Travel Journal April 27, 1999
Town of Art, Town of Books.


Portmeirion, which was used as "The Village" in the British T.V. series The Prisoner, is said to be the only town in the U.K. which charges admission.

Speaking of The Prisoner, I noticed that there are discretely-placed suveillance cameras placed near the entrance.

The town itself is delightfully quaint. Someone has gone through a lot of trouble to make sure that everything is decorated in a way that harmonizes with the overall aesthetic of the village.

Next: A few hours worth of driving brought me to the town of Hay-on-Wye, the self-proclaimed "town of books", or at least that's what it says on the sign next to the road leading into town. And it's true - there are no less than 32 book stores here, selling mostly used books. There are some specialty book shops as well as those that sell a general selection.

I bought three biographies, one each on Wellington, Nelson, and Bonnie Prince Charlie.

I also spent a lot of time listening to the BBC talk radio shows.

One thing that has become clear to me is that the Europeans are generally unhappy with American farming practices. Specifically, a large percentage of Europeans do not want meat that is produced using injections of growth hormones, milk that is produced using injections of hormones designed to stimulate lactation, or genetically modified fruits and vegetables. I've visited a number of places such as Findhorn which could be labeled "counter-culture", and all of them had little handbills with shrill and strident warnings about the evils of genetically modified (or "GM") food. In other words, the same sort of stuff you see when walking around Haight-Ashbury or U.C. Berkeley, or any other stronghold of green politics. Some of these flyers are written in a style that is so sensationalist and so full of claims that strain credibility, it makes the whole issue difficult to take seriously. Which is too bad, because there are a number of aspects of these issues that do deserve to be taken seriously.

Now, if it were just a case of a few handbills on telephone poles, I wouldn't have thought much more about it. (To be honest, it's not an issue that I'm particularly concerned with either way. This is not to say that the issue isn't important. But I like to pick my battles, in other words, I like to choose a small number of issues to focus on, and then educate myself about those issues thoroughly, so I'll be absolutely sure which side is the once I want to be on. This particular issue is one that didn't make that cut.) It appears, however, that this is very much a mainstream issue, and not just the hotbutton issue of a few radical environmentalists.

I've been listening to the BBC radio quite a bit. One of the regular daily shows is called "The Archers" which is a kind of radio soap opera about life in a small farming community. The issue of GM crops is discussed in almost every episode, because it's one of the major bones of contention that is currently running through the town. The main character who is in favor of GM trials is an older farmer who's not a particularly sympathetic character, mainly because he's a little stubborn, and rather dismissive of the opinions of those around him.

This isn't just an isolated example. On one of the quiz shows, the host made a joke about eating GM vegetables and "growing a third eye" or something, the kind of joke we would make about toxic radiation.

It should also be noted that the corporation primarily responsible for genetic modification of crops is the American agro-giant Monsanto, who also happens to be the biggest maker of agricultural pesticides on the planet. The name "Monsanto" has been mentioned several times in these discussions, and usually with the implication that it's a big, threatening, American corporation that's going to get its own way regarless of what the independent farmers in England want.

Unlike the British Railway, the BBC has not yet been privatized, which means that it is in fact the broadcasting arm of the government. Now, I know from talking to Scott MacMillan (who, in addition to being a herald, is also occasionally a screen writer) that the BBC management is very much into the idea that they are not just in the business of entertaining, but in fact that it is their duty to insure that their programs instill the proper social values into the populace. It's not like American T.V., where the producers of shows are forbidden to depict certain things (certain extremes of sex and violence) but otherwise the selection of program material is based purely on profit motives. Instead, they feel they have a responsibility to teach.

I wonder if the inclusion of the GM debate into "The Archers" is not the artistic decision of a single script writer, but in fact a policy decision made at the highest levels of the BBC management?