Taking a turn for the verse

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The Independent Online
In recent years, I have made only one distinctively 'green' decision, and I bitterly regret it. Feeling flush when we moved into this converted shed in 1990, we put in a new boiler. It was twice the price of a normal boiler but had (past tense) a device that reduced exhaust pollution and increased energy efficiency.

The thing sprang a leak, and a part which costs pounds 780 awaits replacement. I am word processing the latest draft of The Future of the World: Rediscovering Faith in Progress in fingerless gloves. Until a publisher wades in with a tempting offer to put before the world my account of how things may turn out not half bad for this species and the planet, there will be no central heating in this corner of England's rural paradise.

Meanwhile, I am glad that I have accepted various gigs around the county. They'll do nothing for the overdraft, but will at least get me out of my long johns and into warm rooms. Tomorrow, I am due to appear at the Wellington County Primary School. I am to deliver a few words on how grateful the little ones should be that they live in a well-regulated and lovely environment in which they are only exposed to the smells from the next-door cowsheds. Better that, by far, than the more dangerous proximity of ordure to children which plagues the Third World. I have been warned by the teacher not to swear (the last time I spoke to the children I used the 'sh' word). I may save myself the difficulty, and rattle on about how exaggerated the effect of acid rain on Britain's trees appears to have been.

On Thursday, a yet more hazardous encounter is booked. The publican of the Seven Stars in Ledbury rather thinks his pub appears in some of John Masefield's verse. Be that as it may, he wants a poetry reading as the interval entertainment during an acoustic blues evening. The last time the Stars was in the papers, it was because of a Yuletide fisticuffs between locals and New Age travellers. Given that our readings have variously been made to weekend painting students and to old parties in residential homes, I fear we may be out of our depth.

Three of us form the core of the poetry-reading circus. There's an abstract painter of Aryan good looks, who does Edward Thomas and Lorca (in Spanish and English, which should fox them). Then there is a well-spoken joiner who years ago started a famous commune near here, and now lives with just his family in a house in Ledbury.

My strategy was originally to have a handsome diva on hand to stun the audience with Puccini. This has been stamped on by the publican, who wants to hold in his own hands all musical offerings. So my new idea is to proceed with a conventionally high-tone reading, but to have plenty of limericks and the rudest bits of Philip Larkin to sling at them if they show signs of restiveness. If they clench their fists, grind their teeth, or start toward us, we will run.

No such difficulties are anticipated in my main gig for next month: a talk at the Pudlestone Garden and Nature Club, somewhere near Leominster ('over the hill' from here, as we say, in unconscious recollection of a time when horses and walking did the work and inclines meant something). I think I shall give them my Theme Park Britain blast. This says that, considering that we have twice the population density of France, it is amazing how lovely our countryside remains. Doubly so, since the British long for family houses surrounded by gardens and the remains of fields, and loathe cities. We love and idealise villages and farms, but we concrete over the place as fast as possible. I mostly thank God for an absurdly democratic planning system which allows a prime British factor - a devotion to archaism - to mitigate these diametrically opposed forces. On the other hand, I increasingly worry that it has allowed the worst of dribbling development, while blocking some bold strokes.

I fear that almost all modern tendencies in the countryside are toward a pretty uniformity. I remain sceptical about the efforts of the Common Ground movement to reverse the process (both problem and response are beautifully expressed in Local Distinctiveness: Place, Particularity and Identity*).

I find it easy to imagine a future Britain richer in wildlife, and even in woods and meadows, than it is now. I can imagine a Britain producing masses of excellent food. I think parishes may yet gain more power. But the country will become more samey, and where it does not, that will be the result of a very self-conscious process. What we see around us will have been decided upon, legislated for, defended or ordained. It will be less a result of evolution, working necessity or geography; partly because, in the modern world, a good idea is as quickly replicated everywhere as a bad one.

I often wonder if I am in denial (as they say), as I pursue all my little controversies. Certainly, my Yin and my Yang are in a tangle. So it came as a bit of a surprise when the new vicar asked me to give a talk during one of the meditations he has planned for the run-up to Easter. I shall give them my tales of visiting monks around the world. And then I'll try out a few words on how Greens are all at sea when they sentimentalise the supposedly paradisical world we have lost. As monks know, paradise is an ideal, not a place. We will find it within, or nowhere.

* pounds 7.20, including p&p, Common Ground, 41 Shelton Street, London WC2.

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