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WHO CARES ABOUT THE SIZE OF OSBORNE’S MIDDLE?

It is quite hard to find any news from Westminster or any other part of this country at the moment that doesn’t involve the weather — actually, it is impossible to have even a casual conversation on the telephone without most of it involving floods and general misery, particularly in our part of the world in the southwest. Farms have been destroyed, villages inundated, and there isn’t a river in the south that hasn’t broken its banks. From where I sit, I look out, happily from a reasonable distance up a hillside, at the flooded valley below, but we are not in an area where there has been much new building on flood plains. Albeit the villages beside the river here are heavily buttressed with sandbags, and I thank my lucky stars not to have been seduced into buying that pretty mill house down the road where the water actually flows rather beautifully under the floor, over it as of now. It will take months of hard work, large amounts of money and more misery before things even begin to get back to normal. In the worse hit areas, people can only look forward to the same happening again with our current climate changes just as they get more or less back to normal.

Arguments rage over solutions to the problem, but the real answers are very long term, involving a reversal of much of our recent house-building policy in this overcrowded land and a recreation of old landscapes cleared for modern farming practices. The short-term answers include dredging rivers of silt deposits, but this brings its own problems eventually by creating faster-running water that erodes river banks further and faster than before and reduces our small land space more than ever. India knows all about water and river issues, dams, dry river beds and water shortages and also about terrible floods exacerbated by the human effort to find more living space. We have had periodic floods here, but seldom at this level. Whatever we do over water we don’t get it right, there is either too much or too little almost wherever we live on the earth, and one can only imagine that it is going to get much worse, even excluding mega-disasters from melting polar icecaps and all the other world-changing climate events that we are threatened with during the next few decades.

I was very briefly in India last week, and in Delhi where it was almost as wet and cold as here — too disappointing, although a weekend in Chennai at least offered the sight of the sun for a few hours. Indian politics, at the moment, is of course far more interesting than ours, whether or not that is a pleasure for the country. Arvind Kejriwal resigned just before I left, which struck me as an outsider as shooting himself in both feet — a view endorsed by some of his erstwhile supporters, but not all I gather. He clearly continues to see himself as the great launderer of political corruption — no doubt this really will all come out in the wash in the elections. We will be watching from here with total fascination, it is a lot more interesting than either our weather or the almost-headline news today that George Osborne has gone on a pre-budget diet in order to squeeze his own burgeoning middle. Am I meant to care?

What we do care about, however, is the further financial squeeze we should all expect from that budget. Osborne is taking a great deal of care to tell us that considerable and quite dramatic improvements in our economy and the job market don’t mean that the screws aren’t still turning to grind us down. While measures will be taken to promote British businesses and grow exports, we can be pretty sure that families, especially the poorest, will continue to suffer with further cuts to public services and, of course, to benefits.

Forty-three Christian leaders, including 27 Anglican bishops, have today published a letter drawing attention to the sufferings of the poorest in our society whose numbers are growing. Indians know well the issues of rising costs for basic foods, and prices here have gone up by 30 per cent in the last five years, while wages have stayed flat in an equally flat economy. Getting the benefits for which this ‘welfare society’ has been so castigated is, for the genuinely poor, like getting blood out of a stone. Old people have to choose between heating their houses in winter, an essential in this cold and wet country, and eating. Poor families are increasingly relying on free donated food from ‘food banks’, the numbers of which are growing.

Churches, however ill-attended these days, remain places of refuge and the clergy see what it is in front of their noses and are right to draw it to the government’s attention. Many of those churches, in addition, have become to all intents and purposes shelters for the homeless — they have nowhere else to go. Economic crash or not, it is shameful that things are getting so bad in a country where the rich are very rich indeed. India, of course, has seen that widening gulf for years, and blames much on political corruption — here we have to blame it on political and economic mismanagement.

On the subject of corruption, it seems that the wheeling and dealing over the Sochi Olympics know no bounds and the sums of money involved are spectacular by all of our standards. On the day, as is so often the case, things seemed to have worked more or less successfully. Presumably, the fall out later, when the most expensive road and rail links ever are hardly used again, hotels that were barely finished in time are empty and Sochi becomes yet another Olympic ghost town, will be covered by an opaque Russian curtain pulled across the stage by Putin.

I failed to see any of the events while I was in India and haven’t watched much more since I came back, although I like skating and some skiing. I know that India managed to field a small Olympic team in spite of a variety of problems and the British are rarely gold-medal standard in winter games. We may live in a cold country, but it isn’t cold enough that children grow up doing winter sports as a matter of course and our winners are exceptions. One most eccentric sport, at which the British are delightfully rather good, is Curling — well, it was invented in medieval Scotland, from all accounts, and then spread across the colder parts of the world by traders and all those adventurous Scots who emigrated in search of a better life.

It involves two teams of three sliding large, circular, polished, granite rocks up an ice pitch with a sort of goal at the end; the winners are the team with most rocks nearest the goal, I think. Sounds exciting? Not exactly, but there is something faintly compelling about such an utterly bizarre sport being taken very seriously in an Olympic setting, and we won a medal. It is surprising that Lawn Bowls, the equivalent British summer sport, wasn’t part of London 2012, but that really is a slow game, grass being even less exciting than ice, and most expectedly played by the aged during our chilly summers, always supposing they got enough to eat in the winter to survive.