Come, luscious spring, come with thy mossy roots,
Thy weed-strown banks, young grass, and tender shoots
Of woods newly-plashed, sweet smells of opening blooms,
Sweet sunny mornings, and right glorious dooms
Of happiness, to seek and harbour in,
Far from the ruder world’s inglorious din.
From ‘The Robin’s Nest’
by John Clare* [1793-1864]
Friday morning. The moon slides between us and our sun, an eclipse eclipsed by clouds. And our world turns cold.
As the mis-timed dusk takes hold the birds fly hither and thither – not up, not down, but side to side, as if looking for an emergency exit. It’s odd.
Saturday dawns beautiful and bright, as if the moon’s wiped clean an unseen, misted window on the sun. The perfect day for our outing. A drive across town to a special place.
Churchtown Botanic Gardens aren’t what you might expect from the name – yes, some of the trees are labelled, but it’s more like an old-fashioned park, the kind I grew up with as a child.
Taking the scenic route, along the coast, I’m treated to a sight I’ve never seen before. The sea is in. Right in.
As a child, a trip to Southport was always a mixed pleasure. The seaside, yes. But the sea? My little legs never once carried me all the way to the sea, it was so far out.
But the moon, it seems, has filled our local bucket, as well as wiping our solar windows.
My chauffeur drops me by the Gardens’ gate and goes to park. I ply my way on crutches, gingerly, looking out for omens.
Some flowers, mostly daffodils, nod hello in the nearer reaches of the park. People sit on benches. Chatting, waiting – or simply passing time.
A band strikes up – the oompah of the brass like a great big grin on the air.
Plodding my way round to the greenhouses, the peacocks in their (soon to be closed) aviary squawk their whiney, ‘waah, waaah.’
Plants for sale sit in ranks of spring-fresh colour, but there aren’t quite as many as usual. Inside the greenhouse, potted plants too tender for our still-wintry nights keep warm beneath the glass. I spy two members of staff. Two of the three who may soon be the last, of many, to go.
Back outside, steps that should lead to a stunning horticultural display instead open onto grass disfigured with gashes of bare brown earth. People sit, as usual, in the wooden benches around the edge, but their joy is gone.
The Victorian fernery – with its refurbished glass roof – looks blind and closed.
The ‘train’ that children could ride is gone.
The boats for hire on the water are gone.
The wild birds remain.
The trees remain.
Outside, the oompah’s been replaced with a chorus of men in black. Their rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band is fun, but a new little pain tells me it’s time to go.
On the way home we talk about our world and how it’s being diminished.
Is it better that flowers, three gardeners and a museum are lost than something else?
What use, after all are flowers?
The morning’s lead editorial in that renowned publication, The Times (of London), tells us we have not really noticed the cuts to local government spending.
We beg to differ.
Our local council’s funding has been curtailed quite harshly. According to one measure** it’s down by 7.8%. It’s a lot, but Liverpool (10.7%) and Manchester (10.5%) fare much worse – and the worst of all, poor, disadvantaged Knowsley, bottoms the table at -10.9%.
This in a world where Tewkesbury (of the famous Abbey) has a budget up 3.2%, Cambridge (of the famed university) is up 2.3% and Winchester (with its cathedral in genteel Hampshire) is up at 1%.
We live in the north of England, on the boundary between two communities, each of around 12,000 inhabitants. We’re just about equidistant between two buildings that, until a couple of years ago, were libraries. Both are now shut, the books all gone.
Our borough now has two police stations officially open to the public. One in the north opens 7 days a week, one in the south six days a week.
There are many more – and arguably more serious – things, like the cuts to social services.
But I want to stay with flowers.
We don’t all have trees. Or gardens, or flowers, or boats to row or toy trains to ride.
We don’t all have acres of crocuses to carpet the floor around our feet, or peacocks to nag us, or love birds to coo for us.
So many people use that park.
People invisibly wounded, whose eyes say it all.
People finding a rare patch of peace for lunch in a stressful day.
People teaching their children how birds sing and swans swim.
People falling in love.
Should we lose all this for budget cuts?
I suppose the answer would be yes, if I felt the cuts were either fair or necessary. But it’s not just my instinct that tells me we don’t need to cut our public spending as if we were Greece. Several respected economists tell us our economy was already recovering in 2010, that swingeing cuts set it back.
And common sense tells me that if interest rates are close to zero it makes no sense to go to extremes to pay off debt.
But I’m not a politician, nor an economist. Just a citizen.
I want police and teachers, clean streets and libraries.
I want lonely people who are stuck in their homes to get more than 15 rushed minutes of a carer’s abysmally paid time each day.
I want flowers to bring joy to a miserable day.
I want a world that knows the value of everything and the price of ending up with nothing.
*John Clare died in a lumatic asylum. I saw a television programme about him when I was a teenager and could not believe such a tragic life could be the lot of the poet who wrote such delightful verses about the wonders of nature. My copy of his bird poems (a Folio Society edition) is illustrated by Thoas Bewick. Two masters in one volume. Sigh.
**Figures from Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy