The Sussex Downs Murder – Not Really A Review

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For anyone who loves the English South Downs – and whodunnits – this book makes an interesting read.

On the one hand, it is a fairly average 1930’s detective murder mystery, although I have certainly read much worse, but on the other it provides some marvellous insights into the South Downs in the area specifically around Chanctonbury Ring in that time, which is really what took my interest.

Personally, I prefer murder mysteries involving ‘normal’ people, rather than the typical country house full of assorted Colonels and ladies and royalty and such-like, so popular at the time – other than the thought of bumping off the Upper Classes, of course! But this book delivers in that it is set on a downland farm, where the farmer goes missing, believed murdered. It even has, as a cover, an adaptation of one of the fabulous Leslie Carr railway posters of the 1930’s – what’s not to like?

The introduction mentions its ‘sense of place’, and the writing seems to me especially good at conveying an accurate feel of the landscape. One thing that comes over very strongly is the emptiness of the countryside at that time. The Downs have been sparsely inhabited since Roman times; before then, much of the population chose to live on the higher, drier, lands of the chalklands of South and South East England, away from the forested and frequently marshy lower areas where travel was difficult and clearance very hard work. After the arrival of the Romans, however, all this changed, and since then the chalklands have been left largely to a small population living mainly by farming sheep.

We now have many people visiting for leisure purposes and on fine days popular routes such as the walk to Birling Gap from Eastbourne (or from convenient car parks much closer!) may easily see hundreds of visitors striding along the footpaths and hanging off the edge of the cliffs taking selfies (other stupid ways to kill oneself are available). On the same day, though, nearby footpaths may see no visitors at all. It is still a sparsely populated area.

John Bude evokes this sense of emptiness well. His descriptions of the roads and paths on and around the area really allow the reader to feel this. His characters walk the lanes and roads of the downs frequently without meeting anyone else on their journeys. Farms and houses are ‘isolated’, and even at a time when most people would travel by public transport to cover any distance, the population is so small that when questioned by the detective on the case, a bus conductor can remember who was on his bus several weeks before.

There are four lime kilns near Washington, on the edge of the area described in the story, which I suspect were the inspiration for the lime kiln featured on the farm in the book. No spoilers, but you might well guess their relevance to a murder mystery.

But it is the descriptions of the roads and paths that particularly take my interest, roads and paths virtually empty of footfall or traffic even during the day, emphasising how lightly populated the area was, and still is today, to a degree. Other than popular footpaths such as the long distance South Downs Way, and those footpaths running between popular tourist spots, it is still easy to find solitude in this quiet area of the otherwise heavily populated South East England.

The Great Disconnect

There is a huge disconnect between the human race and the natural world. This is nothing new, of course, it is something that has gradually been developing ever since man first discovered farming and began to live in settled communities rather than living a nomadic existence. But it has accelerated rapidly since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, until we passed the point where for the first time there were more people living in urban areas than in rural ones. That may seem an obvious fact to many in the Western World, but that statistic is a worldwide one. 55% of the population today is urban, but the spread is very uneven. In North America, for example, 82% of the population today are urban, whereas across Africa as a whole it is only 43%.

This creeping urbanisation has had many obvious consequences, such as the growth of villages into towns, and thence into cities and finally into super-sized metropolises covering hundreds of square kilometres with hardly a tree or a bird to be found in some parts. Such as whole villages being abandoned as the population move to towns to find work, partly due to the growing mechanisation of farming and the demise of traditional rural industries. Such as a rapidly shrinking amount of land that can be thought of as wilderness. Even those areas that are not now covered with an urban sprawl may well be covered with farmlands or plantations, or large areas devoted to leisure activities such as golf courses which as far as wildlife and plant diversity are concerned, are little better than deserts.

And such as a growing and deepening disconnect between humans and the natural world.

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In small part, this is natural and necessary; it is a process that is inevitable as we evolve from a species indistinguishable from the other great apes in behaviour and purpose, into a species able to pursue activities unrelated to simple survival.

Of course, we have also become a species capable of wiping out our species and all other species, too.

But this trend seems to have accelerated at an alarming rate over the last thirty to fifty years. Of course, urbanisation continues to be a growing trend, the growth of technology continues to feed into areas such as farming, where we now have huge farms that can be operated by a couple of people alone, which might have required a labour force of maybe a hundred once, and we have social media and computers and gaming and thousands of on-demand TV stations.

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This last phenomenon I think is mainly the cause of what appears to be an especially severe disconnect between the natural world and the younger generations.

Now before everyone rushes to tell me of wonderful younger folk who love the natural world and who actively fight to protect it citing, perhaps, the incredible people who make up Extinction Rebellion, obviously there are many exceptions to this. But it is a trend. Before I retired, my job was teaching outdoor activities such as climbing or navigating, and I worked with many children and young adults. The environment in which I worked, of course, was the natural world. And although many of the youngsters who came along lived in towns or cities, there were also many who lived nearby, in a more rural environment. And what shocked me, was that so many of them had no better understanding of that environment than those that lived in inner cities.

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I met country children that couldn’t recognise an oak tree or knew what an acorn was. Country children who couldn’t recognise a kestrel. Country children who had no idea what wild garlic was.

As a kid, I lived on the edge of London. I don’t think I was in any way exceptional, but I would spend as much time as I could playing with friends in the woods and fields I could walk to or get to on my bike. We splashed around in streams and climbed trees, learned what different butterflies looked like, 037bfound stag beetles and slow-worms, caught minnows and sticklebacks, and absorbed a lot of knowledge about trees and birds and insects and mammals from books and TV programs and just being out in the country.

I assumed it was what all kids did.

But this seems to be no longer the case. I have already written about The Lost Words (here), the book written by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris as a response to learning that supposedly common words such as conkerlost words and kingfisher and acorn are words that the majority of children today are unfamiliar with – something that would once have been unthinkable. And this disconnect seems to me the saddest thing. So much of our very rich heritage has a rural background, be it music or literature, architecture, leisure activities, or traditional crafts. And the same is naturally true for most countries and societies.

But to return to the reasons for this, I feel the rise of social media and on-demand electronic entertainment has been the largest single influence on the younger generation, especially, to the point where to the majority of them, pretty well all their leisure time is taken up with these things and there is no desire to explore the natural world at all.

Sometimes I think the electronic world is more real to many of them than the real world is, anyway.

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Sigh. I’m off to check the vegetable garden.

Attention! Fantastic News!

Now, this is good news.

Really good news.

Like so many people, I’ve always complained that there are just not enough hours in the day for me to get everything done that I want to do.

Heck, I don’t even have enough hours to do those things that I need to do.

This didn’t used to be the case, though. I can remember when my day used to glide past nice and smoothly; when I would have time to get up, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, eat and do whatever I needed to do, then maybe go out in the evening, come home again, and that was it! Job done! Time for everything!

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As I became older, though, there did seem to be less time available. Jobs lined up waiting to be done; I seemed to be busier and busier, and the days just seemed…shorter.

I began to wonder where the time was going. I looked in all the usual places; down the back of the sofa, under the bed, behind the stacks of baked beans in the bottom of the corner cupboard beside the sink, but no luck.

But I’ve been looking at it completely the wrong way.

So, the good news? Well, it took a lot of doing, but I have managed to fit a whole hour into just forty minutes.

Now, the consequences of this are pretty devastating, really.

I now have thirty six hours in my day instead of just twenty four.

There is just so much more I can do, now!

I can go to work for eight hours and still have twenty eight left over for other things.

Twenty eight!

Hell, that’s more than I used to have in a whole day, anyway!

I can even get have twelve hours sleep of a night, and then get a full days work in the next day.

And have sixteen hours left for other purposes. I guess I am now time-rich, to use one of these ridiculous modern phrases.

But…it’s odd, though. Despite all this extra time at my disposal, I seem to have more trouble than usual fitting a couple of simple tasks into an hour. Jobs that used to take me an hour, now seem to take an hour and a half to do. It is, as I say, rather odd.

And another downside of this, I suppose, is that I will no longer have an excuse to go offline for a while ‘just to catch up with things’.

Perhaps I’ll stick with the sixty minute hours for the moment, and keep the others in reserve for when I’m really busy.

‘Mick…’

‘Not now, Bob, I’m busy. I’ll get back to you later. You know, there just aren’t enough days in the week…’

Time, Gentlemen, Please!

When I go out, I will frequently leave my phone at home. If I have no particular reason to take it with me, such as for work or awaiting an urgent call, then it is a real pleasure to be able to leave it behind.

I feel a release, not being in constant contact with everyone. I also rely upon it for the time, not possessing a wristwatch, so again, without it, I am freed from this small tyranny. Interestingly, I often know the time if I am asked, as long as I reply spontaneously, without thinking, but then, if I give it more thought, the gift disappears. I wonder if this is an instinct that we have largely lost. If so, and I ponder this train of thought, how did older, ancient peoples view the time? Presumably not as ‘nine’ or ‘three o’clock’ – morning, noon and afternoon? A time of waxing and waning light? Those more sedentary no doubt were as much tied to the sundial as we are to the clock.

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At court, or in monasteries, or other relatively affluent places, they relied on candles, marked with hours, to tell the time, but the common people would have had no such thing. Here in England, the church might have possessed a clock that chimed the hour, so that those who lived near enough might have an idea of the time, but apparently these could be notoriously inaccurate, sometimes being wrong by perhaps several hours or more.

But this probably did not matter, for the rural worker would not need to know the time. The farm labourers would rise at dawn, eat something for breakfast, then make their way to the fields. Around noon they would eat lunch, and at dusk they would return home.

They had no need of timekeeping any more accurate than that.

Contrast that to today, when it almost seems necessary to justify every minute of the day. I think this is one of the attractions of taking a holiday; it seems such a treat to spend each day doing as much or as little as is desired, and not to have to justify it to anyone. And, by extension, perhaps it is vitally important that we take holidays now. Hundreds of years ago in those semi-mythical non time-dominated days, workers did not get holidays. They just had Sundays off. It is easy to suggest that we are softer now, but I think the fixation of time has contributed to lives vastly more dominated by stress, and overwork, and that holidays are essential for us all.

I know I damn well need one!

Stereotypes and Misunderstandings

In countries such as India, there is frequently an impression that Western visitors and therefore, by extension, all Westerners, own vast wealth and have massive amounts of leisure time at their disposal.

After all, they arrive on holiday, perhaps for a month or more, and they go around staying in places that are far beyond the means of the average Indian, spend the equivalent of several month’s wages on souvenirs, often hop on an aircraft to take a journey that would be one hundredth of the price by rail, flaunting expensive cameras and watches and phones and designer clothes. So who wouldn’t think that?

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This is not helped by the impressions given by many Western films and programs, where work seldom seems to get in the way of whatever action the film is depicting.

This often affects how local people interact with visitors, and their feelings about them.

I suspect it even drives a certain amount of international migration, too.

And so I think it very important to highlight a few facts;

Basically, the differences in exchange rates of different currencies give the impression of great wealth which is not, in fact, true.

A few numbers:

The average annual wage in the UK is currently £28,000, or $34,400. This sounds a lot (even to me!) but that hides a huge variation, of course.

It is quite hard to find figures that agree about the average annual Indian wage, with estimates varying from around $600, up to around $3500, although this may well reflect the massive difference between the rural worker and a worker in, for example, the IT industry. For sake of argument, I’m going to use the figure of $2000, which could still be slightly on the high side, looking at some of the sites I’ve gone to.

This would give the average UK worker a wage 17 times higher than the Indian. Sounds good for us, but the average cost of a house in the UK is now some £300,000 – that’s $369,000, and it is now almost impossible for young people to buy their own house unless they are helped by well-off parents, and they have very well-paid jobs. The average rent, otherwise, is around $12,300 per year. About a third of the average wage.

To find an average cost to rent in India is also difficult (for me!). I scoured a lot of sites, and seemed to come up with a figure of somewhere around $1,200 a year, although there were massive variations, both between cities and within them. If I have got these figures correct, that is around a half of the average wage.

The prices of basic commodities such as foodstuffs or power vary a lot between India and UK, too. Whereas I have bought street food in India for a rupee or two, making a lunch for perhaps 15 or 20 cents, it would cost me at least $2.50 to $3 in UK for the equivalent.

This isn’t to draw up an accurate comparison between the two – it would be quite a study to do that – but to try to make the point that the average person in the UK is better off (materially) than the average person in India, but not by nearly as much as many might think.

India has more of a problem with poverty, but the West has quite a bit, too. And whilst the poor in the West are emphatically not as badly off as their cousins in India, they still endure considerable hardship. Even with the existence of the supposed safety net of Social Security. There is homelessness. There is malnourishment.

Incidentally, and I pose this as a question to my Indian friends, I frequently read articles that focus on aid and development in poor (especially rural) areas of India, highlighting the fact that a large percentage of the population have to survive on around two dollars a day.

In the light of the above, I wonder whether this isn’t a little disingenuous, since that figure may not be as far below the average wage as many in the West believe, and wonder what you think?

I think it matters, because I believe this might distract attention from where work is needed more, such as improving sanitation, work conditions and medical care.