Monthly Archives: June 2018

Liquidscape Workshop text: (Luci Gorell Barnes & Iain Biggs)

Today Luci and I ran a workshop for art.earth’s liquidscapes conference at Dartington. A number of participants asked us to make the text we stared with available, so here it is. 

 

 

The artist Joyce Lyon suggests that thinking about place is a way to explore many kinds of knowing: one’s own direct experience and its limitations, what can be intuited, what is possible to learn at a distance and what can’t, finally, be understood.Rivers and streams, of course, are particular kinds of place.

Herman Hesse writes in Siddharthathat: “the river taught him how to listen – how to listen with a quiet heart and a waiting soul …”. He’s right, listening to flowing water can remind us to listen to the world. Listen, perhaps, to a poet, a political geographer and a Greek philosopher – who tell us that: “where we live in the world is never one place. …”, that “… space” is “a simultaneity of stories-so-far”, and that “everything changes and nothing stands still”. What these three say can be unsettling, of course. It’s easier to lose oneself in the hypnotic flow, the running, restless energy of water that chimes with our assumptions about needing to ‘keep busy’, ‘move on’, ‘go somewhere’, all the assumptions that drive our increasingly frantic lives.

I feel ‘at home’ in upland landscapes with their young, energetic rivers, their fast-flowing streams, burns, and tarns. At home in that typeof landscape rather than a particular region like Dartmoor, central west Wales, Cumbria, or the Scottish Highlands. Why I feel ‘at home’ there, despite living in Bristol for most of the year, may have to do with that type of landscape being an important part of my childhood. Like playing in streams. There’s something special about playing in flowing water, something that perhaps relates to Herman Hesse’s sense that:

“The river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea …”

But over time I’ve learned that these landscapes are also home to another kind of liquid-scape. Uplands are full of bogs, mires or mosses. I spend time each year in County Durham and the bogs, mires and mosses closest to my heart are on the English / Scottish Borders.  A 2006 report – “A Borders Wetland Vison” – compiled for the Scottish Borders Counciltells me there are eleven distinct types of wetland in the region, but such neat definitions trouble me. Firstly, because one of the most important qualities of wetlands is their ‘wildness’ in the poet Don McKay’s sense. That is, their ability: “to elude the mind’s appropriations”; to subvert our neat categories and definitions. Secondly, in practice it’s often the ambiguities of human activity in the landscape that makes a nonsense of our own neat categories.

Anyway, as I’ve got older, streams have become less important to me, bogs and mires more so. I can come up with all sorts of reasons for this. My children are grown up so I’m less inclined to play in streams. I’m more aware of environmental reasons for valuing mosses and bogs – their role in water retention, flood control, carbon capture and maintaining biodiversity. They are home to rare plants – Bearberry, Dwarf birch, Bilberry and Cowberry, Sundews and Sphagnum mosses – and, on the borders, support rare local invertebrates – the large heath butterfly, the bog bush cricket, and the mire pill beetle, not to mention a whole host of more common insects. Unlike streams, mires and mosses don’t chatter and sparkle, they tend to be quiet, even near-silent, out-of-the-way places. The older I get, the more I feel at home in such places. Recently I’ve been trying to work out why.

I think it’s connected to their being sedentary places, to the specific reveries they encourage. Reveries fed by quiet, slow, downward-oriented processes that, in blanket bog, result in the patient accumulation of layer upon layer of peat that’s central to carbon capture. This slow layering is a flow of a kind, but one that takes place in slow motion, gradually preserving a unique and irreplaceable archive of plant and animal remains. It archives time as a deposit, allowing us to trace the changing historical patterns of vegetation, climate, and land use. Walking in bogs, mires and mosses also invites patient attention to small-scale, undramatic, shifts of scale and emphasis, prompts us to notice what might otherwise be overlooked. For the most part these are worlds of small, gradual, unspectacular happenings and low-key changes that echo the regular, often overlooked, sedimentations of our daily life; the mundane, taken-for-granted silt in which more dramatic events are embedded like bog oak in peat.

This sedimentation process prompts me to take a different view of my own aging process. It encourages me to think about the slow, imperceptible processes by which we do or don’t participate in how social memory and values are laid down and compressed to become cultural norms. Processes which, in turn, invite me to consider my attitudes to death and dissolution, to preservation and metamorphosis. Pondering the slow worlds of bogs, mires and mosses might also help us question some of the presuppositions and preoccupations that underpin our increasing toxic culture of possessive individualism.

The almost invisible downward flow of water sinking into bogscan offer us an equivalent, in experiential, environmental terms, to what in Medieval Christian culture called the Art of Dying, one example of the socially-sanctioned contemplation of death that occurs in most traditional cultures. There’s nothing morbid about this. We live in a culture that projects the inevitability of change out onto technology. This distracts us from the need to face our own bodily changes, our physical death, dissolution and eventual metamorphosis back into the fundamental elements of air, earth, and water. Mosses and mires seem to me ideal places to contemplate these things as part of the slow and necessary continuum of life.

There’s even something oddly reassuring about these places of continual and necessary vegetative death and decay. A process that captures and holds toxins, that helps ensure that there is adequate clean air and water for the continuance of life, human and otherwise. They are suggestive in terms of human social ecologies, evoking our involvement in the slow, often messy, processes of day-to-day social sedimentation and metamorphosis. Processes that involve our bodily being and our shared ideas, memories, and feelings and, in time, lay down their own rich equivalent of peat. That is, lay down the psychic resources, the social sediment, that provides intellectual fuel, psychic warmth through narrative continuity, and emotional nourishment for other possible futures.

I think we need to review the value we give to the slow downward flow that characterises the marginal, watery, ‘betwixt and between-ness’ of bogs, mires and mosses. Traditionally these places carried negative social associations, like John Bunyon’s Slough of Despond in Pilgrim’s Progress. The central character in the old Borders ballad Long Lankin“lives in the moss” – that is, he’s a social outsider, living in awet, dirty, unstable, messy, overlooked, and marginal place. But what if we see Long Lankin’s moss as everything overlooked by a book like Robert MacFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind– with its emphasis on mountains as: ‘a world entirely apart, an upper realm’. Attending to the slow and inexorable downward flow of water at the heart of bogs, mosses and mires, invites a sense of coming-together, confluence, down-to-earth connectedness. This is the counterweight to MacFarlane’s exalted notion of the climber as special, apart, as ascending to a higher realm. Mires and mosses speak to inclusivityrather than exclusivity. They ground us in an acceptance of common mutability, metamorphosis, flowing together; resist the desire to ascend the mountain as an act of transcendent separateness. They take us to the ancient Taoist realm of the Po-soul, the soul that, at death, takes its energy back down into the earth.

In her book Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs and Human Imagination, Barbara Hurd writes:

To love a swamp … is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, that shoulders its way out of the mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised. And sometimes its invisibility is a blessing. Swamps and bogs are places of transition and wild growth, breeding grounds, experimental labs where organisms and ideas have the luxury of being out of the spotlight …”

These muted margins are not places outside the flow of human history. In The Bogs of Ireland: an introduction to the natural, cultural and industrial heritage of Irish peatlands, John Feehan and Grace O’Donovan write:

The bogs are never still. They evolve and change, and their development has always been intimately influenced by human action. Bogs are a stage in the development of landscape, a response to topography, changing climate and other natural influences. The human community is also art of the bog, and the direction it has taken at different periods of history and prehistory has been to a considerable extent determined by cultural influences.”

 

Maybe we need bogs and swamps not just because of the vital role they play in terms of the cycles of water retention, purification, carbon capture and biodiversity on which the well-being of all living beings ultimately depends, but also for psychic well-being. As a significant counter to our mind’s tendency to locate itself heroically in a pure ‘elsewhere’, in ‘a world entirely apart, an upper realm’. Whether that’s up a mountain or in the elevated realm of religious dogma or academic High Theory. A tendency that, in turn, can all-too-easily feed the fundamentalisms and the other exclusive tendencies that so plague our times.

I’m suggesting that bogs, mires and mosses are a physical palimpsest of slow change, with each layer both grounded on and modified by the one beneath it. If we could map the way that these places change over time we’d have to start with a geological map that represented them at the end of the last ice age. Then, using tracing paper, we’d have to draw over that to represent what had changed over, say, each thousand-year period. By the time we’d drawn twelve overlays, the original map might be virtually invisible but, like the genetic make-up we inherit from our parents, it would still to some extend determine aspects of our last overlay.

In this workshop, our focus will be on the ‘muted and marginal’ within ourselves.We will begin by drawing a map on which we will locate significant places from our own childhoods. Our maps will value what is subtle and slight, because the experiences we have are often not stories as such, but more like little floating particles, memory fragments of people, events and places, lodged in our memories like photographic slides. We will pay particular attention to our relationship with water in these landscapes, be they streams, ponds, bogs, oceans or puddles, and we will use water imagery to focus on the ‘slow flow’ of sedimentationin our lives, and how and what ‘deposits’ we have laid down over time.

We will add layers to our maps to represent what we see as particularly significant moments for us. As we work, early layers may start to be obscured by subsequent ones – sink to the bottom of our memory pool if you like – and we focus on willexploring what needs to be brought forward and what can be allowed to recede. Using sheets of tracing paper, we will draw, write, erase, rewrite, cut holes, tear and add images, making adjustments to create a cartographic account of the flow that we are in relation to place.

 

We will consider our personal experiences of place, how we have written our individual landscapes and how they have written us. We will seek to deepen our understanding who we were in those places, how we have named both them and ourselves within them. We will take time to share these thoughts with one another to see where we diverge and overlap, and to prompt deeper reflections about how our identity has been formed in the land and liquidscapes we dwell in.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 23, 24 & 25.

Plantation, late winter (sketch)

Only now the thaw’s well advanced can I allow myself to remember that mid-winter walk.

The plantation track, March 2004.

I climbed the last length of the hill road and arrived at the short stretch of road that runs under the southern lea of the plantation, my lungs seemingly full of ice. Until I reached the lea there was only the driving snow and the road beneath my feet. Everything else was invisible. Then suddenly there were a series of dramatic aural discontinuities and transformations that meant I almost stopped looking where I was going. My resistance to the wind’s hold on my inner ear was disrupted by an acute silence that cuts off sound like the blow of an axe. In that momentary vacuum, before the sound of the wind, my footfalls and breathing returned, I knew just how punched out by the unrelenting wind my hearing had become. I stepped into the relative shelter of a big Sitka spruce, becoming part of the dramatic monochromatic patterning of trunk, branch, and snow as a momentary shift in the cloud bathed everything in bright sunlight. All around the tree tops still roared, a shaking, raging sea. Then the cloud closed in again and the light vanished.

Foolishly, I allowed the tracks of a hare to lure me off the road and into a broken, snow-covered clearing between the little self-seeded trees that fringe the entrance to the plantation and the wood itself. I followed the increasingly hesitant tracks despite sensing that my body had been losing heat since I had broken the steady rhythm of my walking. The tracks disappeared as suddenly as they had started. A mystery, deep among the sheltering trees, where the air was somehow still and crystalline, despite the wind roaring above. The flare of light off snow had undone the usual look of things, a brief ecstatic moment of disorientation that quickly turned to fear. What I believed was the beginning of the path that would lead me out to the road was in fact a narrowing cul-de-sac. I also knew that I was dangerously cold, and, retracing my steps, I left the trees’ siren shelter for the road. Somewhere in the wind’s orchestration I detected notes of mocking laughter.

 I lost the high hill’s fearful soundscape as soon as I turned onto the bridle path back down towards the valley. Part-sheltered by the drystone wall from the driven snow, I could see the track’s uneven surface cross cut with long ruts that regularly expanded into half-frozen pools running almost wall-to-wall. Jumping from stone to sodden tuft to mud bank failed to carry me forward fast enough to restore my body heat. I took to scrambling along the wall’s protruding lower stones to avoid the chill and the chance of my boots filling with icy water. My feet and legs ached.

I lost the fear that came with the fading of the hare’s tracks when my attention contracted against the wind chill and I focused on maintaining momentum for warmth, allowing my feet to find their own way. My momentum was only broken twice. When a four-wheel bike passed me, the driver seemingly unaware of my presence, and left the sourness of diesel in the air long after its snarl was lost to the wind. The second time, when a cock pheasant exploded into the air from under my feet.

Only at track’s end could I look up and around again, allow the larger soundscape to flood back in.

Patternings

After Sarah collected me from the Borders General Hospitalafter my first discharge, I re-read Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Out of Exile’? If you don’t know it, it takes as a starting-point a drive through the Borders towns. I’ve always responded to its honesty and the range of our experiences it acknowledges; to its ‘shadow foxes running in the sky’and her recognition of our ‘inventing things as they might have been’. Perhaps remembering my own experience of being a child at the door, ‘with bags and coats, telling stories, laughing, coming home.’ I badly needed to assure myself that I wasn’t doing what she warns against in my writing; simply inventing things as they might have been. But, of course, that assurance is impossible. I can only continue as best I can, keeping my ears and eyes open.

My first clear memory of being here in the valley is of going with Kate, Hamish, Mike, and Cat one Saturday in late July to find the others, who were helping with the hay at the Grahams’. I felt very shy because they all knew what to do and I didn’t. I was even frightened of riding on top of the bales, something I loved doing later. Dot Graham made space for me in the tractor cab next to one-eyed Meg and asked me to watch for cars at the gates. It was my first experience of a now familiar smell: that mix of diesel, dung, oil, old dog, hay, rubber boots, and sweat. I became happy just as soon as I felt necessary, and perhaps it was then that I started to absorb lessons about the relationship between shared work and community.

I know I had meet and spoken with Mrs Purvis the day before, as she was ending one of her particularly nasty exchanges with poor Anthony at the post office. But the less said about it the better, since it earned me her undying disapproval. I must have blocked it out of my memory almost as soon as it happened. I was still recovering from it that Saturday. It makes me shudder even now.

I woke up on another Saturday, about four months later during that first year, just knowing something had changed in the night. I’m now so familiar with the muffling of sound and change of light from sudden overnight snowfalls that I take them for granted. But that first time I was transported. I looked out over the snowcovered fields from the end of my bed, wrapped in bedcloths and my old quilt, knowing that to watch, from a warm bedroom, that vast white world coming to life in the morning light was to know I was both safe and loved. I could happily have sat there all day but if I hadn’t needed to pee.

When to face the cold and pee was a constant preoccupation on winter mornings. I always put off leaving my bed until the very last moment and then, desparate, jumped up, shoved my feet into woolly slippers, and rushed next door. (If it was really cold I wore my socks in bed and skipped the slippers). Knowing Dad would be downstairs I didn’t bother with the door, slid over the linolium, pulled down my pajamas and squatted just above the icy plastic seat. The sight of our old linolium still brings back a sense of that intense relief and the oddly sweet smell of my own urine.

My bladder empty, I would run the hot tap and have a ‘quick lick’ – how quick depended on the temperature. Then a dash back to my room to struggle into whatever clothes came to hand, while exposing as little of myself as possible to the air. Dressed, I’d drag a brush through my hair, find a hair band, shove my feet into shoes and, without lacing them up, clatter down the stairs into the kitchen.

I remember some things so vividly, yet much of my childhood hovers at the edge of memory like the faint smell of Dad’s liver, bacon and onions in the kitchen curtains. That elusiveness disconcerts me, particularly when I can’t place an event. It leaves me uneasy, although why I don’t exactly know.

I fell in love with the rooks and their attendent jackdaws simply by looking out of my bedroom window that autumn. I would gradually become fascinated by all the birds, but they were my favourates. I particularly liked those that lived by the water; the busy dippers, mallard, and pied wagtails that swam and hunted along our stretch of riverside, and the tall gray herons that rose ghostly silent through the morning mist if disturbed. But above all I loved the rooks. Morning after morning I would watch their ragged emiscaries cross from the rookery behind the graveyard and fly their sorties out across the fields. I loved both their noisy gegariousness, their tattered black forms buffeted by winds that, in winter, carried long plumes of dry powdery snow up off the tops of the dry-stone walls and towards them high into the air. I’d even risk the cold to open my curtains in anticipation of their arrival and, while I waited, listen to the house waking up.

First the floorboards would creak gently as the electric booster warmed the pipes, then the various noises that meant Dad was up and, before long, would be in the bathroom. But before that happened the first rooks would already be in the air.

It’s possible that my fascination with following the rooks’ regular voyaging while in the bath somehow led to my becoming fascinated with the idea of baths as boats, of a bath/boat/bodily little voyaging world all of its own. One that could at a pinch be shared with another body, as when I would occasionally share a bath with Cat, but essentially a solitary warm space in which to voyage whereever I wished in imagination. Or, of course, a boat/coffin, a possibility that only came to me after we did the vikings at school. Because of that childhood fascination I’ve always kept an eye out for re-cycled baths, particually those that hint at viking ship burials.

Summer holiday mornings were, of course, quite different from winter ones. I’d be up very early and into the day, usually without bothering to dress. Dad would come downstairs to find me sprawling on the big hooky-proddy rug, either reading or drawing and still in my nightie with, as he’d say, my ‘thin bits’ sticking out in all directions. (In winter I wore thick striped boy’s pygamas and  sometimes kept my vest, pants and socks on for extra warmth, particularly during weeks when condensation left wonderful patternings of ice seemingly etched into the inside of the window each morning.) Not in summer, when Dad always half-heartedly protested about my lack of sense and decency.

‘Put some proper clothes on that scrawnly little hide of yours, daftie. And for goodness sake do something about that bird’s nest too.’ (Referring to my frequently uncombed hair.)

Until I reached publity we had a daily summer holiday ritual. Usually I’d jump up as soon as Dad reached the bottom stair, stick out my tongue, and scamper up past him, knowing that if I was too slow I’d get a playful smack on my bottom. But if he looked tired or worried I’d stay put and wait until he came over, before asking him for a hug. Then he’d scoop me up, hug me for a moment or two, ask how his ‘daft skinny little lass’ was and, before I could answer, give me a kiss on my cheek that always turned into a wet raspberry. Then he’d unceremoniously dump me back on the floor and send me up to dress. I liked that he could so easily lift me off the ground, his bear-like hug, his newly shaved smell, and the familiar feel of the hot wet raspberry on my cheek. So I was sad that, when I got to be ‘a young lady’ (his euphemism for puberty), he gave up on the rough and tumble closeness we’d had before. I sensed this distance was the price I paid for my little half lemon breasts and the shadow of hair starting to appear down below, which only added to my general confusion about it all.

Perhaps that’s why my pre-pubescent self and her shadowy look-alike brother still lurk among the night-people who visit me?

Poor Dad. He tried so hard with me after Mum died, in his funny, slightly gruff and sometimes absent-minded way. He took good care of me, made sure Mrs Oliver or my Aunt Claire dealt with things he didn’t feel able to, listened fairly patiently to my endless prattling and, when I was still a child, giving me the cuddles I needed whenever I asked for them. He even did his best to kept Mrs Purvis’ encroachments on my fierce sense of personal dignity to a minimum. But my reaching puberty was somehow just too much for him. As a wiry, androgynous little tomboy, my ‘girl bits’ didn’t come between us and I believe he treated me much as he would have a son, although perhaps with more tenderness. But when his little stick-insect daughter started to develop a proper bum and a chest that could no longer pass for an ironing board, not to mention all the related complications, he went into slow retreat. I think now that my changes meant I reminded him just a little too much of Mum, since Aunt Clare always said I was her spitting image. That must have made things hard for him in ways no twelve-year-old girl could possibly imagine.

Perhaps that’s why he was happy for me to spend so much time at Homehaugh. I knew deep down that he loved me just as he’s always done, but the shift in our relationship was unsettling. Sometimes when I was doing school work, drawing, or darning socks, this one of many tasks Mrs Purvis did for Dad but flatly refused to do for me,he’d stand behind me, gently kiss the top of my head, and then give my hair a playful little muss. ‘Goodness pet, you’re growing up so fast’ he’d always say, with just a hint of sadness. But, apart from that and a bedtime peck on the cheek, there was no longer the physical closeness between us there’d been before. No morning bearhugs, no more of the playful smacks on my bottom that I’d always rather enjoyed, and none of the mock fights over nothing that always ended up with him tickling me until I squealed for mercy.

 

I could not have begun to say that what I was missing was something physical, bodily, given that it involved Dad and my growing sense of being a girl. But it was around that time that I started having little shoving matches with Hamish. I probably needed that physical contact to get a proper sense of myself, of where I ‘stopped’ and ‘started’ as this person who was not just ‘me as I’d always been’ but, more and more, also this new person: ‘me as a young lady’. Of course I talked to Lizzy, Kate, Cat and Patsy about this, particularly Kate and Cat. But all that talk was quite different from what my body mysteriously learned from its initial tentative contact through those little push and shove holiday sessions with Hamish.

 ‘Love’ and other puzzles

 In those days of whirlwind changes  in my feelings, the non-human world was often much easier to deal with than the human one. Most people, most of the time, just tended to confuse me, even the ones I would have said I loved, like Dad.

I knew without a shadow of doubt that I loved our rooks, something I felt particularly keenly in winter and early spring when I was most aware of them. And I felt much the same about next-door’s cat, Minnie, and the stocky little black pony with one white ankle, Charlie, who I rode as often as I was allowed. I think I also knew this love was far from unconditional. The only demands the non-humans might make on me were of the simplest, most immediate, kind. The rooks, like the roe deer and rabbits, simply needed my attention, my noticing them. The rooks, of course, also needed an audience, someone to hear their numeros and varied exchanges and admire their airial gymnastics, or so I firmly belived. Minnie and Charlie needed to be stroked or patted, given immediate, physical attention which, each in their own way, they returned simply and directly. I also loved them because I could imagine something of what it must be like to be them, something I found much more difficult with adults.

Since I had regular and extraordinarily vivid dreams of flying as a child, it was simple enough to imagine feeling the wind under my sleek black wings, to imagine twisting, gliding and flapping out over the fields with my companions. It was equally easy to sense cantering round the field shaking your mane when there was too little wind to keep the flys off. (I did something very similar when the midges were bad.) Or sitting on one of the big flat stones that topped a wall warmed by the sun and methodically lick myself clean all over, as Minnie did. I used to think how I could so easily have been a rook, a small tabby cat with one broken ear, or a stocky little black pony.

Roe doe in a field near Chesters.

Rabbit on a wall, Morebattle.

Loving people was, by comparison, much more complicated. Even Dad expected me to behave in ways that had little or nothing to do with what was actually happening that moment. Instead of going on doing whatever I was doing, people always expected me to second-guess what they wanted. That usually involved breaking off some important imagining to do things I didn’t want to do. But in the late spring and early summer of the year I turned thirteen there was much to distract me from my resentment and confusion.

The whole mysterious panoply of the non-human world seemed particularly vivid and beautiful that spring. At sunrise there’d be dew-bejewelled cobwebs festooned with points of trembling light as the breeze tugged at them. These would throw the faintest dots of light onto the bathroom wallpaper with its scattering of unfeasably crimson pomegranites contained within a barely visible decorative grid. Outside there would be rabbits on the back lawn, patient ewes and their lambs with legs like pipe-cleaners, maybe a resplendent cock pheasent or, later in the year, a clutch of black cows with their sloe-eyed calves as suppliment to my usual pleasure in the rooks. This kaleidoscopic world, which tugged my senses out beyond the human, all seemed to hang together in some unfathomable way, a coherent patterning of innumerable connections. It was my attempting to share something of this that started Hamish and I on becoming more than simply friends.

Now, of course, I recognise the difficulties of this child-like, kaleidoscopic sense of love for the world, something I have to weigh in the balance against what I know of the world as a citizen. That process of weighing-up is complicated further because there’s a certain, not always wholly separable, childishness that the valley also perpetuates, or so it seems to me, something that I think keeps people like Lizzy from seeing this world straight.

But my need to engage with that balancing act was still far in the future when my little cottage bedroom was still the certain centre of an expanding world.

 

Make the connections.

Chris Packham is not popular with those who enjoy the privilege of owning the land that allows them to indulge in ‘hunting, shooting, and fishing’. Not popular because he has drawn attention to the fact that, for example, they all-too-often ignore, or encourage their employees to ignore, the laws that protect the raptors they regard as vermin. He will probably be less popular still now he has warned that the UK is increasingly becoming “a green and unpleasant land” that’s heading towards “an ecological apocalypse”. Quite rightly, he is worried by the fact that designated nature reserves are becoming a distraction that blinds people to the necessary business of addressing the catastrophic depletion of wildlife in the countryside, with all that follows on from this.

I am sure there are people who, while perhaps upset by these issues, see them as secondary to the fact that, yesterday, the Guardian newspaper drew attention on its front page to the National Audit Office’s damning report on the Tory Government’s Universal Credit System, a costly and deeply inhuman measure that has already caused a great deal of very real and entirely unnecessary human suffering. (Significantly, it’s trail-run has been conducted in some of the poorest areas of the country). This system is, let’s be clear, one of the Government’s flagship mechanisms for ‘weaponizing’ State bureaucracy in the pursuit of ‘austerity’, effectively a war on the poor, chronically sick, and the poorly-off elderly. Like so much of ‘austerity’ thinking, is simply a smokescreen for refusing to address the obscene gap between the super-rich and the poor in our society by legislating for social justice and raising taxation.

Today, although admittedly not on the front page, the same newspaper draws attention to Sir Christopher Robert Chope, the MP for Christchurch in Dorset, who has recently blocked the passage of a private member’s bill that would have made ‘upskirting’ a specific offence. (Despite the fact that he apparently was unsure what ‘upskirting’ actually involved). On the same day, he and another member of the Government forced a delay to the final debate on a bill designed to improve oversight of the use of force in mental health units, which suggest he regards both women and those with mental health issues as equally unworthy of legislative protection.

Chope is, among other things,  a private landlord, so it is no doubt natural in his eyes that he should have contributed to the democratic process by filibustered a bill intended to make revenge evictions by landlords an offence. Additionally he has furthered the course of democracy by calling for the abolition of the minimum wage, blocking a bill to protect poor countries from “vulture funds”, helping host a meeting of climate-science sceptics at Westminster, voting against same-sex marriage, objecting to the second reading of the Alan Turing (Statutory Pardon) Bill, lobbying for the reintroduction of capital punishment and conscription, promoting the privatizing the BBC, calling for the banning the burka in public, and voting against the Equal Pay (Transparency) Bill. He is, it goes without saying, a keen supporter of Brexit.

His other claim to fame came during the parliamentary expenses scandal, when it was revealed that he had claimed £136,992 in parliamentary expenses in 2007/08, included one for £881 to repair a sofa. This neatly demonstrated the same commitment to furthering the common good as his eleventh-hour long objection to the Hillsborough debate taking place because he believed a debate about MPs’ pensions was more important.

For these and other outstanding services, the present Government saw fit to have Chope appointed a Knight Bachelor in the 2018 New Year Honours list. The Establishment is, after all, nothing if not loyal to its own.

I stress this last point because it is all too easy to focus on the man himself, forgetting that he was an elected Tory MP from 1983 -1992 and again from 1997 to the present time. In short, repugnant as his mindset and actions may be to a great many of us, they are clearly approved of by the majority in a constituency that keeps electing him. One largely made up not of the Establishment itself, but those who aspire to its values, that lives in coastal retirement havens, prosperous suburbs, and a town now surrounded by dedicated sheltered housing. One with the highest proportion of over-60s of all UK constituencies.

In short, the news items I’ve referred to have far more in common than we might initially assume. They indicate the power of a Tory party supported by the wealthier part of an ageing population, that elevates socially conservative, reactionary, traditionalist, and right-wing figures like Chope and Jacob Rees-Mogg. A (large) faction of the party that is in thrall to those born into wealth and privilege and are ardent supporters and beneficiaries of the capitalist system at its most excessive and destructive. (Chope has worked as a consultant with Ernst and Young and supported “vulture funds” that exploit the people and natural resources of the poorest nations, while Rees-Mogg co-founded a hedge fund management business, leaving him and his wife with an estimated fortune of over £100 million, including a second home in London worth £5.625 million).

This group of influential Tory voters, many of whom will be members of the National Trust, English Heritage, and similar organisations that claim to protect the British landscape, appear to take heart from the fact that the men they admire, and so elect to represent them, live in a world entirely insulated from that inhabited by those people who are subject to the injustices of the Universal Credit System. (In 2017 Rees-Mogg boasted in an interview that he had never pretended “to be a modern man at all, ever”, including admitting that he had never changed a nappy because: “I don’t think nanny would approve because I’m sure she’d think I wouldn’t do it properly”).

These are the same men who are desperate to take the UK out of Europe at any cost in the name of ‘national sovereignty’. A desire that largely boils down to promoting an isolationism that will enable them to increase their own wealth and power and that of the social elite to which they belong. The same elite that is so critical of Chris Packham for drawing attention to the hypocrisy of their claims to be ‘guardians’ of all that is best about Britain, including its countryside and wildlife. The elite that supports and funds a Tory party that has put Michael Gove, a man who tried to have climate change removed from the geography curriculum as Education Secretary, in charge of the Ministry for the Environment.

We really do need to start making, and acting on, these connections if we want to avoid descending into a socio-ecological apocalypse far more wide-reaching than that indicated by Chris Packham.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 21 and 22

Another Lizzy

‘What’s that about my life?’ Lizzy came unsteadily into the kitchen as her mother was speaking, wrapped in the new red quilted dressing gown Sarah and I had given her for Christmas.

‘We’ve been talking about men, pet. I was just saying …’ Lizzy grunted angrily. ‘Oh, fucking great.’ My stomach knotted. Lizzy only swears when she’s been seized by the sudden bouts of anguished rage that have dogged her since Peter died. She thumped down onto a chair and, glaring at the tabletop, tugged at a strand of hair. ‘Faun been playing the Elfin Queen again?’ (Our private term for casual sex).

‘Pet, she was just …’

‘Christ, mummy! Faun can speak for herself. What were you saying Faun?’ I repeated that I’d wished that, like her, I’d settled on one man when I was young and stuck with him.

‘Oh, instead of fucking half the art students in London?’ I said nothing. Lizzy knew I’d had a couple of brief affairs before Quentin. I’d hardly been promiscuous, but then she had always been something of a prude.

‘Christ, you think Peter and I were a fairy story with an unhappy ending. You’ve no idea, Faun, not a clue’.

Mrs. Oliver, now visibly upset, knew better than to intervene. Like the Ancient Mariner, Lizzy needs an audience and, having chosen one, insists on full attention. If you stay quiet and listen she’ll rant and lament and then, tearful and exhausted, sleep for hours. If not, she gets violent and starts breaking things. I was just thankful Sarah was staying over after the party because she finds her mum’s outbursts unbearable

‘You  think Peter and I …? Oh for fuck’s sake, Faun …’

Her mother stood up a little unsteadily and left the room. Lizzy then spent the best part of two hours filling me in, with far more candour than I would ever have expected, about aspects of her life about which I indeed knew almost nothing.

 

A Blackbird

The girls of the ‘Oliver menagery’, including Lizzy it now seems, had always assumed she and Peter would eventually marry. But by the time she started university he was all but absent from her life. When she’d ring him in York he was largely monosylabic, clearly deeply preoccupied with his family’s problems. His answers to her letters consisted of a few scribbled lines. After a while she gave up, desperate to concentrate on her studies and assuming he’d get back in touch when things at home had settled down. So in a relatively short time she went from being at the heart of a group of friends to barely socializing at all. Initially, because she was preoccupied with working and trying to reestablish her relationship with Peter, then because she turned in on herself, consumed by a toxic mixture of unhappiness, anger and self-doubt.

Her assumption that, after college, she and Peter would get engaged, marry, and in time live on the Reed estate, now seemed presumptious to a degree that appalled her. There had never been any explicit understanding between them. She’d just somehow presumed that signs of affection on his part, a quick hug or peck on the cheek on all the usual occasions, were a prelude to all that. Now she neither knew where she stood with him, nor what she herself really wanted. She was too furious to talk with Kate, who she blamed for triggering Peter’s family situation, and didn’t want to discuss it all with her mother. She’d also started to obsess about something James had once said when she, Kate, and the twins were arguing about what to wear to a posh fancy-dress party the Easter before we were all caught drinking. (‘Posh’ being my tern for anything the rest of us were not invited to). He’d proposed they go as their fairytale selves and they’d all asked him what he meant.

‘Lizzy always does the right thing. She’s our parochial equivalent of the beautiful and virtuous princess. Go as that. Kate is the mischivous fairy who gets everyone into trouble, of course.’ Kate threw a magazine at him and asked about the boys. ‘Dad’s taken to introducing Peter to his shooting crowd as his ‘son and heir’, so he’s obviously the Prince who’ll inherit a kingdom. He’d better go as that. Which means I’m the younger son who has to go out into the world to seek his fortune. So, rags and a stick with a bundle in a spotted handkirchief for me. Or I suppose, if the younger son is lazy and cunning like me, he might just steal the virtuous princess from under his briother the Prince’s nose  and live happily ever after off her father’s land!’

It had all been smilingly said, in the usual half-joking, half-mocking way James used to wind people up and that Lizzy usually ignored. But she had a bit of a soft spot for him and he’d smiled so warmly at her as he spoke that, despite knowing it was all nonsense, she’d been touched by his calling her beautiful (something James had never done), and a little flattered by his proposal to steal her away. And now, because of all that had happened since, those feelings returned to trouble her.

Then by a stroke of ill-luck a student, whose demeanour and self-confidence reminded her a lot of James, transferred into her seminar group and quickly become the centre of attention among its largely female attendees. Lizzy, troubled by his similarities to James, studiously avoided him. He quickly noticed this and took it as a challenge, going out of his way to greet and flirt with her whenever they met. She started to feel haunted by James’ doppelgänger. She had always told herself that she was angry about Kate’s sexual adventure with James because of its consequences. Now she began to realise that, at some level, she was also furiously jealous of her sister. She’d always rather liked James and Kate had had carnal knowledge of him, something she could barely admit to herself that she too might have wanted. This became mixed up with her increasingly ambiguous feelings about Peter, her gratitude and irritation at his being the quiet, steady, and yes, slightly boring, twin; for not having made her want him enough to do what Kate had done with James. And so on, interminably.

Lizzy now doubted everything she’d formally believed about herself and, increasingly consumed by self-loathing, clung to the life-raft of her academic work. Often unable to sleep, she would pace up and down in her tiny top-floor flat, fearful that she was heading for some kind of break-down but equally determined to block out that possibility.

Then one evening James’ doppelgängersaw her on her way home, dodged the traffic on the busy street to cross and speak to her, insisting she let him buy her a drink. She said she had to get home but, true to type, he refused to take no for an answer. Tired and unable to resist his smiling insistance, she eventually reluctantly agreed. She drank a gin and tonic faster than was sensible and was then cojoled into accepting a second. The result was a sudden emotional thaw and, knowing quite well she shouldn’t, she accepted a third. Later, very drunk, she invited the doppelgänger back to her flat.

When she finally woke next morning Lizzy was first appalled at what she’d done and then incandescent with a blind rage. She blagged the doppelgänger’saddress from the departmental secretary on the pretense she’d picked up his essay with her own and needed to return it. She went to his flat and, when he answered the door, forced her way in. When his flatmate tried to intervene, Lizzy boilded over, screaming and yelling. The flatmate called the police. The angrier Lizzy got the more the doppelgänger actedbemused. They’d had a drink, she’d invited him back to her flat, he’d used condoms, what was her problem? Fortunately the police arrived in time to help the flatmate restrain her from hitting him a second time.

She spent several hours in a police cell until the doppelgänger informed them that he would not be pressing charges. She was released with a caution. But she knew she had completely lost her way and dispaired. Knowing both her parents would be out she drove back to Homehaugh and, having gathered up all the pills she could find, drunk the best part of a bottle of whisky to get up the courage to take them. The alcohol kicked in really quickly, she eaten practically nothing in the previous twenty-four hours, and she dropped the pills, most of them white, onto the white bathroom carpet. When her mother came home later she found Lizzy slowly circling the bathroom on hands and knees like a damaged insect, sobbing wildly as she tried to collect up the pills. She was literally blind drunk. Her mother put her to bed and rang the university to say she’d had an accident and wouldn’t return for the last week of term. When Lizzy finally woke up she was as mortified as she was monumentally hung over.

Mrs. Oliver tried to insist Lizzy take time out from her studies. She refused but promised to see somebody and get help. At the start of her second session with a counsellor, she heard herself say all this, adding that she obviously didn’t love Peter. She was so shocked by this that she couldn’t speak for the rest of the session, just shook and cried silently while the counsellor passed her tissues. Nothing really changed for a long while. Afraid to go home, she barely spoke ouside tutorials and seminars. These were a nightmare because she was convinced the whole world knew what she’d done and despised her. But her deepest fear was that she’d fail her degree. That terrified her but also kept her working.

Then very early one morning she heard a blackbird singing. The sound upset her terribly, which in turn shattered her numbness. Shivering, she ran a hot bath and, soaking in it, realized with a clarity she’d not experienced for months that the blackbird’s song  reminded her of times with Peter.

Once, on a winter charity walk, Lizzy, Peter, and James’s group got caught in a white-out. It took the young woman in charge about ten minutes to orient them and start them on their way down but, before that happened, Lizzy spoke out of turn, something about which direction they should take. She’d been told in no uncertain terms to shut up. Humiliated, she’d sulked at the back of the group. Peter had dropped back to walk with her. When they got back to the village Lizzy, still miserable, sat down on the low wall behind the village hall and cried. Peter sat down beside her and put a rather tentative arm around her shoulder while offering her his rather grubby handkerchief. A blackbird sang nearby and they sat and listened to it until she’d stopped crying. Then he’d walked back with her to Homehough.

‘LA’.

Remembering Peter’s concern that day let loose a flood of memories. Most particularly, Lizzy remembered going with Peter’s mother to pick him up at Edinburgh airport after a school trip. She’d been maybe fifteen. Peter didn’t see her hanging back until he’d put down his luggage and hugged his mother.  When he did see her his face had lit up.  She’d given him a little hug and kissed his cheek and he’d blushed and ducked his head as he aways did when he was really pleased about something. They’d sat together in the back of the car and, when it got dark, Peter had reached out and found her hand on the car seat and held it until they got back to the village.

When the cold bathwater brought Lizzy back into the present, she knew all she wanted was to finish her degree and put things right with Peter. She wrote him a long letter and, contact reestablished, struggled through the rest of her degree to get a Two One (we’d all expected her to get a First.) Peter and his mother came to her degree ceremony.

By the time she’d told me all this Lizzy’s anger was quite spent.

‘Not a fairytale princess, Faun. Just weak, stupid, neurotic. Jealous of Kate about James, and angry Peter hadn’t wanted me the same way. I fucked a nobody, tried and failed to kill myself and, yes, finally married Peter because I couldn’t live without him. And now I have to anyway. And Faun, I never told him. I just pretended he was the first because I was so ashamed. I’m a lie, Faun, everything about me is a lie.’

She started to rock back and forth in mute anguish.

‘Come on Lizzy, you’ve coped wonderfully with Sarah and the farm, with everything.’

‘Oh God Faun, I miss him. I needed Peter so much and now he’s gone.’

I helped her upstairs and then got her into bed. She was asleep in moments. When I got home I set the alarm so as to be at the farm by seven. When Lizzy wasn’t down for breakfast by half seven, I phoned Arthur and got Nessa.

‘She’s had a bad night.’

‘Right Miss Flora, I’ll tell himself she’ll speak with him later.’

I collected Sarah from the sleepover and, when we got back, Lizzy, although still in her pyjamas and new red dressing gown, was eating breakfast while making a list of groceries with her mother.

Cattle on the high hill

‘Hello pet, did you have a good party? There’s toast left over or grab some cereal. And soon as you can, please, let the hens out. I had a bad night and I’m already terribly behind. I must go and help with the cattle’.

Sarah gave her a sharp look and openned her mouth to say something. But whether because of the redness of her mother’s eyes, her grandmother’s warning glance, or the slight shake in Lizzy’s voice, she closed it, nodded, buttered a piece of toast, and went upstairs to change into her everyday clothes.