Everybody doth protest too much: With an army of workfare unemployed at your disposal, recreating ancient woodland destroyed by road-building should be no problem

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The Independent Online
A pungent editorial in Country Life takes the Government to task for its plans to cut Oxleas Wood in two with a six-lane motorway, and to replace the 8,000-

year-old wood with a replica on some other site.

'You simply cannot create,' so they say, '8,000 years of undisturbed soil and ancient woodland, still less rare plants such as the guelder rose, butcher's broom and wood anemone. It goes against all ecological principles . . .' and so forth.

Well, I'm not so sure that Country Life is right. I mean, take the New Forest. Doesn't the name imply that it was, originally, a replacement for some old forest which had become inconvenient, in the way that New Covent Garden replaced the silly old market in the centre of London?

Or take Macbeth, one of the glories of the British stage: isn't it the whole point that, contrary to what Macbeth assumed, you can move a wood, if you set your mind to it? But the argument I wish to make goes deeper than this.

It concerns the readiness we all seem to share (I know I do) to point a finger and join in the criticism when once we perceive the Government to be in some difficulties. Nag, nag, nag, we all join in, don't we? And in such an uncaring and unloving and unconstructive way. Tory, Liberal or socialist - we all like to have a go.

But it's so easy - isn't it? - to pick out a paragraph in an address, say in John Major's Carlton Club speech last week, to select a paragraph at random and then say: but this is fatuous] I mean, for

instance:

'Unlike socialists, we do not see the free market as a threat to communities, quite the reverse. Take

a homely example. When you go to your local baker, what you expect - and usually get - is a helpful, friendly service. What the baker expects - and usually gets - is a satisfied customer and a fair price. No one is demeaned by this transaction.'

Oh, I see. You go into your friendly local baker's (if such were to be found) and have a friendly little haggle over the price of a loaf of bread. Sometimes you manage to beat him down below the fair price, but normally things work out satisfactorily so that neither of you is demeaned by the

experience.

When George Bush, during the US election, went into a supermarket and was bemused by the functioning of the bar-code and the computerised till, he was thought to be several years out of touch. But Mr Major doesn't simply seem out of touch - he's out of something else. His depth,

perhaps.

He chooses to talk about the free market, and he chooses - to make his 'homely' example - the purchase of a loaf of bread for a fair price. This assumes that the farmer has grown his wheat, the miller ground it and the baker bought the flour all in the context of a free market - an economy of Blyton-like simplicity and clarity.

But there - you see? - one peek at Mr Major's speech and I've already become uncaring and unloving in my argument. Let's have another look.

'Some say that the glories of British history,' said Mr Major (and you'll notice that when I described Macbeth as one of the glories of the British stage, I was exhibiting the influence of the Prime Minister's style - it gets that fast into the bloodstream of the nation]), 'the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, the works of Dickens and Trollope - even poor old Winnie the Pooh - are irrelevant to the modern child. 1984 and all that involves the obliteration of 1066 and all that.'

UNCARING SELF: Hang on, I must speak out against this. I do not believe Trollope wrote for children, and I must prevent his books being put on some ghastly compulsory list.

CARING SELF: Be calm, Uncaring Self. Mr Major doesn't really believe that kids should read Phineas Redux, and he would certainly not recommend the sonnets if he had been told what they contain.

No, he's just blathering on to maintain the high moral tone: Shakespeare, Dickens . . . who else was there? Oh, Trollope and Winnie the Pooh - you know . . .

UNCARING SELF: But it's not just blather. This is the man who appointed John Patten to education. This is the man who speaks about our great heritage, but is quite prepared to put a six- lane motorway through a designated Site of Special Scientific

Interest.

CARING SELF: Again, be calm, Uncaring Self, and let's nail this lie about Oxleas Wood once and for all, since it seems to be troubling you. It is true that the old wood - which is next to Shooters Hill Golf Club, incidentally, on the Greenwich-to-Dartford road, - it is true that this ancient mesolithic thing is going to have to be chopped in two by the departments of Environment (who better equipped?) and Transport, and that since the area is a public open space, they will be obliged to find another site for an ancient wood - a site of their own choosing.

But this is not something to be regretted. This is a great opportunity to plan and develop a new wood that is infinitely superior to the old one. Yes, the old wood is destroyed by the motorway, but where does the motorway lead? It leads out of London to the country - it leads, precisely, to the site of the new Oxleas Wood]

So you drive out from Greenwich in the direction of Shooters Hill, and soon you pick up the motorway, and look] the verges are being planted with trees by workfare men and women of all ages, just as Lord Tebbit was suggesting, and there are plenty of toilets, just as Mr Major promised, along the way.

And as if that weren't enough, it is only a matter of minutes before you pick up the signs for the New Oxleas exit, swoop down past yet more toilets and facilities, into the wood itself, and - look] - here are more workfare people, all got up in medieval garb to play the part of the many inhabitants of an ancient wood.

There is a seneschal, who is a keeper of the forest; and there are also riding-foresters, foot-foresters, woodwards, verderers and even regarders.

There is a forest court, in which workfare people discuss rights of hedgebote, firebote and housebote, agistment, herbage, pannage and avenage.

There are prosecutions for assart, for purprestures and offenses of venison and vert. Forfeits are levied. There are blindings and maimings, brandings and hangings of workfare people.

There are demonstrations of rod-cutting, pollarding, coppicing, hurdles, wattlework, workfare people living entirely off wild barley and skirrets, workfare people dying of famine and bubonic plague, workfare people rebelling and being hanged in chains, or disembowelled, or both.

In short, the Government has been as good as its word. It's true that some people prefer a real wood to a replica wood, just as some people prefer real work to work such as workfare, in which you do the work but are not paid the real free-market wage. But me - I'm a caring person and I'm not fazed. I'd plump for the replica any day of the week.

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