You’ll know where we are if you’ve been following!

Yes – of course we’re back on Mendip but this time just above Velvet Bottom because today we thought we’d explore the Ubley Warren and Blackmoor nature reserves. This is such a unique environment that it comprises getting on for ten nature reserves, some of them SSSI’s (sites of special scientific interest) and all of them with a handful of rare and nationally rare plants.

You’ll see that the ground well and truly deserves the local description of “gruffy” – that’s to say thoroughly worked over by lead (and possibly silver) miners since Roman times. These deep cuttings are known as rakes and the spoil heaps, although mostly no longer bare, are a specialized environment for plants tolerant of heavy metal contamination.

Having found the Spring Whitlow grass – Erophila verna in Velvet Bottom a couple of weeks ago I was keen to see if we could find another specialist called Spring Sandwort and so we concentrated on likely looking ground – all to no avail because I think we were a bit too early.

Anyway, we did find a rather knackered Early Purple orchid (Orchis mascula) snapped off at the bottom of the stalk – possibly by a marauding dog – and then as we carried on looking through the list of likely/possible rarities we came across Dwarf Mouse Ear – Cerastium pumilum – which is nationally scarce, and also Alpine Pennycress – Noccaea caerulescens which is similarly rare. And if that sounds either lucky or clever I’m reminded of a story I heard about a very well known local drystone waller who was asked how much he charged. He answered that it was £100 a yard – at which his questioner backed away, saying it was a lot to pay for a load of stones. Well, he said, it’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine for knowing what to do with it! My luck today owed everything to the research I was able to do before we even left the flat, and I contributed nothing at all to the incredible databases and local floras that showed me exactly where to look. As per Mark Twain; it’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.

The only downside to a delightful morning were the bags of dogshit abandoned almost everywhere we went – come on you retards – you’ve already picked the disgusting, slimy (and warm) mess, up. Just take it home for goodness sake!!!

All of which ranting brings me back to an often visited question – “does the Potwell Inn really exist?” Well yes it does – in one sense only; because its only physical manifestation is the campervan (called Polly) in which we can close the door against the Idiocy. But it principally exists in the form of a conceptual framework that gives me just about enough head space to survive. The Potwell Inn is the place in my head where poetry and art jostle with spirituality, green politics and where walking and botanizing or looking out for living things are not merely allowed, but encouraged. The Potwell Inn is a space in which the gentle domestic arts of growing and cooking and eating together and building community are not treated as a bunch of hippy idealism or even communist infestation.

So the Potwell Inn hereby permanently bars the cretinous bunch of sociopaths, adulterers, drug abusers, liars, fantasists and thieves in the government, along with all their media supporters, lobbyists, climate change deniers and Russian backers who abuse our intelligence day by day. They should not enter the premises because they will not be served, and if they persist they will be sent to the end of the nearest pier where they can parade their meagre comic talents before an audience of stuffed weasels. This is the only way I can stay sane; by carving out a small space where I can grow to be as human as is possible for me and the people I care about, by creating an alternative to our etiolated spiritual and moral environment which sucks all possibility of creativity out of the air we breathe.

The Potwell Inn is a challenge; a one fingered salute to polluters, poisoners and to the entitled. The Potwell Inn is a refuge; a retreat house and a portal. Everything that happens here is true; but “here” can pop up anywhere – wherever the Potwell Inn sets its foot on the ground. Even if that ground happens to be an old slag heap, buddle pit or mine tip.

Blue skies thinking?

Looking up towards Blackdown from Charterhouse

Yes I know I’ve been quiet lately and it wasn’t because I had nothing to say; quite the reverse. Having too much to say is a far worse problem – especially when it’s all whirling incoherently around in my head. In a perfectly ordered world I’d have been pupating quietly and then suddenly emerge in a splendour of coherent thoughts. But I wasn’t and I didn’t. Our emergence from the lockdowns was gradual and then very sudden. We’ve spent almost as much time away in Cornwall and on Mendip in the campervan as we have at home; we’ve been on our first outdoor meeting of the Bath Nats; been wildflower hunting several times around Velvet bottom; gone to our first proper party and our first concert for years – in the Royal Albert Hall, no less. We’ve caught up with many of our friends, sown our vegetable seeds for the coming season, and I’ve come to the unsettling conclusion that it’s time for another iteration of myself. I believe that the capacity to reinvent yourself is fundamental to growing old happily (if not gracefully!)

Italian 6/7th century uncials – from “Writing, Illuminating and Lettering”

So rather than too much boring detail we were on our way to a Who concert at the Albert Hall when we stopped off for a pub lunch. Strictly speaking the concert turned out to be more of a spiritual love-in between the surviving members of the band and their adoring fans, but I’ll get back to the music in a moment. It happened that we were walking along Hammersmith Terrace and then Black Lion Lane towards the Black Lion, alongside the river, when I noticed a blue plaque dedicated to Edward Johnston. These 18th century riverside house now cost millions but they’re essentially rather modest terraced houses. Edward Johnston wrote possibly the most inspiring book of my teenage years called “Writing, Illuminating and Lettering” – from which I taught myself to write uncials, the most beautiful of the 7th and 8th century scripts; and I’ll bet I’m the first person in History to to get the Who and Edward Johnston into the same paragraph. Anyway it was a blast to see the house in which he’d lived and also a salutary lesson that we should always treasure our personal histories but never allow ourselves to be trapped by them. To pinch a remark by James Callaghan, it’s not just politicians but all of us who need a big hinterland if we want to thrive.

The concert was a fundraiser for the Teenage Cancer Trust – Roger Daltrey is a patron. It was a big, blowsy and often hilarious night that occasionally felt like more of a rehearsal than a performance; a rehearsal that we felt privileged to watch. I first came across the Who when I was working in one of the old style mental hospitals where the residents were frequently abused and caged like beasts. Someone gave me a bootleg cassette copy of the Who Live at Leeds and I wore it out. However neither of us ever saw them perform live, until this Friday where a much diminished lineup was supported in an all acoustic set. I think, for some of the super-fans there, it was more like worship when occasionally mobile phone flashlights were waved like candles in a procession. Sometimes I wonder if my scepticism is more of a hindrance than a gift.After the concert we downed a bottle of wine with our friends, (you have to be rich to buy a drink at the Albert Hall), back at the hotel and grabbed all of five hours sleep before Saturday morning.

Chinese grave figures

Since we thought £25 each was a bit steep for breakfast, we settled for some pains au raisin and ate them in the sun next to the Albert Memorial which manages to be both hideous and memorable at the same time. I had much the same feeling about the V & A which (for me) is a tableau of insupportable wealth and misappropriation but which is full of mind-blowingly lovely objects, most of which probably belong somewhere else. We’ve been often enough to know that the only mentally sustainable way of visiting is to limit yourself to a couple of rooms. The rooms housing some of the Chinese and Japanese collection is a go-to for me, not least because I’ve never been able to find again the Chinese silk robe that once stopped me in my tracks while we were on our way somewhere else. That day, the hand woven silk and the exquisite embroidery seemed to come from another world. In the same room was a very old carved wooden Buddha that seemed almost reproachful; condemned to be passed by in favour of flashier, more approachable artifacts. It would be wonderful if they could find him a quiet space somewhere nearby, where he could become again a focus for quiet meditation. In the Japanese room a young Japanese woman -possibly a bride to be – was minutely scrutinising some kimonos. There’s a paradox that gets to me every time I imagine the cultural loss if the collections were broken up and repatriated.

But there was something more personal for me to celebrate because earlier in the week I’d been fitted with a new pair of (NHS) hearing aids that are so much better than the old ones I almost went into shock when I left the hospital and experienced for the first time the awesome noise of a building site. When I talked to the audiologist I’d casually bragged that I’d put the last pair on and they’d been perfect from the off. She said that I’d probably take a few days to adjust to the new ones, and she wasn’t wrong. For the first time in years I can locate where sounds are coming from, I can hear birds singing and today the sound of Pulteney Weir was so disturbing I had to cross the road and see where it was coming from. For the first couple of days I was absurdly emotional about the simplest sounds, and the Who concert was so loud I had to turn them off altogether!

My workroom is now ablaze with propagator lights and we’re ready for the new season on the allotment, but we’ve resolved to make the most of the campervan so we’re going to minimise the growing of the kind of crops that need constant care and attention. There’s so much else on the field botany front that I’ll share later but for now it’s time to start making supper.

The earth is the most wonderful photovoltaic cell – and it’s a gift.

Earlier today – after days of heavy rain – we drove about fifteen miles west along the coast from Mevagissey to Portscatho, via a diversion to the outskirts of Truro for a visit to the Great Cornish Food Store where we stocked up on some lovely local cheeses. By the time we’d stowed everything away the sky had cleared and we took a chance on a walk down to a local beach

So here’s my first list of the season; not a hands and knees search by any means but a simple stroll down the lane that runs from Gerrans down through Rosteague and on to Towan beach – no more than 3 miles down and back, that gave us 20 species of wildflower, and an interesting fungus; 17 of which were flowering. There were many more in full leaf and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were in excess of 50 species of flowering plant if you were able to walk the track throughout the year.

Starting from top left, and snaking down the rows from left to right – we found

  • Dandelion
  • Lesser celandine
  • Primrose
  • Common dog violet
  • Greater stitchwort
  • Polypody fern
  • Herb robert
  • Alexanders
  • Cow parsley
  • Snowdrop
  • Greater periwinkle
  • A Tremella indecorata (I think) brain fungus
  • Small flowered geranium
  • Red campion
  • Navelwort
  • Mind-your-own-business
  • Winter heliotrope
  • Three cornered garlic
  • Daisy – growing amongst cleavers and lords and ladies

There can’t be many more tranquil and inspiring setting for a bit of spontaneous botanising than lanes and tracks. Most of them aren’t designated in any way; they’re open access and you can find them all over the country. Of course wildflower meadows are the Royal Opera but I’m more of a folksong fan myself. Ordinary and local – like peasant – are praiseworthy in my phrasebook.

Yesterday was at the opposite end of the spectrum because I found a couple of plants – one in the wrong habitat altogether and the other either very rare or very underrecorded. I’ll write more about these later. A week of rain gave me time to visit the websites of the BSBI (Botanical Society of Great Britain and Ireland) and iRecord to discover how they could help me be a better amateur field botanist. Until I gave it a full three days of practice I had no idea how useful and how huge their databases are.

The greatest revelation of all is that you can research a favourite area and discover what plants grow there. You can discover where to find a plant you particularly want to see and you can check the distribution of every living thing to see whether the flower you’ve found even grows in the place you’re searching. Think of it – instead of stumbling around (like I’ve been doing) hoping to chance upon something special; you can search with a reasonable hope of success. That’s not cheating – it’s science! It doesn’t mean that your find isn’t what you think it might be – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (as they say). It does mean that you need to be thoroughly sure of your ground before you make a claim you can’t stand up.

So I’m in heaven and full of Trelawney cheese. Madame is sitting next to me drawing and the last two hours have flown by in silence. Something odd happens when we’re in the campervan; I sleep happily for nine, even ten hours and feel completely free from stress. The world is going to hell in a handcart; we’re governed by liars and morons and the news is so distorted we don’t even bother to listen. I’d like to say I’ll pray for the people of Ukraine but I don’t think anybody is listening.

All tooled up!

Gosh we’ve been busy getting ready for the next trip. I think I’ve finally got the courage to start officially recording some of the plants we hope to find and so it’s been a rush to gather together all the tools and to figure out how to use them. So I hope you’ll forgive me for failing to find a ghost orchid or anything remotely rare but settling on an ubiquitous weed like couch grass simply to check on some ID keys and test out the macro extension lens on the phone; and I’m feeling ever so pleased.

There’s a bit of a knack to taking photographs for plant ID’s because they need to capture as much as possible of the kind of technical information you’ll definitely wish you’d recorded when you get back to base; things like grid references and what kind of soil and light conditions not to mention – in the case of grasses – all manner of obscurities concerning ligules, auricles, lemmas glumes, stolons, rhizomes and spikelets. So while we took a break from planting out broad beans I pulled a lump of the revolting weed out of one of the allotment beds and tried to remember all this stuff as I took the photos. I know it’s all a bit technical but there’s something very lovely about grasses because they hide their differences so completely. Half a millimetre can be important. This reminds me of one of my theology tutors who used to run what he called CAT sessions – close attention to text. We discovered that the really important understandings demanded time, attention and focus. Drill down hard enough and what appears to be a uniform field of grass can become a garden of delights. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!

The other bit of plant recording I’ve had to learn is the software. There’s a mountain of data out there in databases which must have taken millions of voluntary hours of recording and checking. OK I’m a complete nerd but I think I’m happier growing and examining plants than I am frothing at the mouth while I scream at the television. So couch grass became a rehearsal for the really good stuff which I’m so looking forward to finding this season.

Later, just for fun, I dug into the herbals and discovered that however much we gardeners loathe the stuff there are people out their who are prepared to pay £10 for 100 grammes of the offending roots. By all accounts (and lacking any scientific proof as far as I could find out) couch roots have some healing properties. By my reckoning there must be many thousands of pounds worth of herbal remedy underground at the allotment site but the sheer agony of digging it up would need the price to go a lot higher than that. It is, however, the most tremendously vigorous plant. I read later about an experiment where 20 week old couch tillers grew 5 metres – 15 feet in a few weeks while throwing up over 200 buds. Oh to think that it’s an incomer brought in centuries ago. My mum was an inveterate smuggler of purloined cuttings from every garden she ever visited – perhaps it was an ancestor of hers that brought the wretched weed here.

Anyway, the kit is assembled, tested – and we’re ready to rock and roll this season. Fortunately while I crawl around in the dirt in lovely places, Madame will be bingeing on drawing with ink and bamboo pens; inspired by David Hockney’s latest book. In the background I can hear our waterproofs taking an interminable time to dry in low heat after being re-proofed. We’re optimistic but not reckless.

Meanwhile – back at the Potwell Inn

They say that fine words butter no parsnips so I thought that – amidst the philosophising -it would be good to show that even while we’re away the allotment goes on producing. If ever there was a defense of no-dig gardening it would look something like this. With a bit of frost on it from last week, this parsnip will be sweet and delicious – as will the leeks and the other winter veg which just get on with it. In the polytunnel we’re cutting radishes and fresh lettuce; parsley and coriander too. Winter veg are so much less fussy than summer ones. This week will see the propagators in action again as we prepare for the spring. The just in time principle which emerged along with lean thinking in Japanese car plants of all places, is especially suited to allotment planning because we need the plants at (as nearly) the right moment as we can manage; climate change permitting. So we haven’t overwintered broad beans this year because for the last two years severe east winds in March have decimated them. What we don’t want is a load of stressed out plants being kept in pots long after they were ready for transplant. So the annual gamble begins tomorrow, having received all the seed orders and planned (almost) where everything is going to go.

But allotments and more in-depth study are only a part of this year’s plan because I’m determined also to get out and do some serious botanising after a two year enforced layoff. I also want to do some serious work on the insects that visit us around the house and on the plot and so I’ve just shelled out on a macro lens adaptor for my Pixel 5 camera. Although I’ve got a very fine Leica macro lens it takes an eternity to set up shots and you almost always need a tripod and flash units. This 25g treasure arrived yesterday and I had a brief chance to play around with it. Some initial photos of random things on my desk are below. I also took a photo early yesterday of one of our orchids in flower. It’s entirely by natural light – there’s an abundance that floods in through the south facing windows in the flat, and as I walked into the room the sheer beauty of it grabbed me and so I just took the picture. It’s not edited or altered in any way.

And here are a few of the test shots with the macro lens. I can’t wait to get out there!

The role of maypole dancing in confronting the climate catastrophe.

Carter’s wonderful steam fair.

This is a postscript to yesterday’s piece which mentioned the philosopher Roger Scruton and the way in which some of his dodgier ideas seem to have infiltrated the writing of David Fleming and his book “Lean Logic; a dictionary for the future and how to survive it”.

I knew when I went to bed that there was some unfinished business on this subject and it came to me in the middle of the night that one among many dangers that face us is the sentimental turning back to the old days – you know the kind of thing; village greens, cricket, warm beer and old ladies on bicycles as John Major tried to explain it.

Of course it’s very tempting to look for an off the shelf strategy for coping with the oncoming catastrophes of global heating, collapses in biodiversity, economic collapse, mass migration and so it goes on; but the key point is that the current crisis has no real precedents, and so you might use the metaphor of a failed relationship: it’s no use either party in an acrimonious relationship breakdown asking why can’t we go back to the way we used to be? because the bridges have all been burnt. Moving on means letting go.

These thoughts were prompted by a conversation with our son last night. I had been thinking about the way in which I discovered that many of my early heroes had feet of clay when it came to facing the challenges of the last century. In my twenties I read the whole of Henry Williamson’s output. Tarka the Otter, of course; but also the multi volumed (15 in all) Chronicle of Ancient sunlight and the four volumes of “The Flax of Dream”. I borrowed all the books through the library and I was initially completely in love with them. His knowledge of natural history was so deep I began half living in his mystical Devon landscape. But as time went on and volume followed volume; small doubts began to accumulate and eventually I did a bit of research and discovered that Williamson had become a fascist sympathiser. I was devastated.

Ezra Pound also tumbled into the broken box; as did so many other artists and writers. Talking to our son last night he reminded me of another hero of mine, the philosopher Martin Heidegger who went even further and became an active supporter of Hitler and never subsequently repented. I began to wonder whether the passionate love and advocacy of the natural world was (and may still be) just one false step away from authoritarian and backward looking beliefs.

This isn’t a big deal if we understand it and guard against it. There’s always risk, so we should be really careful which thinkers we invoke when we’re trying to plot a course into a saner future. It’s too late to ask David Fleming why he repeatedly quoted Roger Scruton in illustrating his theme, and it may be that he was doing so because a selective use of those particular words seemed to support his argument. Fleming stood for many of the features of a possible way forward that we would support. Commonality, local networks, carnival, ritual and so forth. But if, lurking in the background, there’s an unspoken narrative that excludes – ‘others’ – strangers and pilgrims from other cultures, then that’s not on. If the image is of an old society that collapsed through its own inequity or cruelty, it should be a no-go for us, because real life is not a costume drama. Maypole dancing might be a powerful metaphor for community life; but no amount of prancing around on a plastic village green is going to usher in a sustainable and more equitable future.

New Year revolutions?

A rare trip to Bristol to meet our friends Tony and Glen in the summer

Rather than drowning in the sentimental guff of New Year’s Eve television, last night we chose, rather, to watch a documentary made by her nephew, on the late and wonderful Joan Didion who died very recently. While I couldn’t say I’ve read all of her work, I can say that when I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem reprinted in a collection of the same name, two thoughts filled my mind; firstly that I had finally read someone who had embraced and seen the darkness beyond the summer of love through the lens of Haight Ashbury; and secondly that she stands (writers never die, they go out of print) with Simone de Beauvoir and William Cobbett as someone who dares to see what is on the ground and then writes it.

My own love affair with that tumultuous period she was writing about, ended at a free music festival in Bath which took place in 1971 on a small and almost unknown patch of open land behind St Swithin’s Church and which drops down to the river. These days it’s probably the least visited park in the city because so many people walk their dogs there it’s dangerous to enter without boots and impossible to sit on the grass safely. On that hot summer afternoon it was rammed. There was a single standpipe on the site and I had seen dozens of people filling bottles with drinking water – but then I caught sight of a young woman with her baby, and she was scraping the shit off a nappy against the tap. That was the moment the fantasy collapsed. We were surrounded by beautiful young people who were displaying precisely the same capacity for destructive behaviour as the generation we thought we were moving beyond. Any thought that Shangri la was to be the next evolutionary step slithered on to the grass that day.

I’ve never written about it before – but Joan Didion almost certainly would have done. Nothing was too trivial or too painful for her to write. She, like my most important teachers, never flinched, never chickened out from telling it like it was and still is. My own gifts are on an altogether more modest scale of course, but the temptation to smooth over the cracks is still always there. A couple of months ago a piece I wrote about the plague of rats on the allotments failed to find its way into the newsletter – I guess because it failed the prevailing narrative tradition that everything in the garden is, and always must be lovely.

And so I write about the city as it is, which has to include the beggars and drug dealers as well as the way the evening sun catches the Georgian buildings and turns them to gold. I write about the river and its wildlife but I refuse to stop talking about flooding and sewage pollution just because it detracts from the PR engine. Bath, like any other World Heritage city is a fur coats and no knickers kind of place – perfect for free spending tourists who never stay long enough to glimpse into the shadows, but less fun if you’re number 8000 on the waiting list for somewhere to live. Cherry picking the best bits reduces the city to a cipher. In truth it’s possible to walk the streets and wonder if it’s a film set for a costume drama. It often is – we haver somewhere between a Jane Austen tribute band and a bunch of Roman Legionnaires on R & R after subduing the natives.

And that’s the glory of it – the sheer craziness of its loopy, deluded and partially sighted self-image within which we at the Potwell Inn run our oasis and refuge. Uncle Jim has been vanquished but we still have Rainbow and Nutter begging outside the Roman Baths. We still have twitchy punters hanging around on the corner of the Green waiting for the dealer to turn up, or hurrying down the towpath in that exaggerated purposefulness they seem to adopt – heads down, hoodies pulled over so as to look as if they had somewhere better than oblivion to get to.

And so this New Year’s resolution is to stay true to the city in all its contradictions and to get as close to being human as this crazy age will allow. We shall grow food without claiming any special expertise; cook and eat while harbouring no thoughts of turning it into a business. I shan’t pretend to be enlightened or spiritually adept or better read than anyone else. Most of all I want to spend time with the wild plants and animals that scratch a living here as well. I expect to spend part of the year completely dry and other parts a bit wetter because in vino veritas is a good motto for someone who’s interested in the truth.

The real agony for any writer is that the occasional moments of revelation are prone to make us absolutely silent. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent – Mr Wittgenstein wrote – and I agree. Writing, even at its best, is so much chatter in the darkness; but Joan Didion got closer to the fire than most.

Have a very happy New Year!

Say hello to storm Arwen

I get the impression that we’re in for another record breaking season of Atlantic storms – this one’s called Arwen but it might be better to name it COP1 and then carry on through to COP26 or more if needed. Down here in the relatively mild Southwest of England the main problem was wind overnight which, rather than battering the windows in gusts, seemed to seep through any gaps like a prolonged polyphonic sigh. These gigantic air masses fascinate me as they flow across the earth’s surfaces, competing, invading and clashing with their neighbours like ethereal versions of the tides, and just as potentially dangerous. Elsewhere there was snow, but here the drifts comprised leaves piled around the parked cars. The trees have taken on their winter form and the wet trunks gleam in the rain. The fabulous colours of the tulip tree beyond the window are now shining briefly on the grass before they’re gathered up. Some of them will end up on the allotment as leaf mould. Walking down to the farmers market today we suffered a bitingly cold northeasterly wind that, to our surprise, hadn’t deterred the crowds at all although some of the stallholders had moved pitches to get out of the bite of it as much as possible.

Cofiwch Dryweryn (English: “Remember Tryweryn”) on a wall at the end of the lane to our borrowed cottage

I haven’t written yet about our trip to Cardiff last week. Madame woke up at three o’clock last Sunday morning and said “I’m bored – I’m just so bored!” – which I took to be an announcement of lockdown fever rather than a premonition of impending divorce. We both feel more vulnerable now that the crowds are back, than we did when the streets were deserted and the shops closed, even though we’re both triple vaccinated. Anyway, I can take a hint so I renewed our lapsed railcards as soon as we got up, and booked a trip to the National Museum of Wales. It’s a brilliant place, and they run some really excellent and challenging exhibitions. They also have fine collections of ceramics and art. We’ve been watching a series called “The Story of Welsh Art” – actually we’ve seen all three episodes three times because they’re so interesting. Presented by Huw Stephens they show what a powerful and neglected tradition of art has existed in Wales. Coincidentally, Huw Stephen’s father Meic was the poet who first inscribed the slogan Cofiwch Dryweryn on a wall near Aberystwyth and which became the most memorable text associated with a very brief arson campaign aimed at holiday cottages. These two words were, he later said – ( a little ruefully perhaps), the best known two words he’d ever written. Trywern was the village flooded in order to provide a water supply for Liverpool. Whatever you think about that old campaign, the fact is that the artificial inflation of house prices by wealthy incomers has made it all but impossible for many young people to establish themselves in Wales – at great cost to the communities and the language.

Our train ride was made even more interesting than usual because I booked the tickets from memory and inexplicably I asked for returns to Grangetown rather than Cathays which is four stops in the opposite direction. We only thought about it when we got off the local train on a totally unfamiliar platform in a place we’d never visited before. Luckily there was a friendly woman who pointed us in the right direction.

The present exhibitions include one called “The rules of Art?” – the question mark is an essential part of the title and it addresses a question that always drops into my mind whenever we go there. The grand building and its huge collections – however priceless and rare they are – was enabled through the terrible exertions of men and women who created wealth out of coal and steel. Wealth that they never shared. It’s pretty much first cousin to the travails of the National Trust in England who are just beginning to address the fact that many of their grandest properties were built on slave money. I’ve never yet been inside Dyrham Park House, although we often visit the estate and gardens, because until recently the source of its opulence was never even captioned. Fortunately that’s now changing. I was delighted to see a collection in Cardiff of small paintings by William Jones Chapman who was a third generation member of an extremely wealthy steelworks family who took himself out of the grand family pile and lived in a small cottage near the steelworks and befriended and painted portraits of some of the workers there. These are thought to be the only named portraits of working people in the eighteenth century – isn’t that extraordinary? The exhibition really squares up to the dominant artistic traditions of the past and sets them against an alternative historical backdrop – it’s marvellous stuff! When the winds begin to blow, who knows where they will take us ?

Here’s my absolute favourite among the portraits – it’s of Thomas Euston – the Lodge Keeper at Hirwaun – I guess from his apparent age, a retirement job. The artist, William Jones Chapman was greatly liked by the workers who addressed him as Mr William – which seems to combine respect with familiarity and affection; a rare commodity, I imagine, in those rapacious days.

Creative intervention in Bath draws the crowds

Out on our walk today we came across this contribution to the COP26 meeting. These interventions can sometimes be a bit preachy but this one conveys a powerful message with a touch of humour. Whatever the means we didn’t hear any negative comments from the gathered crowd. The placement, immediately between the iconic Pulteney Bridge and the weir which is regularly submerged during winter floods, is a prophetic take on what might easily happen if nothing is done to curb runaway climate change. When it’s in spate the river is truly menacing and the Council is spending millions on flood prevention on a river that’s also highly polluted by sewage discharges and run off from intensive farmland. With just a few days to go before COP26 this intervention just about sums it all up. It’s a brilliant collaboration between the architects Stride Treglown and artist Anna Gillespie. What we need now is an earthquake in Downing Street – metaphorically speaking of course!

In a nutshell? I can’t fit myself into a nutshell (and neither should you!)

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.

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