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The return of abundance?

I was thinking about the idea of abundance, wondering whether, as with so many things this year, it might be taking on a different feel. So I went and asked some people I thought might have some interesting ideas on it. And it turns out, they did:

The return of abundance?

As we tentatively move into the recovery phase following this year’s unprecedented events, our political leaders are once more trumpeting the need for growth, with the Prime Minister in July channelling Franklin D Roosevelt and the New Deal of post-Depression 1930s America. He neglected to mention Roosevelt’s caveat: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”

            One doesn’t have to be particularly militant to see that in recent years, the world has not scrupulously followed that adage. A world where steroid-boosted superyachts in the Mediterranean sail past leaking rubber dinghies crammed with economic migrants is not one which many of us, at heart, admire. So should we be cautious about welcoming the Growth-Is-All mantra this time round and temper our rush back to the cookie jar?

            Professor Steven Gunn, Professor of Early Modern History at Merton College, Oxford, sees a hint of what he calls “the ambiguities of abundance” in Tudor England:

            “Abundance would have meant very different things to different people in Tudor England. For the King, abundance was fitting: the monarch had to be magnificent enough to overawe rivals abroad and subjects at home. For others, abundance was a matter less of strategy and more of the quality of the harvest. Meanwhile, population growth and engagement with global trade enabled the newly wealthy to become more so, and the poor, poorer. The godly, as a note in the 1587 Geneva Bible said, shall have abundance because their heart is satisfied in God only. But what if they also had material abundance? Was that a sign of God’s blessing, or a sign of self-indulgence fed by the grinding of the poor? The ambiguities of abundance came together in the courtly splendour of the Tudor age, its unsettling economic change and its anxious spiritual self-examination.”

            It seems that abundance and her sister, shortage, have always been hardwired into the human consciousness. The land-slave of ancient Sparta, the helot, could tolerate giving up to half of his harvest to his proprietor as long as the harvest was good; but in a bad year, he was still obliged to offer up as many bushels of grain and thus struggled to feed his family. But what happens, as with Lockdown, when we deliberately trigger that shortage?

            Former banker and now successful thriller-writer Michael Ridpath: “The Corona virus has created pools of malevolent abundance. There is too much oil, oil prices have dived; there is too much labour, people are sitting at home when they could be working; there is too much saving, interest rates have plunged and the stock market has risen preposterously; there is too much borrowing. Of course some of this will sort itself out, the abundance will diminish and balance will be restored. But for the enormous factory that is the 21st century capitalist economy, abundance is not helpful.”

            Lisa McCormack and John Schofield, co-owners of independent London garden centre The Battersea Flower Station, sustained their business through Lockdown by hand-delivering a smaller range of carefully selected plants and flowers to their customers’ doors. As John says: “Abundance is such a lovely word, but it’s old-fashioned. I close my eyes and imagine a harvest, an orchard windfall. We have so much material abundance in our world now, we’ve lost sight of what it means. Leaving a tray of geraniums and bacopa on someone’s front porch over the last few months has been such a simple joy.” Not a few commentators, witnessing the daily business carnage amongst the big corporates, are pointing to the smaller, local independents for signs of recovery.

            Does this mean that we should be using this opportunity to re-envisage our understanding of abundance, to move it away from a purely materialist conception? Social entrepreneur and writer Rohini Nilekani believes so. She says of her home country, India: “As people return to life and work post the lockdown, some predictions point to a mad rush to do even more than before. Travel more, buy more, meet more people, eat out more — do more of more. The government too is expected to do more to restore economic growth and livelihoods. To achieve this, many states might roll back labour laws that took decades of human rights movements to build, and push aside hard-won environmental protection. One pathway is to shift from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance. For there is abundance everywhere, if only we look for it. Opportunities are everywhere — in energy, in mobility, in agriculture, and in livelihood generation. Last but not least, let’s unlock our spiritual treasure trove.”

            Yoga teachers Preetam Kaur and Ratan Veer Singh of the Kundalini Yoga Collective endorse that idea. “Feeling abundant is a state of gratitude. Abundance allows us to breathe freely, to be ourselves. It frees us from the chains of Not-Enough. 2020 has given us an opportunity to revaluate our lives and re-orientate ourselves. The light has shone brightly upon what we do have and what we are most grateful for – our families, our homes, our pets, our breath. As we come out of lockdown the invitation is to nurture these feelings of gratitude so as to create a lasting feeling of abundance. Abundance is the knowledge that there is enough for everyone and that everything is available to you if you can tune into how plentiful the Universe is. We have enough. We are enough.”

            One person who has had more abundance than most is artist and writer Molly Parkin. Money, love, sex, booze, art, friendship, travel: in her 88 years, she’s packed more in than most of us will ever experience. Sitting in the garden of her council flat in Chelsea, she summed up what abundance might really mean.

            “I was brought up in Pontecymer, a Welsh mining valley, by amazing aunts. The First World War had killed off all the men. There was no difference between miners and teachers and shopkeepers; snobbery didn’t exist. And ever since, I’ve been surrounded by an abundance of attention and affection and love and opportunity. Abundance is about being open rather than closed. It goes with eagerness, attention to detail, giving your best instead of holding back. I’ve always been the one who said, I’ll do it, whether that was cleaning the stove or hosting an orgy. I think I wanted to push everything into my life because my aunts, when I was a child, hadn’t just lost their men, they lost their children too: my mother was the only child of my beautiful grandmother and her coalminer husband – all the other children died before they were ten. My life now is totally effortless: I sit in this garden, I paint, I think of the mountain top in Pontecymer I used to climb on my own to talk to God. But he’s not there Moll, they used to say – he’s in the Chapel. I’d say, he is, he’s up there where the sun is. He’s abundant.”

            The post-Lockdown world will bring with it a host of new problems for us to face: problems of material scarcity, of increased political powers, concerns and trepidation about our social interactions. Perhaps by willing a new mutual understanding of abundance, we can envisage a more sustainable future for us all.

………………………..

Professor Steven Gunn is Tutor in History and Professor of Early Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. His most recent book is The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII. Michael Ridpath is a former City banker turned thriller writer. Lisa McCormack and John Schofield run the Battersea Flower Station (https://www.batterseaflowerstation.co.uk/). Rohini Nilekani (https://rohininilekani.org/) is a philanthropist and Founder-Chairperson of Arghyam, a foundation she set up for sustainable water and sanitation in India. Preetam Kaur and Ratan Veer Singh lead the London-based Kundalini Yoga Collective (https://kundaliniyogacollective.co.uk/). Molly Parkin is a painter and writer. She exhibits her work at the gallery run by her daughter Sophie, the Stash Gallery at Vout-o-Reenees (http://vout-o-reenees.com/).

Commons Room: the next generation of social media

Simon Petherick heads to the wild frontier of the web and finds the co-operative movement taking on a new form in cyberspace. (This article out in the latest edition of The Idler, May/June 2020, available here – https://www.idler.co.uk/join/ and here – https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/.

Do you think at some point in the not-too-distant future, we’ll look back on our 2020 selves and ask: what on earth were 2.45 billion of us doing on Facebook; 330 million scribbling on Twitter; 1 billion snapping away on Instagram? Because let’s be clear: what we’re doing here is giving away our content – our photos, our witticisms, our philosophical conjectures – to people we don’t know and who are using our content to make themselves very wealthy through selling advertising and user profile data. Nick Clegg – remember him? – is now effectively an advertising salesman.

The internet was once imagined by Tim Berners Lee and his colleagues as an open space for the sharing of information. He felt so strongly about this that he refused to apply for a patent in his invention, arguing that the internet should always be a public, open space. That space is no longer open, it’s owned – and not by us. Amazon Web Services now delivers more profit to the North American giant than all of its online retail activities. BP, for example, has just migrated all of its online data to AWS, so bear in mind next time you use one of their handy loyalty cards when you top up with petrol, old Jeff Bezos will be quietly filing your data in his back room.
In other countries, the internet is owned by the state – China famously is able literally to turn the internet off when it wishes to, and regularly does so when President Xi Jinping is making a specific public tour to part of the country. But back here in the West, Google (which two years ago quietly removed its founding strapline “Don’t Be Evil” from its internal Code of Conduct for what many say are self-explanatory reasons) is so closely entwined with the American military and government apparatus that it is difficult to see how they can be viewed as separate entities.

So maybe it’s worth our spending a little time exploring the potential for a different direction for the internet, one that is perhaps closer to the vision of its founding parents?

One way of doing that is to use the language of the Commons, first set down at the time of Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest: the idea of public spaces which are owned by the community and managed by the people through a mutually agreed set of operating principles.

David Bollier (http://www.bollier.org/) of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics in the US is one of the most incisive thinkers today on the subject of the Commons with a new book out, Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons (New Society Publishing, 2019.

“How can you fight the power of Facebook? The same question could have been asked about how we might fight the Soviet Union or how we could fight against capitalism; the adversary is so daunting. Right now, we as subjective human beings with diverse concerns are being turned into fodder for the market machine. And the fields of engagement have shifted recently. There still remains a struggle between those who would like to monetise and capitalise on social activity but I see it less now as a struggle between the old industrial proprietory models and the open model, and more a contest between the open model as colonised by capitalism and the Commons alternatives.

“The whole framing of social media as public spaces versus private spaces is misleading; the public/private binary presumes that the State should be the guardians of the public spaces and that corporations may control the “private,” but this binary simply doesn’t describe social reality any longer. The Commons breaks the binary by offering a third, self-organized, peer-governed space outside of state or market control. I see the Commons as a way of trying to deal with social media problems through distributing power as opposed to centralising it through the Market/State.”

So how do we convert the internet back to a space that is both owned and controlled by us, the users? Matthew Lawrence is a Director at the UK’s Common Wealth lobby (https://common-wealth.co.uk/) which has recently published a manifesto for a British Digital Co-operative which, it suggests will “legally be established by Parliament as a public cooperative whose members are the citizens and residents of the United Kingdom. The responsibility for managing this cooperative will be borne jointly by its workforce and by the public.”

For Lawrence, “the thinking behind the BDC is that, without some clear institutional support, possibly investment, then there is always going to be a bias towards a privately-owned digital realm. Therefore, we need the equivalent of the BBC to nurture digital spaces. It’s not enough to hope for organic shape, politics need to reshape them.”

This puts him and Common Wealth slightly at odds with the more cerebral approach of Bollier, who has deliberately put distance between his thinking and the conventional political guardians of alternative thought. “The left has experienced a failure of imagination,” Bollier claims, “a lack of courage, a wilful blindness to a deeper psychic, cultural and social energy. There’s a profound alienation and lack of belonging in the modern world. I want a deeper sense of sovereign vision for our future.”

Given that we’re experiencing a certain amount of jaundice about the BBC – even the football commentator Gary Lineker thinks the licence fee should be scrapped – the idea of a quasi-governmental body nurturing the internet doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. Maybe we should be going back to the kind of people who started this whole thing in the first place: geeks.

I cycle down to a Holochain (https://holo.host/) MeetUp in Morden, south London, and meet with Holo’s charming Community Engagement Manager Eric Bear (“you can call me Eric or Bear”) and Mamading Ceesay, Holo’s thoughtful Systems Administrator. I try and keep up with their speculations on how Holochain can restore sovereignty to the web.

Think back to those raggedy days of Napster and BitTorrent when teenagers were uploading music files into the ethernet and in return, were downloading other files. It was called file-sharing, and for a while before the lawyers shut it down, it was a way of getting hold of music and games and films without going through an established vendor. Mary Camacho, the Executive Director of Holo, dismisses this: “previous peer-to-peer models like Napster or BitTorrent were essentially about cheating the system, about finding ways to get around paying for music.”

So what Holochain is about is creating an internet which is not based on data being centralised in one place – Amazon’s servers, Google’s, Apple’s, the Chinese Government’s – but is about data being held on innumerable mini servers which belong to individuals all over the world. Holochain creates a software language which enables each individual to act as an identified agent for the transfer and holding of data. So I might upload a picture of my cat for you to admire, you might upload a song you’d like people to purchase. I might authorise my picture to be used in a number of scenarios managed by Apps which use Holochain software, you might give authority for your song to be downloaded. But if anyone misuses the picture, or tries to link your song with, say, an anti-Semitic trope, the bad agent who is doing this can be identified within the system and blocked.

Mary Camacho takes up the case: “The most significant thing Holochain is doing is inverting the paradigm so that you own your data, not someone else.”

These are early days, so there are not many practical models yet released by the Holo techies but if you want to keep tabs on some of their interesting experiments, then take a look at Junto https://junto.foundation/ – a social media platform start-up that’s using the Holochain infrastructure or Humm https://humm.earth/ – another Holochain-based experiment, this time in collective publishing. Neither of these is quite ready for you to leap in and use, but if you’re interested in this area they’re worth keeping an eye on.

Holochain is just one example of attempts to reclaim what we’ve lost. Other interesting experiments are Mastodon (https://joinmastodon.org/) which currently has over four million users of its social network; Diaspora (https://diasporafoundation.org/) which allows you to make longer blog posts to share; NextCloud (https://nextcloud.com/) which claims to give you control over how your data is stored; Peertube (https://joinpeertube.org/) has 20,000 users owning and sharing 100,000 videos; Scuttlebutt (https://scuttlebutt.nz/) is more of a co-operative approach to the sharing of data.

A lot of these projects arise out of a notion called the Fediverse (https://fediverse.party/) which, like Holochain, use a multiplicity of servers to break down notions of central control. The idea is that by decentralizing content you deprive advertisers of a controlled and quantifiable audience, and therefore take away the attractiveness of these social media platforms to acquisitive capital.

If one of your concerns is about privacy, then WhatsApp, the current text tool of choice in the world, is now challenged by other models such as Signal (https://www.signal.org/) which has Edward Snowden on its homepage extolling the virtues of its improved privacy. Or you can go the whole hog and move your email away from Google and Apple servers and on to an encrypted network such as Proton (https://protonmail.com/) which makes a virtue of the fact that its servers are located in Switzerland and protected by Swiss privacy laws.

Another way to begin to explore alternative internet models is by geography. Mat Lawrence of Common Wealth points to a geographic devolution as one of the other alternative processes within the digital sphere. Highlighting the Scottish National Party’s digital policy he references also other geographic digital ventures: Guifi in Barcelona (https://guifi.net/es/), co-operative digital ventures in Ghent and Bristol, Liverpool and Amersterdam. There are plenty of operators in these areas trying to establish democratically owned internet spaces which are not sitting on privately-owned web spaces and you may well find some interesting folk dibbling around in these areas close to where you live.
Oh, and obviously it goes without saying that there is also this safe space for the liberty-minded individual: https://www.idler.co.uk/.

So it’s possible that, pace Gil Scott Heron, the revolution won’t be televised, it will be decentralised. And this process won’t be immediate: all the thinkers I spoke to for this piece stressed how long a game this will be. Bollier talks about people slowly being drawn to Commons-based alternatives like the filaments of a magnet; Camacho is sensibly modest about Holo’s role: “We’re part of the process, it will be slow-going.” For a long time yet, if you’re wanting to know which obscure pub that 1970s band you loved once are playing in next month, you’re probably going to be including Facebook in your search. But maybe we should all be thinking more practically about limiting our usage of these monolithic social media monsters and considering other ways of interacting.

The Idler’s editor appears to have weaned himself off Twitter but then he has his regular subscription email to his readers to get things off his chest. If you’d like to do the same but don’t really want that Mark Zuckerberg looking over your shoulder as you type, then the encouraging news is that the future is out there. We just have to go and find it.

Céline: Death On The Instalment Plan

How sad finally to come to the end of a wonderful book. Just finished Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s 1936 novel, Death On The Instalment plan. It is, in fact, beyond wonderful: it is one of the greatest novels of the last century. It is unlike anything written before or since, it sits gloriously alone in its very own category, unmatchable, unmistakeable, impossible to copy, just as impossible not to be influenced by. Without Céline, where would the Beats have started? Or Scottish fantasists like Alasdair Gray? Or even a whole host of American noir writers?

Céline always considered himself above all to be a stylist, an obsessively dedicated surgeon of language. This novel, famous at the time for many things, was known for its liberal and unusual use of the ellipsis: … He used these, 10 or 15 per long paragraph, to introduce both a note of urgency and speed to the text and also to imprint upon it the idea of feeling, of the words themselves endeavouring to become alive. Other mechanisms are used alongside, such as the machine-gun repetitions, the coming at the subject again and again in different ways, the expletives and colloquialisms which burst out of the characters, all of whom exist at the very edge of normality, at the limits of their endurance.

He paints unforgettable characters. The maddened rages of the narrator’s father are equalled by the lunatic furies of the wife of inventor Courtial des Perieres. Nobody lives an ordinary day, even an ordinary hour; everybody in the novel is fantastic. Céline is the master of hyperbole, the hyperbole of disgust: the narrator, an amoral young man with no ties binding him to his civilisation’s ways, himself becomes regularly enraged by the hypocrisies and miseries of the life which surrounds him. At several points, either due to illness or simply the appalling realisation of the true, disgusting reality of life as it appears to him, he spirals up into pages of the most extraordinary feverish fantasy. At one point, the lad is shipped to England to try and drum some decorum into him, and the night of his arrival, aided by some unfamiliar British beer, becomes an astonishing bacchanal which, at its heart, betrays Céline’s acute powers of observation.

Many readers over the decades could not forgive the essential stance of Death On The Instalment Plan: the narrator’s utter disgust with human life. Many other readers were never able to forgive the author’s appalling anti-Semitism, which reached such heights during the German occupation of France that even some of his Nazi minders told him to tone it down. Famously, the Jewish Allan Ginsberg overcame his own disgust for Céline’s anti-Semitism in order to spend time at the writer’s feet in France towards the end of his life, such was the power of his art. Céline is perhaps the clearest possible case for the separation of the artist from his art, the necessity of accepting the evil in the man to recognise the genius in the work.

There are few truly significant novelists, few that we genuinely cannot do without. Céline is up there with them.

The edition I read, by the way, was the 1938 first UK edition, printed by the Somerset printer Butler & Tanner, which sadly went bust a few years ago. Butler & Tanner printed the first Penguin books, then went on to become the UK’s finest colour art printer. When I was a publisher, we printed Bill Drummond’s 17 at Butler & Tanner. It’s such a shame that the decades of dedication, skill and craftsmanship came to an end. There’s a nice piece about them by The Gentle Author here: https://spitalfieldslife.com/2014/05/14/so-long-butler-tanner/

Kennedy

Much talk over the last couple of weeks about the new Bob Dylan song, Murder Most Foul, which he’s released out of the blue. His first new song in a few years. You can catch it here: https://bobdylan.lnk.to/MurderMostFoulTA

I’ve listened to to it quite a few times. I think it is wonderful, a mordant love letter to America and American art (with the Beatles thrown in as a sideshow). It’s less about the politics of Kennedy’s death, less about the conspiracies surrounding Lee Harvey et al, more about the sustaining quality of American artistic life which, in retrospect, Dylan sees as being anchored to the memory of the optimism of the brief Kennedy years, before Johnson took over and began the wholesale mendacity which was his disgraceful conduct of the Vietnam war.

And I thought about the song too this evening as I played Kennedy by The Wedding Present – available here from the usual sites, although do take a gander at https://scopitones.co.uk/ to support the band. I play this song on average about three times a week. It is for me the perfect pop song. David Gedge, singer and songwriter of The Wedding Present, is one of the greatest songwriters our country has produced, and is woefully underrated.

So I started thinking about the two songs. Ostensibly utterly different: the former, a languid, meandering but piercingly angry song which, over 17 long minutes, takes us into the heart of the American artistic soul; the latter, a snatched four-minute post-punk savaging of nostalgia and sentimentality, in which Gedge snarls: “too much apple pie.”

How eloquent both songs are, about our relationship with politics and art. I see Gedge and Dylan, both remarkable songwriters, edging towards each other on a highwire stretched over the Hoover Dam, singing for us about our pasts and our futures. God bless them both.

Ten Tips For The Idle Writer

To publicise the new online course in self-publishing I’ve done for the Idler magazine, here are some tips to encourage you to get going at that book while you are stuck at home. The Idler is here: https://www.idler.co.uk/article/ten-tips-for-the-idle-writer/

There is something terribly exhausting about disciplined and productive writers. Graham Greene divided his day up into sections, writing what he referred to as his serious fiction in the morning, his entertainments in the afternoon, and knocking off a couple of book reviews before the first cocktail at six. The great Thomas Wolfe would stand up all day at his fridge, writing maniacally in longhand in pencil into ledger books propped up on the top.

It doesn’t have to be like this and indeed, the very thought of that level of hyperactivity quite rightly puts many people off the whole prospect. So here are ten tips for getting that book finished without breaking into a sweat.

  1. Set yourself a civilised and regular time to write every day. Two hours will probably do it. Knock off what you can in that period then stop and think about something else. The forgetting and daydreaming of the rest of the day will actually be fertilising the next day’s writing.
  2. Turn off all distractions during those two hours including social media, children, husbands, wives, debt collectors and most of all, your mobile phone.
  3. Do not waste any time worrying about whether your book is any good. If you do worry about that, then the chances are your book isn’t very good. Just say to yourself: my book is brilliant.
  4. Stop looking at the inside flap biographies of other writers to find out if they were younger than you when they published their first book.
  5. Take up yoga. Two hours sitting at the computer is not good for your posture.
  6. Don’t join in any ghastly Twitter hashtag things like #amwriting or put up awful self-serving pleas to other writers like “Hey, who’s having trouble with their second chapter out there?”
  7. Spend time in second hand bookshops admiring how beautiful books used to be and start planning how yours will look.
  8. Banish the jabbering fizz of contemporary politics from your mind, it will only exhaust you and pollute the purity of your creative art. Content yourself with the consolations of philosophy instead.
  9. Never think about money. J.M. Barrie once said that a poet was someone for whom £5 was quite sufficient, and any decent poet finding himself with two £5 notes on his person would immediately fold one of them into a paper boat and set it sailing on the Round Pond in The Kensington Gardens.
  10. Carry a notebook and pencil at all times. Not every bon mot that occurs to you as you sit in the sunshine on a park bench will prove to be useful, but some will. A notebook is a sure sign of a civilised life.

Simon Petherick is the author of several books including English Arcadia and The Damnation of Peter Pan, and spent much of his career in publishing.

Self-Publish With The Idler

Those cheerful people at the Idler magazine asked me to prepare and present an online course in how to self-publish your own book to professional standards. The course is launched today and for the first week is half-price: £21 rather than £42. The course is here: https://www.idler.co.uk/product/self-publish-your-book-with-simon-petherick/. In these strange and concerning times, maybe this is your opportunity to release that excellent manuscript out into the world in fine clothing.

The Good Soldier

I was really pleased to have a short essay about my favourite novel, The Good Soldier, in the latest edition of Last Post, the literary journal of the Ford Madox Ford Society. You can find out about the society here – http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/ – and join up to receive the biannual journal.

This is the piece:

Some speculations on convents in The Good Soldier

Most devotees of Ford Madox Ford’s finest achievement, The Good Soldier, will agree that the search for autobiographical clues is ultimately a fairly redundant exercise when one compares the satisfactions to be had from allowing the text to speak for itself. As the late Roger Poole noted in his celebrated essay of 1990 (The Real Plot Line of The Good Soldier, Textual Practice, Volume 4 Number 3), the “deconstructive disbelief in a locus of originating intention is more ‘essentialist’ than any form of questioning of it.”

However, as part of the process of taking authority away from the author and allowing primacy to the text, the trail of clues and red herrings – a trail of such complexity that it has perhaps never been bettered in English fiction – inevitably leads us to speculations which return us to the more prosaic grounds of autobiography.

I would like to offer a few thoughts in that vein on the subject of convents in the novel.

What do we read? Firstly, the doomed Maisie Maiden writes to Leonora in her valedictory letter: “You should not have done it, and we out of the same convent…” Secondly, we know that Leonora attended a convent in England up until she returned home to Ireland aged 18. Thirdly, we know that Nancy attended a convent in England from the age of 13 to 18.

What of it? Well, for a start, of all the many quite extraordinary (many have said unlikely) plot components of the novel, the fact that Leonara and her husband should decamp to India for a few years to allow her to restore the family’s damaged finances, and while they are there Edward should take a sentimental fancy to the wife of a brother officer who just so happened to attend the same convent school as his wife…And then, of course, the poor woman must die.

Let’s move on. The text very much encourages us to believe that Nancy attended the same English convent as Leonora, without being absolutely explicit on the matter. The biggest clue is when Dowell as narrator says of Leonora’s youth: “She had been one of seven daughters in a bare, untidy Irish manor house to which she had returned from the convent I have so often spoken about.” Up until this point in the text, the only convent that Dowell has “spoken so much about” is Nancy’s.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion, therefore, that the text is encouraging us to believe that all three women attended the same convent. This, in any other novel, might be construed as being unlikely; in The Good Soldier, it should set us on our toes and encourage us to be extra vigilant.

Dowell, in his sentimental conversation with Nancy in Nauheim, reports that the girl provides us with some clear identification. Firstly, she says “our school played Roehampton at Hockey.” In 1904, a convent school hockey team would not have travelled far for a competitive game, which must place the school within a reasonable distance of Roehampton.

A page or so later, Dowell indulges in one of his nod-and-a-wink giveaways: “Just for the information I asked her why she always confessed, and she answered in these exact words: ‘Oh, well, the girls of the Holy Child have always been noted for their truthfulness.'” [my italics] Why does Dowell make such a point of signposting this information?

Back to autobiography. We know that Ford’s two daughters were educated for a time at a convent on the south coast: the Convent of the Holy Child, St Leonards. Max Saunders, in Volume One of A Dual Life, reports that Ford visited his daughters there in 1910.

The Society of the Holy Child Jesus was founded in England in 1846 by Cornelia Connelly. Cornelia, née Peacock (1809-1879) was the daughter of a Presbyterian Philadelphian (ring any bells?) named Ralph William Peacock. In 1831 she married the Reverend Pierce Connolly, an Episcopalian Protestant who quixotically decided, quite soon after their marriage, that he would convert to Catholicism. This both he and Cornelia did in 1835, confirming their new allegiance by relocating to Rome.

However, the Connelly’s faced the problem of celibacy: they already had two children which would make Pierce’s chances of enrolling as a Catholic priest pretty slim. So they moved back to America where Pierce got a job teaching English at a Jesuit college and Cornelia taught music. At this point, their lives became yet more complicated (in a positively Ford-like way). Firstly, their fourth child Mary died aged six months after being pushed into a vat of boiling sugar by the family’s Newfoundland dog, a development probably beyond even Ford’s imagination.

Then Pierce decided that his vocation lay as a Catholic priest and the only way for him to pursue this was to renounce his marriage and family and assume the life of a celibate. Back they went to Rome, where the helpful Pope Gregory, after gaining Cornelia’s approval, formally annulled the marriage, thus freeing Pierce to pursue his ordination which then led him to England and a job as Chaplain to Lord Shrewsbury. Cornelia, now herself avowedly celibate and formally separated from her husband, followed in his footsteps with the children and set up her own household in Derby.

Here, Cornelia set up the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a Jesuit-informed convent for young girls. Pierce, meanwhile, became so infuriated by Cornelia’s independence that he kidnapped his children from her and took them to Rome with him to try and persuade the Pope to put him in charge of the Society. Cornelia moved her convent from Rugby to St Leonard’s and was then obliged to defend a notorious legal case, “Connelly vs Connelly”, initiated by Pierce in an attempt to bring Cornelia to heel and return her to her previous conjugal status.

The case became famous in England. Cornelia ultimately won a Pyrrhic victory after the intervention of the Privy Council but still lost guardianship of her children whom the increasingly demented Pierce trailed after him from Rome to America while he fulminated against the Catholic church in a series of ever more furious tracts.

Ford Madox Ford would have been very well aware of the Connelly vs Connelly case. The parallels with his own life must have struck him: his wife Elsie’s legal case against him to restore their conjugal status was almost a precise mirror image of Pierce’s against Cornelia.

Cornelia established one more convent in England, that of the Holy Child at Mayfield, in Sussex. It was here that she died in 1879.

Back to the text. We know that we are to understand that Leonora and Nancy and Maisie all attended the same convent, a convent which came under the Order of the Society of the Holy Child and which was geographically close enough to play hockey against a Roehampton School. It is possible therefore, either that the convent lurking within Ford’s creative subconscious was the Mayfield convent (a distance of 50 miles from Roehampton); or that he elided his knowledge of the Holy Child Order (both from his own daughters’ education and from his awareness of the Connelly vs Connelly case) with another Roehampton convent, that of the Society of the Sacred Heart. I suspect that latter is more likely and that the convent which still stands in Roehampton is in effect the subconscious model for the convent in the novel.

But more importantly, what of the significance of this tangled web for our own appreciation of the text? Firstly, I would suggest that the apparently unlikely statement that Maisie attended the same convent as Leonora is in fact a signifier: it encourages us to associate Leonora and Nancy with the same convent, even though our narrator very deliberately refuses specifically to do so. And why, therefore, would our narrator wish to encourage us in that speculation? Could it be because he wants us to identify a reason why Nancy attended the same convent as Leonora? Did she in fact attend it because her true mother – Leonora – insisted upon it and placed her there in order that she could watch over the spiritual development of her own child?

Let us allow the text to wash over that speculation and return us to the endless sea of possibilities which the novel, to this day, represents. One thing is for sure: when Ford wrote The Good Soldier he quite literally threw everything of himself into it to create his masterpiece.

Butlins Bound

Butlins wasn’t a holiday destination ever considered by my parents when I was growing up in Plymouth in the late ’60s/early ’70s. My Dad had been an Army artillery officer, my Mum an Army nursing officer and Butlins didn’t form a part of their world, just as ITV was seldom aired on the wood veneer television set in the sitting room and ketchup never allowed on the breakfast table.

There was a slight frisson of rebellion, therefore, as I drove through the gates of the Bognor Regis Butlins last weekend for the three-day Rockaway Beach festival. In my 60th year, I still feel the disapproving glances between my two late parents as I queue up to collect the key for our Seaside Apartment.

As I look around, I recognise kindred spirits. It’s a long time since any of us have tried to provoke our parents, and it looks like most of us are now the other end of the generational seesaw, with kids of our own no doubt shaking their heads with bemusement at what the old folks are up to this weekend. Traces of teenage rebellion remain as a spiky-haired old boy patiently unpacks Sainsbury carrier bags filled with booze from a Vauxhall Nova and crimson-dyed punkettes smoke roll-ups and talk about retirement options.

This impeccably curated festival brings about two and a half thousand music lovers down to Bognor in the chill of early January to share war stories and survival strategies. It feels like we’ve all been through it: successes, failures, joy, heartbreak. We’ve done plenty of time and there are heartwarming nods of recognition between 50+ strangers: yes, we’re still going; no, there’s nothing wrong with opening the Jack Daniels at tea.

One of the first bands on are the Cambridge art setup Black Country, New Road, whose David Byrne meets Captain Beefheart arrangements see saxophonist Lewis stare at us with cocky insolence and keyboardist May look satisfyingly bored as she rests her chin in her hand. They are perfect in every way, a glorious reminder that this whole rock ‘n’ roll thing is in fine hands still.

Later that night, the 77-year-old John Cale rips through an almost two-hour set, indulging us with White Light, White Heat along the way. Halfway through, the plaintive organ chords of Hedda Gabbler remind me of the summer of 1977, when my father’s achilles heel accident had required me to drive my parents and their caravan to south west France, a couple of months after I’d passed my driving test. I’d managed to broker an agreement with them earlier that year that I’d come on no more family holidays, but Dad’s accident meant there was no-one else to drive. Filled with teenage angst and resentment, I insisted on sleeping outside in my own tent, and one night was interrupted as I sang Hedda Gabbler by Cale on my acoustic guitar.

‘It’s two in the morning,’ he pleaded, standing outside my tent in his jimjams. ‘No-one can sleep.’

I’d just got hold of a copy of Animal Justice, Cale’s new EP with the Jill Furmanovsky cover, and was indignant that anyone should consider my weedy-voiced cover of the gloomy masterpiece anything other than artistic boldness:

Hedda Gabler
She’ll go down in history
Hedda Gabler
Down in all her misery

The following night, when they were tucked up in bed, I crept out of the campsite and hitchhiked to the nearest town where I spent a couple of hours wandering around the streets, trying car doors and finally finding one that opened. I sat in an unknown French car for half an hour, wondering what I was doing. After a bit, I hitchhiked back to the campsite, getting a lift from a cool drunk couple in a Citroën DS Estate who thought it was funny that this unhappy, skinny little ginger-haired English kid was walking around on his own in the middle of the night. I got back into my tent just as I heard Mum put the kettle on inside the caravan.

Sleep… sleep…. sleep, Hedda Gabler.

We dance to Debby Harry in the late night disco in Bar Rosso in the Skyline Pavilion and then we play on the amusement arcade machines which bleep and rattle under fluorescent lights. It’s two in the morning and the Pavilion echoes with old punk songs and ska. The arcade reminds me of Las Vegas: the sticky carpet, the endless rows of clattering machines, the pasty faces of us middle-aged punters as we triumphantly indulge ourselves way beyond our bedtimes.

Mum would have hated this place. I went with her to see Ralph McTell in the Guildhall in Plymouth in the early ’70s and I was impressed by the way she could pronounce Einer Kleiner Nachtmusik, which she always used to say was her favourite Mozart. She and I tried in vain to find an appeasement, and by the time the Ramones brought an unknown band called Talking Heads as their support to the Top Rank in Union Street in Plymouth in that summer of 1977, we were leagues apart. I think about her as we walk back to the seaside apartment under a glorious full moon:

As the weekend continues the sense of tribal familiarity grows and I sense that I’m not the only one who is touched by music’s ability to join the decades together. Peter Perrett on Saturday and The Wedding Present on Sunday remind us of past glories, but then the timeless rock braggadocio of young Dublin poets Fontaines DC with their thrash metal reinventions blow away any sentimentality. ‘Is it too real for you?’ yells singer Grian Chatten but looks almost startled himself as the 50-something-plus crowd starts a manic phase of crowdsurfing towards him from the mosh pit.

In the early hours of Monday morning we’re all still going, knocking back shorts in Bar Rosso, throwing our shapes with Butlins bravado. A few hours later, we’re obediently honouring the 10am departure time, blearily trudging back to our cars with stunned faces and smudged make-up, heading back to post-Christmas work schedules and family commitments. It’s been glorious, a genuine privilege to spend time with such companionable strangers and amazing musicians. Good night, campers.

Slow boat from Lefkas to Ithaca

A new month, a new decade: another piece for the Idler magazine, out now in edition number 70, Jan/Feb 2020, available from Idler stockists (https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/) or via subscription to the estimable magazine (https://www.idler.co.uk/join/).

Here’s the piece:

‘There’s nothing––absolutely nothing––half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.’ Well, we all know Kenneth Grahame’s sage advice but he never extended his own idling practice far beyond the Thames; he preferred reading about Greece to schlepping all the way there. Joining a boat as crew heading south from Lefkas marina south of Corfu, my main priority was to recall the method of tying a bowline knot without the skipper becoming aware too early on of my innate incompetence. A few casual flicks of the heavy helm warps seemed to convince him and before long we were set sail for Ithaca, leaving me free to begin tracking our journey against the timeline of Homer’s Odyssey in Emily Wilson’s excellent new translation (Norton, 2018).

            It is a revelation to read Homer while under sail. Our hero’s captivity by the beautiful and cunning Calypso can be read quite differently when one is becalmed by absent winds for what seems like days; Odysseus’s tear-drenched pining for Penelope on the shores of Calypso’s island (he’s never so upset that he can’t hop into bed with Calypso every night though, is he?) feels very real when yet another day dawns with a burning sun and absolutely no wind to fill the sails.

            We reached Ithaca and anchored near to a large yacht where two very fat, oiled men with bright red sunburned bellies acted out on deck the final scene of the poem where our hero slaughters the insolent men of Ithaca and Kefalonia who in his absence have been wooing his wife and freeloading on his wine cellar. Both men held knives and made slow, elaborate thrusting motions towards each other as the sun beat down upon them; a curious place to practice their self-defence skills.

            When Odysseus’s son Telemachus is advised by the helpful Goddess Athena to go in search of the father he has never met, he stocks his boat up with twelve jugs of wine and twenty pounds of fine-milled barley groats. We did rather better than that at the bakery in Vathi, buying homemade baklava dripping with honey which the young owner said were made by her mother-in-law. ‘She begins baking at four every morning,’ she told us in wonder, a feat of industry we speculated upon back on board as we ate the whole lot in an appalling moment of gluttony. Flummoxed by the sugar rush, we set sail to follow Telemachus’s route across the Ionian Sea down to Pylos.

            Telemachus is welcomed at the palace of King Nestor and astonishingly, almost three thousand years later, it’s still there. A half-hour’s cab ride out of Pylos port takes you to the beautifully preserved remains and as we leaned over one of the viewing platforms, we saw the original stone bath where Nestor’s eldest daughter, Polycaste, bathed young Telemachus, washed and rubbed him in olive oil and dressed him in a tunic and fine cloak.

            While Nestor advised the boy to head off to Sparta to quiz Menelaus about Odysseus’s whereabouts, we took advantage of a rare southerly breeze to sail out to an uninhabited island called Arpia, one of the Stamfani islands in the middle of the Ionian. Before we left, I chatted to a nice man called Wayne who was doing yoga on a ketch moored next to us. ‘How long have you been on board?’ I asked him. ‘Twelve years,’ he said. The Ionian cossets true idlers like Wayne, hiding away in ramshackle thirty-foot boats for year after year, their skins brown and salted like sandpaper.

            On the way to Arpia, we racked up a decent speed, nine and a half knots with both sails full out and suddenly the flat brilliant blue was churned up with cresting waves, smashing into the hulls as we rattled along. Lord Poseidon had woken up. Whenever the great God thought of Odysseus, he became instantly enraged that our hero had blinded his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, in a particularly brutal attack––Odysseus plunges a burning olive spear into the one eye and ‘blood poured out around the stake, and blazing fire sizzled his lids and brows, and fried the roots’. Poseidon’s routine reaction on being reminded of the Ithacan pest was to call up a dreadful blast of wind to smash his ship to pieces. Luckily our gift from Poseidon was relatively benign––instead of thunderbolts, he sent us a pod of dolphins to skitter about in front of the prow–– and we made it to Arpia without harm, anchoring off the island. While we dozily digested supper, three fisherman landed their boat on the island, walked up to a rocky peak and crouched around a glass-encased icon of the Virgin, lighting a candle inside and glaring crossly through hairy faces at their uninvited spectators.

            About two in the morning, I woke up down below thinking that someone had left a radio on. A strange metallic singing noise was eerily echoing around the cabin so I crept upstairs and stood on deck. A sound unlike anything I have ever heard greeted me: swirling around in the dark, echoing from the rocks, came the plaintive singing of hundreds, maybe thousands of Scopoli’s Shearwaters. We only discovered the identity of the birds the following day when we found that we had anchored off Greece’s primary nesting place for these seabirds. But standing in the dark listening to this uncanny symphony, it was impossible not to think of the Sirens, those half-bird, half-women who seduced sailors with piercing songs, around them lying ‘great heaps of men, flesh rotting from their bones, their skin all shriveled up’ who had come too close to their island and had been bewitched.

            Returning back north towards Lefkas, we called in at Antisamos on Kefalonia, the stunning beach location for the heaving love scenes with Penelope Cruz in Captain Corellis’s Mandolin. While the skipper and his wife sipped cocktails at the beach bar prepared by the dubiously-named but very cheerful Adonis (‘I cannot tell you what is in this cocktail, that is why it is called The Secret Cocktail’) I thought about the real Penelope, languishing for twenty years across the Sami straits in Ithaca waiting for her monstrous husband Odysseus to come back home and release her from the endless attentions of the suitors. She used her wisdom and reslience to maintain her household while the big brute sacked towns, flirted and slept with every Goddess he could find and sacrificed every single one of his men to the cause of his own personal odyssey.

            While I skimmed stones into the still Ionian evening sea, I wondered who’d got it right? My money at that point, as I looked over at the green-clad rocks of Ithaca, was on smart Penelope. Twenty years of waiting, or twenty years of idleness? I rather like to think the latter.

Notes

There are plenty of ways to find crewing opportunities in the Med. The best way, as in most things in life, is to ask your friends – someone will know someone who knows someone. Or you can use one of the decent agencies like https://www.crewseekers.net/ or https://www.crewbay.com/. Or you can just get a one-way flight to Athens or Corfu and head for the marina, and be prepared to loiter and chat for a few days. Yachties are inherently sociable creatures and always keen to point you in the right direction. Probably useful to spend the winter boning up on knots and magnetic north variations by doing a Competent Crew course – the people at Nomad are very helpful: https://www.nomadsailing.co.uk/.

Animal Magic in The Idler, Nov/Dec issue

I wrote a piece for the Idler magazine on the merits of petsitting. You can read it in the latest edition, edition 69 November/December 2019, available from Idler stockists (https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/) or via subscription to the excellent magazine (https://www.idler.co.uk/join/).

Here’s the piece:

‘Hi Simon, Hi Tam. Welcome to Arizona! This is my husband, John. He thinks you’ve flown 5,000 miles from London to Phoenix to steal all our belongings. Come on in.’

This was the opening gambit from the delightful Vicki, wife of doubting John, who had engaged us to sit for their two beagles, Mojo and Fetch, in their sprawling ranch home in Phoenix while they went off to spend Christmas on Long Beach with their family.

It turned out that this was the first time Vicki had used a house/pet-sitting agency, and it was our first time as sitters. So I could understand John’s caution. Who are these limeys? And do I want them poking around in my sock drawer while I’m supposed to be relaxing with a margarita on the beach?

Well, I resisted the temptation to examine John’s wardrobe. And we had a great time, taking the dogs on walks through the Arizona desert and sitting by the pool in the back garden (the dogs had their own sunbeds, obv). We bought turkey from the organic store in Scottsdale and made Christmas lunch in Vicki’s palatial kitchen. We drank Californian Pinor Noir in a posh restaurant in the centre of Phoenix which John recommended. As it was Christmas, we’d walk the dogs late at night around the wide, deserted streets of north Phoenix and marvel at the fantastical Christmas lights displays put on by neighbours in huge crenellated mansions. On the day itself, all four of us had wrapped presents from Vicki and John to open, with Mojo and Fetch tearing the wrapping paper off theirs with their teeth.

Five years later and we’ve completed lots of pet sits now. There was Bamboo, the charismatic golden cocker spaniel in the eco-house in south-west France, who would sit down on the sofa and watch movies with us after a day running endlessly through the beautiful countryside of the Lot. There were the two grumpy cats in Cyprus who told us off each time we disappeared to the beach, but in true cat fashion ignored us when we got back. And then there was the fabulous smallholding in Devon where we looked after – count them – five dogs, nine cats, two goats, ten chickens and four ducks.

If you’re an animal lover, then the attraction is clear, particularly if, like us, you have a somewhat peripatetic lifestyle which precludes pet-owning. I have tons of photos of animals I now consider to be chums which float up on my screenserver when I’m supposed to be working.

But just forgetting them for a moment, the whole housesitting game is Idle Travel at its finest. No money changes hands for starters, so it is entirely sustainable on both sides. There is no obligation to do anything more than chill out with your four-legged friends and then wander round to a nearby restaurant to eat; the urge to tick off tourist traps never quite seems to kick in once the bags are unpacked. And perhaps most importantly, the mutual exchange of services for property builds trust at a human level which is beyond the control of any politician or capitalist. As Angela Laws, one of the founding members of Trusted Housesitters, says:

‘You look at the news, and you could be forgiven for believing the world is going to hell in a hand basket. But when you get a community such as we have, it really brings it home that there are good, kind, trusting, sharing people in this world. We’re a 70,000-strong, globally-connected community. We’re changing the world from the ground up.’

Angela is one of the brave housesitters who has turned this into a way of life. Three years ago, she sold her house in Vancouver and now has no home, choosing instead to travel from sit to sit. There are other stories of legendary sitters who have criss-crossed the globe with just a suitcase, taking advantage of the opportunities for short and long stays in the 130 countries currently signed up to the Trusted Housesitters service.

I’m not sure I’d go that far but I admire Angela’s lifestyle choice. For us, staying in someone’s home and looking after their pets feels like a really wholesome way of getting to know a city or a country, far more engaging than booking into an Ikea-furnished Air BnB which is contributing to rising house prices and the depopulation of city centres.

And if you’re a houseowner, then it’s comforting to know that you have someone in your house while you’re away, watering the plants and generally making the place look lived-in. So there is a sense, as a sitter, that you’re helping to encourage safer communities, too.

It’s been educational in so many ways. In the old days, I’d certainly have been like John, unable to imagine why I would want someone snooping around in my house while I was away. But having stayed now in lots of peoples’ houses and had no desire of any kind to snoop, I realise just how liberating it is to throw open your door. What do we have to lose? Just stuff. Everyone has stuff. It’s no big deal.

And in the process of getting to know the homeowners before and after each sit, I’ve learned a lot more about their way of life and their culture than I would have done from booking into a hotel.

When you let someone into your home and trust them to look after your beloved dog/cat/mongoose, you move beyond the confines of race, religion and politics, and you enter the slow lane of gentle community sharing. It is a delightfully civilised transaction.

To reduce the potential for ne’er-do-wells or incompetents to spoil this idyllic vision, the process of housesitting is carefully managed, so both parties have an opportunity to read reviews about each other and hold Skype “interviews”. By the time you come to the job, neither of you is really a stranger to the other, and both of you understand the value of clearly defined boundaries. If you tell me you don’t want me to look in the wood shed at the bottom of the garden, then I won’t.

When Vicki and John finally hauled themselves back from Long Beach, we made them supper and entertained them with stories about their boys while they told us about shooting craps in a penthouse casino in LA. Five years on, we still swap stories over the web about John’s new passion for organic gardening in the Arizona heat and our impossibly sophisticated London lifestyle.

So the next time you find yourself flicking through web pages showing empty villas next to a Mediterranean beach with neatly arranged umbrellas on it, imagine what it would be like to get to know the family who live in that ramshackle house at the top of the Old Town who’ve got an elderly labrador that just wants a bit of intelligent company.

This Christmas, we’re actually going back to the Devon smallholding and the mad menagerie, and I am secretly excited about pulling a cracker with Dexter, the ludicrously cheerful and enormous St Bernard puppy.

There are several house-sitting websites, but the one we use is http://www.trustedhousesitters.com.