A few days ago Jean and I listened to an episode from the BBC Radio 4 series The Art of Living. Or as the home page of the programme’s website explains, The Art of Living is a …
Documentary series revealing how engagement with art has transformed people’s lives.
Anyway, the episode that we listened to was a delightful 30-minute discussion between Marie-Louise Muir and the Belfast-born poet Frank Ormsby. The reason we selected this episode to listen to in particular is revealed by republishing how the BBC introduced the programme. (For Jean was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in December, 2015.)
Frank Ormsby’s Parkinson’s
The Art of Living
When the poet Frank Ormsby was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, his response was unexpected. He embarked on a newly fertile creative period, documenting his experiences and finding a voice in his poetry that he was beginning to lose in his daily communications.
His first act was to search Google – for jokes. “Which would you rather have, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Obviously Parkinson’s! I’d rather spill half my pint than forget where I left it.”
As he discusses with Marie-Louise Muir, the illness has changed him. It’s mellowed him. After a career as a school teacher, his daily life is now quieter and more solitary. There’s a poetry, almost, in his pauses and silences.
Frank belongs to the generation of Northern Irish writers that has followed in the footsteps of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. His medication, he believes, has aided his creativity. But it has also induced hallucinations. He finds himself sitting on his own in his study but surrounded by people, by the ghosts of his mother-in-law and unidentified visitors. And he’s also haunted by a fear that the earth will open up and swallow him.
But if you ask how he’s doing, he writes, “I’ll tell you the one about ‘parking zones disease’.
I’ll assure you that the pills seem to be working”.
Photo credit: Malachi O’Doherty, With readings by Frank himself and Ciaran McMenamin from The Darkness of Snow. Produced by Alan Hall. A Falling Tree production for BBC Radio 4.
That wonderful joke offered by Frank, this one: “Which would you rather have, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Obviously Parkinson’s! I’d rather spill half my pint than forget where I left it.” comes a little after the 5-minute point in the interview. I strongly encourage you to listen to the full interview. Here’s the link to the radio programme.
Jean and I were sitting up in bed a couple of mornings ago reflecting on how recent it has been since we ‘got it’ in terms of what becoming old really means. For me and Jean, for different reasons, it is only in the last twelve months that ageing, the process of becoming older, the decline in one’s faculties, and more and more, has been truly understood. Yes, before then of course one understood that we were getting old. But it was an intellectual understanding not the living it on a daily basis understanding we now experience.
Back to Frank Ormsby. Or rather to a feature in the Belfast Telegraph published in 2015.
Frank Ormsby: Life at Inst was very different from my upbringing
Leading Belfast poet and former Inst. Head of English Frank Ormsby on his tough Fermanagh upbringing, losing his father when he was 12 and how humour has helped him cope with a Parkinson’s diagnosis.
March 23, 2015
As Frank Ormsby sits in the study of his beautifully-appointed 1930s home in north Belfast there is no hint of his much more austere upbringing. As befits the workspace of a poet and long-time English teacher at one of Belfast’s leading schools, the bookcases that line the walls are crammed with a wide range of literature.
It could not be a more different environment from the rural home where he grew up just after the Second World War.
When Frank was born in 1947, his father Patrick was already in his 60s. “I remember him as an old, grey-haired man”.
It was Patrick’s second marriage. His first had produced 10-12 children. “I was never totally sure of the exact number”, Frank recalls.
“I never met them as they had dispersed to Scotland and other places by the time my father, by then a widower, had married my mother. As far as I know the last one of them died last year.”
Frank’s home was about a mile and half outside Irvinestown. His mother Anne had worked on a relative’s farm – “she could build hay or cut turf as well as any man” – and his father as a farm labourer who occasionally sought work in the factories in Scotland.
“The conditions in which we lived were lacking in luxury. We had no running water. We had to carry it in buckets from a well half a mile away. There was no electricity and it was a long time before we even had a radio, or wireless as it was called then,” Frank says.
Here’s one of Frank’s poems that was published by The New Yorker in March, 2013.
By Frank Ormsby
They have the look
of being born old.
Thinning elders among the heather,
trembling in every wind.
My father turns eighty
the spring before my thirteenth birthday.
When I feed him porridge he takes his cap off. His hair,
as it has been all my life, is white, pure white.
Maybe that’s how it is. Having the look of being born old!
But there’s one thing that I treasure beyond gold itself. Having the fortune to be living out my final days, however many there are, in the company of my beautiful Jeannie and all the loving dogs around me.
I read a recent article posted by Rob Hopkins on the Transition Culture blogsite, a blog that I subscribe to. Those who are unfamiliar with Rob, the Transition Culture site has his background, from which I quote this snippet:
“Rob Hopkins brings humour, imagination and vision to the great challenges of our time, and argues that what is needed, above all else, at this time in history, is “engaged optimism”. The rapidly-spreading Transition movement which he was pivotal in establishing, is an embodiment of that. Nicholas Crane, presenter of BBC2’s recent ‘Town’ series, recently referred to Transition as “the biggest urban brainwave of the century”.
Anyway, back to the article. It struck me as so absurd that I tried my hand at asking Rob for permission to republish. Back, almost immediately, came his positive reply. Thank you, Rob.
Oh, and before going to Rob’s article, for those that, like me, are a bit rusty on the composition of the G8, here’s a Wikipedia extract:
The Group of Eight (G8) is a forum for the governments of the world’s eight wealthiest countries. The forum originated with a 1975 summit hosted by France that brought together representatives of six governments: France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, thus leading to the name Group of Six or G6. The summit became known as the Group of Seven or G7 the following year with the addition of Canada. The G7, that is active even after the creation of the G8, is composed by 7 of 8 of the wealthiest countries on Earth (as net wealth and not GDP). In 1997, Russia was added to the group which then became known as the G8. The European Union is represented within the G8 but cannot host or chair summits.
Now without any further ado, here is that article.
12 Jun 2013
Why even the G8 prefer vibrant, diverse local economies really …
If there was one picture that captured the times we are living through it is this. It appeared on the BBC website recently with the following caption:
Kevin McGuire walks his dog past a vacant shop in Belcoo, Northern Ireland. The empty shop is one of a number that have had graphics placed on the windows to make them look like working shops ahead of the G8 summit which takes place nearby later this month.
Let’s take that a bit more slowly. Here is a shop, one of many that has gone out of business due, among other things, to the growth-fixated policies of the G8, situated in a place G8 ministers will be driven past en route to their summit. Rather than their being able to see how things are actually unfolding in the real world, the division and misery being caused by their approach to the economy, the windows have been plastered with stickers that present it as a fully-stocked, thriving shop. As singer/comic Mitch Benn put it on BBC Radio 4′s The Now Show on Friday, ”the last thing you’d want would be for a bunch of people meeting to fix the economy to see how bad the economy’s got”.
County Fermanagh’s district council sanctioned the fake retail units as part of a £1m makeover before it hosts the G8 summit. The event takes place on 17 and 18 June at the Lough Erne golf resort near Enniskillen. The chief executive of Fermanagh District Council has defended the optical illusion.
“It was aimed at undeveloped sites at the entrance to the town and then right throughout the county in terms of the other towns and villages, looking at those vacant properties and really just trying to make them look better and more aesthetically pleasing,” says Brendan Hegarty
Here’s the thing that fascinated me most though. It’s the kind of shop they chose to portray it as. They didn’t print up large stickers that would present the shop as being a Tesco Metro, a Sainsbury’s Local, an Aldi perhaps, or even branch of one of the banks that contributed significantly to our getting into this mess in the first place. They didn’t make one huge sticker, one false façade, that showed a new shopping precinct, glittering with all the usual chain stores that dominate every such precinct. Or a Travelodge perhaps. Rather they set out deliberately and in considerable detail to portray the kind of vibrant, local, independent business that has either become extinct, or which survives in spite of, rather than because of, the policies of the G8. Here’s another one…
The windows are hung with delicious-looking hams, the display features meats and a whole range of delicious local produce, beautifully arranged. Although the cut-and-paste nature of the graphic design rather gives the game away (the same arrangements of hams appear two or three times), what they are trying to portray here is that most endangered of species, the local, independent butcher.
In the mid-1990s there were 22,000 butchers in the UK, by 2010 there were just 6,553. The independent butcher is making something of a spirited fightback though, although certainly not aided, in any sense, by the G8. The butcher that would have occupied that shop no longer exists, most likely because a supermarket opened nearby and completely shifted the balance of the Belcoo economy (any readers from Belcoo who might like to write in and tell us what led to this shop’s demise would be most welcome).
We estimate that the top five major supermarkets in Herefordshire account for between 71% – 83% of all household expenditure on ‘brought home’ food and drink, or up to £180m annually. In addition, around £30m per year is spent in the smaller ‘chain’ supermarkets.
Their conclusion is that the true ‘local spend’ figure, i.e through local, independent businesses in Herefordshire, could be around 16% of the total. In terms of a national version of that figure, the best I can find is the figure from the Portas Review that states that 8,000 supermarkets now account for over 97% of all UK grocery sales. Although clearly other smaller supermarkets account for some of the remaining sales, let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that nationally, 3% of what we spend on groceries goes out through local and independent businesses.
I would imagine that everyone seeks an economy that is able to provide jobs, economic activity, stronger and happier communities and community resilience, while also skilfully reducing its carbon emissions on the scale required. The question of our times though, as far as I’m concerned, is whether that is best achieved by expanding the 97% of our economy currently dominated by huge supermarkets, the kinds of enterprise that the UK government and the G8 see as leading the push for growth, or protecting and enhancing the 3%?
It’s a vital question, because at the moment the push to eradicate the 3% altogether, or at least squeeze it a lot harder, continues apace. Yet that 3% is better suited to meeting those core needs of ours. As the recent report by Localise West Midlands on ‘community economic development’ states:
Our research has found strong evidence that local economies with higher levels of SMEs and local ownership perform better in terms of employment growth (especially disadvantaged and peripheral areas), the local multiplier effect, social and economic inclusion, income redistribution, health, civic engagement and well-being than places heavily reliant on inward investment where there are fewer, larger, remotely owned employers.
A study focusing on New Orleans compared 179,000 square feet of retail space that is home to 100 independent businesses to the same-sized space that is home to a single supermarket. The former generated $105 million in sales with $34 million staying in the local economy, while the latter generated $50 million in sales with just $8 million staying locally, and necessitated 300,000 square feet of parking space (see graphic below).
Santander’s ‘Market of Hope’ which I wrote about here last year is a great example of how a city can be fed by looking at large retail spaces in such a way that they boost and support the local independent economy rather than undermine it. When Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, was asked whether there was any alternative to supermarkets, replied:
“… queueing at one store than trudging down Watford High Street in the rain to another shop … is this what people actually want to go back to?”
But no, it’s not about “going back”, rather about going forward in a way that meets our needs rather than those of the City of London. What we now know is that even G8 ministers would rather pass through High Streets populated with small, independent butchers, bakers, grocers, would rather see shop windows overflowing with delicious food, trusting that the relationship they have built up with the shopkeeper over many years will mean that he/she stocks the best produce they can find. It feels right. It’s human scale. It makes sense. It’s an economy that is ours, it belongs to local people, to the local economy. Even G8 ministers would now appear to prefer a shopping experience that actually involves interacting with other human beings rather than wandering anonymously around a superstore and then cashing yourself out at the end.
The core argument of The Power of Just Doing Stuff, published on Friday, is that if we really want to achieve our goals of jobs, economic activity, stronger and happier communities and community resilience, while also skilfully reducing our carbon emissions on the scale required, we’d be better off focusing on growing the 3% rather than the 97%. It’s a pretty simple idea, and, to me at least, a blindingly obvious one, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
However, the experience is that this fightback has already begun. The explosion of new bakeries, pop-up shops, community renewable energy projects, craft breweries, independent record shops, complementary currencies and communities acquiring their own assets is already happening around us, but it needs us to get behind it, to put our shoulders, our spending power, our sheer bloody will, to making it 10%, 30% 70%. If we want a stable climate, reduced energy vulnerability, economic stability, and a healthy human culture, we really have no choice. As Maria van der Hoeven of the IEA said recently at the launch of a World Energy OutlookSpecial Report, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map, ”the path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase of between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C”.
Fortunately, it’s a push that is life-enhancing, thrill-generating and in which we discover a resourcefulness, a kindness and a passion in ourselves that we may have forgotten was there. I’ll leave you with a quote from the book, from Helen Cunningham of DE4 Food, a social enterprise food hub in Derbyshire that grew out of Transition Matlock. The project grew from helping a local farmer with lambing and has grown into an innovative new business:
“Never in my life did I imagine that I’d be able to bring lambs into the world! It wasn’t a skill I ever expected to have. It was such a different thing from what we were doing in the rest of our lives, and I think from then we’ve all thought “OK, we can learn these new skills, we can learn how to lamb, we can learn how to grow vegetables and learn how to do Excel Profit and Loss sheets and whatever.” I think we all just really wanted to change the way we live, and change our own personal lives and to change things and live different lives ourselves as well as a different life in our community”.
You can pre-order your copy of The Power of Just Doing Stuff here.
As has been said before, and undoubtedly will be said many times more, it really is a very strange world we live in!
“No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.”
So wrote Aristotle .
But it offers little comfort in response to some recent essays that I have been reading. I closed yesterday’s essay from ‘Our unsustainable way of life‘ with the comment, “If it strikes you as utter, complete madness trust me, you are not alone.” The madness is still coming! Stay with me!
George has a new book being published by Allen Lane today under the title of Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. I would offer you the link to the book on the Allen Lane website but at the time of writing this post that link is not functioning. It’s certainly a book I want to read. You may learn more here.
Anyway, some recent Monbiot essays in the UK Guardian newspaper have been setting the scene for his new book.
On the 22nd May, there was an essay published under the heading of What’s Missing from this Picture? (the link is to George Monbiot’s website). The essay starts, thus:
Somehow almost all of us have missed the real story behind the disappearance of our wildlife.
By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 22nd May 2013
Even before you start reading the devastating State of Nature report, you get an inkling of where the problem lies. It’s illustrated in the opening pages with two dramatic photographs of upland Britain. They are supposed to represent the natural glories we’re losing. In neither of them (with the exception of some distant specks of scrub and leylandii in the second) is there a tree to be seen. The many square miles they cover contain nothing but grass and dead bracken. They could scarcely provide a better illustration of our uncanny ability to miss the big picture:
The majority of wildlife requires cover: places in which it can shelter from predators or ambush prey, places in which it can take refuge from extremes of heat and cold, or find the constant humidity that fragile roots and sensitive invertebrates require. Yet, in the very regions in which you might expect to find such cover (trees, scrub, other dense foliage) there is almost none. I’m talking about the infertile parts of Britain, in which farming is so unproductive that it survives only as a result of public money. Here, in the places commonly described as Britain’s “wildernesses”, almost nothing remains. And the “almost” has become radically smaller over the past 20 years.
Then a few paragraphs later, comes this:
The uplands of Britain are astonishingly unproductive. For example, 76% of the land in Wales is devoted to livestock farming, mostly to produce meat. But, astonishingly, by value Wales imports seven times as much meat as it exports. Six thousand years of nutrient stripping and erosion have left our hills so infertile that their productivity is miniscule. Even relatively small numbers of livestock can now keep the hills denuded.
Without subsidies, almost all hill-farming would cease. That’s not something I’m calling for, but I do believe it’s time we began to challenge the system and its outcomes. Among them is a policy that’s almost comically irrational and destructive.
So what was it that came at me as utter madness?
It was this:
The major funding that farmers receive is called the single farm payment, which is money given by European taxpayers to people who own land. These people receive a certain amount (usually around £200 or £300), for every hectare they own. To receive it, they must keep the land in what is called “Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition” (GAEC). It’s a term straight out of 1984.
Among the compulsory standards in the GAEC rules is “avoiding the encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land”. What this means is that if farmers want their money they must stop wild plants from returning. They don’t have to produce anything: to keep animals or to grow crops there. They merely have to prevent more than a handful of trees or shrubs from surviving, which they can do by towing cutting gear over the land.
Oh, and then we learn:
The government of Northern Ireland has been fined £64 million for (among other such offences) giving subsidy money to farms whose traditional hedgerows are too wide. The effect of these rules has been to promote the frenzied clearance of habitats. The system ensures that farmers seek out the remaining corners of land where wildlife still resides, and destroy them.
Leading to the bizarre (and that’s putting it kindly) situation where:
A farmer can graze his land to the roots, run his sheep in the woods, grub up the last lone trees, poison the rivers with sheep dip and still get his money. Some of the farms close to where I lived in mid-Wales do all of those things and never have their grants stopped. But one thing he is not allowed to do is what these rules call “land abandonment”, and what I call rewilding. For no good reason, public money is used both to engineer the mass destruction of habitats through grazing and clearing, and to prevent any significant recovery.
There’s nothing I can add. Except this. I am collecting ideas and essays that are going to focus on the positive aspects of this ‘new world order’. I’m going to offer some examples of the power of positive change because as Rebecca Solnit wrote recently there is a case for hope!