Insane, Vain Curate; Paradise, Parasols and Coppers; How should we then Live?

This may be a confusing slog – no typo.

Both to write and read.A blurred rush, as is my own self-imposed challenge over all these years, through topics related to the natural world around us in rural West Wales, and how I perceive them.

Let’s begin with something uplifting, and a discovery for both Fiona and I at one of the excellent annual Schubertiade concerts held at Rhosygilwen near Cardigan. Click here for more on this fantastic concert venue in West Wales, which I’ve mentioned in these pages before. Not quite the proms, or Glyndebourne, but we attended 3 concerts within 10 days all preceded by great in house created suppers, shared with different and diverse guests from around the world at small circular tables in the conservatory adjoining the oak framed concert hall. For one event we ended up sitting next to an Octagenarian pianist from New Zealand, her horticulturally trained daughter and their Bedfordshire based cousin – all by chance allocation and a wonderful recipe for stimulating conversation. And at about £30 per person for meal and concert an absolute bargain for such an evening out. Rhosygilwen even offer deals for B&B in the mansion so you don’t have to travel home after the concert – do check it out!


The main event was built around Llŷr Williams performing Beethoven’s Emperor piano concerto, and this concert was put together by Henry Ward, who had managed to pull in orchestral performers from across Wales to accompany Cor Teifi, the Cardigan based mixed voices choir which Henry set up in 2016, with just one rehearsal opportunity. Less than half the hall space was available for the fortunate audience members who’d managed to get tickets for this sell out, intimate and rapturously appreciated concert. A week later and the wonderful, balletic young Russian pianist Anna Tsybuleva gave a recital of works by Chopin and Beethoven. Fiona’s photo shows just how close to the performer you can end up being, at Rhosygilwen.

But do listen to the recording of the short opening choral work from the orchestral concert, performed on the You Tube clip below by the choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, with its wonderful, and repeated, contrasting two sections. Apparently referred to by young choristers over the years by the mistranslated form used in this blog’s title. Amazing, moving power from 28 young male voices, singing in harmony from the same musical score, with a brilliant organist and conductor. And strangely identical in number to the members of the British government’s current cabinet, who really do seem to be struggling to manage to achieve such a harmonious performance right now.

Even Fiona, who sang in Downing college choir whilst in Cambridge, hadn’t heard this piece before, so maybe it will be new to some of my readers? The Latin words from an anonymous motet were translated for us in our concert notes and seemed very appropriate today:

Insane and stupid worries invade our minds;

Mad fury fills our hearts when deprived of hope.

What does it profit you, o mortals, to strive

for earthly things if you neglect the heavens?

All things are favourable to you with God at your side.

The words and music had been reworked by Josef Haydn in 1809, into one of the last pieces he wrote before his death, as Vienna was occupied by French soldiers, and Haydn had been confined to bed.

Once more Rhosygilwen’s excellent concerts had hit the spot, and combined with wonderful walks along the beaches of Abermawr, Penbryn and Poppit Sands. These had filled two days with bright light, buffeting winds, blown foam lifted from turbulent seas, and the debris littered high tide line marking the detritus deposited after storm “Callum”, 10 days earlier.

Dead seal pups, and gannets hidden amongst the woody debris, confirmed the ferocity of that storm, and gulls flying nowhere, fast and hard, into the very teeth of a gale, before dipping for rest onto the estuary’s choppy waters showed the winds were still strong.

On a tiny South facing sunny section of coastal path further South, we even found 3 Small copper, Lycaena phlaeas, butterflies basking in this, the last week of October, and just beyond them a couple of massive Parasol mushrooms, Lepiota procera, within feet of the cliff edge. Autumnal West Wales diversity.However, I wonder if my fellow Sidney Sussex College alumni who currently sit on grand green benches have ever listened to Insanae et Vanae Curae?

David Lidington, (the current deputy to the still PM Theresa May – as I write this), was in the same small annual intake of 90 or so as myself, though barely recognisable with lanky hair, and confident smiling pose in my mouldy, dusty matriculation photo from today’s more staid senior politician. (Contrast with a very shy, reticent and worried looking blogger – one of the few with a short hair cut!)

Chris Grayling, currently the transport secretary, from a more recent Sidney intake, and another possibly still plotting Brexiteer cabinet member, for now.

Or even Valerie Vaz, sitting across the chamber from Chris and David, and brother of the rather more notorious Keith Vaz, MP. As a postgraduate Sidney student, Valerie had a room along the corridor from me in Herne Lodge, as I moved onto my clinical studies at the Vet School. I recall giving Valerie occasional lessons on black and white photographic print making, in the college’s tiny darkroom in Blundell Court. (Those were the days, eh?) Photographically speaking.

Before colour and digital and 4K changed everything. Not to mention the now potentially very risky social business of taking a female student into a confined dark space alone. I never gave it a second thought back then.

But would I have risked it today? I very much doubt it. How the world has changed.

Perhaps however Haydn’s “Insanae” should be compulsory listening, followed by enforced quiet reflection time, for all politicians involved in the febrile debate of how the great Brexit discussions now progress after the 500 page deal document finally got thumped down on the table. And was very rapidly pilloried from all sides.

I sit, meanwhile, not on a bench, but a simple chair covered recently by Fiona in appropriately rainbowed cloth in my relaxing eerie, or shepherd’s hut, and try to make sense in mid-November sunshine, of the mad world lying beyond the recently spectacular multi-coloured distant Easterly skyline.

I mentioned the dramatic divergence of my career path from these high-flying ex-Sidney contemporaries to our friendly, itinerant slaughterman, “N”, who arrived this week to calmly dispatch and, later, butcher some of our lambs. There I was in soil caked leggings after a day’s hard graft in the garden on our Welsh hillside, whilst my fellow alumni were talking and scheming in Westminster, one hopes, in the UK’s best long-term interests.

“Ahhh”, said N. “But who is happier?” A great riposte.

Who indeed? I have no idea.

And is happiness the right criterion to be judged upon, though I do guess some stress levels are lower here, right now?

Apart from Brexit, in no particular order in the last three weeks we’ve had NEWS galore, some of which I list below for posterity and memory’s sake:

  • The now very well covered, in the UK, mid-term American elections.
  • Prince Charles’ 70th birthday, and, through guest editing an edition of ‘Country Life’ magazine, giving his impassioned thoughts on whether the British countryside will still be around in anything like its current form for the next generation. Fiona managed to buy a copy whilst in Lampeter, and I read it with great interest, also noting that its monthly sales average just 42,000 copies though a claimed “reach” of nearer 400,000 is stated. Hardly mainstream then, but probably a fair barometer of appreciation of the level of interest in the current UK rural scene. Click here for more including the brilliant text of the birthday toast given by HM The Queen to Prince Charles at the official birthday supper held for him at Buckingham Palace. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The UK is indeed very fortunate to have had such a “passionate and creative” leader involved so tirelessly in public life for so many years.
  • The worst ever fires in California’s history, causing massive devastation and loss of life, and peculiarly centred on the retirement town of Paradise. As I write the level of casualties and missing people is rising into the hundreds. Click here for images from CNN of scenes from the town before and after the fires – I include these only to show how dense, or not as it seems to me, the tree cover was which allowed the fires to cause such devastation and loss of life. Latest suspicions are that the fires probably arose from sparks from faulty electricity cables brought down by high winds onto a landscape tinder dry after months without rain – an increasingly serious problem in this part of the world, as the climate shifts. Though the current US president still seems to dispute such climatic change is happening at all.
  • Numerous events to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, the war to end all wars, until Europe and the world forgot how terrible it was, and descended into a repeat conflagration barely a generation later. Click here for one of Danny Boyle’s sand sculptures, created, then cleansed by the incoming tide, and here for a Shropshire lad, Wilfred Owen’s, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, read with great emotion by Sean Bean. Lest we forget.
  • The publication of a report from the UK government’s Committee for Climate Change plans for changes in land use across the UK. Amongst other things this proposes that British farmers should reduce grassland beef and sheep production by at least 50%, and cover the land with trees to help mitigate climate change – click here for the full report. We should also, apparently, eat more chicken and pork, never minding that these animal proteins require grain to be grown and then fed to these, usually very intensively farmed, animals. Or indeed we should all move to reducing or eliminating any meat consumption. I note with concern the increasingly strident evangelism of some of the vegan community. Click here for an informative take by Drew French on grass fed meat production, should you wish. From recent personal observation and discoveries, I increasingly think that low input permanent grassland, grazed at appropriate density by herbivores is one of the most biodiverse and least intrusive forms of human food production for certain poor soil conditions. However, should the CCC (still chaired by the ex BSE burger munching Lord Deben) plans take hold, let’s just hope that we don’t get more hot summers like 2018. Perhaps if we do, we shall have our own scenes like those in Paradise in years to come, if as is likely for cost and short termism, inflammable mono-cultures of conifers are planted, as across our valley, and not mixed deciduous forests which would fare much better in drought and fire, as well as supporting vastly more wildlife.  Or indeed discover that in 2 generations all the top soil will have been lost from our uplands after such forest fires, as subsequent rainfall erosion washes our exposed thin upland soils down the hillsides, into the rivers and out to sea. Far-fetched nonsense? Well with climate change becoming ever more unpredictable, read this fascinating recent piece, click here, by Noel Kingsbury on fires in Portugal, the background leading up to them, and how the land might, or might not, recover. A case of commercial and government driven forestry initiatives producing, within just a few decades, a scene of near desertification in a once diverse rural landscape.
  • A further suggestion that if we stopped eating meat, current technology may soon be able to harness solar energy, water and mere bacterial growth to produce a base protein food stuff which could solve the world’s nutritional needs for decades to come (click here for a typically provocative piece by George Monbiot). Perhaps this would be a perfect form of nutrition for an ex-omnivore species which has become increasingly urban and has lost touch with the natural world?
  • Finally, in case you missed it, and most significantly, at least to my off-centred mind, of all this “NEWS”, the latest State of the Living Planet report produced by WWF. I’ve asked friends with TV’s how much air time this latter report got – it seemed pretty scant whenever we’ve had our radio turned on, and doesn’t seem to have been picked up in any real discussion, clashing as it did with many of the above more dramatic news stories. Yet I’d urge any readers who haven’t already done so to click onto the detailed WWF pdf report which you can read here, and scroll down to pages 24 and 25 which place multiple graphs of both socioeconomic trends (like urban population, transportation, international tourism, fertilizer consumption, telecommunications, global water use) beside earth system trends (like levels of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, surface temperature, tropical forest loss, ocean acidification, and terrestrial biosphere degradation). What is clear is that since around 1950, there has been a “Great Acceleration” in nearly all of these trends, which are largely inter-connected, and the impact on much of the natural world has been dramatic. The headline figure being that across nearly 4,000 different species of life on the planet, which have been monitored in detail over the last 50 years, a decline in population numbers averaging 60% has been recorded. And none of this data includes any invertebrates, which we now know from other studies are probably collapsing even faster than this. Click here for an earlier report this year from a tropical forest where arthropod biomass has declined by between 10 and 60 times, since the 1970’s, with corresponding collapses in higher animals in the forest which depend on such invertebrates for food.

I read through the WWF report hoping to see the punchlines at the end, of what we need to do as a species to grapple with this collapse in the health and biodiversity of the natural world all around us, and halt the damage we’re doing in this new epoch of the anthropocene.And was left wondering, is that it?

Apart from a specific point, yet again, encouraging everyone to eat less meat, and pointing out that now was the time to act – that we’re the first generation to have all this data from multiple sources which tells us in such detail about how we’re wrecking our planet, and therefore governments need to mount a co-ordinated plan to turn things around, there was precious little specific advice or suggestions.

Nothing significant on other personal consumption choices, energy, other foods, air travel, transport, etc.

And then another thought occurred. Much of the acceleration in all forms of human consumption have taken place even before the current age of universal global telecommunications, the global surge in numbers of “the middle class” and the sophistication and constant barraging with advertisements which most who use the internet in any way are constantly exposed to.

All of this led me to the title for this post.

Though a friend suggested after my gloomy prognostications it should simply have been titled WE’RE ALL STUFFED.

What chance do we have in a world where even something as simple as implementing Brexit has become so mired in legal and political argument, of ever turning round the path of the Homo “sapiens” juggernaut? I’m probably naïve in thinking extricating one’s nation from the EU was ever going to be simple, but heck isn’t it the lawyers and politicians who’ve made it so problematic? Were there ever 500 pages of argument and fine print detail produced when we opted to join “the common market” in the first place?

Where then does individual personal responsibility lie in this mad and increasingly complex world? How do we decide how we live our lives? What choices do we make? How do we spend our money, time or effort? What compass do we use to navigate a path ahead?

I sense the majority shrug their shoulders, and accept that individual actions will have unmeasurable effect, so why bother to consider the consequences of one’s actions at all.

Or not even think about it.

Or maybe indeed the subject is just too complex to know what is the best course of action, in any one area of life without more detailed advice.

Or even worse rely for state, or religious thought control, to remove any need for freedom of action.So how should we, or you, dear reader, then live? Maybe indeed Haydn’s piece poses pertinent questions for this age?

For those who don’t know, the second part of this post’s title is also that of a book published in 1976 by Francis Schaeffer, which has very curiously sat, unread, on various of my, and then our, bookshelves for all the years since I bought it as an undergraduate. Schaeffer takes the title as a direct quote from the book of Ezekiel 33, verse 10. In a big book clear out some years ago, interestingly I hung onto it. I really don’t know why. I think now might be a good time to read it, having found this review, click here, of it online.

The subtext of the title “The rise and decline of Western thought and culture” sounds as interesting as the opening words of the first chapter, which given copyright laws on an American title, I shan’t risk including here! It’s an unashamedly Christian analysis of this huge philosophical subject. Perhaps now in these darker months, is an appropriate time to tackle it, if not for enlightenment then to at last be able to let go of it.




11 thoughts on “Insane, Vain Curate; Paradise, Parasols and Coppers; How should we then Live?

  1. I read what you say about animal farming with interest. Living as I do in a countryside stripped of much of its flora and fauna by the combined efforts of sheep farmers and grouse moor owners over the years and not helped by commercial tree planting, I was interested to read recently that most of the sheep meat produced goes for export as there is no market for it here at the price that it needs to be sold at. Where are the mutton pies of yesteryear?

    There was a lot to chew over in the post and I was very taken by your view that something might be ‘simple as implementing Brexit’. If you have even been a rugby referee and had to learn the rules of the game and apply them in a fast moving situation where most of the people on the pitch are intent, if not on outright cheating, at least on bending the rules to their advantage to the utmost in a game that only last 80 minutes, I feel that you might have more sympathy for the complexity of unwinding forty years of entanglement while keeping a level playing field for all concerned, coping with players on your own side who are playing a different game altogether, under fire from commentators who have only their own interest in mind and in front of spectators who just wish the whole thing would go away in one form or another as it can’t possibly bring them the result that they want.

    That may have been the longest sentence that I have ever written. I apologise.

    I should say that I enjoyed reading the post a lot and the Haydn was very good.

    • Hello TP,
      Thanks for the very interesting comment and indeed reading my convoluted scribblings in the first place.
      I couldn’t agree more about much conventional sheep farming (no grouse moors round here really) being far too intensive and wrecking of the environment. The dilemma is if one steps off the pressure, and manage the grassland more sensitively then biodiversity will improve massively and quite quickly – but how then can commercial farmers who choose to go this route make an income? Only really by marketing sheep meat as a prelium product. We’re all certainly addicted to cheap food aren’t we. Ourselves included? This is all part of the “How then do we live” side of the piece I wanted to try to grapple with . Really it’s just too big a topic for something like a blog post, but the synchronicity of all the NEWS which impacted on my brain wanted me to have a crude stab at it.
      I haven’t ever had the experience of being a rugby, or indeed any form of sports referee, and your analogy is very apt.
      I did think about how rational it was to incorporate that phrase – however again it was designed to highlight that if we can’t exit a set up like our EU involvement which began as a simple trading arrangement, what chance do we have of ever globally responding to the challenges highlighted by the WWF report?
      It’s not that I don’t have great sympathy for those trying to achieve it, more that it’s just never going to happen – we shall probably just agonise and plot our decline over the next few decades ( re natural world degradation).
      Part of my problem is having spent most of my working life in self employment, I see things far too simplistically.
      A problem arises. What are the options.?Mull them over, fast or quickly. The buck stops with me, so do something by way of response. Try to learn from one’s inevitable mistakes.
      The time frame for this process when it’s just one or two people is inevitably much shorter than when tens, or hundreds or thousands are involved. Often perhaps the decisions won’t necessarily be as well considered as if they’d been kicked around with lots more heads involved. Or indeed without the benefits of (expensive) legal advice! (apologies if you have a legal background!)
      But in general decisions will be made more speedily. I am just coming to end of a short term of chairing a small committee and have learned a lot from this with much being enjoyable, but it’s also confirmed that in essence I’m more of a loner, again hugely stymied by my previous working life experiences. But then this is a key point in Schaeffer’s opening paragraph – the results of our thought world flows, inevitably, through our fingers or tongues into the world beyond. What we we think obviously determines how we act whether creatively or politically – and we’re all unique beings in this regard. The danger as a blogger is that one’s exposing one’s inner thought processes to the wider world.
      Anyway, next time I must revert to more sedate, safer territory! And never mind a long sentence, I must make the darned post shorter!

      Glad that you enjoyed the Haydn!!
      Thanks again,
      Best wishes

  2. What a coincidence, I have a similar Freshers photo from Sidney but 6 years earlier than yours. As for Cromwell’s head I recall a conversation with one of the Chaplains during my time there. He said he had looked at the head (I think only the Master and the Chaplain know the exact location) and it still had the wart!

    • Hello Philip,
      Thanks for that – I’d forgotten that you were at Sidney as well!
      How fascinating both that the exact location is so closely guarded – actually given undergraduate pranks, it’s probably very sensible- but also that the wart is still there. I had no idea before getting dragged into this subject that the head had moved around so much. Let alone been stuck on a pole outside Westminster for so many years.
      My Sidney photo has languished in a chest of drawers for years – it has got decidedly mouldy thanks to the high humidity we used to have inside until very recently.
      Best wishes

  3. Gosh Julian what a post! I’m sticking to what I always do on blogs…keep it simple…praise where praise is due ( wonderful photos) and keep schtum on anything political, religious etc! My pals went to a folk concert on Friday night at Rhosygilwen loved every second!

    • Thanks Marianne,
      When did I ever just stick to simple though? And as always I learned such a lot from doing this piece – including now, thanks to Philip’s comment this evening, that Oliver Cromwell’s head, in a closely guarded secret location beneath the chapel floor at Sidney, still has his obvious wart on it!
      Best wishes,

  4. Enjoyed beautiful transition from autumn to winter in your photographs listening the Haydn’s motet. So sad that people have never learned anything truly important.

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