The Bridge Interviews
Some older readers may recall the radio comedy series Beyond Our Ken (1958-64) which included a parody of an Any Questions- type panel discussion. Panellists included the cook Fanny Haddock, the rock star Ricky Livid and the west country farmer Arthur Fallowfield whose response to every question began “I think the answer lies in the soil.” This month’s interviewee is a man who thinks that an answer to many of today’s questions really does lie down in the earth beneath us.
George Richmond is by far the youngest person we have interviewed and indeed is the first to be born in the 21st century - in 2000 in Northallerton in North Yorkshire. He has a younger brother who is currently at university. After a family move he grew up in Chedworth where his father worked as a farm manager. He was educated at Balcarras School, Cheltenham and in 2018 won a place at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, to study history. Towards the end of his second year his family moved to Bradwell Grove where his father took a new job managing a dairy farm on the Bradwell estate.
At the same time the Covid pandemic broke out. “We were all sent home and had to study by Zoom.” By the end of his studies he was back in Cambridge but even then he had to sit his final exams online from his room in college. “It felt really weird”. He graduated with a 2:1 degree and was offered the opportunity to take a postgraduate degree in history but by then his interests were moving towards the environment and, allied to that, politics. He explains that members of the Green movement are often hostile to farming and rural communities whereas his background enables him to bring a different perspective to this.
His concern about the environment had started early as he grew up on an organic farm and joined the Eco Club at his primary school. When he arrived at Cambridge he was a Conservative; “I went to the Conservative Party Conference and had a selfie with Theresa May.” However at Cambridge he engaged in discussions with fellow students - “long debates in the kitchen” - and he was influenced in his views, particularly on the environment, economics and Brexit. In his second year he joined the Cambridge University Labour Club and became its disability officer. (He has scoliosis, a type of curvature of the spine, which restricts his mobility). He was also male student welfare officer at his college. He took an active part in his college debating society and worked on Cambridge FM, where he interviewed people of note.
On returning to Burford in 2021 he had a busy year. He became more active in the local community and began by starting a campaign to persuade Burford Town Council to stop using pesticides to control weeds on the streets. He pointed out that Witney, roughly ten times bigger than Burford, had already phased out pesticides and Chipping Norton was doing the same. He cites Rachel Carson’s highly influential book Silent Spring which as long ago as 1962 pointed out the environmental harm caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides. BTC said they were supporting campaigns to stop river pollution and make Burford plastic free (how’s that going, we wonder in passing?) but he replied that stopping using pesticides was an action the council could take themselves without the need to influence others. He attended a BTC meeting but was not able to speak as he lives just outside the civil parish. That led to him joining the BEAGles (regular contributors to these pages) and he got a job with the Sustainable Soils Alliance, a group of farming organisations, businesses and scientists which champions the urgent restoration of Britain’s soil to prevent flooding, mitigate the effects of climate change and promote national food security. Aptly we spoke to George during the UK Soils Awareness Week which is being held by the SSA and UK SOILS to raise public curiosity about soils. Importantly for him, he was brought to faith and became a Christian, joining Burford parish church.
If all this were not enough, he did an eight hour shift in Burford Co-op on Sunday afternoons and evenings which gave him an opportunity to meet and talk to a wide spectrum of Burfordians.
The start of 2021 saw him become active in the local Labour Party, the first meeting he attended being a talk by Anneliese Dodds who is Chair of the Labour Party and MP for Oxford East. In the summer he met up with a young councillor at Stroud district council. They discussed what could be done by local government for the environment. “Local government is where change can happen. Councillors are closer to the community [than national politicians] and they know what is going on on the ground.” The district council elections were coming up. Burford was regarded as unpromising territory and there was not exactly a stampede of volunteers to stand in the Labour interest. After talking to various people he decided to put his name forward. This led to George taking part in the public hustings in Burford with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates. It is fair to say that many, if not all, of the audience were very impressed by his fluent speaking and his detailed grasp of the various policy areas. He started by joking that the phrase “Labour candidate for Burford” was almost a contradiction in terms. When the candidates were asked what they would like to do about environmental concerns, it was George’s turn to speak first and he came out with a whole series of policy initiatives. When Hugo Ashton, the Lib Dem candidate, had his turn, he began by saying “I think the first thing I shall do is appoint George as a consultant.” George came third in the election but he had made big impact on those who heard him speak.
He has since stepped back from involvement with the Witney Labour Party but he is still involved with the Young Fabians and is policy officer for the Young Fabian Environmental Network. At the time of our interview he was preparing to take part in the Good Food Good Farming march in London. This was intended to put pressure on the government to introduce “strong and imaginative food and farming policies which create a food system that feeds us all good food without destroying the planet.” This was the first protest march he had taken part in.
His life has now taken a different turn. Sadly he has left Burford, at least for now, and is studying for an MSc in Agroecology, Water and Food Sovereignty at Coventry University. This course, the only one of its kind, is based at Ryton Gardens outside Coventry, and addresses the challenge of securing ecologically sustainable and socially just food and agricultural systems. He explains that food sovereignty means giving communities the ability to produce their own food and have control over their own food production, to provide food security by providing not just more food but the ability to produce their own food. He illustrates this with the saying that “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
Where George will go after completing his studies is uncertain. He says that the university system has the effect of encouraging graduates to seek lucrative jobs in the City but that is not for him. “It depends where the opportunities are.” He misses Burford, especially having coffee at Lynwoods and chatting to people in the Co-op - not so much climbing The Hill which he finds a struggle.
How does he relax from all these activities? “I listen to radio and to music. I have very eclectic tastes. I enjoy reading. I love coffee. I like a few ciders but only a few. I am not a clubber.
”We are sure we haven’t heard the last of George, whether his future lies in politics, environmental work or a combination of the two. Wherever his career leads him, we are confident that his life will be firmly rooted in the soil.