Where were you when the child was crying, mourning a loss not yet hers, but near, an inevitability?
Were you safely tucked away in a cocoon of comfort, one where ignorance could be a justifiable excuse for your indifference?

Etchings of fear lashed across her face, as though a mad man had taken a machete and crisscrossed it with an instrument designed purely for her pain.
Pain so emotional it rendered itself physical upon her body.
That tiny body is a vessel upon which the detritus of an entire region is transported.

Salty tears slid down a well-worn track.
They seemed to know their path, their destination, a knowledge instilled through repetition of this same activity, day after day, till they reached a well unable to be filled.

Relentless pain of the emotional kind is a special sort of beast.
It weakens the mind but not always the body, and the body is our instrument with which we broadcast our state of being to others.
If the emotional is invisible to those observing us, then our pain, fear and desperation all goes unknown, and the suffering, it continues, shrouded by the okay-ness of our physical bodies.

Why are some chosen for a blessed life, and others born in the gutter and forgotten?
By just the luck of a nation, a parent, a situation, we thrive, drown or die.
That soda for milk, that fear for joy, what life is this to live?

Those children of the mountains, they form part of the landscape.
But it’s funny because eventually, the mountain relinquishes that inky chunky matter that is the lifeblood of Appalachia, hungrily clawed from the belly of that land.
But the mountain will never release these children, they are stuck, their permanence in this land ensured forever.

My daughter, Rose Keating, wrote this after watching a Diane Sawyer documentary called A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains. You can watch it here.

A telephone pole(mic)

There’s a crow sitting on the telephone wire that arcs from pole to pole from where I’m writing this at Crosshands, loops up the road to Hints and beyond to Clee Hill. The two are connected: as the crow flies our village is only 19 miles from Coalbrookdale, the settlement on the banks of the River Severn near Telford where the Industrial Revolution took one of it’s first significant turns. And while this part of the county with it’s coal and dhustone quarries was on one of the spokes of that revolution, it’s been rather left behind in the telecommunications revolution that, in its own way, is every bit as important.

Crows are clever corvids but I doubt mine is bright enough to know the wire beneath his feet is copper. By now, of course, it should be a fibre optic cable. But the high speed service only goes as far as the green cabinet next to the world’s ugliest bus stop (with, admittedly, the world’s prettiest view). So down in Coreley we’re in the slow lane of the information superhighway – and at times on the hard shoulder – with connection speeds barely high enough to enjoy a Netflix night in. And with the village pub now all but closed a night out isn’t an option!

But superfast broadband brings business as well as entertainment down its optical cables so we’re being left behind a bit like an area without those former superhighways, the railways and roads. Our business ACM Training, for example, could employ more people in the parish with a faster Internet connection. But BT and it’s infrastrucure arm Openreach refuse to even put a date on when the final leg from that cabinet to our village will be upgraded. I pointed out to them that they missed a golden opportunity to lay the cable in the same trench as the new water pipe that was laid last year. Is it too much to ask the utility companies to combine forces where it would save them and us double disruption as well as money? Clearly it is.

So if like me you believe super fast broadband is a necessity not a luxury write to BT. Better still send them an email. But just remember for now it won’t be much quicker than the post.

They don’t make factories like they used to

Manchester skyline. A reminder of the city’s rich, industrial past.

I’ve been working in Liverpool and Manchester the last few days and it’s painful to see how two, once mighty and proud industrial cities have been brought to their knees. I’m not deceived by blue skies, Instagram filters or rose-tinted spectacles. I realise life in the mills and foundries and dockyards was hard and that by most empirical measures we’re better off now. But that doesn’t make it any less urgent for these places to rediscover meaning in a post industrial world. We can’t all work in the service sector. As the community historian, Professor Carl Chinn, once put it to me in relation to Birmingham: “The problem is we’re not mekin’ things anymore.”

So what can Britain’s former industrial heartlands do to reinvent themselves? A lot, of course, has been done already. Running along the Mersey from Pier Head via a statue of the Beatles to the Albert Dock and beyond, that much is clear. But most of what has been done is refurbishment – looking back to a real or imagined past rather than forward to a brighter future. It’s the same in Manchester. And beyond those narrow strips of hope , further along the towpaths and riverbanks, the other side of the crunch of broken glass underfoot, lies despair and decay. The tide went out in the 70s and 80s and it’s been out ever since.

A sign of the times in Manchester. Did we turn our back on industry?

That’s not to say there aren’t modernist beacons shining out like the lighthouses that guided ships through the shifting mudbanks a generation before. The Echo Arena, for example.  I can’t help thinking, however, that the lack of ambition in much modern industrial and commercial architecture is unwittingly contributing to the malaise. No need to look after it. It’s temporary. Unlike the handsome red brick structure at the top of this post which at least has the feeling of permanence. Or the Radio City Tower pictured below that dominates the Liverpool skyline. Daring. Bold. A statement to the rest of the world. But built in 1969.

Radio City, Liverpool.

Clever Trees – Westonbirt

In the last of his current series celebrating Clever Trees Richard Uridge visits the National Arboretum at Westonbirt in Gloucestershire, England.

Please note that this and other programmes in the Clever Trees series were first broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a result they contain copyright material so they are strictly for personal use and must not be used for commercial gain withour our express permission in writing. Please contact me if you’d like to obtain a licence.

Nature’s Alarm Clock

I’m woken by the Dawn Chorus. Not yet the full orchestra. A solitary blackbird playing oboe (chirping is too unrefined a word for it) from the uppermost branch of the wind-stooped apple tree and the dot-dot-dot-dash-dash refrain of a wood pigeon playing Morse code in the rhythm section where the telephone wire arcs up to meet the pole: that tar-barked tree which a bar later reverberates to the staccato beat of a woodpecker tapping up breakfast or test drilling for a new housing development.

I’m up now. Watching as well as listening. A cock pheasant is picking his way across the silvery field like a cross-dressing party goer in high heels. Not wanting to get his feet wet and weaving a snail trail across the dew. All burgundy and wine bottle green with neck curved up and tail curved down. A tipsy tightrope walker turned through 90 degrees.

The hen bird is dowdy by comparison. Brown but not mousey. Making her way up the hedgeline from the stream with an arthiritic strut. More Max Wall than Max Factor.

They’re on a collision course these birds of a feather. Choreographed perhaps? (It’s not just the sap that’s rising). A dance set to music. But if it is, he doesn’t know the moves and she rises entrechat* in a crescendo of ruffled pride. Her alarm muffled like an overwound clockwork toy heard through a blanket. And for a moment the chorus is quietened.

*Entrechat (pronounced: ahn-truh-shah’) is a ballet term which means to jump in the air from two feet – beat the legs together in the air, land either on one or two feet.

Clever Trees – Heligan

In the penultimate programme of his five part series on Clever Trees, Richard Uridge finds a headache-inducing specimen in the Lost Gardens of Heligan.

Please note that this and other programmes in the Clever Trees series were first broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a result they contain copyright material so they are strictly for personal use and must not be used for commercial gain withour our express permission in writing. Please contact me if you’d like to obtain a licence.

Sound affects

I’m sitting face to the sun like a Spring flower listening to the sounds of south Shropshire. A wedge of cold air – a thin blue arrow at the horizon and as tall as the stratosphere itself above my head –  has lifted the rain clouds that earlier varnished the already sodden ground with wet snow: tears for the end of winter. Each thread unpicked from the aural rope that anchors me to this spot…

The bleat of sheep.
The breeze stirring the sky-scratching twigs of the black-tipped ash.
The clap of the pigeon’s wings.
The laughter of the raven.

I lose count with the premature hoot of an owl woken from its roost perhaps by the gust of wind that’s dizzied the weathervane and spun the blue sky black.

Winter, for now, has returned. And the sound-deadening snow – more flakes than tears this time round – has ravelled the notes back into one soft symphony.

National Service

There was three things in Civvy Street wot gave me untold pleasure,
Me Boston cut, me Windsor knot, and me creepers made to measure.

On me first day in the Army, though, they gives me quite a scare,
For a moosh they calls the Provost Sarge nabs me crossing square,
Shouts ‘e in voice so loud and clear it rends the morning air:
“Oi, soldier. ‘Ere. Double, lad. Wot yer doin’ wiv all that there?”

Says I to ‘im in tone of slow deliberation:
“I’ve got a permit from the Spivs’ Association.”
At that he laughed, he didn’t even ask to see me card,
Just “Wochyersel. For you, my son, I’ll make things mighty ‘ard.”
Then round to Regimental Barber, he plonks me in the chair.
And in a jiff I’d lorst me quiff and all me wavy ‘air.

But that weren’t all I was to lose,
For next they whips me lovely shoes.

It ‘appened when I’d been a soldier almost for a week,
And wiv all the ruddy marchin’, corns was coming on me feet.
So up I nips to Barrack Room, pulls orf each boot wiv glee,
And swops ‘em for me creepers and yeller socks, yer see.

’Twas at that fateful moment that the Corp comes to me bed space,
He looks me up, he looks me dahn, Gawd! You oughter ‘av seen ’is face.
‘im bein’ a National Serviceman I thought he was a sport.
Gern! Took ‘im 15 seconds dead to place me on report.

Next day he marches me – no ‘at or belt – before the blinkin’ beak.
LEFT-RIGHT, LEFT-RIGHT, MARK-TIME and HALT, so quick I ‘ad no time to speak.
Said Corp ”I’ve charged ‘im under Section 40.”
Said Major “You are very, very naughty;
I fear you can’t do this with me’ and gave me seven days’ CB.
Then added as an afterthought, “Spiv’s shoes in camp you will not sport.”

Well, wiv that you’d think I’d ‘ad me lot,
But arf a mo, I’ve yet to tell yer ‘ow I lorst me knot.

On the Friday after finishing orf me seven days’ confined,
CO decided he’d inspect (wot a blasted bind).
Ah well, says I, feelin’ me crop, the ol’ man won’t catch me,
Me boots was bulled so ‘ighly me reflection I could see.

On the day of the inspection I ‘eld my ‘ead up ‘igh,
Smartest soldier on parade without word of a lie.
When CO glanced dahn at me boots ‘e ‘ad to turn away,
The light it nearly blinded ‘im – reflection of sun’s ray.

I smirked wiv pride as CSM came up to whisper in me ear,
“A stripe wivout a doubt” thinks I, holding back a cheer.
You’ve been and gorn and tied yerself a ?*=xx!? Windsor knot!”

My dad, Brian, gave me many things – not least a love of poetry. He was an inveterate scribbler. And he scribbled these lines whilst doing his National Service as a young man in the early 1950s. Brian was born in Finchley, North London so the words are best read in a “Lahndon” accent.

Picture credit: Imperial War Museum.

Clever Trees – Australia

In the second of his programmes celebrating clever trees, Richard Uridge travels to Australia to investigate two apparent paradoxes: the tree that’s wet when it’s dry; and the clever idiot tree.

Please note that this and other programmes in the Clever Trees series were first broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a result they contain copyright material so they are strictly for personal use and must not be used for commercial gain withour our express permission in writing. Please contact me if you’d like to obtain a licence.

Clever Trees – Malaysia

The time-telling Simpoh flower

Of all the clever things that trees can do telling the time has to be one of the smartest. In this episode Richard Uridge travels to Malaysia in search of the Simpoh, a tree which, according to legend, flowers at precisely the same time every day.

Please note that this and other programmes in the Clever Trees series were first broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a result they contain copyright material so they are strictly for personal use and must not be used for commercial gain withour our express permission in writing. Please contact me if you’d like to obtain a licence.