In search of feral apples and underground men

My village, just outside Barnsley on the A635, used to supply the workers for lots of coal mines: Darfield Main, Grimethorpe, Houghton Main, Dearne Valley Drift, Goldthorpe, Barnburgh, Cortonwood; names of closed pits ringing like bells.

It’s a Sunday evening in late, late November and I’m just about to walk down through the village with my wife to her mother’s for tea. There will be homemade pies and celery sticks in a jug. I’ve got my thick coat on and my lucky Barnsley FC hat, and I’m carrying my carrier bag and my stick. Actually, it’s not really my stick: it was the one my mother had for the last few years before she died, the one she hung on to in the hope she might walk again.

The sky is clear as we set off and the full and insistent moon lights up the field behind the high wall; the herons are there, four of them sitting on the bare earth like constructions, like toys. We stand and watch them not moving, being still. Behind the field the Grimethorpe bypass is lit by passing cars, and the huge ugly Asos warehouse glows beside the hill that used to be the Houghton Main pit stack.

I’m pointing with my stick at the stars. I wish I knew more about the names of the constellations. Maybe I could just make some up: Uncle Frank’s Cap. The Unravelling Muffler. Somebody did it once, after all. Beyond Asos is the RSPB site, the ducks rising and falling from the water to the air and back again beside the double-glazing place.

My village, just outside Barnsley on the A635, used to supply the workers for lots of coal mines: Darfield Main, Grimethorpe, Houghton Main, Dearne Valley Drift, Goldthorpe, Barnburgh, Cortonwood; names of closed pits ringing like bells. Winding gear and slag heaps were slapped on to landscapes that had hardly changed over decades and miners like my father-in-law walked to work down a bridle path that had been there for centuries.

There was a persistent rumour of a mandrake growing in the swampy patches near the river; “When tha pulls ‘em up they scream!” Jim Marsden said one afternoon as we stood together in the drizzle at the top of the hill listening for sounds of the men working in the mines underneath. Jim insisted that some days you could hear them. “Blokes coughing” he’d say, “and blokes swearing.”

I walk this route every morning at the crack of dawn and I tweet about it; I see the most amazing things and I struggle to squeeze them into 140 characters, like the time I saw that man in a camouflage jacket walk by that man in a hi-vis jacket and as they passed they cancelled each other out.

The owner of the big house put a wall up some time in the last century so that he wouldn’t be able to see men like my father-in-law walking to Houghton Main, and now the workers from Asos stroll that way too, a historical continuation with boots and snap bags. I never found the mandrake but there are three or four plum trees down there, grown from spat stones; the jam glows (metaphorically) at the back of my pantry.

Now we’re at the top of the bridle path and I pull the carrier bag out of my pocket and get my stick ready. This is the reason for the stick – the apple tree by the wall, still full of fruit even this late in the year. Us hunters of the feral apple know what a good year 2013 has been: that mini orchard by the roundabout at Junction 37 of the M1, that huge crop of green beauties across from Tesco’s at Stairfoot near the fossil bank that my kids used to dig in, those heavy cookers that fall to the ground beside the fishing tackle shop in Low Valley.

And these: Yeats’s “silver apples of the moon” hanging just out of reach. Potential crumbles that I poke with my stick until they tumble and I catch them in the carrier. Some are as small as marbles but I’ll take them home anyway. Some roll into the road and a car passes and somebody beeps their horn and gestures to me. It’s either a thumbs-up or a raised pair of fingers. You can’t tell round here, in this Barnsley of the mind where layers of history cover the ground like fallen apples. I’ll just keep poking with my mother’s stick.


This season has ssen a bumper crop of British apples. Photo: Nicolo' Minerbi/Luzphoto/Redux

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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Why divided Brussels is the perfect hideout for jihadists

Counterterrorism requires on-the-ground policing in tandem with centralised control. Belgium’s fragmented political set-up is not conducive.

In Belgium, Santa Claus comes to town early. Children get their presents on 6 December, so that, on Christmas Eve, parents and grandparents can devote themselves single-mindedly to eating and drinking.

Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, arrives, logically enough, on the feast day of St Nicholas. He is dressed in the cope and mitre of a bishop rather than the fur-trimmed flannel of his anglophone counterpart and has come, not from the North Pole, but from Spain (a throwback to the Spanish Netherlands).

This year, however, there is no telling if St Nicholas will be allowed in or instead kept in a holding bay at Antwerp docks. And, if he does get through, will anyone be around to greet him? Last Saturday, Brussels was put into a state of suspended animation. In the days after the Paris atrocities, connections had been established between the perpetrators and the Brussels district of Molenbeek, but a series of raids had failed to locate Salah Abdeslam, who, it was believed, had escaped from Paris and headed to Brussels.

In response to a warning of a “very serious and imminent” threat, the city was subjected to what Twitter calls #LockdownBrussels. Soldiers patrolled the streets. Armoured vehicles parked outside train stations and central squares. Markets, sports fixtures and concerts were cancelled. The Metro was stopped and bars were instructed to close early.

For the most part, residents greeted the developments with their customary phlegmatic good humour, comforting themselves that the weather was so bad it was good to stay indoors. But when the government announced that public transport, schools and kindergartens would not open on Monday, grumbling intensified. How long could this departure from normality be sustained? On Monday, having chaired the national security council, the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, announced that the security threat level would be maintained for another week but public transport, schools and other public buildings would be reopened progressively from Wednesday, once defences were in place.

Before the lockdown, I made myself unpopular with the locals by writing that Belgium’s political set-up is not conducive to counterterrorism, which requires good on-the-ground policing joined to centralised, specialist expertise. Beset with linguistic and territorial divisions between the Dutch-speaking north (Flanders) and the French-speaking south (Wallonia) – a roughly 60-40 split – the political class embarked more than 40 years ago on successive waves of decentralisation, weakening the federal government, pushing responsibility and money down to the regions but also to the provinces and 589 communes (units of local government). In 1989, Brussels became a stand-alone bilingual region between Flanders and Wallonia, a point of uneasy stalemate: West Berlin in Belgium’s linguistic cold war.

Although Brussels is the capital of Flanders, Dutch speakers are outnumbered by French speakers and by the large ethnic minorities from North Africa and Turkey. (Before Wallonia’s coal and steel industries declined in the 1960s and 1970s, companies encouraged migration from the Mediterranean basin.) Most Dutch speakers who work in Brussels commute from outside and so pay their taxes elsewhere. The division of federal income between the regions is fiercely contested. To make matters worse, this city of only 1.2 million is subdivided into 19 uneven communes. Their populations vary from 21,000 to 175,000 and their size from little more than a square kilometre, in St Josse and Koekelberg, to 23 square kilometres in the leafy Uccle – home to so many Parisians escaping the high wealth taxes of France.

Some town halls provide efficient services; others have become bywords for mismanagement and worse. Above them, the regional government, weakened by factionalism between and within language groups, is incapable of imposing uniformity. It was no surprise, then, to see confusion and disunity under lockdown: mixed messages from mayors and ministers over whether public crèches would be open, how many terrorists were at large and when the Metro might reopen. Brussels residents are, however, for the most part tolerant and resourceful.

Economic and security logic might suggest that, if and when the threat subsides, Belgium would address dysfunctions in Brussels. Sadly, they are hardwired into the Belgian political settlement of the past half-century. Even Santa Claus would be hard-pressed to find a way out. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State