Our son, (at least, one of them did), said once that we can’t go on holiday because by virtue of being retired we’re always on holiday. I told him to get on his bike, because there is a profound difference in being away and being at home and working flat out on the allotment. Even going to the supermarket in a new place is more interesting than the same old same old. That said, we know this particular place pretty well now – so we know where the good walks are and especially we know where the field mushrooms grow abundantly at this time of the year.
So what’s so great about St David’s? Well I’ve already written about St Non’s Well so I won’t repeat myself except to say that it’s a very special place. St David’s itself is not necessarily very beautiful, and there’s not much to see apart from the cathedral – but – it’s a place that repays a peaceful and contemplative walk with its profound sense of history. Walking in the footsteps of 1500 years of pilgrimage puts you in your place in the gentlest of ways, and beneath the huge dragon backed rock formations of St David’s Head, you sense a history that goes back two or three times as far as that. Ancient is a powerfully affective concept.
Apart from that, just today we watched a couple of young women swimming in the sea being captivated as they were approached by a curious seal. We had taken our ludicrously expensive super lightweight chairs (retirement gift) down to the beach so we were able to sit comfortably and quietly on the pebbles which meant that a couple of rock pipits were able to approach within four feet of us, searching for insects in the seaweed. So amidst the plashing of the waves there was a robin singing non-stop just behind us, crows and jackdaws were crossing the little bay in noisy groups chattering to one another in what must surely be some sort of Corvid language. On our way back from the beach we saw a buzzard being mobbed by crows. Sheep were being noisily sheepish, some of them well raddled, while the tups wandered around flaring their lips in search of love.
Our supposition that chicory flowers would be palatable to the sheep was dashed as we passed them today, but an examination of the leaves suggested that it’s the green bits that the sheep like. The flowers were pretty well untouched – ah well.
A Dragonfly was depositing her eggs in a pond that we passed. They have several different ways of egg laying; some attach eggs to water plants but this one was dipping her ovipositor and dropping them one at a time into the water. We crossed stiles past a bog where abundant Brooklime covered the surface and Water Mint, in flower, pushed its way into the warm sun. Where in April the grass would have been yellow with Dandelions, here in early autumn there was an abundance of Fleabane. The sloes are poor here, at least half their normal size due to the drought in the summer, but the field that was direct-drilled with grass only a few days ago is green with germinated seed.
I had to keep stopping as we walked back along a bridle path edged, on one side with Withy bushes and Comfrey and on the other with bracken, because the sound of bees and insects was so overwhelming. Dozens of Speckled Wood butterflies were nectaring and scrapping with one another. On the roadside verges Alexanders were already pushing their first leaves through the grass ready for an early start in the New Year. It’s curious the way that there are always signs of the coming seasons, slowly appearing. Nature is replete with fugitive signs; never still for a moment.
You might justifiably think that this post is a fragment that escaped too soon. But I reached the last two words – “I did” – and felt strongly that I should stop before wading into a pointless attempt to explain or justify what happened. The previous post – “Suspend disbelief – dip toe in water” – gives more detail and sets the scene.
You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity Or carry report. You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid.
TS Eliot – from “Little Gidding”
So since I’ve been mentioning St Non, I owe an explanation of her place in history, which won’t take long since almost nothing reliable is known about her except that she was the mother of St David and legend has it that she gave birth to him on a clifftop in the midst of a thunderstorm near the place where the ruins of an original chapel and the well can now be found. As supernatural endorsements go I suppose that’s a ten out of ten. I always assumed that this birth took place amidst the shrubs and bracken but I have seen a suggestion that she might have been living in a cottage there. Most of the other stories about her emerged during the next 500 years and were catalogued by Rhyfarch around 1095 – five centuries later. What’s undeniably true is that this became a place of pilgrimage quite soon after her death and continues to attract pilgrims even in this secular age when, from my own experience, most walkers fail to notice the well and go straight to the chapel ruins where they take a photo and walk on. There’s a modern chapel nearby which was built in the 1930’s and includes a good deal of ecclesiastical archaeology recovered from the area and built into the unusual altar. The chapel seems to be used only for occasional weddings now. For me, neither the modern chapel nor the ancient ruins hold much attraction; but the well is different.
I’ve been fascinated by and drawn to wells ever since I was a schoolboy. I would pore over the local OS map and search them out. My first ever was St Aldhelm’s well near Syston which turned out to be a fairly miserable puddle but which was reputed to be good for healing eye complaints. Wells, springs and resurgences – perhaps because their water appears to come from nowhere – have a naturally mysterious quality. As for the links between wells and saints, my best guess is that it’s metaphorical and poetic rather than factual. What’s really important is the capacity of the water, emerging from the unknown, to evoke a change of mood, a kind of meditative openness – if only the pilgrim allows it.
The logical, scientific mind would have none of this of course. “So Dave, your supposedly healing well is dedicated to a saint who probably had nothing to do with it and probably never visited it. Furthermore we now understand exactly how the water, falling as rain, percolates through the ground and emerges at the well, and the supposedly healing properties of the water cannot be identified by the most detailed analysis.” and I would reply “Every word you say is true; but in such a limited way you miss the point altogether. The well, the stories of saints and the water are nothing more than the setting in which the real work is a kind of silent dialogue between the pilgrim and what one 15th century Christian mystic called “The cloud of unknowing”.
No-one knows or ever could know what the emerging water says, because – in exactly the approach of Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism and almost any other religious tradition – the Word – is only heard in the silence when every preconception, theological assumption or personal pleading is put aside. All of which was a rather long winded answer to the question – “Did your ankle get better?” – Well, thanks for asking – but no, not really. On the other hand I did.”
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.
Madame was sitting in bed this morning reading recipes aloud. She does it quite often and every now and again she’ll mention something that makes me really sit up. On this occasion it was the mention of a recipe for making a cold tomato soup which ended with the suggestion that it should be served with slivers of Serrano ham. I immediately set to wondering about such weighty issues as authenticity in cooking. Regional cooking is all the rage, and in many ways the slow cooking movement and so-called cucina povera might be an ideal resource in a time of constriction and shortages, but there’s a big proviso.
When I first started learning to cook I was quite obsessive about getting the “correct” ingredients – I was an absolute slave to the recipe. It was wilfully stupid. I once visited half dozen greengrocers in Tunstall Market trying to buy twenty small onions of exactly the same size – so forty odd years ago I would have thought it impossible to cook any dish containing Serrano ham because no-one in Stoke on Trent would have even known what it was.
So if we’re to explore what local and sustainable really means for cooks we might take notice of the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted. It was a constant menu item at Culinaria; Stephen and Judy Markwick’s small restaurant in Bristol. Let’s be clear, we wouldn’t normally have anything to do with such luminaries but one of our sons was lucky enough to train under him and someone else also paid for an eye opening meal at their previous restaurant in Corn Street. Stephen’s cooking was absolutely simple but his obsessive attention to detail meant that when he finally took to writing he even offered a recipe for mushrooms on toast. Typically, of course, the recipe demands field mushrooms. Wild, field mushrooms freshly harvested and cooked as simply as possible are food for the gods. Knowing where to find them is a closely guarded secret – in our previous house there was a school playing field, just the other side of the fence, where they grew abundantly but rather erratically. The only other person who knew was the retired local milkman who became school caretaker and so for years we competed silently and entirely without rancour to get there first in order to harvest as many as we needed. Over time I’ve found a number of places, not least a clifftop on the Lleyn Peninsula where – at this time of the year – they can often be found, and they are completely irreplaceable. Nothing you can buy could ever, possibly be as good. The very definition of cucina povera would involve cooking what is to hand – that’s to say not Serrano ham when you live in the Disunited Kingdom. There’s often a local substitute and if there isn’t you could maybe set up a small business to fit into the niche.
The purpose of this excursus on field mushrooms and Stephen Markwick was to lead back to fish soup and a kind of culinary dynasty. Fifty odd years ago, here in Bath, George Perry Smith (much inspired by Elizabeth David) ran a restaurant called The Hole In the Wall. It was one of the best in the country and completely innovative in its references to Mediterranean dishes. However, George learned to cook in times of rationing and shortages and evolved a way of doing things where, for instance, nothing was ever wasted. George Perry Smith taught Joyce Molyneux to cook and she in turn taught Stephen Markwick who taught our son. If I were writing about Tai Chi or Buddhism, the question of who taught the teacher would be the most natural thing in the world because it really matters. In cooking it’s rarely if ever asked.
So George Perry Smith, confronted by food shortages took a very different path with ingredients; a path which ultimately led to the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted. I should confess immediately that I absolutely love fish soup and whenever we get the chance to eat it I’ll order it. We’ve eaten it in France, Corsica and all over the place but nothing comes close to fish soup that has passed through the dynastic hands of Elizabeth David, George Perry Smith, Joyce Molyneux and Stephen Markwick. The recipe – published in his brilliant self published book “A very Honest Cook” is almost bafflingly simple. The takeaway point is that there’s no mention of any exotic fish such as might feature in a grander and more ‘authentic’ recipe. For goodness sake it even includes smoked haddock and refuses to specify the other fish except to say it would include white fish and any other fish scraps from the kitchen. No more unobtainable Rascasse or any other bony monsters. This Provencal soup is the most “at hand” soup you’ve ever seen.
The so-called secret is of course using superb and locally available ingredients in the most thoughtful way possible. Truly great cooking is most creative and thoughtful when it asks of an unavailable recipe item – “what does this ingredient bring to the dish? and how could I achieve the same authentic balance and flavour using something else?”
And if you ask how, in this time of shortage of both ingredients and the money to buy them, we would do well to follow George Perry Smith’s doctrine of waste not want not. There’s an abundance of locally produced food here in the UK. What’s lacking are the skills to make the most of them. Today at the Saturday Farmers’ Market I overheard a wonderfully instructive conversation between the stallholder and what must have been an extremely wealthy customer. She was insisting on buying a hideously expensive rib of beef joint (organic grass fed etc) to barbecue. He didn’t think this was a good idea at all and I overheard him say to her “I’m a farmer not butcher” as he discouraged a profitable sale in favour of making sure she wouldn’t be disappointed with her expensive purchase. When I read how we should all give up eating meat because it’s so impactful on climate change, I wonder if it wouldn’t be much better to less meat, but eat much more of the animals rather than insist on the most expensive cuts.
A lifetime of Potwell Inn finances has taught us that sometimes the cheapest cuts are much better flavoured. Pork fillet, for instance is much more expensive than shoulder, which is more expensive than belly or any of the offal cuts. Even a humble pig’s trotter can add a marvellous silky texture to slow cooked beans. There’s no need at all for cucina povera or slow cooking to feel like second best. We should maybe get over our obsessive compulsion to buy the rarest, most expensive and showy ingredients. Perhaps we should address the problem of food security by stopping being so precious and insecure about impressing other diners with our wealthy and cosmopolitan tastes; and if we’re vegetarians maybe we could seek out the best and freshest vegetables or – even better – grow them ourselves.
Buried in this churchyard are Elsi Eldridge, who was the wife of the poet RS Thomas; with their son Gwydion. RS married again after Elsi died and is buried near the door of St John’s Church Porthmadog. Also buried here is the lovely radical priest Jim Cotter who wrote the most wonderful prayers and liturgies. Needless to say the church Authorities had no idea what to do with him but he was an inspiring teacher and marvellous company and the bureaucratic incompetence of the Church of England gave him (and me) space to breathe. And finally the Keating sisters, friends of the Thomas’s, gardeners of their house Plas yn Rhiw – now owned by the National Trust – and scourges of coastal caravan sites are buried here too. All of them were artists. This churchyard is a powerful place for quiet reflection.
The quote came from a Gloucestershire stonemason I knew who was once asked how much he charged for a yard of drystone walling. When he gave the price the enquirer reacted with some scorn. “Forty pounds for a load of old stone?” – he replied. “well it’s a pound for the stone and thirty nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!”
Another secondhand book arrived in the post today. It’s called “Welsh Fare” and it was written by the anthropologist and researcher of tradition Welsh life, S. Minwel Tibbott who worked in the Welsh Folk Museum gathering and curating oral traditions. I found it in the bibliography of Carwyn Graves book, “Welsh Food Stories” which I mentioned last week. As soon as I opened the book and started to read through the recipes, the memory of the stonemason’s reply flooded into my mind, and it wasn’t so very long before the image of the churchyard on Lleyn joined him. Why so? well it was because the recipes list the very simplest ingredients without giving the slightest clue what to do with them, and knowing what to do with them has largely disappeared. Here’s a recipe for
Teisen Ddim – buttermilk scones
One pound plain flour
Quarter pound lard
A little salt
Rub the lard into the flour, and work in the other dry ingredients. Mix with buttermilk and knead to a soft dough. Roll out on a floured board and cut into small rounds, approximately a quarter of an inch thick. Bake on a moderately hot bakestone spread with butter and serve warm.
Llandeilo’r-fân and Heol Senni, Breconshire.
It’s all perfectly clear – except that unless you keep cows and make butter in the traditional manner by allowing the milk to separate overnight when it begins to ferment naturally, and then churn the butter in the traditional manner to separate butter from buttermilk; and unless you have a traditional bakestone and have learned what “moderately hot” feels like even assuming you have the means of heating it – well you’re not going to be able to bake the buttermilk scone.
Of course you can buy buttermilk from Tesco – except it’s not proper buttermilk but a factory made imitation – and the butter if it’s like the farmstead butter actually produced in old Welsh farmstead dairies, won’t be nearly as salty; like 3.5% salty – keeps better! And as for the lard you’d probably keep a large pot of pork lard which you could add to as you cooked joints from the fattened pig. Coincidentally it was Madame’s birthday yesterday so we had an extended family gathering and I slow cooked a whole shoulder of pork to make pulled pork for the boys and their partners. Even from a free range Gloucester Old Spot pig, shoulder is remarkably cheap and when you cook it very very (12 – 14 hours) slowly overnight it releases a huge amount of fat – dripping – which is ten times as rich and tasty as the bleached and purified block you slip into your shopping basket when you think no-one’s looking on disapprovingly. Finally the locally milled flour would have been rather darker and much more flavoursome than supermarket white. I used to bake with a marvellous 81% extraction white(ish) flour milled by Bacheldre Mill, now sadly no longer made. I hope I’ve made my point here. The simple list of ingredients tells us almost nothing if it’s become detached from its culture; and so – finally – I can leave the churchyard whose occupants once embodied a culture that’s largely disappeared, buried under second homers and Airbnb lets, and switch the topic to the so-called science of botany.
TV programmes on botany are as rare as hens’ teeth these days so we were filled with hope and excitement as we watched the first two episodes. The pleasure didn’t last. The unspoken assumption that ran through it like the writing in a stick of rock was the faintly smug and self congratulatory thought that traditional knowledge of plants was mostly held by deficient traditions which only needed some solid reductive science to reveal the truth. It reminds me of a story told to me about Archbishop of Uganda, Henry Orombi – who according to legend, reproached a tour guide near to the Victoria Falls who had foolishly asserted that the Victoria Falls were discovered by the explorer David Livingstone. ” I think” – he said – “You’ll find that we knew about them long before Livingstone got there!” Bishop Henry visited us once when one of the boys was in peak teenage rebellion, and he so charmed the angry rebel (I just love your green hair) he almost curled up in his lap and purred like a cat.
So the programme rambled on in a more or less predictable way through the history of scientific botany without so much as a mention of traditional herbal medicinal wisdom and without any sense of the vast contribution of the ancients from Dioscorides onwards. The plant kingdom was just treated as another exploitable resource to be catalogued, analysed and turned into a profitable enterprise. No sense of wonder, no mention of the inter-relatedness of all living things, no mention of the profoundly important role of plants in synthesising complex compounds beyond the reach of organic chemistry (which is by far the more interesting thing about photosynthesis and fungal networks). The last programme comes out tonight and I’m dreading the triumphal moment when the presenter announced that we’ve cracked some sort of code – probably gene editing – and finally we can exploit the poor old plants in any way that turns a profit. Wheat berries as big as pineapples or some such nonsense.
It rather reminds me of a line from Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus” – “Without worship you shrink”. To approach nature without humility, armed with scanning electron microscopes and DNA analysis misses a large part of the point. Of course I’m pleased when science discovers a new cure for malaria, or breast cancer or whatever else by understanding plants better. But plants aren’t just there for us to exploit – and misunderstanding that essential point is leading us towards extinction.
*** I just watched the last programme – it exceeded my misgivings so now I’m really scared.
When I started writing this blog I always thought of it being read sequentially by a very small number of people who know me or once knew me. Three years later and with the benefit of a (paid for) improved search engine for readers, there are more readers than I ever dreamed of. However most of them are highly selective and search for the stuff that piques their interest regardless of when it was written. I do my best to categorise and tag the posts and I work hard to write eye catching titles now because I’m almost certain that I’m the only person in the world who sees the Potwell Inn as a kind of journal. Pretty much everyone else must think of me (if they think of me at all) as that old bloke who writes completely random stuffabout cookery, allotments, philosophy, climate change and living in Bath. So what better time than a warm bank holiday Sunday when sensible people are doing anything but reading blogs – to write a piece about dreams and how they’ve helped me? It’ll sit somewhere up in the cloud, possibly for years before it meets its only reader who’s been looking for something on exactly this subject.
So here goes. Most people probably think that when you go to see a psychoanalytic psychotherapist you tell them about your dreams and they – because they’ve read Freud or Jung from cover to cover – will tell you what the dreams mean and you’ll experience a lightbulb moment and find yourself miraculously cured. Well that’s absolute tosh. In around four years of intense therapy Robin – my therapist – only explained a dream once, and that was by way of a joke. I’d explained to him how I’d dreamed I was walking down Hotwells Road, separated from the harbour by a row of houses, and I kept glimpsing a pair of elephants walking alongside but on the far side of the houses. “What’s that all about?” I asked, not expecting an answer. “Well I’m a Freudian“, he said, “They’re obviously sex and death!” He was far too modest a man to laugh at his own joke, but I thought it was hysterical.
After four years on the couch – well three and a half because the first six months were spent sitting rigid with fear in an armchair facing him – I had learned that dreams really are the royal road to the unconscious mind, but it’s the dreamer’s work to embrace them. No one else can tell us what they mean, if indeed they mean anything at all, and if by that you mean discovering a one-to – one relationship between a dream and an interpretation.
As an example, and don’t worry there are no cringeworthy moments in what follows; as an example I’ve just completed what I think is a long cycle of dreams that came to me over many months. They were all anxiety dreams, some of them nightmares, and they would wake with me and occupy my mind for the whole of the next day. They were all furnished by the ghostly remains of the more traumatic events of the past decades. Clergy work is almost by definition traumatic because its currency is life and death. Too much exposure to raw grief and anger can cause tremendous psychological damage if it’s not dealt with, and it’s not just the people whose lives I briefly entered and left; there were the authorities and the congregations to deal with – and they could be, without doubt, pretty poisonous in the pursuit of their personal agendas. But there was never time and rarely the support to deal with these issues before they were pushed to the edges of consciousness and then stored deep in the unconscious like little timebombs.
The grace of dreaming thoughtfully only showed up seven years after I retired and four years after I left therapy. I can never express my gratitude to Robin enough because by the time we parted company I was so infused with his forensic questions, I felt brave enough to embrace whatever came along; however painful or frightening. One recurring dream in particular haunted me for years; leaving me in sheer terror. Then, out of the blue, instead of waking in fear I walked through the circle of my tormentors and they made no attempt to stop me. The dream still occurs but I know that I survived and that neutralises it completely.
So after a while I realised that this long sequence of dreams was regressing into the past. The subject or the trigger was moving back further and further in time until I seemed to have processed a whole stack of bad memories, thoughts and fears that just needed time and only a little courage to allow them to emerge and then be dismissed. I haven’t interpreted them in any way but just allowed them to say their piece and go. The grace – and I’m sure it qualifies as a grace -is a conscious sense of peace that comes from the fact that the long delayed embrace of bad memories was accomplished through dreaming. The events of the past are not erased, they never could be, and they’re so much a part of me I’m not sure I’d want them to go, but there’s no thought of confrontation or revenge.
There’s a Jungian idea which I’m happy to rehearse here – the last thing we need is sectarian counselling! – and it’s based on a metaphor that comes from growing things – so it suits me perfectly! Jung suggested that new growth always emerges from the wound. In the pursuit of eudaimonia or flourishing, we can’t learn to thrive or be compassionate or love justice; to be brave, temperate, truthful or generous or embrace and live out any of the virtues if we simply ignore, repress, or lock out the wounds and knockbacks we have received through life.
And so I’ll press the send button and this post into the cloud in the hope that someone, somewhere, will find it a help.
The penny dropped very suddenly today – hardly a Damascus Road conversion but a sudden realization that the original tagline “A sceptic’s take on being human”, which I’ve put up with for over three years, was not right. After a wonderful day catching up with old friends yesterday – almost entirely by accident – something moved in what passes for an operating system in my head, and the thought emerged that what this blog is about is not so much being human as being virtuous. I must immediately qualify that statement because there have been many people in my life who thought that being virtuous was a matter of obeying rules; but what I’m about to argue here is that being virtuous (perhaps being a moral grown-up) is more useful state of being than trying to do virtuous things. We can hardly avoid being human – after all every single member of our present lamentable government is human and see where that’s got us!
This isn’t some brave new philosophical world – virtue is fundamental to Aristotle’s ethics and it’s centred on the idea of flourishing – eudaemonia in the original Greek. There are several ways to try to steer a moral course through the ethical challenges that being human always presents us with. We can choose what to do in response to a challenge by asking “What would be the consequences of this response?” We could look up the appropriate response in a trusted book, like the Bible or the Koran (harder than you’d think), or we could trust the instincts formed over time in our character by living virtuously. Right habits have a vital role in this system; we figure out how to do the morally right thing since we are formed by our way of life because it is shaped by Aristotle’s four cardinal virtues prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Other virtues like compassion are often slipped into the mix.
That was a bit chunky I know but the takeaway point is that in a situation such as we have at the moment with a sequence of climate, economic, ecological and political disasters advancing on us; relying on a set of rules from the past that have demonstrably failed us, is not enough. As Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Rule bound ethics (and economics) aren’t up to the job. Neither are consequential ethics because it’s almost impossible to judge what the outcome of an action might be – as Dostoyevski famously put it in “The Brothers Karamazov” speaking of a cruelly treated child whose mother thought that the concept of good and evil could be beaten into her – “The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.'”
The question I ask myself over and over – especially during sleepless nights – is “why?” – “Why do people/politicians make such dreadful decisions. Who designed the Flechette – the weapon packed with sharp plastic arrows that slice and rend the flesh but are invisible to x rays? Who concealed the evidence that glyphosate was killing people and destroying the environment? Who taught the philosophy that extractive chemical based farming is more efficient than the many alternatives we know about? Why is it OK that we have so many people living in poverty? The answer can’t be that such people are not really human because they’re as human as you or me. What they lack is virtue.
It may be that our crisis is so great that for a while we will have to become temporary consequentialists in the sense that the consequences of doing nothing are so terrible that we must insist and prevent that outcome. But ultimately any workable vision for the future must depend on teaching and leading our children in the practice of virtue, of flourishing, and living lives in which moral decisions are approached thoughtfully and on the basis of lived experience. That amounts to nothing less than changing our culture.
The consequences of magical thinking have never been clearer or more dangerous than they are at the moment and yet we still cling to the sinking life raft believing that something’s bound to turn up – a new invention, a better leader, an invasion of unexpectedly helpful extra terrestrials …… ? Meanwhile we are taking refuge in anger, shouting and threatening and lobbying for ever more draconian punishments to inflict on our enemies. But we have seen the enemy ……. it is us”
Another day on the stove, processing, stirring, sieving, tasting, bottling and so forth. Obviously not all of the stores in the photo were made this week – in fact some of them were made three years ago, but ignoring all advice from the recipe books we’ve found that chutneys, pickles and ketchups – provided they’re properly sealed and sterilized – will go on improving for years. The only proviso is that if you’re planning on keeping them that long you need to use Kilner type jars with rubber seals or acid resistant Ball types. Metal lidded pickles often evaporate or deteriorate and the lids will even rust through occasionally. The mugwort, collected in 2019, is said to provoke lucid dreams. My dreams are so surreal and occasionally scary that I’ve never thought greater lucidity would be much of an improvement.
The flat is full of spice and cider vinegar smells as I make 3 litres of tomato ketchup, and while I take a break to write this, Madame is cooking a batch of ratatouille. Against all the odds we seem to coexist peacefully enough in the kitchen as long as we don’t attempt to share the stove.
So why the urge to preserve? Well, part of it I’m sure is an atavistic re-enactment of childhood. My Mother and Grandmother had both lived through the hardship of two world wars and Madame’s Grandmother also was a gardener and a good cook. My grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns was as self sufficient as it was possible to be, and one of my earliest memories is of being with my sister, raking the hay into stooks on one of the fields. The rake was probably twice as tall as me!
But apart from that, after two years of lockdown shortages and in the midst of a massive cost of living crisis there’s every reason to do all we can to grow, prepare and store as much food as possible because it seems obvious that no help will ever come from the present government. Then again we also love cooking for ourselves, our family and friends too, and slow food, locally and organically produced isn’t some kind of middle class affectation, it’s the way we need to go. The present system of food production and distribution is simply unsustainable without further damaging the earth, her climate and biodiversity. Local and sustainable is a potential lifesaver and yes, we’ll need to embrace a rather different lifestyle but what’s to say it might not be better, richer and more fulfilling for a far greater proportion of our population.
That said, it’s pretty relentless hard work even being a part time peasant, but against all the odds we’ve had a good year on the allotment and we’ve harvested a bit more of most of our regular crops in spite of the drought. I took the photograph of these dying Harts Tongue ferns in a friend’s garden – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sight like this before. It doesn’t take a genius to see that these extreme weather events will have a huge effect on food crops and therefore prices in general. Do we really want to live in a society where a few people live in utter luxury while many others are struggling to feed their children. I went to a supermarket earlier this week to get some eggs. We try to buy organic and free range eggs but when I looked at the price I saw that they were charging £6.00 a dozen for them. That’s frightening – so frightening I didn’t buy any.
The last 7 days have been truly odd. Last Thursday we went up to Birmingham to celebrate Madame’s birthday with our son and his partner; but first the car broke down and then there was a rail strike (which we completely support by the way. My father was a railwayman who spent his whole working life in fear of redundancy), and so we took the bus.
I love Birmingham but the bus station in Digbeth gives a pretty awful impression of the city. The whole area looks run down and ready for demolition in spite of a multitude of small businesses from car repairs to import export firms and money transfer shops. Exactly the kind of businesses you usually find occupying the lock-ups under railway arches, and in spite of the bleak surroundings they seemed to be getting by.
The buses were running late due to holiday traffic on the motorway and so we were able to see an entirely different side of the Second City away from the more glamorous centre. Fifteen years ago the centre of Birmingham had a very different feel; self confident, almost brash, with plenty of big-name stores. Now it’s different. There are all the usual signs of economic stress with empty shops in many of the principal shopping streets- even the John Lewis store has departed the Bullring. The Museum and Art Gallery, however, still has a radical agenda that makes it such a joy to visit. Where else in Britain would you see exhibitions devoted to Trades Union activism, Black Lives Matter, and even raves and club life in the 70’s. Industry is celebrated, not least by remembering the small workshops that sprang up everywhere- servicing larger industries like the now defunct car manufacturers. You get the feeling that by standing firm and facing down its undeniably racist episodes the city has begun to come to terms with the past. There’s an unapologetic multicultural community that doesn’t feel the need to tread carefully. The city centre gets rebuilt every decade – so there’s still money somewhere – and the Clean Air Zone along with decent public transport including trams to Wolverhampton, suggest that the spirit of Joseph Chamberlain has not quite been monetized and sold off to the asset managers. The biggest problems, though, are not in the past but in the present.
Standing and chatting to some of the other passengers in the queue for the National Express bus home, you could see the stress eating into their lives. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but he was wealthy and well educated and I doubt if he ever queued up amongst hoi polloi to see what was troubling them. For most people the city is less a work of art and more a ransom note. I chatted for ages to a young woman, looking fantastic, who was going for four days to a holiday camp near Brean in Somerset with her daughter who never once looked up from her iPad and her mother who never stopped talking on her mobile. In ten minutes I had the bare bones of her life as she talked about her dad, now dead but a hero to her – and her ex partner Dave, who’d cleared off – and as she spoke I felt that her holiday was an expensive lottery ticket to a more hopeful future. Later, after the weary queue for the late Weston Super Mare bus had departed I sat down and overheard a young woman behind me talking about her unexpected pregnancy at the age of 14 and how she’d been completely unaware of it until the ambulance crew spotted what was happening. I prayed silently and without much faith, that things would look up for them both.
Then, on Saturday I had my biennial (actually a year late) endoscope, to check that some rogue cells in my oesophagus hadn’t mutated into something really nasty and well, subject to an 8 week delay on the biopsies, it seems that everything is OK for now. However this regular brush with my own mortality through a very invasive procedure always has a profound effect on me. Luckily, after a day of being legally over the limit and confined to bed for most of it, on Sunday we went to see Carters Steam Fair which is always great fun. Being pretty ancient myself, it’s fascinating to reconnect with the fairground rides that I remember from childhood. Steam and grease and old rock and roll records have a fatal attraction for me as I remember the Rogers family and the Hills who took it in turns to visit Page Park and Rodway Hill. Sadly the Naughty Nineties girls with the free for all boxing booth will never reveal themselves to me because the girls are now in their nineties and the local ruffians who once fancied their chances in the ring will all be dead. The grandchildren shared none of these mournful thoughts as they embraced the fairground joyfully and ate candyfloss between the dizzying rides.
During all this to and fro, I finished reading Carwen Graves’ excellent new book “Welsh Food Stories”. His previous book “Apples of Wales” is essential reading for anyone thinking of planting an orchard. The names of the varieties alone – Pig Snout and Goose Arse are just two – are a delight to the poet’s ear! I long for the day when you don’t need to be a food researcher to find fine local produce. At the moment, for many people, the future of food is like an unfinished building, because we know something about what the structure needs to be but hardly anything about what it will look and feel like. Books like “Welsh Food Stories” address the lack of a sustainable food culture by filling in some of the pictures.
Just to explain the heading; I’ve always drilled this mantra into our three boys – “Don’t wake the bear”. It’s sufficiently vague to cover a multitude of the kind of scrapes teenage boys are likely to get themselves into – like mooning at the mayor of a German city during a school exchange visit or attempting to drive a borrowed JCB home from the pub one night. It’s not that they were that much of a crimewave, but clergy kids always have to go the extra mile to appear normal. Now they’re safely approaching middle age the bear can sleep on. As for me I was never much of an enthusiast for bear waking – except my friends might disagree and say that I just had a higher provocation threshold. Wherever the truth lies the fact is I’m wondering whether it might be time to poke the bear with a stick again.
Next season’s seed catalogues have yet to arrive, but even now as we start to clear the early crops away we’re thinking about the coming autumn sowings and beginning to worry about the adjustments we know we’re going to have to make. Heatwave and drought are the first cousins of fierce storms, gales and floods and so we don’t just need to be thinking about seed varieties, but also about infrastructure; water storage, windbreaks and drainage for instance. I can guarantee that two words that will feature in all the seed catalogues will be “drought resistance” . Seed merchants and growers are not quite as stupid as governments when it comes to forward planning and I’m fairly sure that there are trial grounds all over Europe (which is where we source most of our seeds) crossing varieties to see which paragons of drought worthiness can be sold at a premium to worried farmers and allotmenteers. I very much hope that they succeed, but we have to be realistic because 99% of the effort will be devoted to intensive market gardens and arable crops. So for the most part we allotmenteers are going to have to create the conditions that the traditional varieties can still thrive in – and that means paying attention to water storage, soil condition, wind and sun screening and mulching.
On the Potwell Inn allotment we can store up to 1750 litres of water at the moment and it’s hard to see where we could fit any more in without encroaching critically on our growing space. Let’s say that we’ve got around 100 square metres of crop growing space once you’ve taken out the pond, the compost bins and shed. Let’s also imagine that a period of drought might last a month, which would allow 1750 divided by 100 = 17.5, which is slightly less than two full watering cans per square meter for a whole month – which is barely enough for thirsty crops. Then you’d need some eye-watering storms to refill all the butts ready for the next dry spell – storms big enough to cause the underground stream beneath one corner of our plot to flood the roots of the apple trees. Last year I had to dig a drainage trench in order to let it escape. You can see from the numbers that even as abstemious as we are, we are still heavily dependent on the Council supplied water troughs. If those were disconnected during a prolonged drought then we, along with fellow allotmenteers, would lose most of our crops.
Tall crops are especially vulnerable to storms and so we need to construct windbreaks, and again typically a windbreak will protect the ground surface for up to about three times its height. Taller plants need taller windbreaks and so it goes on. Bed design needs to take all this into account. When, as we expect, winter weather becomes more unpredictable and extreme then we have to think about rapid response to snow, or frost or driving rain. Last season was especially mild at times which meant that our crop of purple sprouting came in several months earlier than expected, leaving a longer than usual hungry gap.
Our basic soil is a rich alluvial clay loam, prone to poaching in winter and drying out rock hard in drought summers and so soil modification also comes into the picture; compost, some silver sand and grit in the worst affected areas and deep drains within the paths between the beds all help to mitigate the problem. Sometimes it feels as if we’re battling against common sense by adding compost to aid water retention whilst adding grit to break up the clay. But we muddle through and although we grow vegetables there’s no doubt that we’re in for a rough ride as the climate catastrophe bites.
So is it time to wake the bear? As I look desperately for some sign that politicians are beginning to formulate a plan, my heart sinks when I discover over and over again that the plan always seems to seeking to take us back to the status quo ante – they way things were before the 2009 banking crisis; the way we used to live in complacent comfort while we destroyed the environment. It’s over fifty years since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring,
** for some reason the final paragraph of this post was lost in transmission and I’ll add it here as best as I can remember it because (I hope) it completes the thread.
….. and sixty since Vance Packard published “The Waste Makers” and “The hidden persuaders” – all of which three books, as we know to our cost, were a prescient look into the dystopian future we now inhabit. Today I was walking across Sainsbury’s car park in the blazing heat. There’s a 10 mph speed limit because pedestrians have no alternative but to cross the traffic lanes. As I made my way I was approached at speed by a large black Porsche SUV travelling at 20mph or more, an annoying breach of manners in my book, so I just carried on – forcing the driver to stop and wait for me. As I passed the front of the car I was hit by a blast of mercilessly hot air presumably emerging from the SUV air conditioning. I mention this because I’m wondering how many organic cabbages I need to grow in order to offset the amount of carbon and other pollutants being pumped into the atmosphere by one wealthy and selfish car owner. Or to put it another way, is it time now to wake the bear?
We had to remove five of these pepper plants from the greenhouse this week, because they were in danger of expiring in the heat. It’s hardly surprising that plants can be extremely fussy about their environment. A couple of years ago we had aubergines in pots in the same greenhouse and they sulked and looked deficient until I moved them outside into a border where they instantly revived and produced a decent crop. Even chillies will complain if they get too much heat.
This week I also learned an entirely new and very useful term from a book on the economics of so-called green capitalism. I’ve mentioned it before – “The Value of a Whale” by Adrienne Buller and I thoroughly recommend it. The term is “Knightian uncertainty” which describes the likelihood of an event occurring for which there is no possibility of assembling any predictive data. We’re very comfortable with the idea of risk because, as the author points out, when you’re throwing dice it’s simple to calculate the odds of throwing (say) three sixes in a row. A Knightian uncertainty is the kind we might ascribe to ecological and climate events like the ones we call “tipping points” and she cites the example of the possibility of the Thwaites Glacier collapsing completely – it already dumps 50 billion tonnes a year into the Antarctic Ocean and if it failed would raise sea levels by up to ten feet! We know it’s capable of happening but the scenario leading to such a catastrophe is simply too complicated to calculate. There are too many variables and too many possible contributory factors to make a calculation of risk. Therefore the only rational response is to abide by the precautionary principle that minimises any activities which even might be a contributory factor.
Anyway – enough of the dismal science; today we may or may not be in the midst of one of those climactic moments because we won’t know until a few more drought affected summers have passed, by which time it might be too late to do anything. “Wait and see” is not a coherent basis for climate change policy any more.
In the real world we get up increasingly early to tend the allotment and then we pretty much lock ourselves into the flat with the windows and shutters closed against the heat. Today we watered and went just as the Farmers Market was opening, and where we discovered that hundreds of other people had adopted the same heat busting tactic.
After a long process of trying out all the local butchers we’ve finally settled on Kimbers Farm Shop who are at the market every Saturday. We’ve got to know them pretty well and today the conversation inevitably turned to the drought and how it was affecting their grass-fed herd of beef cattle and the flock of sheep kept by one of the sons in law, nearby. They’ve been farming the same land for 300 years so for a long view of farming they bring a world of experience, and they’re having a desperate time at the moment. Their grass is so parched and brown that they’ve had to start cutting grass and taking it to the animals rather than grazing them in open fields. As she explained the rationale to us, one of the family members told us how – with four legs to trample, and a rear end to distribute the manure – cattle and sheep make a significant amount of precious grass inedible. It’s immensely labour intensive taking the food to the animals, and they’ve had trouble with some machinery clogging with seed heads, so it’s being done by hand. The shame, she said, is that so many wealthy incomers have bought up farms in the district and refuse to allow farming on them. In a sane system, they would be forced either to maintain the land properly themselves or rent it to farmers who would do it for them, but here in the UK if you’ve got the money you can take prime agricultural land out of circulation during what’s becoming a food crisis – just so you can enjoy the view without the bother of cows and sheep making noise and smells. We all too easily forget that there are a series of interrelated crises going on simultaneously. It’s not just climate because food production is an intimately related
Of course there are ways of regenerative farming that can preserve and build up the soil and its capacity to hold water, but they all take time to implement. Today’s Guardian featured a nice photo of a sheep dozing in the shade of a tall oak tree. The trouble with the photo is that the tree must have been at the very least fifty years old as the old joke related of the man asked for directions to a distant place and who responded with “well I wouldn’t start from here!”
Yesterday we went out into the heat to plan a route to the hospital I need to attend for a routine surveillance procedure next week. With thoughts of the drought, the heatwave and the increasing evidence that a climate catastrophe upon us right now; We had discovered that it’s only accessible by car since there’s no bus service – it’s a private hospital that only takes patients like me for a fat fee when the local NHS hospital need to massage their figures. We had to negotiate much of a ring road which was as close to hell as anything else I’ve ever experienced, and eventually after several false turns emerged into a business/industrial park in which our building was sited and indistinguishable from all the other units in which -for all I know – Russian oligarchs are busy waterboarding prisoners they’ve hijacked and sent to this country for ‘interrogation‘. It was not an encouraging introduction to these state of the art facilities in which I will be sedated and unable to flee.
I’m maundering I know, but these crises are bowling down the road towards us and yet no-one seems to be taking ownership of them or even attempting to formulate some policies. Anyone can make a mistake but to run a whole country into the buffers takes a peculiarly ideological kind of stupidity. We’re promised a bit of rain next week so we should be able to report soon on how well the Potwell Inn allotment has coped with this second heatwave in a difficult summer.