Waiting for the storm

I keep coming back to R S Thomas, and to the landscapes he described. These days remind me of his Abersoch, and every day of uncertain suspension of life it whispers itself.

I have trodden in his footsteps amongst the timeless crags of Lleyn and the little, ancient villages clinging to the coast endlessly more ancient. I have only walked there though in summertime, while he, the poet and pastor, served all year, in bright summer, industrious harvest and punishing winters and he saw more than a passing visitor may.

I remember Abersoch. It was not as he described it, but I was there in the summer, and the whole little town had been transformed by summer visitors. The fishing boats were there are the men working on their nets, but bustling all over the streets and beach were families in gaudy holiday clothes with buckets and spades and beachballs, speaking English. There was no gathering storm – it as bright and sunny. A clamber round the cliff presented a little more of what it must have been like, and as the wind began to rise, I remembered the Abersoch only read about in those pages.

Elsewhere on Lleyn I wanted to find the village of another poem “Scarcely a street, too few houses” or the places where he found the universe and all of history wrapped up in the stillness of the village church. In Abersoch though I wanted to find “that headland, asleep on the sea, The air full of thunder” and imagine the girl riding her cycle, hair at half-mast, as a carefree symbol, but found families busying themselves into misery with their determination to enjoy the day.

Instead, I found it at home in these recent weeks, enclosed but for long, daily walks, waiting for the stroke while might fall or not, or for the return of normality, or knowing that a release to familiarity may still be followed by the clasp of the deadly disease.

….. There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break

Books

In a sentence, Her Majesty defines us

Endless pages of studies, papers and propaganda, and no one came up with a definition of what it is to be British until yesterday.

the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.

Schools across the land are drumming into tender minds a set, defined list of “fundamental British values” but they are wrong. The listed ‘values’ (democracy, the rule of law, mutual respect and tolerance of etc etc) were always the limp product of a committee. They are ideals of a particular class of the commentariat, reflecting dully some aspects of British identity but mainly written to drive forward an agenda which most of us do not share. They are not values. They are not even particularly British, which is unsurprising from a class of nowhere people frightened of being British.

Democracy is some form or other has been a British trait for centuries and we taught the world, and the rule of law is fundamental to a free society, but those are the mechanisms, not the values – these committee ideas leave no room for the actual values which shape the nation, such as freedom, defiance, humour, innovation, brilliance and modesty. The committees would have been shocked to be asked to write those in, but they would better reflect who we are. Their key idea, namely “mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith” is nonsense if put forward as an idea of some value we all hold, and they knew it. They knew it and yet they still wrote it.

You cannot be arrested, yet, for speaking against those allegedly fundamental values, but they inform the ‘Prevent’ system and may inform the enforcement of those ill-defined “hate speech” laws. They skew the adoption system – dissenters may not adopt children – and may catch us in many subtle ways. The list may look like a charter for tolerance, but it is a weapon in the hands of those who have the power to use it.

I recall reading of one Twitter exchange where a parent complained (as is her right) of some fault in the school only for the head teacher to accuse her of breaching fundamental British values of tolerance. I am not sure that tolerance of incompetence was meant, but this “tolerance” is a fine stick for a bully to use to beat his victims.

That said, some characterisation was needed to say what it is to be British in a multicultural milieu that has lost that shared common culture the land once had. You cannot have a nation which does not share some bond, and if multi-culture means no culture, there is no such bond. It is just that culture is a ground-up thing and cannot be invented by a committee, imposed by decree.

In then steps The Queen, one who better than anyone understands what it is to be British through the best part of a century of changes. It is in “self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling” that we recognise ourselves. No one has put it better.

Every so often some researcher will talk to people in the street or focus groups to find out what typifies some group f the population. Proud results come back from the north of what are particularly Scottish characteristics, and they turn out to be identical to those which their neighbours said were particularly English characteristics, and particularly Irish characteristics indeed. There are still things we share and which are not the same in less fortunate nations.

See also

Mr Internet’s Sunday Morning Service

We approach the second Sunday of the shutdown, and last week’s online sermon was a cracker.

Polyphiloprogenitive
The sapient sutlers of the Lord
Drift across the computer screen.
In the beginning was the Word.

With insincere apologies to Eliot, but the web reaches more homes than any one vicar can ever dream to, if congregants tune in, and it can draw more of a virtual congregation to expand the reach of the original: it is polyphilogenitive. It goes against the grain of a Protestant church minister to seclude himself away and talk to a camera as their whole calling is to reach out to real people, but it may actually seem a liberation.

To speak to a camera must be daunting if you are not trained to it – how many times will your voice drain to a mumble when uncertain of the line or wearied with it, when a congregation present before you keeps your oratory present and alive.

However the congregation may be a distraction too. A minister proclaiming to the congregation may be the fount of wisdom and a sure guide to the surest words of life, but those faces staring out have a silent echo back – the facial reactions of the speaker are picked up and the preacher counter-reacts, which breaks the planned flow. It may sow doubt about the emphasis or the theme, or the planning of the sermon, and those words of life and wisdom carefully planned in every nuance and pitched at a precise tenor begin to waver and stumble to try to regain the audience. That usually happens to me, though untrained, when addressing a secular gathering.

Freed of the critical faces of the congregants, the minister may speak as he planned. He may soar into heights of oratory, may use all those analogies and Biblical references that came to him and speak as it sounded in his head when he wrote his sermon. The preacher truly inspired who speaks as the spirit drives him, is guided then by the spirit and not driven back into himself in the face of the dark look from the third pew back.

He can even stop and re-record if he gets it wrong.

From the view of the congregation, we miss the company of the Body of Christ, but we can hear cracking sermons, the way they were always meant to be, and if we miss a bit or misunderstand, we can rewind and hear it again. (Also, we will have none of those cringing “Now form small groups and discuss” moments.)

If we happen to light upon a dull reverend, which is not a problem in our parish, we can switch to another, and there is now no shortage. There are quiet vicars in city churches, or firebrand Free Presbyterians in Ulster, and the Archbishops can come into our living rooms in virtual person.

Last Sunday, I am told, more people listened to our vicar than in his usual congregation, and he often fills the church. Maybe after the lockdown has passed, this will be our way to hear the Sunday sermon, thanks to the Reverend Dr Internet.

See also

Books

The broken fence

There’s a broken fence nearby. Nothing spectacular – just a stretch by the path pulled down by weather and neglect. It belongs to no one as far as I can see, or if it does it is lost in the deeds.

It was put up when the new houses were built on the other side, as a boundary for the development. A stout wall stands at the mouth of the new road to proclaim it as a desirable place to raise a family, as no doubt it is, but round the side, where it is seen by no one except those walking the public footpath, is just a wooden fence.

The fence is not part of the house standing by it – that has its own garden fence beyond which stands tall and solid with fresh creosote, proudly maintained by the householder, a sentry proclaiming ownership around his snug family home. Between that fence though and the outer edge of the development site is a patch of unmaintained scrub. It might have encouraged the first buyer of that house to know there is a bosky cordon sanitaire between his neat garden and the public path so he would not get drunks hurling beer bottles over or spray-painting obscenities on his private fence (like that wall behind the houses out on the way to the other place), but when the developer had built all the houses, when last hod was packed away and the keys handed over, that neat spinney was abandoned to revert to nature. Drunks still do not hurl bottles, but every malicious weed known to man is thriving and hurling its thistledown over.

Now the outer fence is broken, by the wind. It is a nice village and we hope there are no junkies forcing their way in to colonise the vacant plot, and it is left to nature, but the fence is still broken. It is not becoming unbroken.

If the fence belonged to the householder, he would have been out at once, raising it straight again, shoring it up and maybe adding a buttress to each compromised post, and the smell of creosote would follow his steps. But he does not.

Whatever you may be tempted to think, the local council is not the workman of last resort, tending to every bent plank that does not have a name to it. They did deal with the steps in the woods nearby that they had put in those years back, but they may not touch so much as a splinter of a stranger’s timber.

There are those who do not tire of telling us that some things about us in our environment should really belong to everyone, which means belonging to no one, and that some endeavours are not for private gain but for all society, which means for no one. But the fence remains fallen, and bowing further with every new wind, the rain digging out at the untreated fissures. It creaks. The failing fence proclaims the truth of an old observation:

That which belongs to no one is cared for by no one.

See also

Books

Famine speculators – the Adam Smith view

In a time of plague or scarcity, there is little love for the speculator who raises prices, and often a call for the government to intervene. Adam Smith however had this in view and observed that government intervention does more harm than good:

The interest of the inland dealer, and that of the great body of the people, how opposite soever they may at first appear, are, even in years of the greatest scarcity, exactly the same. It is his interest to raise the price of his corn as high as the real scarcity of the season requires, and it can never be his interest to raise it higher.

By raising the price, he discourages the consumption, and puts every body more or less, but particularly the inferior ranks of people, upon thrift and good management. If, by raising it too high, he discourages the consumption so much that the supply of the season is likely to go beyond the consumption of the season, and to last for some time after the next crop begins to come in, he runs the hazard, not only of losing a considerable part of his corn by natural causes, but of being obliged to sell what remains of it for much less than what he might have had for it several months before. If, by not raising the price high enough, he discourages the consumption so little, that the supply of the season is likely to fall short of the consumption of the season, he not only loses a part of the profit which he might otherwise have made, but he exposes the people to suffer before the end of the season, instead of the hardships of a dearth, the dreadful horrors of a famine.

It is the interest of the people that their daily, weekly, and monthly consumption should be proportioned as exactly as possible to the supply of the season. The interest of the inland corn dealer is the same. By supplying them, as nearly as he can judge, in this proportion, he is likely to sell all his corn for the highest price, and with the greatest profit; and his knowledge of the state of the crop, and of his daily, weekly, and monthly sales, enables him to judge, with more or less accuracy, how far they really are supplied in this manner.

Without intending the interest of the people, he is necessarily led, by a regard to his own interest, to treat them, even in years of scarcity, pretty much in the same manner as the prudent master of a vessel is sometimes obliged to treat his crew. When he foresees that provisions are likely to run short, he puts them upon short allowance. Though from excess of caution he should sometimes do this without any real necessity, yet all the inconveniencies which his crew can thereby suffer are inconsiderable, in comparison of the danger, misery, and ruin, to which they might sometimes be exposed by a less provident conduct.

Though, from excess of avarice, in the same manner, the inland corn merchant should sometimes raise the price of his corn somewhat higher than the scarcity of the season requires, yet all the inconveniencies which the people can suffer from this conduct, which effectually secures them from a famine in the end of the season, are inconsiderable, in comparison of what they might have been exposed to by a more liberal way of dealing in the beginning of it the corn merchant himself is likely to suffer the most by this excess of avarice; not only from the indignation which it generally excites against him, but, though he should escape the effects of this indignation, from the quantity of corn which it necessarily leaves upon his hands in the end of the season, and which, if the next season happens to prove favourable, he must always sell for a much lower price than he might otherwise have had.

Whoever examines, with attention, the history of the dearths and famines which have afflicted any part of Europe during either the course of the present or that of the two preceding centuries, of several of which we have pretty exact accounts, will find, I believe, that a dearth never has arisen from any combination among the inland dealers in corn, nor from any other cause but a real scarcity, occasioned sometimes, perhaps, and in some particular places, by the waste of war, but in by far the greatest number of cases by the fault of the seasons; and that a famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconveniencies of a dearth.

Adam Smith: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

See also

Books