point of keeping her dog under control which was barking at me. When we passed them, they asked us what we were photographing. A conversation ensued about butterflies. After a while the woman started to act in an appealing coquettish manner and had I been alone with her the conversation would have ended in an exchange of phone numbers. As it was it remained a provocative encounter - I was to dream about her that night. She also began to ask intelligent questions i.e. given the wings of butterflies were solar panels was there a conversion of the sun's energy into chemical energy and, if so, how long had this been known. I cited the Mountain Ringlet as an example of a sun loving Arctic /Alpine species that rarely flew below 200ft and their likely disappearance from their known habitats in Britain if global warming was to continue. The subject of global warming did not faze her, despite living in Essex! But like many other people she had noticed the apparent increase in the number of butterflies and this she took to be a direct effect of warmer summers, plus the decrease in the use of insecticides - at least in gardens. David hastened to put her right, pointing out that butterflies were massively on the retreat and under threat. In fact the growing fashion for butterfly gardens could well disguise this fact by encouraging a number of highly adaptable butterflies like Red Admirals and Painted Ladies but doing little for the others - the majority - with far more exacting habitat requirements. There was an openness about this couple when compared with another couple we met further down the track (I abruptly broke off the conversation when I saw a saw a lepidopterist with a macro-lens coming toward me!) both were intent on identifying butterflies on the common and had brought with them a book with crude illustrations. They wanted to know how to distinguish the Brown Argus from the female Adonis Blue. I tried to describe the spotting characteristics on the under wings but couldn't find the appropriate words. Instead I said there are no blue flecks on the Brown Argus, which was good enough. David even took them to a site some distance away where he had seen them. For this they thanked him with leaden voices, as he said when he returned "they were probably trying to save their marriage".

Shortly before I had noticed a tattered Silver Spotted Skipper, the only one we were to see that day. It was in approximately in the same spot I saw them last year and it would now be instructive to find out if it is restricted to this small area on Ranmore Common. Coming back we both reflected on how different the reaction to nature tended to be in the Surrey and Yorkshire countryside; how one had a vision the other lacked and how this vision was blazing, in all its naiveté, with a desire to transform life. And yet, at least as regards butterflies and plants, the Surrey countryside was infinitely the richer. As David said "the butterflies are all in the wrong places" because the unforgettable legendary days of the Surrey countryside were obliterated with the defeat of the English Revolution. Coming back we passed through a corner of Denbies Vineyard, a vast grape growing complex. We even thought of taking some grapes for wine making the previous year. A cinch - or so we thought - and then I noticed the conning tower rising above the Auschwitz-like edifice. We would have been caught within minutes had we dared touch a single bunch - and no doubt handed over to the Surrey police before appearing before a Surrey magistrate to be summarily dealt with.

In the Home Counties at least there is nothing to compare with the nature reserves of southern Cumbria or the wastes of Yorkshire. There is a greater freedom to create habitats that is so lacking in the south. When we visited Thorne Moors for the second time we met the waste's warden. He was proud of what he had created, particularly the paths he had carved out of the abandoned peat workings with his caterpillar truck. In fact, not having found the Large Heath it being just too late in the season, we wanted a quick way out. Instead he sent us of on a trek which went on for miles around the perimeter of the reserve. After this long, exhausting detour, we arrived back only a few hundred yards from where we had started out. But what was nice about it was the way he had disguised the opening onto the "tramway", leaving the bracken and rhododendron uncut for a few feet. It was as if it was meant to be a secret entrance known only to him. I was reminded of the secret pathways we had cut in the gorse bushes covering the munitions factories on the Aycliffe Trading Estate in Co Durham and the pleasure we got from knowing they were there and that we could disappear into, as it were, like Native Americans. One Friday night we had revealed their existence to other kids during a "wide game" organised by Newton Aycliffe Air Scouts. On the same night the police were to round up several of us and transport us back to the scout hut because the game had got out of hand and also become an attack upon factory premises. This desire to disappear and wish to merge with the landscape when pursued by pretended enemies, including night watchmen and the police, had something of the rural guerrilla's instinct and passion to it -even though this was just a form of child's play. Can it be recreated on a higher level? Maybe the warden's hidden entrance to his beloved desolate paths on Thorne Waste shows that these sentiments we had as kids were widespread after all and are still active - even in a warden!

 

15th June 2002: Impressions of a walk on Ilkley Moor run by Bradford University

Certainly it was not as comforting as a similar event organised by Bradford Urban Wildlife or the Bracken Hall Wild Life Centre. I rather suspect that the dominant political perspective was that of the Countryside Alliance; the tutor was in the last analysis seeking alternatives within political economy. He would never say as Les Barnett did (an ordinary carpenter) that money was to blame for the erosion of nature.

I could follow his reasoning why he thought grouse shoots a good thing. I could even agree with his tart dismissal blaming PC as a reason for the decline of grouse shooting. However he completely ignored its status value or ritualistic significance as an endorsement of the status quo and class hierarchies similar to fox hunting.

However I did earn something about the habits of grouse. A young male for example will not hesitate to chase its parents off their breeding ground which it will then claim as its own. Worse it will then patrol a larger area; meaning that young male grouse effectively reduce the number of grouse a given area of moorland is capable of supporting. This being the case, gamekeepers prefer to shoot younger birds because this will increase the number of grouse per acre. But they do so at the behest of the game bird industry and these so called conservation measures are at the behest of capital.

In a similar vein the tutor was not necessarily opposed to coniferous plantations only objecting to the way it had been carried out on Ilkley Moor. Probably he had in mind something rather more condensed than the traditional Caledonian woodland though, with plenty of space between individual stands of conifers.

Having such a person guide made me more aware of subtle changes in the landscape - the presence of different grasses, flowers and so on. Often these differences are extremely subtle and would go unnoticed except to a trained eye. In fact as his knowledge grew, he said he became increasingly became aware of discrepancies in the landscape around him that needed to be explained.

As I tramped across the moors I wondered if any of the others knew what it was like to live next door to armed crack dealers and a speed garage psychotic. Not one could have any conception and yet I thought, because they don't they also could not understand nature as something in want of its truth.

And what memorable moments preceded the walk! I came up from London the day before, deliberately sitting next to an Asian woman. Her daughter and boyfriend occupied the seat in front of me. Both were behaving in a passionate manner, frequently touching and kissing each other. Their mother sitting next to me must have felt the yearning, occasionally involuntarily touching me which I also felt was purposeful. I knew I could have loved this woman. And it was in this frame of mind I set out to the Cow and Calf this morning.

 

Beryl Lewis: 2000/2002

Writing to myself isn't half as interesting as writing to someone else. So I took the entire business with Beryl quite badly: I felt I had been put in my place by ignorance and prejudice. I believe her excuse for no longer continuing to write was a downright lie. She said someone had come into to her life she had known previously and besides her doctor advised her against letter writing because of her arthritis.

The more I got to know her, the narrower did her opinions become. She started out by saying she believed in people doing their own thing. She ended by condemning everything and anybody she did not personally approve of. In fact she was profoundly judgemental before the fact, never bothering to acquaint herself with the facts. She did not have to test reality because she knew it already. Consequently she could insult with impunity because she was already in full possession of the facts.

I was furious when in a peremptory fashion; she called me "despicable". I nearly dashed off an insulting letter to her there and then, telling her to button her lip and to ask questions first before delivering such damning judgements. However I did not, and counted to ten allowing my anger to cool over the next few weeks. When I did write back, I gently chided her, pointing out the real facts and not the assumed ones. But even that was too much and all my restraint allowed her to do was to heap further insult upon me. Had I fired off an insulting reply to her stupid, ill considered, provocative nonsense, I would have had the satisfaction of knowing I had upset her; now the satisfaction is all hers.

I now think that she withdrew from life because her habitual put downs were creating too many enemies and causing constant arguments. So she chose letter writing instead as a way of venting her spleen. It was not pen friendship she wanted but pen enemies, people she could lash with words whenever she could not find an echo of herself. She was, I think, looking for a mirror image of herself, a cracked mirror image where the crack had to be a perfect match; obviously an impossible quest. But it accounts for her coldness which sprang from a narcissistic need. She wanted a strong man out there somewhere, a guardian demon that reflected her crazed opinions perfectly. Once she said the age was in need of a Churchill - as if that was now possible. But of course it was this sort of reasoned debate that was beyond her. Nor could I have pointed out to her that it was Churchill's government that let in all these peoples of colour that so obsessed her. The economic reasons for this would have been wasted on her. Her pronouncement that they should never have been let in - in the first place - had to be sufficient.

She lacked the courage of her convictions and lived to regret it. Her politically conservative upbringing implied the sanctity of marriage even though she knew she was not cut out for it. She became engaged several times finally marrying a Welshman who worked in the post office. From the very first day she regretted doing so but instead of walking out, she put up with it until he died of Alzheimer's. In his last years as his mind disintegrated, he would occasionally turn and stare at her and say "I love you". She said it made her feel awful but that degree of honesty belonged to the early stages of the correspondence before repression and prejudice had hardened into mental granite. Then she was unable to admit to any failing.

I did mention early on that I had been depressed. I can often gauge a person by their response to such an admission. She replied in a somewhat disapproving manner that she had never had the time to become depressed; as though it was a form of indulgence. However it is a commonly held prejudice.

Apart from being a model in her early years, she had never worked. Her husband, it seems, did not approve of her working and besides he was fanatically jealous of her. He had isolated her, so to speak and she was never to know the reality of exploitation or workplace friendships - in a word solidarity against the employer.

Her one weak spot, which could have opened the floodgates, was her feeling for nature. If I ever did say how much I hated cars it would have been understood. She obviously had some awareness of the impending environmental catastrophe and clearly thought the world was overpopulated. She had, she claimed, done her bit by not having any children. But practically she never once offered an opinion as to how to move forward and change the world for the better, indeed she criticised me for ignoring warnings during the foot and mouth outbreak. To which I replied it was everyone's duty to spread foot and mouth so that sanity prevail and the culling stop. I suggested to her that such crises required a new form of agriculture, even a return to tillage and pasture. But she was unable to come up with any thought on the subject and the most she ever had to offer were sentimental musings on "Mother Nature".

I would pass her place on the bus to Shipley. The upstairs curtains were always drawn and the downstairs scarcely open at all. On bright days I noticed between the slit in the curtains an illuminated neon light strip. By this time I was beginning to think she was really crazy. She never, for instance, went out in the sun because she thought it was unbecoming of women to sport a sun tan. One of my idiosyncrasies she said half apologetically. Probably by now it had acquired all the rigidity of dogma.

It was also apparent from the start she had little love for Asians but she was careful not to appear prejudiced. She spoke of the centre of Bradford as "largely ethnic". She also must have abominated Asian food though was careful enough to describe it as a "no-no" to her. This reaction was to me a complete throwback and I am surprised how anyone of my age could still have them. They belong more to my and her parents' generation.

What effect did the Bradford riots and September 11th have upon her? Certainly I thinkit hardened her attitudes and made her increasingly narrow. Any talk of integration must have become out of the question. The Asians had to be expelled and in her darkened room she dreamt of little else. However it was a fantasy of omnipotence and little else. Or, for it to be at all effective, she would have had to enlist at the very least the white working class, which she didn't like either!

 

21st September 2002: Attended for the first time Bradford Astronomical Society

The talk was given by Ray ? and was on pulsars. He had made up a digitised poster/slide to advertise the lecture. The title, "The Celestial Undead" was in gothic script with a background curtain of light rays and headed by a quote from a Thomas Hardy poem. The idea of calling pulsars – "the celestial undead" came from a Gracie Fields record. He commenced with a semi-poetic tract which made me think of Wordsworth and his preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Delivered in sepulchral tones, he shone a red laser torch under his chin normally used for indicating features on his slides. He even went on to amend Hardy's verse by adding some of his own which weren't bad just so long as one viewed it on the level of a Hammer Horror production.

He apologised for not being a trained physicist in case there were any in the audience, insisting he was only an amateur - but one that really knew his subject as rapidly became evident. He reminded me rather of Les Barnett (remember a carpenter) but this time highly knowledgeable about astronomy rather than botany.

He commenced by playing a recording of the radio noise a pulsar makes though they do vary from the put-put of an old Norton Villiers motorcycle to a "whining gnat". I found the sound more riveting than any musical sound around. I could have spent the entire evening listening to such sounds where an evening listening to music would have been sheer torture. He was also given to drawing analogies - analogical thinking as I like to describe it. To demonstrate why pulsars spin so quickly he sat in a swivel chair with a pair of dumbbells in each hand of his outstretched arms. Slowly rotating the chair, he then drew in his arms and visibly speeded up demonstrating very effectively what happens when matter is compressed. The audience was very appreciative and represented an improvement on the usual analogy with spinning ice skaters who draw in their arms to go even faster. He went into the history of the discovery of the pulsar which I was familiar with but not in such detail. As it was a woman Jocelyn Bell, he gave a short digression on the status of women back in 1967 and what Jocelyn Bell had had to endure in the hands of the press: "What are your vital statistics", "Do you have a boyfriend" etc. She was at the time studying for a PHD. I have noticed how astronomy magazines, especially American ones feature articles on women astronomers and physicists. Jocelyn Bell is now a Prof at Bath University or Baathe as they say in the south - or Harrogate. "Anyone from Harrogate" he said.

The Daily Telegraph had coined the term pulsar, not a paper he was familiar with - and said very pointedly. In fact he thought as these were objects that had been called "flare stars" it might have been better to call pulsars "Blair stars" as they the capable of spinning so rapidly. Here I detected a characteristically independent Bradford emphasis that had led to the formation of the Independent Labour Party all those years ago. Its living representatives are people like Les Barnett and Ray? -amateur scientists, slightly fustian perhaps, but not in the least reactionary and sadly maybe the last representatives of this proud tradition which the more I get to know about it, the more I admire.

Like Les I think his outlook is tinged with a deep pessimism, even a world-weariness which is less Schopenhaurian than a product of defeat. Attempting to give an idea of how compressed matter is in a neutron star, he held up a thimble saying on a neutron star all 6 billion people on earth could be compressed into that tiny volume with room left over. "Sometimes" he added, "I think that is all humanity deserves".

 

14th November 2002: Hebden Bridge Astronomical Society, West Yorks

A talk on Dark Matter. By chance I met the dark lady of the lecture on the stairs. I asked her if this was the Hebden Bridge Astronomical Society. "Yes" she replied, "and I'm due to give the lecture". Shortly afterwards others began to turn up. She mentioned speaking at the Huddersfield APS in a place called Railway Cuttings which instantly recalled to her mind Tony Hancock's address in East Cheam. She turned out to be very well informed so much so I was unable to put informed questions to her like I was able to do to do at the talk I attended on mimicry. She was plump, unfeminine, large limbed woman who as a schoolgirl would not gladly have gone to the high school hop for fear of being rejected. So she developed her intellect and let her sexiness speak through that. I think most of the aging men there were quite captivated by her.

I was acquainted with most of the terms she used but the actual details eluded me. I thought of Coleridge at a lecture on chemistry justifying being there because it aided his metaphors. So unlike me: I had no art. I was there to understand but also to give the experience and understanding a different slant.

Though I was able to follow much of her lecture, she was a PhD and taught at Sheffield University. Yet there was a difference between her and the learned amateur. Inevitably in the latter another dimension crept in hinting at a possible totality. Because of her professionalism M/s Cartwright was a reduced human being and how much more I preferred the cornball lecture on pulsars at the Bradford AS and the slide advertising the stellar living dead, the lettering dripping with blood like in a Hammer Horror movie. West Yorkshire is a notable area for amateur 'pros'- individuals of wide knowledge, usually trades people, reaching more or less consciously toward some kind of a totality. They are not constrained by their subject matter and overflow. But sadly they appear to be the last of their kind with no one coming up to replace them.

Universities reduce a person - M/s Cartwright was from Sheffield University. Naturalness, even a naivety is abstracted from them and even their jokes have a professional polish, what I would term a comic version of analogical speak. They play but in an enforced manner as if de rigeur and required.

 

17th November 2002: An RSPB meeting in Shipley Library, West Yorks

The room packed with people who had travelled to be there from miles around. The talk was on garden birds. The speaker was engaged on a study of garden birds run by the BTO. Formerly he had trained in computers and was now using his skills to track the movement of birds in and out of gardens. For this he was dependent on an army of volunteers supplying the information. However he would rather be out in the field and his own photos were mainly of birds at feeders or in nesting boxes.

Such people are strictly limited in what they might say. Could gardens ever compensate for loss of habitat and if not what then? H put up a slide of a wheat field in Norfolk which amply demonstrated the absence of hedgerow. In the far distance there was a farmhouse with a large garden containing many trees. This could never make good the actual loss of field margins, hedgerows, coppices and so on. Beyond this he cannot go for fear of alienating the audience and that move necessarily involves political economy and the need to change life. We insist upon that but on the other hand we never get up to give talks. We would rapidly arouse hostility but one day a direct appeal must be made and we must get used to making them and risk upsetting everyone. Yet all these societies are going nowhere - in fact it would be better to call them anti-societies.

********************************