It was a quiet day here in Woe-be-gone country. The cows due to calve didn’t budge. The ram supposed to arrive after breakfast never showed up. The fields were too wet to lift the sugar beet and the car park in the farm yard was so empty that you could see the writing carved in the concrete: ‘Nothing runs like a Deere, Neil + Tracy 1990′; and a trail of paw prints leading from the workshop to the grain store.
Where was everybody? Were all the customers at home watching the Chancellor set out his Spending Review? Sitting outside Waitrose listening to their future on the car radio? The emptiness was eerie and we all hoped it wasn’t a sign.
The thing about country life is that, even if it is a sign, we can’t take time out to analyse its meaning. The cows will calve and Norah, now aged 18, won’t have enough milk and we’ll have to get the colostrum from the freezer, thaw it out, mix it with formula and get it in to the calf within the first few hours. If we’d been more competent, the bull wouldn’t have broken down the gate and got to Norah in the first place. Perhaps that was a sign: instead of patching it up, the gate should have been replaced.
Taking on a newborn calf always reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay The Crack-Up. In it, he wrote that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ‘ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function’. The example he gives: one should be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
I chew over this dilemma in the feed shed as I put together the cow birthing kit-feeding tube, buckets, milk powder-with the Chancellor’s voice crackling in the background. George Osborne’s is a first-rate intellect, he is a man whose life so far has yielded easily to intelligence and effort, who sees a situation that looks close to hopeless (are we really borrowing £20 million an hour just to pay the bills?) and he has to present a plan based on hope. If we do this, if we cut hard and cut now, we save the country. Cut the welfare state to save the welfare state. Cut jobs to save jobs. Hope against hope.
Farmers get the picture. When we buy combines with headers the size of an Olympic swimming pool and tractors that cost more than the average house, and suddenly the price of wheat plunges, something has to go. The cottage near the village. The field by the road. The last man hired. The farm shrinks. You ‘hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle… the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future’-Fitzgerald again.
It feels like this is happening all of a sudden, but common sense knows otherwise. Farms don’t go to rack and ruin in one growing season, and Britain didn’t create the largest budget deficit in the EU in one year. But on a farm, if you are a mediocre caretaker, you see the waste. Cover the hay carelessly and it goes bad. Ignore the holes in wire, and rats eat the wheat.
Pumpkins left in the field too long are spoiled by the frost. But how do ordinary citizens take care of their country, keep an eye on IT projects such as the NHS records system that wasted billions? How do we calculate what was squandered on ID cards? How do we count the cost of sending troops badly equipped into a war we should never have entered into?
It’s quiet here in Woe-be-gone country and we are trying to figure out what it means. Nobody minds that Defra is facing whopping cuts because nobody in these parts ever figured out what it did except add to our troubles. Overnight, the weather’s changed and the fields are covered with a layer of frost. The trees stir uneasily in the raw wind.