That’s certainly true in Bath where you can easily spend over £100 on a posh notebook and fountain pen and release your inner Jane Austen during the length of a single rainy day.
I write – as ever – of myself; and my inner Jane Austen who remains captive in spite of the deskloads of notepaper and must-have pens which I’ve bought over the years to no effect at all. Even a set of six French manufactured coloured inks failed to remove the large stone rolled in front of the creative sepulchre.
For a while I convinced myself that it was the sheer expense of these accessories that was holding me back and so I started writing on torn up sheets of absorbent lining paper. There you go! we all have our little rituals which – although they have no impact at all on what we write – are strangely enabling of the act itself. John Masefield apparently liked to write with a box of rotting apples under his chair and Stanley Spencer memorably enjoyed the smell of human poo which seemed to get his creative juices going. Not for me, thanks. The seaside, with its smells of tar, salt and suntan lotion usually does it for me but these days I eschew all the tics of the past and write on my Chromebook wherever I happen to be.
For ten years I taught creative writing in the Welsh Valleys and in a notorious outer urban fringe estate, and it was there I learned that absolutely anyone can write. If there’s a problem it doesn’t lay with the (worker) writers but with the education system and the publishing business that sets the parameters of what we’re allowed to experience, think or express in writing. Of course the greatest enemy of many writers is self-doubt, but again this has its good side. Words don’t often come easily and it’s no bad thing to hesitate before putting your turds of wisdom before the public at large.
My own approach to writing was developed by having to meet deadlines. When you’ve got a deadline – even a self imposed one – you can forget all the faff and self delusion about waiting to feel the creative flow before committing. Sit down, turn on the laptop, write something and as it emerges you can correct, revise and edit as you go along. Oh and although it’s a good idea to have some thoughts on your potential audience, don’t let that be a straightjacket. In a blog format like this you can write for more than one audience and hope that some readers will like a bit of green spirituality as well as gardening tips. Never be afraid of pissing your followers off by failing to pander to their prejudices. You win some. And don’t pay too much attention to blogging advice on how to monetize your pages or get more hits. If you make the audience king you’ll land up being a servant.
For years I’ve honed my technique to deliver around a thousand words of reasonably stimulating, challenging ideas, backed up by experience and a lot of hard reading. What I haven’t learned is the very different skill set of gathering and editing those ten minute pieces into a larger format. Developing the significant themes into theses requires a larger view and a longer focus than I’m used to working with.
So we’re taking a two week post-harvest break in the campervan near St Davids, overlooking Ramsey Sound, and with a weather forecast that only differs in the predicted intensity of the rain for the next fourteen days. What could be better than repurposing some of that reading time to try out a larger format – say 10,000 words long? Well, coincidentally I packed Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess” to re-read, and this morning I made a start on it. Apart from his poetry and the book I have a single point of contact with him because I took the funeral service for a woman in his Majorcan circle who typed up some of the draft copies of the “White Goddess”. By the time I got to meet her she was near to death and not going gentle into that good night. Not that she ever spoke, but she was passing restlessly into unconsciousness. I sat with her daughter as her mother lay dying and asked the obvious question – “Why don’t you read her some poetry?” She was aghast at the very thought. Her mother – who sounded like a real martinet had always hated and criticised the way that her daughter read poetry aloud. Cue for a lifetime of repressed longing for someone, anyone, to offer any small praise.
As I started to read the book again I couldn’t get that picture out of my mind. Graves comes across as a slightly paranoid, obsessive old monster; absolutely determined to have his say and drive his point home like a stake through the heart. It’s my way or the highway. Anyway I soldiered on through the introduction and eventually found an example of an old Welsh poetic form called Cynghanedd that Graves had written to illustrate what he calls a “burdensome obsession”. I thought it was an absolutely wonderful use of words:
Left one dead
Robert Graves in a footnote in “The White Goddess”
That’s a wonderful encouragement to be bold with words; but the real takeaway point is that in his eagerness to press home every single obsessive point by wrestling it into the ground, Graves managed to write what even he thought was a difficult book that would be completely unintelligible to the “stupid and silly” people who would never be able to understand – because they weren’t proper poets. That should be a warning to anyone attempting to write in longer forms. Good writing flows like a river not a stream with prostate problems, and being right will in no way protect us from being bad.
Well, one unexpected outcome of the two recent heatwaves was that the Borlotti – obviously thinking the game was up – set their pods, fattened up their beans and expired. The leaves went from healthy green to pallid yellow in a couple of days, and that was that; an early harvest was forced upon us. The pods look a little shorter than usual, but all things considered it seems to be a decent crop. In fact one of this year’s features will probably be an early clearance of many of the beds. There’s a subtle difference between picking and harvesting and given that we intend to dry and store the whole crop we would definitely describe it as harvesting over and against picking the runner beans. Naturally we pick a few of the Borlotti as soon as they begin to fatten up and eat them raw off the vines; rich and earthy. We move the harvested beans, pods and all, into the greenhouse in mushroom trays, where they can dry out of the way of any rain; and then we’ll shell them, dry them a little more in the oven on a very low temperature, and then pack them into kilner jars away from the attention of any moths. A couple of seasons ago we stored them carelessly and lost about half a kilo of beans to small grubs. Of course we could buy them in packets from the supermarket but once you’ve grown your own, soaked and cooked them you’ll never accept anything less – they’re just so delicious and creamy.
The other plants that have come in early are the tomatoes in the polytunnel. We picked another 20Kg this morning and spent the rest of the day in the kitchen prepping them for oven roasted passata. The aubergines have suddenly started fruiting as well and so we’re in the happy position of enjoying the summer glut a couple of weeks earlier than usual. In fact nearly all the crops are doing pretty well considering the continuing drought. There are some pictures at the bottom of this post.
Is all this fecundity in the midst of a drought down to no-dig, plentiful compost and keeping all the beds covered with growing plants? It’s difficult to say for sure but our allotment neighbours who prefer a more regimented, clean soil policy, seem to have suffered more. Messy allotments keep their soil moist much longer.
The trail cam has captured a couple of badgers mooching about looking for sweetcorn recently, and we’ve seen a fox, numerous mice climbing the Calendulas to eat the seeds and a domestic cat. Overwhelmingly, though, the camera has filmed the intense activity on a clump of Nepeta – Catmint – with all manner of insects visiting during the day, and a variety of moths at night. The concerted effort to attract more wildlife and pollinators has been a great success and this last week a young half-fledged robin has taken to coming into the polytunnel with us, sitting quite confidently on a tub and darting down to catch insects and worms.
The annual battle to save the sweetcorn from badgers is in full swing now, and we’ve surrounded our small patch with sheep wire and soft mesh in the hope of keeping them out.
One further point that may be worth noting is that after growing numerous varieties of garlic over the years we’ve come to the conclusion that Carcassonne Wight enjoys our ground better than any of the others – and so I think we’ll concentrate on growing that variety in future. There’s much more to write about, including a trip to Birmingham to celebrate Madame’s birthday and a visit to Carter’s Steam Fair which bookended a day entirely lost to sedation after a routine trip to the hospital for an endoscope which apparently revealed nothing much too wrong – but all of that can wait for now because we’re both exhausted and completely tomatoed out !!
I take back all I said about our trip train across Snowdonia. I thought we would be pulled by a diesel but to our (my) great delight the engine that hauled us over 25 miles and 600 feet in vertical gain at Rhyd Ddu was the strangest beast I’ve ever seen – an NG16 Garratt built in Manchester in 1935 for South African Railways and designed for working very similar routes there. It certainly isn’t beautiful in the conventional sense – a bit of a mule in fact, but as tough as old boots. What’s odd about it is that it’s really two engines spliced together and sharing a boiler. If you look at the photo you’ll see a completely unexpected set of pistons and connecting rods at the back, under the tender. The engine was actually in service until 1985. Predictably, when we pulled in to Caernarfon station a large gathering of faintly priapic men – including me – rushed to the front of the train to take photographs. For the truly lost, the engine is described as a 2-6-2+2-6-2T NGG16 Garratt Design, built by Beyer Peacock Ltd. The bit that I loved is that this arrangement – known as a double bogey setup, allows the engine to be twice the power of the more familiar single bogey and it also allows the engine to traverse sharp bends on the mountain terrain by sashaying around the corners. The front and rear bogeys both pivot around the boiler section allowing a snake-like movement
For the human bit, being towed 600 feet up a winding narrow gauge railway line, surrounded by mountains, rivers and lakes, and listening to the sound of the engine working hard and clattering over modern steel bridges; seeing smoke and steam flying past in streamers like shoals of translucent fish – was a profound blast of memories for me – my father was a railwayman for his whole working life.
Madame thinks the reflections of the window on the photo look like the ghostly outline of an industrial landscape. The line was commenced in 1832; just a year after the Bristol riots and at that time much of Snowdonia really was an industrial site. Reform was in the air as the aftershocks of the French revolution reverberated around Europe. The railway company bought its first steam engines in 1856, just three years before Charles Dickens published “A Tale of Two Cities”, whose opening lines popped into my head as I was writing:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities
There’s a reason I love writing these cats cradles of association. Steam engines, railway companies, slate mines, coal and copper extraction and even – very near where we’re staying at the moment – one of the world’s largest manganese mines, back in the day – are all the visible inscription of our human impact on the landscape. The landscape and its artifacts – to put it in posh terms – is a palimpsest; written on, erased and re-used, sometimes over millennia. I was unable to shake off the difficult feeling that even the steam engine that pulled our train, was somehow implicated in our colonial rule over South Africa. Life is complicated – that’s what makes it so interesting and challenging.
Anyway – to get back to the day-trip, It was raining in the way that only Wales rains when we arrived at Porthmadog station. The temperature had barely crept above 10C and it was sheeting down in curtains driven by the gale. The railway has a permanent staff, but many of the jobs are filled by volunteers who do a wonderful job, and whose absolute loyalty and commitment manifests itself in a slightly religious attitude; so perhaps I should explain that by saying that there were times when we were checking in, that we felt as if we were entering a much loved Anglican church with the average age of the congregation creeping towards threescore years and ten. I was asked half a dozen times whether we were travelling first class or standard class; a denomination that was confirmed when we climbed aboard and found that the heating wasn’t working. This oh-so British class distinction was amplified by the fact that our standard class carriage was embossed (in gold lettering) third class on the outside, and the bewildering choice of hampers that someone had filled with their idiosyncratic vision of what constituted luxury and what ordinary should be. The net result of all these references to class was to make everyone feel slightly uncomfortable – like a first date confronted by a ten page wine list.
On a mountain, the rain doesn’t hang about for long – and so everywhere we looked there were waterfalls and ad hoc spouts bursting from the hillsides and flowing down increasingly dangerous looking whitewater races. The track was shallowly underwater near the Aberglasyn tunnels and alongside, the Afon Glaslyn was raging. It was if an entire mountain range had sprung a leak. As we reached the top at Rhyd Ddu, the water ceased flowing towards Porthmadog and started afresh making for Caernarfon with equal ferocity. The peaks, of course, were obscured by the rain and mist and so we only caught the merest glimpse of the Snowdon summit. The journey last about two and a half hours each way and by the time we reached Caernarfon we were thoroughly cold. Some of our travelling companions had put their waterproof trousers on to keep warm.
If anything the rain was even worse in Caernarfon and, waterproofed to the teeth, we made a desultory tour of the town centre. Madame unhelpfully suggested I take off the broad brimmed hat I was wearing and use the hood from my waterproof jacket. It was good advice but imperfectly timed because when I pulled the hood over my head, the icy water it contained ran down my neck and inside my shirt. There wasn’t much going on in the town centre – a couple of drug dealers in the square; a solitary prostitute and a lot of tourists huddling in doorways. If charity shops or bookies were your thing you’d have been in heaven.
Does this sound like a bad Tripadvisor review? Well it’s not, because I love Wales and what’s happened in these once great towns and cities is an absolute scandal. Wales was one of the first English colonies and has, for centuries, had the marrow extracted and taken away by the wealthy. Everywhere there are signs in Welsh reading no more second homes – but I would say to the pamphleteers – what if the tourists stayed away? what if the profitable conversion work that keeps builders, electricians and plumbers in work – what if it all ended? what would that do to a local economy that’s on its knees already. What Wales needs is vision and freedom. Freedom for local councils to borrow money and build the thousands of low cost homes that are needed so the young and gifted don’t all have to leave the neighbourhoods they’ve grown up in. Then – by all means restrict second homes and end the tax breaks because there will still be abundant work for the tradespeople. Then give the councils powers and finance to support startups and to develop the kind of tourist related attractions that will bring visitors in.
Caernarfon is the depressing sign of a conservation approach to planning. Just like many of the local farms struggling to survive – what’s needed is not conservation but regeneration. A planning system that values wooden sash windows and slate roofs above apprenticeships and skilled work is on the slippery slope to extinction. Am I sounding like William Cobbett here. He was a rabid old pamphleteer whose book “Rural Rides” has always been a lodestone for me; telling it like it is , or rather was, when it was published in 1853 – there’s a coincidence!
After a fruitless hour in the rain we went back to the station cafe to get warm, and were gradually joined by a throng of sodden passengers all dreading the journey home. Madame overheard one person trying to arrange a taxi. We managed to get back onto the train half an hour before the off and found to our absolute delight that the heating was working – and so the journey home was doubly pleasurable despite the turkish bath atmosphere.
Sadly, though, on the return Madame overheard a depressing conversation between three young women in their twenties discussing their attitude towards the police following the murder of Sarah Everard. It really shows how constricted and intimidated women are in this deeply defective culture. Enough, though. We love these day trips and no matter how uncomfortable the transport and lousy the weather we always come back feeling challenged and energised; and enough material to draw and paint and write for a month.
No it’s not a telephone number, that’s how many words I’ve written on this blog – I mean, it’s a lot, even spread across 585 posts, and I’m aware that it’s a bit intimidating too. I suppose you could read it every day, in which case it would be like a sequential diary, but most people don’t, and only pick up on a particular search term that they’re especially interested in. I’m not sure what you’d call it because the bigger it gets the harder it is to search. So in the midst of a somewhat sleepless night it occurred to me to make a kind of pot luck offer in a tag cloud. You can click on any of the tags and see what’s behind it; pick a favourite topic or just have a random meander around the inside of my head – there’s plenty of social distancing space there; and search for your particular silver threepenny bit in the plum pudding.
This is a long post and it’s possibly more open about some fairly personal stuff than you may feel interested enough to read. It deals with the challenges of retirement and the emotional impact of health problems. Normal service will, I promise, be resumed immediately so if you skip this one that’s fine, but it’s here in case anyone else might find it helpful.
I was maybe fourteen years old when I first read this passage and allowed it to take up residence in my mind, along with Peggoty and Duffy Clayton (you’ll have to look that one up).
“A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr. Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular”
The History of Mr Polly – H G Wells
It was always going to be a bit of a culture shock, coming back to Bath after ten days in the most idyllic and secluded place you could imagine, overlooking the Irish Sea in North Wales; and in the way that astrologers write about trines, and other unusual alignments of the planets and astronomers plot eclipses and consequential movements of the planets; my own little solar system threw up a large spanner in the form of an anniversary. In fact the fifth anniversary of my retirement.
I remember asking my old friend Mags, whose partner had retired three years previously, how long it had taken for her to settle. The answer – “three years at least” took me by surprise – I’d come to think of my retirement in rather conventional terms, you know – big party; warm words (mostly exaggerated); a few glasses and off into the sunset and a new life – just like Mr Polly. Then Rose, another friend, warned us that one of the biggest perils was that every night became Friday night. They were both right but both underestimated the length of time it would take for the dream of my/our retirement fantasies to morph into a much deeper reality.
On Monday last, (a beautiful late summer’s day), we drove across the mountains once more and six hours later arrived home. Nothing had happened particularly in the meanwhile: the flat hadn’t burned down and the allotment was pretty much as we’d left it; but the city – lying in its natural basin – was airless, thronged with visitors taking a chance with COVID; students moving towards their new independent lives, armed with implausibly large amounts of alcohol and – of course – the Easy Jet planes were overhead, bringing Typhoid Mary and her mates back from their holidays. Ambulances as always were crawling through the traffic, setting out from and returning to the Royal United Hospital.
One thing however was very different. A large stretch of the river had drained by a depth of about five feet – due to a problem with one of the sluices – and dozens of boats, some of them peoples’ homes, had dropped, one-sidedly, on their mooring ropes and filled with filthy water. This much photographed riverside area, worth millions to property developers began to look like a 1970’s photo of the old Caldon branch of the Trent and Mersey Canal; cluttered with abandoned and stolen metalwork – bikes, a stolen motorcycle, dozens of supermarket trolleys, old computers and general rubbish….. Hm!
The bottom right photograph (just about) shows the rarely seen overflow from the hot springs that drains warm water into the river after passing through the official Roman Baths and also through the rather expensive and privately run Spa. All the newly exposed river bed needed was a few dead dogs and Morris 1000 complete with skeletal passengers to complete the dystopian vision.
So what to do? Snowdonia ached in our memories and we were facing an enforced desensitisation back into our normal lives; living like urban foxes, avoiding unnecessary human contact and constantly COVID watchful. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but then he was a relatively wealthy and well educated man who probably lived in the better part of town. While Bath is, doubtless, a work of art – it’s more Bosch than Leonardo. The city looks great on a sunny evening when you’ve come in a coach and the buildings glow like ripe apricot as you are driven along London Road and back up to the motorway; but living here is very different.
Enough! We’ve forged our lives here now – I chose the word carefully – and much of the time our lives are so full we hardly notice all this. A therapeutic trip to the allotment surprised us. The first of the parsnips was a giant, the chillies, peppers and aubergines had all flourished in the days of our neglect. Another 5 kilos of tomatoes to prep, chillies to brine and ferment and more good things to eat. All good news there.
Our re-entry strategy was to revisit our favourite walks. The local ones are all calculated take us around the quiet edges of the city; be around five miles long, and capable of being taken at a bit of a challenging pace. There are no walks here that don’t involve hills.
To put all this exercise in some kind of context we both finished the first lockdown seriously overweight – my bread baking was probably the engine of much of it, but being indoors so long didn’t help, and comfort food was our principal survival mechanism. But there was more – Madame had endured a knee replacement; we’d both scored badly on blood glucose (pre diabetic) in the last set of tests and I’d had a series of troubling encounters with endoscopes, followed by a separate diagnosis of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. My heart would go into uncontrolled pointless and ineffectual racing leaving me feeling faint and (so I discovered) very likely to have a stroke or a heart attack. Our visits to the gym were more dangerous than I’d ever realized.
My medical issues were quickly resolved by medication to control the wayward heart rhythms and reduce my blood pressure, but emotionally the effect was deeper and more difficult to budge. Looking back, I began to make accommodations, telling myself it was only natural to slow down at my age, and all that blah blah blah. Fear of becoming a wreck was making things worse, and introducing negative feedback can only go one way, putting the brakes on life. We were shrinking in ambition even while we grew slower and bigger and so we did something about it. Long before the lockdown; we gave up alcohol – it’s fourteen months now with no more seven Friday nights a week and – (this is not a nag) – after a few months we felt so much better it was difficult to understand why we hadn’t done it sooner. Some of the worrying symptoms disappeared, and then six weeks ago we put ourselves on a low carb diet; I lost 20lbs and all my other stats – blood glucose, blood pressure, body fat, BMI and resting heart rate dropped quickly into the normal or even optimal levels. After a lifetime of never listening to good advice we bit the bullet and it worked. The diet is demanding but we soon got used to it. One of the biggest obstacles was getting past the pharmacists who seemed to think it was wrong for me to check my own blood sugars in case I “wore my finger out” taking samples, or (more likely) was too stupid to get medical help if self-testing showed up a problem.
But accompanying the appearance of these promising new shoots; the reappearance of my waist, and the clothes I never thought I’d ever be able to wear again, there was something else lurking in the background that came so from from left-field it knocked me flat because the way in which the inner world inflects our experience of the outer world is always present whether we notice it or not. The dystopian experience of coming home from the unsustainable idyll should have been a warning that something needed sorting.
So we took the campervan for its annual MOT at a garage in one of my old parishes and while we waited I thought we’d drive around for a while, near some of the places we’d both loved during the time we lived there. We turned off up a narrow lane from the main road for no reason that I could explain and then in a moment of completely clear insight I knew two things. Firstly that I’d been trying to forget, to push to the back of my mind, the whole 25 years of work in the parish, although much of it was pure joy, because there were some bits of it that had been terrible and that had inflicted real damage on me. But the second insight was that it was OK to own all the good things. I needed to remember them safely because they represented a third of my life. So two insights in a narrow lane that (who’d have thought it?) led directly to a farm and to someone who’d been good to me in a completely unaffected way, and we banged on the door and were welcomed as old friends.
A lot of my life has been taken up with unravelling birds’ nests of memories. We say casually that so-and-so ‘was in pieces‘ and that’s often truer than we think. Years of helping other people to put their lives back together demanded that I took my own puzzle just as seriously – it’s a work in progress, you might say.
Anyway that could be the longest imaginable introduction to a couple of walks – one of them a restorative stroll around Bannerdown where we were delighted by two usurpers, both probably garden escapes but Michaelmas daisies are so much a part of autumn, and the Canadian goldenrod was just as pretty, neither of them the least rare or even genuine native wildflowers but hey! The real ram-stamped native was the plant gall known colloquially as a robin’s pincushion.
Then yesterday we went across to the Mendips to walk down the length of Velvet Bottom and instead of turning back up the Longwood Valley, we carried on down through the Black Rock nature reserve as far as Cheddar Gorge – who could resist those names? I’ve talked a lot about the peculiar geology of the place which, due to lead pollution from mines that have been operated since Roman times, has its own very specialised flora. I’ve written about it, but some of the plants are harder to spot than you’d think. Not, however meadow saffron – sometimes known as ‘naked ladies’ because the spectacular flowers appear after the seeds have been set and the leaves have disappeared for the winter.
And there’s another reason for writing at such length. I once taught a young South Wales man doing an incredibly long prison sentence for affray. He used to joke and say that if I crossed him he might have ‘one of his blackouts’. Let’s call him Owen. Apart from a gift for throwing furniture and televisions through windows, he knew more about Romano British settlements in South Wales than anyone I’ve ever met. If anyone ever demonstrated the fact that you can’t stuff a real life into a bag marked ‘historian’ or ‘botanist’ it was Owen. As Stephen Blackpool was inclined to say in “Hard Times” – ‘it’s all a muddle’ – and in real life, as opposed to the relentlessly (artificial) successful and happy bloggers’ persona, for every meadow saffron there’s an awful lot of ragwort that can’t be swept under the carpet. The Potwell Inn remains committed to life in all its fullness, richness and joy – allowing for the fact that some idiot could leave the sluices open at any time.
I get all sorts of odd news stories chosen for me by the Google algorithm, alongside invitations to join dating sites. I always pass on the ‘looking for love’ ones because I made it a rule of life never to inflame an appetite I’m not in a position to gratify. It probably sounds glum but it’s kept me out of all sorts of trouble.
The news selections that most often catch my eye are the ones that involve farming. I suppose the all-seeing-eye has noticed my occasional forays into the trade press – as I try to find out what farmers think. Having spent 25 years working in rural parishes I think I know that they’re feeling very put-upon, depressed and aggrieved at they way they’re being treated. Yesterday there was a report on a farming conference in Tipperary where a speaker (a professor of public health) claimed that Irish farmers were not being given due credit for the amount of carbon being stored in hedges. Hedges, he claimed, are more effective carbon sinks than trees.
The farmers, unsurprisingly fell on this tasty morsel of good news with glee. “Look”, they said, “you can hardly move for hedges on our farms, we’re saving the earth already – go and blame someone else”. It didn’t take long before another speaker popped the bubble and pointed out that farmers are in any case still grubbing out hedges by the mile, and that there is no evidence – scientific evidence that is – that has established whether hedges do or don’t store more carbon. The audience promptly turned a bit sour on him and told him they’d had enough of experts and so they’d continue to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds.
Hedges are a brilliant idea for all sorts of reasons – not least for wildlife – so I’m all in favour of them, but there’s really no way out of this crisis that will allow farming to carry on exactly as it has done since the last war.
So I was reading this story and – for no obvious reason – Elizabeth Kubler Ross popped into my mind. I was once a devoted fan of Kubler Ross – to be honest, anything that offers any real help in dealing with the awful pain of bereavement feels worth a try when you’re working with grieving people. My problem with it was that real people didn’t seem to progress through the stages in quite the orderly way the original training suggested. All my experience (I wasn’t alone by the way) suggested that the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance certainly all certainly happened during the process but had to be treated more as modes of grieving that could occur singly or simultaneously, and which could be returned to in any order, sometimes many times. There was rarely a lasting moment of acceptance first time around; for most people grief came in waves and flashbacks, and healing was slow and painful.
What’s this got to do with a farming conference in Tipperary? Well, I think that farmers are suffering from real grief. Yes I know that environmental protestors are suffering from grief as well, but grieving isn’t helped by favouring one groups’ suffering over another. Farmers across the UK have been feted for decades for producing cheaper and more plentiful food and now they find themselves treated as villains. They’ve done exactly what was asked of them, sometimes against their better instincts. There’s only been one show in town, and that was intensive, chemically driven, labour reduced farming. Many thousands have gone to the wall but some have become wealthy on subsidies. Then suddenly it’s all over. The climate crisis is everywhere in the news, the farmers are being blamed although they’re only one part of the problem and with the changes in the subsidy system many marginal farms may collapse. A whole way of life is dying in front of us and all too often we environmentalists harden our hearts and instead of offering a hand of friendship we shout that the means are justified by the end, and imply that they deserve nothing better.
Which takes me on to the protesters who are also grieving for a dying world and in consequence are also displaying symptoms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance- and again, although not in that tidy order.
I always found that Kubler Ross was most useful when I was able to say to people that all five stages were normal. What most people expect when they’re grieving is that they will be depressed – maybe for a long time – but that gradually things will get better. What they don’t expect is that one minute they’ll swear they misheard and actually the doctor said there was nothing to worry about, and in the next minute be angry and then paralysed with depression for days, or promise faithfully that they’ll give up smoking or whatever – this is all normal grieving behaviour.
So appealing to the science, to the evidence, is logical but not necessarily sufficient to change things for the better. Presenting farmers with the evidence that their methods are damaging and expecting them to say “very well, I take your point and I’ll stop today” is way short of a viable solution. We must realize that many farmers are facing more than just the loss of income but also the complete loss of culture, the reversal of a lifetime’s history and memories not to mention hopes for the future. We were in Mevagissey yesterday and exactly the same crisis faces the fishermen in Cornwall – not simply the loss of their jobs but the death of their culture – it’s real grief, not stick-in-the-mud nimbyism.
Which brings me to another two factors. Firstly, for decades we’ve allowed the market to decide. We’ve worshipped the market, made it the sole arbiter of worth and now we’re paying the price of our idolatry – because by definition the market has no morals; the market doesn’t care what happens to farmers and fishermen, and it doesn’t care about the environmental crisis or environmentalists either – unless they eat into corporate profits. Secondly farmers and fishermen sell food just like oil companies sell oil, so consumers have to accept some of the blame for continuing to spend dangerously in spite of all the evidence.
And so playing the blame game when there’s so much grief about is heartless, selfish and pointless. Farmers and fishermen can only change the way they work if we consumers – not just a few token ones – all change the way we live, the way we eat and the way we get about. We all have a vested interest in working together towards that end. Shoving the blame on to one group is just another symptom of arrested grieving. We can do so much better than this, but only if we realize that there is only one habitat for all life on earth. Farmers, fishermen, environmental campaigners and consumers alike. Everybody gets their say but no everybody gets their way.
But I’ve left out what should be the most important participant in the whole process, and that’s the earth itself. The earth doesn’t speak human, and as Wittgenstein once said – “if a lion could speak we wouldn’t be able to understand it” but that doesn’t mean the earth can’t have a voice because although the earth may not speak in our rather simple way of understanding language, the earth is expressive to a degree that leaves our puny languages far behind. The understanding of what the earth is saying doesn’t just concern scientists, although it is scientific research that uncovered the problem and was also the cause of the problem. What the earth expresses is the concern of artists, writers and poets and ancient cultures that have mastered some of the earth’s languages, and some aspects of the most ancient spiritualities that have evolved in conversation with it (her?). But the earth does have one very direct way of speaking to us, and that is in the consequences of our actions. Perhaps it’s time for humans to take a back seat for a while and listen while the earth shows us what must be done. And of course it will be radical.
The best exhibitions are the ones that make you want to work, send you out into the daylight filled with determination and – so the gallery hopes – with a new sketchbook and some rather expensive pencils, bought at the shop through which you are always obliged to pass on the way out. That’s one of my two measures of the success of a show – how much does it make me want to work? The second measure is more larcenous than aesthetic – is there anything here I’d like to take down and walk out with under my coat. In my defence I’m bound to say I do not have a collection of very small paintings filched from the walls of galleries, because if if I was willing to deprive artists of their proper income I’d be an art dealer.
On the same day we visited the nature reserve at Newborough (blogged on Tuesday 5th March) we kicked off in the morning by visiting Oriel Môn which translates – minus any resonance – to “Anglesey Gallery”, and which doesn’t sound half so much fun nor a fraction as erudite. I’ve used a lot of Welsh this week because we’re in one of the remaining strongholds of the Welsh language and I applaud every effort to keep it alive and kicking. In a very small way I understand how the deprivation of a language can drain a culture of meaning. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I was brought up in an area with a strong local – really local – dialect. Away from home and school, where they were punished, we still used ‘thee, thou, and you’ in the distinct subtle meanings you can find in Shakespeare. When I went to work as a (very bad) welder at Jordan Engineering when I was seventeen I knew that when Brian – who was a brilliant welder – addressed me as ‘you’ – he was putting a distance as wide as the Bristol Channel between us. There was no other way of expressing that subtly insulting tone. The nuances of local dialects and languages are irreplaceable. A language helps you to think differently and so I find the only way of even beginning to understand what’s going on here is to engage with the Welsh language in my own embarrassed and fumbling way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m too shy even to say ‘diolch’ when I leave the local shop.
Anyway, like my good friend Samuel Beckett (OK I made that bit up) I sometimes wonder whether the ease with which I can write is as much a curse as a blessing. Familiarity with the language comes with a big price. I have absorbed the clichés, the lazy habits and the spent and lifeless rhythms so well that they can slip past me on to the page. And after an hour with Kyffin Williams’ drawings, prints and paintings I was wondering whether it would be possible to give up writing for a month or so and just draw. There was a large drawing of a garden by another artist at the end of the gallery and it seemed possible that instead of writing about the allotment I could draw it for a while. A daunting prospect for me, but the very condensed capacity of a drawing to express far more than hundreds of words is appealing. It’s as if wordiness can be boiled down in some kind of alchemical experiment resulting in a lyric poem and, returned again to the fire, can become a sonnet, then a haiku and finally a drawing. The very writing of which sentence makes a kind of argument aganst conceptual artists who – peering up their own arses – can see nothing and then write a long essay about it. The essential beauty of the drawing over the word is that it eschews the concept. Anyway, enough of that.
So filled with transcendental artistic desires we went off to the nature reserve and I was transported into a different frame, pushing disruptive thoughts to the back of my mind while we hunted for plants. Until Wednesday, that is, when we drove over to Plas Glyn-w-Weddw at Llanbedrog mainly to get out of the ceaseless wind and rain and stumbled on the centenary exhibition of work by Jonah Jones, an artist neither of us had ever heard of. There’s probably a reason and a couple of PhD’s in that fact. Welsh art hasn’t, in large measure, managed to fight its way past Shrewsbury or cross the Bristol Channel. You might cite different networks and funding bodies as reasons, but speaking from the English side of the channel I sense that there’s a bit of a dismissive attitude there. We watched a documentary about Kyffin Williams recently, and one of his faux friends implied that he sold too easily and produced too much uneven work. I’d answer that with two words – “Damien Hirst” and rest my case. Yes, Welsh Art does seem to have been remote from some of the nonsense of the past decades and that may turn out to be its saving grace, but much of the best of Welsh painting and drawing has been bought because people love it and want to live with it, not as an inflation busting investment kept in the bank. Yesterday I asked my question of one of the attendants at the MAC in Macynlleth. She said that it was true that Welsh art hasn’t crossed the border much but she went on to say that every time she drives back into Wales she sense a different atmosphere, a different ambience. She seemed to think that Welsh artists had something very special going for them and it emerged from the culture, the language, the landscape even. I think it’s the lyricism that’s all but disappeared from mainstream British art. Somebody pass me the stepladder and I’ll get down off this high horse!
But Jonah Jones was a revelation. His illustrated and hand lettered poems seemed to be answering my Tuesday question about words and drawing. I thought they were beautiful in a very Blakean way, and the slowness of his technique of hand lettering seemed to be a homage to the poems themselves. Jones was taught letter cutting in Eric Gill’s workshop. The hand lettering almost adds to the meaning of the words in a symbiotic relationship that does justice to both, suggesting that the answer to my question should be “not one or another but both” I should mention that when I was twelve or thirteen I found a copy of Edward Johnston’s “Writing Illuminating and Lettering” in the library and was so captivated by it I taught myself to write in italics and uncials from it.
Two days. two artists, and less than £1500 would have bought three limited edition prints that would give us endless inspiration and pleasure. If you’re anywhere near you really must see this exhibition. But then, at that price could they possibly be any good? – the British critics ask. Aaargh. We’re too skint to find out!
But Hazlitt was right, and I’m missing the allotment too. The photos both come from the catalogue to the exhibition.
The sharp eyed will notice that at this point in the journey we were the only passengers on the train apart from two conductors, the driver and someone who seemed to be a peripatetic cleaner.
We had slept badly – sharing a three quarter bed requires some organisational ability – and with the threat of an early start hanging over us, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns crowded for attention. How long would it take to drive to Pwllheli? (27 mins). Would we find a parking space? (Yes) where was the railway station? ( 2 mins away at the end of the street). And so the allowances of extra time soon aggregated and we arrived at he station with just over half a hour to spare.
There must be circumstances when a half-hour wait for a train might involve lolling in the sunshine on a seat commemorating the deceased owner of a local clothes peg factory. Not so for us. We were in the midst of a storm of the type that blows so hard and so wet that your expensive mountain raincoat pockets fill with freezing water via the gaps in the zips. Opposite the station was a Costa with a couple of people who looked as if their wives had kicked them out and were trying to book a hotel on their laptops. We opted for the station cafe which had a more cheerful look about it – Christmas lights pressed into service for the first day of Lent and a huge range of all-day breakfasts with amusing names served up by a girl who looked as if she actually enjoyed being there. Our train pulled in and the driver rushed in, ordered and ate a prodigious breakfast in a couple of minutes and we followed him, his ulcer and his dicky heart back on to the empty train.
The fare was billed as £18 each for an ‘anytime return’ – I think there must be some passengers who arrive at Machynlleth and don’t feel the need to explore beyond the car park and the industrial estate, and get straight back on the next train home. Anyway, the conductor consulted her nifty handheld replacement for the entire booking office and said she could “do it for £13” – which was a bit of a first – possibly a dreadful weather discount?
The tourist guide, however, is entirely accurate. It really must be “one of the most scenic railway lines in the whole of Britain”. Sensibly, in a mountainous region, the line doesn’t just hug the coast, there were times when it was the coast. The seas, big and grey, were being whipped up by wind gusts of up to 65mph and breaking over the great boulders that protected the coastline. Waves ten feet high and more, were capped with white foam. Wherever we moved away from the coast the intervening land was sodden, often flooded and populated by miserable looking sheep huddled against any windbreaks they could find – and, my goodness, some of the stone walls were approaching five feet thick, possibly they doubled as footpaths during spring tides and floods.
Two and a half hours is a long time for a journey that would take about an hour by road, but I was fully occupied with the scenery, and the prounciation of the tiny station names as we stopped at a series of halts, clumps of grass and an abandoned MOD site. It was as if we’d got into a groundhog day somewhere near Adlestrop. How can a place name have so many letters but lack a single vowel? I know the answer to that because I once ran some writers workshops for the Welsh Academy in the Welsh Valleys, and I had to learn how to pronounce place names so I could get about on the local buses. But although Welsh is a phonetic language, the diphtongs are incredibly tricky and the stress on the last but one syllable often catches me out. Nonetheless it is the ‘queen of languages’ as my Greek tutor (a Welshman) used to say.
If there’s a downside to the coastline it’s the proliferation of caravan sites at the edge of the sea – probably empty for nine months of the year, they look like abandoned intensive farms: hafodydd (summer dwellings) for thousands of people escaping their unique versions of ‘everyday life’. As we crossed the long viaduct at Barmouth the train felt as if it was flying slowly and noisily over the water. I’ve looked at photographs of that structure so many times, and it was an ambition fulfilled actually to cross it – so, soon enough, having taken a detour up a long valley, the train pulled into Machynlleth station where it would become part of another train to Birmingham.
I had carefully planned the afternoon and I knew that the restaurant I’d booked, and the gallery (MOMA) we wanted to see were both within easy walking distance. But you will know that when you plan days out, you don’t normally factor-in storm force winds and 18mm of rain. This turned an easy walk, punctuated by pauses to look at artisanal shoemakers and interesting bookshops to something akin to wading up the Amazon. Cars detoured into deep puddles in order to give us a proper soaking and my right arm had to be extended several times in a single finger greeting accompanied by obscene curses heard by no-one at all.
Did I just write ‘restaurant’? From 25 yards I read the word ‘bistro’ and as we burst through the door propelled by the storm, the word became café. Good luck to them: we were the only customers and they served us decent reviving food and a couple of glasses of wine as we watched hapless townspeople being washed down the street crying for help . The hairdresser in the shop opposite was equally under-employed and soon abandoned his attempt to smoke a cigarette outside as water flooded in torrents down from the blocked gutters. The whole world was a monochrome of grey slate and reflected white, like the parody of a Kyffin Williams painting. My new Tilley hat, the “Outback” model in waxed cotton had performed admirably with strong pegs driven into my ears but its broad brim had collected about half a pint of rainwater that ran down the waiter’s hands and on to her trainers as she took it from me. However she was kind enough to say that since we’d arrived she’d turn on the heating.
An hour later we struggled around to MOMA – the gallery of modern Welsh art – in search of anything by John Dickson Innes and found the door locked against the wind. This led to a very friendly personal greeting as we were admitted by the (volunteer?) receptionist who confessed that she’d never heard of JD Innes and didn’t know whether they’d got any. After a phone call she admitted that they did have a couple of his paintings but they were in storage which could mean any one of a number of facilities across the town while they wait for a purpose-built store to be constructed. Innes was a terrific and underrated painter whose death – aged only 27 – ended a career that would surely have eclipsed his friend Augustus John.
So back to the train for the return journey, but this time it became the ‘school bus’ for several dozen young people. As per Adlestrop, people came and went in the rain but this time the pre-recorded station announcements somehow got out of synch and each station was hailed exactly one stop early. No-one seemed to be fooled by this, and eventually the conductor turned the machine off and did the announcements himself – which gave me the chance to compare his pronunciation of the place names with the satnav versions in the morning. ‘Little things please little minds’ – as the teenage girls on the train might well have said when they were rehearsing a put-down for use in later life. A small drama unfolded as various girls attended to one of their number who had locked herself in the toilet in tears. A drunk man got properly told off by someone for attempting to take photographs of the children on his phone. Madame fell asleep holding my hand under the table out of deference to the schoolchildren who can’t cope with displays of affection by old people.
Then, as we passed the old Butlins site, we spotted the sun shining weakly in the sky, like a torch reflected in a steel bowl, and as we pulled into the station it stopped raining at last. I do love the Welsh and their country – not so keen on the weather, though.
Isn’t that the prettiest railway station you ever saw? I took it on a trip to Lisbon in 2009, and it popped into my mind yesterday when madame was going through an old sketchbook in which she’d handwritten the recipe for feijoada from our friend Denis some time in the mid-1970’s. Here’s the first trick of the memory, because I’d always assumed it was his own take on the Brazilian Sunday lunch, but written alongside the recipe in pencil was the name Ursula Bourne, and the name of the dish was not feijoada at all but “feijao frade com chourico”.
Denis was young, Portuguese and a wonderful singer who could light up a party just by walking through the door. He was an olympian drinker and smoker whose lifestyle finally killed him when he was absurdly young, and he could sing Fado so powerfully that ‘though you couldn’t understand a word, you knew it was dragged wailing out of a very dark place. We had some memorable times and parties – once, I recall, involving a huge quantity of alcohol liberated from the Venuzualan embassy by the son of the ambassador’s chauffeur. We were all working together at an old-school mental hospital that was in the throes of moving out of the eighteenth century Bedlam it had become. I still dream about some of the stuff I saw there.
But it was Denis that first cooked that meal for us and (I was quite certain) called it feijoada. I remember the discussion we had at the time about the impossibility of cooking it properly because so many of the ingredients were unavailable in this country and so he had ‘translated’ it into something close enough, using – as I discovered yesterday – Ursula Bourne’s recipe. I recalled then that I’d bought two of her books secondhand last year for next to nothing and so I grabbed them out of the bookshelf and double checked.
So the story I’d made my own was that you needed all sorts of meat, goose, bacon and sausage which you cooked with beans and a kind of chopped greens only grown in Portugal. The Denis/Ursula Bourne version was made using garlic sausage and celery with a bit of cream and lemon juice added at the last minute, and for years we enjoyed cooking and eating it. It was cheap and cheerful but very filling for a growing family with no money.
Then, as funds permitted and the food culture changed, I was once able to try it in a real Brazilian restaurant in Bristol where my son was working as a chef. It was OK but absurdly expensive and sanitized from the description Denis had planted in my mind. Over the years I’d been cooking and learning about other cuisines and my collection of cookery books was growing and so I’d made a resolution to try to eat as many of these disppearing recipes as I could whenever I came across them; which was why when we arrived for a week in Lisbon we set about hunting a couple of them down. There were two in particular – one I called ‘stone soup’ which Denis had talked about but never cooked. Its real name is Acorda Alentejana and it couldn’t be simpler – or harder to find. We trailed around the cafes and restaurants until eventually we found a cheerful waiter who spoke good English and knew what I was after. Except he point blank refused to sell it to me – “it’s horrible and you won’t like it” he said. But I pressed on and promised that however disgusting it was I wouldn’t blame him or complain and that I’d pay in advance if that was what was needed. He went and talked to the chef and eventually he brought it to the table shaking his head and, not for the last time that week, he hung around waiting to see what I’d make of it.
Well, it was pretty basic. A couple of crushed cloves of garlic and a slice of bread covered with boiling water with a raw egg broken into it and a sprinkling of parsely on top. I finished it off and it was, as he’d said, pretty disgusting, but I thanked him, shook his hand and ticked it off my to-do list. The cafe did not, however, do feijoada and he didn’t know anywhere that did.
Later we wandered around what was then a market but has now turned into a foodie venue. We found the required cabbage, called ‘couve’ heaped up in the market next to what looked like a victorian chaff cutter which they used to cut it into fine shreds. But nowhere we visited had feijoada on the menu and no-one knew where we could buy it. We were followed by many curious glances wherever we asked, until eventually ( as if he were confessing to a mortal sin) someone told us about a cafe down near the market that occasionally offered it. They were open. It was on the menu. I almost had to beg for it but eventually they relented and we sat outside in the sunshine drinking beers and waiting for the final reveal. There was everything short of a miltary fanfare as a really huge cazuela was brought out, probably enough for four hungry peasants, followed by the entire waiting staff who came and surrounded me curiously as if I’d just landed by helicopter in the main square.
I cannot adequately describe the contents which included a big chunk of pig’s skin, a great number of bones from various animals, and – I swear – a tooth! But true to my resolution I ate about half of it and the crowd drifted away. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked and – like the curate’s egg – was good in parts. Memories of Denis were swirling around me as I ate, and later in the day we visted the Fado museum to see if we could find a photo, but we didn’t.
But in answer to my own question about translating food there are two things to add. Isn’t it interesting that the more obsessive about “authenticity” we become, the more homogenous the food culture seems to be. Adding new ingredients doesn’t necessarily mean accessing another culture. What generations of poor people ate (still eat) out of necessity doesn’t translate at all when you’re wealthier beyond their wildest dreams.
Megilp is not the hero of a western, but one of those words that get lodged in your mind and can’t be shifted. It first entered my head from the pages of a Windsor and Newton catalogue C1964 and it’s lived a kind of shadowy existence there ever since, emerging from time to time especially in art galleries. It sometimes comes in its original and incorrect form ‘meglip’ which was how I misread and remembered it first; so now when it emerges I have to go through this routine of remembering and then correcting the misremembered word. It is megilp and it is a painting medium, and I have just asked this computer to remember it too.
Megilp. If you Google it you’ll discover that it is a mixture of some kind of mastic, a natural resin, and linseed oil – more usually I think boiled linseed oil. Boiling the oil makes it set, or dry quicker and the added mastic gives the medium an unctuous and shiny quality which was much admired by painters notwithstanding its dodgy reputation for turning yellow and aging badly.
You see, I can talk about it now and in a school for artistic bluffers I’d be the Principal but then, in the pages of a very small (the size of a mobile phone) catalogue, it was suffused with a kind of mystery. What was megilp? What indeed were many other things in the catalogue. I dreamed of burnt sienna – I could almost feel the heat of an imagined Italian sun. The names of the colours alone were the passport into an imaginary world of incredible richness. The oils and pigments were for me a pharmacopeia of forbidden and illicit sensations. In my imagination I would load one of the hideously expensive boxes with even more hideously expensive colours and set out with my carefully chosen palette and my easel and I would ……Here the fantasy ran into the sand because I had never learned the skills to make a painting. Colour charts, though, were like maps to me. Each colour was the trigger to a sensation, a flavour if you like that unlocked feelings through its power of association. Cerulean blue held the power of the summer sky, while the ochres were landscapes reduced to simples. Their proper names became metaphors for the feelings they evoked.
And the words would pop out from my jackdaw memory whenever I smelt linseed or turpentine. If I saw a painting, particularly, let’s say something from the Newlyn School, a Stanhope Forbes for instance, a Matthew Smith or a Sargeant I would look at the sumptuous fat colour and the word megilp would insinuate itself into my mind. It wouldn’t be a French painting of course – I don’t know why, but megilp seems such an English word. It belongs with cowslip and cats ear.
Lists, classifications and categories become a kind of obsession. I could write my personal history by listing catalogues I’ve fallen in love with. Actually the series would have to begin with my own children’s’ encyclopaedia which was my first gateway into the seductive joys of words, it it was – in its way – a catalogue because each word had its own illustration and so from the earliest age I learned to associate words with pictures. The original ‘house’ was a lovely brick building in some leafy part of, let’s imagine, Surrey. Necessarily it became an iconographic building against which all other houses would need to be judged.
After that it was an Ellison’s catalogue and I lusted after itching powder and a Seebackroscope. I could furnish the complete works of Jung with dreams based on that catalogue. Secret powers, magic tricks and disappearing ink were all available and (because I never bought any of them), they never ever let me down. It was sufficient to know that such things existed.
Then there was the John Hall tool catalogue where I first encountered the bolster and the slater’s ripper. I adored and even bought a couple of box handled chisels which I still treasure fifty years later. They were naturally ‘firmer’ chisels and ‘though I had no idea quite what distinguished them from any other type, it please me to know that there was such a difference. Other tools were beyond avarice. A series of illustrated cabinet maker’s planes of such beauty I could fall asleep while fondling them in my imagination.
Then came Winsor and Newton and later, when I was in my twenties, The Whole Earth Catalogue which was the granddaddy of them all, and the loss of my copy grieves me still. Could you imagine what it would be like to own a knife forged from old Chevrolet springs?
Later again it was cookery books. Who could resist the thought of a cardamom or lardon? What of a mandoline that silently took the ends off your fingers. And pottery too. I fell in love with Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” because I was overwhelmed by the thought of Varcoe’s Ball Clay. Was there a Mister Varcoe ? and did he operate a small claypit surrounded by harts tongue fern and tussocky grass? Then came plants because words like toothwort and purging buckthorn were more beautiful to me than spring days because I could evoke them at will. I dragged these catalogues around with me like a comfort blanket and they stocked my vocabulary with all those delightful words each of which conjures up a picture.
There used to be a wonderful firm of ironmongers in Bath called Hine and Collinson. They were like the typesetters to my imagination. They could reliably furnish the most obscure object you’d ever found a word for. A man in a brown coat would go off in search of a ‘double duplex lamp glass’ and lo he would reappear from the dusty warehouse some time later with the very word objectified in a brown paper parcel. It was there I saw my first Tilley Lamp, an event which was for me like meeting Helen of Troy (which reminds me of a joke told to me by Mike Harris: Question …‘what is a millihelen?’ Answer …. ‘the amount of beauty required to launch one ship.’)
When at school we learned the poem ‘The naming of parts’ the irony escaped me completely and I was transported by the names of the parts of a gun. Words do that to me. Each one is like a precious stone with its own picture and its own special feeling which can be threaded one after another like stones in a necklace.
“Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica.
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.