Monday, 4 July 2011


In 1991 I was presented a beautiful Blackthorn walking stick with a silver ferrule engraved by the organisation that gave it to me. At the time it was a gift I never thought I would use, but it has remained one of my treasured possessions ever since.

Over the last few years I have found myself relying on the stick more and more. Whilst my heart made me use the blackthorn, I must admit that the root knob was pretty uncomfortable in the hand. Eventually I bowed to the pressure of the red circle in the palm of my hand and bought myself a new walking stick. It was a rather smart mahogany colour Derby Cane with a brass ferrule and a handle offering a more comfortable grip.

Within two days I dropped the new stick and the varnish chipped, two months later the stick looked like I had owned it for years. The thick layer of hard coloured varnish was chipped all over and the “brass” ferrule had been scratched to reveal a cheap aluminium band underneath the brass top coat. Whilst the stick itself is well made the manufacturers had spoiled what could have been a quality product by applying a veneer of cheap coloured spray-on varnish to finish it off, presumably to cut costs.

Aware that the stick was looking scruffy I decided to remove the varnish and re-polish it. Having stripped the stick back to clean wood I applied layer upon layer of a natural wax polishing the stick well between each application. The finished product was a big improvement and I feel confident that it will continue to look good for some time to come.

The physical process of polishing the cane was quite cathartic and as I sat in my shed, or hobbled around the garden buffing up the stick with a rag torn from an old T shirt, I got to thinking about how the stick could be used as a metaphor for progress.

It occurred to me that our modern society is often so eager to get things done quickly, cheaply or easily, that that we end up taking shortcuts. At the time the shortcuts seem like a good idea, but they often result in some form of re-work being required to put things right, or a lesser quality product being produced.

I asked myself; will the furniture, toys and buildings of today stand up to the rigours of history as have the antiques and historical buildings we enjoy today? It seemed to me that in the rush to produce vast quantities at speed for as little as possible we have sacrificed quality in almost all areas of our endeavour.

Our foods are artificially flavoured, coloured and preserved, to the extent that some of the fruits and vegetables we eat have been stored for a year before reaching our tables and the nutritional content has been virtually eradicated.

In medicine doctors prescribe drugs designed to address specific symptoms, these often have unwanted side effects which require other drugs to be used in order that the first ones can be taken. This leads to a situation where the cocktail of drugs being taken can be more harmful than the original cause of suffering. The sad point is that it is often the symptom that is treated and not the cause.

Treating symptoms is common in modern society. Crime, substance abuse, social housing. jobs, education and even foreign policy, all suffer from the effects of policies designed to be the quick fix for one symptom or another. Unfortunately they seldom address the real issues and money and resources are squandered.

The poem below is a light hearted attempt to illustrate how progress can have negative side effects. What is more it suggests a solution to the problems of traffic congestion, childhood obesity, parental stress and does all this whilst having a positive effect on family finances.

Progress – School Run

I used to ride or walk to school,
along with all my friends.
Now I sit breathing fuel,
as travel time extends.

The car in front’s a four by four,
as is the one behind.
They seem to have kids galore,
In safety seats confined.

Mums put on lippy as they rush
to drop kids at the gate.
Then back to get a quick Red Bush
before a lunch with Kate.

The little darlings clamber out,
dragging bags behind them.
Mobile phones are quick dugout
the traffic becomes mayhem.

Some would call this progress;
plump kids and jammed up street.
But I would call it progress
if more would use their feet.

John Carré Buchanan
14 September 2010


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