Two Spring Performances.

Gallinago gallinago, the Common Snipe (in Japan). Photo: Alpsdake, Creative Commons.

This spring I’ve been hearing Snipe ‘drumming’ for the first time.  About a fortnight ago we were leaving a friend’s house when I noticed a strange repeated rising ‘call’.  The sound was reaching us across dark misty fields, so felt peculiarly haunting.  I recognised it immediately because I’d been listening to recordings of their drumming earlier that day, and wondering why, given that I see Snipe from time to time on the moors round here, I hadn’t yet heard their spring performance.  A few days later I heard another Snipe giving a brief rendition at noon, but they mostly do their drumming at dawn and dusk, so I suppose I hadn’t been in the right place at the right time.

Feeling that ‘drumming’ was inadequate as a description of what we’d heard, I did some rummaging and found that the display is also referred to as winnowing.  After they’ve paired up the males fly around, swoop down at speed, then turn upwards, creating the effect with their tail feathers.  In one of his poems Seamus Heaney refers to an Irish name for the male snipe: Gabhairín Reo, little goat of the frost.  I can see why the sound of the bird has been compared to the bleating of goats.  As ever though, human words seem hopelessly inadequate to the task of evoking the songs and sounds of birds.  Sadly, the term ‘sniper’ was coined by British troops in India in the early nineteenth century to refer to a marksman who was good enough to shoot snipe.(1)  Hopefully we are more inclined to respect and cherish this beautiful bird now?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03zdkjv

Britannia Cocounutters Processing through Bacup accompanied by the Satcksteads Silver Band.  Photos: Brian Taylor (click to enlarge).

We greatly enjoyed another enigmatic spring performance this weekend when we finally managed to get over to Bacup to see the incomparable Britannia Coconut Dancers on their home turf.  There’s something very special about following a procession of dancers through the streets of a town to the resonant accompaniment of a silver band.

The Coconutters exude a wonderful combination of gentle warmth, fun, mystery, and seriousness about their tradition.  Many onlookers respond with obvious joy.  The young girl in the picture above had been striding along beside the band, then noticed the nutters doing their crouching move and copied them gleefully.

There’s a strong sense, in good way, that this tradition belongs to the town.  Bacup has been left in a state of post-industrial decline for far too long, so the nutters make a much needed contribution to community spirit.  Speaking for ourselves, we came away feeling a lot brighter too.

The brief clip below, taken from a BBC4 film made by Rachel and Betty Unthank a few years ago, shows one of the dancers talking about the history of their dances.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sZR4MPQIk4

see also: Coconutters history.

B.T.17th April 2017.

(1) Susanna Linstrom, Nature, Environment and Poetry; Ecocriticism and the Poetics of Seamus Heaney, p89.

 

City Life

Homeless People’s Encampment, Manchester, March 2017.

On a trip to Manchester this week I was shocked by the number of homeless people, many of them quite young adults, begging on the streets.  A group of women carrying sheets of cardboard and tatty quilts.  Men sitting on the pavement, lost to the world.  More than I’ve seen in over forty years of occasional visits to that city.  The tent encampment in the photograph above (one of many that have sprung up in recent years) is less than a quarter of a mile from a building site where hoardings announce the impending arrival of a 30 storey tower of luxury apartments ‘with unrivalled 360 degree views’.  And now we have Theresa May, a Tory Prime Minister, claiming she runs “a government that is working for everyone and for every part of the country.”

My younger self had some involvement in housing action in Manchester in the early 1970’s, when at least there was a lot of council house building, and a relatively more equal distribution of wealth.  Today’s escalating housing crisis, which visible street homelessness is only one part of, has been driven by a raft of draconican legislation coupled with cuts in welfare benefits and local government budgets.  The net result of this is that mutual respect between the super rich, or indeed the affluent, and those cast out beyond the increasingly shredded safety net of the welfare state becomes almost unimaginable.

As I was walking along the towpath of the Rochdale Canal beyond Castlefields, a young man approached me.  His manner was friendly, and he was evidently quite excited about something he wanted to show me.  I asked him what it was, but he couldn’t seem to find any words to describe it – so I offered to go and have a look.  We hurried to a spot about 50 yards further along, where he pointed urgently across the canal.  I scanned the opposite bank, which was covered with scrubby trees and detritus, but still wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking for.  Then I saw it.  Standing, stock still, and blending in with the background vegetation.  A heron.  When I told him what it was, his face broke into a radiant smile.  This was his first heron!  What a privilege to share a moment like that.

As he went on his way, I hoped he’d be o.k.  After all, we’ve been ‘told’ often enough how dangerous young black men are …

B.T. 25th March 2017.

For more on homelessness in Manchester see here, here, here, and here.

Austerity Watch, Cut to Death.

DWP-Wheelchair-Cliff

Respectful relationship is widely recognised as a core principle of contemporary animism, but most recent writings on animism, including my own, have tended to focus on relations between humans and other-than-human beings in the context of mounting global ecocide, rather than dealing with the politics of human communities in crisis.  This omission worries me.

In the early sixties, Gary Snyder set out a vision of Buddhist anarchism.  More recently the anthropologist Brian Morris described the social relations of hunter gatherer peoples as a form of anarchy.  “The key idea expressed by the Malaipantaran is one of mutual aid, which includes sharing, reciprocity, and an ethic of generosity”.(1)  Ecofeminsm has tackled what Val Plumwood called ‘human self-enclosure’ (2), as well as the politics of gender relations, and social and environmental equity.

As someone who went through four kafkaesque Incapacity Benefit tribunals while negotiating the challenges of M.E, and previously worked in the ‘mental health’ field promoting self-advocacy, I’m outraged by the ever worsening treatment of people who find themselves reliant on disablity or unemployment benefits, and by the relentless dismantling of the welfare state, and public services (here in the U.K).  There is a pressing need to defend and democratise provision of care and support for vulnerable people.

A recent article in the Sunday Herald  revealed that benefits staff in Glasgow have been issued with new guidance on dealing with unsuccessful applicants for Universal Credit who are suicidal.  Call centre workers have been told to wave a pink card above their head.  A manager will then rush over and listen in while the untrained worker makes an assessment of the situation, asking questions in order to find out ‘specifically what is planned, when it is planned for’ and whether the ‘customer’ has ‘the means to hand’.  The dangers of such an approach should be obvious!  The new guidance also warns staff that they “may have thoughts and feelings about the situation” afterwards, and that this is ‘normal’.  Members of staff should, in other words, get over it.

A friend who was a psychotherapist worked for a while with Benefits Agency staff who, several years ago, were already being stressed and sometimes traumatised by constant pressure to ‘agitate the customers’, and by a competitive culture that sets targets for punitive ‘sanctions’ that deprive people of the money they need to survive.

In March, a parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee reported that forty people had taken their own lives since 2012 because of problems with welfare payments.  The disability campaign group Black Triangle then estimated that as many as eighty suicide cases were directly to benefit cuts,(3) and as I write the Guardian has reported new figures from the DWP showing that 2,380 people died between 2011 and 2014 shortly after a Work Capability Assessment found them fit for work, and about to lose their benefit.  Since the cause of death was not recorded these figures need to be interpreted with caution, but at nearly 800 deaths a year, it looks as though either the DWP criteria of fitness for work are woefully unrealistic, or Black Triangle have underestimated the number of deaths attributable to the effects of losing benefits.

Amongst the tragic stories reported by Black Triangle are those of:

Mark Wood, a ‘sweet and gentle’ man, aged 44, who was found fit for work by Atos against his Doctors advice that he had complex mental health problems.  He starved to death after his benefits were stopped, weighing only 5st 8lb when he died.

Paul Reekie, a 48 year old poet and author who suffered from severe depression and took his own life after the DWP stopped his benefits due to an Atos ‘fit for work’ decision.

Leanne Chambers, aged 30, who suffered from depression for many years, and committed suicide soon after being called in for a Work Capacity Assessment”.

The DWP, however, does not regard claimants with mental health difficulties as ‘vulnerable’ (see here).  The new guidelines have been issued ahead of another tranche of welfare ‘reforms‘ spun as saving people from ‘welfare dependency’.  Such rhetoric is, of course, designed to maintain public support for the Tory government’s £12bn programme of cuts to the welfare budget by 2109-20.

This is the Black Triangle Campaign‘s rationale for the symbol they use:

The Nazis forced people with mental and other disabilities to wear black triangles in the extermination camps during the Holocaust. The generic classification they used was “Arbeitsscheu” – literally “Workshy”. This term is also the one most favoured in our right-wing tabloid press to described incapacity and disability benefit claimants today.

This group of people could also include the homeless, alcoholics, prostitutes, draft dodgers, pacifists and travellers (Roma).

It is salutary to use the black triangle as the symbol of the UK Disabled People’s Protest Movement because British society is at present seeing an increasing number of violent and deadly attacks on people of disability in the community, and the tormenting of disabled people leading to tragic suicides and an official policy on the part of the State to infer that disabled people are just “workshy” and must be reclassified as “fit for work.”

It has become socially acceptable to ridicule, demonise and denigrate the disabled, both in public and in the mass media.

This hatred and ridicule derives from the same source as all the other evil in the world that leads to murder and genocide.”

We urgently need a politics of honesty, compassion, and respect, capable of fostering and supporting a culture of sharing, reciprocity, and generosity.

B.T 27/8/15.

If you’re being affected by these issues now, you can contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90, or via their website, here.

Sources

(1) Brian Morris, Anarchism, Individualism and South Indian foragers: memories and reflections, Radical Anthropology 37.

(2) Val Plumwood Environmental Culture, The Ecological Crisis of Reason, 2002.

(3) Jon Stone, DWP Staff Given Suicide Guidance ahead of Iain Duncan Smith’s Welfare Reforms, The Independent 27/8/15.

On Austerity in the U.K see, Fraces Ryan’s excellent articles in the New Statesman, http://www.newstatesman.com/writers/frances_ryan

Economy as Ecology, Postcapitalism in the writings of J.K. Gibson Graham

Water Mill, photo courtesy of Pennine Horizons Digital Archive.

Water Mill, photo courtesy of Pennine Horizons Digital Archive.

“What if we were to see the economy as ecology -as a web of human ecological behaviors no longer bounded but fully integrated into a complex flow of ethical and energetic interdependencies: births, contaminations, self-organizings, mergings, extinctions, and patterns of habitat maintenance and destruction?”

J.K. Gibson Graham is the joint pen name for feminist economic geographers Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham.  My purpose here is flag up their writings as a source of ideas on cultivating postcapitalist enclaves, and selves. “When we begin to recognize that we are not alone in our livelihoods, and that our human economies are inextricably linked with the economies of more-than-human others, might our ways of understanding and experiencing economic crisis, development and well-being begin to fundamentally shift? … Can we, for example, begin to see the chickens, bees and fruit trees of a cooperative farm not as part of that farm’s commons (as shared resources), but rather as living beings participating in the co-constitution of the community that, together, makes and shares the farm?”(1)

Whilst I found myself enthusing about some of this recent writing about economy as ecology, I was troubled by A Postcapitalist Politics.  Geared towards an academic readership, this quite densely theoretical tome claims to be influenced by ‘the postcapitalist indigenous communalism’ of the Zapatistas, by anarchic situationism -with its ability to ‘send affective shockwaves that reverberate through the brittle architecture of established forms’, by second wave feminism -with its organisational horizontality and insistence on non-monopoly of the spoken word or information, by Mondragon -with its extensive network of worker-owned co-operatives, and by the World Social Forums -that bring together local social movements that co-create a politics of possibility.

I was not at all sure, however, how this rousing chorus of influences informed some of the material from their own local action research projects. In an opening chapter dealing with ‘affects and emotions for a postcapitalist politics’ I was uncomfortable with the use of medicalising and/or psychologising terms (‘paranoia’ and ‘melancholia’) in relation to an impulse to locate and defend rigidly ‘politically correct’ theories.  Whilst it may well be useful to examine our emotional investment in adopting certain kinds of political position, my background in the critical mental health movement alerts me to the need, at the very least, to acknowledge the historical and present day consequences of the medicalistion of distress and madness.

The authors invite us to dis-identify with the subject positions offered by hegemonic ‘Capitolocentric’ discourse, and establish alternative identities related to active participation in community economies.  I was even less comfortable, however, with their reccomendation of the work of narrative therapists, who have seemed uninterested in historical or political contexts, in the process of reframing and re-storying the life of a community damaged by economic disinvestment.  The resulting community research looked, to me, rather like an excercise in mass Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Outo Kumpo stainless steel mill, Sheffield.  Geograph.org.uk c.c.

Outo Kumpo stainless steel mill, Sheffield. Geograph.org.uk c.c.

Worse still, the authors resort to theories from the dominant and conspicuously de-politicising power-knowledge discourse of neuroscience about the role of the amygdala in panic, in the context of ‘producing and sustaining positive affect’ in a community that is expressing ‘aversive reactions’ of hostility and anger, and a deep sense of powerlessnes.  Aaaagh!  In my experience, as a community development worker, personal empowerment and political understanding emerges of its own accord, organically (and far more effectively), through mutual-aid, self-advocacy, ‘consciousness raising’, and collective action of various kinds, led and managed by community members.  There is no need to impose expert models and ‘techniques’, let alone ones that psychologise economic deprivation.

That said, other aspects of these community research projects seem positive and valid (facilitating ‘a wide range of economic practices that support well-being directly, offer a social safety net, and are vehicles for community celebration and civic engagement’, and fostering alternative identities around these newly diverse activities).  Whether they, or The Full Monty, constitue a sufficient post-capitalist alternative is another question.  It will, nevertheless, be interesting to see how J.K. Gibson Graham’s ecological perspective is integrated into community development projects.

B.T. 24-7-15.

Sources: J.K. Gibson-Graham Economy as Ecological Livelihood, from ‘A Manifesto for the Anthropocene’, Puncus Books, Brooklyn, New York.
A Postcapitalist Politics, University of Minnesota Press.
The Nitty Gritty of Creating Alternative Economies.

Protest in Context; a (non-technical) astrological note in the wake of the 2015 U.K. election. .

demo_flyer_web

In the wake of a troubling general election I wanted to see what the astrological ‘weather forecast’ for the U.K. looked like over the next few years.  We don’t need astrological help to see difficulties ahead, of course, but astrology can deepen our appreciation of the cyclic nature of time, and might just enable us to ‘collaborate with the divine’ a bit more effectively as we resist injustice and ecological destruction, and try to create ‘more interesting, ingenious, and loving’ worlds.(1)

In order to illustrate this claim I want to focus on one major upcoming transit* -the passage of Pluto, ‘Lord of the Underworld’, opposite the U.K’s Moon (both circled yellow below), in a commonly used chart for the date of legal union between Great Britain and Ireland (2).  This transit will gradually build, augmented during 2016 by Uranus squaring the U.K. Moon, suggesting a continuation of the visceral impulse towards independence already seen in Scotland, and more worryingly, in the success of UKIP, and the planned referendum on E.U. membership.  It will be at its most intense during 2017-2018, and will then fade.

Major transits of Pluto to U.K 1801 Moon (shown outside circle), based on Solar Fire Graphic.

Major transits of Pluto to U.K 1801 Moon (outside circle), based on Solar Fire Graphic.

How might this work in a person’s life?

In The Astrology of Fate Liz Greene wrote that ‘the primordial chaos from which life emerges and to which it returns belonged in the beginning to the Great Mother.  The male figure of Hades was a relatively late formulation … whenever myth portrays [his] entry into the upper world, he is shown persistently acting out one scenario: rape’.  The intrusion of Pluto into consciousness ‘feels like a violation, and we, like Persephone, the maiden of the myth, are powerless to resist’.  Her discussion considers the purposefulness of fate, but also evokes the sometimes un-bearable nature of ‘plutonic’ experience.(3)

Since 1984 we’ve hopefully become more aware that allegories of abduction and rape might be inappropriate in relation to cathartic experience and (not least when taken to imply cosmic purposefullness) crises caused by oppression and abuse.  We also have more access to other readings/versions of the story, in which Persephone-Kore, as the original and primary goddess, enters freely into a sacred marriage with Hades. (e.g Sara Pike’s review of Ann Suter’s The Narcissus and the Pomegranate).  That said, we still need to acknowledge the intensity of pain and struggle involved in both personal and communal crises, and the toxic ancestral inheritance that often impels such eruptions.

'Slum clearance', Manchester, 1972. Photo B.T.

‘Slum clearance’, a Personal Moon-Pluto Period in Manchester, 1972.

With the benefit of hindsight my own experience of this transit, in my early to mid-20’s was interesting and briefly turbulent, but ultimately constructive.  I left the parental home (natal Moon) for the last time and went to live in a wood where I meditated amongst the trees while three friends enacted a tense sexual triangle (a classic Pluto theme).  Moving to inner city Manchester I then got involved in housing action and crisis support.  During the following year a personal crisis culminated in an unforgettable visionary experience.

Astrology of the Collective

Parallels between individual stories and the life of nations are of limited value however.  The social is not an individual writ large, and history shows that on the collective level we are far from ‘powerless to resist’.

Mundane (‘of the world’) astrology should perhaps be approached with even more caution than natal astrology.  Its not necessarily obvious how the charts of nations work, and its all too easy to be seduced into making casual claims about history and politics.  What follows is intended as an exploratory excercise, but it does, I think, raise some quite profound existential questions.

The Moon in a nation’s chart is said to represent the people (the masses), and might be expected to reflect conditions for women, and for children.  The U.K’s Moon, at the top of the chart, in the public tenth house, has been linked to our tradition of parliamentary democracy, but could also be read as an image of a people uprooted from the land (far removed from the base of the chart, the ‘Earth Point’/4th house cusp, of roots, the home, inheritance, family origins, ‘property’, land, gardens, fields, orchards, ‘the tillage of the earth’***, and ecological foundations).  Pluto’s major transits signify (and perhaps unleash) periods of turbulence, power struggles, death (symbolic or physical) and destruction, and if conditions are favourable and things go well, transformation and renewal.  They may also indicate material interventions such as mining, or demolition and rebuilding.  A good way of illuminating the upcoming transit of Pluto opposite the U.K. Moon is to look at previous comparable transits.**

Margaret Thatcher Elected

When Pluto squared the U.K Moon in 1979-80, Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister inaugurated a period of manufacturing meltdown, with the loss of some two million jobs.  Inflation was brought down at the cost of steeply rising unemployment (by August 1980 to 2 million, for the first time since the 1930’s).  Many communities were subsequently devastated by multi-generational unemployment.  With the Pluto transit forming (in 1978) the Ridley Plan, a strategic document outlining the new government’s preparations for taking on the miners (who had defeated a Conservative government in the 1970’s), had been leaked to the press.  ‘Power’ is a keyword for astrological Pluto, and revenge is a Pluto/Scorpio theme.

Thatcher’s victory followed what the right wing media successfully mythologised as ‘the winter of discontent’.  In response to wage restraint and spending cuts (amounting to 20% of public spending) imposed by a Labour government at the behest of the neo-liberal I.M.F, some 2,000 strikes were organised by low paid public sector workers during an unusually severe winter.  Since much is still made of the supposed profligacy and ineptitude of ‘retro socialism’ effective counter-narratives are needed about the causes of these disputes (such as here).  The period was, nevertheless, ‘a positive and transformative time’ for many female activists.(4)  During the early 1980’s there were large scale trade union demonstrations, and inner city riots.

Ther Great Depression

Moving back through history we find Pluto crossing the U.K. Moon during 1929-30, which was, of course, the period of the Great Depression.  At this time unemployment rose steeply (to 2.9 million by the summer of 1932).  The ‘co-incidence’ of finding another period of mass unemployment under this transit cycle is, well, striking.  In 1931 unemployment benefits were cut by 10% and the means test introduced.  Attendance at work camps (‘slave camps’) was made compulsory for the long term unemployed, in the face of opposition from socialists and anarchists (see here and here).  The National Union of Unemployed Workers organised National Hunger Marches against the means test.

My granparents at Herne Bay, Kent, 1934.

My grandparents at Herne Bay, Kent, 1934.

The photograph above shows my mother (sitting on a farm gate) with her parents, on a trip to Herne Bay.  On a much less happy occasion, when my grandfather was made redundant (I don’t have an exact date), he walked about twenty five miles, from Charlton out into the Kent countryside, on the strength of a rumour that there were jobs to be had at an engineering works in Edenbridge.  By the time he got there the jobs had gone.  He would then have had to walk home.  This, apparently, was the only time my gran saw him cry.

Chartism and the Plug Riots

The next comparable transit occured in 1840-42, long before Pluto was discovered.  This was during the period of chartist agitation for universal male suffage, the repeal of the hated 1934 Poor Law that was forcing unemployed people into workhouses, and the repeal of the Act of Union with Ireland.  During the transit several massive petitions (and see here) were taken to parliament.  In the words of the 1838 petition, presented to parliament by a progressive M.P. from my home town:

“The land itself is goodly, the soil rich, and the temperature wholesome; it is abundantly furnished with the materials of commerce and trade; it has numerous and convenient harbours; in facility of internal communication it exceeds all others.  For three-and-twenty years we have enjoyed a profound peace. Yet with all these elements of national prosperity, and with every disposition and capacity to take advantage of them, we find ourselves overwhelmed with public and private suffering …

We have looked upon every side, we have searched diligently in order to find out the causes of a distress so sore and so long continued.  We can discover none, in nature, or in providence.  Heaven has dealt graciously by the people; but the foolishness of our rulers has made the goodness of God of none effect.

The energies of a mighty kingdom have been wasted in building up the power of selfish and ignorant men, and its resources squandered for their aggrandisement. The good of a party has been advanced to the sacrifice of the good of the nation; the few have governed for the interest of the few, while the interest of the many has been neglected, or insolently and tyrannously trampled upon”.

Atfer both this, and an even larger petition in 1842, had been rejected by parliament, the Chartists organised a massive wave of strikes that came to be known as the Plug Riots (see here, here, and here).  This ‘first general strike’ involved some half a million workers, and was the biggest excercise of working class strength in the nineteenth century.

The Factory System

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, in 1771, during a previous passage of undiscovered Pluto across 19 degrees Capricorn (where it will be once again in 2017-18), opposing the Moon in the chart of a yet-to-be-inaugurated United Kingdom, we find Richard Arkwright, inventor of the water frame and ‘father of the factory system’, establishing the first successful water powered cotton spinning mill.  Arkwright, who had moved from Preston to Nottingham to escape the militancy of Lancashire cotton spinners, started with 200 workers, mostly women and children.  Dr Andrew Ure, in his Philosophy of Manufactures (1835) wrote: “To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory dilligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright”.  In a chapter on the moral economy of the factory system Ure extolled the ‘sublime spectacle’ of Sunday schools as ‘quiet fortresses’ at times of ‘political excitement'(5). ‘The great transformation’ had been unleashed.(6)

It would be interesting to make a fuller study of this cycle, looking at other possible significations of the Moon and Pluto, other aspects, and other transits (particularly the Uranus square).  But if we accept that the above demonstrates a cyclic pattern, we must surely also conclude that our lives, and the lives of the collectives we are part of, are to some extent ‘fated’ -choreographed by the cyclic dance of more-than-material bodies, planetary powers, some say gods, moving through the vastness of space; and that we live within an intimately communicative, sentient and/or ensouled cosmos.  Unfortunately ‘the foolishness of our leaders [still too often] makes the goodness of [those gods] of none effect …’.

B.T 2/7/15.

Notes:

* In astrology ‘transit’ refers to the passage of a planet either directly across, or making a signficant angular aspect to, a given point in a horoscope.  Both the transiting body and horoscope point are charged with symbolic meaning that will manifest in various ways during the period of the transit. ** I’ve restricted this discussion to the 4th harmonic ‘hard’ aspects -conjunctions, oppositions, and squares.  Each transit would be close for two or three years, and would fade in and out for several years before and after exactitude. I’ve mostly looked at events that occured while the transits were within a 2 degrees orb. ***Willilam Lilly Christian Astrology

Sources:  (1) adapted from ‘democratic animist’ astrologer Caroline Casey’s Making the Gods Work for You, Harmony Books, 1998.  (2) Michael Baigent, Nicholas Campion, and Charles Harvey, Mundane Astrology, Aquarian, 1984, pp533-439.  (3) Liz Greene, The Astrology of Fate, George Allen and Unwin, 1984. pp38-40. (4) Tara Martin-Lopez and Sheila Rowbotham, The Winter of Discontent; Myth, Memory, and History, Palgrave MacMillan 2013. (5) E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, 1963 pp395-7. (6) Karl Polanyi, via Molly Scott Cato The Bioregional Economy.

Nurturing the Emotional and Spiritual Base of our Communities.

Bluebell,

Common (or English) Bluebell,  Hyacinthoides non-scripta.

Another day, another grim story.  One of the biggest waste disposal firms in the U.K is fitting cameras to its trucks because so many rough sleepers are sheltering in refuse bins.  They found 93 people sleeping amongst the rubbish last year.  Since their machinery couldn’t differentiate between cardboard, wood, and human flesh, this is an extremely dangerous place to seek refuge.

Who knows how many people have taken their own lives because of an ever more mean and abusive disability and unemployment benefits system?  Thousands end up in police cells because there are no crisis services where they live.  Women’s aid refuges are being closed (see here).   Over a million people are reliant on food banks. Some 50,000 social housing tennants were evicted and moved out of their London Borough over the past three years because of welfare cuts and the bedroom tax (see here).  Nearly 700,000 people are now on a zero-hours contract in their main job.

If you care about social justice, these (and many other equally pressing) issues will be all too familiar.  We’re still reeling from a General Election on May 7th that gave the Tories another five years.  Labour failed to make the case that austerity has been bad for the economy as well as for those impoverished, harrassed, and traumatised, by punitive social policies.  They even exploited a groundswell of xenophobia by producing a red souvenir “Controls on Immigration” mug -at a time when more than 1,700 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea attempting to reach Europe in the months up to April 2015 (see here).

Global concerns, and ecological issues barely registered.  I don’t want to re-run a party political discussion here, but its not just the Labour Party that needs to reflect on what has just happened.

Blubells and Ransomes (Wild Garlic) in a Pennine Wood, May 2015.

Blubells and Ramsons (Wild Garlic) in a Pennine Wood, May 2015.

The spring flowers seem to have been unusually vibrant this year.  Perhaps my ageing heart is more open to them, but the need to protect other-than-human nature from those who see the world in terms of economic resources, private property, and status symbols, feels ever more urgent.  As does the need to nurture what we might think of as the emotional and/or spiritual base of our communities, without which alternative green/left politics will surely succumb to the pandemic of alienation generated by whatever we call the toxic mix of patriarchal culture, modernist technoscience, corporate capitalism, and transcendent religion.

As I walked through the woods I couldn’t help thinking about the threat posed to the ‘English’ bluebell, hyacinthoides non-scripta, from hybridisation (with both the much paler, more fleshy leaved and upright, Spanish Bluebell, hyacinthoides hispanica, and the resulting fertile hybrid, hyacinthoides hispanica x non-scripta). The species is also threatened by illegal picking and trampling, and by climate change (it will lose the ‘early advantage’ from storing energy in bulb form as temperature dependent species grow earlier in the year).

There have been patriotic appropriations of this wonderful plant.  A late Victorian source claimed that bluebells blossomed on St George’s Day and that their flowers were as blue as the ocean over which Britannia ruled.(1)  But since perhaps as much as a half the global population of the species is found in the U.K there’s a reasonable case to protect its integrity, hopefully without resorting to xenophobic language about alien invaders.

According to Plant Life the bluebell (a.k.a Fairy Flower or Wood Bell) was once thought to ring out to summon fairies to their gatherings.  Anyone who heard a bluebell ring would soon die.  I’m not sure about that, but its not hard to see why carpets of bluebells were associated with enchantment.

B.T 19/5/15.

Source:

Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Shire Classics, 1969/2013.

Alternatives to Austerity

53871_1

Given that animist ethics focus on respectful relationship and ecological sustainability, animists may have a distinctive contribution towards envisioning a world beyond rampant inequality and overconsumption.

With a General Election looming here in the U.K, every day brings further news of the consequences of ‘austerity’ -prison overcrowding, increased suicide rates, homelessness, food banks, zero hours contracts, punitive welfare sanctions, chronic poverty and insecurity – washed down by a daily diet of political disinformation (‘spin’), as the super rich continue to amass absurd levels of wealth, to the point of jeapordising the rest of the economy.

In many parts of the world, things have been much worse.  A recent Channel 4 News report from Greece paused by a colourful piece of graffiti that read: “Why don’t we sweetly fall into non-existence”.

In this context Syriza’s victory in the recent Greek elections feels like a much needed breath of fresh air.  They define themselves broadly as a party of the radical democratic left, encompassing ecological, feminist, and new social movements, a spectrum of concerns reflected in the red, green, and purple flags of their party’s logo.  According to their website they intend to ‘promote a programme of social and economic reconstruction, aiming at development that promotes human need and respects nature’, and to pursue ‘friendly relations with all countries, especially our neighbours’.  The task they face is immense, but as aspirations go, this sounds quite sensible to me.

One of their first challenges has been to confront a barrage of hostility, from some sections of the left (!) -for not planning to leave the capitalist E.U. and expropriating the wealth of the rich- and from mainstream media portraying them as ‘far’ left zealots, as well as political doublespeak in their dealings with Europe.  Many ‘developing’ countries have faced similar situations in the past, where banks lent irresponsibly to corrupt elites, and then the I.M.F. enforced structural ‘reforms’ that imposed punitive burdens on those least able to pay.

The situation in Greece has been portrayed as a story of feckless irresponsible Mediterraneans living beyond their means, but as Yannis Varoufakis, the new Syriza government’s finance minister, makes clear, Syriza opposed the loans negotiated by the previous government, and have been campaigning against corruption and tax immunity.  They are unlikely to get everything right, and won’t be able to do everything they’d like to, but I wish them well.

As our own general election looms, I read with some dismay, following Prime Minister Cameron’s announcement that he plans to reduce the benefits cap (a recently introduced limit to the amount of welfare benefts a family can receive) from £26,000 to £23,000, in the interests of ‘fairness’ to those who work hard for a living, that this was our government’s most popular policy (with 70% support).

Like all good propaganda the benefits cap sounds superficially reasonable, but, of course, the only reason families need so much financial assistance is because rents, driven by soaring house prices (due to the soaring incomes of the aforementioned global super-rich who are currently investing hand over fist in London property), are so high.  Most of these benefits go straight into the pockets of landlords, or in the case of social housing, back into the public purse.

A housing association with properties across the South East of England said that Cameron’s announcement would put three bed houses out of the reach of social housing tennants across the entire region, and in a couple year’s time two bed accomodation would also become unaffordable (see here).  Large families would have to join the exodus of tennants unable to stay in London because of inadequate housing benefit.  Cameron also plans to remove housing benefit from 18 to 21 year olds on Jobseekers’ Allowance, a move described by Shelter’s chief executive as ‘a disaster’ (here).  The solution to spiralling benefits for landlords, of course, lies in measures such as re-introducing a system of regulated fair rents.

I mention this as an example of the doublethink/spin/deception/lies we are continually bombarded with. (for more on Cameron’s justification of the policy, a fallacious claim that the cap forces people back to work, see this by Patrick Butler in The Grauniad).  As the earth around us gradually awakens from slumber of the Northern Hemisphere winter, may we, individually and collectively, see the world around us clearly, and do what we can to create a culture of respectful relationship and ecological sustainability …

B.T. 3/1/15.

 

Sources:

Yannis Varoufakis’s blog

Marina Prentoulis, From Protest to Power, the Transformation of Syriza, Red Pepper, Jan 2015.

Nick Dearden, Greece Lights up Europe, Global Justice Now, 27th January 2015.