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Friday, 11 March 2011

“This is what we did, and this is what happened.”

Supper at Paul's and Cinta's house
The planning officer at North Kesteven Council emailed me a week ago to let me know that the planning application to build a parlour for 8000 cows had been withdrawn, after being modified from one for 4000.
[Back to the future: Cows belong in fields Award - June 2011]
I heard someone commenting that “Installations on this scale are normal in the USA, where agriculture is most 'advanced'.”
We were discussing this on Wednesday night at Paul's and Cinta’s new home in the village, over a ‘poor man’s Beef Wellington’ – a gentle mound made up of ribbons of puff pastry over a coat of chicken liver pâté enclosing a rich mix of minced beef, bacon and mushrooms…The house was warmed by the most modern of wood fires, warming me to my shirtsleeves - after Lin and I had strolled seventy five yards up Democracy Street in coats, gloves, scarves, jumpers. As well as warming the room, their stove heats their water and provides underfloor heating through the house, getting energy from firewood which, in our house, would disappear up the stove pipe.
“The man who submitted that application claims these great parlours are the only way the industry can survive" I said
“But who survives?” said Paul
“The shopper finds milk’s less expensive?”
Paul told us how slaughterhouses have been reduced in number in America “so now just 13 big units across the continent are controlled from a central HQ. A man at a console watches the cattle as they enter the abbatoir, pushes buttons controlling the process..." He described how instructions are issued to minimal staff, mostly farmworkers forced out of business by the regulators demanding, in the name of efficiency, health and safety and the humane treatment of animals, levels of capitalisation for investment in equipment and building on a scale most farmers can’t achieve.”
"Ah yes, Sigfried Giedion wrote about this in 1948 - a brilliant work full of illustrations called Mechanization Takes Command - a book that's run through my life."
Giedion's thesis points to how humanity has 1) all but handed over the operation of daily processes to technological advancements that allow for complete mechanization and 2) become a mechanized drone himself by constantly increasing productivity. His main argument revolves around the fact that man has convinced himself these mechanized approaches either improve productivity or save him so much time that he can engage in a greater amount of leisure, however, the truth is that leisure has become a foreign concept to an overworked nation and what may have originally been intended as such has merely become a permit to engage in even more work. The significance of Giedion's book is his ability to illustrate that while technology may be a necessary component of an ever-progressing species, it also has the tendency to multiply problems it seeks to resolve. 
"One of the chilling things he pointed out about mechanised abattoirs like the ones you describe is that the moment when a living things becomes a dead thing ceases to be remarked - it's just a tiny stage in a larger detached production line."
I recalled a childhood incident when my stepfather, then working in the higher ranks of the National Farmers’ Union in London – suited, desked and office-ed...
Jack Hargreaves in his office at the National Farmers' Union
...had remarked at supper with my mum and my grandmother, Bar, that Mill End Dairy Farm – where I was born – with its thirty doe-eyed Jerseys on 12 acres in Essex was a ‘hobby farm’.
Me on Gypsy at Mill End Dairy Farm
My mother told me later she’d kicked his leg under the table - hard. He told me later about the hopeless inefficiency of small government subsidised dairy farms like my grandmother's, of which she was so proud - the upper middle class lady of leisure who’d abandoned the town to be a useful citizen. Some of her town friends nicknamed her 'red' Barbara. Useful it was for me though – a child getting fresh milk from the dairy up the lane at teatime, with freshly churned butter, fresh eggs from her chicken house and the occasional bantam egg from a hedge, honey from her hives at the end of the garden, and the smells of the cows and the farm horse, Gypsy. “It’s repeated all over the country” Jack told me in my early teens “One milk truck trundles its way round narrow lanes picking up two churns here, three there, over a morning, collecting milk in a way that adds a whacking premium on the city housewive’s daily milk, just so Bar can indulge her fantasies, like Marie Antoinette with her Hameau de la Reine at the Palace of Versailles, where she and her ladies-in-waiting dressed as milk maids and played at farming.” He was angered by the unjust self-indulgent inefficiency. Later I’d heard him chatting about how it should be done with much larger herds of cattle feeding off rotated strips of clover enriched by fertiliser, tight records, constantly improved milk yields through specialised breeding.
“But those cattle were still outside in the 50s and early 60s” said Paul “now the whole process is indoors in pens, grids for the slurry, corn fed through hoppers…”
“Yes the corn distribution is more susceptible to mechanisation. It flows.”
“…and the cows struggle to digest it”
“But it keeps the industry surviving. The price of milk reduced.”
“The logic is inexorable”
“But there’s collateral damage. The slurry in the ground, the nitrogen leeching into streams and rivers choking with algae. The people forced out of businesses in the country, the cows that need chiropody from standing on grids indoors….”
“So when did your stepfather change his mind about all this?” asked Mark
“Very good question.”
When, I wonder, did he stop being gung-ho for the current momentum of agriculture? When did he start to make a successful business in television telling an urban audience – by the late sixties he was already predicting I might live to inhabit the ‘city of England’ – about life ‘Out of Town’ in the ‘Old Country’ – 30 minutes programmes that went out on TV all over the south of England and sometimes further afield? Was there a particular moment or was it the result of an accretion of impressions of the changes happening?

He would maybe say he didn’t change – that all he did, over twenty eight years of broadcasting about the countryside, was say “this is what we did, and this is what happened.” Nor was he opposed to change, mentioning how some townspeople who set up home, or at least a second home, in the countryside are mocked as ‘stop the clockers’. His concern was that so many acted in such ignorance of what was happening. He had strong opinions, never shared on screen, about the choices people made within change; choices he tried to take on the basis of an assiduous pursuit of the factors involved in that change.
Sigfried Giedion’s book on mechanisation isn't obviously polemic. It’s a ‘this-is-what-we-did-and-this-is-what-happened’ project (TIWWD&TIWH). Homo Sapiens is a toolmaker. “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I will move the world” Archimedes 220BC. Men invented pullies and swords and bows and saddlery and harness and sails and oars and…and..and…but what we needed to evolve mechanisation, the enhancement and replacement of our own bodies in doing work was a grasp the movement involved. A verse in Proverbs refers the difficulty of understanding flight, locomotion and the dynamics of wind and waves. There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid. Giedion suggests the first successful representation of movement was the writing of music – placing sequences of dots at different positions on a number of horizontal parallel lines running across a page – lines corresponding to the strings of a lyre. He shows how pan pipes graduated to organ pipes, and from seeing the different height pipes standing upright – the row can be represented on a flat surface as the ‘x’ axis, while the apex of each pipe on the same surface becomes the ‘y’ axis of a graph, refined as Cartesian co-ordinates. Thus we could represent movement. Measuring for instance the height of the sun on the ‘y’ axis, and the time on the ‘x’ making it far simpler to apply math to the analysis of movement. This did not solve the problem in Proverbs where the speed of the movement involved was faster than the human eye could grasp, which is why until only a century ago the gallop of a horse was still misrepresented in pictures – all front and back legs invariably shown stretched out forward and back. It was the photographer Eadweard Muybridge who, in the 1870s, successfully formalised a grasp of rapid movement, by rigging up many cameras in sequence and releasing their shutters as a horse galloped by, a man walked by and indeed, through a complicated harness, a pigeon flew past his cameras. The logic of this method showed the way to cine-cameras. Such inventive diversity was not aimed solely at the process of mechanisation, but they were the means to the ends of what came to be called ‘time and motion’ study, the craft that gave birth to production engineering.
The idea of looking at a whole task done by humans  and dividing it into its components was described long before Muybridge by Adam Smith studying ways to improve pin making – a process inscribed on our current £20 notes – ‘and the great increase in the quantity of work that results’. What is gradually sinking into collective consciousness is that we don't have to abandon mechanisation and return to the sweated labour of Adam and Eve cast out of Eden; that there are choices; that the ingenuity that brought us mechanisation need not take over our lives in the way it has; that there are alternatives that have been around for a long time, known and understood by more and more of us. Nocton Dairies claim that cows do not belong in fields. Why not?
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Carnival last Sunday was an event whose urgency and significance would have been acknowledged by James Frazer - author in 1890 of the incomparable Golden Bough – as a contemporary celebration of a pre-Christian ritual in which a new and potent ‘king’ is welcomed to the village to ensure its people, stock, and crops are seeded to guarantee their fertility and the community’s survival through the year. The priapic symbols worn or held by men, the ribboned pole around which woman dance, as they follow the ‘king’, are part of a ceremony to start the growing season - as Christmas welcomes a son but also the return of the sun. The ribaldry, teasing and role reversals of Carnival demonstrate a settlement between ancient rural paganism and the new religion of towns whose priests frowned on such an unashamed mingling of the spirit and the flesh, but agreed to allow, once a year, a reversion to the old ways, permitting mockery of authority, a day of public magic to increase fecundity, so long as the ‘king’ is deposed by evening - in Ano Korakiana's case burned in the dark on the road outside the olive-press. The latest objects of this temporary derision are the incomprehensible deities of turbo-charged capitalism (see Caroline Lucas on alternatives).
In 2009 Carnival was cancelled in Ano Korakiana because just beforehand a woman, Katherina Faita, a lawyer living in the village, died after being run over by a lorry in the centre of Corfu Town. The case brought against the local authority by her lawyer husband, George, is being heard on Monday:
Την ερχόμενη Δευτέρα 14 Μαρτίου 2011, στις 9 το πρωϊ εκδικάζεται στο Εφετείο της Κέρκυρας, η προσφυγή του χωριανού μας δικηγόρου Γιώργου Φαϊτά κατά των δύο τελευταίων Δημάρχων Κερκυραίων (Μικάλεφ και Τρεπεκλή) για παράβαση καθήκοντος. Η προσφυγή έχει να κάνει με το προπέρσινο τραγικό ατύχημα της συζύγου του Κατερίνας στην περιοχή του Σαρόκου, στο κέντρο της πόλης.
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I've been emailing my friends in Japan asking after them.  It's still strange - the phenomenon that has run through my life of sitting in the sun gazing at a peaceful prospect while a big screen TV broadcasts 'breaking news' about horrific events on the other side of the world.
From Ano Korakiana

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