The End of the World Running Club. (Adrian J. Walker)

While I was cleaning our holiday let, in 51NXDkgb5VLpreparation for the next set of visitors, I noticed an addition to the bookcase. This book, “The End Of The World Running Club” by Adrian J . Walker, had been put on the shelf on it’s side (It was this that drew my attention to it). I had a quick look at the cover and the blurb on the backpage and decided I would give it a try. It was not the type of book to which I am normally drawn though I had enjoyed the post-apocalyptic tale of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and thus knew it was possible to tackle important themes in this potentially depressing genre.

The book starts at the end of the world with a bang, literally a bang, as an asteroid shower hits the UK ending life as we know it. Interestingly the opening scenes take place in Edinburgh and the Lothians which was a pleasant surprise and the geography, or what is left of it, was well and accurately described. The main protagonist, Edward Hill, and his family survive the initial strike but soon become separated and find themselves at different ends of the British Isles. This sets up the premise for the book; Edward must race, against time, from one end of Britain to the other for the sake of his family.

Unfortunately, Edward is an overweight, un-fit, sluggard who has had a lifelong aversion to healthy activities and in no fit state to undertake a run like this. But heteams up with a few others and they start their odyssey. During the run they meet number of people, both good and bad, and issues of trust and survival are discussed. The characters are well drawn, believable and, our heroes, are likeable. There is a great deal of the self-deprecating humour that is characteristic of the UK and Australia as Edward considers his failings and shortcomings as a man and, especially, as a husband and father. Some of these passages are ‘laugh out loud’ funny (as my wife trying to sleep will testify). Unfortunately,  I think this aspect of the humour was behind many of the poor reviews on Goodreads where reviewers found Edward unlikeable as he spends a great deal of the time considering his failings rather than ever blowing his own trumpet. I suppose that is possible that this particularly ‘blokeish’ humour may be off-putting to some, though I found it enjoyable.

It is when Edward, and the other characters, consider their difficulties and how they will face up to them that the meat of the story develops. They have to face adversity, learn responsibility, trust and endurance. These lessons are drawn by very human scenarios in extreme circumstances. The humanity of the characters makes these situations credible and make us empathise with the players and care what happens to them. These are frail people not heroes and it is easy to imagine yourself in their shoes. As a consequence this book rips along at a fast pace and even though it is lengthy (466 pages) I found that I read it in a few eager sittings. As the story neared its end and the conclusion drew into view I really didn’t want it to happen and could happily have read on.

This is an excellent holiday novel, one to pack for beside the pool. It is also an excellent choice as bedtime reading. Either way don’t expect it to last too long.

 

Whatever you call it – Autumn, Hydref, Herbst, Foghar, or Fall – it’s here!

I tend to agree with the Irish Meteorologial Office and think that Autumn (fómhar) has started. They follow the old gaelic tradition that Autumn is comprised of August, September and October. In Welsh the month of July is named Gorffennaf which is literally the end (gorffen) of summer (haf) and I have lived in Britain long enough to know that November is winter. So, however we dress it up, after July, and before November, is Autumn in my book. This, without any shadow of doubt, is my favourite season, the one which surpasses all the others. Summer is too hot, Winter is too cold and Spring is too busy. Autumn has that perfect mix of an ideal climate and productive nature. This is the season when rural life blossoms. Each village and small town will have its local Show where produce and craft can be displayed. Then, following these, the area’s social life will start to resume after the lull of the summer.

These last weeks have started to feel truly autumnal. The temperatures have dropped, the colours have started to change in IMG_20180816_111531.jpgthe trees and the produce following summer is everywhere. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the hedgerows. Dues to the long hot spell in summer the berries have done much better than usual and we will need to start collecting blackberries (Mwyar Duon). The hedges are heavy with berries and they have started to ripen. If we leave it too late we will lose out to the birds who always know when the berries are ready and get up earlier in the morning than we do.

We will have the grandchildren around to help us making the collection and this year there will be a larger educational component. Because of the hot summer the berries have done well. This also means that the honeysuckle berries are also prolific. The children will need to be taught IMG_20180816_112839.jpghow to tell them apart . Although they are not greatly poisonous, and one would have to eat heroic quantities to come to harm, they are toxic and can cause gastrointestinal upset if eaten. It will be a good lesson to explain that although things may be superficially similar that doesn’t mean they are equally good, or bad.

The blackberries are a welcome free crop and I anticipate a much larger store of jam this year than before. Our other free crop this year came in the form of honey. Our bait-hive attracted awp-1534427766814..jpg swarm of bees and after a relatively short sojourn there we found they had produced a reasonable stock of honey. This honey, though slightly cloudy, is very pleasant in taste and was a very welcome present from our new visitors. It is the season when the shelves in the pantry start filling up, getting ready for the start of winter.

One task that starts again at this time of year is the chipping of the goat yard. During the spring and summer the goats find plenty of material to eat while out browsing in the meadow.  On wet days, that we see during autumn and winter they are not keen on venturing far from the yard and the comfort of their sheds. Unlike sheep, goats do not have lanolin in their wool, and thus are much less tolerant of rainy weather. During this time when I have edging work to do on the fields I cut down the overhanging branches IMG_20180816_125755.jpgand feed them to the goats.  They then strip off every leaf, especially quickly when it is their favourite trees (oak, ash, willow and beech). I then cut the branches into staves or firewood depending on shape and size. The remainder is put through the chipper to create useful animal bedding. The bedding, once it has been mixed with animal urine and faeces and rotted down for a period, is then gradually added to the compost pile. Nothing is wasted if it can be avoided.

One other useful product of this process is the protection of my mental health. You can take all your “stress balls” and relaxation strategies and through them out of the window. If you have something on your mind, something or someone bugging you, or a problem you can’t solve then get out the Earthquake Woodchipper and fire her up. You will now be engulfed in a wall of angry woodchipping noise; if you want to mutter, grumble or swear no-one will hear a word you say. The pleasure there is in throwing branches down the chipper, to hear them splinter into a myriad of chippings, is difficult to describe. You can’t imagine who, and what, I have put through that chipper in my imagination! We are lucky we are still free to think what we like and there are no thought crimes (yet) or I’d be writing this from the computer in the prison library.

Even without its benefits for mental health I’d have to recommend this chipper. Electric chippers and shredders are always too weak and you end up spending more like clearing them than using them. As they say, if it hasn’t got the ability to take your arm off its not strong enough ! You need a petrol engined model. This one uses the four-stroke Briggs and Stratton engine and meets the most vital criterion for petrol driven appliances – it starts on the first pull! It is noisy but you could wear ear-protectors if this was an issue for you. The European version comes with some safety attachments absent on the American model (It is dangerous to put your arm down the cutting chute – who would have guessed?). I guess that Americans are recognised as being able to think unlike we Europeans who need to be protected from such dangerous activities.(*)

As is so often the case in life, the problems of physical and mental health sometimes have their solutions in the world of work and activity. In our steady march towards a world of leisure we might well be marching in the wrong direction.


Sorry about the quality of this video, it hard to work with a camera balanced in the rim of your hat.


 

 

(*) I have worries about these safety modifications. I found that the raised bin in the shredder, and other attachments, made the machine harder to use. Also as you spent time trying to bypass the difficulties caused by these safety additions you started to place yourself in danger while operating the machine. I am not sure that these modifications increase operator safety and fear they may even impair it.

 

 

 

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Eli i bob dolur yw amynedd

I came across this Welsh idiom this week while reading. ‘Eli i bob dolur yw amynedd roughly translates as Patience is the balm for all tribulations. Certainly, through most of my life I have found this to be largely true; with time and patience most, if not all,  problems and trials are able to be endured or overcome. The trick is to have the patience to deal with them. This is possibly the benefit of growing old.

When I was a young man I had a tendency to tackle all problems head on. I saw life as a series of challenges that I needed to face and overcome. In the main, this gung-ho approach served me fairly well for the more mundane problems in life. However, looking back I can also see that when I made bad decisions these were often made rashly. I will admit that caution and hesitancy may have lost me some opportunities but these are outweighed by the times caution and patience have let me do the right thing in times of major dilemmas.

The major religions tend to view patience as one of the main virtues in life, indeed, it is listed as one of the seven Virtues. In Christianity it is viewed as a gift from the Holy Spirit, Judaism likewise sees patience as one of the greatest personal traits people can display, in Islam patience (sabr) is one of the greatest virtues and necessary to become closer to God, and Bhuddism and Hinduism also extol patience as one of the essential virtues. The stoics also noted the importance of patience when dealing with life’s trials.

Unfortunately we not born patient. We are born impulsive, hungry, needy and rash. We need to learn to be patient which only comes by experience. As we meet problems we learn that initial quick fixes are often temporary and longer term strategies are often better. We learn that, even if we can not effect a change then life will do it for us. We learn, with experience the trust of the old Persian saying “This too shall pass“. With patience you are able to endure and wait until change, which you are impotent to effect, takes place. This kind of patience needs strength. It is often easier to rail against the fates and try to do something, anything, just in the hope that it will make a change. This pattern rarely works any more than chance and does have a high likelihood of changing the situation for the worse.

As a society we are less patient. We dislike waiting and “want it now“, we are less tolerant of others and often expect them to attend to our needs.  We want fast foods, quick fixes, instant delivery and instant gratification. This is a more childlike way of living and not a sign of growing maturity. Impatience my even, in part, contribute to our growing obesity crisis. As John Komlos from the University of Munich said in 2004 :-

“People have tried to look at a lot of reasons why Americans are getting so overweight. But nobody has thought about the idea of connecting it to impatience. .. .. If you are willing to forgo present satisfaction for future benefits, you are patient. If, however, you want your satisfaction right now, then you are going to have that extra dessert and that extra ice cream and you are not going to be able to forgo the pleasures of today.”

The Type A personality structure has, as one of its facets, impatience and it has long been known that there are a number of health disadvantages associated with the Type A personality cluster.

In relationships patience is the keystone. There will always be times when partners disappoint or annoy us. Loving someone is learning to understand these differences and living with them. Impatience will throw away a relationship early if it has not fulfilled immature demands which will lead for frequent, shorter relationships which will, by necessity, be less satisfying. Patience allows us to learn about each other; to decide if change is needed and, if so, who is best to change. Patience allows a relationship to grow and become deeper and stronger. New friends are excellent but nothing compares to old friends who have stuck with you, been patient of your foibles, and are our real social capital.

We can always be certain that we will face adversity. How we face adversity may be the thing which determines what kind of person we are. Leo Tolstoy recognized that when in battle “The strongest of all warriors is these two : Time and Patience”.  Patience is the greatest skill we have in our armoury. It is now waiting but how we act while we wait , how we manage to keep our composure and avoid rash and imprudent action. Even when all hope seems gone, patience and the knowledge that ‘this too shall pass’ may help us endure. Let’s hear it for patience another old-fashioned virtue that needs reclaimed.  Proclaim patience, it is the key to our success.

‘Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go’

William Feather

 

 

Viewer Discretion Advised

 

If I was looking for an artistic excuse for including this video I could claim it is my attempt at Slow TV. But really this is not the reason. The reason there is a video from a fat, elderly, bloke wheezing on a bicycle is because of the second reason I write this blog.

My first reason for writing the blog is to help me gather and clarify my thoughts. To force me to focus and try and form a view on current events and culture. I feel I need to ensure that I am not simply accepting ‘the party line’ and committing my thoughts to print forces me to look at them and assess whether they are sufficiently logical and formed to be published. Once I have stated them publicly I can assess whether people are horrified, nonplussed or in some degree of agreement. In some regards this function of the blog replaces the political debate I had when living in the city although any debates I recall were all conducted within narrow parameters of the political parties designated stances.

The second reason, and the one applying here, is to act as a diary for myself. I hope to look back, as on a journal, and see what I used to think and feel and either enjoy these memories or feel embarrassed by my naivety.  This video is firmly in this camp. At the moment, as part of my fitness routine, I cycle daily. I do varying numbers of a lap outside our farm. I am aware that in the future I may not be able to do this. No matter how good my exercise, age and infirmity will still come knocking, and I may no longer be able to cycle. This is now such a part of my routine I want to be able to remember it, hence this video. It is a lap taken on a grey, drizzly day and catches all my wheezing and panting so it is not a tidied up version of my routine. I think despite this I’ll still look back on it and think I was lucky to be able to do this each day, this mile or so of road gives me great pleasure.

I assure you there is nothing of interest in the video, no twist in the tail, no surprise event. It is quarter of an hour of pedalling through lanes, it is a quarter hour of your life you won’t get back so, if you watch, find where the fast forward button is located and use it liberally.

 

Turn, Turn, Turn.

It was really rather unsettling. The coincidence seemed too unlikely to be simply chance. I was clearing a path between the house and the lower meadow where the goats graze. To make the rather monotonous work a little more enjoyable I was wearing headphones and listening to a random mix of the music I stored on my phone. I was enjoying listening to old favourites and realising that, if I was not careful, I could be mistaken for an old hippy. As I worked in the dark undergrowth The Byrds’ version of “Turn, Turn, Turn” was chosen. This Pete Seager song is one of my favourites, it was on his “The Bitter and the Sweet” LP and this is perhaps why enjoy it so. It is bitter-sweet. There is a deep melancholy in the music, but it is balanced by equally strong feelings of hope. There must be death if we are going to be able to have births, like the seasons, life is a circle, and everything has its appropriate time. The lyrics are directly from the Bible and the only words Pete Seager added were the final “It’s not too late” and the three words “turn, turn, turn”.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Like many people I feel that the opening guitar work evokes thoughts of 1968 and the Summer of Love, Woodstock and the Hippy movement. But in addition, I always think of this as the farmer, or smallholders, song. I know that the guidance is suitable for everyone (we all need to know that our lives will change, that we will grow up, have children, grow old and then die) but I feel that it is resonates especially strongly with those who work on the land where these seasons are even more obvious.

So what was the coincidence that happened with this song that caught me unawares? Just after the song had started I was clearing below a very bushy aralia shrub. As I cleared the brambles and nettles a small clump of white caught my eye. It was a small patch of cyclamen, shining brightly now the sun could penetrate the gloom below the bushes. It was cyclamen, coum f. albissimum (Ashwood Snowflake) to be more precise, and its name should help explain the reason for my surprise. This cyclamen is named because of its white colour but also due to its flowering season. Usually this plant flowers in mid- to late-winter, from January to March. It really is not the right season to catch sight of its delicate flowers. Here was another reminder this year that we are clearly messing up our seasons. We have had heat and drought such as we have not seem for two generations, the hay crops have failed to grow as there has been inadequate rain (In North Wales!), insects which should have died in the winter survived through and plants that we never expect to flower in this region start to show their colours. I was aware we had some large spiky evergreens as they attacked me each day as I tried to get past them on the way to the greenhouse or chicken sheds. I was in two minds as to whether I should trim these or root them out. I knew the goats liked the leaves but could see no other reason to keep them, particularly as they regularly stabbed at my legs. Then suddenly this year, never seen in this garden for at least a generation, they suddenly bloomed revealing themselves as Adam’s Needle (Yucca Filamentosa). This is a plant that like a dry soil and open sun, things that should be scarce in this reason.

The song is correct; “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose”. Our agriculture and lives depend on this working together of the seasons and the knowledge of man. But now it seems we have potentially damaged our seasons and our usual skills can’t just be applied as before. When I saw this little white flower, peeking out 6 months early, and listening to The Byrds, the melancholy of the song was suddenly amplified. Perhaps it is too late, maybe we have damaged the gifts we were given, perhaps our season is drawing to a close. But, then again, perhaps, hopefully Pete Seager’s words will hold true :-

“It’s not too late.”


Monogamy through the eyes of chickens.

I have been feeling increasingly sorry for Emrys this last month or so. Emrys is our rather elderly Sussex cockerel and over recent times has started to look rather the worse for wear. He is the only cockerel we have who has a name as he was a gift from a neighbour and arrived named. My wife has continued to use the name since so he is quite unique amongst our poultry in having a name (Though I think secretly my wife has names for some of the ducks also. I sometimes call the stag turkey names, but these vary on how annoying he is and are not fit for printing). Emrys and his flock live at the front of the small holding and the other flocks of hens and their cockerel are spread as far apart as possible. This gives them space to roam and, initially at least, reduces the fighting.

As time passes, and as the birds get more adventurous and curious, the area around their base, that that they call home, gradually expands. A few months ago, Emrys’s flock’s area grew until it butted against the newest cockerel and his flock’s area. Cockerels do not mix and never make good neighbours. Most cockerels view any other cockerel as the spawn of the devil, even if it is their own offspring, and see their presence as a reason to fight. These fights are vicious, and can sometimes can be fatal to one of the birds, though usually they are short-lived, noisy, flashes of talons and beaks until one party retreats. Although often in these quick spats they can inflict serious damage on each other.

Emrys has been losing these fights. He has lost a

081218_1302_Monogamythr1.jpg
Emrys after losing again

lot of his plumage and carries some scars on his comb. Sometimes he is bloodied and hides away in the bushes. His nemesis, the other cockerel, steals his ladies during the day luring them away with promises of treats and food. I know there are dangers with anthropomorphism and I am not sure how much Emrys understands of his situation, I hope not too much, but it is very hard to not feel sad when you spy him, on his own, obviously just having lost a spat and watching his wives playing with the other group. But is does bring home to you the many positive advantages that we, as a species, have experienced but failed to arrive for chickens. When one looks into the eyes of a chicken, or regards their scaly legs and talons, it is very easy to see their relationship to the dinosaurs. Looking at them is like peering down the tunnel of the years to primitive times.

 

 

Chickens and other fowl are different to other birds. The vast majority of birds, about 90%, are monogamous. Some may just be monogamous for one breeding season, some for a series of seasons, and some species mate for life (famously swans, albatrosses, owls and eagles). It is generally assumed that the development of monogamy, in bird and other animals (including ourselves), was very valuable in ensuring the development of vulnerable offspring. Having both parents actively involved in the rearing of children helps their survival, this is especially important when the young are born immature and very vulnerable as with birds, and especially so with humans.

This monogamy helps young develop more safely. It also results in closer bonds between family members and is possibly the evolutionary driver to our human experience of love. If we are to mate and stay with one individual we need an extremely strong feeling of attraction which can outweigh the pressures of sexual attraction of other potential mates. Love of one partner to another, of a parent to a child, of a family member to another is the primary glue that allows us to join people together and create families and society. Although there is a current tendency to decry monogamy as traditional, old-fashioned and out-of-date most research concludes that monogamy is a valuable and core element of stable societies. A paper by Heinrich et al summarised thus :-

In suppressing intrasexual competition and reducing the size of the pool of unmarried men, normative monogamy reduces crime rates, including rape, murder, assault, robbery and fraud, as well as decreasing personal abuses. By assuaging the competition for younger brides, normative monogamy decreases (i) the spousal age gap, (ii) fertility, and (iii) gender inequality. By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, normative monogamy increases savings, child investment and economic productivity. By increasing the relatedness within households, normative monogamy reduces intra-household conflict, leading to lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death and homicide. These predictions are tested using converging lines of evidence from across the human sciences.

A recent review in The Economist explored the link between polygamy and war. Worrisomely it showed that in areas where polygyny was allowed, more than one woman per man, then violence and war were much more common. It also explored the reasons underpinning the breakdown of monogamy and the risks that this holds for society. Unfortunately as the Koran blesses polygyny there is considerable growth in the practice in Islamic areas. This does tend to act as a destabilising influence on society in these regions and, as the article discusses :–

Wherever it is widely practised, polygamy (specifically polygyny, the taking of multiple wives) destabilises society, largely because it is a form of inequality which creates an urgent distress in the hearts, and loins, of young men. If a rich man has a Lamborghini, that does not mean that a poor man has to walk, for the supply of cars is not fixed. By contrast, every time a rich man takes an extra wife, another poor man must remain single. If the richest and most powerful 10% of men have, say, four wives each, the bottom 30% of men cannot marry. Young men will take desperate measures to avoid this state.

This has lead to the finding that “Polygamous societies are bloodier, more likely to invade their neighbours and more prone to collapse than others are.” Although the research shows this I knew this already  from watching Emrys. He is unable to cooperate with his neighbours, he can’t develop friendships with others, his whole life is fighting, preparing for fighting and trying to subdue his harem. It unfortunately seems that if as a society we start to abandon monogamy we might start to live a bit more like Emrys, and, had Emrys the ability to think, he’d tell us this is not a good idea.

oznor
Hey Emrys ! Were these your wives ?

 

The anticipatory pleasure in waiting for marrows.

The anticipatory pleasure in waiting for marrows.

Harvesting marrows this week lead me to think on the importance of anticipation and deferred gratification. The ability of humans to think ahead and store foodstuffs, to enable them to cross through the lean months of winter, is one of the vital skills we developed in our evolution and possibly, in the opinion of Jordan Peterson,  the basis for our understanding of time itself.

“The discovery that gratification could be delayed was simultaneously the discovery of time and, with it, causality (at least the causal force of voluntary human action). Jordan Peterson. 12 Rules for Life.

The temptation would always be just to eat what we had at hand but our development as a species depended on learning that it was wiser to store foodstuffs for eating (or planting) later. Our overall happiness is much greater than the temporary happiness that we might get through a bout of gluttony. Even today this is an important skill. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment has shown that children who are able to wait and defer their gratification (one marshmallow now against two marshmallows if you wait 15 minutes) generally do better in life on a variety of fairly robust measures. Deferred gratification is the basis of most planning, it is why we save, it is perhaps why we don’t mate with the first attractive person we meet (That may be also be because they don’t want to mate with us). If we are as individuals, and as a species, to maximise our happiness it is important, in many things, to forgo the immediate short-term fun for the future prolonged pleasure which is often more satisfying.

However, in addition to this utilitarian advantage of delayed gratification there is another reason we should consider waiting and anticipating. This is really quite simple, anticipation itself can be part of the pleasure, Waiting with the knowledge of future reward can often give as much pleasure as the reward itself. People often wish to know how to get ‘happiness‘ as if it were a thing that could be found. It is much more likely that happiness is the process of creating a good life for ourselves rather than any single thing which brings us temporary pleasure. When we know our striving has been successful, and when we can imagine future success, then we are likely to consider ourselves happy. While I have no doubt want and poverty are the scourge of happiness, I also doubt that a farmer in Africa who tends his fields, sees his herd healthy, and knows his family is cared for feels one iota less happy than I do, despite the massive disparity of material wealth between us.  As Peterson again notes, happiness is to be found in the journey rather than being a destination.

“Perhaps happiness is always to be found in the journey uphill, and not in the fleeting sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak.”  Jordan Peterson, ibid

A great deal of pleasure is the anticipation, Through March and April I watched for the Elderflower to bloom knowing that once it arrived we would make Elderflower cordial and champagne. The following month I looked forward to the new potatoes. Last month I waited for the beans and courgettes and this month my wait for the marrows ended. I am now starting my wait for soft fruits and honey. On the small holding our dietary pleasures are seasonal and we have to watch and wait but this adds to the taste of the produce when it finally arrives. New potatoes just pulled out of the patch boiled and served with a knob of butter are a sensational, if plain, meal.  The wait I had, the work I put in, the anticipation I experienced, all magnify the taste meaning I will not find anything better in a restaurant no matter how good the chef.

Our supermarkets and farming systems have largely taken this pleasure away from us. There are really very few seasonal foods today. You want strawberries in winter ? no problem. Fresh tomatoes out of season ? likewise no problem. Not only can we have foods from all over the globe we can have them at any time. There is no need to wait or plan and, because of this, nothing is special. Industrial farming keeps our foodstuffs cheap but the hidden costs to our environment are not minor and nor are the costs to our dietary habits inconsequential. We, in the developed world, eat more and have diets Kings and Queens in the past would have envied, However, we can’t enjoy simple foods, as we did before,  and we need our foods spiced, coloured and made in exotic combinations  to pique our appetites. We are no longer happy with the novelty that used to follow seasonal foods. These changes in our diets have lead to us being unhealthier. The strategy of boosting foods’ sugar and fat ingredients and increasing portion sizes, to titillate our jaded palates,  has lead to worrisome statistics; for example, in Wales more people are overweight and obese than are of normal weight.

marrow

I have found that by trying to live in accord with the local seasons I do get more pleasure from my food. This is why, difficult as it may be to believe, I found myself looking forward to the marrow crop. However, there is a possible downside to this. When the seasons decide that the time has come there is no arguing with them. It all comes at once and dealing with gluts of fruit or vegetables is a skill that has be acquired. Next month chutney making will be to the fore in dealing with the excess number of tomatoes I hope we have. This month it is marrows. Not just a lot of marrows but very large marrows as well. Faced with these huge tubers I don’t think the local populace has enough appetite for chutneys and jams to cope, so we needed to be more creative. Thankfully marrows are versatile and can be used for both sweat and savoury recipes. Today’s way of dealing with half a marrow used both recipes, I hope you enjoy them.

Marrow & Bean Soup

  • Cut 1kg of marrow into chunks and season with rosemary. Place in a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil. Roast for 30 – 40 minutes until the marrow is soft.
  • Boil runner, any other, bean in 2 pints of stock. Add a generous teaspoon of cumin,
  • Add the roast marrow to bean and stock mixture and simmer for 10 minutes
  • Blend with a mixer and thicken with cream

This recipe gives a very filling soup, it is easily a meal on its own with some crusty bread. It freezes well which is helpful, as it is a warm hearty soup better suited for autumn and winter.

Marrow Cake

  • Beat 3 large eggs and add 400g sugar, 250ml vegetable oil, and two teaspoons of vanilla
  • Gradually mix in 350g plain flour, 300g grated marrow, 3 teaspoons baking power, 2 teaspoons cinnamon and 2 teaspoons of nutmeg. Stir fully
  • Place the mixture in two greased loaf tins and bake in an oven at 170c for 45 minutes.

These are best buttered when still warm and are like a very moist banana loaf. If you slice these loaves they will also freeze, though to be honest they are so pleasant that they are unlikely to last long enough to see the inside of the freezer.

nfd

 

 

 

 

The Circle by Dave Eggars

The Circle by Dave Eggars

Like many people recently I had been concerned about my growing dependency on social media. It reminded me of may days when I was hooked on cigarettes and a heavy regular smoker. The first thing I did every morning, before anything else, was to smoke my first cigarette and cough. Now the first thing I do, before coffee or anything else, is to check my phone for email or messages.  In the past I used to notice myself checking my pockets to make sure I hadn’t misplaced my packet of cigarettes, now I do the same patting my pockets dance to make sure I haven’t accidentally strayed away from my mobile phone. Before I used to worry about running out of cigarettes and always made sure that I had enough until the next time I’d be at the shops. Now I have the anxiety of battery life and the need to make sure that the phone has enough battery power to take it to the next charger.

When I was a smoker I used to joke that the only place I didn’t smoke (though not for want of trying) was in the bath – with wet hands the cigarettes get soggy and fall apart ! Now with a waterproof phone (IP68) I don’t have this excuse and had noticed occasional times reading an article while having a soak. I realised I needed to break this habit and took what I thought were the appropriate steps. I stopped using Facebook and other social media systems; stopped carrying my phone with me when I went out to work; and read my articles and book on paper rather than as digital editions (Note that paperbacks and reading in the bath  don’t always mix happily as my very thick and curly edition of ‘Brave New World’ will testify).

However, I have been less successful than I thought I would be and the path has been harder than anticipated. Though I didn’t miss Facebook at all I discovered that some of my voluntary work depended on it : the village hall needed it Facebook page to publicise its activities and coordinate bookings,  likewise the Community First Responders used social media for the educational activities and rotas. I also discovered that the main function of my mobile phone was not as a phone (There is rarely any reception outside where I stay) but as a camera. When out and discovering an animal unwell a photograph can sometimes help a neighbour or vet give good advice. So my phone started to creep back into my working trousers. The last hurdle was cost, the various messaging systems are much cheaper than the telephone for keeping in touch with my dispersed family and, as a voracious reader, eBooks are considerably cheaper than their 3D counterparts. Although I have managed to cut down my usage and  recover many hours worth of wasted time I  have realised just how embedded is the new technology in our modern lives. Therefore when I came across this novel about the influence on social media and information technology on our lives my interest was piqued. I bought the kindle version and started to read it as an eBook conscious of the possible irony.

I suppose this book is best described as piece of The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)dystopian science fiction. Often science fiction concerns future worlds and it through such novels we can consider what the future may hold for us. This novel does, indeed, consider a dangerous and unpleasant future but it is not about a time many years from now, rather it is seen as the result of choices we need to be making right now.

The story reads as a thriller following the history of Mae who secures a post in the world’s leading technology company. There are nods to all the major players in the current digital environment but the company, The Circle, is clearly based on Google even down to the level of the logo.. As Mae progresses in the company she becomes increasingly aware of the new developments in data acquisition and usage. The immediate benefits of these programmes and systems lures Mae and the public into using them and she, and they, ignore the increasing concerns about the influences these have on personal privacy and the body politic. These dangers are laid out very clearly in the book, perhaps a bit heavy handedly, and the book is a pacey race to see if the baddies can be headed off at the pass. I won’t spoil it and reveal which ending the novel takes.

This is an easy read, the characters verge a little on the stereotypical but they are real enough to keep your interest and attention. The dangers of the loss of privacy, and the growing control of opinion, which can result from a monopoly  provider of digital services are described in such a manner as to be readily believable, many are recognisable as already having occurred. Like all dystopian novels the dangers are presented but there are no clues as to how to prevent them. However, as a holiday read, something to take to the poolside, this is warmly recommended, especially as the paperback version.

 

 

What are you for ?

What are you for ?

Sometimes it is simple things which encourage the deepest contemplation within us. Last night I went walking while my wife took the larger of the two dogs to their dog training class. As I walked around the town I was struck by the similarity of it to the many towns I recalled from Scotland, before our relocation to Wales. This similarity brought home to me what they meant by the “flyover country“. Although this term was initially American in origin it is equally applicable to swathes of the United Kingdom. The name relates to patches of the country, on which people might look down through their aeroplane window, as they fly from one major city to another, and are areas of the country of which they have no real knowledge.

The central belt of Scotland, where I grew up, and north Wales, where I now live, have very many towns like this. In Scotland they had grown around the pit-head while in Wales they grow around the slate quarries. The only reason these towns were where they were, often in the middle of beautiful countryside, was the natural resources buried under the ground. In Wales it was the slate and gold, in Scotland the coal and iron. I grew up in these coal mining towns and remember them fondly. They were, during my childhood, vibrant communities buzzing with industry. The towns had everything one needed to live well. The town centres had shops, banks, schools and churches. Professional services of doctors, dentists, veterinarians and lawyers were all available. The society was boosted by the presence of churches and chapels and communal life improved by the working men’s and miners’ institutes which did so much to improve the communal life of the area.

During my working life I had watched these towns in Scotland die and had mistakenly thought it was a localised problem; a facet of the death of the UK coal industry. However, as I walked around the ghost town, while my wife was at her class, I realised that this town was exactly the same as the ones I had left, and also the same as towns I visit in northern England when we visit our son and his family. It is not one industry that has fallen, it is all heavy industry that has gone. I had personally seen the effects of the death of coal, now I watch the effects locally of the death of the slate industry, and on my travels it is the death of the steel industry, or ship or car building. Whatever the industry the effects are always the same.

These towns are sad reminders of our industrial past. Often a government money has been used to try and use the scars of heavy industry as exhibits for a new heritage industry. As I walked around there were signs describing the powerhouse that previously had been here and old pieces of heavy machinery were pressed into service as art for the benefit of tourists who rarely call. The shop fronts were mostly empty, a mini-market or corner shop might survive but all the banks have closed. There are no drapers, butchers, bakers, or ironmongers. The only shop fronts lit at night on the high street are the fast food take-aways; there are no restaurants and very few pubs. During the day it is left to the charity and second-hand shops to try and give a semblance of commerce in the main street. The only professionals still represented on the high street are the funeral directors as people continue to die. The working men’s clubs and churches are derelict or, if lucky, pressed into service as storage units. If one looks up at the door-frames and lintels, if one looks closely at the heavy stone architecture, you can still see the buildings that once stood imposing and grand. These buildings designed to stand proud as symbols of permanence and importance look especially depressing. It is hard not to think of the proud lady descended into harlotry when one looks at the marble and granite frontage of the building society now framing the take-away for kebabs and chips.

However, the most striking similarity between this old slate town, and the deserted coal towns I knew, was the change in the population. Those able to work, the young and the fit, have moved to find it. The elderly are left behind as are the disabled and ill. As one walks around the time the levels of disability are visibly high. If your income is limited to welfare benefits then there is less cause to move, indeed as a cruel twist of fate it is possible that collapsed property prices and lower rental rates may make your staying in the town make economic sense. The poor are hindered in leaving by the disparity in property values which mean they can not either sell their property, or afford higher rents, and move to where there may be work. The streets of cheap property and vacant houses also acts as an attraction for others who are less economically able to move into the area.

One has the feeling, as one meets people, as if everyone is in limbo, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the old times to return or waiting for the young people who left to come back with news of plans for a better future. There are no signs of faith or optimism. We have exported our wage poverty to Asia. People there now work for low pay doing the work of heavy industry in the factories or mines. But that doesn’t mean we have seen the end of poverty. While there is plenty of food diets are poor and unhealthy with an epidemic of diabetes coming in its wake. Likewise, while there is plenty of “entertainment”, with round the clock television and internet, but it is rarely uplifting or improving. There is plenty of medication, both prescribed and self-organised, but still the rates of depression and anxiety continue to rise. We have inherited a poverty of the spirit. No amount of fast food, video games, nor reality television will plug the hole left by having no job. No amount of opiates, or other psychotropics, will remove the feelings which arise from having no purpose in life. People often talked of the dignity of labour and its importance is now becoming horribly clear – this type of ‘life of leisure’ will suck people down into despair and depression.

Agriculture in these areas no longer provides the levels of employment needed to support these towns. The raison d’ếtre of these towns has now gone and can’t easily be replaced by other industries. The new light industries and digital economy thrives best in cities where the mass of people and connections help them grow. These towns need to find a way to return to being villages with the quality of life that can offer its inhabitants The hardship faced by people living through this change needs to be understood. Ignoring their worries about unemployment, the destruction of their communities and their dislike of damaging cultural change needs to be recognised. If we fail to do so then these towns, which make up a large fraction of our population, will be easy targets for extremists peddling glib and easy answers.

I don’t know what the answers are. How do we restructure our economy ? How do we regain optimism and faith in the future? How do we support communities which thrive and prosper? But I do know what is the major questions we must face : “How do we ensure people have purpose in life ?” Our pleasures and material needs are important, but above these we all need to feel that there is something we must do, otherwise what are we for?

Here you go Timmy – an Iguana !

Here you go Timmy – an Iguana !

Words change their meaning over time and there is nothing we can do about it. We can’t stop it and we shouldn’t try. The original meaning of prevent was simply to come (vene) before (pre) something,  a synonym for precede,  as in “I prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried.” (Psalm 119:147). The word no longer has this meaning except in that it carried the idea of something preceding a potential event and stopping it. To use the archaic meaning today  could cause problems, what would the police make of the statement “I prevented the burglar entering the house” ? I doubt it would help communication. Words change their meanings and we adapt and use them appropriately.

However, it is important to know that these changes are taking place as sometimes they also signify a significant change in society as well as vocabulary. I though of this while watching television adverts for potato products. Adverts about families are very keen to stress that “families come in all shapes and sizes” and that the old idea of mother-father-children is archaic and redundant. I wondered if this was true. It is true that dogs come in all shapes and sizes (from chiwawas to great danes) as do cats and other types of animal.  But what is it that makes a dog a dog and and  a cat a cat ? Are they all just animals and it is unimportant ? Will Timmy, with his heart set on a puppy for Christmas, be over the moon with his Iguana – animals come in all shapes and sizes ?

What is it in a family, whatever form it takes, that makes it a family ? Why are a group of workmates not a family ? Why is my estranged brother still family even  though I don’t see him ? Why is my best friend, who I see daily and has supported me through thick and thin, not my family ? I think there are two factors.

Firstly there is the biological relationship.  We are genetically linked to our family. My brother and cousins share a genetic closeness with me that others do not. The same applies to family trees in animals. Two dogs, no matter how different, are more alike that a dog and a cat no matter how superficially similar. This relationship by blood is very important. I watch on the farm as animals maintain their family groups for life despite the hurdles that are put in their way. Humans are no different, and the maternal and paternal bonds are the most obvious sign of this blood relationship. The feelings of parents for children are very special and lead to very special behaviours which nurture and protect children as they grow. It is one of the core values of the family both to the individual child and to our society. This blood relationship is half of the answer, but only half.

Parents are not blood related, this would be a very bad idea. Their linkage is purely personal and social. It is a choice commonly described as based on ‘love’. But what makes this bond any different to any other ? I think there are clues in two common sayings. Firstly we believe “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family” and secondly we often hear crime syndicates, such as the mafia, described as the family because “nobody leaves the family”. I think the second bond that makes families different is that the bonds are binding and life-long. Once you enter into this relationship it is difficult, or impossible, to leave. I have my suspicions that this enduring closeness, this living together through good times and bad, is actually what creates love. Attraction brings people together, love develops when we travel through life with a companion, when we share our life with another person.

This combination of blood relationships and life-long commitments have been a boon to humans, and other animals, in creating stable social structures in which to grow offspring. It is true that today we feel we have evolved beyond the need for these traditional structures  but the evidence would not tend to support this belief. Our statements that families ‘come in all shapes and sizes’ is more a statement of hope that the way we live now is as effective as the old family based on consanguinity and permanent relationships. Time will tell.

Family now has a new meaning as a ‘collection of people who elect, for the time being, to live together in some arrangement’. We should be aware of this when we use the term today, as we can no longer make the presumptions we formerly did. Family no longer means we can presume constancy, the presence of parental love, the likelihood of altruistic behaviour, and so on. It is a word so diminished of meaning as to have little value (though it does help sell chips on television adverts), it might mean mum, dad and the kids or it might mean two dads and no kids or a kid with two mums and one dad. It starts to be able to include a dog, or a cat, a budgie or an iguana. Not only is it not helpful it might also impair communication as people think it still has its archaic meaning. They may make unwarranted assumptions based on their past associations of the word ‘family’.

Let’s leave family to its new meaning and try and find a new term for the families animals, and increasingly fewer humans, live within. A word to describe a unit formed for the duration of the life of the members, usually in order to  bear and nurture children. Perhaps another archaic word could be brought out of retirement and pressed into service, what about either of ‘kith and kin’ ?