Seeing the wood for the trees
The politics edition
|David Charles||Nov 22, 2019|
Millennium Wood, Cholsey - 19 years young.
On Monday, I was stomping through the Millennium Wood in Cholsey when I spotted that it was the nineteenth birthday of this pretty little clutch of hazel, birch and ash.
Growing up as I did in Cholsey, I remember the close-cropped grass that used to occupy this land; banishings for cigarettes and fights on the outskirts of the football fields.
I remember the planting of the wood and thinking how my successors at the primary school dug into the earth on that cold November day while I worked a temp job and saved for university.
It warms the cockles to remember that hundreds - thousands - of communities across the UK chose to celebrate the turn of the millennium, not only by setting fireworks off in the sky, but also by planting trees down in the earth.
Once you start noticing the humble stone plaques that commemorate the hopes of those millennial tree-planters, you start seeing them everywhere. Two weeks ago, when staying at Castle Cottage in Wales, we tramped every morning up to a hilltop formerly known as ‘the lonely tree’, now a maturing copse also entering its twentieth year.
Today, we are in the midst of another mass planting that will dwarf the millennium celebrations.
As our various political parties scrabble to promise new woodlands that history suggests they won’t deliver (and isn’t enough anyway), next Friday Cornwall will begin planting trees for a forest that in ten years will cover thirty-two square miles, part of a strategy for the county to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.
Thankfully, we are not our political parties and politics also happens on scales small enough that we can all contribute.
National Tree Week begins tomorrow. The Woodland Trust is running events across the country. Planting trees is the most obvious way we can show that we care for generations beyond our own, and about time spans that transcend the human.
I watched a film last week. I don’t watch many - perhaps two or three in a busy year - so the ones that I do see tend to linger in the memory, especially when they are as personal as this one.
Official Secrets is based on the true story of GCHQ translator Katharine Gun, who in 2003 was sent an NSA memo that requested GCHQ’s help in spying on members of the UN Security Council to find leverage so that Britain and the US could get the votes needed for a second UN resolution to approve the invasion of Iraq. Pretty corrupt.
Gun leaked the document to the Observer newspaper, caused an international incident, confessed her crime and was charged with a breach of the Official Secrets Act.
When her lawyer decided to use Gun’s time in court to put the legality of Tony Blair’s Iraq war on trial, the government withdrew the prosecution.
The invasion went ahead, despite the largest protest event in human history and still without the approval of the UN Security Council.
Hundreds of thousands of people died, millions of refugees fled their homes - and are still in exile - and, in all likelihood, Tony Blair will never be prosecuted for war crimes.
“I work for the British people. I do not gather intelligence so the government can lie to the British people.”
For more, read this interview with Katharine Gun in the Observer.
Photos taken by me at the Stop the War march, 15 February 2003. That kid can probably vote at this election.
‘You can’t teach stupid’: Doorstep Politics
On Wednesday afternoon, I canvassed the streets of Westbourne on behalf of the Labour Party.
People jump to conclusions when you wander around wearing a very large, bright red rosette on your jacket - I would too if someone knocked on my door saying, ‘Hello, I’m canvassing for the Labour Party.’
What’s important is what happens after we’ve all jumped to our conclusions. Do you shut the door in my face? Or do we have a conversation and try to understand each other?
I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporter. Over the years, I have voted for all of the ‘normal’ political parties - Green, Liberal Democrat, Labour - as well as abstaining altogether. I’m as fed up with Westminster politics as most people seem to be.
These were details that I could share with the people who answered the door to me on Wednesday, and that might have helped adjust their first glance conclusions, and brought us closer together.
That’s why we do politics: to bring our society closer together.
So why was I canvassing for Labour in Westbourne?
Because, as my Foiled co-writer Beth Granville memorably put it: ‘If the Tories get in again, don’t be someone who didn’t do anything to stop it happening.’
Labour are the party with the highest chance of overturning the Conservative majority in the constituency of Bournemouth West. So for Labour I canvassed.
The only reason I am alive today is because of the NHS. (This is probably true for most people reading this newsletter, but I’ll let that pass for a second.)
I have a chronic condition that means I have to take medication every day for the rest of my life, otherwise I’ll slowly slip into a coma and die. (Which, to be fair, is probably what some Tories would love to happen.)
It was an NHS GP who first noticed something was wrong. It was an NHS phlebotomist who drew my first blood sample and sent it away to be tested at an NHS laboratory. It was an NHS endocrinologist who analysed the results and gave me my diagnosis.
It is an NHS GP Practice who help me manage the condition with annual check-ups. It is the NHS who have given me thousands of pounds’ worth of medication over the past eleven years and who promise to make sure that I - and the million or more other people in this country with my condition - continue to get the treatment we need to stop us all slipping into a coma and dying.
And it is the NHS whose existence is threatened by the spectre of another five years of Conservative rule.
We were canvassing in the middle of the afternoon. Most people were at work.
The people we did speak to made up the healthy political stew you’d expect to find in most towns around the country.
A couple of Labour supporters. One Liberal Democrat who wished us luck and hoped that the vote wouldn’t split and let the Tories back in.
One man, dressed not unlike Nigel Farage and who enjoyed playing with model railways, told me he was voting for the Monster Raving Loony Party.
And of course the odd Conservative voter who answered - and then slammed - the door with cries of ‘no, no, no, no, no’.
But my most illuminating conversation was with a woman, in her forties, a second generation immigrant, who’d just finished her morning shift.
I stood in her garden, a boxing punchbag hanging over an astroturf lawn, and we chatted for five or ten minutes, sharing our stories and our politics.
Her parents were Labour voters; she’s always voted Conservative. Now she doesn’t know who to vote for and is leaning towards not voting at all. She told me that a lot of her friends are of the same mind.
The problem is that she’s fed up with all politicians - Conservative and Labour - but she reserves special ire for Diane Abbott. ‘You can't teach stupid,’ she said of the much-maligned Shadow Home Secretary.
Still, she took a leaflet and we parted on companionable terms. I suppose the best Conservative is a non-voting Conservative.
I repeated our little conversation to the man in charge of the canvassing clipboard. He told me that Diane Abbott, herself the daughter of immigrants, has a degree from Cambridge so can't be that stupid.
‘It's hard enough for a black woman to get a degree from Cambridge today, let alone when she did it,’ he said.
Diane Abbott has been elected and re-elected eight times since she first entered the House of Parliament as Britain’s first black woman MP in 1987. In 2008, she won Spectator magazine’s Parliamentary Speech of the Year award.
It’s true, then: you can’t teach stupid. But I’m not sure people in glasshouses should be throwing stones.
Your neck of the woods?
I’m in London for the Thighs of Steel ride to Cambridge on Sunday. If you’d like to join us, check the ride details on Reddit and/or join the Whatsapp group if you haven’t already. We’re meeting at Broxbourne Station at 9.30am for the 60km ride.
Next week’s email will be coming LIVE from Amsterdam, as The Tim Traveller and I prepare to make our mass ascent of the highest peak in Flevoland - watch the big announcement on Youtube here. We might go for dinner on an oil rig as well.
I hope to see you out there!
David Charles wrote this newsletter. David is co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and also writes for The Bike Project, Forests News, Global Landscape Forum, Elevate and Thighs of Steel. Reply to this email, or read more at davidcharles.info. Thank you for subscribing!