Monday 11 February 2008

The fires of doom and the breasts of opportunity

14st 7lb; 3.0 (approx) units of alcohol; 1,453 (fall of Constantinople to the Turks); Farne (not so much a sea area, more a local real ale).

Well, we certainly carped that diem, the dog and I. A morning sleeping and writing, respectively (maybe we should try swapping roles sometime), then out for a sustaining pub lunch and a longish walk into the Cheviot Hills from Humbleton, just north of Wooler. The sun shone and visibility was marred only by the smoke from a series of fires set to burn off the heather, thus encouraging the young growth on which grouse apparently subsist. Personally, I’m a little puzzled by the evolution of a species which requires humans to manage its habitat quite so intensively. The gamekeepers also need to provide it with strategically placed piles of white grit, which the birds store in their gizzards to break up the heather shoots so that they can digest them. When we finally destroy ourselves, my money is definitely not going to go on grouse inheriting the earth, no matter how unfavourable the odds may look on cockroaches.

The true spirit of Northumberland: Hedgehope defies the smoking ban

I always fondly imagine that the Blokes in charge of this “controlled burning” know what they are doing, then pick up the Northumberland Gazette and see reports of how the resulting conflagrations have kept every fire appliance in the county fully occupied all week.

Talking of fire appliances, I noted on the way back that someone has erected an enormous poster outside Wooler fire station, proclaiming “BREASTFEEDING – the best possible start in life”. What next? “FOOD – the best thing to keep you alive”? (I originally wrote “to put in your mouth”, then another possibility sprang ineluctably to mind). The poster is decorated with a huge picture of a particularly gormless looking baby that might be described as “hideously white” if it were not so pink. If I were from an ethnic minority, I’d definitely make a point of being offended. And it looks decidedly male, too. Though, to look on the bright side in the never-ending battle to promote diversity, it could easily be Polish.

Personally, I’d have thought a picture of a nice pair of breasts would have conveyed the message just as effectively, while adding to the gaiety of approximately half the population, but what any of it has to do with the fire service continues to elude me.

The hills are ablaze, without the sound of music
Anyway, I stood towards the top of Gains Law and admired a vista of the whole Till Valley lying under a pall of high, black smoke. I’ve not seen anything like it since the EU outlawed post-harvest stubble burning in the 1990s (in the interests, I always assumed, of “saving the planet”). I predict one of those splendidly enjoyable conflicts where I don’t give a toss about the final result (of which the Iran-Iraq war was the supreme exemplar). If we don’t burn the heather, the grouse will die; but if we do burn the heather, we’ll all die. Probably. Though now I come to think of it, hasn’t James Lovelock written that atmospheric pollution actually helps to protect us against global warming?

There was a truly splendid sunset as we drove home, bringing to mind that classic line of Eric Morecambe’s: “Red sky at night means a shepherd’s cottage is on fire.”

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