It’s our friend Charlie’s birthday today so yesterday he came round for coffee and chocolate eclairs – a birthday treat. We’re the same age bar a month, so we’ve shared lifetimes but lived them out entirely differently; he is a distinguished botanist and I was – or rather am – an undistinguished amateur. But our conversation yesterday led us to share a problem we both have with writing; because he was brought up in South Africa during the apartheid era but as a committed anti-apartheid citizen who, by force of circumstances, shared many of the material advantages of the white colonial population. How should he write about such a childhood? I have a similar problem when I write about the deprivations and occasional criminality of some of our neighbours here. Any kind of nuanced and rounded account of living in Bath has to go deeper than gushing about Roman baths, Georgian buildings and Jane Austin. Sometimes I feel that dissing the place does it a disservice, but it’s not just the local businesses that benefit from crowds of visitors; it’s a boon to the street beggars as well, and I’d bet that some of the visitors take advantage of the freely available drugs.
A few days ago I wrote a piece called “The Night Bus” which tried to capture some of the edginess and sense of threat that accompanies late night bus riders. Obviously it would be lovely and possibly earth saving if more of us left the cars at home and caught buses, but until unreliable services and antisocial behaviour get fixed, taxis and cars are a rational choice for some people who don’t share my tolerant attitude. Writing honestly about these problems is an attempt to get people – especially councillors – to do something about it.
Last year I wrote a piece about rats for the Allotment Association. It didn’t get published, probably because the editor would prefer to promote the fantasy allotments of endless pest free summer days. Sadly, in real life, winter comes along and the mice move into our polytunnel. This year they managed to nip off sixteen growing broad bean plants. Even if it’s bad Karma to set traps I’m still willing to take a chance with fate if it gets a crop in April. Gardening and allotmenteering are often challenging; with infestations and infections as well as the joyful harvest.
We’ve just had the first real frost of winter with the temperature down to -4C last night. We fleeced all of the vulnerable plants so hopefully they’ll live to grow another day; but troubles – as the small print on finance forms always mentions – “can go up as well as down”. Writing honestly about it doesn’t create problems, it brings them to the fore. If William Cobbett had confined himself to singing the praises of the beautiful Vale of Pewsey instead of writing Rural Rides, the Reform Acts might never have seen the light of day. If Charles Kingsley had not written the Water Babies, or if Charles Dickens had self censored Hard Times the cruelties of the industrial revolution might not have been exposed. If more people had wondered where the money that built Georgian Bath was coming from, maybe the slave trade would have ended that bit earlier.
Telling it how it is is radical, of course. Why do governments – particularly our own malignant bunch – spend so much time and effort prosecuting people who’ve done nothing worse than tell the truth? But telling it straight doesn’t have to be the fierce radicalism of the stereotypical demonstrator. I’ll just give one example of a conversation I overheard one Easter many years ago. We were in Regents Park Zoo standing in front of an Orangutan enclosure. A woman and her husband were there just in front of us looking at these wonderful apes with rapt attention. She turned to him and said – “Oh look George ………… they’re so realistic!” I’d be thrilled to receive any postcard sized explanations of the meaning of the word realistic in that sentence. The memory of it burrowed into my brain that day and I’ve never forgotten it. There’s a whole philosophy waiting to be unpicked when thinking about zoos and what they mean; the hole in the dam, waiting for the little boy to pull his finger out and go home for tea.