March 2011 Newsletter
Keith remimds us that there is no place quite like home
Many years ago, we used to live in Tokyo and had to decide where we were going to settle down when that assignment terminated. Previously we had lived for some years in France. One April we were visiting Sydney and Canberra anyway and took time out to think of Australia as a possible home, but decided against (might have thought differently if we had visited more southern cities such as Melbourne). I used to visit Singapore regularly (probably 70 or more times over a period of 10 years) and loved its vibrancy and colour and its so un-South-Asian a sense of order and discipline. But it only had one season - unremitting summer, interrupted by violent storms.
But when we came home for a holiday we knew immediately where we wanted to be - back in the UK. People talk of our weather here as unpredictable and messy. But the reverse is true. We know that it will never be really too hot or too cold or too wet - try a monsoon day in India (where I also lived for some years a long, long time ago) or even a tropical storm while in Singapore. Try visiting, say, Waratta Park outside Sydney in mid July or, just as bad, Dubai - when the dry heat is totally enervating.
We can be certain in England of moderate weather - even the very cold of last November and December, which broke all the records, was not essentially threatening. The damage caused by the floods which have hit so many of us in recent years are mainly due, not to the weather as such but to our predilection for building homes in flood plains and along river banks in steep valleys. We suffer occasional earthquakes, which have the same sort of effect as rocking a baby's cradle, but nothing worse.
There are other equally happy places on earth (eg New Zealand), but we are very, very fortunate (I do not like to say 'lucky') to live in such a temperate land.
However (there has to be a 'But', of course), we were disappointed after being back here a few years to discover in how many ways we are not a temperate people. Maybe we never were, but I certainly think we need to revisit ourselves as a nation. In my time, I have voted Tory, Labour and Lib Dem (not necessarily in that order!). I have always tried to vote for what I hoped would do best for the nation, not for the party promising to do most for me (as a pensioner nowadays, I am part of a target group for politicians, which I have to say I find personally insulting!). So please believe that I am being political neutral if I say that I actually like the Tory/Lib Dem (or Clegg/Cameron) policy of The Big Society - actually it's a problem if it's a policy - it has to be more of a philosophy, a way of looking at and doing things, not a Government programme.
All the fuss about big charities losing Government funding misses the point. The wish is to encourage us, not to give money to Oxfam (although that is great from the point of view of international aid), but to get on our feet and help those who need help down our own street or in our own village. West Dereham Parish Council is heading up an attempt to feed off Hilgay's Broadband. I have probably got this wrong in detail, but the point is that local people are getting together to solve a local problem (that Broadband has not yet reached West Dereham, except peripherally). It's not really a question of charity - it's an issue of co-operation and friendliness.
Some years ago a policeman was charged with assault after clipping a young hooligan around the ear. He was clearly guilty, but the jury acquitted him. I don't think we want to be going around hitting people with whom we disagree, but I do think we want to go back a little towards a time when villagers had a common sense of purpose and local loyalty, which inevitably meant we looked out for each other, helped those in need and accepted help when we needed it, respected each other's property and looked up to those whom we all knew deserved it, whether as a result of their age and experience or by virtue of their general behaviour.
I am, of course, past it myself by now - virtually locked into my bath chair, reading books and watching TV all day (basically being as lazy as I criticise others for being) - but that's no reason why everyone else should not be up and about in our community of villages. There had been a somewhat unhappy time in the parishes of Weeting and Feltwell some years ago for reasons which do not now matter. Canon John Rowsell, long-time and well-loved Vicar of Methwold and Feltwell many years ago was drafted in for a couple of years and did little more than wander the streets of the two villages, popping into the shops and bars, wearing his cassock and smoking his pipe, with a cheery 'Hallo' to whoever he passed. The sense of quiet, calm. unrushed, friendlinessness had its effect and neutralised much of the irritation. He became a familiar figure, respected and appreciated for having no negative words for anyone - just for being there.
In many ways, I think the Big Society can happen only if there are many Small Societies, overlapping with each other. Where else could it be easier to make those small societies than in a land of unthreatening countryside, moderate weather, inherent cultural tendency to tolerance than here. Actually, it's because it really does still exist that we wanted to come back here to live.