A bit of re-mythologizing

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From Christmas with the demythologisers – Rev. E. L. Mascall, – to the tune of Good King Wenceslas

“Sir, my thoughts begin to stray

And my faith grows bleaker.

Since I threw my myths away

My kerygma’s weaker.”

“Think on Heidegger, my lad,

That pellucid Teuton;

Then you won’t feel half so bad

When they talk of Newton.”

Sorry, that’s a terrible theological in-joke, but writing earlier about the way the (my) mind works, prompts me to share this pretty awful character with you.  I invented him during a period of intense reflection about nine or ten years ago to try to think or write about the power of words to uncover/expose the inner workings of ideas. I’ve never had a problem with myths – understood properly they’re just about the best way to tell the truth about the most profound mysteries. Furbelow is, of course, one of many alter-egos such as we all adopt from time to time. They’re custom built and rooted in the confusing reality of our individual lives. Taking Furbelow and mythologising him deliberately gave me the chance to regard a fragment of my own inner life, as it were, from the outside. I’m hesitant to release him into a harsh world, but he hates being caged up in my head so here goes –

Captain Furbelow

At the edge of the River Severn in the month of December you might stand in the freezing cold one night, with the moon sitting low in the sky and the wind rattling down over your shoulder from the Northeast and driving the clouds across like fat schooners. And if you stood until your fingers turned white and brittle and waited and waited as the tide flowed and foxes went about their business you might wonder at the sheer size of the sky above your head. And you might, as you scanned the sky and thought to yourself – “this is the point in the film where the geese fly over, honking, and my blood freezes” – you might also begin to see the millions of stars above your head and among them you might notice the constellation of Orion with his sword and his belt. And you might think to yourself also that this dark sky reminds you a bit of your Dad’s huge black railway overcoat then you wouldn’t be far out. And imagine if you could search in his deep black pockets for sweets, and breathe in the familiar sharp smell of his armpits, and the smell of the bus, and the smell of the rain and the pub and you would feel very strange indeed perhaps and you would know that asking whether such a being as Captain Furbelow actually exists is a silly question, rather like asking whether the Potwell Inn exists. And when you have seen the stars that line his greatcoat stretched over your head in the dead of night, then you just know it, and the teachers, pharisees, inquisitors and pedants as usual, know nothing.

As to the facts, there’s not a lot to be said. He’s a weaver of meanings, creating a unique form of greatcoat cloth.  Some people have argued that there may be a whole hierarchy of Furbelows and such a thing may be as true as any other thing. What we know for a fact is that he lives on a hill near a seaside town – hence the name and rank – and he drives a yellow Morris 1000 van with stars and a crescent moon hand painted on the side, and he has a more or less scandalous and very intermittent liaison with “Oestral” who is an “International Clairvoyante” and whose visions regularly transcend the parish boundary.

The cloth which he weaves descends on the town at night which is why you can’t see it. It’s said he spends the day time at a huge loom in a wooden shack, and where he weaves the cloth from fragments he has harvested during his journeys. Anything from a ship’s manifest to a small advertisement could be woven. A tiny piece of conversation blown in the wind is not too small to escape his attention. He might be arrested by the arching of an eyebrow or the faint flush of the skin in a chance meeting between two people who do not yet know that they are lovers. A dog’s bark, a small joke or even a road sign might inflame him. A particular favorite of his are lists and catalogues which can easily be unravelled and used again. Memories, sounds and smells are the warp and weft of the cloth and if he can lay his hands on the glint of the sea he can weave it in judiciously so as to bring the whole fabric to perfection. The promiscuity of his means is a source of continual irritation to the town, and especially to the deacons of the local Baptist church who, being both strict and particular as well as Baptist, have only the one story which, is completely threadbare.

This may be the origin of the assertion that “Captain Furbelow is a creature of the night” – which phrase has a peculiar resonance for parish councillors and deacons. However it may be that the simple fact that he is, in reality, out and about more obviously during the night, is enough to remove the inverted commas and turn the criticism into an observation. Some qualification may therefore assist us. Captain Furbelow is especially a creature of the warm summer night. On such a night, when the sea-town is held in the air by the force of dreams. Faded seawashed driftwood spars, frames, orange-peel. Delabole slate, terracotta tiles, paynes grey, windworn rocks, seaworn pebbles, scrubbed sand, lichens, quoits and dracaenas like silks in a cabinet or an artists’ colour chart gather on the shore.   Then, on such a night, as the sun sets and the fast food shops are cleaned down, the soft warmth of evening insinuates its seductive aromas around the harbour. When the scent of hot tarmac, wallflowers, fish and chips, cigarette smoke and stale beer hang in the salt air like pheromones to the girls gathered like moths beneath coloured lights . When pasties, suntan oil and peeling shutters, (shriven by the summer heat), gift their perfumes to the sky as it turns from pale blue to indigo. When the people refuse the cadence of night and day.   When they try to stretch the day as if they could hold the tide at the rim of the horizon by sheer effort of will. Then Captain Furbelow will leave home and drive down the winding road through the town.

He is also a creature of the winter night, of the harvest night, of the wassail, of the night of mourning. He is both Captain of the Feast and solitary figure at the graveside. “Amen to that!” he cries, and the deacons and the parish councillors murmur damp threats and plan revenge so horrible that you would dream bad dreams for a month.

Truth to tell, I think Captain Furbelow is a bit frightening. The smell of his armpits and the acrid greatcoat speak of other adventures and happenings that aren’t so good. In fact they’re everything the deacons say. Sometimes he puts his hands deep down into his greatcoat pockets and you can hear things scurrying around in there. Terrible things. Some say that the Captain is exceedingly old, even as old as Adam himself and others maintain that he drifted into town in the nineteen sixties and never left.

Nothing goes with a greatcoat like a beard, and a cigarette. But this beard is different. So dense you could not hack your way through it with the sharpest billhook. A beard to occlude the sky and the clouds. A beard full of thorns and small nesting birds and fugitives hiding from justice. A beard full of things you tried to say and couldn’t. A grey beard with a golden stain that might come from poems spoken out loud or from constant furtive roll-ups.

Go well, Captain Furbelow out there in the world with your beard and your greatcoat. I’ll see you again at the Wassail in January.

 

 

An outbreak of benign paganism cheers me up.

 

Last night I was over at the Littleton Cider Club Wassail, blessing the orchard for another year. It’s aways a friendly match between me and the Green Man as to whose minstrations are most effective in promoting a good apple harvest, although neither of us was competing for last year’s garland since the crop was only 40% of the normal and the Club had to gather apples (with permission) from a disused cider orchard in Berkeley where the last 60% were gathered.  That meant that the Club were able to brew their usual duty free 1000 Litres.  Actually you’re allowed to brew up to 7000 litres before HMRC take an interest, as long as it’s less than 8.5% alcohol after which it becomes wine. 1000 Litres is a lot of cider all the same.

I think the poor crop was universal last year, with the combination of late frosts and the dryest summer on record.  I know the allotment apples were down, and most of them were affected by codling moth so we’ve paid more attention to greasebanding this year. The five newly planted cordons all got through the drought but the Lord Lambourne on the new plot had been allowed to break out from its espalier habit and is slowly being brought back to a proper shape with some pretty severe pruning.

There were all the usual fun and games at Littleton with more shotguns than ever.  They only fire blanks but use black powder which gives a very loud noise and a satisfying burst of smoke and flame- unlike normal cartridges with the shot removed which only make feeble puffing noises. But the cartridges – which are marked ‘for salutes’, I believe, cost three times as much as the ordinary ones.  I don’t know whether any scientific research has been done on the most effective way to drive out evil spirits but we certainly gave it our best efforts last night even though numbers were reduced by the awful weather. So the singers and the mummers all got on with their respective jobs and hopefully everyone arrived home safely, especially those travelling northwards into Gloucestershire who were reporting some flurries of snow.

It’s always harder to go back to Littleton because everyone is so pleased to see me and I get thoroughly unsettled and almost always spend a restless night exploring the parish in my dreams and standing – in my imagination – in the churchyard watching the River Severn from its vantage point.

Back home, though, we’re slowly plodding through the process of making raised beds whenever the weather permits and we’ve now got just two more to create, bringing us to a total of 25 if you include the borrowed patch. Some are already permanently planted with soft fruit and apples, and we’ve created three beds for perennial herbs.  Because we’re working on ground we’ve been using for three seasons on the old plot, such digging as we need to do is pretty superficial, only to remove the last stragglers of couch and bindweed.  Then, as each plot is finished, it’s given a sprinkling of seaweed meal and a thick mulch of composted manure before it’s covered with black polythene to protect it and warm the soil for an early start.  Luckily I bumped into an old friend at Littleton and I was able to arrange to collect a load of fresh horse manure from a local stable – so it looks like the hotbed project might be on again.

The Growveg website – which is well worth a visit if you haven’t seen it, sends out regular newsletters and the latest one came today with an article by Benedict Vanheems delving into the health and happiness benefits of gardening.  Here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

Serotonin is one of two chemicals that keeps us happy. The other is dopamine, which affects our emotions. The act of picking our own fruits and vegetables is shown to release dopamine in the brain, triggering feelings of mild euphoria and bliss. This is the natural reward pathway that kept our hunter-gatherer forebears on their toes but that today is blamed for modern addictions such as compulsive shopping or our obsessions with social media. Gardening on the other hand is a far healthier ‘addiction’, one that builds on rather than detracting from mental and physical health.

 

The Littleton Wassail invitation arrives.

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7271a5a92013314423f264e49d8abac1At last the email from Mike arrived today inviting me to take part in the Wassail in early January. He’s not often as late as this and I was beginning to worry that something had gone wrong – or perhaps the Cider Club was blaming me for the poor season this year. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that my official blessings may not have the same efficiency now I’m no longer on the payroll as it were, but in truth I think it was ‘the Beast from the East’ that did the damage. Wassailing, if you didn’t know, is an ancient (well – medieval) tradition of blessing the apple trees and driving out the demons to ensure a good crop in the following season.  I was the parish priest of Littleton on Severn for a decade and so it fell to me to bless both cider apple trees and ploughs in my parishes as part of the old New Year traditions.  But our connection to the orchard goes back far beyond that because Madame worked as assistant to the trials Officer at Long Ashton Research Station in the early 70’s and she was responsible for producing the budwood for the orchard that subsequently became the home of the Littleton Cider Club. Who could resist the lore and language of cider with varieties like “Slack ma girdle” and ‘Goose arse’ Here’s my journal entry for last year:

Bigger than ever this year, and I was invited back to bless the orchard after the Green Man’s completely pagan poem and a good deal of Littleton Lifesaver being drunk by everyone except me. I felt a bit of a fraud ordering a pint of bitter at the bar, but I find the cider too scrumpy -like for my taste (and my digestion as well).

It was so nice to meet up with old friends, and everybody was really pleased to see me back. As the Wassail was taking place, the full moon was just rising behind the orchard. In the darkness the shotguns spurted smoke and flames from their barrels. Whether Mike had loaded them with black powder for the effect I don’t know, but it was very impressive. T quizzed me on which church I was attending and he chided me mildly when I said I wasn’t going anywhere. There were many extra visitors from far afield and one of them told Madame that they’d abandoned the Priddy Wassail because the health and safety brigade had all but ruined it. Happily no considerations of safety prevented the usual Littleton anarchy, and the fire was thrillingly dangerous after half an hour’s dosing with meths and heaven knows what else by way of accelerants. We had the Barley Mow Choir singing all the wassail songs they knew and later we watched the Mummers Play. All very patriotic with a youthful St George being raised from the dead and Beelzebub being booed lustily by us all. A great deal of rather rude banter. Good to be back!”

3b03c9ff55c93f267ce33a1d091ab6afSo that invitation to one of my favourite places and events cast a cheerful air on the rest of the day and later we grabbed the dry weather with both hands and went up to the allotment to carry on building the raised beds.  My earlier (and gloomy) ruminations on the quantity of topsoil we’d need to find have been mitigated by the way we’re constructing the beds. IMG_4050I’ve written earlier about the problem of waterlogging, so we’ve been constructing the paths between the bed as dual purpose soakaways and paths.  In practice that means a good deal of hauling up and back to the woodchip pile.  We’ve seen it suggested that woodchip robs the soil of nitrogen, and that would certainly be true if we just dug it into the beds, but used as a path material it supresses weeds, makes a comfortable all-weather path and also seems to rot down quite quickly, needing replenishing from time to time. We’ve not found any depletion of the soil in the beds at all, and we hope that these large reservoirs of composted material will add to the general condition of the plot in the long term.  I fix the bed edging boards in place first, and when they’re secure I dig out the path to about 18″ deep by just over a foot wide and throw that soil up on to the bed.  It doesn’t do the job entirely, but it adds around 20 cubic feet of soil to each bed. With compost added as well, the beds are raised by another four inches – all adding to the depth.  The photo is of two beds we constructed on the same principles earlier in the year.

Home later we feasted on a chicken and leek pie with our own carrots, leeks  and savoy cabbage. I love savoys, the flavour is so intense.  At first sight the leeks looked a bit messy with a touch of rust and the usual wear and tear on the outer leaves, and I wonder if that’s why so many people reject home grown in favour of the supermarket variety.  But 2 minutes with a knife and our veg are more than equal in appearance and twice as good in flavour than anything you could buy in a shop.