I’ve always been an avid reader. My house has more shelving than a Stockholm Ikea depot, and every inch of it is crammed full of books on every subject imaginable, fiction and non-fiction alike. I’ve got one shelf devoted to one man – Robert Burns – alone, and everywhere else ranges from Tartan Noir to political memoir to Orkney history.
Even the advent of the electronic novel has failed to curb the frightening escalation of my addiction, as friends “lend” me books that they by now suspect they will never see again. At this rate I’ll either have to build an extension to the house or send the weans to live with their granny. Can anyone recommend a decent joiner?
It would be impossible to pick out a favourite from such a literary tsunami, and, indeed, I don’t have one. It’s whatever takes your fancy, or suits the mood, or seems relevant to the age. Which brings me to tell you about an extraordinary book I’m reading at the moment. Amanda Ripley’s “The Unthinkable” considers the question of who survives when disaster strikes – and why. It challenges every preconception we might have about the human response to crisis and at times shook me to the core.
I once had, through a deep and lifelong friendship I have with a sportswriter, the opportunity to play golf, talk football, and drink wine with the man who exposed the drug cheat and bully that was Lance Armstrong: the great Irish journalist David Walsh.
In his compelling memoir of that period, “Seven Deadly Sins”, Walsh writes movingly about his late son, John. He tells a tale that tugs the heartstrings of every parent, but which also reveals a universal truth. It seems his son was at his local primary school and his teacher, a Mrs Twoney, was relating the story of the Nativity. Mary and Joseph lived a very modest life, she said, because Joseph was a humble carpenter.
“Then the wise men arrived with gifts of gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. And the shepherds, too, and there was a star rising in the east, and……..”
At this point John’s hand went up.
“You said Mary and Joseph were from a humble background, miss?”
Yes, said Mrs Twoney.
“Right”, said the boy. “So what did they do with the gold?”
David Walsh told that story again recently on a deeply moving episode of Desert Island Discs.
“Within John’s question”, he said, “lies the heart of all journalistic enquiry. Ask the obvious question”. And then ask one more. And then another.
I used to get people moaning at me about sixteen year olds getting the vote in Scottish elections. I spoke at meetings all over Scotland in 2014. Believe me, young folk aren’t slow to ask what happened to the gold.
And Amanda Ripley has what Byron attributed to Robert Burns: “The Antithetical Mind” – the ability to challenge received wisdom and to look through the looking glass from the other side. To ask where the gold is.
For example, she recognises that many books have been written about how awful 9/11 was. She writes not about what happened, but what didn’t. It takes an antithetical mind to write that the day of the New York attack was also the day of the Mayoral elections, and the first day of the new school term. It takes such a brain to report that the stock exchange didn’t open for business until 9.30am. So the trade centres were actually not that busy. Perhaps, says Ripley, the story isn’t the 2606 people who died but the estimated 12,000 who might have done.
But what is more interesting is the human stories of those who were there. In Hollywood Disaster films, people always run for the exits when disaster strikes. In reality, says Ripley, quite the opposite happens.
When the planes hit the twin towers on the 11th of September 2001, People slowed down. It took an average of six minutes for people to leave their offices. Some people sat for as long as forty-five minutes, checking emails and sending texts. One woman even delayed her departure until she’d located a library book due for return that evening. And studies show that, in a crisis, people took twice as long to get out of the building as normal.
It turns out this is fairly standard human behaviour. Firefighters are routinely called to bars where smoke is billowing through the walls. While most people are in the car park, a surprising number of customers are still finishing their pints inside. A police friend tells me that the standard response to bad news is not panic, but the offer of tea and shortbread.
What has this got to do with Scottish farming?
Actually, maybe more than we think. I’m not for a second trying to conflate a terrorist attack with a democratic vote, as that would be absurd and insulting. However, the Brexit vote was shocking and, as I’ve written in a previous column, the consequences of a hard Brexit will be devastating. Yet we appear to be in denial, whatever side we’re on.
I watched both the National Farmers Union hustings, and its AGM, online. Two things struck me.
Firstly, not a single candidate called out Brexit for what it is – a potential disaster for our industry that would see crippling tariffs and a flood of cheap imports, with less stringent welfare standards, and a loss of over £500m to the Scottish economy. I was struck that not one speaker suggested the blindingly obvious – that Scottish agriculture cannot possibly thrive within a present constitutional arrangement that would see Scottish farming policy returned to Westminster post-Brexit and the reduction of pillar one payments – direct payments – to zero.
Secondly, and this is no criticism of our industry leaders, we are conducting the debate about our future within extremely narrow parameters. In my day job I meet so many out-of-the-box thinkers whose opinion is valid but never heard. That frustrates me. I watch Scottish farming politics and what I hear is an echo chamber. It’s always the same folk, and that has to change.
You see things and say “Why?“, said George Bernard Shaw. “I see things that never were and say “why not?”‘.
The ironic thing about the prospect of an independent Scotland is that it isn’t a radical idea at all. Indeed, it’s a brilliant idea. Farming is six times more important to our GDP than it is to our neighbours. A person living in Scotland is 3 1/2 times more likely to be working in agriculture than his neighbours in England. We have 8.9% of the population but 25% of the breeding stock. We export 40 bottles of whisky every second.
We’re more than self-sufficient in just about everything. Many countries would give their eye teeth for such advantages. We are facing a hard-Brexit, a power grab and a ripping up of the devolution settlement.
So here’s what we need to do.
Leave politics aside and determine what we want our farming industry to look like, and then consider who might be best to deliver this.
Secondly, we must decide to stay within the single market.
Thirdly, while Westminster spends the next two years discussing Brexit, we get on with the day job and nurture support from our EU colleagues whilst promoting our products to the billion or so potential customers in the Far East.
And, fourthly, win our independence. Everything – everything – hinges on this.
In the context of Amanda Ripley’s book, it’s interesting how unionists are playing on the very human fears that the author describes. “Now is not the time”; “don’t add to the uncertainty“; “let’s wait and see“. It’s a clever strategy but it won’t work forever. It’s ok to hope for the best this time we need to help ourselves.
I gave up religion years ago, but, when thinking about crisis, I remember the advice of the great American writer Hunter S. Thompson. “Call on God”, he said, “but row away from the rocks”.
It’s time to start rowing.
Farming Matters is a regular column by Alec Ross