This won’t buy the baby a new coat

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After quoting from Cold Comfort Farm a couple of days ago, I couldn’t resist reading it again for the umpteenth time and once again it made me laugh out loud  on almost every page. I mean it’s not as if it’s a piece of great literature, but it’s absolutely joyful  and it feels as if it was written in much the same way that Jack Kerouac is supposed to have  written “On the road” – in one long binge. I’ve read it so many times, now, that I’ve worn it out over and over and my latest copy – bought from an Oxfam shop – started life at 2/6 – that’s half a crown or twelve and a half pence in new money. While I was reading today the spine began to break once more so that’s something else I need to look out for.

But there’s more to it than just the comedy.  The book was written as a riposte to the Thomas Hardy school of literature. I’m a great fan of Hardy but you have to say the unremitting grimness of, say, Jude or Tess does make it something of an ordeal to read them – the grey wraiths of fate hang over them rather like an appointment for a colonoscopy….

But then I suddenly remembered my first ever sermon while I was training when one of the assessors said it was like being immersed in Thomas Hardy – which I didn’t take as a compliment. A rather kinder mentor said gently that it would be best if I didn’t try to say everything that was on my mind at once. Being a Hardy fan is not unlike being an old fashioned Marxist – you know something terrible is going to happen but you just don’t know when: which is precisely why my mind travelled to Amos Starkadder’s sermon after seeing the photographs in Cardiff last week. I needed something to laugh at amid the suffocating thought that something pretty awful is happening to us all.

Reading the whole novel again brought other rewards as well. Madame, for instance, reminded me that it was one of my father’s favourite books – a fact which I’d completely forgotten, and which prompted me to remember that I had seen him laughing until the tears ran down his face and he fell to coughing furiously.  It was a great memory for displacing some of the more gloomy ones as he grew old.

Last night the south westerly wind was in one of those strange moods where it simply blew hard and steadily, without variation, finding the tiniest cracks in the window frames and causing a continuous soughing noise.  We woke up this morning to rain, again the uncommon sound of a heavy and continuous shower, blitzing through the early sunlight as the sun rose over the roofs of the buildings opposite with a fine mist rising up in the intense brightness. All very Hardy-esque I thought. They call it synchronicity when events and thoughts seem to coincide. It happens a lot at the Potwell Inn.  The other memory to bubble up from the silt was the phrase spoken by (I think) Mrs Beetle – “This won’t buy the baby a new coat” – one of my mother’s frequent expressions.

Yesterday I glimpsed a newspaper headline suggesting that the government had decided to treat Extinction Rebellion activists as potential terrorists.  I’m not much of an activist but it amuses me to think that at my ripe old age I’m finally being taken seriously as a threat to the way we do things so badly round here. Good thing too, we need to shake things up a bit if we’re going to survive – this woebegotten bobbery pack of a government can stick their fingers in their ears and shout “lah lah lah” as much as they like but it hasn’t worked in Australia and it can’t work here.

I know it’s a mess but it’s my mess

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My son will feel faint when he sees this mess, but I find it comforting. The little tin of Leonardt pen nibs just to the left of the laptop, the Rite in the Rain notebook with so many botanising adventures written inside, the red cabbage leaf patiently waiting to be painted.  He’ll laugh out loud at the early morning espresso that will shortly make me feel faint and – knowing him – he’ll be looking at the book to see what I’m reading. He’s a philosopher so his life and mine are both made from books which we eat up eagerly and then after an interval of indigestion, wait for our minds to turn into food.

Digesting a book is a slow process. The good ones are often very expensive and so they need to be prepared for. Fifty quid for the new, fourth, edition of Stace will need a long period of deliberation followed by a reckless moment of ordering (it’s not the sort of book you can get from the local Waterstones), anxious days of waiting for the post to arrive from Summerfields and then ….. first anxious look …… plants have mysteriously uprooted themselves from their familiar page and re-homed themselves with another family. Looking up the simplest thing is agonisingly slow and so back to the old familiar.  This can take months! Finally (I haven’t even dared to order it yet) we shall become friends.

Most books need a period of resting before I can read them – let’s call it shelf life for the sake of an easy joke. I need to get over the extravagance and remember what the exact impulse was for buying them in the first place. Sometimes, no – often – the original impulse was associated with a particular vein of thought which has become a worked out lode.  The roof collapsed, or got too low to follow. Sometimes I consume them hungrily but either the book’s not ready for me or I’m not ready for the book, and it goes on to the shelf again until I’ve caught up – maybe years later.  The best books are the ones I read when I was nineteen and understood perfectly – until I read them again at thirty, or fifty or even seventy and each time discovered I’d never understood them at all. I have the clearest memory of a boring summer afternoon in a library where I pulled down a copy of Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” and read it standing up as only a hungry teenager can. I didn’t understand a fraction of it; I only discovered that Leach was a Sufi many years later – hence the profound spirituality of a book about pots  – and even today my first impulse on handling a pot is to turn it upside down to see the base, touch the bare, unglazed rim to my lips and ping it.  Everyone I know except my son’s partner, who was born in Stoke on Trent, thinks this is a bit weird. The best books are long affaires, kept secret from any chance of mockery.

Sometimes me and the book need a period away from each other while we both catch up.  I read them once, put them back on the shelf and then come back years later with an older mind. The book on my desk took 25 years, or rather it took me 25 years to catch up. I probably bought “This Sacred Earth” – Roger Gottlieb’s compendium of writing from around the earth in 1996, the year it was published. At that time I would have been deeply involved in parish life, and I’ve no recollection of reading it the first time.  It’s still in print in a second edition, along with a number of other books on green and deep ecology and radical political thought. It came off the shelf yesterday and I was transfixed by the relevance of the essays and extracts.

Yesterday I was talking about the Extinction Rebellion movement with my son. He told me he’d been shocked to see an old edition of “Spitting Image” (TV show) in which may of the ER issues were aired, more than a decade before many of its members were born. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published before most of their parents were born! Species extinctions and climate catastrophe aren’t new ideas, they’ve been around for more than half a century and, by and large, we did nothing about them. If the young have a charge against the old it’s our inaction in the face of the incontrovertible facts that were staring us in the face.  We turned away – and that was a sin against the earth.

Now, wherever I look, I see the voices of the unheard shouting across the years. Did it only become a ‘proper’ problem when the dominating culture of the west appropriated it? Did we only take it seriously when it became an ‘ology’? – to borrow a phrase from an elderly friend who would say (disparagingly) “Oh he’s very clever, he’s got an ‘ology!'”.

Gosh I can’t remember the last sentence I wrote with four consecutive punctuation marks.

So there it is.  My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of slowly composting ideas that will, in the fullness of time, be returned to the earth. To borrow an idea from another book I needed to put aside, because I didn’t know if anyone was listening any more, may we be granted time for repentance and the amendment of our lives – not just for ourselves but for our children and their children down the years.

 

Despair is the last weapon they have left

 

I think something shifted yesterday afternoon when we all shipped up to Uncle Jo’s pizza place for an impromptu Sunday lunch. It was fairly quiet and so Jo was able to come out from beside the oven and chat. In the love and peace department families are never all they’re cracked up to be – that’s a figment of the official ideology – and so it’s a blessing beyond value when they work, even occasionally, and  I wonder if the grandchildren will remember lunch at Uncle Jo’s when they’re my age. Next to the family album is a basket of vegetables we picked on the allotment yesterday – courgettes, broccoli, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers and gherkins. Later Jo came back with hs Polish girlfriend and one of our fermented half-sours was presented to her to taste.  She gave them her seal of approval although I thought the home-grown garlic was a bit too fierce in the quantity I used. Interestingly our oldest son was complaining the other day that his biometric passport never works properly and he always gets called in for interrogation.  He asked a passport official why, last time he came back from Europe, and was told that it was probably the ‘Pole’ surname. You have to wonder what kind of software can’t tell the difference between a surname and a nationality.

So with the day punctuated by benevolent thoughts for all our family I got back to reading in the evening. This latest binge is seeing me get through a new book every couple of days and at the moment it’s Mark Cocker’s book ‘Our Place’ which I thought might be a bit of light relief after Fred Pearce’s book ‘The New Wild’ . When I put it down for about the fifth time I realized I am only able to absorb a certain amount of bad news at a time. You’d think a book with quite as many references to Committees and Governmental enquiries would be a bit arid but this book makes it dreadfully clear that the ecological distance between where we were a century ago, and where we now are is not paved with misunderstanding and innocent lack of knowledge but by greed, selfishness and a determination by the powerful to enrich themselves at the expense of the environment, and all paid for by taxpayers’ money. When I see the Forestry Commission exposed as a government assisted tax avoidance scheme for the further enrichment of the aready rich, I need to walk around the room for a while before I can calm down and read more. The subsidy system is an elaborate and utterly destructive con trick, with the biggest beneficiaries being the wealthy.

And it was precisely that thought that lifted me out of a gathering sense of gloom. In a moment of mad insight I realized that the sense of powerlessness and despair which, according to some recent figures 60% of us share, is a last ditch attempt by the powerful to hold on to their privileges. Of course they want us to think there’s nothing we can do about it because ……. wait for it …… they’re scared, absolutely terrified that the rest of us will wake up and demand change. Their one last throw of the dice is to persuade us that we’re sunk and then put up a “strong” leader  (chosen by them of course) who will bring everything back to the way things used to be – that’s to say their way.

That’s why we see so much divisive comment in the press. We’re told all the time that the way things are is the responsibility of the ‘selfish baby boomers’. Really? Or is the worry that we who were forged in the community politics of the sixtes and seventies have too much in common with the young? That we might form a formidable grouping? They want to divide us by race, by gender, even by diet or occupation or interest because that way we’re easier to marginalise, because they know all too well that a house divided cannot stand.

I’m laughing out loud at the thought of their secret late night committee meetings and ‘influencer’ friends on the internet all turning their gimlet eyed attention to the next secret weapon.  Here’s a heads-up chaps (for they are mostly chaps) we don’t read the Daily Mail or the Times and we know how to block effluent from our laptops and phones.

We are the new powerful! and we take our inspiration from the earth, its tides, its inbreathings and outbreathings and its capacity to mend our shrivelled souls and bring food and shelter and joy even while it repairs the damage we have inflicted on it. The Earth is not for sale however many petrochemicals and insecticides the Prophets of Baal pour on the altar – and it would be better for the human race if they realized that the game is well and truly up.

 

 

Is the tide finally turning?

IMG_4357The environmental movement didn’t start last week – I just thought it was worth mentioning it because Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published in 1962, that’s 57 years ago, and ever since then, we’ve been pushing back at the problem with very little apparent success. Was it Thomas Kuhn that wrote that science advances as scientists die? He wasn’t being harsh, but simply pointing out that vested interests rarely go away because a better explanation has been found. Billions of pounds/dollars have been spent on defending the indefensible as the evidence of environmental damage has mounted up year by year and decade by decade.

But this week I’ve suddenly felt a bit more optimistic. When Kuhn wrote about ‘paradigm shifts’ it always seemed that they mostly involved obscure corners of particle physics where there was no immediate impact on the way we do things round here. This week it’s been astonishing to see the public response to the Extinction Rebellion protests in London.  On TV and on the radio – or wireless as we ancients prefer – there have been an increasing number of programmes explaining new approaches to the crisis that’s engulfing us. What’s different is that ‘common sense’ seems to be changing in the incredibly swift manner of a paradigm shift. Everwhere I looked last week there were pieces on do-dig and no-till systems. A short walk to any bookshop will demonstrate the level of interest in ecology and climate change. The Microsoft TV advertisement extolling yet another technological solution to the moral and ethical problem of intensive farming seems suddenly out of date, and although the prophets of Baal with their endless expensive technologies are dancing vainly around the altar of progress the fire never comes. [That image comes from a very funny Old Testament story] After decades of fruitless handwringing, our young people have siezed the initiative and it feels good.

Something has shifted under the surface and the belief that change is possible is gaining traction. Alleluia!