Toiling the soil

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Adrian Bell writes about British agriculture between the wars in his book Men And The Fields (Little Toller Books) when farmers and their labourers eked out a living during a protracted slump.
It was a challenging time when toiling the soil and tending livestock did not pay well. The characters Bell describes were familiar with the different rhythms of the seasons; they lived in harmony with their environment and were at ease with the plodding of hooves.
The tasks they carried out would have been familiar to previous generations, including those so recently named on the war memorials standing sentinel-like in each parish.
Bell, father of the journalist and former MP Martin Bell, left Uppingham School, Rutland, and apprenticed himself to a Suffolk farmer in 1920, aged 19, farming in various locations over the next 60 years.
He describes his beloved countryside through the practical, non-sentimental eyes of a farmer; he realised this rural lifestyle, with its ancient knowledge, was already withering on the vine as the magnificent heavy horses were being superseded by noisy tractors.
Only months after Bell’s book was published in 1939, Britain was plunged into another world war, an event that hastened the industrialisation of agriculture. After the war, farming, lubricated by Whitehall subsidies, continued to change the landscape with its labour-saving machines and relentless quest for increased output and profit.
Bell’s prose is illustrated by his friend John Nash, the distinguished war artist, with a series of evocative colour lithographs and monochrome line drawings.

The last philosopher king

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Stalin And The Scientists by Simon Ings describes how the Bolsheviks promoted science in their quest to create a socialist utopia.
Scientists and engineers were the heroes of the Soviet Union and enjoyed privileges not available to the common people. They were well paid and allocated good housing; they enjoyed holidays at the Black Sea resorts and their children went to special schools.
The author said the Bolsheviks believed science could be applied to solve the human predicament; however, they adopted a simplistic approach to science by stripping away its philosophy. They did not understand how difficult science was. This led to failures on a monstrous and heroic scale in which famine ravaged the land.
The Soviet Union’s elite were fans of science. However, as fans they secretly resented what they purported to love because they were not doing it.
Ings spoke about his book at the University of York, this afternoon (June 11) during the city’s Festival of Ideas. He told his audience in the Ron Cooke Hub that Stalin was the last of the philosopher kings. “He was painfully aware that he had to know everything in order for his rule to be legitimate. He felt he had to earn that.”
Purges spawned by paranoia added to the potent political brew, with Ings adding: “Stalin was sufficiently smart that he sent himself mad.”

Morality Play

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The Machine Stops explores our complex relationship with technology. The play, presented at York Theatre Royal this week, is based on a chilling and prophetic short story by the acclaimed writer E.M. Forster, published in 1909. The barren earth forces people to live underground in an intricate honeycomb of individual cells. The essentials of life are provided by an omnipotent, self-repairing machine, leaving people with nothing to do but communicate with each other using a system reminiscent of the worldwide web. Physical contact and travel is frowned upon; individuals live a solitary, insulated life, seldom venturing from their hexagonal cells. Ideas are constantly recycled; consequently there is no creativity; original thinking withers on the vine. The moral of this agile stage adaptation, with its haunting electronic soundscape, is: “Humankind cannot live by technology alone.”