I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun.
When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths.
What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs.
But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more.
Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.
When I saw a piece in Farmers Weekly declaring Jeremy Clarkson as the 2021 champion of farmers I thought to myself – well the lunatics really have taken over the asylum! I tried to kid myself it was a bit of postmodern irony but – well no. I guess if you wanted to appoint an ambassador who could rise above the facts and blame everyone except himself for making a miniscule profit in spite of the subsidies – and do it while pouring insults and bile over tree huggers and vegans he’s definitely be your man. I know it’s only entertainment, but out here in the real world there does seem to be something of a cultural sea change going on in the more thoughtful parts of the farming community. The talk on the street is that public money will, in the future be attached to public goods, and that means paying more than lip service to the soil and the environment.
So Madame and me have been looking around at some of the local farmers who are heading in the same direction as us and today we revisited this farm which ticks most of the boxes, that’s to say they’re doing the things on the signboard – broadly regenerative farming – and they’re marketing direct to the local community. Less food miles, more emphasis on building up good soil. They don’t appear to call themselves organic but there are many farmers – particularly in the US – who want to go beyond the rather lax standards of “official” organics. Too many loopholes and exceptions which you can see for yourself if you search on the internet for the official organic specifications. Best of all they seem to be making a living which, if you’re a farmer who’s interested in dipping a toe in the regenerative waters, is going to be important. After all, if you’re at all interested in building your soil you’re surely not going to be inundating it with persistent chemicals.
So that was a cheerful early start to the day; and then we turned to the allotment and while Madame sowed spinach and lettuce for the winter I mixed a barrow load of potting compost, filled fifty pots (all recycled from previous lives) and planted out the overwintering garlic using the best cloves from last season. They’ve all gone into what was supposed to be the new strawberry bed, which was conceived and built before we thought about getting a polytunnel, but we’ve used it this year to grow the some of the alliums because it’s so easy to hoop and net. If you like, it’s an overlong cold frame. Garlic needs a period of cold before it will start into growth and so this is the perfect place for it to begin its journey. Later on in the spring the young plants will be planted out into a much larger bed. The strawberries are in their luxury quarters in the polytunnel as the young offsets develop ready for their first season. This time we’ll devise some kind of narrow hanging bed that can be suspended in such a way it doesn’t rob too much light from the base level which is half full already with winter delights.
We’re so busy at the moment we seem to be living on bread and soup; but we talked about the pleasures of this season today and we agreed that it’s lovely that we’ve made a strong start to next year’s season already with time in hand before the bad weather sets in.
As it happens the travelling fishmonger was outside the farm shop and he’d got masses of fish straight up from Newlyn. We bought enough fish to feed a small army, including some locally (just up the River Severn) smoked kippers – I assumed the herrings must have made a longer journey. Anyway we had a late breakfast of kippers and fresh sourdough bread with mugs of tea. Very traditional!
It was a bit of a culture shock coming home from Snowdonia for sure. As the fortnight drew to an end and the weather continued cold wet and windy, notwithstanding the forecast of unseasonably hot weather almost everywhere except where we were. But more than that, we were missing the allotment and worrying about our winter sowings in the polytunnel and all the usual autumn jobs still needing to be done. The plus side of a rainy holiday is the amount of rest and reading we were able to do without feeling that we should be somewhere else – like on the allotment!
The first frosts of autumn are almost impossible to predict and so we prepare for them around the second week of October just in case. Knowing that the basil wouldn’t survive we took most of the outside plants to the compost heap, knowing that we’d got a reliable supply of pesto in the freezer. The best of the tomatoes were processed before we left, but today we shelled and dried the borlotti and, because we were proposing to treat them for any lurking weevils by heating them to 60 C for two or three hours I grabbed a bowlful of wrinkled tomato runts and shoved them in the oven at the same time so they can be dried to a still moist consistency and packed into olive oil. It seems a crime to waste anything; but sometimes we get properly caught out. Last year, determined not to waste a single iota of vegetable waste , we chucked all the extracted seeds from the passata machine into the compost. A year on as we spread the compost on the tunnel beds we had a magnificent flush of tomato seedlings within days.
We’d never had an infestation of bean weevil before, but last year’s saved seed was somehow completely infested and had to be thrown away. This is a bit of a conundrum which I’m quite sure the commercial seed merchants solve by fumigating the seed – but we don’t have the means or the desire to do that so it would be good to know how to kill the weevil eggs organically. This year because of the odd weather we decided to dry the whole crop, but I might hold back a handful of seeds to see if they’ll still germinate after heat treatment. I’m not holding my breath.
Autumn has a whole set of compulsions of its own. Even as I’m writing this there’s a big pan of leek and potato soup on the stove, next to a sourdough loaf that was started yesterday, plus the aromatic perfume of the drying tomatoes. Yesterday I was desperate to make a pie, and we feasted on our own French beans, broccoli and carrots along with (vegetarians please look away now!) using my mother’s recipe for a shortcrust pie (25% butter and 25% lard and 50% plain flour), that uses no flavourings at all apart from stock, salt and pepper. It’s the very essence of my autumn memories. My sister still makes exactly the same pie to the same recipe.
Allotmenteering or any other kind of gardening never quite feels like the glossy magazines describe it. Casually describing it as therapeutic hardly covers the gamut of emotions that it induces – it’s hero to zero and back again every season, even every week in our case. Nobody who’s ever been in therapy, made a pot and fired it, painted a watercolour or written at length would ever call any of them therapeutic except for the way they teach you how to ride the punches, celebrate the fleeting triumphs and do the essential work whether or not you feel like it. As for me I’d never do anything except by the grace of deadlines; and so we’ll sow more rouge d’hiver lettuces this week because if we don’t there may be no lettuce, or spinach or whatever next year. No food for you Mr Smarty Pants! We’ll also sow some Christmas potatoes to grow on in the polytunnel.
Part of the autumn compulsion will be, I know, the urge to sow broad beans – aquadulce claudia overwinter very well – usually; and this year the young plants, instead of tillering obediently and bringing in an early harvest of delicious beans, suffered from a month of cold east winds and passed away before flowering. This year we’ll give the early sowing a miss and start again in March which will, of course, ensure a balmy spring with record crops of early broad beans.
What certainly will be going in is some garlic. A good deal of the holiday reading was taken up with getting my head around epigenetics. The basic DNA – the genetic material of a plant which determines its general form; doesn’t change aside from mutations. However, apparently different genes can be switched on and off by all sorts of environmental factors – and this is one possible reason for the fact that seed saving of successful crops can lead to better results (on your unique patch of earth) – than expensive commercial varieties because the starting variety gradually adapts from year to year. Anyway, the upshot of this is that this year we’ve selected the best of this year’s garlic crop which we’ll replant tomorrow. We had them netted all last season so there was no trace of fly damage but some of the plants suffered from basal plate rot where the selected seed cloves didn’t. We’ll label these athletes carefully and grow them alongside what we South Gloucestershire peasants like to call boughten seed. Six years of being told off at school for using that dialect term showed it was a surefire way of annoying teachers who thought educating us involved severing all our roots. We shall do a properly scientific comparison next year and onwards to see if any of these epigenetic changes occur: so long as the plants don’t get sicklier and sicklier.
Finally, here’s a photo of a stranger who dropped in for a rest and a warm up on one of our fence posts today. It’s a common plume moth that’s apparently mainly a night flyer. When I first saw it a thought it must be a lacewing but it wasn’t. One of its endearing habits is to roll its wings up like a brolly when it’s resting. But it’s most endearing habit of all is that it lays its eggs on the bindweed which its caterpillars like to eat. We have an abundance of the foodplant lurking on the edges of the allotment silently waiting for the moment to tunnel in under the fence. I had a word with the little moth and she promised to come back mob handed with her mates next week.
There’s something intrinsically melancholic about the grass at the edge of this car park on the Lleyn peninsula. If it were a dog you’d say it had a staring coat, speaking of some inward malady; an infestation. Well, if it’s an infestation of anything it’s time – minute worms if I was going to be a smart arse. The crowds have gone home – just a few Friday weekenders now. Ironically, of course, this is precisely what makes the seaside in autumn and winter so attractive. The empty shops; the pubs that only open at weekends; the absence of any diversions at all – even the occasional fairy lights are disconnected to make sure the last man made enchantment is drained into the sea.
R S Thomas, the poet, would have been pleased to see the back of us all. The voice, if not the mouthpiece of the English ruling class could stop shouting at the blackberry tourists and get back to nagging the butcher about labelling his wares in Welsh.
On the beach today we saw a kestrel hunting along the banks of tussocky grass below the mud cliffs. A pair of oystercatchers busily worked the edge of the waves and were moved on by a heron that perched for a minute and then flew lazily across the bay. To the west a brief band of clear sky illuminated a narrow strip of the tideline like Courbet’s painting of the end of time; and a brilliant turquoise sail jellyfish was silently ending its visit to Wales.
We first came to Porth Dinllaen because we’d seen the place on a TV programme and we thought it looked beautiful – particularly the pub on the beach – Ty Coch Inn (the Cock Inn) once rated the best beach pub in the UK, seemed almost too good to be true; set at the end of a sweeping bay from which on a clear day you can see Holyhead on Anglesey from one end, and the peak of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) from the lifeboat station at the other end.
So today we took a walk from the car park in Morfa Nefyn down and along the beach, past the pub and the lifeboat station back to the car park. I haven’t been wearing my field botany hat very much this time, because the weather’s been so awful and we’ve only been able to grab quick walks in the teeth of the gales and rain. However yesterday’s cold and wet northwesterly has disappeared and a ridge of high pressure gave us a couple of hours of sunshine during the morning. And as we walked around the path from the pub to the lifeboat station a little blue flower caught Madame’s eye and she pointed it out to me. It was a bit of a puzzle because it had a borage like flower but the same kind of leaves as a bristly oxtongue. So I stopped and took some photos and brought them back to the cottage to identify. Here’s a photo.
It’s not the least bit rare, but that didn’t diminish the pleasure of finding it at all. It’s an annual bugloss – Anchusa arvensis – the name suggests it’s a field dweller, which it often is. The last one I saw was way down the coast in a field near St Davids; so it also has a taste for seaside and sandy soils. Interestingly I discovered that the French call it oxtongue, langue de boeuf, and the name bugloss comes from a couple of Greek words that mean exactly the same. We’ve already got a bristly ox tongue in the UK so the case for Latin names was never better made!
Anyway I couldn’t have been more pleased if I’d found a ghost orchid. Botanising isn’t just about rarity; for me it’s about getting to know my neighbours by name. Then later I picked up Fred Provenza’s book “Nourishment” which (in chapter 2) talks about the biochemical intelligence of plants and their role in nutrition. Awesome stuff. I began to feel pieces of a puzzle dropping into place in my mind. Field botany, herbal medicine, agriculture, human diet, deficiencies and so much more all in the same mind map for the first time in my experience. Happy daze!
Having allowed my imagination to run free in the last couple of posts, it’s time to get back down to some allotment basics – after all, one of my principal aims for this holiday was to get stuck into some serious reading about regenerative farming. I certainly got stuck at first but switched course and now I’m beginning to think that I ought to make a proper list of the books I’ve been reading so readers can join me in the journey. I’ve now just about finished reading Gabe Brown’s “Dirt into soil” and although it’s hardly aimed at our 200 square metres of allotment and is really slanted towards mixed farming with grazing animals, it cleared up a few mysteries for me and turned my thoughts about soil improvement completely upside down. It’s also given me a much clearer perspective on what is, and what isn’t regenerative farming and since our UK government is talking the talk about changing agricultural practices it’s up to us to make sure they’re also walking the walk. After all for a government that announces it’s going to move towards carbon zero and then announces it’s considering opening a new coal mine – followed by the assertion that we’ll need more nuclear power stations – this isn’t an encouraging start.
Until now I’ve always thought of soil improvement as largely a matter of adding lots and lots of compost. We started off committed to organic gardening and then, a couple of years ago we went no-dig as well. This last season we grew a variety of insect pollinators and companion plants alongside the vegetables in all our beds, and it’s gone well – and with the pond we’ve had vastly more visiting insects. Of course we’ve changed so many variables and the weather has been so random, we’ve only got anecdotal evidence that our changes have worked but we’re pretty sure that the following strategies worked:
Netting all the alliums from sowing to harvest with fine insect net
Using nasturtium to draw blackfly away from food crops
Sowing Calendula and Tagetes on most beds
Butterfly and bird netting all the brassicas
Sadly the expensive treatment with nematodes had little impact on the slugs, and the beer traps sheltered more slugs underneath than drowned in the beer.
The asparagus was spared the heavy beetle attacks that we’ve had in the past, and given that our near neighbour had his plants devastated it looks as if the border of calendula and the increased parasitic insect population may have helped. I’ve written a lot about our liability to waterlog in the winter – partly due to underground streams. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort digging woodchip filled paths between the beds to drain the water away and the two worst affected beds came through the winter very well. We’ve also added grit and sand in the worst places along with masses of compost and leaf mould. The upshot has been that our need to water in dry spells has greatly decreased. We escaped the blight with resistant varieties and early cropping of the container potatoes so, looking back it’s been a pretty successful season most of which was spent battling against a headwind of adverse weather.
If you’re still with me, you’ll have noticed that every single effort to improve our earth has been via applications to the top surface. What the Gabe Brown book – and all the others I’ve been reading – brought to the top of my thoughts was to see what’s going on under the surface, and the usefulness of ground cover crops during the winter, so that the plants go on feeding the soil through their roots all year round. And there’s the revolution, because most of us instinctively think of plants as a kind of one way street for water and nutrients when in fact they’re completely biologically interlocked with billions of soil organisms which, in return for carbon in the form of photosynthesised sugars, provide the plants with many of the micronutrients they need to grow and thrive. All this mutual aid is conducted through the truly huge mycorrhizal networks that wrap the roots and occasionally even grow inside them. Plants send signals seeking specific nutrients and the fungal networks ship them in. The astonishing discoveries of science now tell us that the creation of soil can be much faster than we originally thought and that in contrast to the received wisdom that everything goes on from above, soil creation is as much concerned with the recovery of nutrients from the subsoil. Soil can actually grow from below. This is a vast simplification but it has big implications for the way we grow plants, because these networks – having evolved over millions of years – mean that we can no longer think of what goes on underground as separate from the plant we harvest. Soil microbes have the astonishing ability to break down subsoil and rock and dissolve the essential nutrients in a way that’s barely understood. We need to start seeing our crops as giant solar energy farms, converting carbon dioxide into food through the process of photosynthesis.
So when we add artificial fertilisers to a crop the plants just grab up the 25% of the fertiliser they can use and the rest goes into the soil and gets washed into our polluted rivers. Worse still, the plants get lazy and just go for the industrialised fast food and the sugar/carbon trading mechanisms get broken. When we drench the soil with insecticides and herbicides exactly the same thing happens. Industrial farmers and gardeners then start to try to make up the deficiencies with more additives and chemicals. The other way we break those mycorrhizal connections is by digging and turning the soil, and these relationships are precisely the mechanism by which carbon gets stored in the earth.
So farmers, gardeners and allotmenteers, not to mention every other human being on earth have a common cause in not ploughing, tilling and digging; not using artificial fertilisers and not using chemicals. What ought to be the good news for farmers in particular is that chemicals and diesel oil are increasingly expensive and eat into profit margins – plus, the premium value of the produce from regenerative farms means better profits. What’s not to like?
Here’s the downside. It looks as if the agrochemical business and their captive bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture are greenwashing as usual in pushing no-till, direct drilling supplemented by – you’ve guessed it – herbicides to kill weeds, plus the usual pesticides and fungicides which will do nothing to solve our problems. There is another way, for instance, to suppress weeds and reduce rainwater runoff, and that’s carefully calibrated cover crops.
But it’s not all good news for vegetarians and especially vegans because the very best and most efficient way of improving the soil is by doing (or not doing) all of the above plus carefully controlled grazing – sometimes known as mob grazing. This kind of approach can capture carbon in the soil far more efficiently and more quickly than by planting trees alone. Further – and I know what question will be next – controlled grazing on healthy soil means that dung, a potent source of methane when stored in lagoons and sprayed on the soil later – is quickly broken down by prodigious numbers of insects and soil organisms and feeding the soil. Not only that, by feeding cattle on their evolved diet of grass and forbs rather than industrial grain, their digestive systems function far better and the need for constant worming and antibiotics almost disappears. Meat will, of course, become much more expensive, (perhaps more realistically priced) which should please everyone with a concern for animal welfare.
Of course this won’t make catastrophic climate change go away – we’ll still have to break our addiction to oil in every other department of life – but farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners can at least do something to help, and everyone can help by supporting change, buying better rather than blaming farmers and growers and calling out politicians when they try to pull the wool over our eyes.
Hi all – I posted yesterday not realizing that Facebook was down for 5 hours – consequently Facebook readers will probably find the notification buried six pages down the list. If you’d like to catch up you’ll find it some way down the notifications – or you could go straight to The Potwell Inn.
We were sitting in the pub one night with a bunch of friends, and somehow or another the subject got around to Martin Heidegger – once commemorated in a satirical poem as “..that pellucid Teuton.” You get the picture I’m sure. Some continental philosophers are a bit impenetrable and always irritated the hell out of the English school who preferred Dr Johnson’s stone kicking method. Anyway, the point is, one of my friends called Andy – who shall remain nameless asked me “In a nutshell …. what’s this Heidegger man on about?” I’m still looking for the big nutshell.
So today we were walking along the beach at Aberdaron beneath St Hywyn’s church where R S Thomas was once vicar and which was the setting for one of his most famous poems “The Moon in Lleyn” which I wrote about a couple of days ago. As we walked along the sand, I was wondering whether the poem, as well as including a reference to W B Yeats, also included a glancing reference to Matthew Arnold’s poem “On Dover Beach” – which uses the metaphor of the retreating tide to reference the “melancholy soft withdrawing roar” of faith. Three poems, all obliquely referring to the terrible loss of enchantment we’ve suffered in the past hundred and fifty years. Materialism is a poor deal, really, because it exchanges dreams meanings and visions for money – usually peanuts to be honest.
Taking a bit of a leap of faith myself, I have often wondered whether we are drawn to the sound of the sea’s roaring and the rhythmic pulse of the steam engine for the same reason. Perhaps at some deep level they remind us of the sounds of our time in the ocean of our mother’s’ womb. The sea sounds, from gentle lapping to menacing roar never make us laugh or fill us with happy thoughts but associate more readily with loss; of times missed.
Now that’s a lot of pondering in fifty yards whilst simultaneously holding a conversation – but that’s the way of it. Conscious human life can’t be put in a nutshell because it’s just too big; and my attention soon switched to a couple of large rocks half buried in the sand just as Madame began picking pebbles off the beach.
It isn’t a particularly beautiful beach because the cliffs comprise deep banks of eroding mud which are being sculpted by wind, tide and rain into shapes that might be more familiar in the desert. The pebbles, as you can see, are wonderfully colourful – but why so colourful? Putting on (yet) another hat I could see that of the two large half buried rocks, one greenish and the other markedly purple – must contain copper (green) and manganese (purple). We know that minerals and semi precious stones were mined all over the peninsula and particularly we know that among them was serpentine. Serpentine, being colourful and soft enough to turn in a metal lathe was enormously popular in the first half of last century and as late as the 1970’s there were half a dozen wooden shacks on the Lizard in Cornwall where you could buy a little lighthouse complete with a battery powered bulb at the top.
Only a couple of days ago I showed a photo of the remnant of one of the manganese mines at Rhiw. To a potter, manganese iron and copper are familiar glaze pigments. Copper is particularly versatile because depending on the glaze ingredients, temperature and atmosphere inside the kiln it can yield colours from the intense turquoise of Egyption paste through the more common greens all the way to the fabulously beautiful but very difficult to achieve red colour known as sang de boeuf to collectors of Chinese ceramics. Manganese and iron too can yield a whole palette of colours. So the thought came to mind on the beach – where do the red pebbles fit in? Serpentine is almost always thought of as green, but I’ve seen exactly the kind of red pebbles we were finding, described as red serpentine. Who knows? the processes that formed these pebbles were geologic and volcanic, involving prodigious pressures and temperatures and what emerges is something that combines usefulness with beauty. We have usefulness and contemplation in the same object. Are the red pebbles nature’s original expression of sang de boeuf?
These are big thoughts – of an earth where fungi and algae had yet to join forces and bacteria were all alone in the world. And here on the beach today we could see the world in a grain of sand as Blake promised in Auguries of innocence. The earth is not an object, it’s a story – or perhaps better, a song in which we are all sung into existence. History, geology, chemistry, poetry and storytelling, poetry and gardening and all the rest are not separate disciplines but lines in a gigantic performance of something like Tallis’ Spem in alium but with so many more parts that we can truly call it the Song of the Earth.
So I can’t fit myself into a nutshell and neither should you. Allowing ourselves to be categorised and slotted into CV’s drains the imaginative life out of us. If I want to read, or write poems, draw and paint, make ceramics and grow plants; cook food and rage against the dying of the light, and dare to challenge the way we do things round here – then I will. And if I want to sing and dance around and get over excited about a wildflower or act with Madame as if we were 18 all over again and in the first flush of love, then I will not tolerate being ordered to act my age. And if my passions for books and theories and ideas and spiritualities look as if I’m spreading myself too thinly just take a look at how thinly the scholars spread themselves.
Because – there is no nutshell. We flow into one another and into the earth. Being human is the most lovely gift; so long as we cherish it.
I take back all I said about our trip train across Snowdonia. I thought we would be pulled by a diesel but to our (my) great delight the engine that hauled us over 25 miles and 600 feet in vertical gain at Rhyd Ddu was the strangest beast I’ve ever seen – an NG16 Garratt built in Manchester in 1935 for South African Railways and designed for working very similar routes there. It certainly isn’t beautiful in the conventional sense – a bit of a mule in fact, but as tough as old boots. What’s odd about it is that it’s really two engines spliced together and sharing a boiler. If you look at the photo you’ll see a completely unexpected set of pistons and connecting rods at the back, under the tender. The engine was actually in service until 1985. Predictably, when we pulled in to Caernarfon station a large gathering of faintly priapic men – including me – rushed to the front of the train to take photographs. For the truly lost, the engine is described as a 2-6-2+2-6-2T NGG16 Garratt Design, built by Beyer Peacock Ltd. The bit that I loved is that this arrangement – known as a double bogey setup, allows the engine to be twice the power of the more familiar single bogey and it also allows the engine to traverse sharp bends on the mountain terrain by sashaying around the corners. The front and rear bogeys both pivot around the boiler section allowing a snake-like movement
For the human bit, being towed 600 feet up a winding narrow gauge railway line, surrounded by mountains, rivers and lakes, and listening to the sound of the engine working hard and clattering over modern steel bridges; seeing smoke and steam flying past in streamers like shoals of translucent fish – was a profound blast of memories for me – my father was a railwayman for his whole working life.
Madame thinks the reflections of the window on the photo look like the ghostly outline of an industrial landscape. The line was commenced in 1832; just a year after the Bristol riots and at that time much of Snowdonia really was an industrial site. Reform was in the air as the aftershocks of the French revolution reverberated around Europe. The railway company bought its first steam engines in 1856, just three years before Charles Dickens published “A Tale of Two Cities”, whose opening lines popped into my head as I was writing:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities
There’s a reason I love writing these cats cradles of association. Steam engines, railway companies, slate mines, coal and copper extraction and even – very near where we’re staying at the moment – one of the world’s largest manganese mines, back in the day – are all the visible inscription of our human impact on the landscape. The landscape and its artifacts – to put it in posh terms – is a palimpsest; written on, erased and re-used, sometimes over millennia. I was unable to shake off the difficult feeling that even the steam engine that pulled our train, was somehow implicated in our colonial rule over South Africa. Life is complicated – that’s what makes it so interesting and challenging.
Anyway – to get back to the day-trip, It was raining in the way that only Wales rains when we arrived at Porthmadog station. The temperature had barely crept above 10C and it was sheeting down in curtains driven by the gale. The railway has a permanent staff, but many of the jobs are filled by volunteers who do a wonderful job, and whose absolute loyalty and commitment manifests itself in a slightly religious attitude; so perhaps I should explain that by saying that there were times when we were checking in, that we felt as if we were entering a much loved Anglican church with the average age of the congregation creeping towards threescore years and ten. I was asked half a dozen times whether we were travelling first class or standard class; a denomination that was confirmed when we climbed aboard and found that the heating wasn’t working. This oh-so British class distinction was amplified by the fact that our standard class carriage was embossed (in gold lettering) third class on the outside, and the bewildering choice of hampers that someone had filled with their idiosyncratic vision of what constituted luxury and what ordinary should be. The net result of all these references to class was to make everyone feel slightly uncomfortable – like a first date confronted by a ten page wine list.
On a mountain, the rain doesn’t hang about for long – and so everywhere we looked there were waterfalls and ad hoc spouts bursting from the hillsides and flowing down increasingly dangerous looking whitewater races. The track was shallowly underwater near the Aberglasyn tunnels and alongside, the Afon Glaslyn was raging. It was if an entire mountain range had sprung a leak. As we reached the top at Rhyd Ddu, the water ceased flowing towards Porthmadog and started afresh making for Caernarfon with equal ferocity. The peaks, of course, were obscured by the rain and mist and so we only caught the merest glimpse of the Snowdon summit. The journey last about two and a half hours each way and by the time we reached Caernarfon we were thoroughly cold. Some of our travelling companions had put their waterproof trousers on to keep warm.
If anything the rain was even worse in Caernarfon and, waterproofed to the teeth, we made a desultory tour of the town centre. Madame unhelpfully suggested I take off the broad brimmed hat I was wearing and use the hood from my waterproof jacket. It was good advice but imperfectly timed because when I pulled the hood over my head, the icy water it contained ran down my neck and inside my shirt. There wasn’t much going on in the town centre – a couple of drug dealers in the square; a solitary prostitute and a lot of tourists huddling in doorways. If charity shops or bookies were your thing you’d have been in heaven.
Does this sound like a bad Tripadvisor review? Well it’s not, because I love Wales and what’s happened in these once great towns and cities is an absolute scandal. Wales was one of the first English colonies and has, for centuries, had the marrow extracted and taken away by the wealthy. Everywhere there are signs in Welsh reading no more second homes – but I would say to the pamphleteers – what if the tourists stayed away? what if the profitable conversion work that keeps builders, electricians and plumbers in work – what if it all ended? what would that do to a local economy that’s on its knees already. What Wales needs is vision and freedom. Freedom for local councils to borrow money and build the thousands of low cost homes that are needed so the young and gifted don’t all have to leave the neighbourhoods they’ve grown up in. Then – by all means restrict second homes and end the tax breaks because there will still be abundant work for the tradespeople. Then give the councils powers and finance to support startups and to develop the kind of tourist related attractions that will bring visitors in.
Caernarfon is the depressing sign of a conservation approach to planning. Just like many of the local farms struggling to survive – what’s needed is not conservation but regeneration. A planning system that values wooden sash windows and slate roofs above apprenticeships and skilled work is on the slippery slope to extinction. Am I sounding like William Cobbett here. He was a rabid old pamphleteer whose book “Rural Rides” has always been a lodestone for me; telling it like it is , or rather was, when it was published in 1853 – there’s a coincidence!
After a fruitless hour in the rain we went back to the station cafe to get warm, and were gradually joined by a throng of sodden passengers all dreading the journey home. Madame overheard one person trying to arrange a taxi. We managed to get back onto the train half an hour before the off and found to our absolute delight that the heating was working – and so the journey home was doubly pleasurable despite the turkish bath atmosphere.
Sadly, though, on the return Madame overheard a depressing conversation between three young women in their twenties discussing their attitude towards the police following the murder of Sarah Everard. It really shows how constricted and intimidated women are in this deeply defective culture. Enough, though. We love these day trips and no matter how uncomfortable the transport and lousy the weather we always come back feeling challenged and energised; and enough material to draw and paint and write for a month.
The good thing about coming away to this beautiful place to walk, read and try to put together all my thoughts in words is space; sheer space to expand into, free from distractions and chores. The bad thing about it could almost be the same sentence. There’s a point at which the way forward becomes so problematic a kind of paralysis sets in. The remedy, in this instance is to accept that the Jacques Ellul book I’ve been struggling with is not going to help, because its source materials and analysis are now sixty years out of date . Magnetic North moves about by a good bit and trying to find your way to the pole (no pun intended) without the right correction isn’t likely to end happily.
What exactly is the real world anyway? I sometimes wonder, since it seems to be a contested area of knowledge at the moment; but anyway I’ve forsworn any philosophy in this brief post and I’ll talk about the weather in the most descriptive and non blaming way I can manage.
The fierce south westerly gales haven’t given over for days and in the cottage the chimney roars, the vents flap and the occasional sheets of rain hammer at the windows. It’s all very cosy until, as we did this morning, you get a power cut. Yesterday’s photos of the beach at Porth Neigwl missed a couple of shots that would have needed a telephoto lens which in our case we have not got because it’s at the bottom of a bog on Mendip. Apparently there are exceptionally rare mason bees in the dunes there, except I’m not sufficiently experienced as an entomologist to recognise them. But on our way back down the narrow road we spotted around 30 curlew feeding on the marsh – enough to gladden anyone’s heart. When I say this place is a birders’ paradise I’m not exaggerating. Something else worth noting is the light. The good citizens of St Ives in Cornwall like to claim that their light is brighter and more clear than anywhere else on earth. Obviously they would say that because it keeps the artists rolling in; but the light here is equally if not more pure and luminous and it’s so much quieter. The south westerlies rattle the cold fronts across, and each time the rain is followed by glorious movements of intense light that bless the landscape, caressing and intensifying the autumn colours and leaving the artist in us joyfully mystified as to how it could ever be expressed.
Tomorrow morning at the crack of eight o’clock we’re off to Porthmadog to catch the wonderful Welsh Highland Railway up through the Snowdon range to Caernarfon and back. Last time we made the trip in brilliant weather but tomorrow’s forecast is makes grim reading with 20mm rain expected and 50 mph gusts of wind. In normal times you can wander about and get a very good Welsh rarebit from the buffet car but because of covid we’ll be locked into our perspex divided carriages and probably see almost nothing except rain and mist for the whole journey. It’s the last trip if the year so expect it will be crowded with steam train enthusiasts who may not have noticed that we’ll be taken across the hills by a diesel locomotive tomorrow. In the absence of any food from the buffet I’ve ordered a couple of hampers – which each contain a small bottle of prosecco, and so we’ll celebrate the autumn like a couple of budget class swells.
I’m sorry there are so many Welsh sounding names in these posts but Wales is a country with its own precious language. Luckily, Welsh is a completely phonetic language and so once you’ve learned the basics it’s pretty straightforward. The stress usually comes in the penultimate syllable. The only one I haven’t used is the proper name for Snowdon which is Yr Wyddfa which looks unapproachable but sounds like uhr-with-va. Welsh is the queen of languages and I’ve always wanted to learn to speak it properly but haven’t had the chance or anyone to practice with. Anyway it’s a courtesy to the people who cherish their language to be able to ask for directions, sounding as if at least you care.
Full marks if you already know the title and author of the quotation at the top of this post. RS Thomas of course; poet and once parish priest of Aberdaron, just down the road from here. Sometimes when I feel completely dry and empty from too much reading and too many hopes squandered by politicians, RS is the one I turn to because he was one of the few poets who dared to stay in that mindspace and wrestle a blessing from it.
Coming back yesterday from our apple scrumping expedition we drank cider and sat peacefully in the sunshine, looking westwards towards Ireland. I’d struggled through the first 100 pages of Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society” and I was finding it difficult to see a way forward beyond his gloomy picture of a technological future that seemed to grow like a tumour; vascularizing and metastasizing until the life systems of the earth collapse. Are all the greener, more regenerative alternatives I’ve been happy to read about really just distractions from the only show in town?
We may quote here Jacques Soustelle’s well-known remark of May, 1960, in reference to the atomic bomb. It expresses the deep feeling of us all: “Since it was possible, it was necessary.” Really a master phrase for all technical evolution
Quoted in “The Technological Society”
So that Syngenta factory in Huddersfield that we drove past three years ago, and which produces Paraquat to sell in only in the developing world because it’s banned here – is it there by virtue of some iron law of technological development? How do I know what they make there? Because of a case in the High court in which they were fined £200,000 for a leak amounting to three and a half tons of the deadly stuff. How do I know what it does? Because a friend from art school committed suicide with it, and also I was once called to the bedside of a woman in hospital who was lucid and just about conscious and waiting for her organs to fatally break down. She was sedated but the nurses were in pieces.
Ellul seemed to think it was a logical error to suppose that any individual could alter the course of technological development but history has challenged his pessimistic view. In fact paraquat was responsible for so many deaths, both deliberate and accidental that it was banned across the developed world. That it’s still being made in Huddersfield is due to the continued sale of the weed killer in the developing world where, lacking regulation and safety precautions, the company wilfully allows the sale of a mortally dangerous compound. That’s no kind of iron law of technological development but a sign of corporate greed and moral failure at the same level as arms manufacturers who absolve themself from any responsibility for the use of their products to kill and maim. Printing a warning not to ingest a product on the side of a large container that will almost certainly be broken down into unmarked bottles is of no help to a semi-literate subsistence farmer.
Sixty years on from the publication of Ellul’s book we’ve experienced decades of economic growth, and nuclear weapons are way down the list of most peoples’ preoccupations. What bothers us since the Berlin wall came down is that the iron laws of history turned out to be no such thing, and the iron laws of economics have left most of us wondering what all that economic growth has actually brought us in terms of human happiness; and why is there always an enemy worth fighting a war against. And of course, now the earth’s vital systems are closing down; fatally poisoned. But only technology remains untouchable; the shape-shifting beast of the apocalypse like the one with the body of a lion and the head of a man that *Yeats saw in his vision and *RS Thomas mentions: ” …. [whose] hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Well, not so fast! RS says to himself, and weighs the power of the religious past against the power of the “spiritus mundi” – the consciousness, the culture, the spirit of the age. Are we that much in the thrall and power of a technology that watches our every move, predicts and shapes the choices we make to steer us away from dangerously insurrectionary thoughts. Do we really love that technology which impoverishes our lives and takes away jobs without the least scruple and sends the victims to the food banks. Do we really love the technology that feeds us with industrialised food that makes us sick and obese and then blames us. Do we really love the technology that disseminates lies at the speed of light and corrupts democracy. And when we talk about freedom isn’t it usually the trivial kind of freedom to choose between a dozen identical small objects of desire in a supermarket? If it looks like a turd and smells like a turd it probably is a turd and sprinkling a few sparkles on it won’t change its nature.
Of course technology’s principal beneficiaries would like us to believe that there is no alternative, but we’ve seen organic farming and gardening grow and grow. We’ve seen rewilding schemes demonstrating that life without chemicals is possible. We’ve seen regenerative farming gain serious support at government level. We’ve seen the power of vegetarians and vegans to force change in the offer of the food industry. We’ve seen the extraordinary growth of awareness of the coming linked crises of economic collapse, global climatic disaster and the mass extinction of pollinating insects. More particularly we’ve seen how nervous the industrial food complex and the agrochemical industry have become; spending millions on disputing with and then and trashing scientists who challenge their autonomy; funding fake experiments with fake results and spending more millions on lobbyists to bypass the science altogether and knobble the politicians directly.
Why shouldn’t it be true that the writing is on the wall and they know it. All epochal changes or paradigm shifts are like one economist described going bankrupt – it’s very very slow and then it’s very fast.
So now’s the time to hold fast.
And if you’ve stayed with me all these thousand or so words here’s a picture taken today at Porth Neigwl in the teeth of a south westerly gale and sheeting rain at times. Known in English as Hell’s Mouth the wide bay is the scene of innumerable shipwrecks; and reading the information board today I discovered an ironic reference to the fact that a small schooner named The Twelve Apostles was beached and completely wrecked by a fierce storm. Luckily the crew all survived. The problem is that there’s no escape from a southwesterly gale and so the ships – and there were many of them – were inexorably blown in to their doom. Can’t think of a better image of a paradigm shift!
* The WB Yeats poem that I refer to is “The Second Coming”; and RS Thomas wrote the equally marvellous poem “The Moon in Lleyn”.