Land, Lords and Tenants
By Billy Noland
It’s the start of February, I’ve got loads of hazels left, beech nuts and venison. The deer had a good summer, they’re a good weight with great quality skins. The mix of sunny days and sharp frosts lets the skins dry for rawhide at the perfect rate. The biggest storm for decades has brought down loads of trees and there’s enough wood to last for years. The standing dead birch to burn now and poplar to dry for next year, while we wait for the bounty of big old beech trees to slowly season. The growing season was great too, with plenty of beetroot and carrots left and the kale still putting out small tender leaves. At any other point in European history, and still in some far flung corners of the world, this is the time to relax, be confident about the year ahead and celebrate the bounty nature has provided from the past year to get us through. But my family look less than amused, and not just because I’ve soaked a deer skin in the bath. The car is making a funny noise, the rent’s just emptied the bank account and the gas bill hasn’t been paid. Work is slow this time of year and no amount of bountiful, tangible, glorious reality can overcome our servitude to abstract debts, consumerist social norms and tenant responsibilities.
There is no longer any local shop or pub here because the car provides the option of traveling to the nearest town, with greater choice and lower prices no doubt. The only choice that has been removed is the choice not to have a car; that option is off the table for any rural family that cannot manage their affairs around a skeletal bus service. It takes up a massive proportion of our income to ferry us to the supermarket where the same number of people work in providing food as they do in ‘developing countries’, except instead of working in the fields or subsistence farming outside the monetary economy, they get paid the minimum wage to deliver crates, pack shelves and scan bar codes. For all this supply chain efficiency, half the food gets wasted. That scraping noise on the back axle is sounding increasingly expensive. In my more positive moments I Imagine it’s just the brake pads, but if it doesn’t get sorted it’ll be down to the calipers and that really will be expensive. Screw the gas, car it is then.
I don’t want the gas bill anyway, or the gas, or indeed the gas tank that takes up the most potentially productive, best drained, south facing side of the garden. For less than the cost of my annual gas bill I could fit a second hand log burning stove into every room in the house. But this isn’t my house, it was built for people who liked cars, rhododendrons and leylandii from what I can gather. They owned it, lived in it and were probably very happy slowly modifying it to fit in with their way of life. After they died it became an asset, not a home. Assets have neutral colour palettes, fitted kitchens and middle of the range double glazing. You cannot personalise an asset you do not own, no matter how awful the fireplace is.
This unholy connivance of planning regulation, landlord’s rights and the private housing market are forcing an entire generation to live out their lives in spaces that do not fit, that fall short of being homes. No matter how well insulated or desirable a property is, to be denied the creative freedom to adapt it to your own way of being is an infringement of one of humanity’s most basic needs. This is an entirely modern situation and although renting has existed in some form since feudal times, its current, post-industrial form is unique. Its negative consequences are also magnified because other ways of being that made it tolerable have been degraded. Historically, in comparison to slum-dwelling Victorians, we can see how far we’ve come, how much better our working conditions, wages and diet are. But to put it into context we need to look at how far they, the Victorians, fell to end up in that situation.
Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thornes and thistles it shall bring forth for you. And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thy taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
Genesis 3, 17-19
This used to sound like the ultimate punishment, yet implicit in the statement are a set of rights, expressed in the Bible as assumptions because they used to be so obvious they need not be stated. Those words could be as old as the dawn of agriculture where the new technology threatened an ancient way of life. But we learned how to live well from the land, physically and culturally, for thousands of years. It is that way of life that is now being destroyed by a system so despised that it took hundreds of years to force people to accept it. That bread mentioned in Genesis is now a luxury item, artisan, organic and in no way resembling mass produced supermarket loaves, and as for the eco burial, I can’t afford that.
Our loss of rights over the land and our homes, even as tenants, would shock our feudal ancestors. We have become desensitised to enclosure, wage labour and the stifling restrictions on our freedom to make homes. I’m a wage labourer, and not even a minimum wage labourer, yet what is taken for granted as a way of life in the contemporary developed world was only a few hundred years ago considered so degrading, that only the most destitute and incapable were subjected to such conditions. Now people with PhDs compete to be bar staff.
Tackling this issue head on is not an option until subsistence is an option, and that can only happen with rights over land. Rent and wage labour in the absence of rights over land are mutually re-enforcing conditions, and the clouding of our vision by ‘market values’ even tempts us to demand more of the problem as the solution, more jobs, higher wages. True freedom is the right to choose how much of your income comes from and how much of your time is devoted to wage labour. Wage labour has become a monopoly that has stifled for the majority all other forms of economic activity and independence.
Why do the values of the past jar so much with the contemporary world view? How come the evidence of the problem is so overwhelming yet it is tolerated, and most citizens are willing and complicit actors in this way of being? It is because we have been trained to believe a story, that if we work hard enough, go to school and get good grades we will earn a place in society, everyone has a fair chance in this meritocracy, and if we fail It’s our own fault. That story is now unravelling.
The weather’s getting warmer, the plants will all shoot up in order, birch sap will be rising and lesser celandine flowering, then wild garlic and hogweed shoots. It looks idyllic but it may as well be a mirage. No-one’s being burned out of their cottages, no starving children and mass emigration, but ultimately the relaxed dress codes and excessive nutrition mask an insidious power imbalance that controls the lives of many and entrenches the position of the landed class. There are friendly land owners and relaxed landlords, but that’s not the point. In the 21st century in Scotland, one section of society has to carry favour with another in order to gain housing at extortionately high rates and employment at shamefully low rates. There is no amount of hours I could work to cross the divide. In a city this relationship may be abstract, through agencies and corporations, but in the countryside it’s still personal and my views if expressed openly could prevent me from access to housing and work. This is an issue of freedom of speech that will not be resolved until I cannot be removed from the ground I inhabit.