Monday, 28 June 2010

A National Shame

It emerged in the Budget last week that the nation feels unable to give the Queen the £7 million she badly needs to cover her household expenses.   Unlike everyone else in the country, the Queen has not had a rise since 1990 - 20 years! - and her cash reserves, into which she at present is having to dip, will run out in two years' time (the year of her Diamond Jubilee).

The Queen receives an annual income (the Civil List) paid by the Government in return for handing over the income from the Royal Estates.   The income from the Royal Estates  is currently something like £226 million p.a.   The royal palaces, and in particular Buckingham Palace, are seriously in need of an overhaul, and clearly this should not be paid by the Queen herself, but by the nation.   However, it appears that we can't afford to keep our Head of State in a proper manner.

Meanwhile, we hand over £15 billion a year to the EU.   This equates to £7 million every four hours, most of which disappears in madcap schemes, or into the pockets of corrupt politicians.   It certainly does not benefit us.   Perhaps we could hold back four hours' worth and pay it to the Queen instead?

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Sussex by the Sea

God gave all men all earth to love
     But since man's heart is small
Ordains for each one spot shall prove
     Belov├Ęd over all.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
     The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground - a fair ground -
     Yea, Sussex by the sea!

So wrote Kipling, who lived there and loved it.   I spent yesterday in Sussex, partly in the beautiful Cuckmere valley, where the river runs down to the sea, partly in the village of Wilmington, at the feet of the Long Man, carved on the down above us, and partly listening to stupendous opera at Glyndebourne.    It was a glorious day, a day such as we dream of when we think of the English summer, and the countryside was in its full glory.   At Glyndebourne people were picnicking on the lawns in the late sunshine, drinking champagne and looking out from the magnificent gardens across the ha-ha to the sheep grazing in the fields and the line of the Downs beyond. 

The opera was Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd, not the easiest or most cheerful of operas, set in a British man o' war in 1797, with an all-male cast, a tragic tale of good and evil and innocence betrayed.    It was a marvellous production, beautifully sung, powerfully evoking the claustrophobic atmosphere on board ship and the terrible inevitability of the unfolding events.    We might have emerged less harrowed after a tale of love and a happy ending, but it was an unforgettable experience to end a perfect day. 

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Over For Another Year

A sparkling Royal Ascot finished yesterday, after five days of sunshine, horses, hats, champagne and magnificent racing.   Highlights included the wonder filly Goldikova's win in the very first race of the meeting;  the thrilling finish to the Gold Cup, won by a whisker by Rite of Passage;  the daily spectacle of the Royal Procession;  the smiles and happiness on the face of HM The Queen, enjoying five days of her favourite sport among like-minded people;  the beauty of the shining, highly-bred horses;  the elegance of the clothes worn by both sexes - much more than usual this year, I thought;  people had taken trouble and largely succeeded, and there were fewer silly hats with miniature football pitches or large bowls of strawberries.

There is nothing in the world like Royal Ascot.   There are other elegant race meetings and plenty of good races, but Ascot is unique, partly because of the fact that it is the Queen's own meeting, at her own racecourse, where no advertising or sponsorship is allowed, and racegoers are expected to conform to certain standards.   Every race is keenly contested and of a very high quality, and it all makes for an experience which is highly enjoyable.   If the sun shines as well, as it did this year, the party really goes with a swing, for five whole days.

Friday, 11 June 2010

The Glory of the Garden

It is about this time of year that the English passion for gardening reaches its peak.   This passion awakes from its hibernation around Easter time and builds up to the Chelsea Flower Show in May, when thousands of enthusiasts, many with pencil and notebook, throng the tents and walks of the Royal Hospital site, and the television programmes introduce us to ever more exotic blooms.    The garden centres fill up with eager shoppers, frowning in concentration as they load their trolleys with plants and saplings for the new season.

June and July are the high months for the English country garden.  Gardens are open to the public and proudly shown off to visitors.  If these months are disappointingly rainy, people say "At least it is good for the garden", and if the sun shines for too long at a time, then we worry about the dry earth and thirsty plants and scan the skies anxiously for a few raindrops to alleviate the drought.
Forget the gnomes and the decking, the salvia and the "water features".   The truly beautiful English garden, while paying due deference to well-tended lawns (preferably shaded by a large cedar), is a place of peace and gentle colours, where lupins, delphiniums, love-in-the-mist, snapdragons and acquilegia fill the borders.   Alchemilla mollis softens the edges of the paths and climbing roses riot over walls and arches, their scent filling the air.  Night-scented stocks and nicotiana take up the theme as evening falls.   There is no place on earth lovelier than an English country garden in its full glory.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Foxes & Humans

I hope Lydia Rivlin will not mind if I reproduce here her excellent and sensible letter to The Daily Telegraph yesterday.   She says:

"The horrific attack on two infants by a fox happened because the fox had lost its fear of people.

In the countryside foxes are hunted.   Many are not caught, but they do learn a healthy respect for humans, which they teach their offspring.   City folk, on the other hand, often treat foxes as honoured guests, even going so far as to feed them.

It is this sentimental attitude that precipitated the ridiculous hunting ban and, unless people people revise their feelings about these seductively beautiful animals, we are going to see more accidents of this type."

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Forest of Dean

Here is a poem I like, by Robin Flower:

The quiet congregation of the trees
Awoke to a rippled whisper.  The light winged breeze
Brushed leaf against leaf, softly and delicately fingering
Silken beech and ragged oak leaf;  and in the cool shadow
And wavering dapple of tremulous sunlight lingering,
As weary of the hot gold glow of the buttercup meadow,
And renewing his strength in the cool green and still shade
Of the forest, deeper and deeper burrowing in
By pathway and trackway and green ride and arched glade
Over hyacinth and the white starred garlic and curled fern,
And dreaming in some unvisited haven to win
New life from the growing grass and rejoicing return
To sweep from hill to valley, from valley to hill.
The birds were still,
Only far off a cuckoo calling,
Drowsily and perpetually a far-off cuckoo calling.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Don't Take It Out On BP

It is irritating to hear President Obama using the words "British Petroleum" when he seeks to find someone to blame for the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.   This version of the company name was dropped more than ten years ago when the company merged with the US oil giant Amoco, turning it into a transnational conglomerate.   It is having the effect of making Britain very unpopular in the States - quite unjustly.

The rig which caught fire and caused the leak is American-owned and Korean-built.   The Texan firm Halliburton, whose chairman was once Vice-President Dick Cheney, had a hand in it.   The well itself was not operated by BP, but by a sub-contractor, Transocean. The US Coast Guard was not exactly efficient in fighting the fire and the US government itself has responded in a way which many Americans consider "very poor".     BP is doing everything humanly possible to contain the leak, spending literally billions and working round the clock in an environment where no such operation has ever been attempted before.

It is tempting, if unbecoming, for the American President to try and find someone to blame, particularly what can be represented as a foreign company.   The truth is that this is an international environmental disaster, in which many people are involved.   To talk of criminal prosecutions is not helpful. 

BP contributes immeasurable sums in tax to our economy, and we should support them.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Health & Safety Strikes Again

Cooper's Hill is outside the village of Brockworth in Gloucestershire.   Every year for 200 years the locals have held a cheese-rolling contest, when a 7lb wheel of Double Gloucester cheese is rolled down the very steep hill, chased by dozens of strong and frankly lunatic young men and watched by cheering hundreds.   This year "health and safety fears" caused the contest to be banned.

However, the people of Brockworth were not going to take this lying down.   The ban was defied and the event went ahead as usual, in spite of official efforts to stop it happening.

How many people were injured, I don't know.   Judging by past years there were probably several injuries of varying severity, but at least they knew what they were doing and took the risk for a bit of fun and frivolity, all too sadly lacking these days.   Well done, lads!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A Somerset Walk

We spent the long weekend in Somerset, another lovely English county (almost as lovely as Herefordshire!).   The countryside is in its full early summer beauty, the grass green and lush and the trees beginning to be heavy in leaf.   Although the bluebells are over, the chestnut trees are still holding their candles high, and elderflower and cow parsley luxuriate beside the lanes.

Yesterday morning we walked along a ridge behind the handsome honey-coloured Hadspen House.   The grassy track through the estate was once an ancient road, and runs through an avenue of tall pines.   On either side of us the woods fell away, revealing dim blue distant views of yet more woods and fields.   We discovered an interesting stone stile - a flat slab of stone set on its edge in the dry-stone wall, with a neat hole cut into it for one's foot, something I had never seen before.

Towards the end of our walk we came across two magnificent Shire horses, working to pull logs out of the woods below.   The younger of the two was 18.3hh, with hooves the size of dinner plates below his fine, white-feathered legs, and both of them were splendid beasts, all too rarely seen these days.   It was good not only to see them, but to see them working, doing a job which they do so much better than machines.