Elvis leg almost spoils my big moment

Wassail, wassail, all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee

I knew it was a mistake the moment I scrambled on to the picnic table, but there was nothing I could do but carry on with blessing the orchard and hope – earnestly – that I didn’t slide off and in or rather on to the crowd. The months of rain and murk had turned the whole top of the table into a green skating rink and I perched there, holding a lantern in one hand and my brief script in the other, sandwiched between two empty cider kegs and facing a sea of expectant revellers, inexperienced in the etiquette of crowd surfing – as am I. It was the realization of my grim situation that brought on an attack of Elvis leg worse than anything I ever experienced while I was climbing. I’ve written before that I’ve arranged to be buried in Littleton, but I hadn’t thought of ending my ministry in such a spectacular fashion. As it was I missed half of the first line, mispronounced ‘miasma’ and left the last two lines out altogether rather than push my luck. The Master of the Feast helped me down and I’ve never been so grateful before to sink my feet into some good liquid mud.

The wassail is always fun and, because it’s always in the dead of winter the weather is often pretty awful, although yesterday the rain gave over about an hour before we kicked off, and by the end of the evening we could see the stars – cue for a heavy frost overnight.  A couple of years ago we had a crescent moon rising above the orchard; a surprisingly affecting sight. Last night the moon was well below the horizon; still visible early this morning.

The evening begins with traditional songs around an enormous bonfire, during which numbered labels are handed out because the wassail queen is elected by a spinning wheel lottery.  Grave suspicions that the lottery is rigged were put to rest last night by the person who made the wheel when he admitted to me that he’d tried to  rig it with a magnet behind the arrow but it never seemed to work. Once the Queen is chosen she’s taken to the orchard in her chariot, preceded by the singers and the Green Man. Once she’s there and we’re all assembled around her, we make the most tremendous racket to frighten the spirits away – blank black powder shotgun cartridges are fired into the air with great plumes of flame and smoke; fireworks are set off to drown out the noise of the converging riot police vans and more Littleton Lifesaver is consumed. Then the Queen hangs a piece of toast on one of trees – why not? – and pours cider around the trunk.  The Green Man reads a poem and I mount a picnic table – the slippery one – to bless the trees. Then, more wassail songs where new verses are always inserted to make fun of various people, always including me, and we process back to the fire and the mummers play.

The best thing of all is that I get to chat to all my old friends in the village – provided I can recognise them under all their makeup and fairy lights.  Every year the costumes seem to get more and more exotic. Of course it’s all a nod to tradition but the local farmers all used to make cider – in fact it formed part of a labourer’s wages. The larger farms could get through thousands of gallons a year and if you know where to look there are still cider producers to be found. The Cider Club, which runs the wassail is a relatively new institution that took over the redundant cider orchard and which now boasts a stainless steel bulk tank and refrains from calling its fruits ‘artisan’ for which I applaud them. If you ask me what it tastes like I wouldn’t know because I never drink it but I’ve used it for cooking where it works very well. This year the Cider club members dressed themselves in sackcloth, presumably because however successfully we drive out the demons from the orchard they always come back in the cider!

So it was a marvellous evening and my only remaining clerical duty of the year. This afternoon Madame and me attended a workshop on sphagnum moss identification – we certainly know how to live the life – as my son rather acidly pointed out.

Rats vanquished, Seville oranges in!

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After a somewhat gloomy posting yesterday I think it’s time to put the more positive side of life forward. For instance – today we spent a few hours at the allotment, weeding and gathering dead leaves (they attract slugs).  The sun was shining and as I turned the compost heap I could see that it’s thriving and aerobic in spite of the wet weather and the preponderance of green kitchen waste which makes it rather dense. But the worms don’t seem to mind and they were there in their tens of thousands.  We did nothing at all to introduce worms to the heap, they just moved in and they’re doing a brilliant job of reducing everything down. We’ve put substantial amounts of cardboard in with the waste – in fact all of the cardboard packaging that comes into the flat except the stuff that looks too shiny to be true because we suspect it’s probably got a plastic coating. Biodegradable tea bags go in and quickly reduce to something that looks like slime mould. The so-called green caddy bags are very persistent and so we now take them out.  I think some manufacturers think that breaking big bits of plastic into tiny bits is biodegrading – it isn’t. The other big addition is the large corrugated cardboard boxes that come with furniture and especially bicycles.  We saw the larger sheets up roughly and within a week or two they completely disappear.

The only disappointment was the fact that our persistent thief has stolen one of the rat traps.  We’ve lost so much stuff over the past three years we’ve racked our brains to think who it might be, and we think it’s probably the tenant who was evicted from half of our allotment because he neglected it completely. He seemed to be bearing some kind of grudge against us – I see him often in the street and he gurns at me in a knowing way as if he knows something I don’t. What is it about thieves that makes them want to make their criminality known to the victims? In a thoroughly uncharitable manner I take delight that he’s expending so much spiritual energy trying to get at us and I smile back wondering if it ever penetrates his dull brain that we know and we don’t care. We just bolt things down more carefully.

Anyway the sun was shining and that was enough to redeem the shining hour; so it was a bonus when we found a box of Seville oranges to make this year’s marmalade – that’s a job for tomorrow, I think.  I’ve also got to do some baking because our grandson is putting on a cake stall at his primary school, to raise funds for the victims of the Australian bush fires – his mum’s Australian. He’s only seven years old and we’re all immensely proud of him.

The street weeds are growing about an inch a day and I’m slowly checking and double checking what’s there. With no flowers you’ve only got growth habit, leaf shape and stalk colour and shape to go on which demands a bit more detective work sometimes but saying hello to them by name makes the walk to the shops more fun. Tonight, because the sky was clear, we had an extra half hour of daylight, a lovely feeling.

The other bit of positive news is that we went through the seeds today and we’ve got enough of nearly all the chillies to get them in very soon. Seed doesn’t last forever but four varieties of chilli cost quite a bit if you’re buying them fresh, so there’s just one more to buy.  Last season’s habaneros are so hot that I think we’ve got enough dried to last for years.

And finally, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I took a load of books to a local charity shop last year.  They emailed me today to say that they’d sold them and raised just under £500 for the charity. I think I’ll take another batch.

A day with Amos Starkadder

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‘Aye ye’ve come.’ He laughed shortly and contemptuously. ‘Dozens of ye. Hundreds of ye. Like rats to a granary. Like field mice when there’s a harvest home. And what good will it do ye? [ ….] Nowt. Not the flicker of a whisper of a bit o’ good.’ He paused and drew a long breath, then suddenly leaped from his seat and thundered at the top of his voice: ‘Ye’re all damned!’

An expression of lively interest and satisfaction passed over the faces of the Brethren, and there was a general rearranging of arms and  legs, as if they wanted to sit as comfortably as possible while listening to the bad news.

And if you haven’t read Stella Gibbons’ book ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ you should, because it’s painfully funny, and a bit of a go-to remedy for a melancholic day.

It started harmlessly enough with the diplodocus that normally lives at the Natural  History Museum in London, but is now on tour across Great Britain in an attempt to make museums relevant and interesting to children. When I say it’s a diplodocus (known as Dippy to avaricious merchandisers everywhere),in fact I think it’s a resin cast of the long deceased animal, and it’s presently visiting the National Museum of Wales which, as a result, was crowded with coachloads of primary school children – and very sweet they were.  Indeed they stood aside  at doors and said ‘thank you’ with every appearance of meaning it.

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IMG_20200109_123815However I don’t think they’d have made much of the three exhibitions of photography upstairs. We had a pair of obsessive photographers of old pithead works, cooling towers and post industrial ruins all of which proved that we’ve moved decisively into a new age.  Whether it’s a better age is a moot point, although Martin Parr’s photo of coal miners washing one another’s backs in the pithead baths was enough to suggest that the romance of the collieries was not a million miles from the romance of L’Angleterre profonde pilloried by Stella Gibbons. There was a video of some ex miners at Deep Pit being interviewed and by chance I actually spoke to one of them when we were taking a primary school trip there some years ago. He told me he hated every minute of it, and then went on to say that the best bit about the job was the camaraderie, the clubs and competitions above ground. I was taught by a generation of teachers who were the children of Welsh miners, and whose parents were adamant that their sons should not go down the pits. My father was a railwayman and he had much the same idea.

As for the pit head works, it makes me feel ancient to say that I was brought up within the South Gloucestershire coalfield.  Our neighbour Mr King, who was the best allotmenteer ever, lived just up the street and I was told that he walked about eight miles to work at Pucklechurch every day, and then walked halfway back home underground before he started work. The Shortwood pit was closed before I was born but the pit shaft was still there.  Today our train passed Harry Stoke, an open cast mine that was still working during my childhood; and Speedwell (closed 1930’s) and Ashton Vale (closed 1920’s) on the other side of Bristol all left their mark on the culture of the area.  When I was first ordained and working in South Bristol I was taken aback that often, when I took funerals in Ashton Vale, the women would not attend the funeral service – an old mining tradition apparently.

Martin Parr’s photos – so joyous usually, had a streak of melancholy for a lost way of life running through them, and the Becher photos laid it out in all its architectural  glory. It’s no accident that I so love post industrial landscapes, but whether I’d love the life is another matter. I can’t get the Parr’s photo of a group of women on a night out at a working men’s club – out of my mind. Life affirming hardly begins to describe their fearsome independence.  Truly you would not pick a fight with them.

The function of the railways, of course, was to join all these industrial sites up, and notwithstanding all the electrification that’s gone on, possibly the worst way to enter any city is by railway, not least on a grey and rainy day. Slate roofs and back to back houses dominate the landscape as you approach the centre of Cardiff where the derelict patches of ground give way to a city busily reconstructing itself in concrete. For me it’s an alienating place that seems to demand a different kind of human being, one that I can’t identify with and would never want to become.IMG_20200109_121529

IMG_20200109_121649And so to the last exhibition that left me at one with Amos Starkadder and his sermon to the Quivering Brethren. The only way I can describe August Sander’s eighty photographs, taken in Germany in the period straddling the second world war is mortifying. These restrained, formal portraits, whose avowed purpose was to document Sander’s home country are a million miles from propaganda – and that’s what makes them so powerful. They are forensic, but not in an unkindly way, and when I say they include portraits of the victims of nazi persecution alongside a soldier and a member of the SS as well as the death mask of his own son who died in a nazi prison you have to wonder how Sander managed not to lose his mind. I guess they achieve exactly what he intended; a portrait of a whole country in change – and we now know what that change would bring. Simply to look at the photographs of the artists, writers and musicians who would become the objects of murderous hatred, for their race or faith and beliefs; or even simply for being creative, is to feel the chill of the possibility of it all happening again.

Did the dinosaurs see it coming?  Did the miners? the farmers and chefs and intellectuals of Germany see it coming? and do we see it coming?

Enough! There are other treasures in the galleries, not least a couple of paintings by John Dickson Innes – one of my favourite painters but incredibly difficult to find.  In the summer we made a pilgrimage to Machynlleth to see some, but the gallery seemed not to know where they were being stored! Oh and a lovely Cezanne landscape that was rejected by the National Gallery and also by the Tate – until Roger Fry intervened. Experts eh? Enough! – you miserable so and so, you forgot to mention the three little egrets you saw from the train just outside Newport. Surely that’s a small victory?IMG_20200109_133156

Bath pavement artist cheats death

 

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Rue leaved saxifrage

I’d never noticed this plant until we moved here – it’s a Saxifraga tridactylides the three fingered or rue leaved saxifrage. I first noticed it growing on our fire escape where, because it was only rooted in about 1 mm of grime, it was a tiny little plant and I thought no more of it until today when I spotted its more fortunate relative growing in a  luxurious crack at the bottom of an old limestone wall. Like most pavement plants it doesn’t exactly draw attention to itself, but unlike many of its posher cousins this saxifrage is an annual, and it survives the yearly baptism of Roundup by flowering and setting seed before the man from the council gets to it. Other pavement artists survive by looking as if they are entitled to be there.  The Mexican fleabane spreads because most people think it’s a daisy and therefore deserves a chance.  The Canadian fleabane plays Russian roulette with the ethnic cleansers (this is a very fertile city) so sometimes it gets hit and sometimes it gets away with it. The sowthistles seem to be resistant to the sprays, so they die back respectfully and then emerge stronger than ever. Ivy leaved toadflax grows on the walls and escapes that way. Let’s be honest, this obsessive tidiness isn’t remotely necessary, and the vagrant plants add a touch of life – even to our hallowed Georgian crescents. I’m just pleased to see anything showing signs of life.

Today started with me feeling a little short of sleep. I seem to be dreaming my entire life in a more or less random manner – my mind is slowly coming to terms with the fact that at last, through the magical surroundings of the Potwell Inn, I’m safe, and so having packed up and moved here four years ago my unconscious is wrapping up the past and packing it away because it (he) knows I don’t need it anymore.

Today’s re-lived experience involved the 8 mm film I once made of the funeral of a gangster who – it was widely thought – had been thrown down a flight of stairs and murdered. The police conducted an unenthusiastic investigation that took best part of a year, but there were no witnesses, no-one was talking and, to be frank, most people thought he had it coming. I was riding behind the horse-drawn hearse when the coffin very nearly slid out on to the road because someone had forgotten to insert the bolts, and the coachman turned to me and said – “he frightened my bloody ‘oss – e’s bin in the freezer for six months”. The surreal picture of a frozen corpse rolling down the hill was an addition to life’s rich tapestry, no doubt, but I spent most of the day in barely suppressed terror. 

So enough of these troubling old memories, I’m wrapping them in newspaper and sticking them in some kind of interior shed – glad to see the back of them.  But there are many more, and I think I’ll be dreaming them for the foreseeable future.

The good news was that on Monday we went to an excellent talk on Giotto’s paintings in the Scrovengni Chapel in Padua – the paintings were in Padua, that is, we were in the inestimable BRLSI. In the days of our pomp, when we had two incomes; most of our half-terms (Madame is an art teacher) were spent in galleries around Europe, sometimes with school parties and sometimes alone.  Now we’re retired our scope is a bit narrower and we haven’t even been to London for years, but the talk reawakened all the old excitement and I suddenly thought – ‘well we live 10 minutes walk from a main line station, why don’t we buy a railcard and book ahead to get cheap train tickets?‘  I mentioned the idea to Madame and she added Glasgow and Edinburgh to the wish  list and after an hour online we had our card and our first ticket – to Cardiff for the National Museum of Wales – great place.  I don’t need to drive, or worry about where to park, and we don’t need to have the obligatory row as we drive in circles when the satnav fails. It’s a win win cultural feast with extra virtue on the side for taking the train. We’re like a couple of kids in a sweet shop when we go to a good gallery.

Back on the allotment (try to keep up – we get around a bit!) I checked the traps and for the first time this week there were no rats.  A little dig around the compost bin suggests that either they have moved out or there were only ever a couple of them. The heap, which has been topped up to the brim three times since October has now rotted down to about 25% of the initial volume and is ready to be turned into the neighbouring bin. Everything looks very dormant apart from the overwintering vegetables which are all doing well.  The garlic that we started in pots about three weeks ago is doing particularly well and even some red onion sets that we’d given up on have thrown up their first shoots. Suddenly I’m very aware that the chilli seeds need to be sown very soon to give them a long ripening season. Next week we’ll be complaining about having no time!

My friend Rose posted to say that she’d been down to Shapwick Heath to see the murmuration of starlings there on the Somerset levels. Lucky her, we’ve not yet been but I’m sure it was awesome.  We used to see murmurations over Redcliffe Church in Bristol when I was there, but I’d be surprised if that still happens now.  We did, however, see a robin on the plot today.  We no-diggers are a bit of a waste of time for a hungry robin, but he he may have just turned up for a chat.

 

 

All that glisters

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They were very large, very beautiful Cox’s and we agreed – Madame Eve and me to eat a couple. Sadly what followed was not the wrath of God, or being driven out of the Potwell Inn and into the desert but just – disappointment.  In fact we’ve eaten, or rather not eaten any amount of lovely looking but ultimately disgusting, tasteless and pappy fruit ripened in a nitrogen filled cold store and pimped with wax and a little union jack designed to make us feel exceptionally virtuous. Advertising and presentation, supermarket snake oil, is just the way agribusiness can fool most of the people all of the time.  “Well don’t buy them!” would be a well deserved rebuke, but we still do in the hope that they might be alright after all. The fact is, almost all supermarket fruit is artificially retarded from ripening, bred with genetically enhanced  armour plated skins and designed for presentation and not flavour.  In our experience many fruits like apricots, mangoes and peaches will never ripen at this time of the year.

So what’s good at the moment? …. Pears.  Good old cheap as chips Conference pears eaten so ripe you have to eat them like a mango, with your sleeves rolled up. Forget the exotic fruit with all its glamour and airmiles and eat pears, preferably organic ones. And then there are Seville oranges of course, to make better marmalade than you could ever buy, at a fraction of the cost, and Bramley apples. Aside from them, stick to vegetables – it’s winter – and then when the new season comes around you can swoon with delight at the sheer intensity of in-season flavour. We’re still eating squashes, greens and spuds from the allotment, and of course there’s blackcurrants, raspberries. red currants and gooseberries in the freezer.  It’s really not the end of the world if we have to wait a few months before the Discovery apples come off the trees, and in any case what are jams preserves and pickles for, if not providing us with a bit of food variety during the hungry gap?

But that’s enough. What really promoted this mini tantrum was listening to the BBC Food Programme this afternoon. The subject was Spirulina – blue green algae – which, it’s manufacturers claim, is the food of the future. full of protein, vitamins, minerals and so good for you you’ll live forever. After half an hour of listening to its breathlessly excited merchandisers it slowly became obvious that it tastes filthy unless you bleach-boil it in nitric acid for two days and then separate the tasteless powder in an industrial centrifuge. Even the vitamin B12 it’s had claimed for it, turns out to be unavailable to our digestive systems. The key question, put by the presenter of the programme, was never answered and it was “do we really want to increase the amount of industrially manufactured foods we eat?” Or put more simply, if it tastes and looks filthy and can only be made palatable by industrial processing, isn’t it likely that it will then be stuffed full of artificial flavourings and texturizers before being packaged, promoted and sold back to us as as the best thing since white sliced bread?

If, like me, you’re interested in the numbers, then it looks as if you’d probably do better to eat a boiled egg: and let’s not get into the ethical arguments because it seems possible that in our anxiety about food we’re so focused on the ethics we haven’t noticed that we’ve become the new battery hens; fed dangerous untested foods, confined in dingy polluted surroundings for 15 hours a day and discarded in old age when we’re no longer productive. If you want to live a long and healthy life the best advice I’ve seen is Michael Pollan’s dictum ” …. eat food, not too much, mostly veg.”

I wrote a while ago about the fact that I hadn’t initially understood what the deep ecologists were saying when they talked about the “aquarian conspiracy”, but here’s an excellent example in the way that our go-to solution for all problems has become industrial technology. We’ll solve all the problems that confront us by inventing new technologies like carbon capture, food technology, genetic modification, fusion power – and so the list goes on. If I put myself back on the couch and articulate all these unrealised and unrealisable desires to a psychotherapist they might, if they were any good, gently probe my deeper motivations. “What are you most frightened of?” My own psychoanalytic psychotherapist once cracked the funniest joke (extremely unexpected) after I recounted a recurring dream about being shadowed by two elephants. He responded  “Oh, well I’m a Freudian so they’re sex and death!”

I’m convinced that, since the collapse of religious imagery, we’ve lost the means of articulating our deepest fears about both of my dream elephants, and so issues of sexual identity and the fear of death have found new expressions in our culture. In the past these fears were managed and exploited by the God industry and converted into secular power, political influence and some nice buildings. What’s happened is that a new bunch of hucksters have stepped in to skim the profits.  These days you don’t need a knowledge of ancient Greek or Latin to understand the theology; a qualification in business studies and the ability to trace the true ownership of the latest quasi artisan brand of gloop will do better. They still trade on fear; fear of death, fear of illness, fear of the loss of vitality, fear of old age or ugliness or poverty or whatever and they are ready, so very ready, to monetize that fear.

Industry knows very well how to bait the hook to catch a fish, and the hook here is often additionally baited with the climate catastrophe, environmental destruction and species extinctions. Wherever you look within the food trade you see entirely specious claims – often more implied than in your face (for fear of breaching advertising standards regulations), that eating or drinking industrial gloop will save the earth in some unspecified way. So by linking together our personal fears with our justified fear for the environment they prop up a weak argument with powerful emotions. As an example of the power of advertising, smoking no longer makes you look sexy; but it did once!  – and I well remember a photocopied herbalist’s catalogue from the early 1970’s among whose testimonials were accounts of satisfied customers coughing up or otherwise passing tumours in the kind of events that would have had me running screaming to A & E.  Hope and fear are powerful sales tools.

For what it’s worth, there’s more sex and death on the average allotment than you’ll see in a season of Scandi Noir, and all of it absolutely real. My own mortality and vulnerability are contextualized within the ebb and flow of nature, with the sun and rain on my back; and at the stove and the table later where food becomes sacramental rather than instrumental. There’s very little difference in tone between foodie fundamentalists and religious ones, and between them they’ve precipitated the need for saving the earth by a warped religious understanding of our place within it, and invented an impractical and ideologically distorted plan for saving it.

Saving the earth and flourishing as humans certainly needs urgent action on our part, and won’t happen without some challenging changes in the way we live, but there’s no magic bullet.

Every gift horse should have its teeth examined regularly by a qualified vet.

A feast – this time for the birds

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When we lived in South Gloucestershire, occasionally – during the autumn – we would get flocks of Redwing gorging themselves on the fallen apples in our small orchard.  One year we even photographed half a dozen roe deer which must have walked brazenly up the drive past the churchyard unless they jumped over the wall. Our chickens too, before they became foxy takeaways, absolutely loved them; and apart from larger birds and mammals the windfalls fed countless insects for weeks. But apples don’t persist, unless – that is – they’re crab apples like these I photographed on the river bank this morning. In recent days I’ve focused on winter looking forward to spring, but this tree – still bearing a significant amount of fruit – is some kind of Malus sylvestris – probably an ornamental cultivar and takes me back to the warm days of autumn. Stripped of all its leaves this tree is two seasons in one and makes a decent food-bank for the local wildlife.

IMG_20191231_133254While thinking of food-banks, yesterday I mentioned the sorry state of some of the boats being pressed into service on the canal.  This one is actually on the river just downstream of the weir and terribly vulnerable to flooding. The sheeting is all that seems to be sheltering a human being in this cold weather. The combination of public holidays and sales reductions in the shops has brought an unprecedented number of apparently homeless people into the city centre where they beg for money from crowds of visitors.  The police claim they they do very well out of it but it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that many of them have intractable mental health problems. The Julian Trust – a local homeless charity – have weighed in against another charity which has distributed temporary shelters, claiming that there is plenty of  emergency shelter already available and if people can be persuaded to attend they can receive all sorts of support and healthcare including help with addiction problems. Homeless people can be very difficult to help.

Years ago I opened the vicarage door, late one winter evening, to see a young woman – clearly a rough sleeper – who announced “my waters have broken”. I have to admit it crossed my mind that this was a spoof but she was very pregnant so I yelled for Madame and we took her in, shoved her in a warm bath and called the maternity hospital. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to persuade them even to send out a midwife to check her over but eventually, at about 2.00am a midwife turned up and confirmed that she was about to have the baby but not that night. The girl’s partner was very hostile and refused to come into the house and she too refused a bed but insisted on sleeping in the bus shelter on the A38.  It turned out that they had met while they were residents in a psychiatric unit. We gave them some blankets and some food, and I managed to wring a promise out of her that she would come back in the morning, but it became clear that the reason for her fear of the authorities was that she had already had one child taken away and so she had decided to have this one “in a hedge somewhere”.

I spent half the next day trying to find emergency accommodation and when eventually I found somewhere in Bath I even offered to drive them over to see it, but they refused all offers of help, and the last time I saw them that afternoon they were walking off in the direction of the Severn Bridge. I never heard of them again, and there aren’t many months when I don’t think about them.  The line of my pastoral failures is longer than I care to think! The earth in all its fullness can be a cruel place, and any transect of my little geographical area of concern has to include the culture, the people, the dependencies and cruelties as well as pretty pictures of apple trees and my endless lists of wildlife. The same malign economic and political forces that are killing the environment and heating the climate are also destroying human lives, and not just in faraway places.

So where do we snatch joy from in the midst of all this?

Well, I think we need to take and celebrate joy wherever we find it. I had a real moment of joy in the bookshop today. I was waiting to collect my new edition of Stace and I had a browse in the poetry section  and picked up a copy of Louis MacNeice Collected Poems. Although I was only killing time (what a dreadful expression) I got so excited about the beginning of Autumn Journal – written in 1939 (there’s ominous!) – that I started to whisper the words aloud so I could feel them in my mouth. I was getting some funny looks  from other customers and so my only real recourse was to add the book to my already extravagant copy of “New Flora of the British Isles” Ed 4. When a book makes me hungry I have to have it, and this one started to blow me away in the shop! So there it is; on the last day of the year I mange to bind up every contradiction in my life into a mare’s nest of conflicting demands, and conclude 2019 with a flourish of extravagance.

Stuff it anyway – that’s what being human seems to be all about. Love, art, laughter and tears too – we can’t make it up, we have to live it. Happy New Year!

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Guerilla gardening

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Yesterday I got excited about a patch of winter heliotrope on the canal side, but I didn’t mention the little guerilla garden that popped up just below Cleveland House a couple of seasons ago. I’m no expert when it comes to guerilla gardening, but I know of three sites in Bath that have been planted up and (more or less) maintained for a few years now. If you walked past looking at your mobile or with your head full of music, or ran past checking your heart rate and distance, or shouting at your children to mind the water -you’d never notice it – there’s only half a dozen square metres of it after all. But it just happens that it’s next door to a favourite patch of Pulmonaria (lungwort) which was not showing much more than leaves yesterday and it contained some winter savory in flower.

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From Clive Stace – “New Flora of the British Isles” 3rd edition

So how do we feel about these introduced and occasionally naturalized interlopers popping up here and there with a bit of human help. My “Atlas Flora of Somerset” has the plant established for a very long time on the walls of the manor at Mells. Stace has it naturalised in North Somerset – which may well refer to the same plants, so it seems to me to be completely pointless trying to establish its status as if it were applying for a visa. The brute facts are that this plant was almost certainly put there by the guerilla gardener(s)  who thought the patch was looking very neglected and needed cheering up. Maybe in a hundred years it will have naturalised and maybe it will just give up the ghost because it’s not in the right place – who knows? But yesterday it was in flower and looking very pretty in the shy sort of way that plants do when they’re surrounded by the usual badly behaved groundlings in disturbed soil.

It’s possible to get disquietingly touchy on the subject of alien plants, as if only ram-stamped British – no, English – subjects should be allowed. Is there a whiff of nativism in it? Neither plants, birds or insects respect our artificial borders – we’ve got a lovelorn parakeet hanging around on the allotment at the moment; should we shoot it in the pursuit of ecological purity or smile at its preposterous brightness against the winter trees?

There are a couple of serious points that should be made about planting up apparently neglected patches of ground. The first is that wildflowers often only show themselves for a brief period and then disappear again until next season. Most of us don’t notice that wildflowers adapt to their surroundings by timing their flowering period to coincide with any number of factors – space, daylight, pollinators – and probably many more.  The wonder of the weedy verge is succession and so although the patch of apparently boring ground may not be looking at its most showy today, in a month it might be a riot or a contemplative joy. As I discovered very early on in my botanical apprenticeship, not all dandelions are really dandelions, and not all of those green plants on verges are cow parsley. Wild plants have their own times and seasons and it’s not their job to provide us with year-round entertainment. I’ve come to see the random distribution of “wildflower seed mix” as just another form of vandalism alongside strimmers.

Another parallel point comes in a particularly poignant way here in Bath. The local council, bless them, always mindful of the strillions of visitors, like to make sure that the the grass and borders are a constant visual feast.  But to be honest, 50,000 tulips is a bit of an insult to any idea of biodiversity. God has an answer to bare earth, and it’s called weeds.  Weeds are beautiful, healing, occasionally poisonous, and home to billions of insects that feed birds and other insects. My mother, born in 1916, knew her wildflowers inside out; could predict the weather for the next few hours by looking at “Granny Perrin’s nest”  which, to my infant eyes, looked like a tall tree, and didn’t think of herbal remedies as the least bit ‘alternative’. She didn’t – to my knowledge – ever fly on a broomstick.

Teaching children to understand and recognise even a few local wildflowers and their properties (perhaps ‘gifts’ would be a better word), would do more to advance the battle against the coming ecological disaster than any number of wildlife documentaries. At Christmas our oldest grandson (7) showed me his new bird record book. Three pages of neatly ruled entries detailed all his sightings, and every one of them was a blackbird. I asked him if he’d seen anything else and he replied that he was only recording black ones at the moment.  It’s a start, that’s the thing. If we’re going to survive on this planet, the earth needs to be the object of our love and not just our understanding. So I hear what you’re saying, guerilla gardeners, but don’t be too quick to condemn the weedy patch or you might fall into the sin of municipal consciousness.

 

For the removal of scales from eyes

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  1. The easier way is to walk to the window or, better still stand outside, (anywhere will do), look at the sky, watch the clouds – today, here, they’re scudding across from the Atlantic, full of rain gathered up across an eternity of open sea –  and watch a bird (any bird will do, it doesn’t have to be a peregrine) – wheeling in the sky, enfolding the wind, and say “hello sky, hello wind, hello clouds, hello bird, my name is ***** and I don’t think we’ve ever been properly introduced”.
  2. * Read Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl”
  3. * Listen to Patti Smith incanting it on “Land” (But never play this album at the gym wearing headphones in case you inadvertently join in and sing along, because this will surely get you barred.

If you are disturbed by strong language, option 1 is recommended.

Job done.

Solstice complete.

There’s something happening here!

Last summer we made our first trip to Cumbria, driving from East to West across the country, very roughly following the route of the Coast to Coast Path. We stayed for a week in Ravenseat in a cottage that was actually on the path and then we moved on West, picking up on the A5086 at Cockermouth, through Frizington, Cleaton Moor, Egremont, Calder Bridge, Gosforth and finally Ravenglass, within sight of Seascale nuclear reprocessing plant. Although we’d never been to the area before, somehow the names of these villages seemed familiar and after a while I remembered why.  They were, or rather had been, mining villages.  Both coal and iron were mined there – the perfect combination for driving the industrial revolution. But not any more. It was quite depressing, in truth; there was a terrible air of dereliction hanging over the villages.  They looked sad, run down and depressed. There were many posters demanding brexit, St George flags – big ones – mounted on aluminium flagpoles at no little expense. Even a large sign outside Seascale announcing that we were on the “Energy Coast” seemed more ironic than triumphant.

If ever there was a living example of the coming crisis it was here, and I haven’t been able to shake it out of my mind since the summer. The results of the general election have only brought it back more strongly because this is where the paradoxes that caused the collapse of our present economics  are obvious to anyone who comes. Just as William Cobbett witnessed in his (1822 – 1826) Rural Rides –

The stack-yards down this valley are beautiful to behold. They contain from five to fifteen banging wheat-ricks, besides barley-ricks and hay-ricks, and also besides the contents of the barns, many of which exceed a hundred, some two hundred, and I saw one at Pewsey another at Fittleton, each of which exceeded two hundred and fifty feet in length. At a farm which, in the old maps; is called Chissenbury Priory, I think I counted twenty-seven ricks of one sort and another, and sixteen or eighteen of them wheat-ricks. I could not conveniently get to the yard without longer delay than I wished to make; but I could not be much out in my counting. A very fine sight this was, and it could not meet the eye without making one look round (and in vain) to see the people who were to eat all this food ; and without making one reflect on the horrible, the unnatural, the base and infamous state in which we must be, when projects are on foot, and are openly avowed, for transporting those who raise this food, because they want to eat enough of it to keep them alive; and when no project is on foot for transporting the idlers who live in luxury upon this same food; when no project is on foot for transporting pensioners, parsons, or dead-weight people!

The ‘pensioners’ that Cobbett mentions, by the way, are not senior citizens but recipients of government generosity for indefinable contributions to their continuance in power.

I was reading today that there is a proposal for a new deep mine in Whitehaven producing 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year and offering 500 new jobs.  The proposal was supported by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians in the face of strong criticism from environmental groups.

So there’s the paradox. How can we deny these post industrial areas of high poverty the jobs that could put them back on their feet? “The coal is in the ground, why not take it out and sell it?” they say.  Are you weeping and gnashing your teeth yet? Are there no other less destructive occupations than releasing carbon into the atmosphere that could be encouraged? The challenge before us is to change a whole culture, and it’s no use coming up with endless strategies because – as any business consultant will tell you for a large fee – culture eats strategy for breakfast!  The culture in question has centuries of entrenchment under its belt – so much so that it’s become commonsensical to regard the earth’s resources as if they were created entirely for the enrichment of humans,  and without any value intrinsic to itself. To suggest that we might have to treat the earth as a partner smacks of tree hugging madness.

For years the evidence has piled up, and no-one took much notice, but now it’s the experience we’re getting. The rainwater that floods into valley towns and flood plains, ruining land and houses is not a theory.  The forest fires aren’t theories and the extreme weather isn’t a theory either. It’s not an academic exercise to encounter the diminishment of the soil and the declining yields that can only be propped up by more and more of the very chemicals that are causing the problem.  Massive increases in stress and diet related diseases aren’t theoretical and asthma resulting from atmospheric pollution isn’t a figment of some doom-monger’s imagination, neither is the mass extinction of insects, and it breaks my heart to see mainstream politicians waving through policies that will make things worse for the sake of a few votes in a run-down area. They should hang their heads in shame.

Meanwhile the very same interests who have conceived, promoted and benefited from the violation and destruction of the earth have taken complete control by driving their juggernaut through the ranks of the opposition because the opposition had no plans for anything except managing the destruction a little more ‘fairly’. There was no teaching, no vision, no genuine conversation with these depressed areas, just the odd hospital and road thrown their way in the hope it would be enough to stave off change. Our politics has shown itself to be no longer fit for purpose. Workington men and women, and millions of other disillusioned people voted from despair because no-one ever listened, nothing ever happened and no-one was offering a coherent picture of a way forward, the only show in town was a regression to the imaginary glory days. I can’t get that line of mining towns out of my head.  I took a school trip down Big Pit once, and I got chatting to a retired mine electrician at the pithead.  “you must miss it” – I said.  “Miss it?” he snorted – “I hated every bloody minute of it!”

Driving across Yorkshire to Cumbria we passed some of the prettiest and some of the most derelict areas in the UK. It’s collapsing, the whole political and economic structure is falling apart and the earth on which we depend utterly is screaming its distress at us. The threads of a new culture are there.  They lack all sorts of detail, but I think we now understand that our relationship with the earth has to be understood as a spiritual “I -Thou” relationship and not the “I- it” relationship of modernism.  I think we understand that people really matter, and that strong human community is as essential to us as air and water. I think we understand too that our politicians need to stop speaking and start listening more.  I’m not the only person who gets exasperated by being told what I believe by a person who’s never spoken to me. And I think that we understand that the fruits of the earth and of our labours must be more equitably shared.  It would be a crime of the highest order to export the crisis to the poorest people on earth in order to preserve our wasteful way of life. And finally we have to change ‘the way we do things round here’ – the way we grow and harvest, the way we eat and the way we enjoy our leisure. The people of Whitehaven deserve better – just not that kind of better.

So I’ll finish with some words from Roger Gottlieb from an essay entitled “Spiritual deep ecology and the Left: an attempt at reconciliation”  – I found it in the first edition of “This Sacred Earth” and I’m quoting it because I think we need to talk.

 

A fruitful exchange between deep ecology and the left, however, requires that adherents of both perspectives suspend  some entrenched prejudices. Leftists need to open themselves to the possibility that a spiritually oriented perspective might actually have something to teach them: in this case, something about the ultimate source of value in our lives and about limitations in our conventional sense of self. Deep ecologists, on the other hand, would do well to suspend their ahistorical arrogance about their own wisdom, their pretensions to being above or beyond political struggles and their too facile dismissal of left movements as unremitting agents of the exploitation of nature.

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Although committed to ending unjust systems and ending oppression, leftist or progressive political movements have often reproduced, rather than opposed, the conventional ego.  Classic liberalism emphasised personal rights, enshrined individual economic activity at the heart of its system, and believed the central purpose of society was to protect and further ownership and consumption.  Surely this will not help us face the environmental crisis.

Sadly, more “radical” political movements of the West – despite their emphasis on community, class or racial experience, and their attempt to generate an ethic of collective solidarity and struggle – have also too often presupposed an individualistic consumerist ego. The practical politics of the left have frequently aimed to provide more things, money, and prestige. They have too often represented the interests of one segment of the oppressed while claiming to represent all, and they have repeatedly failed to challenge the individualist premise that a higher standard of living will make for greater happiness. It has been a rare progressive party that called for less, not more, consumption – at least until the Green Parties of Europe came into being; and there has been little assertion that human fulfillment may be directly opposed to high -consumption lifestyles.”

Can you eat it, drive it or rub it in your skin?

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I was tempted to add “can you smoke it?” but that would have been gilding the lily and, in any case, three’s work better than four’s in headers. I’m talking about virtue here, and it seems to me that a great deal of human effort has gone into the packaging of virtue, so that we can save ourselves the bother of making our own. Sadly it’s proved impossible over the millennia – notwithstanding fortunes, fame and power awarded to those who’ve successfully managed to convince large numbers of paying customers that eternal happiness lies just one standing order away.

A couple of days ago I wrote a piece mentioning my interest in the monastic life (in spite of my incapacity to actually follow it) and I left a small detail out.  The small detail was the fact that I was once a Franciscan tertiary, a member of the so-called “Third Order” a secular, i.e not ordained, order of lay-people who live under a simple rule of life inspired by Franciscan spirituality. My membership lapsed under the pressure of theological college and then parish work, but the idea of living a simple rule of life lingers on in my heart – like the Cheshire cat’s grin.  I was probably the worst member around.  The only rule I could keep properly was poverty (no choice!) , with chastity a complete minefield and obedience beyond reach.  I still treasure the paradox of making my vows in an army camp, that at least was truly Franciscan; but I couldn’t engage with the endless aspiration of some members to be allowed to wear the brown habit (robes) – obviously only at meetings. “We’re meant to be invisible – drrrrr” I’d say, thinking to myself that it was like wearing Friday night drag. Membership of the Society was quite secretive although no-one had been persecuted for many decades, and that, in itself, fostered a dangerous inwardness if you weren’t careful. I discovered early on that there was no genuine virtue in wearing sandals in the snow.

We were definitely doing something – faint, intangible but essential, struggling to live out our individual simple rules of life in the midst of the everyday – partners, children, jobs and neighbours. One of the commitments was regular prayer and that, I discovered, could mean anything from recitation of the daily offices to lying on the stone floor of an empty church in silence and darkness. I once tripped over a nun who was doing that and I don’t know which of us was most surprised.

Much of the time I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.  There seemed to be some intangible spiritual ecology that could be damaged by people being angry, greedy, envious – you know, the whole seven deadly sins bit. The interesting thing was that this misbehaviour didn’t just affect the person who was doing it, it leaked out like an infection, so my anger made other people angry and my greed created a greedy ambiance that could spread. The underlying principle is that just as individuals can create disturbance and lack of balance in their immediate environment, and that the imbalance could spread through human networks all the way up to a whole society; then the religious houses, closed orders and even a few gormless Third Order members, living within their rule of life, could somehow repair at least a bit of that damage. Loving, forgiving and accepting was radical, dangerous and it worked. Why is this all bubbling up in my mind at the moment? – isn’t it obvious? how can we be a force for good in a delusional and dangerous society, without resorting to the same tactics of anger and division and trying to use even more force?

At the heart of the challenge is the way that even virtue has been monetised and marketised. High capitalism is a ponzi fraud that demands more and more subscribers to make it work. The ploy is to turn us all into consuming monads and so, alone and without real friends to show me that I’m beautiful just as I am, I have to buy my beauty off the shelf.  I have to buy my aura of success by driving the right car or eating the right food, in fact food instead of being a sacrament of human community (don’t worry, this isn’t a supernaturalist thought) becomes divisive.  When my virtue inheres in what I eat I have to defend my diet by redefining my neighbours as heretics.  When my skin is dry I owe it to society to anoint myself with almond milk (whose principal ingredient is drought and forest fires) in order not to cause offence.

So am I going to round this off with a religious flourish and an appeal to join some kind of organised religion? No way! The best way of catching norovirus is to sit in a doctor’s’ waiting room. What I am saying is that turning away from, refusing to buy synthesised virtue  by living reflectively, meditatively, using any spiritual tools to hand seems to me to be a radical form of resistance, maybe even a more powerful resistance than we expect. Just to take one obvious example from Tai Chi – to use the anger and force of the attacker against them by turning deftly. I remember my teacher (I was never really any good) telling me about his Master who was filmed in a park inviting people to attack him. It was hilarious, he said,  – they just seemed to fall over before they were close enough to land a blow.

Isn’t this all rather idealistic? In my view we’re only in this dark place because we’ve lost any sense of the ideal; any sense that it’s possible to resist the onward march of Moloch using nothing more than what St Paul – in one of his brighter moments – called the “armour of righteousness“. That doesn’t mean subscribing to the thirty nine articles, or whatever dogmatic local expression of religious oppression you’ve suffered from; so if I dare express it more colourfully with a phrase I overheard on a bus, in reference to a certain councillor – “That Jack B – he can’t tell shit from pudding!” Well yes, and nicely put. Ernest Hemingway wrote once to his daughter telling her that the purpose of an education was ‘to recognise bullshit’ – I too think that the ability to tell shit from pudding is the prerequisite of living under a simple rule of life that stands a chance of healing the earth and turning swords into ploughshares. The ponderous and faltering ideology of fear and greed is already looking a bit unsteady – the constant shouting and lies are a giveaway.  There’s a sense in which the darkest forces in our society are actually fed by our anger and disillusion – so let’s starve them of that. First sentence in a simple rule of life!