Monday 29 October 2012

William Cobbett

Local production for local consumption, the sustainable tending of the earth, its plants and animals, sound educational practice and a healthy, thriving cultural life based on sufficiency rather than endless growth and consumption of material goods: at present, all these policies must be justified financially – or they cannot be put into practice. The need to be on guard against the growing power of finance was apparent to William Cobbett early in the 19th century. At the time – and since – Cobbett has been dismissed as hopelessly out of touch with modern life, as trying to live in the past. It now appears that Cobbett was far more clear sighted than many zealous reformers realised.

Writing in 1925, G.K. Chesterton wrote a life of William Cobbett. He observed: “In one thing he was a very lucky and lonely mortal:

“He could see before he could read. Most modern people can read before they can see. They have read about a hundred things long before they have seen one of them. Most town children have read about corn or cattle as if they were dwarfs or dragons, long before they have seen a grain of wheat or a cow. Many of them have read about ships or churches, or the marching of soldiers or the crowd cheering a king, or any other normal sight, which they have never seen. By a weird mesmerism which it is not here necessary to analyse, what people read has a sort of magic power over their sight. It lays a spell on their eyes, so that they see what they expect to see. They do not see the most solid and striking things that contradict what they expect to see. They believe their schoolmasters too well to believe their eyes. They trust the map against the mountain. Cobbett was a man without these magic spectacles. He did not see what he expected to see, but what he saw. He liked books; but he could not only read between the lines but through the book.
“Now, in nothing is this more vivid than in his vision of history. Most of us know what was the accepted general version of English history when we were at school; at any rate when I was at school, and still more, of course, when Cobbett was at school-in so far as he ever was at school. England had emerged out of a savage past to be the greatest empire in the world, with the best balanced constitution in the world, by a wise and well-timed progress or series of reforms, that ever kept in mind the need of constitutionalism and of balance. The Barons had extorted a constitutional charter from the King, in advance of that feudal age and a foundation for parliamentary freedom. The Commons came into the struggle for parliamentary freedom when it was waged against the Stuarts. By that time the Revival of Learning had led to the Reformation or sweeping away of the superstition that had been the only religion of the ruder feudal time. This enlightenment favoured the growth of democracy; and though the aristocrats still remained, and remain still, to give dignity to the state with their ancient blazonry of the Conquest and the Crusades, the law of the land is no longer controlled by the lords but by the citizens. Hence the country has been filled with a fresh and free population, made happy by humane and rational ideas, where there were once only a few serfs stunted by the most senseless superstitions. I ask anyone if that is not a fair summary of the historical education in which most modern people over forty were brought up. And having read it first, we went to look at the towns and castles and abbeys afterwards, and saw it or tried to see it. Cobbett, not having read it, or not caring whether he had read it, saw something totally different. He saw what is really there.” (FN G.K. Chesterton William Cobbett, House of Stratus, 2008 edition, p49).

Monday 22 October 2012

When You're Lying Awake

When life gets too much, and you can't sleep because of all the doom and gloom flying around the internet - try learning this song. It should be sung, or read aloud, very fast - until the very last line. Worth a try.

When You’re Lying Awake

From Iolanthe
Libretto by William S. Gilbert, Music by Sir Arthur Sullivan
Sung by Lord Chancellor

When you’re lying awake
With a dismal headache,
And repose is taboo’d by anxiety,
You conceive you may use
Any language you choose
To indulge in, without impropriety;

For your brain is on fire—
And the bedclothes conspire
Of your usual slumber to plunder you:
First your counterpane goes,
And uncovers your toes,
And your sheet slips demurely from under you;

Then the blanketing tickles—
You feel like mixed pickles—
So terribly sharp is the pricking,
And you’re hot, and you’re cross,
And you tumble and toss
Till there’s nothing ’twixt you and the ticking.

Then the bedclothes all creep
To the ground in a heap,
And you pick ’em all up in a tangle;
Next your pillow resigns
And politely declines
To remain at its usual angle!

Well, you get some repose
In the form of a doze,
With hot eye-balls and head ever aching.
But your slumbering teems
With such horrible dreams
That you’d very much better be waking;

For you dream you are crossing
The Channel, and tossing
About in a steamer from Harwich—
Which is something between
A large bathing machine
And a very small second-class carriage—

And you’re giving a treat
(Penny ice and cold meat)
To a party of friends and relations—
They’re a ravenous horde—
And they all came on board
At Sloane Square and South Kensington Stations.

And bound on that journey
You find your attorney
(Who started that morning from Devon);
He’s a bit undersized,
And you don’t feel surprised
When he tells you he’s only eleven.

Well, you’re driving like mad
With this singular lad
(By the by, the ship’s now a four-wheeler),
And you’re playing round games,
And he calls you bad names
When you tell him that “ties pay the dealer”;

But this you can’t stand,
So you throw up your hand,
And you find you’re as cold as an icicle,
In your shirt and your socks
(The black silk with gold clocks),
Crossing Salisbury Plain on a bicycle:

And he and the crew
Are on bicycles too—
Which they’ve somehow or other invested in—
And he’s telling the tars
All the particulars
Of a company he’s interested in—

It’s a scheme of devices,
To get at low prices
All goods from cough mixtures to cables
(Which tickled the sailors),
By treating retailers
As though they were all vegetables—

You get a good spadesman
To plant a small tradesman
(First take off his boots with a boot-tree),
And his legs will take root,
And his fingers will shoot,
And they’ll blossom and bud like a fruit-tree—

From the greengrocer tree
You get grapes and green pea,
Cauliflower, pineapple, and cranberries,
While the pastrycook plant
Cherry brandy will grant,
Apple puffs, and three corners, and Banburys—

The shares are a penny,
And ever so many
Are taken by Rothschild and Baring,
And just as a few
Are allotted to you,
You awake with a shudder despairing—

You’re a regular wreck, with a crick in your neck, and no wonder you snore, for your head’s on the floor, and you’ve needles and pins from your soles to your shins, and your flesh is a-creep, for your left leg’s asleep, and you’ve cramp in your toes, and a fly on your nose, and some fluff in your lung, and a feverish tongue, and a thirst that’s intense, and a general sense that you haven’t been sleeping in clover;

But the darkness has passed, and it’s daylight at last, and the night has been long—ditto ditto my song—and thank goodness they’re both of them over!


Monday 15 October 2012

Heaven and Earth

At this time of year we have a problem. Too many apples. We inherited an old orchard with the house we bought thirty years ago, and have been on a steep learning curve ever since.
Like everybody else of our acquaintance, we thought, if we thought about it at all, apples came in two types – eaters and cookers. And that all apples were used for desert. Gradually, we have learned that apples encapsulate a whole culture.
According to a little book published over twenty years ago, by Common Ground, “you could make an apple pie every day for 16 or more years and not use the same variety twice, eating your way from Stirling Castle to Exeter Cross in the company of the Reverend Wilks and Bess Pool.” What is more, apples are traditionally used for savoury dishes. Apple sauce is served with pork. Apples form an essential ingredient in the red cabbage dish which accompanies rich poultry such as duck and goose in Scandinavia.
“The German kitchen has some particularly good potato recipes,” we are told by cookery writer Elisabeth Luard in The Apple Source Book”, including delicious pancakes made with raw grated potatoes and served with apples or stewed fruit: and an excellent dish known as “Himmel und Erde” which mixes boiled potatoes with apples and crisp fried bacon. This mixture of fruit and vegetables, sweet and sour, is characteristic of northern country cooking – Holland, Belgium, Alsace, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Scandinavia all have similar mixtures.”

To make the Heaven and Earth dish, use firm but sweet apples like reinettes. This makes an excellent supper or light lunch dish.

2lb (1kg) potatoes
2lb (1kg) apples [such as King of the Pippins]
8oz (225g) slab bacon in ¼ inches (6mm) thick slices

You need a large saucepan and a small frying pan.
If the potatoes are new and small, you merely need to wash them. If they are old, peel them closely and quarter them. Put them to boil in plenty of salted water. Peel and cut the apples into chunks the size of the potato pieces. Add them to the potatoes after 10 minutes. Finish cooking both together. By the time the potatoes are cooked the apples will be soft but still holding their shape. Meanwhile, dice the bacon and fry it in its own fat. Drain the cooked apples and potatoes. Pile them into a hot dish and scatter the crisp bacon, with its cooking juices, over the top. Serve immediately.

Other recipes in the book include Grilled Sausages with sage fried apple rings, and Devonshire Rabbits. Vegetarian options include Orchard Toasted Cheese, and Leek and Cockpit Quiche. The book includes information about the growing, harvesting and storing of apples from a number of well-known chefs, gardeners and writers.
As far as I can tell, this book is no longer available, which is very sad. As things stand, people are so busy that they have ‘no time’ to use apples from local gardens – preferring to buy them from the supermarket, in the form of jars and packets of ready-made apple sauce mix – whilst the apples are left lying on the ground beneath the trees. Something is not quite right.

Monday 1 October 2012

Ring of Power

Ring of Power
Why is Lord of the Rings so popular?

Review of Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth. Tolkein, Myth and Modernity (1998)

The publication of The Lord of the Rings more than forty years ago was greeted with cries of derision by the literary establishment. Nevertheless, sales have topped 50 million copies, and are still going strong, with public library lending total exceeding 300,000 per year. Despite the book’s steady popularity – it headed a poll of over 25,000 readers as the most important book of the twentieth century – it continues to be shunned by the “clever” world of adult literary fiction.
The popular success of The Lord of the Rings lies in its relevance to the contemporary struggle of “community, nature and spirit against the modern union of state-power, capital and technology”. Noting the “domination of financial and technological magic” over “God’s enchanted world”. Curry concludes that root-less science, existing beyond history and locality, becomes inseparable from science and power.
Curry has arranged his book around the three interrelated worlds of the Shire, its culture, politics and society, Middle-Earth, its nature and ecology, and the spiritual and ethical world of the sea. Each “world” is inextricably intertwined with the others, creating a powerful sense of specific and recognizable place. In Curry’s view, by setting the Shire in pre-modern England Tolkien gives his tale universal appeal. Itself not “Europeanized”, the Shire is invaded by modernizing Mordor. Within the state, the Hobbits who share a strong sense of community and of decentralized bioregionalism resist.
Although he omitted specific reference to religious practices, Tolkien perceived The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”. Curry argues that decisions based upon pure utility yield the centre ground to the forces of destruction: “the things, places and people we love will be saved for their own sakes or not at all; and that is ultimately a religious valuing.”
“The choice”, Curry observes, is between myths and stories that are liberating, and those that are destructive and debilitating.” The Lord of the Rings emerges as a major contribution to the former. Tolkien’s purpose was to challenge the myth of “progress” from primitive squalor to global civilisation based upon science and technology. His work echoes the ancient mythologies of a fall from a past golden age. It also rejects the inevitability of “progress” in favour of a belief in individuals as free agents capable of determining events good or ill.
Tolkien’s mythology contains hope for “the re-sacralization (or re-enchantment) of experienced and living nature, in the local cultural idiom”. Escape from the prison of enforced modernity is presently barred by its ”intellectual and cultural warders…the realists and rationalists” who declare “progress” is not only good for us, but also here to stay regardless of the trail of devastation left in its wake. The fatal charm of the Ring of Power leads its servants to feed it, rather than control it.
The book presents no simplistic division between good and evil: “one of the glories of Middle-Earth is its messy pluralism.” People with very different cultures, languages and habits, linked in a tenuous alliance, oppose the modernistic magic which is Mordor. Writing under the shadow of the “ongoing holocaust of the natural world” in the name of global capitalism, Curry quotes Ruskin:
“To watch the corn grow, and the blossom set: to draw hard breath over ploughshare or spade; to read, to think, to love, to hope, to pray – these are the things that make men happy; they have always had the power of doing these, they never will have the power to do more. The world’s prosperity or adversity depends upon our knowing and teaching these few things: but upon iron, or glass, or electricity, or steam, in no wise.”
Curry suggests that the Ring has affinity with the most powerful economic and political forces in the material realm. Three Elven Rings, capable of creating beauty, understanding and healing are ultimately under the control of the One, which can transform and destroy their potential but is devoid of ability to create. The magic of the One Ring is its capacity for illusion. Evil, the lust for complete power in the world, arises from apparently innocent intervention in life in all its forms. In Tolkien’s works, “frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others – and speedily according to the benefactor’s own plans”, This magic has been appropriated and transformed by modern science and technology.
Curry reminds us not only of the dangers of abandoning the lessons of history, as encapsulated in myth, but also of the good sense and good faith of the vast mass of ordinary people and the capacity of small individuals to stand against great evil.

This review was first published in Resurgence, No. 196, September/October 1999. Patrick Curry's book remains as relevant today as when first published. Frances Hutchinson