Monthly Archives: January 2017

As wise as serpents and innocent as doves


‘Education, education, education is a slogan that will doubtless stir the memory if you’re British and of an appropriate age.

But what is education for and what are we supposed to be training people to do? In fact some people ask whether we’re entitled to educate children at all.

Personally I reckon that education starts at home. Children, like puppies have to be housetrained and socialised, to learn how to cope with the rest of the pack. In the case of our species it’s a hard and cruel world out there. Apparently as many as one in five young people get bullied on social media. Perhaps one thing we should teach them is that the real world matters more? Never be afraid to switch off and walk away.

As lot of what we teach them is by example. ‘Monkey see, monkey do,’ is a good guideline. Perhaps that’s how so many of the best teachers, whether in school or in life, pass on their own burning enthusiasm?

One problem with education is that to a large extent it has been hijacked by people who have been through a formal ‘academic’ education. You know the sort of pathway; in English terms, GCSEs, A levels, University Degree. The people at the top of the system are largely people who have been through this process. In fact they’re often surprised to discover they have a colleague who hasn’t been through the same system. So since the start of the second war we’ve had only three Prime Ministers who haven’t been to university; Winston Churchill, James Callaghan, and John Major. Of the others ten went to Oxford, one to Edinburgh and one, Neville Chamberlain who went to Rugby school and then Mason Science College, Birmingham.

But the problem with having people with degrees in charge is that they assume that degrees are worth something. After all, if the reason they got the job was they had a degree, then discovering that people without a degree might do the job every bit as well can make a nasty dent on a person’s sense of entitlement and self worth.

You know what they say, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. So if you needed an academic education to get to your current position, the tendency is to assume that an academic education is important (because you’re important and you have one.)

It’s interesting that the English aristocracy were always said to be averse to anything that smacked of ‘trade’. We now have an education system, staffed predominantly with people who have had academic educations leading to a degree, which rather looks down on vocational education.


So back to educating children, what on earth do we teach them? Well one thing I would regard as important was to teach them to value craft skills every bit as much as academic skills. Somebody who cannot fix a ball-cock in a cold water header tank is every bit as ill-educated as somebody who doesn’t have a book in the house.


A second thing we need to do is to bridge the divide which has grown in society between a comparatively large elite who regard themselves as educated, and an even large group that the elite regard as uneducated. To an extent it’s founded on snobbery. ‘They’re not like us.’ This may be entirely true but need not be a bad thing. We have to teach our children that regarding somebody as stupid because they believe something different to us is also unhelpful.

Part of the problem here is that as the world of work changes, areas are getting left behind. Jobs which paid a decent wage have disappeared leaving in their wake industries where the minimum wage is aspirational. When those making a good living in industries which have expanded on the back of technological change start to look down on those who have been abandoned because it’s cheaper to import, the very least they are guilty of is bad taste.



A third area where we ought to educate children is to teach them to check facts and accept nothing merely because it’s placed in front of them. In a world of false news we’ve got to teach young people that just because something confirms their prejudices it does not have to be true. I’d like to teach older people that as well, but I know when I’m spitting into the wind.

But at the very least we ought to remind people that there’s an off switch which is there ready to press when the loonies get too hysterical.


A final area I’d like education to touch on was ‘quality.’ The child who would rather read Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs or Cordwainer Smith is no better or worse than one who would rather read Marlon James, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Zadie Smith. Life is too short just to read books because you ought to.


And talking about books you might want to read ;




As an American reviewer commented,

“A poet…and a delightful rogue January 21, 2019
Tallis Steelyard is a poet with champagne tastes on a beer budget. Chased out of town, and into the bay, by irate creditors, he’s rescued by a passing boat and given the opportunity to become a part of the crew. Thereafter follow a series of adventures, many funny, before Tallis can finally return home again.”

‘Self-identification’ crisis.



Once upon a time I could say, in all honesty, “You wouldn’t believe the loonies you find out there.” Now, thanks to Facebook, you have no problem in believing me because you’ve ‘met’ them as well.

Because I was travelling for a couple of days I wasn’t anywhere near any internet access so had time to think rather than merely reacting, emoting, or simply making snide comments. This got me thinking about the people I come across on Facebook. Because I’m a writer I get asked to be friends by other writers. I suspect that this is because we’re sad and insecure people who feel that other writers are selling far more books than we are. So if we get to be friends with them on Facebook, our posts will appear on their feeds and their millions of friends will see them and we might just possibly sell some books by riding on their coat tails.

Now the writers themselves aren’t so bad to be honest. But their friends? Sheesh.

Over the past year or so I’ve sort of got involved peripherally in Facebook discussions with people who, frankly, I hope I never actually get to meet. Whether it’s American ‘atheists’ (who frankly have no grasp of history, culture or philosophy) ‘liberals’ (who most definitely aren’t liberal) or militant members of the ‘sisterhood’, they manage to make even the most bigoted follower of Ignatius of Loyola seem broadminded and open to argument. Now I mention these groups, mainly because they’re the ones who seem to infest the pages of my writer friends. There are doubtless other groups who I would find equally irritating but fortunately I don’t bump into them.

Anyway unless I’m particularly bored, or one of them says something particularly stupid, I tend to ignore them now; mainly because they don’t understand the concept of debate. When you combine this with a dogmatic fundamentalist attitude which insists that anybody who doesn’t agree with them is some sort of subhuman fit only for one-way transport to a ‘re-education camp’ somewhere, life is too short to waste on them. Indeed I’ve come across one chap who sticks in mind because he could only argue in ‘memes’. The concept of putting his own thoughts into his own, even partially original, words had escaped him.

I finally realised that I was the one at fault. You see, I naively assumed that they intended discussion. But there can be no discussion because they cannot see that there’s anything to discuss. Indeed their purpose isn’t discussion, it’s virtue signalling. They’re not trying to convert you, because if you’re not already a believer, then you’re too stupid to be worth the effort.

The audience they’re performing to is, in effect, those who share the same beliefs. Thanks to the mysteries of Facebook you are in a similar position to the anthropologist who’s inadvertently wandered in to some private tribal willy-waving contest.

The American ‘atheist’, the ‘liberal’ or the member of the ‘sisterhood’ isn’t interested in reaching out to people to change their minds through debate. They’ve already written those people off. They’re merely trying to impress fellow members of their tribe with their moral superiority, greater ideological purity or whatever.


The only thing you can do when you come across this is mutter, ‘Oh Bless’ and tiptoe away again.


The problem for society comes when you have people trapped in this sort of mindset who are faced by a serious and potentially divisive political issue. They don’t respond to people on the other side of the divide with debate. They don’t attempt to understand their fellow citizens. They merely label them as too stupid to be allowed to vote and step up the old ‘virtue signalling’ to impress their fellows and to bolster their own sense of self-identity.

Unfortunately for our virtue signalling friends, until they work out a way of disenfranchising their opponents, all that does is hack off other members of the electorate.


Anyway, you’ve probably got more time for reading, so how about a good book?

As the reviewer said, “Runaway Poet, Flat Boat Sailor, Master Gunner, Flower Arranging Judge, Adventurer and Escort of a beautiful young Lady, are only a few of the skills exhibited by Tallis Steelyard in this extraordinary story.
In my opinion, the world and characters from Jim Webster’s mind would make a wonderful TV series, starting with this one.”

Gone with the wind


Yesterday was rescheduled. I got out of bed intending to do various things and pretty well none of them happened. First I was looking sheep and in checking one lot I discovered we had a problem with a fence.

That bit of hedge isn’t particularly good. We’re still trying to cope with a policy decision made by a previous owner, but there again it’s not entirely his fault. He’d just got back from the First World War and his mind was probably not entirely on the job in hand.

Needless to say where the hedge isn’t (because of the aforementioned policy decision) we have a gate which covers the gap. Now the gate is no longer young. I can empathise with that. It’s seen better days and frankly isn’t perhaps the gate it was in its youth.

Still steps have been taken. So the bars that had rusted through were screened from the mocking gaze of a cruel world by a piece of elegantly rusticated corrugated iron, held in place by an almost equally elderly fence post.

I found the sheet of corrugated iron twenty yards into the field with the broken off remnants of the fence post still attached. Yes it was a trifle draughty the previous evening.

Anyway none of the lambs had escaped and I propped the sheet up as a temporary measure, intending to return later. I continued to see the next bunch of sheep only to discover that two hawthorn trees had been blown down across the lane. Now that’s not as dramatic as it sounds, they weren’t big trees and the wind had blown them almost parallel to the hedge so the lane wasn’t entirely blocked. Anyway it was at a junction so you could go round.

At this point I metaphorically tore up whatever passed as a schedule for my day, and returned to the scene of silvicultural devastation. This time I was accompanied not by an enthusiastic Border Collie; but with a chainsaw, quad bike, trailer and sundry assorted billhooks and similar. I cut the two hawthorn trees up into fireplace sized lumps, lopping any useful thorns off for filling gaps. I was distinctly chuffed because I even managed to save one of the trees. It was still held by one root, so I left it with a foot of stump laid in the base of the hedge to grow back up from.

Then it was off to fix more permanently the sheet to the gate, and that job done, to stack the wood on next year’s woodpile.

Anyway I would have ended my rather trite rural tale here, except for the fact that during the course of today I learned a very useful tip. Everybody seems to want to get their weight down, and there are all sorts of diets which cost you an absolute fortune in avocado and gingered lemon-grass sorbet or whatever. Well today I learned the secret of real weight loss.

After moving some lambs this afternoon, on the way home I came across a chap I’ve known for a lot of years. He was ruefully confessing that the doctor had insisted on him losing eight stone before August then he could have a major heart operation.

Well he could do with losing it, but thinking back I remember him being over-heavy years ago, but he’d lost a lot of weight back then, even if he’d slowly put it back on. Now it was about the time he married, so half in jest I suggested he get married again.

“No, it wasn’t that,” he replied. “It was before that when I was doing up the house. I was living in a caravan for ten months eating nothing but cold baked beans out of the tin. The weight fell off me. Mind you, you wouldn’t want to be in an enclosed space with me and my arse was sore.”



Anyway to go with the new, slim and elegant you, how about a bit of slim and elegant reading matter. I’d recommend ‘A Bad Penny.’


No good deed goes unpunished. When Benor saves a man’s life he finds himself the target of assassins. Poetry, politics and the quarrels of academics make a lethal cocktail.


Yours for a mere £0.98, go on, treat yourself, because you’re worth it.



The future?


Let’s get this straight; I’m from the generation who were promised a manned Mars expedition in 1985. At school in the 1960s we were promised that by the year 2000 we’d have flying cars and subsist on food pills and protein concentrates.

So yes, I’m not a believer.


Then a friend sent me a list of predictions by one of the wise. Was I impressed?


One comment was


“Autonomous Cars: In 2018 the first self-driving cars will appear for the public. Around 2020, the complete industry will start to be disrupted. You don’t want to own a car anymore. You will call a car with your phone, it will show up at your location and drive you to your destination. You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s license and will never own a car. It will change the cities, because we will need 90-95% fewer cars for that. We can transform former parking space into parks. 1.2 million people die each year in car accidents worldwide. We now have one accident every 100,000 km, with autonomous driving that will drop to one accident in 10 million km. That will save a million lives each year.

Real estate will change. Because if you can work while you commute, people will move further away to live in a more beautiful neighbourhood.”


I hate to say it but it’s not merely an entirely urban outlook, it’s an entirely city based outlook. Translate that into a rural area, even an area like Cumbria which in US terms is probably not all that rural.  Firstly, we don’t have mobile signal. Because I spend most of my life in an area without mobile signal I don’t have a smart phone. There are a lot of us about to be honest.

The second problem is where these self-driving cars come from. If I’m a vet in Broughton needing a car to get to an emergency do I have to wait for the car to travel seventeen miles from Barrow? Or does every small town and village have its car pool? And what happens when the pool is empty and you’ve got an emergency or do we have redundancy in every pool to make sure that never happens? Then you have the maintenance teams travelling between the pools to make sure the vehicles are up to standard. And then you’ll need the cleaning teams because when somebody sticks their drunk mate in the self-driving car to send them safely home, they’re not going to travel with them to clean it out when he throws up. Looks like an awful amount of fixed cost in the system.
Interestingly today I read in the paper that the Department of Transport has just published a paper which looks at driverless cars. It thinks that because of the caution programmed into them, they’ll not really show any advantages until they are about 50% to 70% of the vehicles on the road. Basically they’re the ones that everybody will cut in on because drivers know that their automatics will ensure they stop in time. Are people going to put up with a second class ride for as long as it takes to get to the magical 70% figure?

How well did google glass take off?

People moving out of town because they can work as they commute has a nice ring to it. But if you’re not paid for your commuting time, it’s not a win-win situation. Perhaps you ought to write your novel instead. But the problem with moving out of town to commute further is that you spend more of your life on the road and less at home. What’s the point of living in that beautiful area when you only see it in the dark?


When looking at these predictions, I’m sticking with the industries I know. One comment made was that software would answer most problems, replace lawyers etc. Well we’ve had to cope with the RPA and its software systems. Recently their mapping software spontaneously turned a field of ours into salt marsh. It’s inland and above sea level. Now then, does the software have a feature that spontaneously does this or does the RPA hire somebody to randomly change things for no real reason?
It strikes me that rather than replacing lawyers, we could see an increase in their workload. After all somebody has got to help you sue when the software screws you over. Lawyers, bureaucrats and rats evolve to profit from changes in society.


“Agriculture: There will be a $100 agricultural robot in the future. Farmers in 3rd world countries can then become managers of their field instead of working all days on their fields. Agroponics will need much less water. The first Petri dish produced veal is now available and will be cheaper than cow-produced veal in 2018. Right now, 30% of all agricultural surfaces is used for cows. Imagine if we don’t need that space anymore. There are several startups that will bring insect protein to the market shortly. It contains more protein than meat. It will be labeled as “alternative protein source” (because most people still reject the idea of eating insects).”



The problem that third world farmers have is shortage of capital. They can end up going into debt buying seed and paying for fertiliser, borrowing against the value of the crop when it’s harvested. The last thing they need is to have to find money for $100 robots.

With regard to water, we’ve already got low water systems. ‘No-till’ has cut down water demand. In fact one of the big advantages of round-up ready soya is that it fits so well into the no-till system.

It’s the same with agroponics and hydroponics. It needs less water, but it needs vastly more capital, and unless you use the same land area as you do with conventional farming, it needs an awful lot more energy to replace the sunlight. Thanet Earth in the UK is a hydoponic operation, which has over 60 acres of glasshouses, produces more than 225 million tomatoes, 16 million peppers and 13 million cucumbers a year, which is about ten percent of Great Britain’s annual production.

As for insect protein, there are two problems. One is getting people to eat the stuff. Given that we got the British public eating horsemeat just because it was cheap, it can be done. But actually somebody has to farm the insects. I assume that they have to be cultivated indoors, to stop them just disappearing. Who provides the insect food? But then none of this is particularly new, ‘God Whale’ was written back in 1974.


If you want predictions then I’ll pass you over to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.


There’ll be flying boats, and condos with moats;
Cultivated oceans, floating cities in the sky.
Living underneath a bubble;
No more toil and trouble
Singin’ ’bout that sweet ole by and by.

We’ll all have lots of money
That we won’t have to spend;
You’ll be given everything
When everyone’s your friend
Hanging out together
In picture perfect weather –
This time ’round the party never ends.

Hallelujah, I can’t wait to see it
Hallelujah, come on and go with me
Let me show you the way it’s gonna be
At the turn,
The turn of the century.

We won’t need no tv preachers
To ask how much we gave
We won’t need no tv preachers,
See, by then, we’ll all be saved
No more fighting for a country
No child will go hungry
We’ll be smiling from the cradle to the grave.

Hallelujah, I can’t wait to see it
Hallelujah, come on and go with me
Let me show you the way it’s gonna be
At the turn,
The turn of the century.


Alternatively you might fancy sticking with the world we have now.


As a reviewer commented

“This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”



It was Plato who said, “This City is what it is because our citizens are what they are.”

So when you look at the empty Kentucky Fried Chicken bag hanging on a hedge in the middle of the countryside, it’s pretty obvious why it’s there. Our citizens are what they are. Whoever ate the meal had a car, because if they’d walked it would have been cold and uneatable long before they got here, and if they’d used public transport, they’d never have got here.

Perhaps a hundred yards further on somebody left two boxes of Christmas junk plus a lot of empty bottles tipped out in a gateway. Then somebody put photographs of this on facebook. Those who did the tipping saw the photos; realised one of the boxes had old wrapping paper in it, and drove back down and took that box away. (But not the other box or the pile of empty bottles.) Alas for them they did it too late, somebody had already been through the box, found the Christmas card envelope with the address on it and had phoned the police. The police passed this on to the local council (which is determined to stamp out on this sort of thing,) and twenty-four hours after the rubbish was reported, the council had cleaned it up and those who did the fly tipping are expected in court in February.

One problem we have in our society is that a lot of people don’t care about others, don’t give a damn about what they think, the conditions they live in, or what they believe.

We’ve got a lot of epithets, such as ‘chavs’, ‘Essex girl’, and for our American friends ‘White Trash’ and talk about the ‘Fly over states’, which are all insults based on a perceived opinion amongst ‘nice people like us’ about how these lesser breeds without the law actually live. Some of the insults tell us more about the one doing the insulting. For example, the term ‘redneck’ just means somebody who works outside in the sun, because the back of their neck gets sunburned. A redneck is a farm-worker, a builder, somebody who actually does the important stuff, that feeds people, builds homes for them. But obviously they’re not nice people like us.

And then we had the bile that spewed forth after Trump and Brexit. Now I’m supposed to be talking about renewal. How are we going to get renewal after those little episodes?
Well I’ll tell you how we won’t get renewal. We won’t get renewal if we keep treating a large proportion of the electorate with contempt. We won’t get renewal if we continue to dump the children of the poor in bog standard schools that aren’t good enough for the children of nice people. We won’t get renewal if we spend every waking hour working out ways to thwart the will of the voters.

In those cases what we’ll get is growing anger. The people who voted for Trump might send him back in four years with a larger majority. In eight years if they’re still angry, still sick of being treated with contempt and mocked, they might send somebody worse. If in this country they don’t get Brexit then we might see the destruction of the Labour party and UKIP as the official opposition.

So nice people like us are going to have to think really carefully. You see, we’ve had a cosy prosperous elite doing very nicely thank-you very much. How do you know whether you’re one of the prosperous elite doing very nicely? Well the average UK salary for 2016 was about £28,000. So anybody earning more than twice that is doing very nicely indeed. As a rule of thumb, if in the UK you’re paying higher rate of tax (earning over £43,000) you’re doing pretty damned well.

So the cosy ones, the ones doing rather nicely, are going to have to see things change. Let’s take the money spent on educating children. In Kensington and Chelsea, that notoriously run down and marginalised area, the money per pupil paid by the state was £7,036. In Cumbria which has some of the worst areas of deprivation in the country it was £4,828.

But then it makes sense I suppose. The children of a bunch of Cumbrian red-necks are never going to appreciate education anyway. Far better spend the money where it will do some good.

But unfortunately for nice people like us, Cumbrian red-necks still vote. I know, I know, a universal adult franchise was always going to end in tears, but still, unless you want the people of Cumbria, and the North-East and other areas where they feel they’ve been getting a pretty poor crack of the whip to continue to feel alienated, then you’re going to have to do something positive about it. Spreading the money about a bit more fairly would be a good start. Doing something about too many ‘bog standard comprehensive schools’ would be another.

Otherwise Brexit is only going to be the start of it, for Americans Trump isn’t the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse all rolled into one, he’s a warning shot fired across your bows. You can doubtless screw him over, but you really won’t like what comes next.

Oh yes, and the rubbish that was tipped. I know the address where it came from. Given this town I can make a fair stab at their income. In local terms they’re doing OK really, nothing to grumble at, embarrassingly close to being nice people like us to be honest.


But then what do I know, I’m just a farm-worker, a red-neck.


Speak to the experts

As a reviewer commented, “I always love Jim’s farm tales, I may as well be home talking with my Dad. His sharp witted observations are a joy.”