Welcome to the Madhouse

“Oh, cheer up,” said my irrepressible friend on the phone, “Spring is coming, the first daffodils are out, why are you so gloomy?” I gave a non-answer and changed the subject. But afterwards I made a quick mental list of the strictly non-personal reasons, the ones concerning every single one of us, for my mood that was as cloudy and chill as the February afternoon outside, with no  precocious daffodils able to brighten it.

O.K., this is what happened that day. I switched on the radio and gathered that global sea levels had risen in the 20th century at nearly double their previous rate. Coastal habitats have been devastated, soils eroded and contaminated, flooding doubled, and with the glaciers melting we can no longer stop the process, only slow down its pace. (I live near the Thames and yes, recently the tides looked pretty swollen – surely West London isn’t yet on the list of doomed habitats?)

Switch off radio. Pick up morning paper. Long piece full of statistics about human overpopulation. Every 12-15 years we add another billion to our bulging masses, I read, and the impact on the environment is devastating. An expert called it “A barrel of explosives”. Oops – as these days explosives figure often in the daily news, this makes me shiver. Overconsumption, loss of tree cover, inadequate fresh water, starvation, increased pollution, new epidemics, you name it, we’ll have it.

As if this weren’t sufficient, the scientific journal that arrives in the mail confirms that at present  we are using up the renewable resources of 1.7 Earths, and by 2050 we’ll need three Earths to keep us going. Where on…no, where outside Earth are we going to find them? Just to pick out one grim detail, in the last 40 years our planet lost one third of its arable land, due to erosion and over-cultivation. Beyond a certain limit artificial fertilisers can’t make up for the loss of healthy fertile soil; first the quality and eventually the quantity of the crops plummets and all that remains is dead soil and the fertiliser run-off poisoning rivers and brooks. More people, less soil to grow food for them – surely something is very wrong here?

Enough is enough. Can’t take any more gloom and doom. Instead, I browse the sunnier uplands of the internet and read the messages of  the various civilian groups that, scattered all over the world, swim against the mainstream, trying to mitigate the damage caused by the unwisdom of the Establishment. Crowd funding, signatures by the milli0n, powerful  grass root initiatives  which succeed against heavy odds: things begin to look and feel  hopeful. No, perhaps it’s not too late, it’s still seven whole minutes to midnight. If those in power, the global decision-makers applied themselves to the task, they could stop the rot and start the healing process. End spending unimaginable fortunes on arms and plant forests instead. Feed the starving. Make contraception available everywhere to curb population growth. Educate and empower women and girls to add their special gifts to community life. Teach men to express their anger by non-violent means.

Wow, what a beautiful programme. It covers several topical needs. The next step is to involve those in power, the ones not caught up in corruption, fraud, nepotism or sex scandals to get going, inspire and lead us towards success. Surely they are aware of the huge risks of the moment and are busy seeking solutions?

So what does President Trump, head of the world’s No.1. superpower  think about all this? Well, actually he doesn’t. He’s preoccupied with the utterances of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and sends him this message: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

If it weren’t about the possibility of nuclear annihilation, this would remind me of nothing more important than small boys arguing behind the bicycle shed, on the level of “my Daddy is bigger/stronger/richer than yours”, or, more ominously, “my knife is bigger/ sharper/more expensive than yours”. Unfortunately this time the parallel doesn’t work, except in the lunatic logic of the madhouse.

And then my friend on the telephone wonders why I sound so gloomy.

 

 

 

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Seven Reasons to Dislike January

It’s far too long

It’s named after Janus, that singularly unattractive Roman god whose two faces, looking left and right, only appear on coins – did he have no body? He was the god of beginnings, of doors and gateways, provider of the first hour of the day, but looking at his grumpy old face I personally wouldn’t feel like beginning anything new…

The first fortnight is schizoid – partly hung over, partly hyperactive because of the sales

The cold/flu epidemic reaches new heights

Snow and ice cause schools to shut down, creating extra problems to parents already exhausted after a very long break

It’s a favourite time for boilers and radiators to break down and/or leak

Bills arrive in bunches while long overdue cheques don’t.

The only comfort comes from the motto engraved in King Solomon’s ring: “This too will pass”.

 

 

 

 

Use It Or….

Two recent news items have lowered my spirits and raised my blood pressure in equal measure. Both concern students and therefore our future, and the picture they paint is not reassuring. Firstly, I learn, students’ handwriting has become so illegible that Cambridge University is considering letting undergraduates use laptops in exams, since – according to examiners – a reliance on computers has left young people unable to use a pen. Well yes, for some time now I’ve been noticing some truly alarming  signatures on impeccably typed official letters, nasty scrawls bearing no resemblance to the name of the alleged signatory; indeed, looking as if the writer had held the pen in his clenched fist, not knowing what else to do with it.  Is this becoming the New Normal?

Secondly, freshers at universities across the country are being issued with colourful wristbands printed with the name of their hall of residence, to help them get home after a night out. Apparently this will be useful for those who get so drunk that they can’t tell the cab driver where to take them.

Ouch, twice over. Not being able to use a pen slams the door on a peak achievement of human beings, the ability to make marks on a surface – mammoth tusk, clay tablet, parchment, marble, paper – that translate into words and meaning. These marks have to be made, not delivered by a clicked key. But once this unique ability is lost, and if for some reason one day laptops no longer work, what remains? Do we have to start all over again, trying to remember which line goes where, meaning what? As for those colourful wristbands, they could cost a lot of money to a sloshed reveller who happens to collapse in the cab of a less than scrupulous driver and is taken home via a long, meandering route.

What I find so depressing is that in neither case is an attempt made by the powers that be, in this case the university authorities, to correct what is  obviously wrong. By allowing the use of laptops in exams they sanction the loss of handwriting skills among our future intellectual elite. (The rot has already set in: an apparently well educated young woman I know prints all her messages in wobbly, childish block letters, joined-up writing being beyond her.) Besides putting the few remaining graphologists out of work, the end of individual, highly personal handwriting is an impoverishment, another loss of our modest uniqueness. (By the way, I have nothing against laptops: they are good servants but  make dangerous masters.)

As for the wristbands – well, their official message seems to be that it’s perfectly all right for a student to get hopelessly, idiotically drunk, as long as he or she lands in the correct hall of residence. Wouldn’t it be better to launch a culture of intelligent drinking in which alcohol heightens enjoyment, creativity and camaraderie, instead of turning the drinker into an irritating, helpless oaf? Sorry if I sound virtuous, that’s about the last thing I am, but I lived long enough in France and Italy, neither country being remotely teetotal, to know what I am talking about. In my view  binge drinking and enjoyment exist on different planets.

What links these cases is their drift towards the line of least resistance. “Let’s make it easy for the users” seems to be the official line. And ease is, of course, the highest value of the consumer society. Things have to be co-operative and  friendly in order to be desired and bought. I often feel baffled when something I buy claims to be easy to use – well, of course, I don’t expect my new dress to resist when I try to put it on, or my ballpoint pen (yes, I do write by hand) to spit ink at me when I pick it up; nor do I like to be assured that the book I’ve just bought is easy to read. I’d rather decide that for myself, thank you.

O.K., I’ll come clean. I’ve come to hate the supremacy of “ease”. It removes the need for effort, for using our abilities to achieve small victories and keep the flab off body and mind. (I’ve just noticed that the most topical rhyme for “ease” is “obese”, the plague of the so-called developed countries which is also spreading to others where people adopt the Western diet. It was an American friend who pointed out to me that the acronym for the Standard American Diet is SAD…) C.G.Jung once claimed that the human being’s greatest passion is idleness, and he was probably right. Of course the ideal consumer is passive, idle, easy (here we go again) to brainwash into consuming ever more stuff that’s neither wanted nor needed. “Death is the consumer’s last resistance,” wrote Ivan Illich. I like to think that there are less drastic escape routes, too, even though far from being easy they require some effort and plenty of common sense.

I’m already working on mine. What about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Wéod

First, consult the dictionary. “Weed: a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.” And the ancestor of the word is wéod, “of unknown origin”. Might just as well be mysterious, with that alien accent on the “e” and of unknown pronunciation.

Dictionary apart, what this is all about is that, in order to make savings, the local Council has withdrawn some services, including the regular visits of the Weedkiller Man with his toxic spray and ill-smelling procedure that used to leave us with dead brown weeds instead of green ones all over the road and no obvious advantage. Well, he no longer comes. As a result there is a profusion of weeds bursting out along the kerbs, between paving stones, through holes in the asphalt and in garden walls. And instead of tut-tutting and worrying about this part of West London becoming unkempt and undesirable, I feel delighted. For the first time in my life I am looking at weeds properly and am astonished by their beauty: so many shades of green, such a variety of shapes, from ethereal and lacy to muscular and tough, and such a wealth of small flowers in subtle colours, from pure gold to dreamy pink, white and sky-blue. Compared to this wild show, garden flowers seem  less interesting, almost too obvious.

But what pleases me most, beyond the visual pleasure added to my morning walk, is the realization that underneath the footpath, underneath all built up areas the soil is teaming with plant life and, given half a chance, starts displaying it. Just imagine, if one could roll up the asphalt along one side of the street, as if it were a carpet, within days a lush jungle of plants would appear and thrive, gradually taking over the built-up environment. Which proves my long-held suspicion that while the Earth could manage superbly without us, the reverse isn’t true. If we suddenly disappeared, like other civilizations have in the past, the Earth would probably heave a sigh of relief and start wiping itself clean, leaving only a few mementos of its previous guests. Like the Mayan ruins in South America, the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge and  the other stone circles all over Britain, prehistoric forts and tombs and cave drawings and —

Oops. What would we leave behind? It hardly bears thinking about. I needn’t spell it out, except to say that it would be an awful lot. Zillions of tons of hard stuff, mainly concrete, steel, glass, whatever. A gigantic landfill, with concrete being perhaps the worst offender, depressingly ugly even when new, indestructible when discarded. Enough to make my environmentalist heart grow heavy.

So I look at some sturdy weeds for solace and begin to feel more hopeful. Could they possibly provide the answer? Could they develop the ability over tens of thousands of years to grind up the concrete, mix it into the soil and eventually make it vanish? Why not? Nature is endlessly adaptable; it may in fact enjoy this challenge. Meanwhile let me live in the present, enjoy this free wild flower show –  and take great care not to tread on a barely sprouted wéod as I walk along…

The Wednesday Census

In the area of West London where I live, the Council’s huge lorries appear every Wednesday to collect our rubbish and recyclables. The latter are supposed to be sorted  into their large colour-coded bags: white for plastics, green for garden waste, blue for paper;  additionally, there is a large dark green box for all else. Bags and box must be put out by 7 a.m., which is a bit of a bore, but at least it lets me glimpse some neighbours in their dressing-gowns and slippers.

So far so dull, but please stay with me, the real story starts here. The Council’s lorries don’t arrive until later, so I have time for a morning walk, which is more than just exercise: it serves as my systematic study – anthropological fieldwork, if you like – of my neighbourhood. Like many parts of London, it is distinctly un-neighbourly, but my inoffensive research gives me a unique insight into the personal habits and lifestyle choices of its unknown inhabitants.

All I need to do is to walk along slowly and inspect the contents of the green boxes. What  variety, what precise indications they offer! To start with, we seem to have quite a few serious drinkers among us; boxes bursting with wine and spirit bottles week after week make me worry about the livers of those who had emptied them. But then green boxes full of soft drink bottles, cartoons and multiple containers of sweets and salted crisps are not reassuring, either. The venerable experts who periodically issue official warnings about the ravages of alcoholism and obesity need only join me on my morning walk to see the proof of the problem close up. Booze and junk food rule o.k., warnings go unheeded, and the cash-strapped struggling NHS has to pick up the bill.  As a disillusioned doctor friend of mine said the other day, the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry are in cahoots: the former makes us sick and then passes us on to the latter for the rest of our lives. After thirty years in general practice I expect he knows what he is talking about.

No, I’m not a health nut. I just like good fresh food and refuse to pay for expensive over- packaged  rubbish. A box I pass is full of tins. I mean brim-full. The tin on the top had contained new potatoes in salty water – heavens above, at a time when fresh new potatoes are at their sweet youthful best, tasting fantastic if gently steamed, coated in butter, sprinkled with fresh parley – oh, sorry, sometimes I do get carried away, although my research should be dispassionate and neutral. I’ll try to cool it. Honest.

Besides disclosing their owners’ food and drink consumption, the boxes also betray some aspects of their characters. There are some meticulous individuals who organise their rubbish so neatly that it looks like a still life worth photographing; I don’t expect the dustmen notice its awesome symmetry before chucking it into the collective hell of their lorry. In these exemplary well organised boxes small carton wrappers sit in plastic bags, old socks and other textiles ditto, used batteries are segregated from carefully folded packaging material, and the box itself is clean and shiny. I fantasize about the house behind the box: all spotless, not a rug out of place, small objects resting at right angles on a polished table —- it’s too perfect for comfort, let me out of there!

So I land straight in the opposite reality:  a box containing an unholy mess of things, all mixed up, chaotic and inevitably messy, too, for the unrinsed jars and bottles drip stuff onto crunched up newspapers and unflattened containers, and a single dirty slipper sits on top of a broken plastic toy.  This, too, should be photographed and widely shown as an example of how not to handle one’s rubbish, but that’s beyond my remit. And then I suddenly remember once seeing the woman who lives in that house: she has remained memorable for standing at her front door in the scruffiest garment I’d ever seen, with hair and shoes to match, and even her cat looked distinctly ungroomed. It was depressing, but  it proved that the contents of green boxes disclosed the truth about the people who had filled them.

There is also the pleasure of seeing the wildly different house numbers owners draw or paint on their boxes. Some are highly fancy, glittering with gold paint; others are plain black and official looking, yet others are surrounded by carefully coloured floral decorations, possibly drawn by a child of six. By the time I finish my morning census I feel as if the neighbourhood had become less buttoned up, more friendly, certainly not secretive.  Moreover, it amuses me to think that I know rather a lot about a lot of people who  know nothing about me. (Careful, now: this is supposed to be a detached social experiment, not an ego trip.)

What about my own green box? Well now, let me see…

 

 

 

 

Cold Calls, No Purple

They all start the same way. The phone rings. I say “hello?” – there’s silence, then the line comes to life and a man’s voice intones, “Missis Bee-Shop?” Oh, not another one of those . Yes, I am a bee warrior, having signed countless anti-pesticide petitions, sent donations and planted bee-friendly plants all over my garden, but this has nothing to do with bees, and anyone who mispronounces my name like that is a cold caller and therefore a major nuisance. He – there are many of them, but I experience them as a single entity –  he invariably rings at the worst possible moment, for instance when I am busy writing and the elusive right word has almost popped into my brain, or when the omelette I am cooking is about to reach its golden perfection. In other words cold callers are the enemies of creativity and of one’s peace of mind.

If only somebody could train them! Teach them proper English, to start with. Give them better reasons for ringing. The ones I’ve been offered so far were majestically implausible, informing me that I’d had a bad accident (more than one), crashed my car, lost a family member, been swindled out of a cool million and was about to lose my house unless … I don’t mind so much the ones that get beyond the “unless…”, provided I don’t invite the caller to get lost and hang up at once; if I let him ( it’s invariably a he) continue, he only asks for my banking details, a few passwords and similar intimate matters without which, alas, he is unable to help me. How kind. Suddenly I remember the Nigerian Widows and their tear-soaked e-mails that kept arriving a few years ago, mixing religion with offers of great wealth locked up in some bank account, half of which would be mine if –  Yes, sure. I never grasped that opportunity. But what happened to the Nigerian Widows? I haven’t heard from them for ages. Hope they are all right.

This morning’s cold caller informed me that my internet connection would be blocked for three days. He didn’t reach the “unless”, because I rudely interrupted him, asking, “Why?” After a brief pause he repeated his message. Again I asked, “Why?” but clearly whoever wrote his script hadn’t included a reply to that basic question, or else. ye gods, perhaps  he was a poorly programmed robot of very little brain and I should have been kinder to  him.

Together with the Nigerian Widows, another kind of cold  call has also mercifully vanished, thanks to the arrival of pornography on the internet.  I’ve never watched it – not interested – but feel sure that the annoying dirty phone calls of the near past have ceased thanks to its availability. Those calls to randomly chosen females listed in the phone directory ranged from heavy breathing to weird questions and even weirder suggestions, and once I’d  got over my first mild shock,  I turned them into mickey-taking exercises. So when an unknown gent rang to ask what colour my knickers were, I said “purple with yellow dots, any more silly questions?” but there weren’t any, not from that gent. Most of the other calls were just as easy to puncture and dispose of, and deep down I felt sorry for the grown men who found these would-be hot but fatally  cold calls worth making. No, they didn’t shock me. But I managed to shock one caller who told me what he intended to do to me. “Oh yes, tell me more?” I replied. There was a moment of silence, followed by “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” and – wham, the line went dead.

Thank goodness my former heavy-breathing callers are now otherwise engaged, watching adult material, as it is politely called. And if without watching it I don’t qualify as a proper grown-up, that’s fine by me. At least part of me remains eternally immature.

 

 

Seeds of omission

At long last yesterday I got down to exploring a densely chaotic shelf in an all-purpose cupboard, the kind that starts out as a model of intelligent storage and then gradually fills up with objects of  infinite variety and questionable usefulness.  The ancient Egyptians believed that life was a constant struggle with the all-engulfing chaos, and I think they were spot on, even though my chaos was infinitely smaller than their cosmic one and could sometimes be – briefly – defeated. The time to start was now.

For starters, beneath a few layers of plastic bags and the instructions  for using a long  defunct kitchen gadget, I found a smallish  gold-coloured metal box which had once contained  expensive Belgian chocolates, but now, to my amazement, was full of something less sweet: a batch of unopened seed packets. I could hardly believe my eyes.  How did I manage to forget about this lot? And was it too late to sow them now?

Well yes, it was. According to the “Sow by…” instruction on each packet, these seeds were two to four years out of date, victims of the sense of timelessness that overcomes me each time I am confronted with a resistible task, a sense of surely-it-can-wait-another-week. Or more. “Tomorrow never comes”, sang Frank Sinatra, offering a glamorous excuse to procrastinators. What a waste of money and gardening potential, I thought, fingering the pristine seed packets, but then suddenly remembered reading somewhere that wheat found in the tomb of a pharaoh did sprout after being stored in a stone jar for thousands of years. Should I perhaps – but no, get real, lady, that was probably ultra-special pharaonic wheat, and besides mid-October was no time to sow seeds.

I laid out the small envelopes on the kitchen table. Why on earth did I have six lots of radish seeds, four of them of the “French breakfast” variety ?  I lived in France for years and never saw any French person eating radishes for breakfast, nor was I ever offered any. Could this be another of those cross-Channel love-hate Franglais misunderstandings which make the French believe that the Brits eat le biftek twice a day? “An old radish which has stood the test of time”, one packet states rather offputtingly, making me realize that I don’t really like radishes of any kind. But then why did I buy all those seeds? No idea.

More to my taste, I find three packs of lettuce seeds, including those of Tom Thumb, the smallest kind, “just right for small families” I read on the pack; does that mean one and a half  family  member , or a whole family of small stature? Never mind, here come carrot seeds – they like dry, sandy soil and would have done badly in my rich organic humus – and the seeds of chives, spring onions, runner beans, peas, dark purple beetroot and – wait for it – perpetual spinach; what a nightmare for a spinach-hating child, and to hell with Popeye. Finally a touch of romance: I must have been in a lyrical mood when I bought the seeds of Night Scented Stock, delicate white and pink flowers only  releasing their sweet perfume when the stars light up. At last something to make up for those prosaic vegetable seeds.

What next? I take the seed packets to the compost bin at the bottom of the garden, open them one by one and pour the contents onto the vegetable chaos inside.  From one chaos into another, amen. My volunteer employees, the omnivorous earthworms will recycle the lot. Unless – this thought strikes me several hours later and makes me anxious – what if the seeds decide to disprove their sow-by dates and begin to sprout in the moist, warm paradise of the compost bin? What if they go on growing and thriving, until one day my garden is taken over by huge French radishes, fully intent to stand the test of time?

Let me procrastinate and wait and see. And hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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