The power of the pen


‘When you collect marine animals’, wrote John Steinbeck In Cannery Row, ‘there are certain flatworms that are so delicate they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into a bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.’ I have been researching a story about words. Words of influence, words which change the world. Not letters written by Ministers and Kings, but to them, by people in their living rooms on behalf of the wordless ones. The marine and land creatures which can break and tatter under our human touch.

We live in a democracy – from the greek ‘demos’ meaning people, and ‘kratia’ meaning power or rule, a government by the people, ‘in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole’. It is easy to forget. Feeling so small, I often ponder on the magnitude of the task, so much wrong in the world. How can our desire to help translate into real action. Some people tie themselves to trees, commit what George Mackay called ‘senseless acts of beauty’, in direct action. One such was described In RSPB leaflet no.50, in 1904, by WH Hudson, early chairman of the RSPB, who bought a linnet which was for sale in a London market in an effort to save it from a worse fate. It died before he could release it into the countryside.

There is another way. In 1933, thanks to tireless lobbying work by the RSPB, an Act was passed which made it illegal to sell certain birds like this. Changing the law, changes the world, not just for one vulnerable linnet we may come across, but for them all. And individuals can change the world by putting pen to paper. This is a story about a woman in Herefordshire, about democracy, freedom of speech, limpets and gannets and corridors of power. About words on a page. About RSPB members leaving the apathetic throng and daring to speak out.

‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’ George Bernard Shaw, (Reason). Not that the RSPB would ever ask anyone to be unreasonable – well maybe just a little bit. Of course what is unreasonable for one is perfectly reasonably to another: Marjorie Lewis spent her life as a secretary and now she is retired writes careful, quietly eloquent letters to her MP on behalf of the wildlife she has loved since she was a child. As a result, she speaks like a professional on subjects as diverse as peat, pesticides and long lining. Sometimes Marjorie goes with husband Gerry to Simmonds Yat to see the peregrine falcons but usually she just enjoys the wildlife outside her own window across Bartonsham Meadows on the edge of Hereford. She, like John Randall MP and Elliot Morley, Minster has been a member of the RSPB for over thirty years

As Marjorie sat down to write her first letter to her MP on the Marine Bill, 10th October 2001, grey seals would have been pupping at beachs around our coastline while oystercachers probed open cockles and whelks with their strong bills… ‘Dear Mr Keetch, I understand John Randall, MP for Uxbrige is bringing forward a Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill in parliament… 80% of the world’s gannets and over half of the world’s great Skuas make their homes in British waters. I would appreciate it if you could arrange to be in the House of Commons on that day to support the Bill… Yours sincerely Mrs M.J. Lewis’. The RSPB wrote back to Marjorie on 2nd November thanking her and with the happy news that the Bill has passed its first hurdle. The grinding process of democracy was still a long way from the finish line, and Mark Avery, Director of Conservation urged Marjorie to write again, asking for the MP to write to the ministers involved… 7th November 2001 Hereford, ‘Dear Mr Keetch, … I am writing to ask you to express your support of the bill by writing to one or all of the following… with best wishes yours sincerely Mrs M.J. Lewis.’ Included in her list is Michael Meacher MP.

‘Letters of thanks, letters from banks, Letters of joy from girl and boy, Receipted bills and invitations, To inspect new stock or visit relations, And applications for situations, And timid lover’s declarations, And gossip gossip from all the nations.’ WH Auden, Night Mail.

In the houses of Parliament, people move in four directions across the central lobby police men and women stand around vigilant and relaxed, not your average beat job. A man in a black suit rushes through opening a letter. He looks like the mad hatter in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ without the hat and I half expect him to stop and read out a decree, but he hurries on. A vast chandelier the size of a Christmas tree hangs, and film lights bedazzle us because the Queen is coming to address both houses for the Jubilee. Marble statues stare down as men in tails rush through and more men with more elaborate dress coats like pied wagtails, with huge gold medallions, bustle about importantly. Some one is giving a guided tour to a group of interested public. A sense of human purpose absent from all wild places, and from most manmade ones is here. The paintings the stonework, the gold and grandeur are ecstatic.

I am here to talk to John Randall Conservative MP for Uxbridge. When John won the lottery for introducing a private members bill into Parliament, a golden opportunity for a backbencher to introduce legislation, he worked with the RSPB to draw up a bill to protect marine wildlife. ‘RSPB member can definitely say they have helped if this gets through’ says John, ‘the RSPB are a taken very seriously, and if they had battle honours, the marine conservation bill would be one, although I don’t like to count my puffins before they are hatched… ‘

On the floor a mosaic of blue and beige flowers has me in raptures, which I convey to John. ‘I’d rather be out there in nature’ he says ‘looking at real flowers’. But then his duties keep him here, and for marine wildlife this is an excellent thing. Too few protected sites have been designated in the marine environment. Of the 6500 or so Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in the UK, only 5% are estuarine and virtually none extend below low water. Yet, 99% per cent of the living space on the planet is in the sea and around half of the living creatures in the UK live in or on the sea . If there were trees in the sea, they would on average have to have trunks three and a half kilometres tall. Even the Thames is tidal, influenced by the gravitational pull of the moon on the water. Even the intricate arched windows of the Houses of Parliament, are carved out of the bodies of millions of sculpted sea creature shells laid down as limestone ages ago in shallow inland seas.

As I am leaving John dashes off to fetch me a copy of the bill, which he hurriedly puts in my hand before he is whips off (excuse the pun) to another meeting. I don’t know if you’ve ever read an act of parliament, but I don’t advise it. The text is dense, formal, yawningly specific and seems to bear no relation to limpets or sand eels or puffins. A BILL it says in big writing on the back cover. Not the kind of bill which probes in the mud after lugworms on Ouse Washes nor Portland Bill, nor the bill for cleaning up after the Sea Empress oil spill (not less than £100million). This is a bill ‘to amend the law relating to nature conservation and protection of wildlife in respect of the marine environment; to provide enforcement power for marine wildlife conservation to competent marine authorities’. A bill is a working document, not yet law, it still needs help.

‘O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril (in) the sea… W. Whiting 1825 -78’

’22 November 2001 House of Commons, London SW1 OAA. Dear Mrs Lewis… I have written to the appropriate ministers in each department urging them to find solutions to those areas of the bill still in dispute … yours sincerely Paul Keetch… 12th December 2001House of Commons, London… Dear Paul, the government is committed to improving nature conservation in the marine environment… Brian Wilson House of Commons London…’ When Brian Wilson sat down to write this letter, Minke whales would have moved off in deeper water to breed and groups of common dolphins may have been seen blowing off the coast of Wales, feeding on squid. ’22nd March 2002 The Lodge, Sandy, Beds, Dear Mrs Lewis, I am pleased to be able to bring you some excellent news. The bill successfully completed its House of Commons stage on Friday 15th March. It now goes to the House of Lords. This a great step and you letters no doubt contributed… Mark Avery Director, Conservation RSPB.’

On the day the Bill passed though the Commons, gannets from Bampton Cliffs to Bass Rock would have been just starting in earnest to reassert the boundaries of their densely packed nests, shouting with their metal voices and shimmering white: ‘single birds, sweeping movements with heraldically outspread wings and rhythmic bows, and reunited pairs, ecstatic meeting ceremonies’ (Bryan Nelson, World Expert Gannets). ’12th April 2002. Dear Paul…’ The last letter in the pile sent by Marjorie is from environment minister Michael Meacher outlining the government’s support for marine conservation which goes beyond the Bill.. I am hooked. I want to know where it ends. We shall all have to wait. The Bill has now gone to the House of Lords, and all fish fingers should be crossed to wish it good luck.

Just next door to the RSPB’s small but sufficient offices in London, is one of DEFRA’s key offices. There, we meet Elliot Morley, but not before he has finished chatting to his boss, Secretary of State, Margaret Becket. After being beckoned through a snowy owl scrutinises from picture frame above where I sit next to Elliot and a tape recorder on the table, theirs not mine, checks every fact. Elliot is minister responsible for animal welfare, fisheries, and other environmental remits. He opens by telling me he thinks he’s got a new tick for his bird list – a lesser sand plover, ‘are you then a’, I hesitate, ‘a twitcher’ (Minister in twitcher shocker) – ‘well’… will he be drawn… ‘I have been known to mix in some bad company’. He used to carry a pager to alert him to unusual birds or butterflies arriving in Britain. These are friends in high places indeed. Elliot’s office is the size of a small field, (well not quite), and the walls are adorned with pictures relating to his ministerial duties, a waterfall, a farmscape, a seascape, and of course the owl.

Elliot was a member of the Young Ornithologists Club, and a few years later, a member of RSPB council. I expect him to be supportive, ‘but how influential do you think the RSPB is generally?’, I ask him. ‘They are’ he says ‘a very effective lobbying organisation making good scientific and technical cases to support their arguments’. ‘Is there a general feeling they are a force to be reckoned with?’ He looks me straight in the eye and nods.

Elliot has been a champion of wildlife, drafting key legislation for farmland birds, promoting tree planting through the new forestry strategy and being a lone voice who negotiated the closure of Wee Bankie to protect and study effects on kittiwakes and other sea birds. On the Curry report he received 1500 letters form MP’s every one of which he is obliged to answer. This is a crucial component of letter writing. To get your MP to write to the Minister responsible, because they are obliged to write back, and thus the issue is brought to their attention. MP’s are very sensitive to the constituents, for it is we who have put them there and who must keep them there. It is possible for letters from people to tip an issue, Elliot tells me, which can make all the difference to the sea lettuce, basking sharks, and manx shearwaters.

The RSPB has long been an effective campaigning organisation and has a team of parliamentary candidates who lobby with MP’s, keep their ears to the ground and their eye on the political process. The day I met him in London, Guy Thompson, head of parliamentary affairs had been having lunch with Andrew Smith of the Treasury, at which Graham Wynne, gave a speech urging support for bird-friendly farming. But without our help, they cannot win.

During the final debate in the House of Commons about the marine bill on the 15th March 2002, three different MP’s mentioned the overwhelming number of letters they had received from constituents. People who cared enough to put pen to paper about the creatures which mattered to them may well have tipped the scale for better protection for sealife for ever. Our letters are like a flock of golden plovers, landing on the desk of MP’s. There are 1500 of us RSPB members per constituency. We give a human voice to the gannets who can deafen you or the dolphins who can blind you with athleticism, who can talk underwater over tens of miles, but who cannot construct human sentences, to the silent limpets who make nightly forays grazing on the rock and then follow their own trail back to their home patch at dawn. Who have perfected the art of holding on in force nines, but who cannot argue against chemical pollution or oil spills or overfishing. It is in our hands to ‘wield at will that fierce democracy’ with ‘resistless eloquence'( Milton 1671 PR iv 269) on their behalf.

Forward into battle: I have long had a love affair with words, but even for me the blank page can seem yawningly empty. The RSPB will guide you through the issues with clear concise guidelines, so get writing…

The next campaign for the RSPB is to persuade the government to provide £500million to implement changes in the Curry report: for a healthy landscape rich in wildlife; a vibrant rural economy for farmers and rural businesses; a variety of high quality and locally produced food and opportunities for leisure, recreation and education. Not sure who to write to or how? Want more information on the campaigns before you commit? Or for another other information on the topic of lobbying and letter writing, contact the extremely helpful and efficient liaison team headed by Sarah Burr at the Lodge…