What a difference a day makes!

This view through the campervan door on consecutive days is a perfect cameo of Welsh weather. The patch of grass that’s visible on the right hand photo is just out of frame on the left. If you’re lucky you can make out the ridge of Talybont forest on the left whereas it’s clear on the right.

The campsite we stayed on is a place we’ve used several times. Right next to the canal it’s only a short distance to a place where we can easily launch the kayak, and we’re far from alone in seeing this as a perfect place for energetic walks and even more energetic bike routes over the hills on the Taff Trail. All day long the supremely fit come bowling into the campsite with their Volkswagen T5’s magnificent legs and haggard faces looking for all the world like sturdier versions of the crack smokers on the green outside the flat in Bath. I’ll get to them later.

Notwithstanding the physical challenges available, there’s also an awful lot of wildlife to be seen, although how you would get to experience any of it from the saddle of a bike is debatable. Ironically we saw more wildlife than we ever expected by just sitting still on the grass outside the van. There was a field mouse who took an hour to make his mind up and then shuttled back and forth collecting the crumbs we’d thrown down. He was sleek and almost chestnut in colour, quite beautiful. There were the two hedgehogs in the dusk and innumerable birds; sparrows, dunnocks, blackbirds, an amazing kingfisher bursting out of the hedge, buzzards, robins, wrens, blue tits, coal tits and woodpigeons – all seen without moving a step from the van. I was racking my brains to remember this line from W.H. Davies:

WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—

W.H. Davies “Leisure”

It’s a bit corny, but then I remembered its uncanny echo of Milton’s Sonnet 19 on his blindness “When I consider how my light is spent”, that ends –“They also serve who only stand and wait.” – there’s a real spiritual point to standing still and waiting, that challenges our cultural obsession with success, hard work, achievement.

So we’d run out of milk when we got home and I wandered down to the supermarket to get some. Sadly, since the fire at Green Park Station, the milk vending machine has been disconnected. As I walked back in the sunshine a loud argument was being conducted across me on the street. “I’m effing desperate, I am” screamed a woman at the obviously sick man who was just in front of me. She was forging on, head down in that characteristic junkie walk. He shouted back – “It’s just here at the end of the block”. I knew in a second that they were off to meet one of the several dealers who work this area and use the corner as a rendezvous point. Sure enough as I followed them to the end of the road they were there, with a mobile standing on the corner; she was still shouting needlessly into the receiver. Then two, three and four people turned up to join the queue. They have the hunted look of those who have been shriven by their lives, bent over like the trees on the ridge of Freezing Hill, parchment skinned, incoherent bog burials.

The deal was a messy affair in several acts. She borrowed some crack from someone in the queue and stormed over to the privacy of the bushes at the edge of the green where she shared a pipe with her benefactor and walked back miraculously calmed. Arguments broke out – there was shouting and swearing until the dealer cycled up and then for ten minutes noisy negotiations broke out. People stormed off and returned chastened; shouting, more shouting, a big man was throwing haymakers at an invisible enemy. There were dangerous looking dogs barking. Eventually she got her drugs and sat calmly in full view, injecting into her neck. She wandered off again into the woods and returned with a bicycle. It was sad; so appallingly sad, to see these ruined lives.

Blaming the victim is always cheaper

Where do you even begin to find a way through this mess? There’s a strong association with mental illness, homelessness and alcohol – any or all of which could be tackled if we chose to resource it, but blaming the victim is always cheaper. In a world without the prospect of employment, drug dealing looks like a rational choice where the most successful and profitable business are centred on greed and entirely disregard the consequences. The street is a dangerous place so getting a dangerous dog is a rational response once again. I was having a conversation with a financial advisor recently and he told me that if you’re simply interested in making money and don’t give a hoot for ethical investments, then oil and weapons are the star performers. The tanks, guns and landmines are just flying off the shelves. The same old saw comes back every time – “We have seen the enemy, it is us”.

And then I remember A F Woodman who was the music teacher who introduced me and so many others to music – the “brandy of the damned” – according to George Bernard Shaw; and I remember him shouting at me “I know you can hear it, Pole – but are you listening?”

I’m listening!

A Day Lily in our container garden outside the flat

Blessed is Diana of the Ephesians!

Serious respect if you know the origin of that quotation from the New Testament. I’m not using it for any covert religious reasons but because it was chant of the enraged silversmiths of Ephesus when St Paul preached successfully there and they could see their lucrative trade in silver amulets going down the pan.

When we were down in Nîmes a few years ago we found the Temple of Diana in a park in the centre of town, and there was a queue of newlyweds waiting to have their photographs taken there. If you look at the picture of a statue on the left you’ll see in a blink that Diana/Artemis was blessed with a huge number of breasts – enough to send the Daily Mail into a paroxysm of spluttering and wattle wobbling. It seems that she was once – and for many of those couples, still is – a goddess of mothering, fertility and nature.

But the whole culture was on the cusp of a profound change and Diana the earthy goddess was about to be replaced by the virginal Mary – well at least that was what was meant to happen but as always culture eats strategy for breakfast and the silversmiths were probably OK for a few more years until the last of the pagans discovered that the harvest suppers were bigger and better down the road at St Sulpice by which time there was a thriving trade in silver crosses. Commerce has few scruples.

Hand’s Dairy in the top picture would have catered for a growing population of visitors to Georgian Bath. When I first knew it there was a cafe trading under the same name and they made the best cottage pie and chips in Bath. It looks as if it survived as a photographic processor until the digital era and now it’s boarded up. Just above the Potwell Inn allotment and west of Royal Circus is Cow Lane and there are ghost signs for several other dairies still visible around the place; but no longer trading. The fields south of the river were once lined with market gardens now replaced by some of the ugliest buildings that parsimony and a little low level corruption could get away with. No dairies, then; no market gardens; no clay pipe manufacturers and no Roman Vineyards where the Potwell Inn allotment now stands. No Stothert and Pitt crane builders, no dye works and so far as I know no brothels any more in Kingsmead. As each of these cornerstones of the economy collapsed one by one, the heirs of the silversmiths of Ephesus would have been on the streets protesting alongside the quill cutters, vellum makers and bookbinders.

Politicians would love to have us believe that they are in control of, that they direct the tide of events. At least Canute, or Knut to give him his proper invader’s name, had the good sense to teach his obsequious court that he couldn’t control the tide. This is a lesson that our current crop of self-styled leaders have yet to learn. To believe that you can control the tide of cultural change, as Rishi Sunak appears to believe, invites a spell tied to a chair on Hastings beach. I woke up this morning with the Roy Orbison song “It’s Over” running like a stuck record in my head. It’s over Rishi. It’s over Keir (nominative determinism is a fraud). It’s over for all those unfortunates who voted the worst government in history into power. Ask yourselves who actually pays less tax under this government? The answer is big business. Who is actually able to believe that I can become anything I want to be? The answer is not you. Who actually benefits most from the pandemic? well, you got a free shot as a kind of lottery ticket and the wealthy got a wad! It’s over. Where are the benefits of Brexit? answers on a £1 postage stamp

The era of uncontrolled fossil fuel extraction is as over as was the era of the silversmiths of Ephesus; as over as the colonial era, as over as the London pea-souper smog, the steam train and the morse code; as over as sealing wax or the seven days a week post; as over as the bank manager and the handwritten letter. It’s over, and issuing worthless extraction licenses to offshore oil and gas fields is as stupid as gambling on a fixed odds fruit machine it’s a sign that it’s over.

If ever we needed Diana of the Ephesians to come to our aid it’s now. The earth is choking to death and the problem is clinging to the bizarre idea that it’s the solution. There are plenty of people who believe that they’re the rightful heirs to the throne, or the reincarnation of Cleopatra – but most of them are in some kind of care. The government on the other hand are still flying around the country in helicopters and aeroplanes; driving 4 by 4’s and attempting to convince us that it’s really us who are the problem.

We’re not!

Just hand yourselves in and we’ll promise to get you some counselling.

A genuine first for me – I’ve seen opium harvesting on the allotments!

I thought I was pretty much bomb proof after my years working with extremely marginalized people, but this one took me completely by surprise. We were walking up from our plot last night after shutting the greenhouse and the polytunnel when Madame spotted a young man, in his late twenties or early thirties crouching on a neighbouring allotment. I asked him what he was doing and he answered rather unconvincingly that he was taking photographs. I couldn’t see a camera and judging by his whole appearance he was more likely to be a drug user nicking strawberries or soft fruit – he had that hollowed out sallow look and couldn’t even be arsed to make a plausible excuse. How did I make that rather harsh judgement? – well experience I suppose.

Anyway he wandered off and climbed back over the gate and I thought no more of it until this morning when we went back to work and I took a look at the spot he’d been crouching in. There were neither strawberries nor any other edibles anywhere near where he’d been but there were poppies and it took no more than a glance to figure out that what he’d been up to was cutting seed heads to get the milky sap which is the precursor to most of the dangerous drugs in the world, and mother to the crime that is endemic to the trade in drugs.

But I’m not accusing this poor young man of being some kind of drug baron because clearly he is one of the victims. It’s when that sticky white sap is scraped off the seed heads and pressed into dark brown balls that it enters the drug trade. I suspect that his intention was to scrape a little sap and then smoke it in a pipe; inhaling some of the fifty alkaloids which include heroin, morphine and cocaine but heaven knows what other poisons. A few minutes escape, perhaps, from a dreadful life or perhaps a misjudged permanent escape.

Is the economy now an object of worship to which we must sacrifice human lives?

Of course we could do more to help, but listening to the news at lunchtime today, the government seem to be saying that another 100,000 people thrown out of work is a price we have to pay to stabilize the economy. Grenfell and Covid suggest a rebalancing of the economy based on the sacrifices of the weakest in society and the continuing enrichment of the already wealthy . Somehow the shaming of Johnson has not made me as happy as I’d hoped. Now we see the problem, and it’s a metastasising tumour for which the only cure is to root out the intolerance and indifference to suffering that feeds it.

Here at the Potwell Inn we see the results every day. Notwithstanding the eagerness of the local businesses and the Council to project an image of Bath as the place where history comes to life; here in this neglected ward so close to the city centre we see how badly the dreams of Bridgerton and Jane Austin unravel in the harsh light of neoliberal economics. In a world of transcendental beauty – if you know where to find it – the rats still fight over fast food litter – and slavery, however modern, still stalks the earth; out of sight, and so out of mind. The drug dealers still gather on the corner of the Green to sell their wares, the street beggars pass us morning and night as they return to their shelters – and the deranged, denied any proper mental health support, howl at one another and at the skies with inarticulate rage. But I would argue that we are fortunate to live in a place where the contradictions are so cruelly exposed because, however painful it might be, we can’t look away.

The young man on the allotment is not the folk demon crackhead; but the political and economic culture which has trodden him down to such a desperate and vulnerable state is the true work of the devil, where vice masquerades as virtue and evil wears a suit and handmade shoes. Three calamities – the climate emergency, the environmental emergency and the economic emergency are the unholy trinity at the root of all these phenomena and confining our response to saving a few rare species, recycling, going vegan and buying a bike just won’t do. It takes will and determination and – as Ukraine demonstrates – courage to rise to the challenge and resist.

What do we need most urgently, a green philosophy? a green spirituality? or a green ethic?

The great ship of state is sinking fast!

OK so this quotation looks a bit chewy but don’t panic, in fact skip it altogether rather than give up because it’s profoundly important that we understand what’s at stake. There are essentially three points here. I’ve shortened the quotation from its original length by cutting out the proposition that music, poetry, art, spirituality and drama are all ways of thinking, and I’d argue more broadly that the whole of human culture – (including doing botany and allotmenteering), embodies tools for doing so. The second point follows – that shutting down philosophy is a pretty moronic thing to do when we need to practice thinking clearly in order to stay alive. The third point is that waiting for technology to come over the hill like the Seventh Cavalry and save us from all our problems is plain wrong.

In the 1980s, as one philosophy department after another was closed under a Conservative government led by former Somervillian Margaret Thatcher, Mary [Midgley] led a campaign to rescue hers. Though unsuccessful, she never gave up in her mission to defend philosophy. Philosophy is not a luxury, Mary insisted. Philosophy is something we humans need in order for our lives to go well. She argued trenchantly against the mythical idea that we can entrust our future to technology and artificial intelligence. This is a comforting sedative, but when it comes to figuring out what to do next about climate, war, environment or education – it is ultimately suicidal. She ends her final book, What is Philosophy For?, with a warning and an imperative:

“[W]hat actually happens to us will surely still be determined by human choices. Not even the most admirable machines can make better choices than the people who are supposed to be programming them. So we had surely better rely here on using our own Minds rather than wait for Matter to do the job.

And, if this is right, I suspect that… philosophical reasoning-will now become rather important. We shall need to think about how best to think about these new and difficult topics – how to imagine them, how to visualize them, how to fit them into a convincing world-picture. And if we don’t do that for ourselves, it’s hard to see who will be able to do it for us.”

Metaphysical Animals – How four women brought philosophy back to life. Chatto & Windus 2022. Page 298

The River Avon, 50 metres from our flat, is running at its highest level for 20 years and may well go higher as the last two days of heavy rain run off into it. I’ve run out of metaphors for its sheer power. The speed and intensity of the flow defies description. Ideas such as malignant are way off because rivers don’t bear us any grudge, they just do rivering. Rivers have moods of course but these are not human sulks or bursts of sudden rage; these moods are morally neutral. On a balmy day in Spring it’s possible to kid yourself that nature has been “put on” just for us; a kind of revelation or – as Mother Julian might have written – a shewing; a manifestation of something divine. But if that’s true; is the river today a sign of divine anger? Is it smiting us in some sense? Is there an intelligence behind it all that we’ve insulted?

I don’t think that inventing supernatural beings, especially humanoid ones, settles any arguments at all. We’re still always left with a ‘WTF are we supposed to do?? ‘ which usually ends by throwing some poor individual or group under a bus. But if this awe-inspiring flood is humbly accepted as an instance of natural forces, it loses none of its power to contextualise us within nature. Nobody’s showing off here. We’re not here to learn lessons, we’re here to think with all judicious haste how to respond to the song of the river, and it does have a song if you stand and listen. The bare earth and yellow grass had a song last summer, a dry and rustling song. The East wind has another song as it shrives the plants for day after day until their cells have burst and they collapse. The unseasonable weather has a song; a lament if you prefer, that that we are adrift. The seasons, by which we once navigated as if they were a kind of compass, have become anomalous and untrustworthy; our seeds fail to germinate and our crops fail.

Much of our predicament is marked – not by presence but by absence. The Cuckoo, the House Sparrow, the insects and bees and butterflies. Slowly, bit by bit, the complex dialect of our sense of place – the voices, the histories and memories, the regularities, the fragmentary graffiti of everyday life – are all gone. The environmental catastrophe, understood just as bad science and failed technology is missing great continents of meaning. The same catastrophe taken a simple legal battle with the guilty in the dock and the innocent as complainants edits all the complexities out.

We are in the midst of a growing catastrophe of being. Culture – the way we do things round here – has been so eroded, let’s be clear, by the theocratic madness of neoliberal economics, that we have had the joy; the spirituality; the heftedness; the manual labour; the cooking; the teaching; the nurturing; the everyday poetry and song, the sense of belonging to something so big that it could never be traversed in a lifetime; the ebb and flow of the seasons and their celebrations; the capacity to love and be loved back without reserve or fear …….. all bled out, reprocessed and sold back to us as simulacra.

So to return to the title of this post, my answer would be that we need them all – green philosophy; green spirituality and green ethics – the trinity of disciplines that will enable us once again to find our true place in nature, and to hear the Song of the Earth once more.

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