A degree of menace in the air

Or at least I hope that’s what this photo suggests. We were watching the idiots’ lantern last night when I looked out of the window and spotted this grim looking sky. It perfectly matched our mood. We think we’re getting used to the new normal – but we’re not, because sneaking in behind the immediate bad news there’s more long-term bad news that’s been airbrushed to make it look like our new best friend. Do please stay with me here because this is more urgent than anything we’ve ever faced before.

I wrote about the paradox of balancing housing, industry and transport with space for nature yesterday and then, as if by some sort of news leak from a parallel world, came a report that outlined the way in which zoonotic diseases are increased when wild environments are cleared and higher predators are driven off. To put it baldly, the smaller mammals which proliferate by rapid breeding and therefore don’t need to develop evolutionary immunity from viral diseases, increase exponentially and become major sources of cross infections when there’s contact with humans. It doesn’t take many animal/human transfers to start a pandemic.

It sometimes seems as if we have capacity for self-delusion which insinuates into ours heads the idea that we needn’t worry too much because we don’t eat bush meat here and our direct contact with bats, parrots, and other faraway exotics is vanishingly small. But think again: while cheap air travel lives on subsidies from those of us who are forced to pay for their polluting habits, nowhere is very far from here; and those with a smattering of history will know that one of the greatest plagues of all, and one that lasted for many decades, was spread by brown rats.

The brown rat can breed throughout the year if conditions are suitable, with a female producing up to five litters a year. The gestation period is only 21 days, and litters can number up to 14, although seven is common. They reach sexual maturity in about five weeks.


Bath has a problem with rats – they’re everywhere; not just in our compost heap when they get a chance, but throughout the city. Despite the Council’s efforts to collect waste safely there are always enough people dumping litter, and especially fast food containers with bits of food inside. We see the gulls but we don’t see the shyer rats unless, like me, you watch carefully and set traps for them. We’ve even seen them up trees – they’re very good climbers:

Now the government Government announced its new plans to relax planning restraints to such a degree that consideration of nature will be dismissed (as Johnson said recently) as “newt counting”. A new generation of uncontrolled building will be allowed to spread like an infection across more and more wild places.

Yesterday the Harris Hawk was back on the Green with its handler, scaring off gulls very successfully. It’s a joy to watch but really it’s a sad tale of a greenwashed solution to an entirely preventable problem. The gulls moved in from their proper habitat because we started to dump millions of tons of household waste near cities. The tips provide the food and the tall buildings provide the artificial cliffs and the river provides the opportunity for a wash and a chat afterwards.

We’ve got a rather odd herring gull on the green. Unlike his fellow gulls he’s a bit of a solitary and he spends so much time out there that we’ve given him a name – it’s Eric. Yesterday Eric scored big-time with a plastic bag containing heaven knows what, but he couldn’t seem to penetrate the bag with his beak. Then a lesser black backed gull joined in and they had a bit of a tussle which Eric – surprisingly – won. But then two of the other gull’s chicks joined in and their mother took a step back. Eventually Eric swooped in again and carried the piece of rubbish off. So gulls and rats abound here in this beautiful but ecologically deranged city.

The Tourist Board won’t like me saying this but we’ve got massive problems with homelessness, street drug dealing and begging too. The growth of the tourist industry has created problems with litter and waste from fast food outlets, and the proliferation of Airbnb sublets. To cap it all, in normal times we have a huge student population, all of which helps skew the retail scene towards bars, clubs and general rowdiness.

The lockdown has practically destroyed the city. Shops are closing every day as the economic effects of this badly managed crisis begin to bite. With no tourists, the raison d’etre for the old economic model has disappeared. Almost outside our door, the Council is installing equipment to enable Bath to become a clean air zone or CAZ. The work has caused long, polluting traffic jams and there are constant altercations between the workmen and raging motorists. Our whole society is on a hair trigger. Without tourists,unemployment is rising fast in this leisure based economy. Sales of alcohol have doubled, and since the lockdown was prematurely eased we’ve seen violent drunks back on the Green and all the while covid infections refuse to go away and we wait anxiously to see if the restrictions will be reimposed.

If ever there was a time to try to unite people and build a new vision it’s now; and yet this abominable gang of charlatans we call the government throw petrol on the flames at every opportunity. I try to stay cheerful, but grey despair is gnawing at my heels every day. The Green New Deal seems dead in the water; never seriously embraced by conservatives – even by huskie hugging David Cameron and now shuffled under the carpet by a an emasculated opposition that’s desperate for power but has no idea what it would do with it. It’s not the kind of crisis we have needed to imagine since the modern world began. The sheer range and scope of the failure is so complex. The assumption of eternal progress and growth towards a perfect, equal and democratic society is built into our politics but is everywhere being shown as a terrible charade. Like the portrait of Dorian Gray in Wilde’s story, the truth of our collapsing society is hidden like the portrait,and may only be revealed for the horror story it’s become when it collapses and painfully starts to rebuild itself from scratch.

This, I know, has been a bit of a jeremiad but I need to say it because this blog isn’t intended to be a cuddly escape from the realities of life. It’s about how to live and even thrive; how to be human in an inhuman world, how to keep hope alive. This is the context in which identifying plants, growing veg or baking bread has to be done and this is the society in which we have to raise our children and grandchildren to be fully human within nature, because our failure has ensured that the burden of a sustainable future will fall on them.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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