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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
It’s a rainy day today, although the wind has died back a bit and the temperature has dropped a little further. We managed to get out for a walk down to the beach during a break in the weather and Madame collected seaweeds and pebbles to draw while I dozed in the sun watching a common seal popping its head out of the water from time to time, giving me a thorough inspection. The curiosity was mutual, I’m bound to say but I’m intrigued at our sentimental attitude towards a pretty serious predator. This sentimentalisation of the animals is almost encouraged by the kind of natural history films that present nature as a comforting spectacle full of anthropomorphised animals whose every action reflects the finest human values.
Anyway, rainy days are great for reading challenging books and I haven’t been able to read more than about 20 pages of Jacques Ellul’s “The technological society” at any one time without taking a break. I could say that I wished I’d read it when it was first published in 1957 but, aged eleven, my French was at the la plume de ma tante stage under the merciless eye of Whacker Allan whose Parisian pronunciation constantly got me into trouble, driving around on holidays in Provence.
Perhaps now is the perfect time to take it on, though, because my entire life has been lived since his forensic takedown of the more idealistic post-war twentieth century sociology. The last chapter of his book is a prophetic look at the year 2000 which did not have the ‘benefit’ of living through currency crashes, pandemics, monetarism and economic game theories, mass migration, energy wars, environmental catastrophe and the rise and rise of computing; and it’s been much worse than he predicted. On the plus side, I am learning a great deal about the underlying reasons for our lemming like rush to the cliffs.
Apart from reading and looking at seals – which we always seem to spot accidentally – we’re pretty much on our own here. The sensible walkers, having looked at the weather forecasts – have nearly all gone home and there’s just out of season people like us, and a few birders dragging their giant scopes and cameras along the clifftops. There’s no garden to speak of where we’re staying, just a deep valley lined with impenetrable brambles, blackthorn and hawthorn towards the top and then shrubby willows down towards the stream that flows out across the small beach. At the back we’re surrounded by elderly apples, shriven by the constant gales. It’s a perfect environment for birds and so we can spend hours looking down the valley with binoculars.
On the clifftop, apart from a brain teasing array of gulls; there are carrion crows, rooks, chough and jackdaw as well as the jays in the valley. Most of them are easier to identify by their calls if they’re at a distance; but the choughs seem to have the extraordinary ability to perform 360 degree rolls when they’re showing off. Our quiet clifftop walk yesterday was accompanied by the crashing of waves thrown up by the wind driven swell, punctuated by fighter planes roaring overhead and a single engined plane nearby that was performing similar tricks to the chough – barrel rolls, diving and looping the loop. Three ages of flight charting the unstoppable growth of technology and culminating in the formidable killing machines that can fly from here to Northern Ireland and back in the time it takes us to walk down from the cottage.
Sadly we’re here just that bit later this year and so it looks as if the field mushrooms have either come and gone – or perhaps they’re waiting for more clement weather. The circle of fairy ring mushrooms is there at the end of the footpath. They’re easy to dry and string together to hang in the kitchen and although they’re not in the porcini league they make a decent contribution to a stock. Apart from that there are loads of psilocybin as well – which would probably make an even more interesting stock but I’m a bit of a coward when it comes to hallucinogens.
Time will come, I think, when the war on drugs will finally end and we shall be reading even more breathless articles from the selfsame journalists who were all for banging up recreational drug users for life – singing the praises of the new wonder drugs and printing verbatim the press releases they get from big pharma who’ll want to get in on the act as well. Cynical … moi? I’ve always remembered James Belsey, leading reporter on the local paper in the days when that meant something, saying to me – “Dave you’ve got to remember that journalists are bone idle and if you write their copy for them you’re much more likely to get it in the paper”.
What ails you?
As I was reading today the question popped into my mind whether Amish farmers, who avoid any kind of modern technology, have capitulated to the spirit of the age. From a bit of fairly shallow research it seems that not all Amish farmers are organic and some may even use chemicals. I’ll carry on investigating because it would make an interesting study . But in the course of following that question up I realised that to characterise organic farming, the rewilding movement and the innovative grazing systems now being explored as sentimental and backward looking is precisely to miss the point. One thing about technological society (mechanical mind if you like) is its capacity to sweep up small inventions made across history and amalgamate them into emergent technologies. We can’t save the earth by regressing to an imagined golden age but we have to move into the future with all the challenges and dangers that the technological mind presents, and make it safer and more sustainable for the earth and all its creatures including us and beginning with the grail question – “what ails you?”
It’s probably not the best time to come to Cornwall for a family birthday party under canvas but there we are – storm Evert is bearing down on us offering gusts of sixty miles and hour, and those campers who haven’t left and gone home, have been busy all day banging in pegs and fixing storm lashings. The next door tent looks like a giant cat’s cradle. We’re strangely excited at the thought of the storm and spent much of the day emptying and filling tanks and preparing for a lock-in while the family – mostly the grandchildren – went paddling in the water. So much of the remainder of my day has been spent reading, and re-reading Gary Snyder, who I’m coming to believe, nailed the coming crisis many decades ago. With very limited phone signal, there isn’t enough bandwidth to show the photo of three red legged partridge who joined us today as they foraged along the hedgeline. And so I’ve picked out a few lines from the essay “Tawny Grammar” which is so beautiful I’ve read it three times in as many weeks. Reading his latest collection of poems – “The Present Moment” is completely liberating, and reading it alongside the opening chapters of his book “A Place in Space” – especially “Notes on the Beat Generation” and “The New Wind” – is an exhilarating challenge to the creative deadness our times. Assuming we get through the night unscathed I’ll write again tomorrow.
American society (like any other) has its own set of unquestioned assumptions. It still maintains a largely uncritical faith in the notion of continually unfolding progress. It cleaves to the idea that there can be unblemished scientific objectivity. And most fundamentally it operates under the delusion that we are each a kind of “solitary knower” – that we exist as rootless intelligences – without layers of localized contexts. Just a “self” and the “world.” In this there is no recognition that grandparents, place, grammar, pets, friends, lovers, children, tools, the poems and songs we remember, are what we think with. Such a solitary mind – if it could exist – would be a boring prisoner of abstractions. With no surroundings there can be no path, and with no path one cannot be free.
Gary Snyder from the essay “Tawny Grammar” in “The Practice of the Wild” – new edition published in 1990
The seven elements of shibusa are simplicity, implicity, modesty, naturalness, everydayness, imperfection, and silence. They are adapted from the concepts authored by Dr. Soetsu Yanagi (1898–1961), aesthetician and museum curator, published in the Japanese magazine Kogei between 1930–1940.
Madame’s orchids have all come into flower within a week of one another. We thought we’d lost them at one point, after she repotted them and they went into a two year sulk; but we don’t give up that easily and today they looked as lovely as ever. They’re not the least bit rare or (normally) difficult, in fact they were all bought from the supermarket years ago, and I guess some people would have thrown them away as soon as the flowers finished.
Coincidentally, after an evening of synthetic violence on the telly we went to bed and I picked up my ancient copy of Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book”, published in 1940, for a sane read before sleep. I found this book when I was barely twenty years old on the shelves at Filton College one summer afternoon in a serendipitous moment, and I read half of it standing, leaning on the stack. I was totally grabbed by it in spite of not understanding any of the technical stuff – initially, I think, because having just escaped from a couple of years of mind sapping factory work, Leach’s account of the quiet routines of an artist’s workshop and, perhaps in a more subtle way, the pervasive sense of an undisclosed spirituality spoke to a deep need in me. Many years later I wrote a piece for the BBC World Service (known to insomniacs everywhere) attempting to explain how the book had inspired me. A week or so later I had a letter from a woman who asked me if I knew that Bernard Leach was a Baha’i and even led a gathering in St Ives. We met up couple of weeks later and she explained that she was a Baha’i too and she was surprised that I hadn’t known about Leach.
I was greatly surprised – not about the spirituality but more because if I’d thought about it properly (or at all!), I would have assumed he was some form of Buddhist or Taoist. In any case, my ideas about Buddhism, Taoism and Baha’i at the time were as uninformed as they were about pottery.
So the first time I ever saw the word shibui was a quotation from Soetsu Yanagi in the introductory chapter of A Potter’s Book – ‘Towards a standard‘. The orchids today seemed to embody all seven aspects of shibui as described by Dr Yanagi. There’s another Buddhist term that carries some of the same load – it’s tathata, usually translated as ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’. I like the idea of ‘thusness’ because it’s a quality that I’ve found in plants, in ceramics and occasionally even in human beings who we describe as being at home in their skin.
Around the time as a teenager when I walked away from my last factory job and decided to get a proper education, Madame (aged about seventeen) decided to challenge my forthrightly reactionary view of art and with a good deal of prodding from her, I had a revelatory moment in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery while looking at a painting whose subject – the backs of old and run down Georgian houses – was uncannily like the view from the window I’m now sitting in front of. People often assume that we’re lucky to live overlooking the Green, but the room I write in looks out on a reminder of the first painting I ever properly beheld that possessed the ‘thusness’ of the thing in itself; the paint, the canvas, the brush stokes; whilst referencing but not slavishly imitating something else – the rooftops and backs of houses.
From there it wasn’t long before I found a second painting – this time completely abstract – by Paul Feiler, that evoked the colours of rusting ships in the docks. I was hooked instantly by the restrained, almost austere range of the earth colours – and here are two more significant references to ‘shibui’ – restrained and austere. So the progression to stoneware, not least Chinese and Korean stoneware came for me in the confluence of colour with process, because the austerity of the ceramics that most move me is not something that technique can put there. In a parallel with gardening, all I can do is create the conditions for the miracle to take place – accepting that failure is a big part of the act – and accept the success as a gift from the sun, rain and earth on the allotment.
In the studio, a far more intense parallel process takes place between the earth (clay) the sun (the fuel used to fire the clay all, ultimately derives from the sun), and the water which both creates the clay over geological time and provides the lubricant between the particles which makes handling and shaping possible. Both gardening and ceramics are best seen as an intervention in the natural order and – surprise surprise – in all the greatest gardeners, potters, artists writers, singers and scientists, the accumulated wisdom and experience are occluded by the thusness of the result. It happens too in watercolours in which any attempt at labouring the paint leads to failure. There is a boldness that only comes with years of practice and the practise of loss can’t be avoided.
I remember once buying some strings in Bristol and an utterly decrepit man shuffled in and took a guitar down from the display. I was waiting for someone to come over and throw him out but I went from scorn to rapt attention in two bars as he began to play. Who was the fool then? I’m probably labouring this point too much, but shibui, or tathata, are the gift of simplicity; not showing off, scoring debating points or grandstanding technique. So I’ll finish with a quotation from a novel that manages to nail something of what it means to be an artist. Gully Jimson would laugh heartily at me but somehow in the confluence of technique, experience, (almost always) implicit spirituality and sheer grind is the secret we search for but can never find util we stop looking.
That’s it,’ I said. ‘It’s the jaws of death. Look at me. One of the cleverest painters who ever lived. Nobody ever had anything like my dexterity, except Rubens on a good day. I could show you an eye—a woman’s eye, from my brush, that beats anything I’ve ever seen by Rubens. A little miracle of brushwork. And if I hadn’t been lucky I might have spent the rest of my life doing conjuring tricks to please the millionaires, and the professors. But I escaped. God knows how. I fell off the tram. I lost my ticket and my virtue. Why, your ladyship, a lot of my recent stuff is not much better, technically, than any young lady can do after six lessons at a good school. Heavy-handed, stupid looking daubery. Only difference is that it’s about something—it’s an experience, and all this amateur stuff is like farting Annie Laurie through a keyhole. It may be clever but is it worth the trouble? What I say is, why not do some real work, your ladyship? Use your loaf, I mean your brain. Do some thinking. Sit down and ask yourself what’s it all about.’
You know how it always takes a while to figure out what’s going on, but surely (at least in the UK) we can agree that it’s a cold spring – and I don’t mean that we’ve had some cold weather because that goes without saying, but after being lulled into a sense that winter is over by a couple of balmy days, we’ve gone backwards by what feels like six weeks; chilled by a seemingly immovable wind from the northeast which only occasionally swings around to the west to gather some more sleet. Over in France and Spain too they’ve experienced some very extensive damage to crops, including grape vines. It’s difficult to make a direct link to the climate emergency but these extreme events have every appearance of being the smoking gun. Something’s wrong when the average temperature is way below normal and yet we’re having to water because the earth is so dry. “That’s gardening” we say to ourselves hopefully – “… you win some and you lose some”; but are we just kidding ourselves? In Bath we’ve had to cope with illegal levels of atmospheric pollution for years because local politics has been torn between reducing traffic and increasing income from students, businesses and tourism. Now, to add to the evil mix, the SUV has become the vehicle of choice for city centre aspirationals. It seems we all agree that something must be done, but the proposals for reducing traffic have been so watered down by the tourism and transport lobbies that the politicians are running scared. Councillors elected on a green manifesto to reduce traffic have crumpled under the pressure and there are rumours of palace revolutions while local bloggers have poured out their bile on those of us who challenge their so-called ancient freedoms – like driving a three litre Range Rover 1/4 mile to collect Tarquin and Cressida from school.
Anyway, all this cold weather presents us with a storage problem at the Potwell Inn, because a traffic jam of tender plants has built up and is now occupying every conceivable space in the flat, leaving nowhere to germinate the next wave of cucurbits; the cucumbers, squashes and melons – not to mention the sweetcorn and the runner (pole) beans. We’ve hatched a plan to construct a third unheated propagator under our original daylight fluorescent lamps because they give out far more heat than the newer LED’s. Desperation inspires ingenuity and we can probably get by.
Not all ingenuity seems to work, though, and I have to report that my genius attempt to lure the rats into the traps with exceptionally smelly camembert cheese fell upon deaf nostrils, as it were, and the hoped for carnage did not come about. It was at least reassuring that the trailcam worked perfectly. Alas we’ve yet to find a reliable way of controlling their numbers.
Much of the week has been taken up by getting the campervan ready for a single night on the Mendips to make sure all the systems are working properly. Our last trip – over a year ago – saw the electrics collapse in domino fashion and we spent the week reading by torchlight and huddled in the sleeping bags to keep warm. When the electrics go in a campervan nothing works – water pump, stove ignition, lighting and heating all go into a sulk. All this was replaced and patched up a year ago but during lockdown we’ve never had a chance to test it out under normal conditions. I’m almost anxious about taking the van back on to the road but, on the other hand, it’s spring and I’ve got a year’s botanising to catch up with. I think I’ll get back to grasses and try to identify the early risers. Goodness why I find it so exciting to know the latin name of a clump of anonymous green stuff with almost invisible flowers – but I do, and yes, Madame finds it inexplicable as well. Glory be! a new book on UK grasses is on its way to me and I’ve already polished the hand lens (this is not a euphemism). It’s called “Grasses A Guide to Identification Using Vegetative Characters” published by the Field Studies Council – end of plug, except to mention that you can get it from the NHBS bookshop which carries an amazing collection of titles on every aspect of natural history, and not so much as a third cousin seven times removed has links to them.
Finally, I’m publicly registering my ferocious dislike for any newspaper or magazine article headed “Ten top ****” I remember one of the chief reporters on a local paper telling me once that most journalists are irredeemably lazy and the best way of getting your copy into print is to do the job for them. A whole industry has grown up around this character defect; it’s called lobbying – and/or – dare I say – influencing in which winsome young people earn money by making videos of themselves promoting various kinds of snake oil. These videos readily supply ten best anything stories about anything from parma ham to windscreen wipers. In this way I was provoked by a “ten best” on the subject of growing veg.
As a potter, way back, I was often penalized for my passionate interest in technique. Somehow a whole generation of art schools managed to make a distinction between “technique” – which you had technicians for; and “talent”. The outcome of this lamentable attitude was that many students completed their degree courses without the least idea of how the elements of their pieces were conceived of and built, and how they all fitted together to make a finished piece. I remember visiting a degree show where I spotted a glaze that I’d designed as a favour to the technician in that department. The student, not knowing me from Adam, was astounded when I gave her the outline of the recipe. The very best students had a firm grasp of technique as well as the creative competence to carry out their ideas.
This need for technique applies just as much to gardening or cooking as it does to ceramics, and one thing I’ve learned over the years by watching really inspirational potters, gardeners and chefs is that there are always more and different ways of achieving what they’re doing. Being trapped by any sort of ten best ideology is like handing over your brains to a stranger. I’m miles too old and ugly to be a persuader but I’ve been tempted. However I’m constrained by the terrifying thought that someone might have been so impressed by my fluent and articulate promotion of camembert cheese as a rat bait that they actually bought shares in in a cheese company and created an online rat bait outlet with its own logo.
I remind myself of Ernest Hemingway’s comment to his daughter that the purpose of education is to teach us to recognise bullshit. I would hate to think that my epitaph might read “Dave Pole – he couldn’t tell shit from pudding!” – so please pay no attention at all to anything I write. My life is a work in progress – until it’s not.