Thursday, June 22, 2017

R is for Revolting Beasts

There's something afoot in Britain at the moment, and it's not entirely pleasant. Foul beasts are rising to the surface of the murky pond of the national psyche and sending out suckered tentacles to drag the unwary screaming from their beds. This disquieting scene could mark a step change in the narrative of who we think we are, and set an endpoint to the fairy story we have been telling ourselves for the last few decades. The dark mould stain of entropy is beginning to appear on the walls and no amount of fresh paint seems to get rid of it.

I've taken on a job as a bartender. What better way to earn a little cash at the end of the industrial age?  The place is a hotel: a kind of garden haven beside the sea where people come to spend a few days and get a break from their stressful lives. I pour gin, polish wine glasses and listen to what the customers have to say, offering sympathy where appropriate. Many of them are Germans, on holiday with their families, but there are also many Brits and Americans, and many of these love to talk.

There's a sense of something having gone badly wrong. One national tragedy is eclipsed by the next, seemingly in ever more rapid succession. My daughter came home from school and declared that she and her classmates were getting tired of all the one and two-minutes silences. If it isn't people being run down in the street or having their throats slit as they eat dinner, it's tower-block infernos and other man-made tragedies. Being down at the dog end of Cornwall, of course, our local tragedies tend to be small-scale. A man falling off a cliff here, a surfer drowning there, a dog chasing a rabbit into a disused mineshaft — all tragedies in their own way but also, perversely, all part of the natural order of things. But now the great summer invasion is upon us, as the local population is boosted tenfold by those from up country — and they bring their energies and bigger tragedies with them.

Road rage on the melting tarmac of yet another day of record breaking heat. Me on my bicycle, and the woman in her Audi screaming abuse and yelling about road tax. She's like a heavily made-up monkey, trapped in her metal cage on wheels and enraged at ... something. I almost feel sorry for her. And there are lines of traffic to the horizon on country roads that are so windy and narrow as to be more of a natural feature of the landscape rather than a carriageway filled to the brim with delivery trucks, holidaymakers' cars and white vans. On either side of the stream of vehicles the wildflowers sag in the heat and nod their heads in the light breeze. How can you have road rage when you are surrounded by a blaze of wildflowers?

And the car radios burble out a constant stream of politics. Meaningless, valueless, maddening, hypnotic, soul-deadening politics of who said what to whom and how a commission should be set up to investigate something and how so-and-so expressed outrage about a target not being met in some branch of a bureaucracy somewhere. And Brexit. Brexit, Brexit, Brexit — as if they repeat the silly word enough times they'll beat us into submission and we'll declare the whole thing a mistake and take it all back just so long as they stop talking about it. Perhaps this is adding to the road rage.

And, the people take the bait and battle it out on social media and in pubs and on the streets as if they were rehearsing for some kind of civil war where nobody knows who or what they are fighting for. Many have grown battle weary and simply keep their gobs shut, but there are those who still hold out, tapping away into the early hours of the morning engaged in the hand-to-hand of flame wars, and reporting on their battles to their own echo chambers. An insanity seems has gripped the nation and still the Americans in the bar talk about how civil we all appear and how civil our conduct is compared to 'back home'. And it probably is.

But there was nothing too civil about the declared 'day of rage' yesterday, called in the wake of the Grenfell Tower inferno in London, which killed God-knows how many and ignited a firestorm far larger than the one caused merely by cheapskate polystyrene cladding. Scores dead, killed in their own homes, while the multimillionaire company owner who thought it would be a good idea to beautify a 27-storey tower block filled with mostly immigrant poor people by cladding it with firelighters walks free.

The day of rage turned out to be a damp squib. People were too busy dealing with the kind of heat they'd expect to encounter in Greece to be bothered about getting publicly angry. Even the police were pleading with people to calm down, saying that they'd "had enough" due to the heat and could they please protest when it had cooled down a bit? Being British, whatever that even means anymore, people politely obliged. For now.

But all of a sudden the ship of state seems rudderless. There's a lame duck sitting in Number 10, and people scent blood in the water. Socialism is surging in popularity, after a long leave of absence, as the reality of the precariousness of things starts to become apparent. The body politic is foaming at the mouth and having convulsions right now, and there doesn't appear to be a doctor on hand.

How do we even begin to address these not-inconsiderable problems and tragedies? Well, a vacuous pop song has been released by a multimillionaire TV personality in response to the incineration of the families in the tower block. This comes hot on the heels of the pop concert in Manchester to 'honour' the children and teenagers blown to pieces by an Islamic fundamentalist, even before some of them had been buried. This is our national response to mass death now: gyrations and brave faces and emoting on social media. Celebrities run to be seen at the scene of the latest tragedies, and it's probably not too far fetched to assume that the next logical step is to have them singing and pouting live from the scene of the next terror attack — perhaps rushing them out there in the back of ambulances and police cars, along with the doctors and paramedics. It all smells a bit ... desperate.

People just wish all this nastiness would go away. They hope for it to crawl back into the swamp it came from, and are in no mood for examining the reasons as to why any of it might have appeared in the first place. There's no problem so great that it can't be solved by a hashtag and a declaration of 'One Love', whatever that means. Any deeper examination of cause and effect is shot down in fiery rhetoric. Maybe the great paradigm of our times has nothing to do with scientific enquiry or the Enlightenment — maybe it's to do with the refusal to examine the consequences of previous actions, be they governmental, societal or individual. Indeed, consequences, like elephants in living rooms, are not a popular topic of conversation right now. Which is a shame, but so it goes.


In other news, the Midsummer deadline for entries for my fiction writing challenge has now passed. Thank you to everyone who sent me stories, I will be announcing the results next week. 


  1. PBS ( similar to the beeb) has aired Doc Martin these last few years, which my wife and I have enjoyed. While it is fiction, it did give what I hope was a somewhat realistic taste of "the dog end of Cornwall".

    Your post got me to thinking about the globalized, "smaller" planet we now live on, as popularized by Freidman and others. The malaise, or emerging awareness of a most unpleasant smell you describe are just as accurate for how things are feeling here in the States. There is plenty of variation in how it is expressed, or who is being blamed, but everyone feels it.

    Past cycles of empire were more local or regional, but now, with world wide global supply chains, media access to the whole world, combined with the underlying peaking of resources ( the real reason the revolting beasts are afoot), we are living through a time when nearly the whole "developed" world is feeling this shift in the wind at the same time.

    Let's hope those with the power to do so don't resort to politics by other means in trying to hang on to their country's piece of the pie.

    In other news, the trees we have been planting just keep converting sunlight and doing their thing whether I am surfing on line, or gnashing my teeth, or putzing in the workshop, so that's a good thing. I hope Fox Wood is progressing well, and maybe see a new post there sometime? ( not nagging, but a spot of good news once in a while helps clear the cobwebs).

    1. I have been offered work as an extra in Doc Martin. Have turned them down, so far, but keep an eye on the background and maybe you'll catch a glimpse of me, should I be hard up. I haven't actually seen it, BTW.

      Yes, an emerging awareness indeed. It's like a dead rat behind the cooker - you get a faint whiff at first but dismiss it, but over the days and weeks the smell gets worse until it can no longer be ignored. I think we're at the dead rat stage now.

      Fox Wood is doing fine. I have spent the first four years planting stuff and so now, to a certain extent, I just have to sit back and let it grow. My work there has been held up a bit by my hand injury, and now I have a job, meaning I don't get out there as often as I like. But having a job means I can afford to buy some more trees and plants, and I'm also saving up for some big ticket items, such a wood chipper, which would help me out tremendously. Also looking to hire a digger and get some earthworks done, as well as build a house out of earth bags, of which I have several thousand. Oh, and I've set it up as a company for teaching woodland skills and have a friend willing to teach people how to make Irish currachs (boats made from willow), as well as other things.

      I can see I need to do a Fox Wood update soon!

  2. Hi Jason,

    Despite my dumb phone, I read your essay on the train into the big smoke today where I travelled for the Green Wizards meet up and just wanted to say how much I enjoyed - despite the dark nature of the subject and content - your story and imagery.

    How did you handle the recent heat wave in your corner of the planet?

    I was rather wondering about the fire ratings of that cladding. The Great Fire of London has had quite the impact on building techniques and materials even down here. You may be surprised to know that I constructed the house here with tested 90 minute fire walls (inside and outside) and a 30 minute fire rated roof. That means direct flame contact for that period of time before the fire spreads and the structure is damaged. And I took the materials and tested them in a burnoff of forest materials. Some of the materials were very unusual.

    Polystyrene covered with aluminium as a building cladding. Mate, I just don't know about that. I have burned off that material in burnoffs here and it does not last long at all from my experience. That fire was like watching an unfolding horror story.

    On a brighter note, well done with the job and I hope it brings in additional resources for you and your family and your farm. Plus you have put yourself at the gritty end of relations with the public. Good stuff as you get to experience the world and its fears from the safety of the other side of the bar.

    People talk so much rubbish now, but on the other hand, it may be that they are just not trained to have clear thoughts and deal with insights. Dunno, but something is seriously lacking.



    1. Hi Chris - glad you enjoyed it. I know how much effort is required to read things on a dumb phone, so consider me impressed. Hope you had a good and useful time at the Green Wizards meeting. What was the attendance like?

      I escaped the worst of the heatwave by living where I live. Cornwall is a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic, and as such it doesn't get too hot in summer or too cold in winter due to the regulation imposed by the thermal mass of the water. Mind you, it still got pretty damn hot here - hot enough to see tarmac melting. I coped by drinking a lot of cold fluids (which is easy to do if you work in a bar that has an ice machine) and sleeping at night with all the windows open to allow air flow through the house.

      My dog didn't cope quite as well, and spent most of the time lying on the floor with his tongue hanging out.

      Anyway, the heatwave is over now, and it's back to being mild and a bit misty.

      I understand your precautionary measures using fireproof materials for your home. If I lived where you do I would do the same. Did you see on the news about the forest fires in Portugal last week? Really tragic, with most people dying in their cars as they tried to flee. Interestingly, those forest fires would likely not have been so deadly if native trees had been planted rather than plantations of highly flammable ones filled with volatile oils. I saw a picture of a whole scorched landscape and at the centre was a small green pathch that was more-or-less unscathed and this turned out to be - you guessed it - somebody's little permaculture farm.


  3. Hi Jason,

    Thanks man. I heard recently that picking and choosing what technologies you utilise in your life is a form of heresy. I hope nobody is hunting for witches these days (sorry for the Bloc Party reference - you may have heard of them?), but I do see signs of that from time to time. You know, the other day somebody who should know better suggested that me being off grid was the cause of the soon to be 20% increase in the price of electricity down here. I was quite disturbed to hear that claim said to my face.

    The turnout was pretty good at about 10 people. Have you considered having a Cornwall tower?

    Fair enough about the heatwave and to be honest that is one of the reasons I live up in the hills where the elevated air is cooler (1'C drop in air temperature for every 100m gain in elevation).

    Yup, that happens with the tarmac. I'll bet you had a few surprised motorbike riders when the stands pushed into the hot tarmac and the motorbikes fell over. That has happened to me... Nice work with the cold fluids. I hope not too many people were caught out by the heat? A mild and misty summer is a pleasure (from my perspective).

    Yeah I've been watching that unfolding disaster in Portugal and my sympathies go to anyone affected by the fires. I'm reasonably familiar with those "plantations of highly flammable ones filled with volatile oils". Sad to say, but true. You know despite the recurring wildfires here and consequent massive loss of life, people still berate me for even considering managing the surrounding forest given that likely outcome. It is all very strange to me.

    I saw a lot in those photos from Portugal. Most of the trees appeared to be quite young and they seemed of very uniform age. The cars looked like they had crashed into one another on the bridge which is understandable given the thick smoke and way beyond frightening conditions the occupants would have faced. Mate, I really feel for the families of the deceased. The occupants would have been overcome by smoke well before the fire arrived.

    Mineral rich plants and soils are less likely to be so damaged by wildfires.

    My numbers will turn up in the lucky dip lottery on that front sooner or later. I accept the risk and understand the consequences.



  4. loved the rant. reminded me a little of Jim Kunstler at his best.
    The fates have conspired to kick me and my wife out of our comfortable leftist bubble of San Francisco by way of eviction so our landlord could take advantage of the current housing speculation bubble to sell the house we were renting.
    We have landed on a farm of a friend about 100 miles from SF, solidly in the agricultural zone of California. We are woken up now every day by the yodeling of quails and the resident cat walking across our bed to let us know that it is time to feed him. And missing that, the sun rises over the ridge to the east and raises the temperature in our tent into the sweat zone and causes us to get up.
    And if that doesn't do the trick, the Mexican farm workers showing up for work and the sound of tractors and Mexican polka music will for sure wake us.
    We are now solidly at the face of food production, something that is profoundly enlightening. Regardless of how much you read about farming, living it is quite another thing. We are tending a garden of about 100 tomato plants and several score of eggplants and peppers and beans and squash and melons and responsible for keeping them all alive and free of pests and so on. So that and watching the goings on at the organic farm next door to the land of our host makes the current politics seem remote and irrelevant.
    We also don't have air conditioning and of late the temperatures have gone into the hundreds Fahrenheit, or highs in Celcius hovering between 30 and 40, temperatures that are mind numbing and of such a quality that I absolutely cannot give a shit what Donald Trump does.
    Fortunately, we have a river running to the east of the farm and we take a dip or two a day whenever the temps get us down.
    But mostly, living a physical life surrounded by the serious business of producing food for other people makes the antics of politicians seem irrelevant and not worthy of attention.
    This is a land of no rain all summer long and all food production depends on irrigation which these days depends on a steady supply of electricity to run the irrigation pumps. It doesn't really matter what Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump does. If the local electric company can't deliver electricity, the pumps stop pumping and the crops die and in short order, the produce sections of the supermarkets become empty. This is the reality of farming here in California.

  5. The screws turn and a new normal begins. As a bartender you will be seeing self deception at it's best. As failure to make living arrangements that makes sense manifests in an emergency that won't ever end you will be in a position to see what people blame for the troubles should you polish the shot glasses long enough. I doubt anyone will be talking about the loss of energy slaves as a possible culprit unless you bring it up but I'd like to be surprised on that. In an alcohol sodden venue bringing up collapse issues would be a total waste of time and more likely than not quite unpopular. Even more than bringing the subject just about anywhere else.

  6. My son and I agree that Islamic terrorism is largely the inevitable result of many decades/centuries of Western countries' imperialism and violence in the Middle East, yet he tells me that none of his friends understand this. Presumably they think people turn into suicide bombers for no reason at all.

    At least terrorism, in the long run, has a potential solution - stop oppressing other countries and cultures. The problems of dangerous climate change, resource depletion etc. are much more intractable. Stefan Rahmstorf has recently been saying "Defeatism is the new denial" quite a lot, but I'm not aware of any painless way out of the predicament we've got ourselves into. I don't think there's any sustainable way for 7+ billion people to live on Earth, no matter how many resource-hungry wind turbines and solar panels we make in highly polluting Chinese factories. Nobody is putting forward a model of industrial civilisation that is compatible with a finite planet, limited energy supply and a healthy global ecosystem. Defeatism might actually be the most honest and realistic position that it's possible to take today.

    1. However, there is the form of terrorism which is not a response to anything, but is used cynically as a tool for radical change - in whatever direction.

      Moreover, people can talk themselves into thinking they are 'oppressed' when they are not. Like ETA in Spain, for instance.

      There is little hope when dealing with such people.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.