A little geography goes a long way in the car

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"The land of dancing trees". This was a striking phrase I heard on the radio yesterday or the day before, used to describe the Somerset Levels. People who live in that mysterious wet place of eels and tors and Sedgemoor had been asked to speak into Tony Staveacre's microphone about their feelings on the place, and one of them, I think it was a farmer who had moved there from the Mendip Hills, said that when he got there he was told he would be living in "the land of dancing trees".

The reason for this was that a lot of the Somerset Levels is no more than a crust over the watery ooze below, and far from being solid land it has all the rigidity of a stretch of duck boards over a marsh.

"You can see this when something really heavy comes past," he said. "Maybe a big lorry or a herd of cows. They'll shake the ground as they pass, and if there's a line of poplars nearby, you can really see them dancing."

The land of dancing trees. Nice phrase, that. He was obviously fond of it, as he used it several times, but it's the kind of phrase that will probably fade away as it is not being used for some kind of tourist campaign and won't be immediately identified. Costa Blanca, yes. Cote d'Azur, yes. Lake District and the Cornish Riviera, yes, even though nobody has much idea what a riviera actually is. But a fortnight in the Land of Dancing Trees? Sorry, sir - we don't seem to have that on our computer...

It is stray, directionless thoughts like these which occupy one's mind on long car journeys. I have recently been driving to some of the further parts of Wales to take part in a BBC Wales TV series about some fine old Welsh families, and a long way it is too. The scenery by itself, though grand, is not enough to keep you awake en route, so I have taken a huge bag of audio tapes with me to accompany and channel my will o' the wisp thoughts. They are all of BBC radio programmes I have recorded over the months, thinking they will one day be worth listening to, and strange bedfellows they make too. On the same tape as the Somerset Levels portrait, for instance, there was someone doing a good reading of a Bertrand Russell essay "In Praise of Idleness" which made the point (quite repeatedly, actually) that there is nothing very good about work for its own sake.

He was writing in the 1930s, when it must have required a degree of courage or insouciance to praise unemployment in words like these...

"I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work. First of all, what is work? Work is of two kinds. First, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter. Second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill-paid. The second is pleasant and highly paid..."

Now, this kind of definition, dividing all mankind into either miners or managers, is one of those ultra-simplified ones which are intended to make a comic point, rather like describing golf as the process of hitting a white ball round the landscape with a stick. There is , of course, more to golf than that. But, essentially, not a lot more. And Bertrand Russell does go on to amplify the second, more agreeable and profitable kind of work as follows.

"The second kind is capable of indefinite extension. There are not only those who give orders but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organised bodies of men. This is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing...i.e. advertising."

I think this is the Bertrand Russell I like best, the white-haired, aristocratic stand-up comedian, not the big-time philosopher who went looking for order and mathematical certainty in the universe and mistaking seduction for love and friendship. In any case, according to Humphrey Carpenter and Ray Monk, Russell's new biographer, all this search for a tidy universe sprang from the tragic way in which Russell lost both parents while still a baby...

How do I know all this ? Lord bless you, sir, it comes from Night Waves, the Radio 3 programme. Oh, yes, we don't all listen to Radio 1 in those little boxes on wheels going up and down the M5. It's an intellectual ferment in some of them.