“Good in parts – my Lord”

It only takes one blast of wind in a storm

The quotation, for the benefit of the under 70’s, comes from an Ealing Comedy film during which a poor curate feels obliged to eat a gone-off boiled egg prepared for him by his rather lordly bishop. When asked if it is tasty, he replies –“good in parts my Lord”. Like the tree in the photograph, blown down by one of our winter storms; yesterday was good, even very good in parts; but in one part a bit depressing.

We were doing a long amble through Bohortha, down to Place and then along the creek back to the campsite; seven or eight miles I should think, with a fair few hills to get across. Just after Place Ferry (the small ferry service over to St Mawes) we bumped into a couple walking in the opposite direction and began chatting. “You’re not from round here?” he asked. That’s the thing about local accents; (I mean local and not regional). The thought of banjos, verandahs and shotguns flashed through my mind but I knew that although we were complete strangers we shared a voice and a speech pattern that’s unique to one part of Gloucestershire. It was a good start. I don’t usually tell people about my parish priest days because somehow it’s enough to kill any conversation stone dead; but when it emerged that they had close friends in one of my old parishes I knew we were on the slippery slope. It was a friendly enough conversation with an amiable couple, but rather marred by him asking me “so are you the vicar that took out the pews?” “Yes I am” I said, and by then the conversation was holed in the side and sinking rapidly into the muddy estuary. 25 years of unremitting hard work reduced to an accusatory phrase. I still don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. “Where do you go to church now?” came next and I thought “stuff it” and said “nowhere”. His wife tried to ameliorate the situation by asking whether I was suffering from PTSD, and I could see that this was all turning into a proper farce; so we put the conversation out of its misery and wished each other a safe journey passing the most uncomfortable seat for one I’ve ever seen. Luckily we were too tired to talk much on the way back, and the simple routine of filling the water tank and emptying the toilet put it all into perspective. There’s no room for self importance in a chemical disposal point.

On, then, to the good bits which far outweighed the rest. Just for starters the weather was lovely for walking with a bit of wind and the temperature hovering between 16C and 18C. Cornwall does the most perfect spring days. I was desperate to know whether my find of a Smith’s Pepperwort would be accepted by the Vice County Recorder and find its way on to the national database. Vice Counties have nothing to do with misbehaviour, by the way, they’re an old established way of divvying up the country into workable areas that never (or at least rarely) change their boundaries at the behest of gerrymandering politicians.

Anyway, desperate as I was to hear from the East Cornwall referee, I left my smartphone in my pocket until it nearly drove me mad constantly pinging for fragments of meaningless celebrity drivel. In the end I turned it off. Smart though it may be, I don’t need to know that on this particular fifty metres of coast path there is no signal ……. and then there is …… and then there isn’t again.

Accepted!

So there was joy in excess of common sense when the email verifying my identification arrived. I felt I’d crossed a rubicon – getting a record accepted after only being a BSBI member for 2 days; but in truth the two are entirely unconnected. Later my son asked me if getting a record accepted makes me a professional botanist. I said I thought being professional involved getting paid in some way and at that moment I was £35 down. In fact the vast majority of field botanists are probably true amateurs whose collective expertise is awesome and (for me) inspiring. Anyway he said he was going to open a savings account and put a small sum into it every time I got a new record accepted – in order that I might call myself a professional. What a kind gesture! Although not quite kind enough for me to come out of retirement. But that’s one down and another thousand (or probably two thousand) species to go.

Meanwhile – as an aside on chance meetings – I was on my hands and knees once on a footpath on St Brides bay, looking at this plant and trying to figure out what it was; when a woman stepped over me (I was blocking the path) and asked what I was looking at. “I’m trying to figure out what this is but I don’t know where to start”. “You need a decent field guide” she said. “I always recommend Rose to my students”. “Are you a teacher?” I asked. “I teach botany.” What are the chances of that? Just at the most opportune moment an angel comes along and tells you what you need to know – I mean bookwise not about being pregnant! The plant, by the way, is Hemlock Water Dropwort – and it’s as poisonous as plants get. Foragers would do especially well to memorise it.

Now, years on, I’ve got shelf loads of books and field guides and an entirely new life as an allotmenteer, amateur botanist and gossip – plus I’m in Cornwall and therefore very happy.

How to change the world

If only it were so easy. I was originally going to call this post “The morning after”, if only because, having done a fair bit of research and finding several target species I wanted to emphasise the fact that as sure as night follows day, there’s always a stack of work to do. I was feeling mightily pleased with myself and I envisaged myself cantering towards the finishing line and pressing the send button on the reporting software. Pleased, that is, until I started to look more closely at the photos.

I’m very used to the dead hand of confirmation bias when I’m out and about looking for a particular plant. I find something that looks a bit like it and instantly every nerve strains towards putting the tick in the box; even – or perhaps especially when there’s something that doesn’t quite fit the frame. As I was writing that sentence I thought of one of my most forensic, and therefore valuable tutors at theological college who would seize on the slightest mention of any hard work that had gone into the draft sermon I’d just delivered and say – “really Dave; no-one wants to listen to you pissing from the pulpit!”

Bugle – Ajuga reptans

Indeed not, but I hope I’m making a point of general interest here. Point one is that there are an awful lot of little white flowers around at this time of the year. They’re often quite tiny and inconspicuous and I usually have to prostrate myself with a hand lens and take a closer look. Point two is that a phone camera with a decent zoom capability is the most useful gadget in the world for recording a pile of information you didn’t notice at the time you were squinting at the specimen, but discover you desperately need when you start leafing through the 1266 pages of Stace 4 (no pictures) at home. Macro photos are so immensely useful for identification that I even bought a little clip-on macro lens which makes life even easier.

Nonetheless, the morning after feeling creeps in like mental wet rot as you stare at the photos and realize that in the cold light of day, Hairy Bittercress; Alpine Pennycress, Dwarf Mouse Ear, Common Whitlow Grass and even Barren Strawberry look like – how shall I put this delicately? – cousins, and my report if I ever send it will be seasoned with doubts. Today at a Bath Nats meeting I shared some of those doubts with a really ace botanist; so good he can enlarge at any length you like on the 275 plus subspecies of Blackberry. I say I shared, but as soon as he discerned the drift of the conversation he paled visibly and offered to look at my emails in the same tone of voice you might use to say ‘you must come round for supper some time’ – with not the least intention of specifying an actual date.

So maybe it would be better to have walked on by and enjoyed the lovely skies last week; but here’s the point. After you’ve sat and struggled with an ID for a while, the world becomes an infinitely richer place. Instead of noticing the little white flower and passing by, you now understand that it could be one of … who knows; it could be hundreds! Suddenly the world needs to expand to accommodate this new piece of knowledge because now there are five new friends where there was once only one.

Changing the world, especially at the moment, seems like a fruitless and depressing waste of emotional energy but changing it just by making it bigger, more diverse and more beautiful than it was before, is achievable. These little white flowers aren’t especially rare, although they can sometimes survive in a place that no other living thing could survive in. However they are under threat and whilst I’ve no pretensions about my own modest abilities, we footsoldiers; the botanical infantry if you like, can record them so that they can’t become rare or even extinct without someone noticing.

Good hunting!

Sweet Vernal Grass – Anthoxanthum odoratum

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things ….

Gerard Manley Hopkins; “God’s Grandeur”.

Yesterday I set out with the target of finding one single grass species, and we were on a 270 acre site where there’s an awful lot of the green stuff, so it was a test of patience mixed with good luck and Madame’s extraordinary eye. She was the first to spot the tiny flowers amongst the ruffians, not knowing at all what it was. Our minds converged and I had my plant.

It’s not that it’s the least uncommon – just that it’s very small; flowers very early in the year before the other grasses and then lingers as a dried skeleton for the rest of the season. I don’t suppose anyone in the UK could justly say that they’d never seen it but it’s also true that very few indeed would have noticed or known what it was. It’s all in the name; or very nearly all. It’s probably known as sweet more for its perfume than its taste. The thing about it is that it really is the smell of fresh hay; and that’s down to the alkaloid coumarin that gives the same perfume to Meadowsweet: a kind of delicious and evocative vanilla fragrance. The second part of the name, verna, comes from being one of the earliest grasses to flower. Most of the perfume resides in the roots and, as is so often the case, smelt close-up, to me it’s more like Dettol than vanilla. It’s also true that although it was once sown in meadows, Coope and Gray say that it’s neither very productive nor palatable to cattle and so it’s out there on its own.

We also went back to the dark rings in the grass to see if we could find any St George’s mushrooms – Calocybe gambosa and we were lucky that overnight a clump had emerged. They’re the easiest of fungi to identify as long as it’s spring. The white gills and the strong mealy smell are vanishingly unlikely to be anything else. Later on in the season, however you need to be very careful indeed because there are some truly dangerous nasties out there. Here’s an unexpectedly atypical Death Cap we photographed in September 2019 in Cumbria. As always, the devil’s in the detail and – just like all the other plants – you have to consider tiny details of shape and form; smell; season and habitat. That single death cap would certainly be enough to kill you!

Later on we trudged back to the Meadow Foxtails to see what other successional grasses might be on their way and found Yorkshire Fog in leaf there. I really should go back and do a full inventory but my grass I/D skills are still quite rudimentary and I fear it would be a slow job. It occurred to me while we were looking that I may not have noticed the Meadow Foxtail growing there before because until recently there was a free ranging herd of deer that would have eaten the tops off as soon as they emerged. Sadly they became infected with Bovine TB and had to be slaughtered, and so the grazing has had a two year rest. Preparations are obviously being made to reinstate the herd with hundreds of yards of new deer proof fencing going in. Hopefully they’ll soon restore the grass to its previous state.

One brilliant little find was a quantity of Flattened Meadow Grass; the same species that I found in Cornwall recently and which I’m still waiting to get signed off for the record. A double check on the BSBI database later confirmed that it’s known in that 10K OS square, and that’s good enough for me. Once you’ve sweated for hours over a plant you tend to remember it in the future!

Blue skies thinking?

Looking up towards Blackdown from Charterhouse

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

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

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

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

Chinese grave figures

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

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

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

Heligan – the return

Crossing the jungle

Last time we camped here at Heligan the campervan leisure batteries – (and therefore almost everything else) -gave up and we spent best part of the week (it was February) freezing cold and huddling in the sleeping bags with only head torches to see by. This time we crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s and after a lot of maintenance work the van is restored to its full glory. Sadly the weather has been awful, with almost continuous rain, and so it’s been obligatory wet weather gear. Nothing daunted though, we’ve been out and about to see the spectacular beginnings of the magnolia and camellia blossom. The kitchen garden looks a bit like the allotment at home – all dressed up with nowhere to go. What we need, of course, is a bit of decent weather. It’s all very well the Met Office determining that March 1st is the first day of Spring, but for gardeners and astrologers, not to mention traditionalists, the equinox is the real deal. Someone should tell them that nature doesn’t read books – however well indexed. Those extra three weeks make a world of difference. Today as we walked the perimeter of the Heligan estate we could see all manner of leaves pushing upwards but relatively few flowers.

Gunnera plants.

For sheer horror you could do worse than film these Gunneras unfolding in time lapse mode. They might well have been part of the background research for Aliens and if we had the gift of standing completely still and watching for a month we’d probably need psychotherapy! So just to balance things out a little, here’s a Magnolia bloom representing the acceptable face of gardening.

Magnolia

Still it’s true that sometimes the most memorable finds are not the show stoppers, but the ones that nearly got away. I brought a new field guide down with me to try and I was anxious to give it a test run. Weather being weather it would have been hazardous to give it a first run in the rain – the Collins Wild Flower Guide is not for the faint hearted. Before we set out I weighed copies of the Rose “Wildflower Key” which came in at around 800 grammes. The Book of Stace was about 1500 grammes and the mighty Collins swaggered it at 1700 Grammes. You really need some thew to carry it around in your bag ……… so I didn’t!

Anyway, as we were wandering alongside the stream in the woods at the southern edge of the estate I spotted something odd, lurking amongst the vegetation, in this case mostly primroses in leaf. At first glance these tiny (3mm) flowers looked as if they belonged to a sickly Veronica; the leaves looked yellowish and chlorotic. But after I’d walked past a couple of clumps I could see that they were in full flower except the flowers seemed to have sepals but no petals – rather like tiny euphorbias. So lacking the book I took a couple of photos and did some research back at the van where I found that they were golden saxifrages – specifically the opposite leaved form – Chrysosplenium oppositifolium. After confirming it in the Collins WFG and checking the distribution on the BSBI online maps I felt brave enough to record it on iRecord. It’s not showy, it’s not in the least rare but I’d never noticed it before. Sitting in the van and uploading the record with the rain beating down on the roof, felt like a vindication of the day. There are very few activities where a complete amateur can make a difference, and when it comes to the destruction of the environment we need witnesses. Witnesses that can put hard, verifiable records up against the magical thinking of the climate change deniers.

And that’s also why it’s worth recording even the humblest and most common of the plants. If I have a beef with natural history films it’s their tendency to stress the spectacular over the mundane and wrap every living creature into a homesy narrative overwhelmed by overblown musical scores. Natural history as folk religion.

When you think about it, rarity and scarcity are not quite synonyms. Living organisms first become scarce and only then do they become rare. How will we know when an old familiar friend is becoming scarce if we don’t record them when they’re plentiful? Ten thousand records for lesser celandines seems about right, against one for the ghost orchid. But if no one ever recorded the ordinary everyday plants we wouldn’t notice until they almost disappeared – like the cuckoo! Today, standing in the woods, we heard a woodpecker drumming. As a child on my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns, such a sound would have been commonplace; but today it made my spirits leap. In the 1950’s my squirrels were all red squirrels. My grandfather was doing his best to shoot the greys, for which he was paid a penny a tail, I think. It didn’t work, though, and now we have to travel afar to see them. After another rainy day here tomorrow, we’re off to a site on the Roseland Peninsula with a more promising weather forecast.

It’s been an additional pleasure to write this post because a couple of weeks ago we decided to lash out on a portable WiFi router that runs on a data SIM. It seems to be working very well with all our laptops and phones networked and able to stream video. I think it’s known as a MiFi system. Anyway it works for us – so no more standing out in the wet trying to get a signal. With campsite WiFi here costing £15 for three days and not even functioning very well, it’s goodbye to tethering and hello to happy days.

What’s your movie?

The heading at the top is the title of a very good Mose Allison song – “What’s your movie?” – which takes the mickey out of people who build their identities out of film characters. Although I love the song and laugh out loud at it, I’m also aware that none of us is able to escape the temptation to weave a narrative around our lives. The problem is that we don’t need to be even remotely out of the ordinary to be able to weave multiple narratives. So with that caveat, please welcome my first ever botany book – Warne’s Wildflowers of the wayside and woodlands”. I think I must have bought it in my late teens and – truth to tell – it was never that much use. The illustrations were miles away from the plants they depicted and the resolution was so poor that at best they gave an impression of the plant; and fatally – there were no keys at all apart from some line drawings sorted by the colour of the flowers. I had no technical knowledge of plant families and so the only means of naming one was to laboriously turn the pages until I found something that looked like – even vaguely like – the plant I had in front of me. Madame will testify that this made for very slow and exquisitely boring walks on her part. Consequently – much as I’d like to – I’m unable to construct a credible narrative around my career as an amateur field botanist. My movie is more like an inconclusive list of rough drafts and false starts that should never have seen the light of day.

However the passion for observing and naming plants never went away and over the years I’ve accumulated an unholy number of books, most of which were totally beyond my comprehension when I bought them. Over fifty years I sort of caught up with most of them whilst simultaneously throwing myself into the pit of incomprehension by buying yet more.

Yesterday I got lucky and found a copy of the out of print New Atlas of the British & Irish Flora, for £34 on the Oxfam website and it was while I was pondering where I was going to find a space for it that I found my battered old copy of “Wayside and Woodland” languishing behind a row of more prestigious looking volumes. When I opened it, I noticed the long dead vetch flower – brown and flattened – which I must have stuffed in there pending further investigation. In those days I hand no hand lens and no other way of taking it any further. It took several years longer to buy one, and I borrowed my first microscope only two years ago; and still the flower sits reproachfully in the book like a photo from a holiday romance, wagging its finger and asking what took me so long? I was utterly vexed by veronicas and distracted by dandelions and daisies. Any self-taught botanist will tell you it’s a prolonged agony of blind alleys and mazes.

And so I have passed the three consecutive Atlantic storms that squatted on our horizon and tormented us this past week- by mugging up on grasses, gathering my kit together, re-registering on iRecord and assembling my field guides ready for our first proper plant spotting trip down to Cornwall. Cornwall is early and later we’ll move up the West coat of the UK as far as North Wales hopefully catching the same plants several times. Suddenly I’m energised and better prepared than ever before. I watched three of the brilliant BSBI webinars on grasses and then ploughed through the introduction to the BSBI handbook on grasses, looking up all the terms I still don’t fully understand. This is a bit of a grudge match because during a field trip with the Bath Natural History Society, I mentioned to one of its luminaries that I found grasses difficult. “Oh” she said – “Grasses are easy!” She’s a brilliant and normally patient teacher and I’m pretty sure she’d intuited the fact that I can’t resist a direct challenge. Gradually, after three years – two of which were wrecked by COVID – I’ve made a small start – decades after I should have done.

Ironic isn’t it? Just as I’m beginning to get my act as a field botanist together, the proper botanists have retreated to white painted rooms, DNA analysis and electron microscopes. I can’t tell my haploid from my diploid and neither do I have the faintest idea what a palisade variant of non Kranz (C3) anatomy might be (actually I’ve an idea it’s to do with photosynthesis). My dearest wish is just to walk through a flower meadow and greet each of its inhabitants by name. My biggest fear is that I’ll be among the last people to be able to do so.

Hello Eunice

Lizard Point – in 2014

It’s not so much that we’ve never had weather like this before. The big difference is that severe weather is afflicting us more frequently; and so although I could try to support the ‘argument’ that climate change is fake news by citing this photo taken in 2014 and claiming that the weather has always been like this the only fact that matters is that there are many more extreme weather events than we had in the past, and it’s not down to sunspots, 5G telephone masts or Russian hackers it’s down to our profligate use of fossil fuels.

And so yesterday we were up at the allotment trying to make everything as secure as possible and then we went to the campervan to make sure it is as safe as we can make it. It’s parked within a hundred metres of the Severn Beach sea wall which, today , is the subject of red alert weather and flood warnings. Spring tide + force 10 winds always equals a storm surge so we’re paying constant attention to the mobiles for alerts . We once lived at the tidal end of the river Avon when we had the same combination of events combined with a snow melt and I’ve never seen water rise so rapidly, or menacingly. It was eerily silent as it topped the harbour walls and raced across the road towards us. Mercifully it stopped rising just a few inches below the point at which our basement would have flooded. This morning the only damage so far seems to be a flying fence from the Air BnB opposite the flat; and the scratches and dents were confined to the car which was abandoned by a previous tenant who took care to remove the plates before dumping it. At Green Park Station the glass roof – which was already in a precarious state – is shedding panes on to the ground, so probably no farmers’ market tomorrow. Ah well!

This week we’ve had two named storms; the first, Dudley, affected the north of the country but today’s storm Eunice is all over the South West. It kicked off at about 7.00am and built to crescendo during the morning. Apart from the flying fence the only other casualty looks like a smallish tree across the green. These winds growl and search at the windows with a real malignancy. Opposite my window as I write this, there’s a 20′ extractor chimney above a burger joint that’s become semi-detached at the top and is waving around alarmingly. It’s all very scary.

So the question is – how can we live sane, flourishing and fulfilled lives in this insane society – or should we even try to do so? Years ago we were at the much missed Bristol Flower Show when we encountered a man in a wheelchair who’d had both of his legs amputated. He was being pushed by his son who had lovingly attached an ashtray to the arm of the chair with a jubilee clip so that his dad could carry on smoking, having no feet to stub out his dog-ends. Obviously it’s not sensible to be angry or berate either the man or his son for assisting the habit that was so obviously killing him. My reaction was to feel overwhelmed by a strange kind of hopeless compassion for someone who was being slowly killed, not entirely through his own idiocy but through human weakness and a powerful culture created and funded by the tobacco industry.

I don’t want to spend a moment more than necessary being angry. How much time am I prepared to waste on shouting at the television and frothing with indignation – because that too is a killer! Most of us have a role in the decay of this society. We’re all a mixture; somewhere between the son and the father; and so we’re all both victim of climate change as well as being part of the problem. Nothing suits the fossil fuel lobby better than a situation where we all blame and fight against one another; cyclists against motorists, vegetarians and vegans against omnivores, city dwellers against farmers – and so on ad infinitum. In the end we all have to live in each others’ crap so let’s forget the squabbles and go after the real villains and their stooges in the press and in government. It seems to me that one way of changing things is to make sinning as difficult as possible. We should be hitting the fossil fuel corporations where it hurts them most – in the bottom line. We should go after their lobbyists – naming and shaming them for pandering to their employers. Public scorn – as we are seeing at the moment – can really wound the powerful.

But we needn’t be angry – it saps the soul. With the allotment, the campervan and a hand lens in my pocket; and with a copy of the Tao te Ching somewhere to hand – I can live as sane, as flourishing and as fulfilled a life as is granted to me. Who could ask for more?

Postscript

Once the red alert had dropped to amber we went to look at the allotment and noticed a number of roof tiles near the entrance to the back door of the block where we live – any of them would have killed someone walking below. The allotment was completely hammered, with overturned sheds and broken greenhouses. Lots of glass flying about obviously. Our plot was mercifully intact but others were a sorry sight. The flood alert affecting the campervan site continues until tomorrow but we’re hoping with less wind and a smaller tidal surge we’ll be OK.

Cornwall‌ ‌notes‌ ‌-‌ ‌what‌ ‌you‌ ‌gonna‌ ‌do‌ ‌when‌ ‌the‌ ‌money‌ ‌runs‌ ‌out?‌

Rainbow at the entrance to Cadgwith Cove – seen from the kitchen door

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Rather impulsively, perhaps, as soon as new year was over we decided to rent a cottage on the Lizard in Cornwall for some R & R after a very challenging few months. It’s significant that over the last 50 odd years we’ve always gone as far west as we could manage, whether it’s down in Cornwall, or in West Wales and more recently on the Lleyn peninsula. So we arrived on the 10th January after deliberately taking the motorway free route which is slower but much more more scenic, crossing, the Blackdown Hills – even if it does amount to around 200 miles. Interestingly we swapped the hills for the motorway on the way home and used 30% more petrol! We were staying in a National Trust converted cattle byre which was a perfect fit for us – perched, as it is, on top of a cliff with the South West Coast Path virtually running through the garden. I won’t bore you by rambling on about the magical landscape; you’ll just have to take it from me that even in the dead of winter but with the benefit of six consecutive days of full sunshine this is a very special place indeed.

For a start it’s around three or four weeks ahead of Bath for signs of the beginning of spring. The Alexanders are forging ahead; we’ve seen primroses, Red Campions, jonquils and today even a solitary hogweed beginning to flower. Down at the beach I found a thriving community of Butchers Broom – (Ruscus aculeatus) which I’ve never seen before. While we were wandering along we saw a group of people, noses to the beach, hunting for tiny pieces of amethyst which apparently washes out of the mineral rich rock. Eschewing semi precious stones, Madame concentrated on finding beautifully marked dog cockle shells. In a month or so this place will be a botanist’s paradise with Spring Squill and all sorts of rare flowering plants.  This week we’ve watched common seals in the sea, and a kestrel hovering, hunting over the cliff path today. 

Clockwise from the top left, Lesser Celandine, Bladder Campion, Thrift, Butchers Broom, Alexanders, Red Campion and Gorse – known locally as Furze.

But this is also a post industrial landscape. Further up the coast beyond Lands End are the remains of many tin mines. North of Lizard there are huge quartz pyramids left by the China clay works. Here on the Lizard there were two principal industries, fishing and the quarrying and finishing of Serpentine rock. In fact down at Poltesco the two industries coexisted on the beach side by side. The serpentine works, now ruined but still visible was situated alongside a vigorous stream that fed an overshot wheel via an overhead aquaduct and powered huge toothless circular saws that utilised sand and water to cut the slabs of rock. Next door to it is a circular building that housed a human powered windlass which enabled the fishermen to haul in their huge seine nets containing (on a good day) many thousands of pilchard. Cheap imports of Italian marble, a change in Italian fasting habits and the disappearance of the pilchard shoals put a sudden end to both industries leaving nothing but ruins and unemployment. We sat on the boulder strewn beach, soaking up the sun beneath the abandoned buildings.  The whole scene had a mournful air. In the strong onshore wind, each withdrawing wave turned even the largest boulders making a sound that could have been the rattling of bones or occasionally like rapid small arms fire. Part of the magic of these Cornish landscapes is the way they seem to contain memories of a disappeared culture – and I’m using the word as an active verb. It was an extractive and greedy culture that was able to suck the marrow out of Cornwall and turn it into huge fortunes and stately homes – a culture that, as David Fleming would have argued, is about to collapse.  Who knows? Perhaps the extraordinary price of oil and gas at the moment are the beginning of what he terms “the climacteric”; the brutal end of a brutal system.

When the tin mines finally closed at the end of the twentieth century it marked the end of the industrial revolution in Cornwall and this is now a shamefully impoverished county, depending absolutely on tourism. Second homes have become a major political issue.  There may be some new jobs if the experimental lithium mines become profitable but then again, I’m not sure whether the effluent from the process will cause more pollution problems than the tin mines did. There are still old mine workings holding lethal levels of arsenic.  But who will dare to say to the unemployed that the possibility of well paid work must be withdrawn for fear of environmental damage. There are no easy answers here. What they need is some plan – any plan – to reinvigorate the local economy. For the moment it seems to be sustained by small builders who, at this time of the year can be seen everywhere maintaining and improving empty second homes. There’s a large RAF station that has enough workers to generate a very small traffic jam outside Helston when they leave in the evening and the usual cluster of industrial units around the towns. It ain’t beautiful! Meanwhile, up on the north coast of Cornwall two European registered supertrawlers have been spotted. These leviathans can scrape every living thing out of the sea, making a mockery of the promises that convinced the local fishermen to vote for brexit. The sense of betrayal here is palpable.

All of which glum observations lead me into something more positive. I’ve mentioned these books in a couple of previous postings.  The full title of the condensed edition is important – it’s “Surviving the future – culture, carnival and capital in the aftermath of the market economy – A story from Lean Logic”. Selected and edited by Shaun Chamberlain from David Fleming’s much larger book “Lean Logic”. 

My mother, who was a dressmaker, had a small tea chest that we called the button box which (unsurprisingly) contained hundreds of buttons that were endlessly fascinating to me and my sister. There were a dozen ways we could play with it; treating the buttons as toy money, sorting them by size or colour; stringing them on thread. We could create an almost infinite number of “narratives” from the same box. Rather like the buttons, the original creation of “Lean Logic” was the never quite finished work of many years, comprising hundreds of short and longer entries on the topics that exercised David Fleming’s mind. All attempts by friends and admirers of the unpublished text to get them published were met with the argument that it wasn’t quite ready. LIke Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, his woven cloth it was endlessly unravelled, revised and improved but never finished. Finally, just as he was beginning to prepare the manuscript, he died unexpectedly leaving his great work unpublished. It takes the form of a dictionary, or encyclopaedia of terms relating to the central concept of “Lean Logic” and it’s rather like my mother’s button box because it’s so well cross referenced you can drop in on any one of the articles and then follow several alternative threads according to your particular line of enquiry. What the smaller book does is develop one possible thread – a story – from the larger. I bought both the complete and the concise versions (available from Chelsea Green Publishing) before coming down to Cornwall, relishing the prospect of some serious reading. 

You will know if you follow this blog sequentially – (does anyone do that? I’ve no way of telling) – that I was extremely put-out by the use of a quotation from Roger Scruton that read like the sub racist, dog whistle nonsense that he was so good at. I just couldn’t see the point of using it – especially next to a far wiser quotation from Wendell Berry. This was in the context of a section on the dangers of “mass immigration” – so you’ll see the danger of publishing material that will inevitably be twisted into the service of a dangerous cause. I mused on this in the blog and resolved to finish reading the shorter book with my critical faculties dialled up to nine!

Chatting with Madame about this on one of our coastal walks, the conversation (as conversations do) took on its own momentum, and a new dimension to the offending words appeared. My instinctive reaction to Scruton’s remarks was to focus on the terrible human cost of racism, and that alone would have made me excise those words had I been editing the book. However there’s no doubt that the environmental breakdown we’re causing, added to the wars being fought over oil and energy, not to mention rare minerals; will lead to huge numbers of displaced refugees moving towards a safer future. That’s not a phenomenon that can be avoided by building walls and weaponised borders. 

But at a far more local level, what about the effects of second homers and ‘upcountry’ incomers on the lives and cultures of settled communities like the inshore fishermen of Cadgwith where we were staying? The village itself is almost empty in the winter in spite of the fact that it’s so beautiful, almost every fisherman in the cove has appeared on television. The fishing culture is being held together by a handful of mostly older men while the threatened sale of the building in which their gear is stored was met with an appeal that raised thousands of pounds from both locals and supporters across the UK.  The building was saved but the cafe, the local fish shop and the pub are all closed until spring. Aside from the small number of active boats, the place is deserted apart from walkers like us – very much of a certain age. It’s the same problem in Pembrokeshire, and in the Welsh speaking areas of North Wales there’s the added problem of a disappearing language. Schools are closed, local services depleted and ways of life that could fairly qualify as ancient are slowly lost as young people move away, unable to borrow the prices of houses inflated by London prices; and these communities could be beacons of truly resilient ways of life in a collapsed economy. 

And just to join that thought to the concept of lean logic, we were walking the coast path towards Lizard Point a couple of days ago and we passed a volunteer lookout post. Some years ago the national Coastguard service decided to close all of its coastal lookout posts and withdraw to centralised offices run on information gathered by radar, VHF radio and all the other sources of electronic information, and it probably works pretty well as long as you’re in a large vessel, or at worst a lone individual spotted by a passer by with a mobile phone that has a signal – that’s to say, not me.  My phone hasn’t worked at all .

That’s what I call a foghorn!

So I was reading the poster below the station and the figures are jaw dropping. The lookout is run throughout the year by thirty trained volunteers and costs five thousand pounds a year to run. That’s right – £5000 a year, less than the wages of a part time cleaner. The window opened and a cheerful man hailed us with a “good morning”. We chatted for a bit about the need for the lookout – he was on first name terms with all the local fishermen and was even able to tell us that one of the boats ‘Scorpio’, photographed above, was line-fishing pretty well in front of us. Clearly the skipper of Scorpio was a friend. The volunteers keep a lookout for anything that’s passing through this dangerous spot, from tankers and container ships to kayaks and including walkers on the coast path.  Invaluable eyes-on information being fed back free of charge to a windowless office somewhere in Cornwall and all for £5000 a year none of which came from state money. But there was more.  Madame asked “so where can we buy fresh fish here?” – he laughed and pointed us in the direction of a local farm, Treleague Farm, where the fishermen sold some of their catch in the winter months. So off we went to the farm shop where we discovered that apart from fresh local fish, the dairy business has started several milk rounds, bypassing the piratical pricing of the supermarkets.  They make their own cream too, and stock any number of locally produced foods. This is lean logic in action – simple, sustainable and local solutions to local challenges. And the landscape with its magnificent flora is an endless series of delights.  On Sunday, walking the coast path between Porthleven and Loe Bar, we saw a couple of brave thrift plants in flower and stopped to admire a fabulously aggressive devil’s coach horse beetle crossing the footpath. As we bent to look it raised its tail and looked very like a scorpion. I decided not to to take a close up photograph as I didn’t want to get within squirting range – they also bite! When we got back to the cottage we discovered – from a local newspaper – that there had been an all night rave near the bar the previous evening – yet more wild life!

The entrance to Frenchman’s Creek looking left from the Helford river.

On our 8th day on the Lizard we had a literary walk up the length of Frenchman’s Creek near Helford.  The tide was fully out so the creek looked as muddy as the footpath we followed, but we spotted a little egret fishing on the edge of Helford River; Madame saw from a distance what looked very like a Peregrine, and we listened to the call of tawny owls somewhere out of sight. There was a crazy and joyful group of schoolchildren playing in the woods under the supervision of their teacher and a couple of volunteer parents.  We diverted through St Keverne on the way back and saw that the local fire station is run by volunteers. If you ask me if we’re ready to embrace the idea of a lean economy I’d say that  this part of Cornwall – largely through government neglect – is halfway there already. 

So, would I recommend shelling out for the larger book? I absolutely love it and it’s so well referenced you can follow up almost any topic. the author admits when the evidence is lacking or based on a single source as he does when accounting the overall energy costs of nuclear power. What you won’t find there – because he specifically excludes the topic on the grounds that anything he could write in, say, 2009 would be rapidly overtaken by new developments – is much about renewable energy. Go find out for yourself – he says. But as a resource for anyone wanting to consider the challenges facing us it’s unique – as you would expect from someone who was largely responsible for the first manifesto of the Green Party, known at the time as the Ecology Party. That is in itself one of the contradictions of a avowed Tory voter who kept his support up even through the Thatcher years but offered his heft to a rival green vision. It’s full of insights; often laugh out loud funny, and not afraid to take on the more Cromwellian wing of the Green Movement with a few sharp barbs. If I have a reservation at all, it’s about the occasional breakthrough of an almost hobbit like vision of the local. I recommend reading the shorter book first. It’s a really good plan because it presents the central ideas of lean thinking in a far more concise way, and it will enable a new reader to embrace the implicit overarching ethic. It’s not a manifesto in itself rather in the same way that Patrick Whitefield’s “The Earth Care Manual” is not a step by step guide to permaculture. Both books are about new and challenging ways of re-visioning a sustainable life after the coming crisis without resorting to magical thinking about yet to be invented technology.

The role of maypole dancing in confronting the climate catastrophe.

Carter’s wonderful steam fair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marmalade, damson ketchup and dodgy arguments fill my days

In don’t usually write in the kitchen but there’s no option because I’m reducing some damson ketchup in a pan that’s incredibly prone to burning. Yesterday it was the great marmalade re-boiling after it failed to set on Wednesday. That was entirely my own fault because conned into three for two deal at the supermarket I ended up making – or rather not making – 27 lbs of marmalade in one batch. This is not something I’d recommend because it was far too much to cook in one pan and I finished up like a man dancing on hot coals – racing, thermal probe in hand, between one pan and the other which diluted my attention to detail. I love my thermometer because 104.5C is a number that feels pleasingly precise. However boiling marmalade – I would have known if I’d thought about it – always displays a variety of temperatures depending on how recently I stirred the pan, and which part of the pan I plunged it into. Normally – i.e. with an acceptably sized batch – I would check the set with a cold saucer.

I knew something was wrong even while I was filling the jars. It was all too liquid for my liking but sometimes when you’re tired it’s easier to rise above the facts and so it all went out to the chilly hallway last night and when I checked early in the morning it was almost as liquid as when it went in. I must have undershot the setting point by at least 4C. Nothing for it, then, than to laboriously scrape the whole lot out of its jars; wash and dry them all with their lids and then do the job properly. One cold night later, they’re perfectly good and properly set after removing at least a couple of pints of excess water during the second boiling.

The damson ketchup was down to Madame who pretty much used the last remaining couple of spoonfuls on her scrambled egg this morning, and reminded me that we had some bags of damsons in the freezer. The bait was dangled and I took it! Damsons are, what my mother used to call a bit of a beezer when it comes to removing the stones, but once they’ve been frozen you can much more easily remove the stones with a squeeze between thumb and finger. The stick blender that we got ten or more years ago as a £5 special offer, has become one of the most indispensable tools in the kitchen. It’s much better for soups and purees than the Magimix which is so old now, the bowl is held together with black gaffer tape to prevent it spraying hot liquid out through the cracks.

And so here I am, eyes watering as the vinegar evaporates, and waiting for the sauce to reach just the right consistency for getting it out of the bottle without resorting to skewers and long spoons. It’s really worth the effort, this sauce. When I first saw the (Delia Smith) recipe I thought it was a bit counterintuitive, but you can always measure the success of a recipe by the speed it gets eaten. Cornish pasties, for instance, go Premier League with a splash of it. And so there it is, bubbling away quietly on the stove behind me while I meditate on whether jamming, chutney and sauce making and pickling come under the heading of cooking, or ritual.

I write the distinction down because (due to the generosity of the Chelsea Green Publishing Co’s Christmas discount) I’ve come across a writer I’d never heard of. His name is – or rather was – David Fleming and somehow he seemed to have been writing about about sixty odd years of my life experiences. I fell first on the shorter book – assembled from the much larger dictionary, which I also bought. I would, by the way, nominate Chelsea Green as my personal publisher of the year because I’ve read so many of their books and learned so much from them. Anyway the shorter book is called “Surviving the Future” and my experience of reading it was rather like meeting a complete stranger at a party and getting on so well with them you’re finishing their sentences after an hour. However – and here’s the catch – what if that compelling new acquaintance suddenly, and out of the blue, makes a shocking remark. In this instance it was a quotation from Roger Scruton a profoundly irritating right wing philosopher who said this:

….. Mass immigration of people who actually don’t identify with the surrounding community would take [the local culture] away, and of course that is a problem we’re all facing.

Roger Scruton on Any Questions – BBC Radio 4, 2006.

Where to start? The Potwell Inn – even though it’s an entirely fictional conceit – has a context. It’s in the City of Bath, UK and we’re about as polyglot a community as you could ever hope to live in. I won’t even try to list the nationalities of our neighbours because it would be a long and tedious retelling of a marvellous cultural mix. Do we feel in the least diluted by the fact we can buy and eat ingredients from, let’s say, a dozen cultures all within walking distance? No! Is language so very much of a barrier? No! Do I want to regress to the kind of fantasy sovereignty dreamed of by brexiters? Not on your nelly! Our immigrant neighbours add immeasurably to the richness of life here and we love having them around. Nuff said then?

Here’s the thing. If a book is 98% full of brilliant and insightful material but quotes one wholly unacceptable philosopher (I use that word loosely) – should I stop reading? Well I think not; but before I join the adoring band of followers I’ll certainly want to read the rest of the book with my critical faculties turned on, because one thing I am completely sure of is that as the climate catastrophe builds, we’re going to accept responsibility for our role in it and that will mean welcoming many more immigrants. I for one will be pleased to share my recipe for damson ketchup with anyone that can teach me how to make falafel without them exploding in the oil!

Actually I do think of jamming, pickling and preserving as an annual ritual that holds the year together. Solstice and equinox, seasons and carnivals have their place too, and as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier. I could have mentioned similarly upsetting quotations about hunting but Madame thinks that would be opening a wholly unnecessary battle. The fact is, not all traditions, rituals and so-called ways of life should be taken forward into the future. We need to choose which bits of the old ways we need for a very different kind of future from the last two hundred years of extractive extravagance. Going back to the good old days (which were never that good anyway) won’t be on the menu.

Three pints of damson ketchup cooling down. The glass of wine is not a prop – or perhaps it is!
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