Time’s Anvil: seeds, saints, fascism and labour

Time's Anvil -- Richard MorrisRichard Morris packed Time’s Anvil full of so much fascinating things, that I wanted a second post to collect them all up (first post is here). First, this hilarious quote from Nikolaus Pevsner on England:

This is a very modest country, satisfied with very little. All morning one can see one’s breath indoors… To look at it positively, I suppose people are closer to nature… (1)

This reminds me of evenings spent huddled next to relative’s radiators exuding a very faint warmth.

On seeds

I did love the aside on seed saving and diversity, a key battle now in view of corporations like Monsanto and a reminder how this has long formed part of our culture. One late Saxon charm for the improvement of land directs that

seed from elsewhere be taken from beggars in exchange for twice as much…

A good strategy of improved stock and distribution, and incorporates the most poor into key agricultural systems in a way that could be respectful, though it hardly mitigates the suffering of such a life.

There is another fascinating quotes from John Letts, ‘Living Under a Medieval Field’ on old planting systems:

every plant in a land race is slightly different from its neighbour, and medieval cereals were consequently very uneven in straw height, ripening time, grain yield and other agronomic traits. This diversity ensured that a portion of the crop almost always set seed irrespective of the many environmental stresses that can destroy a crop such as drought, waterlogging, frost or crop disease.

Such diversity is a key component of permaculture and organic farming systems, and another part of our past that farmers are trying to relearn and bring into practice.

On saints

The early role of the church in shaping the physical and mental maps of the land is also so interesting. There is some discussion of the changing nature of the church, the tendency of early Anglo-Saxon bishops to be treated as saints, and therefore this:

A map of their resting places is a diagram of power. (261)

There are proofs of how this became part of everyday life in places like Wells cathedral — one of my very favourite cathedrals, so I was surprised to learn that long ago the skulls of its Anglo-Saxon bishops sat on display there as relics. Some of them show patches of high polish caused by the touch of multiple hands, others have had perfect circles bored out from their backs, probably for amulets or shrines.

It never occurred to me that people might describe the incorporation of older buildings into newer as a sign of laziness or lack of vision or skill, but apparently so it has been said. Morris here reclaims the idea that incorporating older churches into the design of expanded churches incorporated their holiness and power. Interesting that my own reactions to much of the book underline Morris’s argument that much of what we understand of the past is conditioned by our present. Seems that two hundred years of archeological history are quite an indictment of power structures in society, though there is very little unpacking of how age, gender, race, national origin, class and etc impact our readings of things.

I quite love thinking more about this, though:

In traditional religion, community embraced the living and the dead, each supporting the other in a fellowship that extended across history. When Reform snuffed out that coloured world of saints, lights, signs, gestures and seasons it shrank the boundaries of community, dimmed collective memory and diminished time. (267)

The ties between fascism and planning & conservation

I learned a little more about the Third Reich here as well — apparently Heinrich Himmler

held sway over functions that included the SS, the police, the consolidation of German national identity, and settlement of the East.

The settlement of the East alongside consolidation of identity? That combination at first seemed so odd to me, and then I thought about it and it made a perfect chilling sense. There has always been a terrible dark side to our connection to land and how we live upon it. Himmler and his friend (he had friends…) Hanns Johst toured upper Silesia in 1940, Morris writes:

The two men reflected on how the German settlers would soon change the appearance of the land. Trees and hedges would be planted. Shrubs would grow…All of this was a great work of culture undertaken in awe of nature. They speculated on how these changes would ‘create protection from the wind, increase dew, and stimulate formation of clouds, force rain and thus push a more economically viable climate further toward the East. (329)

It heads to megalomania there, which is unsurprising, but also it appears they imagined a fairly comprehensive plan for living well upon the earth. Crikes.

I discovered Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, also had claims to fame as a Nazi sympathizer. So on the one hand you have the left Atlee government establishing parks and protecting buildings and wildlife for the working classes due, but also alongside concerns about ‘spoiling’ of the countryside and development. Morris quotes Engels’ descriptions of Manchester (which I too have quoted extensively) and poverty, writes:

It was partly in reaction to such squalor and moral degradation that conservation in Britain originated. That is not only why conservatism had its heart in the countryside — where despite a century of urbanism the heart of England’s identity still lay — but why historically it was anti-urban. the National Trust was founded to protect land ‘against development and industrialization.’ (331)

Their efforts allied in this with people of the far right, who saw nature as separate from human beings, and in need of protection from the masses.

Too often quite fascist protection. There are still clear affinities in some of the rhetoric today, and more than ever this is something we have to understand and root out.

I wish there was a little symbol I could use so that when I make a pun I could laugh to myself self-deprecatingly.

On the beauty of labour

Part of the lure of the past and the wilderness can also be seen in the writings of William Morris and Ruskin —

buildings and monuments of earlier ages evoke melancholy, an emotion then held to be purer and deeper than joy and to be a stimulant to imaginative consciousness.

A gothic emotion — I liked the evocation of the gothic and the uncanny. I found it interesting he doesn’t go into, or even mention, William Morris’ deeper beliefs and Socialist foundations, I think this love of medieval building is more about craftmanship and the beauty of certain kinds of labour, but there you are. There is, however, a quoted fragment from D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Things Men Have Made’:

Things we have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still, with the glowing life of forgotten men who made them. (47)

It seems to encapsulate the worth and beauty of things granted them by the labour involved in making them. Morris derides the idea of industrial production as revolution or as something that just broke out, which is an interesting idea to follow:

…another result of the lumpish way in which we cut up time — a tendency which previous chapters have shown can encourage fixation with difference at the expense of affinity, put change before flow and predispose us to simple determinism. (345)

if the industrial revolution had a defining moment it was the point at which large sections of the workforce switched from selling things they made in to selling their labour. (348)

There was another section on Birmingham, and just how much was manufactured there through industrialistion based upon this selling of labour. Johanna Schopenhauer writes in 1803:

that there is not a village in civilized Europe, perhaps not a house, where there cannot be found some industrial product made in that city, if only a button, a needle, or a pencil. (344)

By 1875, workers made over ten thousand billion nails a year.

I can’t quite get my head around the scale of that, but like how again it speaks to widespread connections through materials and labour, though I have read plenty of the desperate poverty and horrible working conditions underlying it.

A few last things, happier things, like the Lunar Society! The Lunatics met in each other’s homes the  Monday evening closest to the full moon: Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood. I also wanted to remember to find George Peele’s ‘The Voice From the Well’ and read it, and set a reminder to self to walk the Icknield way… The name so old that not even the Anglo-Saxons remembered where it came from.

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