Summer 2011 Part 5: Two parallel worlds - August 1-10


The rain woke me twice in the night - not the incessant lashing, gusty bombardment of the autumn storms that are now not far off, but the sudden and loud drumming of heavy convective falls. Enough to put off the most seasoned rioters, I hoped, and the news this morning seems to have confirmed that.

These are strange times, for sure. The past few days have seen the best of summer skies, warm sunshine and useful rain in good measure. At the start of the month, the sea off Borth was alive with shearwaters and diving gannets: an early-morning low tide seemed a good time to see if I could get within casting-distance of whatever they were feeding on. Pulled-over by the police, mystified as to what anyone was doing driving around at three o'clock in the morning, I spoke confidently that I would be bagging-up on mackerel at first light, fatally assuming that these were the reason for the birds' presence. The following week, now in desperation, I headed up on a calm, dry day to Bardsey Sound and finally hit pay-dirt, the fish coming in three or four at a time until I had enough to carry back up the steep cliff and hillside back to the car-park. From the cliff-top, the Wicklow Mountains were visible across the vast distances of sea and the choughs wheeled in the clear sky. The next night, London was ablaze.

Shearwaters and gannets, Borth

Above: hundreds of shearwaters and dozens of gannets just off Borth Beach.

Below: the reef south of Borth, with the Camel Rock (two-humped variety).

the reef south of Borth

In such circumstances, one could be forgiven for feeling as though there were two parallel worlds here, running along side-by side: on the one hand, the sometimes gentle, sometimes dramatic or even violent natural world that this diary mostly celebrates and on the other a world that I long ago began to try to hide from - one in which material worth is all-important and is the means by which some people assess one another.

Material goods are not bad things by definition. We all need stuff to cook our food in and anyone with a trade needs its tools with which to carry it out. So I have a camera, computer and a selection of battered and scarred fishing-rods. None are top-of-the-range: the important thing is they do the job required from them. They are workhorses as opposed to gadgets.

People, when attempting to win a weak argument, often justify their stance to themselves by prefixing it with "in the real world". I'd like to think that this diary celebrates a very real world and that the rest is all make-believe, but perhaps that's just another case of my wanting to hide away from it. I didn't get to see any TV footage of the looting and burning of recent days, not having possessed a telly in decades, but beermat-sized Youtube clips showed me enough to kick-in my confirmation-bias and bring on an overwhelming need for further reclusiveness.

Ireland from Bardsey Sound cliffs

Above: Ireland's Wicklow Mountains from the clifftops of Bardsey Sound, August 5th.
Below: the Three Peaks Row team forges its way through Bardsey Sound's 5-knot ebb riptide - one of the most serious bits of water off the Welsh coast, August 5th.

Three Peaks row - Bardsey Sound

One afternoon, the real world beckoning insistently, I headed down to the coast at the mouth of Afon Dysinni, near Tonfanau. This is a special place in late Summer, when the rabbit-cropped turf is ablaze with flowers and dozens of Burnet-moths swarm over the drifts of wild thyme. Further seaward the grassland gives way to bare shingle, hurled up into a great bank by winter storms. Here, only the toughest of plants, many with succulent leaves to protect against dehydration, eke out a living between the pebbles and cobbles: sea-sandwort, seakale, spurge and sea-holly are the mainstays.

That anything can thrive in such an environment is inspirational: it tells me that life is tenacious and as a consequence whatever Mankind does to the planet in its endless quest for more and more of everything, life itself will carry on and rediversify, just as the fossil record demonstrates after the mass-extinctions of prehistory. But why do we want more and more of everything?

Wild thyme and burnet moth

Above: Burnet-moth on wild Thyme. Below: Sea-sandwort. Aber Dysinni, near Tonfanau.

Sea sandwort

I don't have the answer to that, because more and more big skies, sunsets, snowfields, brewing storms, trees singing to a gale at night, the changes that a winter flood can bring, a fleeting diversion from normality such as a northern horizon aglow with noctilucent clouds: these are mostly enough for me, and most satisfyingly, no bastard has yet figured out a way of charging for them.

What I do suspect is that the misperceived need for more and more of everything was a powerful driving force in the recent disturbances, where gadgets and branded clothing seemed high on the wants-list: it has been noted that along streets of shattered shops, branches of Waterstone's went unscathed. Books just ain't cool, it seems. The need for more and more of everything was a powerful driving-force in the avalanche of easy credit take-up in the years prior to the reckoning of 2008. I don't know why it exists, but for a long time now I have had a gut-feeling that it is not at all healthy: indeed, that it is a force for evil.

Sea Holly and bumblebee

Above and below: Bumblebee and Sea-holly. Aberdysinni, near Tonfanau.

Sea Holly and bumblebee

Working down in Cardiff over a decade ago, I often spent lunchtime exploring bits of the city centre. Being a rural-dweller, I guess I was curious about what made such a place tick. Morning and evening, like some great human tide, in and out they came: a flood of humanity, unquestioning, automatic. Along the malls and arcades they swapped wages or accumulated more credit for, well, stuff. More and more stuff, until they could carry no more. But what struck me most deeply was the effect it had on them. Did the supposed rewards of this consumerism leave them with satisfied smiles? No. Around they tramped, stern, stressed or gloomy. Day after day. It was not making them at all happier, for all the lifestyle-bullshit creatively presented onscreen or on newspage, billboard or side-of-bus, with a view to persuading them that it would.

After one such trip, returning to Machynlleth by train, I walked up from the station and popped into my local, relieved to be back somewhere a bit more "normal". Now, I happen to think pubs are a vitally important hub to any community: they are a place to exchange local news, discuss local issues and generally socialise over a few pints (these days, what with the prices, a few less). On this occasion, around one of the large tables there sat maybe seven or eight people I knew. All quite normal, and what was going on was to most people all quite normal too, but for some reason it left me disproportionately shocked and disgusted. No conversation as such was taking place: instead, every single one of them was sat in silence, mobile phone ostentatiously held out. Synchronised texting: five minutes later the situation remained the same. Was this a sneak preview of what our future held in store? Once more I needed to escape.

Storm developing - Borth

Above and below: convective storm in its early stages off Borth, August 7th.

Storm developing - Borth

So I ran, and ran a little more, away from this consumerist, gadget-powered world and wrote lots of angry poems, walked the hills and felt a little better, and on my next visit the pub was full of locals holding forth in some-or-other debate which I lost no time in getting stuck into as the beer flowed through our arguments and guffaws. Normality had been restored.

But out there, the tide of shoppers still flowed back and forth unchecked: the same grim faces clutching their purchases. How had life come to this? Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, the authors of the interesting book Affluenza: When too much is never enough (Allen & Unwin, 2005) put it thus: "We have grown fat but we persist in the belief that we are thin and must consume more" and go on to suggest that "we are confused about what it takes to live a worthwhile life. Part of this confusion is a failure to distinguish between what we want and what we need."

I would suggest that the above is a consequence of the power of a particular force - marketing. Now, marketing is of course necessary in order to sell anything: you have at the very least to let people know where you are and what you sell. But it goes way further than that: what it is saying in many cases is the simple but very powerful message: "if you do not have this all your peers will think you are a right twat and will say so and you will be rejected by them". Thus, a want is transformed into a need through the social urge to conform, to belong, and that itself is an incredibly strong driving-force.

Rainbow over Ynyslas

Above and below: rainbow over Ynyslas, August 7th.

Rainbow over Ynyslas

Omar Shahid, writing yesterday in Live magazine, made a similar point: “But we’re not trained to use our minds in this society, we’re trained to use our ego. And that is the root cause of all the problems.” It's a similar point because if we used our minds more and our egos less, then the emotional blackmail that constitutes modern marketing would never have gained such a foothold in the human mind. We would still be able to do what our forbears managed to for generations - distinguish wants from needs. Marketing changed all that very successfully.

The criminality of recent days has a complex background, but a lot of what it stands for is simply consumer-culture taken to an absolute, obscene extreme: obtaining more and more stuff via other means than the usual ones of wages and credit. It involves satisfying artificial "needs" by any means necessary in order to feel acceptable to a society where people are assessed by their material wealth. This of course happens on an everyday basis: if it did not there would be no need for store-detectives. On this occasion, it simply happened on a scale orders of magnitude greater than anything seen before. Will it wake us up?

Flicking through the various pages of online comments does not paint a particularly consistent picture. It has been said by various commentators that this sort of thing has been brewing up for many years. Some see the MPs' expenses, the bankers' bonuses, newspaper hacking, corporate tax-avoidance and so on as "tipping-points" or "triggers". Some blame "the cuts" - despite these having not yet come into effect. Some blame it all on immigration, some blame it all on benefits-culture - the ethnicity and working status of those appearing in court rather contradicts such things as much as does the fact that most immigrants and claimants stayed home. David Cameron has just said that it is about a culture where rights are expected and responsibilities are ignored. However, a culture where "wants" are misperceived as "needs" through the brainwashing via modern marketing is quite likely to be one where certain "wants" become viewed as "rights" and the actual, real needs of others (i.e. the notion of "Community") are dismissed as having no relevance to the all-important ego.

Cumulonimbus and Borth Beach

Above and below: cumulonimbus stormclouds, Borth and Machynlleth, August 7th.

Cumulonimbus, Machynlleth railway station

Community is the important thing here because it is the opposite to criminality. It is also the opposite to ego-feeding consumerism-driven insecurity. In a functional community, we look after one another, not constantly compete with one another for misperceived superiority. In a functional community, we have boundaries that most understand are not to be crossed. Where a culture is ego-driven and materialistic, those boundaries become more and more fragile and prone to breakage. On this occasion, the breakage occurred on a massive scale.

The police will attend to the cases on file and the courts will attend to their sentencing, some will clamour in online comments-threads for offenders to be shot and others will suggest counselling - and every opinion in between will be voiced - business as usual in other words. But I strongly feel that a cultural change away from competitive materialism is key to this matter. Disasters can offer the opportunity for long-lasting change. Will we take this opportunity, as a whole society, to begin a move away from excessive Consumerism back towards Community?

Bogwood, Hengwm

Above and below: Bogwood - trees that grew over 4,000 years ago, in Neolithic times, 4-500 m above sea-level, in the valley of Hengwm, near Bugeilyn, north of Plynlimon.

Bogwood, Hengwm

On the afternoon of August 9th, gladly abandoning the news for a few hours, I wandered through the wilderness of Hengwm, the broad valley that runs down from Bugeilyn, on the northern side of Plynlimon. Here, too, was once a community - though we know little about it, except that they used superbly-crafted barbed blue-grey chalcedony arrowheads, one of which I found in the summer of 2009. The wooded glades through which they sought their quarry are now no more than scattered bogwood, white disarticulated tree-skeletons littering hollows eroded in the thick peat that has built up ever since. Although no more arrowheads were forthcoming, it didn't matter: the place has a deep solace about it at all times and that was more important.

Cottongrass, Hengwm

Above and below: in the wilderness: Hengwm, near Bugeilyn, north of Plynlimon.

Heather, Hengwm

I may not be financially well-off, but some things are more important than that: to have such places accessible for less than the cost of a pint in terms of diesel is an absolute in my life, and I consider myself extremely fortunate for this to be so. Perhaps some may think that I have no right to suggest answers to what are primarily, on the face of it, urban issues. But Consumerism affects us all in one way or another, wherever we live: it just varies in its details. And I provide no answers here, just questions: whether these are the right questions or not remains to be seen. We should question the world we live in and its values, not just accept them with blind faith.

Up there, cotton-grass waved on the breeze and the buzzing of bees amongst the heather was punctuated with sharp cries aloft of buzzards and ravens. For those few hours, I was back in the real world again - the one that was, is and always will be until the end of days.

Arans from Machynlleth-Llanidloes mountain road

Above and below: "
a fleeting diversion from normality": taken from the same gatepost, the Arans under very different skies - August 10th late afternoon (above) and July 3rd in the depths of night - with Noctilucent clouds (below).

Arans from Machynlleth-Llanidloes mountain road