Reducing plastics in my diet

THE WRITER’S LIFE

We’re now a week into the British summer which forgot about spring, and despite having my window open, I’ve had no visitors. When I write at night, my desk lamp shines from the window, but not a single moth has dropped by. It’s resigned me to eat less plastic.

cow
A plastinated cow, from Gunther von HagensBodyWorlds

I suspect this may be the year when we finally wake up to the damage we’ve done to our planet, and humans may have to re-evaluate their diets: Not just what they eat, but as a moral responsibility. If we don’t change soon, the entire planet’s food chain could collapse.

It’s only been in the last year or so that we’ve had our eyes opened to the extent of our planetary pollution with plastics, thanks in large part to the BBC’s Blue Planet II. We’re lucky that scientists have stumbled upon a bacteria which eats some types of plastics, but there’s a lot of food.

Since the invention of plastic, humans have created 9 billion tonnes of plastic waste. While some efforts are afoot, less than 10% has been recycled, with most of it sitting in landfill and not decomposing. We’re developing machines which can help clear the waste which is loose in the wider world, but the real problem is micro-plastics.

In a recent study, micro-particles of plastic were found in arctic waters, so it’s thought that every cubic metre of the oceans is contaminated. In turn, these particles are ingested by wildlife, and passed up the food chain. Water evaporates into clouds, then falls as rain somewhere else on the planet, dropping plastic with it. Every single living organism on planet Earth is part-plastic. While we might clear up the immediately obvious mess, the long-term effects of internal plastic pollution aren’t known, as it’s only a recently-discovered phenomenon.

Returning to the food chain and my lack of visitors, I’d welcome even a blue bottle or a wasp, if it at least confirmed the insects were still around. Since we missed out spring, those who survived are emerging far more suddenly (but in fewer numbers) with the rapid rise in temperature. But while they were asleep, nature couldn’t make enough food for them (because it usually does that in spring).

Fewer flowers means less nectar for the invertebrates who do emerge, and reduced pollination of plants. Fewer insects is less food for spiders, birds and small mammals, their predators and all the way up the food chain.

For the humans who place themselves at the top table, there’s a relatively quick-fix solution: Grab more land for farming, produce more crops and livestock, so that humans can eat. And make the problem worse.

To sustain our current (mostly carnivorous) population, humans need more of the planet they’ve already taken too much of. If we selfishly solve our own problems by driving wildlife from its habitats, the animals will continue to die out at an accelerated rate. Like the plastics inside us all, the mass extinction of animals will have repercussions and knock-on effects which we’ve never imagined.

More humans, farming and livestock, will lead to further rises in global temperature, sea levels rising, and even less land being fertile as a result. Increased climate change, affected by humans, will further erode the seasons, and increasing numbers of animals, from invertebrates to the largest predators, will die out as the food chain eventually collapses. And we’re seeing the beginning in the UK this year.

The only way to halt this destruction is to eat less meat. Less livestock would mean less land is needed for rearing, or growing crops for livestock feed (The argument, “If we don’t eat them, we’ll be overrun; it’s just like in nature”, holds no water, as the vast majority of what humans eat, they rear themselves). Fewer heads of livestock would also mean fewer arses producing methane gasses.

I can’t help feeling somewhat to blame, not just for being human, but because my family have always been farmers. When the first Africans and Europeans arrived in what is now Britain (having crossed what was then a connected land mass with the continent), they’d have found Iron Age settlements, the remnants of which are still visible today, close to where I used to live as a child (Oldbury Woods, in Ightham, Kent). Those first Europeans taught the ancient Britons how to use their weapons as tools, so that they eventually evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, raising their own livestock.

As someone who’s partly responsible for that, I’ve tried being part-vegetable in the past, and failed to varying degrees. I’m limited to just a Tesco Metro for food shopping, unwilling to travel and not wanting to contribute to air pollution with unnecessary deliveries. The greater limitation though is that I live alone and have a small appetite, meaning that a lot of food used to go to waste (I only have space for a small freezer).

So for now, I’m a “meat-reducer”, which may sound like a total cop-out (and it’s used as an excuse by many) but which does make a difference. I’ll buy fewer of the more expensive meats, so they’ll be free range, and with animal welfare at the top of the shopping list.

One bird will feed me for a week, starting with a roast on Sunday, when I cook the whole bird and eat a leg. When you’re used to mass-produced, growth-enhanced chicken, it’s surprising how much more meat a bird will yield, if it’s had time to grow and roam in relative freedom. Once the rest is carved from the bone, there’ll be a casserole, a curry, a stir fry, and some sandwiches. Sometimes I’ll boil the carcass and make a stock or a soup. One chicken for a week, so little packaging too.

Nevertheless, I still feel uncomfortable eating something which was once a self-determining sentient being, when I could choose not to. Even free-range, responsibly-reared meat was made for human consumption, but it’s still another person. Turned on its head, it would be like animals choosing only to eat Category D prisoners, help in open prisons.

This diner must try harder, and others might take a leaf from my book.

There are possible solutions to our planetary problems in my book, which are achievable if we work with those whose planet we share. It’s their planet, we just live with them, and we have a moral responsibility to protect them and their home, and to clear up the human mess we made.

Walking in time with Nan

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Recently in the real world (after advice from another writer), I’ve tried not to be ashamed to be proud. Even more lately, I’ve realised there are other people around who are simply proud to be themselves, which has encouraged me. People who’ll laugh as you stumble, but catch you before you fall. Those are people I’ve been spending some time with in writing too, as I’ve travelled back in time to the era of a barbed but cuddly matriarch…

Fairytale CottageNot my Nan’s house

Back in the 1970s, and mum’s mum’s war memorial bungalow in Tudeley, it was small, basic and communal. There was a living room, a kitchen and a double bedroom. When us kids stayed, we’d sleep on the living room floor. It was like camping.

There was no bathroom, just an outside toilet. The bath was a tin one, hung by the coal shed out the back. Water was boiled in a kettle on the stove, and in a water heater over the sink. Us kids tended to eschew a bath on the odd night we stayed, with my mind at least assuming that baths would be very shallow and very hot. And the way Nan sometimes sat in that chair, and that cat…

Nan’s oven apparently had two settings: Incinerate, and off. Fortunately, we had roast beef most Sundays, with potatoes roasted in the dripping, and home-made Yorkshires.

Before my radical auntie Margaret started renting X-rated films for the teenage me, we’d all go for long family walks on a Sunday afternoon, sometimes to other countries it would seem, to little legs. One such journey into foreign lands was to “The Old Church”, St. Peter’s in Pembury village. This from the church website:

The first known record of Pembury, originally Pepingeberia, is to be found in the ‘Textus Roffensis’ (c1120). It tells of the manors of Pepenbury Magna (Hawkwell) and Pepenbury Parva (Bayhall).

The Advowson was granted by Simon de Wahull to Bayham Abbey c1239. (Advowson is the right in English Law of presenting a nominee to a vacant parish. In effect this means the right to nominate a person to hold a church office in a parish).The current Patron is Christ Church, Oxford University.

Pembury has two churches dedicated to St Peter. The oldest, known as the Old Church, stands outside the modern village in the woods to the north of the A228 bypass. The newer building, known as the Upper Church, stands in the heart of the village on Hastings Road.

The plan of the Old Church and the little Norman window above the South door indicate that the original Church dates from 1147 at least, or even 1100AD. Most of the present Church was built in 1337 by John Colepeper of Bayhall. He also built the chantry chapel of St Mary in the churchyard in 1355 but this was pulled down at the Dissolution of the smaller Monasteries in 1547 and three windows in the body of the Church were inserted with the money gained from the sale of the lead which had covered the chapel.

There was another church, nearer to nan’s house: All Saints (now Capel United Church). From that church’s website:

Tudeley has had a church since the beginning of the seventh century – it was one of only four in the Weald at that time. The earliest parts of today’s church are the sandstone footings of the nave and tower, which date from before the Norman conquest. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book under Tivedale – one of its many name variants:

Richard de Tonbridge holds TIVEDALE of the bishop of Bayeux. It is assessed at 1 yoke. There is land for 1 plough, and it is there on the demesne and a church, and woodland (to render) 2 swine…”

It’s where granddad Funnell and uncle John are buried. They both died from consumption (tuberculosis), with John aged only four (it’s from my uncle that I get my own middle name). Their graves are un-marked, just a large and small grass mound. Occasionally they were decorated with flowers, side by side, a young man and his son. There were many more graves like granddad’s and John’s, mainly farm workers from the area.

There’s a ‘Prayer labyrinth’ in the churchyard:

Labyrinths were a feature of many medieval churches, most famously Chartres Cathedral in France.

Their origins go back much further, long before the birth of Christ. They were adopted by the church to be used as shortened pilgrimages, probably because of their cross-like symmetry.

The labyrinth has no walls and only one path. The path way leads to the centre and then continues outwards. There are no dead ends.

The labyrinth at All Saints is based on a design found in a fountain in Damascus. At the centre is a carving designed by Frances Hawken and executed by Joe King, depicting The Cross and the hands of God:

“The eternal God is our refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deuteronomy 33: 27).

To earn some extra cash on the side, my dad would sometimes go foraging. Back then, fly-tipping wasn’t a scourge, but neither was the country big on recycling. So official dumps were dotted around, and there was one just down the road from All Saints church. It was a children’s adventure playground cavalier to health and safety. This was the rubbish of the wealthier, away from those upper class homes my parents worked at. These were middle class treasures, as the late 1970s and early 80s saw a rise in consumerism with increasing earnings among white and blue collar workers.

In the days before reclamation yards became an industry, and long before the internet, there was a make-do-and-mend working class, and the beginning of Sunday boot fairs. For a while, my dad was a bit of a trader and many exciting cardboard boxes would find their way home to the house in Ightham, including once, when a box the size of us kids was full of Scalextric track.

Back at Nan’s, we’d have Sunday tea, which included optional beef dripping on toast, from the congealed joint juices. There was an open fire in the living room and a coal scuttle in the back garden, topped up every few weeks by a coal man. One of my dad’s many talents around the houses (besides the gardening), was as a chimney sweep, and he was nan’s sweep.

Dad’s kit was that of the traditional sweep: a bundle of interconnecting bendy sticks, with a wide brush on the end. There’s a long and fascinating history of the chimney sweep to be read elsewhere, and a small trade survives today, with many practitioners hiring themselves out as good luck omens at weddings. It’s a profession which included many humanitarians, eventually leading to The Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act 1840, which made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to sweep chimneys.

This was a Britain long before the NHS and when the mean life expectancy was 41, a low figure weighted by the size of the poor population. Before that 1840 Act of Parliament, boys as young as four were sent up chimneys as narrow as nine inches square. If they got stuck, they’d be prodded from below, and some master sweeps weren’t averse to lighting a fire in the fireplace to encourage the boys up. Of course, many perished and large numbers led only short adult lives, because of the impact the job had on their health.

The best bit for us kids, was seeing the sweep’s brush pop out the top of the chimney, not after dad pushed us up ahead of it, but when we stood in the garden and dad waved at us and all around, with his chimney sweep’s brush a conqueror’s flag.

Silent Gardens is published in March (ISBN: 978-1974367900).

Theory of relative generality

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Writing history can often require a lot of self-discipline, especially when the researcher is keen to learn much, about many things. And so it is with a character I’m creating in a new story, and with me. In science fiction and in fact, there are links, concentric circles and cycles, which give a thing structure.

Relative generality

It’s a fact that all links on Wikipedia eventually lead back to philosophy, and Wikipedia is a very pleasant way to spend a few lost hours, just clicking on links and reading more and associated articles around a subject. Most of my family history research has been in online archives, censuses, and local history groups, but Wikipedia is also useful (and distracting) alongside.

I was researching my maternal nan’s house in Tudeley, Kent, and the records are thinly spread, but I’ve concluded that the house was originally built as a farm house for farm workers. This would be entirely in keeping with my family’s farm labourer roots.

The first family I can find living there were the Bowles family, listed in the 1881 census. Given the size of history (it’s as big as space, and that’s very big indeed), I can only research and write so much, when it’s going into a book based around my family. So tempting as it is to wander off, I’ve tried to restrict myself to the relevant details, including the first recorded use of buildings and the more interesting stories of those who lived within and thereabouts. But like the universe in sci-fi, and philosophy on Wikipedia, everything can eventually link back. I like to form circles in writing, at the same time metaphorically placing rings around things for further reading.

History and economics are cyclical, and it was by coincidence that I watched a documentary on British invasion recently: Not the days of empire and slavery (none of my family’s employers’ families have links to the slave trade, but if they had, I’d have delved further. As it is, they were wealthy but self-made, and with a social conscience), but further back in ancient history. Most of my ancestors were farm labourers, with housing that came with the job. Like my family life, it was communal but not communist. It’s the farm workers and farming itself which led me on a digression into the further past.

I looked at invasions of Britain, or immigration into the country. Thanks to recent advances in DNA technology, research has found that Britain has a long history of immigration and invasion before that which is generally known, as it’s only now being discovered. Long before the Roman and Norman conquests, Britain was home to prehistoric natives, as far back as the Stone Age. In Ightham, where we lived for 12 years, there are remains of Palaeolithic settlements. Recent discoveries suggest that one of the first invasions of Britain was an altruistic and evolutionary movement, when Stone Age implements became tools. The hunter-gatherers of the time developed farming, eventually growing crops and raising livestock. As an aside, the so-called Celtic invasion was more one of fashion invading culture, as humans became more artistic.

Pinning down a definitive family line is especially difficult when the family played mainly supporting roles in history, rarely making it into anything recorded outside of the census. But it’s romantic to think that our ancient ancestors may have been some of those friendly invaders who taught the cavemen to farm.

Having researched my family name already, establishing it as (in our case) either an occupational one (we fished from lakes), or residential (lived beside lakes), I decided to take another quick digression back in time, to find the origin of the word the name is derived from: Lake.

The word has its roots in Anglo Saxon, so it’s logical to conclude one of two things, even with the little recorded history of individuals I have: Either we were part of the Germanic tribes from continental Europe from the 5th century, or we were here already, living by lakes, or fishing, and then we took up farming. It’s impossible to confirm either way, but returning to romanticism, we were always a peaceful folk, either exploring and discovering, or working in communes to improve a way of living. We were always a bit left-wing.

In the family history book post-digression, I’ll be in Ightham for a while longer, recalling more personal stories from the past, linked with wider events in history. As it moves forward, it will end in the 1980s, times of change for the country, and for us as a family, when one of the owners of the big house becomes involved in a Stock Exchange scandal, and we have news reporters camped at the end of the driveway. It was also the time of the Cold War, and the eve of great global changes, in politics and elsewhere.

Back in sci-fi land, I’m writing the last two stories for The Unfinished Literary Agency (out in January), with one set in a post-human world of animals and machines. There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on her own home planet. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Each of us is linked, through no more than six degrees of separation. Like me, the girl is trying to connect past and future to make a circle among others, where people can find their place.

Life can’t be reset, but look inside yourself, and you will find the return to innocence. And from there, that’s the beginning of the game, of another life.”