I’m not really a believer in conspiracies – I’m more of a cock-up man myself – in fact I’m probably a believer in C G Jung’s maxim that stupidity increases in direct proportion to the number of people present to generate it. But if I were a conspiracy man, I could well believe that there is a conspiracy afoot – perhaps “still” afoot would be more correct, seeing as the process has been going on for a good couple of centuries all over the world – a conspiracy to remove the human population from the countryside & pack it into urban centres where, presumably, it’s easier to control. Conspiracies have an aim of course, and I guess the aim of the particular hypothetical conspiracy of which I speak (always remembering I don’t believe in conspiracies) would serve an ultimate aim of still further depriving the countryside of its human population to make it more available for industrial farming.

Why is this not such a good thing? Well, putting aside the argument that packing people into densely-populated centres is more efficient – which it probably is – and putting aside what sentimentalists would call a spiritual dimension, there’s a political aspect involved. You see, I believe the only true democracy would be a democracy of land ownership. That’s why I treat our pious statements about democracy – as when we’re lecturing Russia or China on their badness – with a certain amount of contempt. Giving everyone the same vote and then packing them into cities sounds fair maybe to a certain kind of logic, but what it means is that control over the land becomes vested in fewer and fewer people and, as things become more difficult – which they undoubtedly will do – that means that attitudes to the countryside, to the land, both cultivated and “wild”, will become more subject to what are perceived as the exigencies of the situation: basically we have a human population to feed, heat and light and we’re going to do that by the only means we deem practicable – “we” being the very few who have undisputed control over the land. How will Scotcity – Engcity – sound? The home of democracy and fairness and justice and all that jazz, but hardly Scotland, England, any more. But make no mistake, the “land” is, and has always been the prime Asset – not very exciting in the stockmarket perhaps, but always the thing you’ll be wanting to buy up if you suddenly find you’re stinking rich.

It’s ok, it won’t happen, will it. Why, council rural Plans are dotting the countryside with permissible newbuilds, aren’t they? Doesn’t that show there’s a commitment to rural regeneration?

Ha, whether “social housing” or luxury pads, it doesn’t make a lot of difference: this is the housing equivalent of cannon fodder – relieves the current housing pressure in suburban areas – these patches of suburban estate slapped into the countryside, whether for the not-so-affluent who perhaps have rural family connections (ever more tenuous as time goes on), or for the slightly more affluent whose idea of the country is “greenery” – a few featureless acres enclosed by dead-straight barbed-wire fences with at best a bunch of bored ruminants scuffling about inside them – have a purely dormitory function and nothing to do with rural regeneration, and I’ve a suspicion the shelf-life of most newbuilds can’t be reckoned at much above twenty-five years anyway, so the Plan is easy enough to review.

Sorry, as I say it won’t happen, I’m clearly speaking as a habitual, even a professional, depressive.

Let me think – how did I get into this clearly imaginary scenario, with my faith in the great institution of the Cock-up clearly being shaken? Well, it’s to do with something our dear countryside has to offer, apparently, in abundance: our new wonder-fuel, biomass.

Biomass is of course a “renewable”. All hail the mighty Renewable! For It is the thing that’s going to keep us in the style to which we’re accustomed and we won’t have to worry about planetary stewardship & all that worthy but lower-priority stuff any more.

One of the sites which pedals the concept to householders and businesses has a section on “the biomass boiler”, the great advantages of which stem from the fact that “trees are easy to grow”. I can only assume that whoever was responsible for this particular bit of guff has a view of trees as being some sort of, slightly more long-term than the usual, farm-crop: you grow ’em (in lines, I dare say, as we do love our straight lines), you cut ’em, you harvest them and process them, just like that – it’s just like barley or stirks or tourists, only you (or your kids) might have to wait twenty years rather than a few months for the crop but that’s ok because it’s worth twenty times as much to the fuel-hungry public. God knows who – sorry, what – might have been using your crop as their home for the last twenty years but one thing’s certain they didn’t pay rent so srcew ’em.

Biomass in the form of trees is of course a function of time. It’s a guess number, but I’d say ten to fifteen years – & no doubt lots of chemical inputs – might produce a coppice of willow, fifteen to twenty-five a “crop” of spruce – both these probably unusable on a commercial scale unless you use big machinery (and energy) to “chip” and “pellet” them; after that you’ll have a sliding scale up to fifty, seventy-five years, of birch, ash, sycamore, lime, elm, beech, oak (holly or apple if you want to go really upmarket): the longer they need to grow the better they’ll be as fuel but basically you get what you put in, including time. The wailing and hand-wringing a couple of years back when we discovered that “one of our best-loved trees”, the ash, was endangered by some new foreign mould was more of a concession to the emotional connection that many people still feel with trees (but that’s actually ok because you can plant them in your cities and walk about “enjoying” them); it had little to do with the kilowatt value of the ash-tree, which, as far as I can see, can survive an attack of die-back reasonably well, with some compromise of its aesthetic value. I even see not a few elms regenerating after having been devastated by, presumably, Dutch elm disease.

When biomass boilers first appeared on the horizon they were of course billed as “carbon neutral”, environmentally sustainable and all that good stuff. It all depends on what you mean by sustainable, I suppose. For one thing, the big biomass boilers which were installed on a community/industrial scale were subsidised – in fact I think the subsidies continue. These super-efficient creations could get so hot that their users felt encouraged to put wet material into them because they seemed to be able to burn that just as well – or so the story went. It is of course a fantasy: water in dry biomass has to be heated up and evaporated before there’s any actual burning. There was such a run on spruce & other quick-growing timbers, sold by volume-qua-weight, that the supply was pretty quickly overtaken by demand, firewood prices to the small householder with a wood-oven suffered a hike, and in addition to firewood having to be imported from Scandinavia there have even been cases reported where draff – a high-protein, high moisture cattle feed – has been used: I haven’t fully corroborated these reports, I have to say, but my faith in the human capacity for stupidity is broad and generous. The tradition of the small household buying in firewood for drying a year ahead of use was rather trodden underfoot in the stampede to obtain wood in any condition, and lots of it.

I don’t know what the numbers are: I know there are always numbers, and I know they’re a wondrous weapon in a pretty limitless armoury; I’m just an ordinary geezer with a sentimental attachment to what used to be called common sense. Big is efficient and that’s a fact we’ve all been taught to swallow.

I see farmers are now being encouraged – well, paid, actually – to set up “small” biomass boilers for their farmsteads. These wondrous, super-efficient devices will burn a whole half-tree, and so save vast amounts on cutting and splitting, especially those intractable trunk-base lumps that always get left behind because they’re not worth the effort. They will also accommodate one of those big round straw-bales & can burn through a couple of those a day. Your farm will have so much heat that not only will you be toasting whenever you go indoors – hot water always on tap – you’ll even be able to heat your uninsulated steading buildings and workshops (handsome two-inch stainless pipes everywhere), which is yet another bonus compared with once upon a time when you’d sit by the fire of a winter’s night rather than going out to do some necessary job in the workshop – efficiency again, see?

I certainly don’t begrudge farmers keeping warm (though funnily enough, our need for warmth seems to increase with our capacity to provide it – another aspect of Parkinson’s Law?); but to the tune of thirty-plus mature trees a year? Are they being subsidised to plant thirty-plus big-growing trees a year? Are new oak, beech, elm and ash-groves springing up all over the countryside? Assuming you need about 75 years to produce a decent boiler-worthy specimen – well, you can do the maths… The alternative of’ “quick” crops like willow is being enthusiastically followed of course, and there’s nothing wrong with a willow-stand, especially when it’s taking up excess groundwater (oops, water, I forgot….), but look at straw bales – an even quicker turnaround, and a few days in the sun is enough to dry it out….. – Let’s say, what, three or four hundred bales a year for burning: it’s an interesting thought, don’t know what the overwintering cows will say about it though. Straw was even more expensive than hay this year, I wonder why that was – couldn’t have been anything to do with burnerlust I don’t suppose? But when you look at it that way, one thing’s for sure: those big trees are going to be nothing but a damned nuisance when you need to increase your straw acreage!

I think that, basically small householders are going to learn (not a conspiracy – they will learn it naturally, spontaneously) that they have no right to live in the countryside, not unless they have a well-paying job that for the duration of the current housing shortage at least, will allow them to burn their fuel commuting rather than heating their home, or unless engaged in useful pursuits like running a Riding School or an Activity Centre as of course patches of the countryside will continue to be set aside for “amenity” purposes. Otherwise, if they insist on the right merely to live as their ancestors did, they’re going to have to pay for it. The countryside will welcome businesses that “bring money in”, or of course it will, as ever, welcome anyone rich enough to be a big landowner, but anyone who opts for living “a country life” as “lifestyle choice” needs to know that there’s a premium involved – a growing one at that.

I think it was George Osborne, commenting on his brave new benefits policy, who said that the country was no longer going to pay people to pursue their hobbies. Small country householders, of the old school at any rate, are obviously part of that kettle of fish, whereas bona fide commuters who pay their way aren’t messy bastards who have half-cannibalised cars sitting outside their house or piles of reclaimed plastic pots if their hobbies happen to include planting and growing stuff (including trees) or ramshackle huts built of sundry salvaged materials or untidy piles of foraged brushwood. A conspiracy of course presupposes a presiding Intelligence – otherwise it’s just a cock-up – so possibly (I don’t know the man) that rules George out, but no doubt he was just doing his best when he set about trying to reform us shirkers.

On which conciliatory note I’ve just realised, I haven’t been thinking things through properly: the subsidised farm boilers are not just useful for tidying up the countryside, defaced as it is by the presence of ugly old or diseased trees…. they are actually prototypes in a secret scheme designed to provide temporary, but well-heated, accommodation in farm steadings for the thousands of war refugees we’re about to welcome into our country – and what’s a few old trees compared with a humanitarian disaster we’re going to address? It’s still secret because we don’t want to create a panic; but what a sweet thought! Bless.


Filed under Writing


  1. dik dow

    Good to see you are as loquacious as ever!
    My pen (well, keyboard) still works as well, currently compiling an online history of the Auckland Medical School where I have had an honorary lectureship for the past 27 years.
    If you want to get in touch you can find me on the university of auckland website
    dik dow

    • charlesashton

      keep thinking you might have meant eloquent – but no probably not…. glad to hear you still alive & ticking, yes I’ll be in touch! Didn’t know there were any universities in NZ, but there you go I live & learn

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