I hear that the rump of British Steel in Scunthorpe may be bought out of administration by a Turkish Pension Fund. That’s the same Turkey that the Leave.UK lot warned would soon be a member of the EU and producing a flood of immigrants. Now the people of the North East, who voted Leave, are welcoming the Turks and their money. Strange world. In fact it highlights the global nature of business and the reliance of the UK economy on foreign cash – so much for taking back control. Another slant on the news – it is the same Turkey that is run by a despot turning democracy into a sick joke, imprisoning journalists and academics and stamping on protests.
We took a trip across the Severn this week to visit the Passenger Shed, a temporary theatre in part of Temple Mead Station. Apart from finding that the venue was actually in the middle of a huge set of roadworks it was a pleasant evening. The show was Malory Towers, a new musical based on the children’s books by Enid Blyton. The theatre was packed, mainly with women and girls – or perhaps there were others like me. . .
I remember reading the Malory Towers books when I was a 9 year old while staying with my (female) cousin. I enjoyed the tales of girls having adventures at boarding school, the various characters and their interactions. Why was I attracted to them – well that’s a tale isn’t it. Cause or effect? Either I enjoyed the stories because I felt girly, or reading the stories made me wish I was girl? Or perhaps neither.
Although updated in some respects the show actually kept very close to the plot and setting of the original. There were just seven actors, playing the parts of the seven schoolgirls, and a wonderfully talented and diverse group they were. The acting, dancing and singing was excellent and the whole show was very enjoyable.
Back to writers’ group this week with a piece on the theme “Fertility”. The idea for my piece came to me quite quickly but it came out more like an essay than a story and somewhat full of despondency. As it happens that is exactly what I feel about the topic. So, does it stand as a piece of imaginative writing or just a polemic on the state of the planet. What do you think?
We welcomed in the new decade, the Thrifty Thirties the media called it, and toasted Tom and Sarah on taking possession of Riverbank Farm, the third generation to do so. Then, when we finished singing Auld Lang Syne, Sarah announced that she was pregnant.
“When’s it due?” I asked.
“Oh, June-July-ish,” she replied with a huge smile.
“In time for the harvest,” I said. Everyone chuckled and drank more champagne, or sparkling water in Sarah’s case.
It was early July when I visited them next. The place was different then, sombre. I sat with Tom at the kitchen table drinking execrable coffee.
“Sarah hasn’t left the bedroom since the miscarriage in May,” Tom said.
“It’s heart-breaking,” I said trying to find suitable words, “especially so close to full term.”
Tom shrugged. “It would have been worse if he’d been born. He couldn’t have survived; he was too disabled.”
I couldn’t find anything to say, but Tom went on. “The worst thing of all is the doctors say that she probably won’t be able to get pregnant again.”
“Oh, there won’t be a fourth generation at the farm then.”
It was a thoughtless thing to say and Tom looked at me with the saddest eyes. He hauled himself to his feet. He had always been a tall, jovial fellow but now he was bent and miserable.
“Come and have a look,” he said.
We went out of the back door and crossed the deserted farmyard to the gate into one of the huge arable fields. It sloped imperceptibly to the broad, lazy river that had been straightened a century ago. I expected a field of golden grain but that wasn’t what I saw. Most of the field was bare grey, baked mud. The few patches of stalks were short and pale.
We went through the gate and just stood looking at the sorry sight.
“What’s happened, Tom. It looks like it’s been hit by drought, but it hasn’t been that dry has it? It rained during the spring.”
Tom snorted. “Rain. Don’t you remember those storms we had, and the downpours.”
“Oh, yes, I do. A month’s rain in four hours wasn’t it? But it was rain.”
“Not the right type of rain. You see when it’s torrential like that, the surface of the field gets waterlogged in the first few minutes. The rest of the rain stays on top and has nowhere to go but run off, down into the river, taking the topsoil with it.”
“Oh, right, yes, I see.” It was obvious really.
“Most of the rain we had didn’t get into the soil or replenish the aquifers at all. Then there was the heatwave in early June. They happen pretty frequently these days, but this year we broke the record twice in a week and the temperature topped forty degrees every day for a fortnight.”
“Yes, it was pretty uncomfortable,” I agreed.
“The heat and the direct sunlight burned the crop,” Tom went on. “Actually, literally burned in my neighbour’s case. A wildfire destroyed all his crops. This lot just died.”
“That’s awful Tom.”
“Well, the crop wasn’t going to be much good anyway. Look at this.” He bent down to one of the spindly stalks and carefully tugged. It didn’t snap but came away easily. He held it up for me to look at.
“See? No roots to speak of and that’s down to the soil.”
He kicked his steel heel against the ground and shattered the surface. He bent again and picked up a lump. It was a uniform grey.
“This isn’t soil; It’s got no carbon, no humus. It’s either been washed away or decayed and turned to carbon dioxide. No carbon, then no earthworms or other invertebrates. Worms turn the soil over and aerate it. And you can’t see them but there are no fungal fibres either. Fungus symbiotically nurtures the plants, pushing water and nutrients into their roots. What’s more there’s hardly any bacteria in the soil. No nitrification. It’s just rock dust.” He crumbled the lump in his hand and the fine powder drifted to the ground.
“Couldn’t you add fertiliser?” I said.
Tom made another rude noise. “That’s what my Dad did every year. It’s part of the problem. Fertiliser is acid and makes the soil acidic. So, then we add lime to neutralise it but we’re just adding minerals not life. No, the soil’s been degraded. It’s lost its fertility.”
“Can you get new soil for the field?” It sounded silly even to me.
Tom let out a laugh, “Where from? Forty per cent of the world’s soil is degraded. Yields are going down everywhere.”
“What can you do?” I said, lost for ideas.
Tom shrugged. “I took out loans to pay for Dad’s pension and with his dementia taking him and Mum out of the picture, invested in a robot tractor. I can’t borrow any more. There’s only one thing I can do – sell up.”
“No!” I gasped, “To who?”
“Agricorp. Of course, they won’t pay a premium to buy what isn’t premium agricultural land anymore, but I’ll pay off my debts.”
“What will they do?” I asked.
“They’ll cover it, all of it, with a shed.” Tom spread his arms to indicate the vast field. “and then install a climate controlled, fully automatic, hydroponic system. No soil you see.”
“But isn’t that expensive,” I said.
Tom nodded. “Of course, it is, but they’ll sell to the high-end market. There’s demand there.”
“What about the people who can’t afford those prices?”
“They’ll starve.” Tom looked at me with those eyes that had lost all the sparkle I’d seen at the New Year. “There are going to be a lot more families with no generation following them.”