This week on Radio Four the BBC is broadcasting extracts from Svetlana’s Alexievich’s oral history of the experiences of Russian women soldiers in the second world. It’s marvellous – terrible and sad, horrifying, moving and inspiring too. Well worth a listen on iPlayer.
Here’s a review of the book from the Guardian:
[A] sense of absolute directness and immediacy lies at the heart of Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary oral history of the Russian women who fought in the second world war, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Over seven years in the late 1970s and early 80s, she interviewed many hundreds of women, the pilots, doctors, partisans, snipers and anti-aircraft gunners who served on the front line, and the legions of laundresses, cooks, telephone operators and engine drivers who backed them up.Very few of those she approached refused to talk to her. One former pilot, who turned her down, told her that she could not bear to return in her mind to the three years during which she had felt herself not to be a woman. When, in the ruins of Berlin, her future husband proposed to her, she had been outraged. “How, in the midst of chaos? Begin by making me a woman,” she told him. For the rest, the women poured out their memories to her, not simply recounting them, but reimagining them. The simpler the women, the more their stories were “uninfected by secondary knowledge”.
I have been looking at Svetlana’s books for a few months now, since they started appearing on the bookshelves (Penguin have published her oral history of the Chernobyl Disaster Chernobyl Prayer and a lovely edition from Fitzcarraldo Editions of stories from people living through the end of the the Soviet Union, called Second Hand Time
I didn’t buy because I had enough in my unread pile already, but thought, if I’m lucky, here’s a new Studs Terkel…
It may not be this week. It may not be Boris Johnson. But eventually a minister will break with this tottering government and establish himself (or herself, for it could be Andrea Leadsom) as the leader of the diehard right. Brexit is crying out for its Ludendorff; the scoundrel who can blame his failures on everyone but himself. The smart move for today’s right wing politicians who find their careers blocked is to break with the Tory leadership – whatever or whoever that may consist of – and resort to old slogans.
I used to – occasionally – earn a few pounds fruit picking in Evesham where I grew up and you saw piece work all around you as well – women being collected in the morning to ride on trucks to the fields for bean or pea or potato picking. The smell of spring onions everywhere as families washed and tied bunches in their outhouses at home. So when you heard about British laziness and our reluctance to work on the land I’d often wonder when it started and where it had come from. This article makes a start at explaining why:
Farmers are used to looking into the future. Their livelihoods depend on taking a decent guess about everything from the weather to market forces. But a recent survey reveals that a new level of uncertainty looms on the horizon for post-Brexit farming in Britain.
Many in the survey said they were experiencing increased difficulty in recruiting seasonal workers since the EU referendum. Some suggested these labour shortages could result in a decrease in domestic food production followed by inflated prices of some produce caused by a total reliance on imports.
These shortages are not the result of any enforced changes in legislation, as Brexit negotiations have yet to be completed. This means that even if something like the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) (which enabled a set quota of Eastern European workers to come and work on labour-short farms) is reintroduced, the industry might still be in hot water.
A lack of seasonal labour has long been an issue for British agriculture. Farms have sought workers from further afield as far back as the 14th century, when the industry relied on itinerant workers from Ireland. And while some British workers engaged in seasonal labour up until the end of the 20th century, their desire to do so appears to have waned dramatically – hence the current reliance on migrant workers.
Other reports of post-EU referendum labour shortages are indicative of things to come, as fewer migrant workers want to work in the UK. This has been attributed in part to the expectation of an unwelcome reception in Britain due to possible racism and xenophobia, as well as the economic impact of the fall in value of the pound.
To combat this the former environment secretary, Andrea Leadsom, suggested a return to land work for British youths, an idea met with derision by many. A parliamentary report also examined labour constraints in farming and suggested a long-term agenda of returning seasonal farm work to native British workers.
But the truth is, British people are highly unlikely to fill any positions left by migrant workers. It isn’t as simple as there being sufficient labour available in the UK to perform the work. The situation is far more complex.
The country commute
The entire working culture of the UK has transformed since British workers last filled seasonal farm work jobs to any significant extent. Rural communities have been transformed due to the “drift from the land” of locals, and people from cities moving to the country or buying second homes, pricing potential farm workers out of the local housing market.
As a result, physically able unemployed people are now less likely to live anywhere near the farms requiring workers. Transport systems in rural areas are limited, and basic, temporary housing is unlikely to attract people away from comfortable, permanent housing situated close to friends and family.
The current benefits system also deters the unemployed from engaging in any kind of seasonal work due to the inflexibility of signing on and off. Add this to the inconsistency of work availability itself, and there is little wonder why no compulsion exists to pick fruit.
Fruits of hard labour
The conditions of seasonal work – low pay, physically demanding, long and unsociable hours – do not help. They are far from the expectations of the typical British worker, who is now culturally tuned to a 40-hour Monday to Friday schedule. There is also a greater desire for career progression, which is unlikely to occur in the world of fruit picking. These expectations contrast starkly with how farmers perceive the work ethic of Eastern Europeans. It is from this gap that the “lazy” label has grown and been perpetuated by farmers and the media towards British workers.
But even if conditions and incentives of picking fruit and veg were improved, British workers would still be unlikely to perform it because of how this kind of work is perceived. Among other things, the task has become negatively associated with migrant workers and slave labour. Farmers have repeatedly tried to employ locals, with a drastically low rate of return, telling stories of few turning up for interviews and even fewer returning after just several days of work.
And while some gangmasters, who find and provide workers at very low rates, and land managers are guilty to some extent for embedding the cheap-labour cycle of migrant work within the industry, farmers have little power over price setting against the whim of supermarket control. This cost squeeze leaves many farmers with their hands tied in terms of increasing worker pay – the effect of which would be higher prices for the consumer (with whom some of the responsibility lies).
Without enormous adjustments to the benefits system, rural social housing, pay and conditions, the underlying culture and ideology surrounding seasonal farm labour, and transformations in consumer buying habits, a future without migrant workers does not look bright.
Mechanisation might one day be the answer, but due to the fragility of soft fruits, that is not yet feasible. Instead, without a quick solution, it is quite possible that Britain’s fruit farms are destined to follow the same sorry path already paved by dairy, where lack of profitability and debt has caused mass closure.
Afterthought: I may have the solution to this conundrum. How about, post-Brexit, we require second home owners to contribute a number of days work on the land as a the price of residency? It could work….
Jeremy Corbyn has been stuck like a fishbone in the craw of the Labour Party almost since he was first elected back in the eighties.
Irritating but immovable, the party learned to overlook him – along with the smaller band of refuseniks who sat with him on the backbenches resolute in their – deeply unfashionable – principles.
Fashion, though, has a way of coming full circle. Just as we can be certain that mullets and bell bottoms will one day return to triumph – so Corbyn triumphs now. It’s biblical: remember Psalm 118 v22:
The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.
So, with socialism back on the table, we have a choice on Thursday. It is political of course, but I wonder if it isn’t deeper than that too. Here’s something I read years ago in CS Lewis’ strange novel, That Hideous Strength. One of his characters, Dimble, asks if we had noticed:
“How something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres. Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a Cromwell: a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers; the home of Sidney–and of Cecil Rhodes. Is it any wonder they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really the struggle between Logres and Britain.”
It crops up in Howards End too as the contrast between the life of the mind – and heart – and the world of ‘telegrams and anger.’ Margaret Schlegel, here:
The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched–a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There, love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one–there’s grit in it. It does breed character.”
Margaret’s wisdom is to see that you have to have the grit of the outer world as well as the world of ‘personal relations’ – but it shouldn’t be all about those ‘telegrams and anger’. In Lewis’ terms Logres and Britain will always need each other.
The problem today is that, for the last forty years ‘Britain’ has been in the ascendant. The voice of the practical woman and man has been supreme in the land. Some things have improved, but a great deal of what we most value – children and families, health, the environment, has been – is being – threatened. We need to redress the balance, bring back some of those other qualities – where people matter, where the heart has value, and where what counts is not merely money.
Corbyn – for all his many faults (he’s no King Arthur) does represent something different. Maybe Thursday is the time to give Logres its chance.
What wond’rous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.