A day with Amos Starkadder

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‘Aye ye’ve come.’ He laughed shortly and contemptuously. ‘Dozens of ye. Hundreds of ye. Like rats to a granary. Like field mice when there’s a harvest home. And what good will it do ye? [ ….] Nowt. Not the flicker of a whisper of a bit o’ good.’ He paused and drew a long breath, then suddenly leaped from his seat and thundered at the top of his voice: ‘Ye’re all damned!’

An expression of lively interest and satisfaction passed over the faces of the Brethren, and there was a general rearranging of arms and  legs, as if they wanted to sit as comfortably as possible while listening to the bad news.

And if you haven’t read Stella Gibbons’ book ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ you should, because it’s painfully funny, and a bit of a go-to remedy for a melancholic day.

It started harmlessly enough with the diplodocus that normally lives at the Natural  History Museum in London, but is now on tour across Great Britain in an attempt to make museums relevant and interesting to children. When I say it’s a diplodocus (known as Dippy to avaricious merchandisers everywhere),in fact I think it’s a resin cast of the long deceased animal, and it’s presently visiting the National Museum of Wales which, as a result, was crowded with coachloads of primary school children – and very sweet they were.  Indeed they stood aside  at doors and said ‘thank you’ with every appearance of meaning it.

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IMG_20200109_123815However I don’t think they’d have made much of the three exhibitions of photography upstairs. We had a pair of obsessive photographers of old pithead works, cooling towers and post industrial ruins all of which proved that we’ve moved decisively into a new age.  Whether it’s a better age is a moot point, although Martin Parr’s photo of coal miners washing one another’s backs in the pithead baths was enough to suggest that the romance of the collieries was not a million miles from the romance of L’Angleterre profonde pilloried by Stella Gibbons. There was a video of some ex miners at Deep Pit being interviewed and by chance I actually spoke to one of them when we were taking a primary school trip there some years ago. He told me he hated every minute of it, and then went on to say that the best bit about the job was the camaraderie, the clubs and competitions above ground. I was taught by a generation of teachers who were the children of Welsh miners, and whose parents were adamant that their sons should not go down the pits. My father was a railwayman and he had much the same idea.

As for the pit head works, it makes me feel ancient to say that I was brought up within the South Gloucestershire coalfield.  Our neighbour Mr King, who was the best allotmenteer ever, lived just up the street and I was told that he walked about eight miles to work at Pucklechurch every day, and then walked halfway back home underground before he started work. The Shortwood pit was closed before I was born but the pit shaft was still there.  Today our train passed Harry Stoke, an open cast mine that was still working during my childhood; and Speedwell (closed 1930’s) and Ashton Vale (closed 1920’s) on the other side of Bristol all left their mark on the culture of the area.  When I was first ordained and working in South Bristol I was taken aback that often, when I took funerals in Ashton Vale, the women would not attend the funeral service – an old mining tradition apparently.

Martin Parr’s photos – so joyous usually, had a streak of melancholy for a lost way of life running through them, and the Becher photos laid it out in all its architectural  glory. It’s no accident that I so love post industrial landscapes, but whether I’d love the life is another matter. I can’t get the Parr’s photo of a group of women on a night out at a working men’s club – out of my mind. Life affirming hardly begins to describe their fearsome independence.  Truly you would not pick a fight with them.

The function of the railways, of course, was to join all these industrial sites up, and notwithstanding all the electrification that’s gone on, possibly the worst way to enter any city is by railway, not least on a grey and rainy day. Slate roofs and back to back houses dominate the landscape as you approach the centre of Cardiff where the derelict patches of ground give way to a city busily reconstructing itself in concrete. For me it’s an alienating place that seems to demand a different kind of human being, one that I can’t identify with and would never want to become.IMG_20200109_121529

IMG_20200109_121649And so to the last exhibition that left me at one with Amos Starkadder and his sermon to the Quivering Brethren. The only way I can describe August Sander’s eighty photographs, taken in Germany in the period straddling the second world war is mortifying. These restrained, formal portraits, whose avowed purpose was to document Sander’s home country are a million miles from propaganda – and that’s what makes them so powerful. They are forensic, but not in an unkindly way, and when I say they include portraits of the victims of nazi persecution alongside a soldier and a member of the SS as well as the death mask of his own son who died in a nazi prison you have to wonder how Sander managed not to lose his mind. I guess they achieve exactly what he intended; a portrait of a whole country in change – and we now know what that change would bring. Simply to look at the photographs of the artists, writers and musicians who would become the objects of murderous hatred, for their race or faith and beliefs; or even simply for being creative, is to feel the chill of the possibility of it all happening again.

Did the dinosaurs see it coming?  Did the miners? the farmers and chefs and intellectuals of Germany see it coming? and do we see it coming?

Enough! There are other treasures in the galleries, not least a couple of paintings by John Dickson Innes – one of my favourite painters but incredibly difficult to find.  In the summer we made a pilgrimage to Machynlleth to see some, but the gallery seemed not to know where they were being stored! Oh and a lovely Cezanne landscape that was rejected by the National Gallery and also by the Tate – until Roger Fry intervened. Experts eh? Enough! – you miserable so and so, you forgot to mention the three little egrets you saw from the train just outside Newport. Surely that’s a small victory?IMG_20200109_133156

There’s something happening here!

Last summer we made our first trip to Cumbria, driving from East to West across the country, very roughly following the route of the Coast to Coast Path. We stayed for a week in Ravenseat in a cottage that was actually on the path and then we moved on West, picking up on the A5086 at Cockermouth, through Frizington, Cleaton Moor, Egremont, Calder Bridge, Gosforth and finally Ravenglass, within sight of Seascale nuclear reprocessing plant. Although we’d never been to the area before, somehow the names of these villages seemed familiar and after a while I remembered why.  They were, or rather had been, mining villages.  Both coal and iron were mined there – the perfect combination for driving the industrial revolution. But not any more. It was quite depressing, in truth; there was a terrible air of dereliction hanging over the villages.  They looked sad, run down and depressed. There were many posters demanding brexit, St George flags – big ones – mounted on aluminium flagpoles at no little expense. Even a large sign outside Seascale announcing that we were on the “Energy Coast” seemed more ironic than triumphant.

If ever there was a living example of the coming crisis it was here, and I haven’t been able to shake it out of my mind since the summer. The results of the general election have only brought it back more strongly because this is where the paradoxes that caused the collapse of our present economics  are obvious to anyone who comes. Just as William Cobbett witnessed in his (1822 – 1826) Rural Rides –

The stack-yards down this valley are beautiful to behold. They contain from five to fifteen banging wheat-ricks, besides barley-ricks and hay-ricks, and also besides the contents of the barns, many of which exceed a hundred, some two hundred, and I saw one at Pewsey another at Fittleton, each of which exceeded two hundred and fifty feet in length. At a farm which, in the old maps; is called Chissenbury Priory, I think I counted twenty-seven ricks of one sort and another, and sixteen or eighteen of them wheat-ricks. I could not conveniently get to the yard without longer delay than I wished to make; but I could not be much out in my counting. A very fine sight this was, and it could not meet the eye without making one look round (and in vain) to see the people who were to eat all this food ; and without making one reflect on the horrible, the unnatural, the base and infamous state in which we must be, when projects are on foot, and are openly avowed, for transporting those who raise this food, because they want to eat enough of it to keep them alive; and when no project is on foot for transporting the idlers who live in luxury upon this same food; when no project is on foot for transporting pensioners, parsons, or dead-weight people!

The ‘pensioners’ that Cobbett mentions, by the way, are not senior citizens but recipients of government generosity for indefinable contributions to their continuance in power.

I was reading today that there is a proposal for a new deep mine in Whitehaven producing 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year and offering 500 new jobs.  The proposal was supported by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians in the face of strong criticism from environmental groups.

So there’s the paradox. How can we deny these post industrial areas of high poverty the jobs that could put them back on their feet? “The coal is in the ground, why not take it out and sell it?” they say.  Are you weeping and gnashing your teeth yet? Are there no other less destructive occupations than releasing carbon into the atmosphere that could be encouraged? The challenge before us is to change a whole culture, and it’s no use coming up with endless strategies because – as any business consultant will tell you for a large fee – culture eats strategy for breakfast!  The culture in question has centuries of entrenchment under its belt – so much so that it’s become commonsensical to regard the earth’s resources as if they were created entirely for the enrichment of humans,  and without any value intrinsic to itself. To suggest that we might have to treat the earth as a partner smacks of tree hugging madness.

For years the evidence has piled up, and no-one took much notice, but now it’s the experience we’re getting. The rainwater that floods into valley towns and flood plains, ruining land and houses is not a theory.  The forest fires aren’t theories and the extreme weather isn’t a theory either. It’s not an academic exercise to encounter the diminishment of the soil and the declining yields that can only be propped up by more and more of the very chemicals that are causing the problem.  Massive increases in stress and diet related diseases aren’t theoretical and asthma resulting from atmospheric pollution isn’t a figment of some doom-monger’s imagination, neither is the mass extinction of insects, and it breaks my heart to see mainstream politicians waving through policies that will make things worse for the sake of a few votes in a run-down area. They should hang their heads in shame.

Meanwhile the very same interests who have conceived, promoted and benefited from the violation and destruction of the earth have taken complete control by driving their juggernaut through the ranks of the opposition because the opposition had no plans for anything except managing the destruction a little more ‘fairly’. There was no teaching, no vision, no genuine conversation with these depressed areas, just the odd hospital and road thrown their way in the hope it would be enough to stave off change. Our politics has shown itself to be no longer fit for purpose. Workington men and women, and millions of other disillusioned people voted from despair because no-one ever listened, nothing ever happened and no-one was offering a coherent picture of a way forward, the only show in town was a regression to the imaginary glory days. I can’t get that line of mining towns out of my head.  I took a school trip down Big Pit once, and I got chatting to a retired mine electrician at the pithead.  “you must miss it” – I said.  “Miss it?” he snorted – “I hated every bloody minute of it!”

Driving across Yorkshire to Cumbria we passed some of the prettiest and some of the most derelict areas in the UK. It’s collapsing, the whole political and economic structure is falling apart and the earth on which we depend utterly is screaming its distress at us. The threads of a new culture are there.  They lack all sorts of detail, but I think we now understand that our relationship with the earth has to be understood as a spiritual “I -Thou” relationship and not the “I- it” relationship of modernism.  I think we understand that people really matter, and that strong human community is as essential to us as air and water. I think we understand too that our politicians need to stop speaking and start listening more.  I’m not the only person who gets exasperated by being told what I believe by a person who’s never spoken to me. And I think that we understand that the fruits of the earth and of our labours must be more equitably shared.  It would be a crime of the highest order to export the crisis to the poorest people on earth in order to preserve our wasteful way of life. And finally we have to change ‘the way we do things round here’ – the way we grow and harvest, the way we eat and the way we enjoy our leisure. The people of Whitehaven deserve better – just not that kind of better.

So I’ll finish with some words from Roger Gottlieb from an essay entitled “Spiritual deep ecology and the Left: an attempt at reconciliation”  – I found it in the first edition of “This Sacred Earth” and I’m quoting it because I think we need to talk.

 

A fruitful exchange between deep ecology and the left, however, requires that adherents of both perspectives suspend  some entrenched prejudices. Leftists need to open themselves to the possibility that a spiritually oriented perspective might actually have something to teach them: in this case, something about the ultimate source of value in our lives and about limitations in our conventional sense of self. Deep ecologists, on the other hand, would do well to suspend their ahistorical arrogance about their own wisdom, their pretensions to being above or beyond political struggles and their too facile dismissal of left movements as unremitting agents of the exploitation of nature.

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Although committed to ending unjust systems and ending oppression, leftist or progressive political movements have often reproduced, rather than opposed, the conventional ego.  Classic liberalism emphasised personal rights, enshrined individual economic activity at the heart of its system, and believed the central purpose of society was to protect and further ownership and consumption.  Surely this will not help us face the environmental crisis.

Sadly, more “radical” political movements of the West – despite their emphasis on community, class or racial experience, and their attempt to generate an ethic of collective solidarity and struggle – have also too often presupposed an individualistic consumerist ego. The practical politics of the left have frequently aimed to provide more things, money, and prestige. They have too often represented the interests of one segment of the oppressed while claiming to represent all, and they have repeatedly failed to challenge the individualist premise that a higher standard of living will make for greater happiness. It has been a rare progressive party that called for less, not more, consumption – at least until the Green Parties of Europe came into being; and there has been little assertion that human fulfillment may be directly opposed to high -consumption lifestyles.”