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.

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