Dear Chief Secretary to the Treasury,
I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.
Signed, Liam Byrne

(Outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury. May 2010)

Saturday, 6 March 2010

A letter to a heron.

Dear Mr Heron,

We Rigbys are aware of your place at the top of both the food chain and the avian pecking order, a position only surpassed by humans who have, in the past, captured and eaten herons. But we don't do it any more, not in Britain. We do not tend to kill and eat heron these days because some people think you look too pretty to eat, whilst there are laws that stop others - ensuring that your species does not go the way of the Dodo.

You will recall your excitement when, last year, we Rigbys filled Rigby Towers' lake with numerous fish of various sizes and of various breeds. We humans were aware that, from afar, near the top of the nearest tall tree, you carefully monitored these creatures, biding your time, waiting until the risk of landing close to humans (and cats) would be worth your while.

To the delight of the Junior Rigbys you began to landing the garden late in the evening, when you thought we humans would not notice, and began selecting the larger, more flamboyant fish, or those too brightly coloured to successfully hide in the aquatic undergrowth, for your supper. Your activity made the smaller, better camouflaged, less well-endowed fish secretive and suspicious of any visitors to their tiny kingdom but they thought they were safe provided they kept quiet, did nothing to bring themselves to your notice, and whilst there was a place to hide.

The more senior Rigbys were, at the time, smugly self-assured that they had had the foresight to plan ahead and ensure that there would always be sufficient fish both for you to eat and for humans to enjoy watching, so weren't overly concerned by your activities and tolerated your behaviour.

Nothing was done, therefore, to discourage your evening visits. Nothing was done to make it difficult for you, and your family, to sustain yourselves from what you considered to be your private larder.

Mr Heron, we know this winter has been a difficult one for you and yours. All ponds, and the edges of watercourses, in and around Rigby Town have been covered with ice for days on end – making it impossible for you to easily satisfy your huge carnivorous appetite, so we know you have had to search far and wide for your supper. We Rigbys have been concerned to notice that, even now, as our human calendar enters the second week of March, and ever since it stopped raining, Rigby Lake has been covered with a film of ice until early afternoon.

This made us ponder, for a while, on the confirmed science of global warming, and how we have not yet, for the first time in ten or more years, discovered tapioca-like clumps of frogspawn nor have we seen a celandine flower. But those are separate issues, and we must not allow ourselves to be sidetracked, or use this smokescreen to obscure the important issue of the day which is your family's dietary habits and perceived lack of foresight and apparent failure to plan ahead.

Winter is a time for plants to sleep, floating leaves die back in the autumn ensuring all available sunlight reaches the plant life slumbering in the depths of ponds. Unfortunately the loss of these leaves enables patient predators like you, Mr Heron, to see things that would be otherwise concealed.

During the latter part of last week, Mr Heron, you or your spouse landed in the garden of Rigby Towers, strolled into the icily cold waters of Rigby Lake where you stood, patiently waiting, until the very last murky-green fish panicked and sacrificed itself to become your supper. Clever Heron! If you were human you might have patted yourself on your back for your skill at spearing a tasty morsel, but, as a human you might have also considered the plight of the previously mentioned Dodo.

The trouble is, Mr Heron, that you have now managed to land yourself not only the last fish, but also a bit of a problem for both yourself and the Rigbys.

You see, humans don't make fish. We don't lay their eggs ourselves – grown-up fish do that. The laws of probability tell us that Rigby Lake needs at least three adult fish to be sure that one will be capable of laying her eggs, eggs that will eventually hatch and grow into fish large enough to become your supper.

Now you have eaten the last fish and, no matter how many times you visit Rigby Lake to inspect its' contents, there will be nothing  fishily edible again until we Rigbys have managed to put something in it.

Do you see a problem yet, Mr Heron? A problem that might be rather more alarming than you could possibly imagine.

Mr Heron, we Rigbys are now the only things that can replenish your fish larder, and we are entirely dependent on other humans. We are dependent on those who have both the enthusiasm and the premises from which we can buy replacement fish – affordable small fish that will grow to become your supper later in the season.

Some humans would refer to such other humans as a 'Water Garden Specialist', others would know them as a Fish Shop (the sort that sells them live, unbattered, without chips) or a Pet Shop. Rigby Town has neither of the latter two, so we Rigbys depend on the former - which is a grand name for a business that sells a few goldfish, some expensive carp, a few plants to put in ponds or 'water features' as well as bags of pretty gravel and a few pressed concrete ornaments that have travelled all the way from China.

The owners of the 'Water Gardens' nearest to Rigby Towers appear to be rich because they have a rather nice car, and because their whole place takes up a lot of space. It takes up much more space than the local Tesco Metro, but their tiny shop is little more than a large storage shed and carport. It has a leaky roof, which doesn't bother the fish. It doesn't bother the customers either, because nobody tends to go there when it's cold or raining – unlike those who shop at Tesco.

Herons eat a lot in the summer, and get fatter, so that during the leaner times of winter they do not die of starvation – their bodies use the fat instead of eating fresh meat. You do that, Mr Heron, without thinking. Humans, unfortunately, have to plan ahead and need money to go and buy what they need from places like Tesco, or Asda, or Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Lidl or Aldi for their food.

Mr Heron, you will never have heard of an “economic downturn”, a “recession” or even a financial “depression”. You will never have heard of “wages”, “national insurance”, “business rates”, taxation”, “cost of living” or “inflation” either - there is no reason why you should,. You have no need for money. You spot something you what you want to eat and you take it, although occasionally you might have to fight other herons to get your own way. This means you have no need of Tesco, Lidl or the Corner Shop, and will not have heard what happened to Woolworth, to MFI, to Zavvi, to Borders Books and other businesses that are no longer 'in business' because they ran out of money.

They ran out of money, Mr Heron, because although they thought they had planned ahead for lean times, they hadn't done it well enough and the lean times lasted longer than they had anticipated – perhaps because they weren't given the right information.

Because herons don't live as long as humans you, Mr Heron, will not know that it's been many years since there has been as cold a winter as the one that's coming to an end. The Met Office predicted the 2009 to 2010 winter would be mild – their prediction was wrong. It was so wrong that they have decided to give up long-term forecasts because, they say, even though they've been making weather forecasts since 1854, it's suddenly become too difficult.

Their wrong prediction, Mr Heron, hurt a lot more people than the salt-free road-gritters, and snow clearers, it also hurt people who thought they would be back up in business before the beginning of a warm and sunny March.

That wrong prediction has hurt people who thought they had put enough money aside not only look after themselves and their families during the lean, cold, winter months, but also had to pay the government for the privilege of being a trader, for the privilege of having a fancy-looking car, and who have had to pay for the diesel and electricity needed to keep the creatures in their care alive and healthy. And all these things have got much more expensive recently and that, Mr Heron, is why we Rigbys might not be able to replenish your larder - because Rigby Town's Water Gardens has not re-opened after the winter, and the run-down premises are up for sale.

Your plight, Mr Heron, can only be resolved by Rigby Town's Water Gardens getting a new, careful, owner who is willing to make sacrifices, perhaps do without a posh car, whilst spending their small income on making the shop look a bit nicer, so it will attract more customers than before, but those customers also need to have money to spare for the business to survive.

Your plight, Mr Heron, can only be resolved by Rigby Town's Water Gardens getting a new, careful, owner who is willing to make sacrifices, perhaps do without a posh car, whilst spending their small income on making the shop look a bit nicer, to attract potential customers. Until then, Mr Heron you will have to go without and unfortunately we Rigbys cannot be held responsible for your lack of planning, your lack of foresight, when it comes to feeding the baby herons that will, assuredly, arrive in the not too distant future.

You wouldn't understand, Mr Heron, how your current situation and the wider picture relating to your food supply mirrors that of a much large place where the fortunes of the all but the very few depend entirely on the appointment of a new, careful, owner whose advisors need the gift of accurate prediction, foresight and long-term planning.



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