Sunday, August 18, 2013

Mad Jack

Whenever I step into my back garden, the first thing I look for is the sharp silhouette of the spire of St. Giles at Dallington, some five miles away on the horizon. It has become something of a superstition for me: if the church is still there up on the ridge, then the earth is still turning and all things must be in their rightful place – I am comforted. But this summer, I have been deprived of my little ritual. The tower and stone spire, both originating from the early 16th century, are being repointed and are currently encased in scaffolding and plastic, forming a blob on the far horizon that is indistinguishable from the trees.

The importance of being able to see the spire from home is something I share with ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller, the erstwhile squire of Brightling. Hopefully, it is the only thing we have in common. John Fuller, who died in 1834 at the age of 77, was a controversial figure: an Eton-educated Member of Parliament, he was also a renowned drunk, plantation owner and supporter of slavery.

At the age of 20, Fuller had inherited a large Sussex estate (that is now Brightling Park) and Jamaican plantations from his uncle. By the age of 23 he had become a Member of Parliament - firstly for Southampton, then Sussex. His political career was doubly notorious: he once had to be detained by the Serjeant–at-Arms after a drunken incident with the Speaker of the House and, in one of his regular speeches in support of slavery, he claimed that the slaves on his plantations had better living conditions than many of his constituents.

But Fuller also had a philanthropic side. He was a sponsor of the young scientist, Michael Faraday and commissioned paintings from the artist, JMW Turner. And locally, he financed the first Eastbourne lifeboat, built the Belle Tout lighthouse on Beachy Head and purchased Bodiam Castle to save it from demolition in 1828. But it was with his building of follies that he left an indelible mark on the landscape of East Sussex.

The most striking of Fuller’s follies is the 65 feet-high Brightling Obelisk which stands without inscription or apparent purpose atop Brightling Beacon, the second highest point in East Sussex. Equally pointless, is the two-storey Fuller’s Tower on the Brightling – Darwell Hole Road. More purposefully, Mad Jack was inspired by his friendship with the German astronomer Friedrich Herschel to build his own observatory. Now a private home, the silver dome can still be seen from the Brightling – Burwash road. Fuller ended up beneath another of his follies: his mausoleum, a 25-foot pyramid, stands in the churchyard of St. Thomas à Becket, Brightling.

However, Fuller’s Point is the most perverse of all his follies. Fuller had made a bet with a friend that he could see the spire of St. Giles at Dallington from his home in Brightling. On returning home he realised that he could not see the spire after all. Rather than lose the wager, he had a 35-foot stone cone built in a field within sight of his house. It is more popularly called the Sugar Loaf - named after the conical loaves that sugar was sold as in the nineteenth century - and can still be seen in a field on the Battle to Heathfield road at Wood’s Corner. Whether the friend was fooled, or Fuller gained any comfort from seeing the Sugar Loaf every day, are not recorded.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Downland: part ten

Since the end of the Great War, Ridler had struggled: his living had been piecemeal, hand to mouth. But the war had been a terrible time; the guarantees of his peace-time commission – pay, rations and billet – had been replaced by humiliation, death and disease. The Mesopotamia campaign had started with all the expectation and certainty of a British military operation: they had marched in to Basra and Kurna with little loss or opposition and had carried on up the Tigris to garrison the town of Kut-Al-Amara.

In November 1915, General Charles Townshend had then led his troops into battle at Ctesiphon, the last major obstacle before the final march on Baghdad, with confidence. Having witnessed only surrender and desertion from the Turkish forces they had encountered so far, the ferocity of the battle - the casualties, the defeat and retreat - were a shock to Ridler. The British and Indians had lost more than half of their troops and were forced to return to Kut where thousands of Turkish soldiers had besieged the town. For 147 days they resisted the siege before the humiliation of surrender. 147 days of bitter cold, hunger and infection. And then Townshend simply capitulated, surrendered his command and abandoned his men to sit on the side-lines for the remainder of the war: a small island off the coast near Istanbul, use of a yacht, visits from dignitaries. Captivity in luxury was better for Townshend: after the war, when the treatment of his men at the hands of their Ottoman captors became clear, a death in disgrace.

Ridler had felt that treatment but the Indian troops had fared worse and, as they were marched from Kut to Anatolia, they were made to strip to the waist and walk bare-chested. Every village they passed through, people would flock to the roadside to stare at these half-starved Indian troops. Their rib cages pushing bleached bone hard against the paper thinness of their black skin, their pale eyes set deep in dark, emaciated faces and their abject submission to the will of their captors all made them a spectacle. In Aleppo, a guard made one captive dance, whipping at his ankles with a switch. Small boys, laughing with delight, threw pieces of bread. Ridler was spared this humiliation, but he too, had submitted to whatever was required to survive. Half did not see the travelling circus through to its end: 5,000 starved, tortured, beaten to death.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Holidays in the Sun

In his 1973 book, Anarchy in Action, Colin Ward argued that anarchist society “is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism.” He felt that anarchism was not some “speculative vision of a future society” but “a mode of human organisation, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society.” For Ward, one of the best examples of anarchy in action was the allotment site, where ordinary people were the catalysts and designers of their own space and community.

The site where I have an allotment is leased from a fruit farmer by the parish council, who in turn rent plots to individuals. But the organisation of the site is carried out by an association of allotment-holders: mowing the communal paths and areas; maintaining the seed exchange; organising seasonal celebrations and events; helping or clearing struggling plots. Put simply - anarchy in action.

The allotment is blooming this year: an abundance of strawberries; a huge harvest of early potatoes; brassicas bursting out of their netting; plump beetroot; our best garlic crop yet; and with lush sweet corn plants and rampant pumpkin and squash stems yet to produce, it will be the best year we have had. With the sunniest summer since 2006, when we had a bumper vegetable crop in our garden, it is not hard to work out why. But it is not sunshine alone that has produced this exceptional crop: last autumn I bought a tractor load of cow muck from a local farmer and top-dressed the whole plot with it.

But the allotment really comes into its own when the kids are off school. It is an extra open space for them to relax and play in, or help with weeding and harvesting; and the site’s communal area can host impromptu football and cricket matches or shared family barbecues during the long summer holiday. This is, of course, the six-week break that Gove wants to move, reduce or traduce because he sees it as an anachronistic throwback to a seasonal rural economy. Well, some of us depend on these holidays in the sun and are still governed more by that cyclical, regenerative calendar than we are by the diktats of the hard-nosed metropolitan political elite.