If I hide here then the coronavirus will never find me.

If I hide here then the coronavirus will never find me.

The first of the four horsemen of the apocalypse was the crowned rider on the white horse bringing pestilence. Now that we have our very own modern ‘crowned’ pestilence in the form of the coronavirus many feel afraid and think that we may be living in the end of days. As we spend our lives locked in our houses watching the news report the grim daily body count of the dead it is difficult not to think “How will this end? Will I get coronavirus? Will I die?”

I don’t know the answers to the first two questions but I do know the answer to the third. The answer, as it always has been, is “Yes; you will die”. I don’t know if it will be through Covid19 or in some freak blender accident but I know it will happen.

This assurance is the only true thing we know. We all know that in the end we all die. Indeed throughout our development as a species it has been the prospect of our death that has guided us. Religious beliefs have looked at this and allowed us to use death to put our lives in context. Religions have helped us live while always and everywhere we are in the presence of death. Our awareness of our death is the defining point of our life – we have to ensure we set our house in order before we shuffle off our mortal coils.

I fear that over the past few generations, in our increasingly secular society, we have lost our familiarity with death. In the UK most deaths no longer occur at home but now most people die in forms of care; hospitals or nursing homes. We now don’t have a connection with our fate. Death is something that happens to other people, something that happens to people far away in the hospice, people far away much older than me.

I noticed when watching an advert on television for life assurance just how distanced we have become. This was one of the many adverts urging the elderly to buy a policy to pay for their funeral costs to spare their family the expense. In this an older man narrates that “if the worst happens I know my family are covered”.  Why ‘if‘ rather than the correct ‘when‘? If we can’t even think of death when making an advert for funeral costs we are in a sorry state. These are life assurance policies as we are assured that death will eventually occur.

But in these times of plague this inability to consider death is causing problems. People feel that they should not die. They think if they spend enough money, eat enough healthy food, take enough exercise or pay enough taxes then they should be alright. There is a feeling that death is avoidable if we know what to do. This has lead to our rather wishful and juvenile planning regarding the lockdown.

The function of the lockdown was to “flatten the curve”, to slow the rate of infection progression so that our health care systems would not be overloaded – so that we would have unavoidable and unnecessary deaths due to lack of medical provision. It was never a lockdown to stop the virus in its tracks, it was always known that when it was eased (barring miracles) we would again have to face the virus. But hopefully, by then, we would have prepared adequately so that our health systems were ready and that we had started behaving in ways that would mitigate the virus’s spread.

It was never the plan that we would hunker down and wait for the cavalry in the form of a vaccine or treatment. Even if these occur it is not likely we will see them in the next few years and the personal and social costs of lockdown for this period of time could be even worse then the virus itself. It is inevitable that if no one is producing then a time when no one is consuming must follow. We in the developed West can’t hope that the poor abroad will continue to take the risks to attend fields and stock simply to fill our food supply chains. We should recall that, after the crowned horseman of pestilence came the next three riders- poverty, war and hell – the deaths through poverty and famine could be every bit as horrendous .

No matter how frightened we are, and I’ll admit to a fair degree of fear, we have to find ways to live alongside coronavirus, to find ways of living in the knowledge that there are things that may, at any time, kill us. It will force us to change our behaviour – saving expectantly all year to be packed into a sealed petrie dish and flown across the world (breathing the air recycled through lungs of your 200 fellow passengers) for your two week holiday may no longer seem a great way to live. Many of the long supply chains we have grown to rely upon may start to look like ever present risks. Being more self-reliant in food production, or having strong social care services, may now seem much more important priorities than lower taxes or cheaper costs when we make our political decisions.

There are many things we can do to learn how to cope with the new future. My only real fear is that is we continue with this plan of hiding until it goes away we will miss the opportunities to deal with it. My real fear is that we might ‘return to normal‘ and then we will have to restart the battle all over again.

Early Birds

I feel rather like the early bird who has caught the worm. Last month I had noticed that out chickens were behaving strangely. Or rather more strangely than usual. In early January, and still in deep winter in anybody’s book, they had started laying heavily. They were supplying eggs much faster than we could use them and clearly though that the spring had arrived. They had started to create clutches and shown signs of going broody. This was an easy mistake for them to make as we had very mild temperatures and nothing really wintry at all.

This posed a dilemma. I had to decide in January whether I should put some of these eggs into the incubator for hatching. However, although I knew the hens thought spring had sprung I did not know if the cockerels had been infused with the vernal spirit and had sprung into action. If not, if the cockerels had correctly thought “This is still winter”, then I might be trying to hatch a clutch of unfertilised eggs. Not anticipating any miracle I decided to put a batch on and see what happened.

I needn’t have worried. The chickens determine the mating it seems. Cockerels don’t give a fig what time of year it is and they’ll happily mate all year round as the progeny above confirm. This is another unsettling sign that our seasons and are changing. It is not without consequence as I now have chickens born while the ground outside is better suited to building snowmen than scratching for food. I’ll need to rear these chicks indoors under a lamp for a considerable period before I can let them out. Let us hope they prosper despite the inopportune timing of their entry to the smallholding

 

More appropriate seasonal activity

A plague o’ both your houses.

Democracy has many problems as the old story of the lamb and two wolves voting on what to have for supper clearly illustrates. However, as Winston Churchill opined ” democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried“. Democratic systems are probably the only way that mankind can live in reasonable harmony and in stable and fair communities. However, for democracy to work a few basic principles need to be observed.

The democratic process needs to be inclusive, so that no-one and their opinion is excluded. It needs to equitable; each person’s vote must carry the same weight are every other persons. There should be a secret ballot so that there is no possibility that others can coerce the voter’s decision, and the democratic unit should be small enough that every vote does count and the system avoids, as far as is possible, the risks of the tyranny of the majority. Finally, the executive of the state must act in accordance of the democratic decisions, it can not pick and chose amongst the outcomes which it agrees with and which it will effect.

Britain’s system had in the main held to these principles and could lay a reasonable claim to the title of “the mother of all parliaments” but over recent times this seems a much less apt description.

I am not simply talking about the reneging on the results of the EU referendum, which three years after the vote has still not been enacted in any form whatsoever, but also of the recent shambles in the house of commons when the constitutional safeguards that we normally relied upon have been sorely, and perhaps fatally, tested.

Firstly we had Boris Johnson attempting to prorogue parliament in such a way as to reduce the amount of time for discussion and scrutiny in the House of Commons. There is also a strong suspicion that he lied when he described the reasons and processes behind this.

Secondly we had John Bercow, the speaker of the house, shamefacedly ignoring the traditions of neutrality of the speaker and being vocally and proudly partial. While this might be seen as useful to some MPs at the moment, as it suits their long-game, we may strongly regret tolerating this precedent in the future when less benign options are being processed.

Thirdly we have our opposition parties trying to avoid an election. Some, like the liberals, have a sizeable component of MP’s who never stood under the banner of the party they now purport to represent. To these parties it is more important to overturn Brexit than it is to even know public opinion, let alone follow it. They clearly think the public has made a mistake and want to correct it but are fearful that the public might not yet have got onboard with the message. Their priority is their agenda, it is not working in agreement with the outcome of a democratic process.

It reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Die Lösung (The Solution)

Die Lösung

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By increased work quotas.

Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Bertolt Brecht 1953

Even if the opposition parties do get around to thinking they should put a democratic veneer on this charade we will still have problems. A second referendum violates the basic democratic principle of “one person – one vote” – they are saying “those of you who voted last time don’t count we want the vote of a new populace“, as Brecht suggests.

When we do this once we can do it again, and we are damaging faith in democracy itself. If the state starts to ignore democratic decisions then the whole basis of democracy is undermined. There has been precious little regard for our political leaders over recent years, it seems there soon will be even less. Why vote when your vote may not count or the system is so rigged that change is not forthcoming ? I think none of the main parties can expect to see their popular base growing and I would be very surprised if we didn’t continue to see populist parties, on the left and the right, who listen to the public (or at least pretend to) growing in strength. The blame for this can squarely be placed at the doors of the existing parties. To misquote Shakespeare :-

A plague on all your houses.

A small change

A while back I realised that I was buying a certain daily newspaper solely because I liked the crossword. Over the years I have found the paper’s editorial stance had grown to annoy me but I stubbornly paid out 6 days a week just for the crossword despite this. I decided that this did not make economic sense and opted to buy a book of crosswords every few weeks and to vary the newspaper I bought so that I might get a broader ranger of opinions.

This plan worked regarding the reading material. I was surprised to find very good writers and journalists in papers and magazines I had not previously considered buying. But the plan did not work as an alternate source of crosswords.

I like to unwind at the end of a day with a crossword. This has to be difficult enough to challenge and take time but not so difficult as to frustrate and defeat. An aspect of doing crosswords is that repeated attempts means one learns the author’s clues and tricks. As I was a gadfly, flitting from paper to paper, I never learnt any one author’s style and could not enjoy a relaxing half hour with any one paper’s crossword.

This problem was confounded by the level of crosswords in the crossword magazines – these quickly become too easy, as one quickly means the rules, and then lose their appeal.

However, I found a way to circumvent this problem. As I was sitting doing a puzzle I noticed that I filled the grid in using block capitals. I have always done so and limited enquiries suggest others do the same. On a whim I decided to change to using lowercase, non-capitalized, letters. Instantly the problems became significantly harder – what s once irritatingly simple was now satisfyingly challenging.

I am sure that this will only be a temporary solution but it does work at the moment. I suggest you try it as a simple and free solution to crossword ennui. Don’t be constrained by block capitals surprise yourself with an exciting excursion into lower case.

Dwy frân ddu, lwc dda i mi.

Dwy frân ddu, lwc dda i mi.

Dwy frân ddu, lwc dda i mi or Two Black Crows good luck for me was the idiom in the diary this morning. I lead me to think about the diversity of bird imagery in folklore and also how it differs in different national cultures. This latter aspect has become important for me as I now live, rather hesitantly, bilingually and the symbolic significance of birds, or other animals, in one language may be very different in the other. Birds have quite different connotations in English and Welsh.

Crows, with their association with carrion, are often related to death and bad omens in English cultures. Early cultures would have soon learnt that where there is death there are crows. This is also seen in Norse mythology where these birds are seen as a bad omen of death and doom. Although Odin’s ravens were also messengers of information. In Scotland the “Corbie” (the Scots word for the crow derived from the latin corvus) was associated with the hag Cailleach who feasted on dead mens’ bodies. In Irish folklore Morrighan the goddess of war was often present on the battlefield in this bird’s form. The collective nouns, in English also reveal this negative set, being ‘an unkindness of ravens‘ and ‘a murder of crows’.

However, as the motto above suggests, in Welsh the crow and raven have had much better publicists. The early king, Brân the Blessed, was associated with his namesake the crow (Crow is Brân in Welsh) . When he died he ordered that his head be cut off, and kept, so he could continue his gift of prophesy and protect Britain. His head is said it is buried under the Tower ot London and is the reason the ravens are there. The prophesy states, if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London then Brân‘s protection will be lost, and for this reason the ravens wings are clipped – just to be sure.

This complex mythology about the crow is shared with another bird of this genus – the magpie. In both cases to see one is unlucky while seeing a pair is lucky. The ‘rule’ for crows is

Two crows mean good luck ,
Three means health,
Four means wealth,
Five is sickness,
Six mean death.

and this is reminiscent of the old tale for magpies where the earliest version was :-

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral,
Four for birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven for the devil, his own self

The owl likewise if very different. In most English speaking cultures the owl receives a good press. Its wisdom and sagacity are stressed and it is usually a positive figure in any folk tale. Most people think that seeing an owl is associated with good luck. However, in Wales, and in older English stories, the owl has a much darker meaning and an owl passing the window of a sick person was held to presage imminent death.

The owl plays an important part in Welsh mythology particularly in the story of Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogi. In the last book of the Mabinogi the hero, Lleu Llaw Gyffes , was under a spell so that he could never have a human wife. To get around this problem his magicians created a wife for him :-

from..” the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they conjured up the fairest and most beautiful maiden anyone had ever seen. And they baptized her in the way that they did at that time, and named her Blodeuwedd. “

Unfortunately, despite her beauty, Blodeuwedd behaves very badly cheating on her husband and conspiring to kill him. As punishment she is turned into an owl, the bird that is hated by all other birds :-

‘You will not dare to show your face ever again in the light of day ever again, and that will be because of enmity between you and all other birds. It will be in their nature to harass you and despise you wherever they find you. And you will not lose your name – that will always be “Bloddeuwedd”‘

adding

‘Blodeuwedd” means “owl” in the language of today. And it is because of that there is hostility between birds and owls, and the owl is still known as Blodeuwedd.” ‘

You may not consider these mythological differences important but sometimes they can make a difference. Just as the French may compliment their partner by calling her their ‘petit chou it is unlikely that I will garner the same success by calling my partner a ‘small cabbage’ no matter how fond of cabbage I may be. So while you might feel on safe ground choosing a bird loved the world over, for example the dove, it is not as simple as this. In Welsh an old dove (Hen glomen) is the term for someone who may dress finely outside but keeps a dirty house at home ( Gwraig sy’n ymwisgo’n wych, ond yn slwt yn ei thŷ). It may also be better that I don’t even translate another old bird as it is too rude for WordPress. If I were to venture that somebody was an ‘old pigeon’ I could just have well used the word for a female dog as my description – best avoided.

If you live between two languages it is best not to imagine that you can simply translate your affections from one tongue to the other. This may mean a little more learning but does mean you will have more words of affection (and abuse) at your disposal.

How Much Is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky

How Much Is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky

“How much is enough?”  is a deceptively simple question and one which appears easy to answer. It is also a perennial and vital question as many of our actions, as individuals or as societies, have as their intention either the reduction of want (when there is not enough) or the control of waste and excess (when there is more than enough). However, as this book reveals, it is quite clear that currently we really have little idea of “How much is enough?”

The book is written by father and son academics how-much-is-enough-skidelsky(in Economics and Philosophy respectively) and, in part takes as its starting point the 1930 essay by John Maynard Keynes “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. In this essay Keynes believed that by 2030 capitalism would be hugely successful at generating wealth (which has been the case) and much more productive, requiring less labour, so we would all have much more leisure (which has not been the case). Indeed, as our wealth has increased so has our workload; it appears now that as we have more we also want more. We seem to have become an insatiable society and our wants no longer have limits.

“The question is: why do people who ‘have everything’ always seem to want more?”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 34). Penguin Books Ltd.

Some of this is due to the modern functioning of capitalism which valorises growth over all things. Growth and increasing consumption are the motors which drive our development. We assess our needs and wants ‘relatively’, that is, we determine our needs and desires on the basis of comparison with others. Our happiness and status arise from our position in relation to others, meaning that we will never feel we have enough and also meaning we will never feel truly happy.

 

“It is not just that we want more but that we want more than others, who at the same time want more than us; this fuels an endless race.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. viii). Penguin Books Ltd.

“The American combination of social equality and income inequality has since become the capitalist norm, leading to a situation in which every member of society is in a sense competing against every other.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 40). Penguin Books Ltd.

In an interesting chapter they discuss the types of good which will often keep this spiral of increasing consumption moving. They discuss “bandwagon goods“, these are goods that people want as everybody has them (e.g. Mobile phones, microwaves). Envy and social conformity drive the desire for them. Then there are “snob goods“, these are goods that most people do not have (e.g. exotic holidays, cult films). Here the desire is to stand out from the crowd. Often successful snob goods will change to become bandwagon goods. Then there are “Velben goods“, these are goods which are expensive and known to be expensive (e.g. Rolex watches, Apple watches). These goods act as advertisements of the owner’s wealth.

These trends to the constant amassing of wealth might not be a concern if we knew what to do with our wealth. If our wealth allowed us to live a “good life“, then it would clearly be a boon. If we knew what was a “good life”, then we would know when we had what we required to live it. In essence, we would know “how much is enough ?” We seem unable to agree on what constitutes “the good life” therefore we continue to want and seek more wealth without thinking ‘what is this for?” It leads into the danger of loving money and wealth rather than what they provide.

All the ancient civilizations and all the main religions warned against the “love of money”. It was felt to corrupt the individual and also all of their actions; from Aristotle to Adam Smith greed and the love of money were major problems which endangered society. In prior times, until our present increasingly secular society, religion could act as a counterbalance to capitalism’s drives – the fears of being thought a sinner through avarice or gluttony, coupled with the need to display charity, may have tempered some of the excess.

 

“Money is the one thing of which there is never enough, for the simple reason that the concept ‘enough’ has no logical application to it. There is perfect health and happiness, but there is no perfect wealth.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 75). Penguin Books Ltd.

The old civilizations of Europe, India and China all shared a basically Aristotelian outlook, even if it was not drawn from Aristotle. All viewed commerce as properly subordinate to politics and contemplation, while at the same time recognizing and fearing its capacity to subdue these other activities to its own end. All regarded the love of money for its own sake as an aberration. Such agreement between three great and largely independent cultures ought to give us pause.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 86). Penguin Books Ltd.

Unfortunately the brakes, that these older views may have given, are now off. Our consumption and growth continue ever upward. There is no doubt that this has pulled millions out of poverty and destitution and that there are areas of the world that still need development. However, developed countries are witnessing increased personal harm from this continued greed – alcohol deaths, drug death, obesity deaths all have increased as have prescriptions for antidepressants and anxiolytics – our affluence is not continuing to buy happiness. Further, our continued consumption and production of waste now threatens the very existence of our habitat and our species. If this book prompts more people to consider “How much is enough?” it will have served a very valuable purpose.

4-out-of-5-stars


“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith”
Proverbs 15:17

 

In praise of gleaning.

In praise of gleaning.

I can remember often uttering phrases such as “from what I can glean” or “I glean that the management had plans to close the unit“. All these times I spoke about gleaning I never actually did any gleaning, and was unaware of the origins of the verb, until recently. Today, however, I, and my wife, were mainly occupied in gleaning.

Gleaning is the action of collecting leftover crops from fields when either the form of collection, e.g. mechanization, or the quality of residual produce, make it uneconomic to collect 100% of the harvest.

img_20190714_1523295730818865932081512.jpg
An overnight bag of hay for the goats.

Today we gleaned our neighbour’s field for some hay. His cutters and balers do not work into every corner of the field and there is plenty of good quality hay which goes to waste because it can not be gathered mechanically. When we collect it by hand we save on our feed bills for the goats and our neighbour benefits, marginally, by having a tidier field. By gleaning after the main harvest we increase the productivity of the field to closer to its maximum.

The practice of gleaning has a long history and is discussed in the Hebrew Bible where it was seen a right for the poor – only the poor were allowed to glean, not the rich landowner, when the crop was taken the remainder was to be left for the gleaners. It was in 1788 that the right to glean in England was removed (to secure property rights), prior to this often a church bell would toll morning and night to let the poor of a village know when it was right to glean the harvested fields.

As it increases the efficiency of the harvest by reducing waste we need to promote gleaning but it need not be as physically demanding as our day raking the loose hay in the fields. The developing action of giving unsold food in supermarkets to the poor is a modern form of gleaning, as are the trends to gather and use the “ugly” fruit and vegetables that can’t be sold in the normal trade. At its extreme “dumpster foraging” is a form of gleaning as it saves some of the harvest from being lost.

It is shameful that we waste up to 40% of the food we harvest. We need to try to tackle this problem. In America the Society of Saint Andrew is the largest gleaning organization, here in the UK it is The Gleaning Network. Excuse the dreadful pun, but I’d urge you to try and glean as much information as you can about this and see if there are opportunities for you to take part in this activity.

 

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings.
Deuteronomy 24:19