What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors
A catalogue in the post. Not so very long ago that would have brought a promise of armchair gardening. Happy hours leafing through pages of plants I was unlikely to grow, winter evenings plotting summer crops; neat rows of common garden stuff in exotic colours: purple beans, black carrots, blue potatoes. I’d mark the pages diligently and forget to send my order until it was almost too late to sow the seeds.
Simple pleasures. Such frivolity in times like these.
I hadn’t read those lines by Brecht from To Those Born Later written while he was in exile from Nazi Germany in 1938, until Timothy Garton Ash quoted them in a Guardian column urging the centre to hold strong and true against terrorism, racism and populist opportunism. That’s it, I thought, that’s the strange, uncomfortable feeling I get whenever I seek an escape into simple pleasures. That’s the odd sense of loss that lingers around old comforts: planning a meal, making a cake, browsing cookbooks. Now, when I open the kitchen cupboard, the spice jars send out a whimsical message: this belongs to a different time.
The right to joy
Oh nostalgia! Are these not self-indulgent thoughts? How can I compare the dislocation of middle class home comforts with the unfolding horrors of pre-war Germany? The worst of news is still about events far from my front door: elsewhere suffering. Yet the fearful implications of today’s political turmoil hang about the house. When I look a little closer, even personal pleasures seem no longer simple.
I found the Brecht poem again in an essay, Singing About the Dark Times, by Sarah Maguire. She spoke to the St Andrews poetry festival StAnza in 2008 on the festival theme, Poetry and Conflict, exploring in engrossing depth the seemingly paradoxical need for poetry in dark times.
Poetry, as Yeats enigmatically said, ‘makes nothing happen’. Indeed, it stops no wars, bars no Brexit, trumps no Trump. Even so Sarah Maguire, founder of Poetry Translation Centre, made an overwhelming and moving case for the importance of simple pleasures and the power of poetry not just to evoke them but to raise them to their rightful place.
For the right to experience and express the delight we find in the ordinary world around us. Strange as it may seem to those of us fortunate to have lived our lives in peace, the right to joy is a potent threat to totalitarianism.
Which is why, she asserts, the CIA deployed arts and literature as a potent weapon in the Cold War of the late 1940s. That inspired her to devote her energies to translating the ‘poetry of those cultures that currently we are so efficiently plundering and dismantling’
And led to the foundation of the Poetry Translation Centre with the aim of forming friendships across borders, opening windows to new cultures, and introducing ‘new audiences to leading poets from around the world, who have made their home in the UK’.
Spices of life
I take another look at the spice jars. When words fail, food can speak louder, a powerful symbol in bringing people together in the multicultural communities of many cities (not least the part of Edinburgh where I live). Eating together. Growing together?
And yet, opening the Marshall’s catalogue, I’m reminded that these glowingly illustrated seeds and plants come from a part of Britain which voted overwhelmingly for Brexit (I spent formative years as a trainee journalist in nearby Spalding many years ago and have kept ordering Marshall’s seed for old time’s sake – if plants thrive in East Anglia they will surely grow in a Scottish garden).
The Fens have prospered from migration for almost as long as history records but, as I saw in a visit to my old haunts in 2014, the pace of change in the 21st century seems to have been too fast for many, especially where prosperity is not equally shared. What will happen to those fruit and vegetable farms if European labour takes the hard message and does indeed GO HOME?
But there’s another reason why I have been slow to open the catalogue. I no longer sow seeds with confidence they will grow. I don’t know how things are in the gardens of South Holland but in our patch of central Scotland climate change is playing games with the seasons. Warmer winters, colder and wetter springs, dismal summers – that has been the pattern of the last few years. Even the glorious late burst of warmth which turns autumn into summer is not enough to compensate for lost growth. What happens if the Gulf Stream is turned off as some climate scientists predict?
We need to talk about trees
So it’s no crime to talk about trees – and the birds and bees – because they are in turmoil too. Our time is out of joint. We are now an urban species and our ways are reshaping the planet but I can’t help feeling climate change is contributing to our great unease and the entangled disruptions across the world.
It’s not just the warnings of melting ice and rising seas that bother us, nor alternating extremes of flood and drought. It’s not just the great beasts disappearing from the wild, the devastation of the rainforest, or the mass migration of people across the planet. These are stark realities we have not yet fully internalised; unimaginable catastrophes belong on other continents. But still we feel uneasy in our bones.
Deep down we know. We’re making an almighty mess of things. I sense the shifting of the world around me in the accumulation of changes over my lifetime: a less exultant dawn chorus, fewer house martins wheeling round the rooftops, hedgehogs and hares retreating, daffodils blooming too soon, apples ripening too late. The names of flowers fading from our common language. For grandparents, a gentle aching sadness that we won’t be handing on magical childhood wanderings to the next generation.
In All These I Learnt, the poet Robert Byron turned a litany of living things into a gift for an unborn son:
He shall know the butterflies that suck the brambles, common whites and marbled white, orange-tip, brimstone, and the carnivorous clouded yellows. He shall watch fritillaries, pearl-bordered and silver-washed, flit like fireballs across the sunlit rides.
We still have so much to protect and pass on. I choose to think these treasures are not the preserve of the privileged few. I want to believe that making cakes, planting potatoes (blue, red or white), discovering wildflowers with grandchildren, sharing meals with people whose first language is different to mine – that all these things are open to all and part of our common good: a wealth to be enjoyed through sharing.
And that – with Trump in the White House and Britain heading blindly for Brexit – we must not be silent about horrors we witness, but let’s not stop enjoying and sharing simple pleasures. Assert the right to joy. It could be our first sign of rebellion. Sow those seeds!