Anniversaries: Third and Thirtieth

Well Rachel’s said all that’s to be said really about this third anniversary of our fire epic, so I’ll just add my appreciation for all the sweet comments and mention one of my own therapeutic efforts. Over the past year I’ve been writing a series of poems, not “about stuff”, but actually in a way I’ve never made poems before, more like studies – exercises almost, like what you’d do at an apprentice’s workbench maybe with some up-himself boss telling you “this is how it’s done” and you trying to follow all the rules and doing everything you can to quietly subvert the Master’s bidding. Anyway the poems have good old-fashioned (more or less) metres and rhyme-schemes, and the most recent are this little set I wrote for Robin’s birthday, an event which kind of coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago. So when he’d got over his birthday junketings Robin duly thanked me & asked me why I’d been keeping these poems to myself instead of posting them in some public forum, and the answer was I didn’t know. So I’m doing it now, also without any clear idea of why, starting with his set, and I might go backwards and post up the rest at some time or another.

It was only the first one of the set that was really linked to the Berlin Wall as such, though I think there might be a lot of mileage in the subject for future attempts. This poem breaks “the rules” by being longer than the usual four or five stanzas, and that gave me such a bad conscience that I thought I should add some that were shorter than the normal, just to balance up the average. I wrote them on the bus to Edinburgh, when I was also reading a book filched from Ben’s collection, Arthur Koestler’s “Case of the Midwife Toad” and so my mind was running on the question of speciation – what is it that causes one species to evolve out of another and become distinct. It’s an issue that biologists only now think they might be starting to get to grips with, but I think the conventional view (rather over-simplified) was that some kind of barrier had to be created between the two evolving species – mountains, water, deserts – that would prevent what was potentially evolving from simply breeding its way back into the original species… So the connecting link between the first poem and its three smaller bad-conscience successors was the Berlin Wall, which was supposed to be the barrier that would separate the new (socialist) species of humanity from the old (capitalist) one.

Anyway the dandelions growing by the side of some of the more out-of-centre pavements in Pisa have always tickled my memory – not that there was anything specifically Pisa-ish about these chaps, that I could see: it was just that there was something very different about them from the dandelions a thousand miles to the north, although they were still apparently of the same breed. Actually you can see even bigger differences, ie across much smaller distances, in feverfew plants, which incidentally must share a common ancestor with dandelions – I suppose it’s the same phenomenon you see in different “varieties” of domesticated varieties, which of course we don’t generally allow to breed back to a common type because then there would be horrendous copyright issues…. I don’t think you see weeds growing along the pavements in British towns any more – or at least not to the extent that you do in Italy – and I always liked the Italian towns for that little sub-feature as it reminded me poignantly of growing up in the ‘fifties, when your feet would encounter a lot more than just pavement as you went along (kids were expected to learn to avoid dog-shit, for example!).

All these poems – I decided to include the first of them here along with the Robin poems, written about a year ago as I was waiting in the car for Ellie to come out of her weekly drama group – came about in roughly the same (for me fairly unusual) way: a subject, the template of rhyme & metre, and then the rest was worked out really as you do a crossword puzzle. Fun, a weirdly intellectual kind of exercise, and surprisingly strenuous, but anyway, I hope there’s as many kind words as the cross kind!

A final note about hair, a phenomenon that really does seem to have something to do with the ebb and flow of social evolution, whether as the kinds of hair celebrated in the eponymous musical, or those ancient patriarchal icons like Abraham or Darwin or Marx or God or Brahms. Edward Lear’s rhyme about the “old man with a beard” may have been intended to lampoon them or just to be another moment of his usual glorious nonsense, but it has always struck me as a kind of summing-up of that Victorian male Presence, hateful to some, intriguing to others, which still dominates so much of our thinking. And related to that – another little final note, about how careful we should remember to be about the pronouncements of “science”. Koestler mentions how the soviets championed the Lamarckian theories on evolution in defiance of Darwin’s, which of course were sanctioned by the Nazis and even the more moderately-inclined capitalists of our own day. Inherited or acquired characteristics? Darwin or Lamarck? Nietzsche or Darwin? Capitalist realism or socialist idealism? Take your pick: for myself, I don’t always see as much science as I’d like: more a bunch of guys jostling to be recognised as right….

 

Here’s the Robin Poems:

(Poems # I can’t remember): Berlin & Other Things

I.

You were born on the day the Wall
fell down – well near enough, and ‘fell’
is not quite right either: was pulled,
pushed, undermined, hacked, rocked, cajoled
and cheered, or cursed, by crowds who howled
with joy that all had turned out well.

What was it for? Well, partying
and fun need no justifying –
but why was the thing there? Well, no-one
remembers…. Only that the sun
of freedom was a bit dimmed, the brawn
of Tyranny was doing its thing

While poor little Reason went to ground
and the roars of Principle would sound
louder every day: here capital,
here the hard fist of state control
Cain and Abel at their ancient brawl –
slick advert versus snarling hound.

Well, it was all long ago – or not
depending on the age you’re at
in your own mind – caught in the grid
of pleasure and sorrow, or making bid
to scale the celestial pyramid
to view your little blue home planet

And wonder if it was ever home
or just some marble in a game
played by a careless angel-gang
with nothing better to do than hang
around and see if the next Big Bang
yields more, or less, or much the same.

All round the world the walls are built
higher, and meaner, as the guilt
of mankind increases – and here’s you
and me forced to see it all through
by accident of birth: for few
human hopes have quite the songbird’s lilt.

 

II.

The dandelions in Pisa look like
their northern counterparts, more or less;
but it’s the less that occupies
my curiosity, for this
may be a cross-section we take
through time, one step in the slow trek

One life-form makes into another
forfeiting its right to procreate
with its old kind, and isolate
itself, according to dictat:
a Species, that the lists infer
As cul-de-sac – from here, nowhere.

Somewhere a barrier goes up,
a point-of-no-return, a wall
of stuff that may be tangible
as Berlin’s concrete, or conceptual
only: a breakdown of co-op-
eration; a closed door; a full stop.

Though I don’t see how breaks can form
so quick – channels, mountains, deserts
or Unreason’s battlements and forts –
that crazy tower on the muddy skirts
of Pisa reminds me how the worm
of change burrows under all that’s firm.

 

III.

It’s forty years since the hippie chicks
said hairy’s fine and hairy’s proud
and underarm and groin this thick’s
the mark of feminine power, and stood
to that principle and allowed
no argument from surly pricks.

Forty years – what happened to them?
they mince along, and no stray coil
so much as peeps beyond a hem.
I would miss them less if they wouldn’t fool
themselves, or me, that they smashed the rule
and saw nothing spurious in their claim.

Those forty years of forgetfulness
saw you come into the world, and smile
on the stupidity and stress
of scrambling on the slippy Pile –
hell, boy, have you no inkling at all
of evolution and progress?

 

IV.

Darwin’s a dunce and Dennet’s beard
evolved from the same ancient chin;
but that clown Lear went like a bird
and made it a place to nestle in
and in its spacious mansions heard
the Great Man swallow down what he feared:
he’d made Truth into God’s prison.

Clowns and dunces and heroes all
I sing their praises from my tree;
be evolution ascent or fall
you’ll hear it twittering through me
how God strides through his garden to call
come on out Adam you snivelling fool
when you flew the nest you set me free.

 

 

 

 

(Poem #1): Dandelion Yellow

I think the world might end tonight
however it might come about
by ice, or tidal wave, or war
or plague-spores released in the air –
whatever galvanises fear;
I’ll just switch on my dim desk-light
and grip the sides and sit it out.

You ask if I don’t understand
the meaning of the world will end;
I hold your hand and stroke your hair
and call you precious and my dear
and say there’s not a wound won’t scar
and if there’s truly no beyond
there’s no belief, to comprehend.

The world has stopped, for all I know
it could have happened yesterday
it could have happened three years on
and we still lag behind the sun
that blew itself out in a crown
of light, to catch some future eye
that, truth to tell, died long ago.

All I can say is, here we are
I stroking your long-vanished hair
in the yellow light around my desk
you answering what I’ve yet to ask
both clutching what was least at risk:
the light-puff of a broken star
a dandelion just past its flower.

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The People’s Vote

There’s something I notice in our current Brexit shenanigans, and I feel almost that I’m being a spoil-sport in pointing to it, because there’s no doubt we’ve had more public entertainment from this issue than we’ve had for many a year: but I don’t hear as much criticism as I’d like to of the notion of Government by Referendum. Our parliamentary democracy developed the way it did because it seemed like the best idea that we elect representatives who we trusted to have more knowledge and expertise in political matters than we, the Public, do. The idea of putting actual decisions into the hands of “the people” is one that rational-minded people would once have considered outrageous. The precursor of the Referendum, back in the time of the absolutist monarchs, was the Mob – I mean the kind of mob that you find running through some of Shakespeare’s plays, rampaging through sundry cities bawling for bread or cake or whatever: the mob that Rulers would generally pay a good deal of attention to because it was inconvenient having to replace the smashed windows of one’s palace, but which they would generally try to get round by a combination of carrots, sticks and false promises. I think this was a reasonable enough approach to the politics of the “people’s will” – always remembering that that concept, “the people”, has been the subject of about as much distortion as one of those old leaky pig’s bladders they used for a football in mediaeval times – well indeed, not just distortion: deliberate falsehood too, in ample measure. There’s a good case for regarding government by referendum as an abdication of responsibility by the government and the people’s representatives – the reason for this being, to put it plainly, that the Public is stupid. I was going to say the British Public, but in fact stupidity is not a respecter of national boundaries – indeed the main correlate of stupidity is numbers: the greater the number of people involved in having opinions and making decisions, the greater the level of stupidity. That’s why up to now we’ve been reasonably content with a ratio of about 1 representative per 100,000 head of population in our national politics, with a bunch of unelected Elders who try to ensure that the levels of stupidity don’t get out of hand. I don’t say the ratio of 1:100,000 is great, and I guess the ratio in local politics is a little better, but unfortunately the mob doesn’t have too much interest in local politics: too close to home, and having potentially more of a cause-and-effect link of passions and opinions with everyday reality. Anyway, the general rule, as I might have mentioned before, is expressed by one of the characters in the film Men in Black: “a person is smart; people are stupid.”

We should never underestimate stupidity, and we should never underestimate the levels of ignorance either. Here in the Moray constituency we have recently switched to an SNP administration because the previous coalition of Tory and “independent” councillors couldn’t hold it together to produce policies that would provide the desired services. However a large percentage of people I’ve spoken to were under the impression that there has been an SNP administration all along – presumably because in some murky recess of their memory there lurks the fact that nationally we have an SNP-led administration. Most reporters and commentators in the Media – the honest ones and the rogues alike – do their best to raise the general level of political knowledge, but by and large they’ve run into the brick wall of despair and compensate with enormous headlines that attempt to encapsulate complex notions in five to ten words, or whatever above that seems geared to the shaky attention-span of their readers and listeners. Such statements are certainly not news, but that’s for the precise reason that the Public is not interested in news.

I don’t say a referendum can’t be useful. I believe the, possibly more sophisticated, public in Switzerland have got the hang of quite frequent referenda (you remember the groans of pain in Britain at the thought of not another vote – oh poor us!).  But binding yourself to the results of a referendum as by mandate (much beloved word these days!)? – come on, that’s just crazy stupid, as well as irresponsible politics. And of course our love of the concept of a mandate ignores the arbitrary nature of the thing: does a 51% vote constitute a mandate – or surely we should tweak it a bit (especially if there’s Scots voters involved), surely we can’t talk about a mandate unless there’s a 66% vote or – God knows, a 75% vote…. Nobody but a parliament of Idiots would allow a mandate to a public who can’t even manage to hang onto the basic facts of a political issue, surely?

Ah, but over and above this there’s the fact that a referendum probably always has a sub-text. Here’s some examples: most people I spoke to in 2014 didn’t remember Alex Salmond for his singular courage and dedication through the years when Scottish independence looked like a figment of somebody’s imagination: they knew him simply as the rather irritating First Minister of Scotland and, almost certainly, many of them treated the Independence Referendum as the typical sort of popularity contest that we nowadays call a General Election.  When people in Scotland noticed that – as is pretty easy to manage, if you’re a half-decent manipulator – Scotland had been shafted in that particular political show, they voted in a landslide of representatives to parliament in the full knowledge that these representatives all supported the idea of Scottish independence. But of course that didn’t count: the mandate was for continuing “union” with England.

Ah, union… so then we come to the European Union – a group of nations which freely and autonomously decided to give up some of their sovereignty in exchange for the benefits of existing in a larger political and economic entity…. Now go and have a look at the rhetoric leading up to the particular political show that has been dubbed Brexit (presumably because our tiny attention-spans can’t cope with any Bigger Word), and overlay it on the rhetoric leading up to the Scottish Independence referendum – which was basically about whether Scotland as a political unit should be allowed to make autonomous decisions regarding its welfare and its future – and see if you can spot any radical differences. Independence from Europe, ah Bravehearts all, let’s vote for FREEDOM – too long have we been in slavery! – Not to mention the fact that our European referendum was beautifully timed to provide a context – perhaps even a pretext, who knows? – for the standard English political attitude towards Scotland (at least now that Scotland no longer represents the threat of an invading army): ignore it – just pretend it’s not there. And, these days, its MPs too, especially the ones who promulgate Scottish independence – ignore them at all costs, talk about something else, or if we have to talk about Scotland, let’s talk about a drunken Alex Salmond with his trousers round his ankles….

Indeed the European referendum had two important subtexts: one was to prevent too many brown-skinned, non-English-speaking people from coming into Britain, whatever need or terror had driven them to flee their native land. The other was that of which we do not speak: Scotland. Try buying a couple of acres of land from a farmer, even at a more-than-fair price…. then scale that up to a national level, and you’ll get a glimpse of the subtext of the current British politics regarding Scotland. There are no rational arguments involved, no considerations of administrative efficiency nor even of the cultural differences that put a slightly different emphasis on moral/political values and so make some sense of “national” boundaries, particularly national boundaries within a bigger whole, such as Europe – no, there’s none of that: you’re not getting any of MY land is the fundamental atavism lurking just below sight in the governing circles, and all the legions of stupidity, as represented in Referenda, can be marshalled to support it – it’s easy.

 

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BURNERLUST IS ONE NAME FOR IT

I’m not really a believer in conspiracies – I’m more of a cock-up man myself – in fact I’m probably a believer in C G Jung’s maxim that stupidity increases in direct proportion to the number of people present to generate it. But if I were a conspiracy man, I could well believe that there is a conspiracy afoot – perhaps “still” afoot would be more correct, seeing as the process has been going on for a good couple of centuries all over the world – a conspiracy to remove the human population from the countryside & pack it into urban centres where, presumably, it’s easier to control. Conspiracies have an aim of course, and I guess the aim of the particular hypothetical conspiracy of which I speak (always remembering I don’t believe in conspiracies) would serve an ultimate aim of still further depriving the countryside of its human population to make it more available for industrial farming.

Why is this not such a good thing? Well, putting aside the argument that packing people into densely-populated centres is more efficient – which it probably is – and putting aside what sentimentalists would call a spiritual dimension, there’s a political aspect involved. You see, I believe the only true democracy would be a democracy of land ownership. That’s why I treat our pious statements about democracy – as when we’re lecturing Russia or China on their badness – with a certain amount of contempt. Giving everyone the same vote and then packing them into cities sounds fair maybe to a certain kind of logic, but what it means is that control over the land becomes vested in fewer and fewer people and, as things become more difficult – which they undoubtedly will do – that means that attitudes to the countryside, to the land, both cultivated and “wild”, will become more subject to what are perceived as the exigencies of the situation: basically we have a human population to feed, heat and light and we’re going to do that by the only means we deem practicable – “we” being the very few who have undisputed control over the land. How will Scotcity – Engcity – sound? The home of democracy and fairness and justice and all that jazz, but hardly Scotland, England, any more. But make no mistake, the “land” is, and has always been the prime Asset – not very exciting in the stockmarket perhaps, but always the thing you’ll be wanting to buy up if you suddenly find you’re stinking rich.

It’s ok, it won’t happen, will it. Why, council rural Plans are dotting the countryside with permissible newbuilds, aren’t they? Doesn’t that show there’s a commitment to rural regeneration?

Ha, whether “social housing” or luxury pads, it doesn’t make a lot of difference: this is the housing equivalent of cannon fodder – relieves the current housing pressure in suburban areas – these patches of suburban estate slapped into the countryside, whether for the not-so-affluent who perhaps have rural family connections (ever more tenuous as time goes on), or for the slightly more affluent whose idea of the country is “greenery” – a few featureless acres enclosed by dead-straight barbed-wire fences with at best a bunch of bored ruminants scuffling about inside them – have a purely dormitory function and nothing to do with rural regeneration, and I’ve a suspicion the shelf-life of most newbuilds can’t be reckoned at much above twenty-five years anyway, so the Plan is easy enough to review.

Sorry, as I say it won’t happen, I’m clearly speaking as a habitual, even a professional, depressive.

Let me think – how did I get into this clearly imaginary scenario, with my faith in the great institution of the Cock-up clearly being shaken? Well, it’s to do with something our dear countryside has to offer, apparently, in abundance: our new wonder-fuel, biomass.

Biomass is of course a “renewable”. All hail the mighty Renewable! For It is the thing that’s going to keep us in the style to which we’re accustomed and we won’t have to worry about planetary stewardship & all that worthy but lower-priority stuff any more.

One of the sites which pedals the concept to householders and businesses has a section on “the biomass boiler”, the great advantages of which stem from the fact that “trees are easy to grow”. I can only assume that whoever was responsible for this particular bit of guff has a view of trees as being some sort of, slightly more long-term than the usual, farm-crop: you grow ’em (in lines, I dare say, as we do love our straight lines), you cut ’em, you harvest them and process them, just like that – it’s just like barley or stirks or tourists, only you (or your kids) might have to wait twenty years rather than a few months for the crop but that’s ok because it’s worth twenty times as much to the fuel-hungry public. God knows who – sorry, what – might have been using your crop as their home for the last twenty years but one thing’s certain they didn’t pay rent so srcew ’em.

Biomass in the form of trees is of course a function of time. It’s a guess number, but I’d say ten to fifteen years – & no doubt lots of chemical inputs – might produce a coppice of willow, fifteen to twenty-five a “crop” of spruce – both these probably unusable on a commercial scale unless you use big machinery (and energy) to “chip” and “pellet” them; after that you’ll have a sliding scale up to fifty, seventy-five years, of birch, ash, sycamore, lime, elm, beech, oak (holly or apple if you want to go really upmarket): the longer they need to grow the better they’ll be as fuel but basically you get what you put in, including time. The wailing and hand-wringing a couple of years back when we discovered that “one of our best-loved trees”, the ash, was endangered by some new foreign mould was more of a concession to the emotional connection that many people still feel with trees (but that’s actually ok because you can plant them in your cities and walk about “enjoying” them); it had little to do with the kilowatt value of the ash-tree, which, as far as I can see, can survive an attack of die-back reasonably well, with some compromise of its aesthetic value. I even see not a few elms regenerating after having been devastated by, presumably, Dutch elm disease.

When biomass boilers first appeared on the horizon they were of course billed as “carbon neutral”, environmentally sustainable and all that good stuff. It all depends on what you mean by sustainable, I suppose. For one thing, the big biomass boilers which were installed on a community/industrial scale were subsidised – in fact I think the subsidies continue. These super-efficient creations could get so hot that their users felt encouraged to put wet material into them because they seemed to be able to burn that just as well – or so the story went. It is of course a fantasy: water in dry biomass has to be heated up and evaporated before there’s any actual burning. There was such a run on spruce & other quick-growing timbers, sold by volume-qua-weight, that the supply was pretty quickly overtaken by demand, firewood prices to the small householder with a wood-oven suffered a hike, and in addition to firewood having to be imported from Scandinavia there have even been cases reported where draff – a high-protein, high moisture cattle feed – has been used: I haven’t fully corroborated these reports, I have to say, but my faith in the human capacity for stupidity is broad and generous. The tradition of the small household buying in firewood for drying a year ahead of use was rather trodden underfoot in the stampede to obtain wood in any condition, and lots of it.

I don’t know what the numbers are: I know there are always numbers, and I know they’re a wondrous weapon in a pretty limitless armoury; I’m just an ordinary geezer with a sentimental attachment to what used to be called common sense. Big is efficient and that’s a fact we’ve all been taught to swallow.

I see farmers are now being encouraged – well, paid, actually – to set up “small” biomass boilers for their farmsteads. These wondrous, super-efficient devices will burn a whole half-tree, and so save vast amounts on cutting and splitting, especially those intractable trunk-base lumps that always get left behind because they’re not worth the effort. They will also accommodate one of those big round straw-bales & can burn through a couple of those a day. Your farm will have so much heat that not only will you be toasting whenever you go indoors – hot water always on tap – you’ll even be able to heat your uninsulated steading buildings and workshops (handsome two-inch stainless pipes everywhere), which is yet another bonus compared with once upon a time when you’d sit by the fire of a winter’s night rather than going out to do some necessary job in the workshop – efficiency again, see?

I certainly don’t begrudge farmers keeping warm (though funnily enough, our need for warmth seems to increase with our capacity to provide it – another aspect of Parkinson’s Law?); but to the tune of thirty-plus mature trees a year? Are they being subsidised to plant thirty-plus big-growing trees a year? Are new oak, beech, elm and ash-groves springing up all over the countryside? Assuming you need about 75 years to produce a decent boiler-worthy specimen – well, you can do the maths… The alternative of’ “quick” crops like willow is being enthusiastically followed of course, and there’s nothing wrong with a willow-stand, especially when it’s taking up excess groundwater (oops, water, I forgot….), but look at straw bales – an even quicker turnaround, and a few days in the sun is enough to dry it out….. – Let’s say, what, three or four hundred bales a year for burning: it’s an interesting thought, don’t know what the overwintering cows will say about it though. Straw was even more expensive than hay this year, I wonder why that was – couldn’t have been anything to do with burnerlust I don’t suppose? But when you look at it that way, one thing’s for sure: those big trees are going to be nothing but a damned nuisance when you need to increase your straw acreage!

I think that, basically small householders are going to learn (not a conspiracy – they will learn it naturally, spontaneously) that they have no right to live in the countryside, not unless they have a well-paying job that for the duration of the current housing shortage at least, will allow them to burn their fuel commuting rather than heating their home, or unless engaged in useful pursuits like running a Riding School or an Activity Centre as of course patches of the countryside will continue to be set aside for “amenity” purposes. Otherwise, if they insist on the right merely to live as their ancestors did, they’re going to have to pay for it. The countryside will welcome businesses that “bring money in”, or of course it will, as ever, welcome anyone rich enough to be a big landowner, but anyone who opts for living “a country life” as “lifestyle choice” needs to know that there’s a premium involved – a growing one at that.

I think it was George Osborne, commenting on his brave new benefits policy, who said that the country was no longer going to pay people to pursue their hobbies. Small country householders, of the old school at any rate, are obviously part of that kettle of fish, whereas bona fide commuters who pay their way aren’t messy bastards who have half-cannibalised cars sitting outside their house or piles of reclaimed plastic pots if their hobbies happen to include planting and growing stuff (including trees) or ramshackle huts built of sundry salvaged materials or untidy piles of foraged brushwood. A conspiracy of course presupposes a presiding Intelligence – otherwise it’s just a cock-up – so possibly (I don’t know the man) that rules George out, but no doubt he was just doing his best when he set about trying to reform us shirkers.

On which conciliatory note I’ve just realised, I haven’t been thinking things through properly: the subsidised farm boilers are not just useful for tidying up the countryside, defaced as it is by the presence of ugly old or diseased trees…. they are actually prototypes in a secret scheme designed to provide temporary, but well-heated, accommodation in farm steadings for the thousands of war refugees we’re about to welcome into our country – and what’s a few old trees compared with a humanitarian disaster we’re going to address? It’s still secret because we don’t want to create a panic; but what a sweet thought! Bless.

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CENTRAL HEATING FROM MOUNT DOOM

I can’t really call this a Coldhome blog I guess, because we’re still living at Cottarton, kindly loaned to us by Paul & Amber. And my, what a pocket of civilisation it is! We’re gradually bedding in, clinging on like limpets, creeping to the back of our crevice like hermit crabs…. Insulated & anaesthetised against the ill winds of fortune, or whatever we can see blowing out there. The oil-fired warmth, the brightness, the non-stop TV, the ease of charging up our portable devices! Where does all this energy come from? And the washing! I think I spend half my day trotting between the washing machine & the washing line. Did ever so much washing get washed? Were we so dirty at Coldhome? Actually, I have a suspicion it may be related to something we used to call Parkinson’s Law – these days I prefer to call it the Law of Turin’s Sword in memory of Professor Tolkien, but I’ll explain about that some other time. But Prof. Tolkien is clearly behind the answer to my question about all the energy: it comes from Mount Doom, like my title suggests – and ok, The Lord of the Rings is a bit of a sore point just now….

All right – yes, I’ll spit it out, starting at the beginning. It was all Yoyo’s fault, she who set off the argument. Did I mention our much TV? Yes, I see I did. Anything as old-fashioned as organising what appears onto our screen is naturally beyond us, so The Hobbit (film) kind of insinuated itself into our midst without our realising…. Anyway, I can guarantee from our experiences with Maddy that eighteen months of age is about right for getting mesmerised by these works of Mr Jackson’s, and so apparently it was with Yoyo. Drowsiness eventually overcame her and she turned her attention to the more routine fare of Peppa Pig, but not before she had surprised us all with the deep concentration she lavished on Thorin as he strode about tragically and the Elf-king was a right snooty bastard. Why would anyone be mesmerised by that stuff, you might ask (that ridiculous elvish army like a bunch of mechanised stormtroopers?!) – well, I did ask, upon which everyone (ie the younger generation) jumped to “that stuff’s” defence and on top of me. Upon which I went over to the attack – ha, a generation that expected to survive a Scottish winter in t-shirt & slacks (you turn up the heating, duh), and anyway in the ensuing brawl no-one came out very justified but I definitely came out feeling – yes, I admit it, I’m not proud – strangely offended with Abi for her assertion that she had never read The Lord of the Rings and never intended to, but that she loved the films.

Never intended to”? Why should this offend me? Well, with no right at all, of course. Why should anyone have to read a very-long-book about stuff that no devotee of English Literature (as in High Culture) could take seriously, which still represents an important part of what makes the hippy generation ridiculous, and why should the genre of fantasy have any relevance to this age of seriously pressing collective concerns?

The genre of fantasy? Ah, there you go… What’s wrong with me, that the very mention of such innocent entertainment should make my toes curl? Can’t I just give honour where honour’s due & have done? Don’t I understand what it means that the entertainment industry accounts for x per cent of GDP? (sorry, numbers not my strong point, but I’m sure it’s a lot) and fantasy is the stuff of entertainment? …And surely, surely what was marvellous about LoR was that this little professor-chappie invented an imaginary world, right down to its details, and in doing so single-handedly founded a whole new literary genre, not to mention its vast spin-off in films and Games? Can’t I let it go at that? Wasn’t that achievement enough?

Well, no it wasn’t, and no I can’t, and no he didn’t. I thought there was something suspect about this notion right from the start (I mean Tolkien the founder of the wondrous Fantasy Genre) – that, in some way I couldn’t put my finger on, they seemed to be missing the point about LoR (hate the acronym – just trying to reduce my word-count, but shit there it just went….) Then Frank Herbert’s brutish Dune stories got published and the rave was all about how “it was just like the Lord of the Rings (only sci-fi)” – suddenly LoR was the bench-mark of quality! Meanwhile superannuated fantasists like Eric Eddison and William Morris were getting wheeled on, stories re-published, because – believe it or not – they preceded Tolkien!

I do not, and never have, cared about such things. What was best about LoR was primarily its subversiveness (think Alice or Edward Lear). It subverted our notions of civilisation and empire, of victory and power and control, and indeed of struggle and justice. Individual characters were invested with luminous, quick-stab comments on the political and moral and spiritual condition of the West, which the story-mass led up to and contextualised. This tended to be done by-the-bye (by-the-bye is naturally of little interest to a harassed film-maker), and furthermore was done in a way which made it look entirely unintentional – which it may have been (we in the West still have a lot to learn about the unintentional, despite Nietzsche and Freud and the widespread interest in the I Ching.)

Subversiveness underpinned the converse of that whole group of highly educated Oxford chaps who called themselves the Inklings and honoured a storytelling tradition carried by Scottish (or part-Scottish) writers like Hogg, Stevenson, Barrie, Bridie, Conan Doyle, but more particularly David Lindsay and George MacDonald, who in turn reached back in a direct line to the German Romantics of the early nineteenth century, including various Schlegels, Eichendorff, Brentano, the Grimm brothers etc, authors whose creative genius frequently rested on significant work as collectors of products of an ancient cultural heritage – oral or foreign – which they perceived as being under increasing threat from the new thinking that was busily fashioning the Scientific Age: what a contemporary, Friedrich Hoelderlin, called the “pitch-dark Enlightenment”.

Tolkien, who once declared that one of his greatest fears was the thought of students conscientiously writing learned theses on his work, has always reminded me, with his obsessive playing-around with language (not unlike the Rev. Charles Dodgson, of twas brillig, and the slythey toves fame) of some shy old-time vicar who devotes his spare Mondays to the wondrous model train-set he keeps hidden away in his attic, and who one day – not thinking about it too much – creates a little branch-line which takes him wandering off across the floorboards to a hole in the skirting, through which he glimpses a lonely height which affords an intense vision of what is wrong at the heart of his world and what must be done if it’s to be put right. It’s a glimpse that needn’t have concerned him too much, but for some reason – an obsessive nature, maybe – he couldn’t leave it alone.

Abduction – yes…. Hoelderlin, in his 1802 poem “Patmos”, describes his abduction from his home by a Genius which whisks him off “faster than I expected and far / to where I never thought to come”. …Indeed alien abductions have been the stuff of human experience for many a long millennium. The profundity of the vision vouchsafed through such events may depend on the abductee: Homer Simpson understood in a blinding flash that “things that are nine ninety-nine are really ten dollars”, but we assume that someone less tangled in the necessities of everyday might see a bit farther. It could depend on the abductor, of course: it used to be well understood that the world was full of many different spirits, of many different sorts. Or of course it could depend on something else entirely, something ineffable, resistant to any inquiry.

The point being that in Tolkien’s case, or my old-time vicar’s, it was all a bit accidental. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer chap, but hardly vision-material, not some lone Himalayan sage or a St John shipwrecked on the Island of Patmos. In fact anything that could fall into the category of literary pretension was not in favour with Tolkien’s circle: products as they were of the Empire’s most privileged stratum of education, who included among others writers like Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Roger Lancelyn Green, Adam Fox and of course C S Lewis, these chaps happily thumbed their noses at current “high” art and literature, which may have been short-sighted but which brought with it the advantages of naivety and smallness which have now become so much the rage in so-called popular culture: they were very much “half-grown hobbits…, the laughing folk, the little people”, who liked to meet over a pint (or two) and who never purposefully meddled in the affairs of the Great. Tolkien in particular did not seek to travel by the highways:

Still round the corner there may wait

a new road, or a secret gate;

and though I oft have passed them by

the day may come at last when I

shall take the hidden paths that run

west of the moon, west of the sun.

(don’t know why those lines so far apart – no control over template apparently, now that really has spoiled my day….)

Since the time I and my brother first had The Lord of the Rings read to us – the winter of ’59-’60, it must have been – I’ve watched as that most significant aspect of Tolkien’s work, its subversiveness, steadily, step by step, got the treatment that’s always most successfully been employed against subversion: it got drawn into the mainstream. Eventually, of course, Frodo came to Hollywood, introduced by a fellow who was a lifelong devotee of Tolkien’s work and who, I actually believe, did thoroughly understand where the man was coming from, but who was naïve enough to forget that Hollywood is an unstoppable force with an ethic of its own and wielding a destructive power the cultural equivalent of a nuclear device.

But isn’t it great, people say, that those films introduced so many people to The Lord of the Rings? No it isn’t. All that happened was that the underground message was dissipated into over-stimulating images, the moments of poetry were “translated” into modern colloquial, the little cameos of wisdom were – well, overlooked, because they were simply too hard to represent in film. The subversive had been dragged into the centre of the mainstream and there – guess what? – it drowned.

So, I’ll mend my attitude – no more taking offence…. I’ll remain sniffy about t-shirts and central heating (& anti-draught devices and high-tech glazing systems for that matter), but I don’t actually care if my children’s generation never experience the true LoR. Some will, some won’t. Some of those who do will see what’s really going on there; others will laugh it off. Tolkien’s story belonged to my generation, and for now it’s outlived its shelf-life. Perhaps my grandchildren will pick him up again, turn him over, and make some new use of him. If they don’t, I trust they’ll find something else equally useful.

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Salutations

Annie wrote a blog-et this morning, read it out to me and I said it was great and she should post it on Facebook. So she deleted it. I clearly should have said it was crap….

Anyway, as I agreed with it all and would have even said some of it myself if I’d still been into writing blogs much, I’m going to say what I would have said…. She said she didn’t like hers because it sounded preachy, but I’m generally accused of being preachy before I even open my mouth so I’ve nothing to lose.

She and I were both Polling Agents on Election Day. Polling Agents don’t do much but stand and look pretty. We both independently had the same sensation that watching people engaging in the act of democracy was – for all its faults – a moving one. So what I’d like to say about politicians is this:
Politicians are made for getting corrupted. They start off with principles, with ideals of service and of doing good, and they get corrupted, burned out, dried up. Why is this? I think one important cause is because of something that gets called “voter apathy”. I don’t call it that, I call it an infantilised population, I call it people putting everything onto their politicians and the governments they form: “daddy will fix it” is the basic attitude, and when he doesn’t, it’s “daddy’s shite”. Yet politicians are real people who sacrifice a lot – their privacy, often their family life, their health and even their mental well-being to put themselves at the disposal of the people they represent. Their pay looks like a mint – but to me everyone else’s pay looks like a mint so I really can’t be certain that it is that much; and I have had some insights into how many of our own politicians spend their money, and it certainly arouses neither my wrath nor my contempt – and come an election like the one we had last week and for many of them – oof! it’s all gone, just like that.

So to those who came to vote, I salute you, the sixteen and seventeen year olds coming for the first time with rather serious faces, and the grey ones creeping along on sticks, both those who greeted me as I stood beaming at the door with my yellow-and-black badge on and those who studiously avoided my eye (yes, I could have done a poll!). I don’t understand why these latter don’t see fit to follow the desires of the younger generation for whom the government of the future is going to be so much more important than for them – maybe they think they know better than the youngsters and believe they’re doing it “for their own good”. I don’t understand them but I salute them nevertheless. And to the many who didn’t come, the many whom I’ve met on doorsteps while canvassing who sneer and say, “nae interested”; or proudly announce “I’ve never voted”, or “politicians are all the same – they’re all corrupt”, or those like the occupier of a particularly well-appointed house who demanded, “what has the government ever done for me?” I would say this: you make me angry, and perhaps a spell in Belgium, where voting is obligatory, would do you some good and rouse a small sense of civic duty. I’ve been dissatisfied with our style of democracy for most of my adult life, and I certainly don’t think I like the kind of PR which is currently in force in Scotland – it has an air of deceit about it. I am an active member of the SNP, but support many policies of the Greens and look forward to their getting even stronger, and I have deep-reaching anarchist instincts – but I’ll support the form of democracy we have because I don’t at the moment see anyone coming up with anything better, and I do see that the whole structure of what we call civilisation is probably about to collapse round our ears, and the politicians who represent us really do need to be told what we think can be done to make the crash, when it comes, as endurable as possible. If the people don’t interact with their representatives in an adult and rational way, how are the politicians expected to act in an adult and rational way themselves?

Government can only be as good as the people who install it.

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Wake up, NHS!

Attended a fascinating talk last night by Dr Stefan Geider at the Aberdeen chapter of the Scientific & Medical Network on mistletoe therapy for cancer.

Scary: co-relation of fever-preventing strategies (vaccination, antibiotics, paracetamol etc) with increase in incidence of cancer.

Amusing (yet depressing): the attempts of associates of Geider’s, including Muhammad Shakeel, an oncologist at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, to publish the well-documented case-history of a man with laryngeal cancer.

Totally alarming: how the structure and culture of the NHS militates against diversity of approach to medical issues. On  the one hand the Scottish Government struggles to support this excellent institution, on the other hand this same institution does its best to stifle scientific debate as everyone looks over their shoulder and is terrified of stepping out of line!

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A Game of Baws

Don’t re-blog much cos my computer’s even slower than my brain. This one’s very much worth reading though….

Bonnie Fairbrass

In the recent game of Baws, known to some as the election, the results are as follows:
Scotland One – England Nil
I hate to tell you England, but you’ve been done.
I am in a bit of an awkward position, as an English woman, living in Scotland, who voted SNP.
According to the press I’ve just fucked over everyone I know in England. To some I guess that makes me a traitor. That, I believe is a matter of perspective. I’d like to think that most of my friends down south would not be so judgemental, and perhaps better read than the majority, or at least be able to count and stuff. I am not a one off either, I happen to know a fair few other English people living here who voted SNP too. Oops. We bad.
I stand by my decision to vote SNP, as I do…

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