Rage against the dying of the light.

Some days go well and some go really badly and some can make you wonder what on earth is the point of it all. I’m writing this as a fully paid up member of melancholics anonymous, and I must stress right now there’s an important distinction between melancholy and depression – it’s not just a posh middle class word for being a bit down. I’ve had my fair share of the black dog too and it’s utterly different from other moods. Melancholy is a mode of being in which thinking – often deep and creative thinking – is still possible. Depression is paralysing, grey and empty and awful.

So the only property this melancholy shares with the black dog of depression is that it’s more likely to come on in the spring. Goodness knows why sunshine and the beginnings of new growth should provoke introspection but it does – it’s a statistical fact.

Yesterday we were on our way to see if the campervan would start after 5 months of complete lockdown and we had a conversation about the consequences of this pandemic. We know we’re paying a price for this lockdown but it’s incredibly hard to nail it down. It’s more than thinking to yourself that you’ll scream and smash your head on the wall if you have to pack the dishwasher in exactly the same careful and efficient way, even once more. Social division is certainly one of the costs. We’ve become suspicious of other people. Jean Paul Sartre once said that “Hell is other people” and until now I’ve never quite agreed with him. Now I understand a little more as we look out on the green and see huge groups of young people having fun while we feel isolated and left out. It’s not easy to accept the burdensome designation of “old people”. A couple of days ago we passed a stranger on the stairs and – because the security gates are broken and we’ve had all sorts of people digging through the rubbish and even smoking crack down there , Madame said -“Hi have you just moved in?”. Later he told his girlfriend (who we know quite well), that he’d been “challenged on the stairs by an old couple”.

Another cost of the pandemic is the lingering fear of illness and even death – it’s nebulous and fugitive but it’s there alright. We say to one another “I don’t think I’d manage very well without you” and the thought is so terrifying we change the subject immediately. But we’ve had to accept that so far as vaccination is concerned we’re in one of the highest risk groups. It’s changed the way people look at us in the streets – it seems that old age could – in and of itself – be contagious. I want to get a T shirt printed with “don’t worry my dear – old age isn’t catching”. I already own one with “I’m not old, I’m just very experienced!”

“Why me?” I think to myself – “I haven’t nearly finished yet” – but society seems to want to put me in my place; to stick me in a rocking chair on the verandah where I’m supposed to suck my teeth and tell the same story over and over. I’m supposed to hold all manner of retrogressive beliefs which, in truth, I’ve never had; and some younger people feel quite at liberty to believe that they invented childbirth, sex and environmental concern.

So this was a low point to begin a day working on the campervan which, for us, has been a source of liberation and freedom. We don’t so much go on holiday as go on field trips; carrying (but never burdened) with field guides, maps, cameras, camera trap and laptops. Its mere existence has kept us going through some dark times because it stands for something unequivocally good. It’s one of the few transitional objects (to nick a psychoanalytic concept) that we share between us. The best thing about a campervan is that you’re on holiday from the moment you settle into the driver’s seat. However, yesterday the van had other ideas and we couldn’t get it going. The battery was flat beyond the capability even of a 1000 amp emergency starter battery. So we connected the flattie to the generator 12V output and got it breathing again while I pumped up the tyres with the racing bicycle pump I’ve always used. Van tyres need 65 psi and so it’s great exercise normally, but my breathless failure to notice the sharp corner of an open window above my head cost me a black eye and a lot of blood. “I’m getting too old for this” slipped from my mouth; a greased weasel word if ever there was one, and dark thoughts of selling the van were shared as Madame mopped up the effusion of black bile.

So by the time we got home I was comatose with sadness about getting old; in fact we hardly exchanged a word in twenty miles. Losing the van on top of everything else would be like having our escape tunnel collapse. Visions of ‘old person’ conversations with well meaning social workers about whether “she” could rise unaided from a chair, finance officers who would means test you for the cost of a sandwich, occupational therapists and their confidence sapping paraphernalia of commodes and bath handrails, and deliveries of frozen ready meals – all stalked my imagination. “Do not go gentle into that good night” echoed around the my mind as I failed miserably to get to sleep.

Later I remembered the dramatic resolution to a long haunting by the black dog when I was in my twenties. This might be a bit counterintuitive but I was thrown into deep depression by the death of a friend – actually I hardly knew him but he was a close friend of Madame and he died of testicular cancer. The black dog sloped away one grey day when I realized that it was perfectly true that I was dying, but my inevitable death was not yet. There is a precious gap between the present moment and the inevitable end which is ours to fill in any way that we choose. Truth to tell, I don’t need to give a flying f*** (with a triple backflip) what anyone else chooses to think of me. I am not bound by the colossally limp expectations of others.

And so we rose early and drove back to the van with a rescue plan that worked first time and charged the battery so the van is ready for an adventure. We might even take the kayak. Then we drove home again and had a wonderful barbeque on the allotment with our youngest who refused to give us a hug until we’ve had our second jab – but said he wished he could! The sun shone in its least ironic manner, not to taunt us with our mortality but to warm our bones and it was good. In fact it was very good!

It’s not all turtle soup and silver spoons!

With thanks to Charles Dickens and Thomas Gradgrind for the reference – and we’ve no plans ever to serve or eat turtle soup at the Potwell Inn, with or without the silver spoons.

One of the abiding challenges of writing a blog about being human is the temptation to create a sunny and carefree parallel world in which my ever competent and cheerful alter ego glides effortlessly through life untouched by troubles of any kind. Of course it’s not like that at all and things go wrong all the time – like yesterday when the pride of my civil engineering efforts on the allotment collapsed under the weight of water we’d gathered from some intense rain. I’ve written so often about the water storage project that I should have known it would all come back and bite me and now it has. I could see something was amiss when we came down the path and I saw that the three 250 litre water barrels, instead of standing in a perfect and level line, were leaning over drunkenly against the shed which, having distorted significantly, resisted any attempt to open it. One of the supports had collapsed under the strain of 750Kg of water and the horrible result was all too clear.

It was the crowning glory, or perhaps more honestly the last straw, because the black dog had already been following me around all day. I don’t know why -perhaps it was something to do with revisiting my past; but the mud and silt at the bottom of my inner pond had been stirred up by going to Rodway Common, and I couldn’t quite find the way out of my thoughts. The sight of the water butts moved me into a silence.

Melancholy isn’t just a middle class word for depression, tarted up to make it sound a bit poetic. Melancholy is a mind frame through which all the impermanence and fragility of the world is magnified, and these last months have carried the risk of loss so gravely that there can’t be many of us who haven’t been touched by it. Some will have fallen into depression, which is far, far worse. For the Potwell Inn, of course, the prospect of the landlord sunk in a grey mist did not inspire the landlady, and the lounge bar was as quiet as a funeral director’s waiting room. The television, leaking its poison into the room, drove me to my desk where I got stuck in the mud, wheels spinning and going nowhere. Then, after a disturbed night in which dreamed of being able to fly, I woke up feeling better and in possession of my lyrical mind once more, and also an easy way of rebuilding the water butt structure.

The last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way

What is it about the television at the moment? Endless costume dramas reinvent the past; we’ve got Jane Austin and Downton Abbey (was there ever a more unctuously dishonest series?) – coming out of our ears; and last night Countryfile – welly telly at its middle England finest – tried to present the argument that the gene editing of food crops was not the same as genetic modification. I screamed at the screen fruitlessly – “ask the question you moron!” – knowing that no serious question would be asked. The NFU will get its five minutes as the trades union of intensive farming, and there will be no mention of the adaptability of so-called pests. As Darwin said, when the merde hits the fan, it’s the most adaptable that survive (I paraphrase slightly) and that suggests that the odds are stacked against the farmers who will still be waiting for the Seventh Cavalry to come and rescue them when the better adapted blackfly have eaten their wellingtons. Just to put it simply, gene editing is the same game as genetic modification and carries many of the same dangers; and the thought of negotiating around a supermarket between rows of genetically edited carrots and chlorinated chicken does not fill me with joy.

On the allotment we concentrate on building up the soil and we know that stronger plants resist pests and diseases better than intensively farmed weak ones. Yes we get pea moth still, but we get around that by cropping them earlier. Blackfly and ladybirds sometimes take a week or two to move into synchronisation but they always do in the end, and there are a multitude of healthy ways of controlling pests -companion planting, for instance – that can work at scale as well. We often used to joke that the last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way“. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this Covid 19 pandemic, it’s that always doing it this way is the problem, and doing more of it can never provide a solution.

In my darkest moments I wonder whether the human race even deserves to survive, but we have children and grandchildren and there are millions of poor people around the world who will suffer even more than they do already, if we cling to the old ways which – in truth – are barely a couple of hundred years old in any case.

So there we are- no longer Mr Sad but definitely Mr Grumpy – and when it stops raining and I fix the water storage it will be Mr Sunny all over again; and the regulars will ask “what’s he on?” as I pull pints and sing “round and round the mulberry bush” .