Kropotkin’s Permaculture

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The Conquest of Bread in a Time of Collapse – Kropotkin’s Permaculture

Introduction

In the Conquest of Bread Kropotkin addressed the problem of meeting the needs of the working class in an approaching time of revolutionary change.

By contrast, Permaculture design came into the post ’68 world , the world of ecological limits described by the Club of Rome. For David Holmgren, Permaculture’s co-originator, Modernism lay in ruins, the cultural diversity of the world was being lost, environmental threats were general, and technological change offered both expanded possibility and a greater risk of catastrophe.

Humanity’s impact on biodiversity, or the climatic impacts of fossil fuels were unimaginable to Kropotkin. He had no notion of human ecological embeddedness.

Less than a century after Kropotkin had argued that a new society was possible with increased production and all powered by burning more coal, Permaculture’s other originator, Bill Mollison, wrote: “The sad reality is that we are in danger of perishing from our own stupidity and lack of personal responsibility to life.”

Permaculture rests on ecological principles and a well informed understanding of ecological breakdown,but it also identifies the need for fundamental social change. “I deeply believe,” Mollison wrote, “that people are the only critical resource needed by people…. we will either survive together or none of us will survive.”

Considering Kropotkin’s Lasting Influence

Although Kropotkin knew nothing of planetary boundaries, he was a strong influence on the founders of Permaculture.

Holmgren cites Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid’ as a refutation of Social Darwinism and, in 2016, he explained to Fionn Quinlan, another Permaculture practitioner, that Kropotkin’s work had been important to him since he was a young man, when his parents had had a Penguin paperback of Mutual Aid, and that the Russian geographer and Anarchist, a “proto-ecologist,” had remained a strong influence on his ideas about mutualism and cooperation.

Holmgren also cites Bookchin and Social Ecology as an important influence and a bridge from Anarchism, to the distinctive Permaculture position of not wanting to fight against the world we don’t want, but rather directly creating the world we do want. Holmgren went on to say that Permaculture “was informed by a radical political view [that] was never cast as being anarchism, but mostly [fitted] into the framework of anarchism.”

I recently discovered that Bill Mollison visited the Institute for Social Ecology and met Bookchin; a conversation which sadly doesn’t seem to have been recorded.

It’s not contentious to adduce ‘Mutual Aid’ or even ‘Fields, Factories and Workshops’, as an influence, Bob Flowerdew did as much in one of his gardening books. As a guide to revolution, The Conquest of Bread is more problematic. And whereas, as recently as April 2020, Warren Draper’s excellent Freedom article ‘Anarchist Farm: A Revolutionary Feast’ linked Kropotkin, Colin Ward and Permaculture, this was less about crisis and catastrophe than ethics and possibility.

Bookchin’s work is much closer to Permaculture thought than Kropotkin the revolutionary could have been. In the final chapter of The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin identifies the role of “historic forces” and crises in creating the possibility for social transformation. This is an important link.

For Kropotkin the stimulus was capitalism, and he identified in it the emergence of the new society that would replace it after a revolutionary crisis.

For Permaculture, the crisis is ecological collapse, and its attendant social breakdown, but both proceed from the primacy of meeting human needs in the midst of crises.

Looking at The Stark Differences

The Conquest of Bread identifies unfolding and latent Anarchist Communist tendencies in the world. Malatesta accused Kropotkin of “Excessive optimism” in this regard. Permaculture also draws on modelling observed potentialities, but is predicated on imminent collapse. Mollison wrote of “the very brink of annihilation.”

Kropotkin foresaw a grand struggle to overthrow the world as it was; Permaculture emphasises creating the world we want whilst surviving the world as it is.

Kropotkin was oblivious to ecological crises, but there’re plenty of people today who are as ignorant and don’t have the excuse of being long dead.

Looking past Covid-19 and the economic dumpster fire; if we focus on catastrophic climate breakdown, soil depletion, the food supply system, depreciation and decay of infrastructure, and the small matter of ecological collapse, this is not the world Kropotkin imagined being taken into the hands of the working class.

It’s arguable that no aspect of this world is practicably salvageable for new communities or revolutionary movements. Fragile collapsing supply chains frame the perfect storm we face today.

The assumption since Kropotkin that “we can do it,” that a world of abundance is within reach, underlies a great deal of leftist thinking, both reformist and revolutionary. We often assume a tremendous inheritance. Permaculture design does not.

Important Parallels

There are important ethical correspondences between Kropotkin’s Anarchism and Permaculture. That’s how I teach the Permaculture Ethics session of the Design Course. More interesting, though, is the shared focus on the hard realities of production: in a crisis , how do we meet human needs?

Growing food is popular again. But there’s a reason Kropotkin’s book is called The Conquest of Bread and not The Supply of Salad Bags. It’s the same reason that Permaculture designers like Geoff Lawton emphasise the need for growing grains on an intensive domestic scale, and why this civilisation’s capacity to grow grains “at scale” is identified so often as its Achilles Heel with respect to climate change (UK Wheat harvest down 40% this year by the way).

1KG of wholemeal wheat flour provides 3000 calories. 1KG of potatoes is about a third of that, or 1000 calories. As for your row of beetroot at the allotment: 430 calories to 1kg, or a diet made up of 4 to 5 KG of beetroot a day to stay active. Calorie counting like this is the arithmetic of life and death in a crisis.

We’ve had our warnings. Shortages were predicted due to Covid-19, they still might be one outcomes of a no-deal Brexit.

The work of groups like Co-operation Jackson, and the Co-operation Town network in the UK, demonstrate an effective praxis for Anarchists in times of crisis. It looks a lot more like Anarchists doing Permaculture than The Conquest of Bread, but it’s still about bread.

The Failings of Permaculture

Given that it’s a response to harsh contemporary ecological and social challenges, Permaculture has failed.

It’s suffered a dramatic lack of penetration into wider society. More than forty years on suburbia is still full of lawns; changes in food systems for the better have been miniscule, and dwarfed by changes for the worse. Those changes which do look promising have largely been co-opted by green capitalism or remain the preserve of well-heeled middle class greens.

There’s been a distinct drift in Permaculture towards individualism and retreat – into quietism.

People who attend Permaculture Design Courses in Britain are often interested in their own project, their backyard and their quinoa. There are exceptions, there remains the vague notion of changing the world, but often one garden, one farmers market, one bottle of kombucha at a time.

This is a long way from Chapter 14 of the Design Manual. There’s a radicalism at the heart of Permaculture, even the Permaculture Design Course was designed to strengthen existing communities in which it’s taught, or to build new communities around groups of graduates. It wasn’t intended to bring fee-paying students from far afield as customers on another green study holiday.

The Permaculture ethics: Earth care, People care and Fair Shares can be read as a well meaning credo, or they can be a radical community building imperative. Permaculture’s has been the usual route to co-optation within capitalism.

It is worth mentioning that the Australian Permaculturist Geoff Lawton argues that Permaculture groups should organise to reflect local government boundaries. In this way, a small group might concentrate on pushing authorities to respond to ecological and social crises. (Parallels to later social ecology here)

Stale Bread

In the Nineteenth Century, the Gaian overview didn’t exist, neither did scientific ecology, even for Kropotkin.

Kropotkin was also immersed in the idea of Progress; The Conquest of Bread is built on increasing production, an idea which made sense in a world of brutally apparent shortage; less so now in a world of conspicuous waste.

Kropotkin did address producing differently, getting rid of “idlers and middlemen” (Graeber’s ‘Bullshit jobs’), disarmament, reducing or removing officialdom, and all of “the labour that goes to sheer waste.” But this was really secondary to employing technology and coal, to increase production and improve the lives of the working class and peasants. This aspect of Kropotkin’s work hasn’t aged well.

He envisaged turning the farming hinterlands to feeding the hungry working class, using better machines, chemical manures, glasshouses and what he called intensive agriculture. The small mixed farms of the peasantry would be linked to the revolution in partnership, joined by “happy crowds of occasional labourers” to bring in the huge harvests. (Revolutionary wwoofing!)

The problem is that these mixed farms don’t exist now; the hinterlands are global. Kropotkin recognised that relying on far off lands for food was a problem, but in his day this had hardly even begun.

Kropotkin also considered housing and clothing. People who know little of Permaculture tend to think of it as clever gardening, but it concerns itself too with textiles and building. What has changed is not the need for clothes and shelter, but once again how little capacity there is in most regions to meet demand, to use local materials, to develop a local skill base and to produce for need rather than for the demands of the world economy. In housing we face an even greater problem, not just putting roofs over our heads, but meeting the challenges of a broken and increasingly dangerous Earth system.

Oil has also transformed the global economy. Ecologically, economically and industrially we are in a very different world.

For Bookchin, post-scarcity would be reached through a combination of ecologically embedded technology and cultural transformation. Permaculture too has a take on abundance as the outcome of carefully designed ecological systems as they mature and become self-sustaining. The imperative, both for Bookchin and for the originators of Permaculture, was design.

For the Club of Rome, the so-called “problematic” is that the crises seemingly inherent to industrial capitalism cannot be solved in a piecemeal fashion. On that at least revolutionaries can agree with them. The corollary of this however, is unfortunate for revolutionaries. The identified inherent problems project a point at which both society and the Earth system collapse, an ultimate crisis.

We face a future that threatens to leave us not with more because we have taken it from ruling class, but with very much less.

Grim Speculation

We have to consider terrifying and possibly rapid collapse, not just socially, but ecologically. Social change, whether for better or for worse, in this kind of world, will be fragmented and shifting.

Instead of The Revolution we find ourselves in a world in which universalising or generalising revolutionary aims or movements becomes impossible, and even counter productive. We are drawn into consideration of Disaster Communism and the argument that we might well start with nothing but, as Mollison said, all we will need is people.

Conclusions

Questions of the ultimate crisis raise contentious debates around needs and limits, what they are and how to decide.

Permaculture defines culture by the acceptance of limits, those limits are ecological. Bookchin does the same in The Ecology of Freedom, to the extent that freedom, where it meets ecological embeddedness, can seem like giving up such freedom of action as we recognise as freedom at all.

Anarchism offers a toolkit for community survival and rebuilding. And Permaculture is also a toolkit, a powerful set of ethically driven design tools to face an imminent crisis, and in the attempt, to recover and retain our humanity.

The shared DNA is evident. Permaculture carries the humanising, ecological and liberatory reason that the economistic current of socialism lacks.

Kropotkin’s reflections on the end of the division of labour, on decentralisation of industry, on intensive horticulture and cities feeding themselves, all find echoes in Permaculture today, but the end that Kropotkin envisaged was the deliberate end of capitalism; the end that we face is more challenging, both to how we should proceed now, and how we might employ our ideas and skills to survive what is coming. The basis of any good design is an up to date base map.

Communalism & Wales

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Communalism and the “Democratic Nation”: Welsh Independence and Building a New Society

The Welsh independence movement is a statist movement which will, as and when it is successful, create a nation-state with British characteristics, presumably heavily influenced by other European representative democracies. In that way, although there is no doubt that it will represent a huge improvement on the domination of Wales by Westminster, it will replicate many of the problems of nation-states within itself, folding in contradictions that will undermine the best intentions of those who would seek increasing equality, deepening ecology, strengthening communities, the continued revival of the Welsh language, and a vibrant diverse democracy.

The difference between creating a new nation-state which carries forward many of the characteristics of colonial domination, and building a new society largely free of those characteristics is the difference between decolonisation and liberation. Anti-colonial movements, like the Welsh independence movement today, have always had to choose between organising for decolonisation or for the struggle for liberation. Wales, like so many other colonies, has been politically shaped by the metropolitan power; that formation has also been economic and social. It is hardly surprising that so few of us as yet look beyond the models we have been given. Even socialist and republican statist models reflect the norms of colonial thinking.

Movements like Yes Cymru, and the more radical leftist Undod, endeavour, quite understandably, to create a broad coalition across Welsh society; the immediate goal is independence and a new nation-state is the straightest road to that political goal. Behind that locomotive, pro-indy organisations attempt to hitch all kinds of social, economic and environmental aspirations; it’s like election day all over again: vote for this, to get that, so you can vote for the other, and somewhere down the line we’ll vote ourselves right into the Citadel.

We all know the problems with this one-last-heave-to-electoral-victory approach. Those of us from across the Left and, to be clear, the Post-Left, who walked the miles for Corbyn in 2019, recognising the catastrophic alternative, and accepting the limitations of a hoped for Labour Administration, came up against not just apathy born of decades of betrayal, but also open hostility coming out of fevered right wing propaganda. A couple of minutes on the doorstep couldn’t undo the absence of the Labour Movement from people’s lives over decades, or the hegemonic individualism of capitalism triumphant. This is a very real problem for left of centre parties across Europe, and also for any civic nationalist movement couching its appeal in electoral progressivism.

The other road, longer and more difficult without doubt, is the road to liberation.

Liberation starts with the recognition that we are most concerned about radical social transformation and that the attempt to achieve that through the political system we have been handed by the ruling class of the metropolitan power is futile. To be clear, having a new nation-state has been a common experience for people all over the world in the Modern Era, as the Yes Cymru slogan runs ‘Independence is Normal’. It is indeed, and so is the disappointment with the first generation of post-independence politicians, the shattered hopes and the return to the mean of disenfranchisement and inequality.

The roots of the Left don’t lie in ideas or in programmes, but in communities. It has always been in working class communities that resistance to capitalism and state power has arisen, and in working class communities that the real alternatives to disempowerment and inequality have been found. The greatest lie on the Left has always been that if you choose the right politicians and they create a Government of the right colour all of the things you have always wanted in your neighbourhood or workplace will pour from the sky like mana from heaven. Nationally, the Left has always relied on its presence in vibrant working class communities. In the absence of communities as such, the Left withers. In the absence of communities darker ideas and movements of fragmentation and destruction arise.

We might look at the history of radical anti-colonial movements for inspiration here. Basil Davidson documented highly democratic village-led struggles against Portuguese rule in Mozambique; the Kenyan Land and Freedom Armies might also be mentioned. The clearest examples in the world today can be found in Chiapas in Mexico, and in Rojava in Kurdistan. Whilst these examples may seem a world away from Twenty First Century Wales, in one crucial respect they are salient: primarily they highlight social movements which embody radical transformational practice in their struggle rather than attending new frontiers or new nation-states and the promise of post-colonial legislation.

The work of Murray Bookchin and other communalist thinkers has elaborated social ecology as a toolkit for creating and recreating communities fit to drive social change from the ground up, to bring into being a new kind of politics at a local level, radically democratic and impressively empowering. Both the writings of Abdullah Ocalan and the example of Rojava show that social ecology is more than just a collection of vague ideas, but can and has been applied to great effect.

Here is the question then: do we place our hopes in a new nation-state and a newly invigorated national political class, or do we aim to build a radically democratic society committed to freedom, egalitarianism and an ecological future? Such a society, a new Wales, can only be created from all of its communities, strengthened or reborn. Politicians will nod at every mention of the word community, but communities have been shattered and continue to perish – with devastating consequences, not least for the Welsh language – with every new Government in Westminster, or in Cardiff. Meanwhile, the people of Wales are left ill-prepared to decide one way or the other for independence, or continuation in the UK whatever that might look like, in a few years time.

Communalism starts with society not the state, with communities, neighbourhoods and workplaces, not at the “centre”, wherever that might be. Of course the Kurdish situation differs from that of Wales, and no-one could mistake Chiapas for Carmarthenshire, but the idea that the movement for a very different and independent Wales might start with social transformation is still apposite.

It would be wrong to see any of this as an argument against formal Welsh independence, on the contrary, that independence would no doubt prove to be a great defence against the apparently permanent right wing Government in England. However, Wales, like any country, is either much more than its shiny parliament building and its flag or it’s just another territory under global capitalism. And the substance of that being is society, and a vibrant society is made up of living communities which to a large extent wield control over their resources and their futures.

Social ecology, or Communalism, recognises that communities can democratically meet their own needs through participatory processes and recallable mandated delegates. Democratic communities must confederate for mutual support and strength, and that is how a country is built: what Ocalan calls not a nation-state but a democratic nation.

Might we then be able to look at the movement for Welsh independence from the other direction, not as something that might be primarily delivered by votes in Cardiff, but as something that can only be meaningfully built from the community level? And how would we begin?

The agenda of Communalism offers a strategy which has the aim of drawing individuals back into functioning democratic communities. In Rojava the central place of women and women’s liberation has been recognised in this process. Neighbourhoods, workplaces and self-identifying communities begin to develop a radically democratic culture of assemblies, and these assemblies then work together, either directly or through mandated delegates.

Economic communalism or municipalism arises out of this as elements of the local economy come under the control of these assemblies. What might sound like a revolutionary call to arms seems altogether more likely to bring people together when we all realise that we’re actually talking about communities saving the village shop, the local pub, or setting up a local car maintenance workshop.

Ecological or bioregional communalism might start with community supported agriculture schemes, not just for horticultural production but to bring local farms and farmers into the heart of communities, producing for local consumption. Communities which depend upon and work with the local environment both value and enhance that environment, and in this way ecology is tied to food security as well as employment.

Cultural and linguistic communalism might help crack the present day barriers faced by Welsh learners whilst also helping to bring together English speaking and Welsh speaking communities in a shared identity, or unity in diversity. Communalism is ideally suited to develop a modern democracy in which the widest range of groups and individuals, whether they are women or Welsh speakers, can both direct their own affairs locally and play a full part in shaping wider society.

This is not a municipal retrofit of presently existing local democracy but the idea of a movement promoting a new and radically democratic culture across Wales, in every workplace and neighbourhood until eventually assemblies would become the vigorous manifestation of a reborn civil society, and participatory budgeting, planning and design of communities, settlements and the wider landscape would be the norm.

Of course, we should all know that good ideas, even ones compelling to those of us of a radical nature, are simply not enough. There are still far too many opinion pieces, online and in print, which present apparently coherent solutions to the critical social and ecological situation we find ourselves in as if just because something is sensible and just it will have an impact in the real world. The truth is that we are a very long way from living in a democratic society in which mutual respect and equality are the norm, and it is important to recognise the scale of the task we face.

A good start is meeting people where they are rather than where we wish they were, and Communalism provides the tactical tools to do this. Local organisation and the practice of mutual aid are the starting points for communalist groups, and communalism moves away from absolute rejection of existing local democracy, seeing engagement as one possible route to creating or supporting communalist institutions. The immediate aim of Communalist groups in all their practice is to grow a culture of radical democracy. The creation of a democratic culture is the essential building block of a healthy civil society one in which communities and their institutions can thrive despite, and in the face of, the vicissitudes of global capitalism and its captive nation-states.

It is on this territory that differences and divisions in communities can be overcome. Communalism recognises, indeed embraces, unity in diversity. Ocalan talks about modern democracy, and means a society suffused with democratic behaviour from every locale to wider regions to democratic nations and beyond. It is hard not to accept that this is the modern democracy we need if we are going to overcome the kind of terrible inequality we face in Wales, and the ecological problems we face both specific to this country and confronting the whole world.

What are the chances of building an effective communalist voice in Wales? If we’re honest, then we have to admit they are slim, very slim. Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, strong self-identifying communities were the norm in Wales as elsewhere. Communities were bound together by a commonly recognised interdependence, and the notion that another person’s problems had nothing to do with you, that the state would pick up the pieces, would have been alien to those kind of villages and neighbourhoods. This was also the ethic of working class mutual aid upon which the trades union movement was built. Most of this world of tight communal mutuality has been swept away by what economists call mobility, by the seemingly unstoppable trajectory towards individualism, consumerism, smaller households and the separation of the generations, as well as away from jobs for life in large workplaces.

In addition to long term trends, over the last year or so Covid-19 has brought issues of mutual aid, family and community into sharp focus for many of us; it has highlighted the value of the local even as it has worsened inequality and shown us the fragility of our contemporary living arrangements. It has also provided a spur to amazing new community activism in many places.

That despite these recent points of light we are starting almost from scratch shouldn’t discourage us. We all know and accept the fundamental role of community in viable and secure human life, it’s just that we’ve lost our way, we’ve forgotten what it might even mean to live in supportive communities, to have a meaningful say, to shape our own futures.

The question for every part of the Left in Wales is how we should respond to the Independence Movement. Should we dismiss civic nationalism in the same way we dismiss right wing xenophobic nationalism? Should we hold fast to the idea of no borders and no nations for the working class whose interests are everywhere opposed to the interests of capital? Should we engage with organisations like Yes Cymru, and work to make an independent Wales in which at least our voices may be heard at the centre, or should we imagine that we can force an altogether unlikely independence settlement from the start, chasing the dream of a Socialist Republic of Wales?

Communalism suggests that in a formally independent Wales or not, we must engage with the process of building strong self-directing democratic communities, that a great deal might be achieved by grass roots action regardless of the national constitutional position, and that a modern democratic nation will in any event never be built from above.

However that doesn’t answer the question of how communalists should interact with the Independence Movement as it exists now.

I’m going to suggest that we should both support and work for independence from the UK on as progressive a basis as possible, not because this outcome is perfect, but because it is both better for us in Wales, for the rest of the countries of the UK, and for the world – to be rid of the UK as it has been. We should work with, and in, pro-independence movements to make arguments around radical democracy and unity in diversity amongst other things. If we accept that radical communalist democracy would create a territory in which social division, inequality and ecological collapse might best be addressed then we should always make that argument forcefully to people who share our interest in profound social, economic and political transformation.

At every stage Communalist organisations would ideally be found building and rebuilding communities and ensuring that, upon the expected creation of a new nation-state, society has begun to awaken, and is ready to face the new state with an inherent power of its own, not vested in a political class, a parliament building or a new elite, but found in every neighbourhood, village, and workplace across this country, organised democratically by the people to meet the needs of the people.

Ymlaen Cyrmu! Annibyniaeth Nawr!

References

The Next Revolution – Popular Assemblies & the Promise of Direct Democracy, Murray Bookchin, Verso, 2015

Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left, Murray Bookchin, AK Press, 1999

The Political Thought of Abdullah Ocalan, Abdullah Ocalan, Pluto Press, 2017

Internal Landscape

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Did you see it?

Its ghostly white-edged eye?

It followed me

Along the shattered way

 

The Wind stole words

Pushed me to the shore

The copper sea didn’t hold me wrapt

As once it had

 

Elements tumbled

Around the gorse crowned bay

And us

On edge

By broken edge

 

Dragon and one-eyed idol watched

Are we the same as we were?

Or are we broken like the land?

Reflections in the water

 

A dragon followed me today

A monster I had called

Dragon

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Its last breath

Still turning around this shattered edge

Long dead

I saw a dragon today

 

Glimpsed tangentially

Like the coastline

Teeth rising from the water

Curling distant spines

 

Its windlashed skeleton half revealed

Its gorse scattered spine  and stone wall sinews

Tearing through rippling hide

Copper green as the sea

 

How it thrashed as it died

Anger carved and bitten land

When at last it lay still

Storm driven crows watching over it

 

A grave

Shouldered in purple and yellow

 

Squirrel

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“Do you have to do that?”

He’d been scraping dirt from under his nails with the point of his penknife; black woodland earth, and blood he thought, bound to be, mixed in. Beth was washing potatoes in the colander. She tilted it to show them to him; baby ones from the garden.

He’d have changed his clothes except he was so tired. He needed tea and to sit.

He looked into the squirrel’s eyes and the coal black beads seemed to look back at him. It lay there on the table, on its side, it’s little mouth open, jaws stiff and oversize teeth bared. The table was cluttered; normal kitchen table mess: unpaid bills; keys; the empty fruit bowl, and a dead squirrel.

His stomach knotted and turned with hunger. He reached out and put down the knife; left his hand on the table and watched it shake, just a little tremor.

“How’s Gemma?” His voice trembled like his hand.

“Poorly,” Beth said. Her look told him more. She came over and poked the squirrel.

“It’s dead,” he said. Once upon a time he might have smiled. His trousers were damp and his feet were wet. He’d have to wring out his socks.

“What shall I do with it?”

“Roast it,” he said. “I don’t know. Is there still gas in the bottle?”

She nodded and took the animal by its tail; finger and thumb as if it was a rat. It hadn’t come to that yet though. He didn’t say anything, and he didn’t let his dull annoyance turn to anger, he just put some money on the table, wet edged notes from his rain-soaked pocket.

“Andrew’s still taking them then?”

“For now.”

Hanging from her hand, the squirrel, curled up just a little, went to the sink. Wide-eyed, it spared him a last unblinking look as it went under the knife.

He thought about going to see Gemma in the other room, but he couldn’t. Not yet. He bent down to peel off his socks; wiped a tear from his eye.

 

 

Just Another Roof

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On thousands of mornings just like this one he had climbed longer ladders on to more imposing roofs without even noticing that he was high above the ground. These were the places he lived and worked; the view from the rooftops was his view.

This time though, the instant he moved to leave the top of the main ladder he had known that something was different: his feet tingled in his boots and the palms of his hands felt hollow and cold; his fingers began to sweat.

‘Fuck!’ A curse and a deep breath didn’t shift the lightness he felt in his limbs; involuntarily his hand went back towards the ladder and worse than that he glanced down, all the way down towards the van. ‘Fuck!’

‘You’re okay’ he muttered to himself, ‘must have had too much coffee this morning that’s all.’ But the fear was rising in his chest. He turned away from the roof edge, steeled himself as best he could and made for the ridge.

Every unsteady step strengthened his conviction that he was going to fall; the open air around him pulled at his senses; he felt that the slightest breeze might lift him from the roof entirely. He wanted desperately to lie flat against the tiles, to lie still and close his eyes. Somehow at last at the ridge, the urge to cling on was too powerful to resist.

Rapid breath followed rapid breath. How ridiculous he felt hanging on there where normally he would have stood straight. He couldn’t work, he couldn’t even move, and yet, despite the paralysing vertigo and the terror of the fall, perversely another worry forced itself to the forefront of his mind. He hoped to God that Matt would not look up and see him like this.

Staying still and trying to reason with himself didn’t work. If this was the new reality he didn’t like it, not at all. He had moved all too swiftly from not understanding a fear of heights to not knowing how he had passed more than thirty years of his life slating, tiling and walking roofs. He couldn’t do it now that much was for certain.

Momentarily he noticed the warmth of the Sun on the back of his neck; he remembered that it was a lovely day. The birds were singing in the treetops, and far below in a back garden a greenhouse door opened noisily and a hose was turned on. But that world, the world down there, felt so far away, and the thought of a solitary white cloud in the vast blue sky overhead made him reel and shake at the knees.

‘I can’t stay here with my arse in the air’ he whispered into the tiles against his face. It felt like he had been there an age, but it couldn’t have been that long because there was still no sign of Matt. He raised his head just a little, experimentally at first, and resolved to turn over, so that at least he could sit down.

First his left boot slipped, sliding sickeningly down three rows of tiles that clattered as the roofer’s weight passed across them, and then the other boot went and then a knee. Somehow, he didn’t know how, in the panic he managed to turn over and land on his backside, each hand behind him a row of white knuckles stuck fast to the ridge.

‘Fuck!’ His heart pounded and his breath came in jagged fits and starts out of his control. He looked down between his knees and fought for calm.

Taking his right hand from the roof wasn’t easy; making the effort to reach inside his chest pocket and pull out his mobile was even harder. He thought about calling Matt, it would be easier than shouting down. He didn’t want to hear his voice raised weakly across the rooftops, something about that thought brought another vertiginous wave crashing down; he swallowed hard and redoubled his grip on both roof and phone.

He didn’t call Matt. He scrolled down through the numbers and came to rest on his Mum and Dad’s.

‘Hello.’
‘Hello Dad? Dad, it’s me.’
‘Well I didn’t think it was your sister. Hold on, I’ll call your Mum.’
‘No Dad, it’s you I want to talk to.’
‘Blimey, what have I done to deserve this then?’
‘What?’
‘A call in the middle of the morning and it’s not even my birthday.’
‘Dad, I’m stuck on a roof.’
‘Don’t be a silly sod Colin. What do you mean? Are you having me on?’
‘No seriously Dad, I’m stuck.’
‘What do you mean stuck? Caught up? Where’s Matt? You’re not hurt are you?’
‘No, no I’m not hurt Dad. Dad, Dad, I’m scared. I’m up here and I’m bloody terrified.’

He was near to tears now and the phone was suddenly silent. He pulled it from his ear and checked the signal and before he spoke again.

‘Dad? Are you still there Dad?’
‘I’m here mate.’

His Dad’s voice had changed, softened; there was a tone there that Colin had almost forgotten.

‘Listen mate, there’s nothing to be scared of. You’ve been going up on roofs since you were a teenager. You’ve done it nearly all your life boy. Now, tell me, how far are you from the ladder down?’
‘Three or four yards Dad.’
‘It’s not a steep roof is it?’
‘No Dad, not really.’
‘All right mate. How do you feel now? A little calmer?’
‘A little bit, yes, a little bit.’
‘Okay then, you think about how many times you’ve walked along roofs and swung down onto ladders. You’ve got nothing to be scared of.’
‘No, all right Dad, I know, I know. But I’ve been sat here shaking. What’s the matter with me?’
‘Bad day at the office mate, just a bad day at the office. Now, you’re going to go down to the ladder on your backside, all right?’
‘All right.’
‘But you’ll have to put the phone down mate. Put the phone away and then get yourself to the ladder. You call me back in a minute or two or I swear I’ll tell your Mum what’s happening and she’ll have the Fire Brigade over there in five minutes. You don’t want to come down that ladder over a fireman’s shoulder do you?’
‘No Dad. All right, I’m putting the phone away now. Talk in a minute.’

Being alone again was hard, but as he moved towards the ladder, inch-by-inch without rising at all from his sitting position, he wasn’t thinking about falling, or about this inexplicable terror; he was thinking about his Dad. Colin was fifty and his Dad was nearly eighty, but for a few moments there on the phone the years had rolled back.

Before he knew it he was on the ladder and on his way down to the ground. Standing there on the path looking up the few metres to the roof his legs were unsteady; he wiped a hot tear from his cheek. ‘Thanks Dad’ he muttered, and made for the van.

‘Dad’
‘Are you down mate?’
‘Yes Dad, I’m in the van.’
‘Well done, boy. Well done.’
‘I’ll come by and see you later, okay?’
‘You do that mate, you do that.’

Colin lit a cigarette that he had rolled earlier and reached out for his flask to pour himself a coffee, decided against it and just smoked instead. He watched the cars go by on the road and enjoyed the warmth of the Sun on his face.

‘Are you okay Dad?’
‘Matt. Where the fuck have you been?’
‘I just went down to the shop. I told you I was going. Are you all right? You look as white as sheet.’

He got out of the car and stood next to his son and looked up again at the ladder and the roof. ‘I had a bit of funny turn Matt, that’s all. I expect I’ll be okay in a bit.’

 

* * * * * *

 

The old man was sitting looking out of his front window, he felt queasy and scared in a way he hadn’t for a very long time.

‘Are you all right, love? Who was that on the phone?’

He hadn’t heard Pat come into the room, now he turned and smiled rather wanly at her. ‘I’m all right, love, yes. It was Colin on the phone.’
‘Really? I brought you a coffee and a biscuit. So what did Colin have to say? Didn’t he want to talk to me?’
‘He’ll be around later, love.’
‘Oh that’ll be nice.’

She passed him his coffee and put the biscuit tin down on the table next to his chair.

‘Do you know what, love? He said in place of his customary thank you, ‘I used to hate climbing roofs. Really, I hated it.’
Pat looked at her husband surprised in equal measure perhaps by what he was saying and by how suddenly he had decided to say it.
‘I used to get really scared, love. I never told anyone. When life was hard doing that job was the most difficult thing in the World. Some days, lots of days, I never knew whether I was going to be able to climb the ladder, or how I’d come down again if I did.’

 

 

Index Fossils

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Apfazd was painfully aware that he stood out. He tried not to look around, took another step,felt another twinge. Three steps feeling as if one leg was too short, and then the next, always the fourth, sent a spiral wrench of agony up his left side. He leant on a street corner, sucked in air, lop-sided.

 

He so wanted to go home. Not to the little apartment under the town wall, that wasn’t home. He would have cried, but he’d sobbed himself dry years before.

 

Halfway to the temple he shifted his carapace with a shrug. That gave no relief. Millstone hard, it felt like it wasn’t his, it was punishing him for its having been broken, although he hadn’t broken it. He’d cried out, screamed as it was pierced and pried.

 

The desert had entered into him, its grit was inside, creeping against his soft flesh. Sometimes he pushed open the small round window that looked out over the shimmering dunes, he wanted to feel moving air, even if it was the baking air of the wastes. In came the dust and sand and found its way under his cracked carapace, scouring him as it might a naked shell-less thing. Something from aeons past.

 

“Dirty heretic.”

 

He turned at the whisper. For once no-one was looking at him. Pain was his only companion. Even intact he didn’t look like the locals, but he’d stayed too long to be a visitor; carried the look of an exile about him. He was visited by the kind of strangers who came outside of office hours; who came in pairs.

 

He limped.No-one ever helped him. If he fell to his knees, no hand went out to lift him. Only Oblotz had ever approached him in the street, and he didn’t want to see him again. No, Apfazd was friendless and untouchable.

 

Untouchable since the last time he’d been broken, picked up, limp and begging, full of regret and sworn to penitence, to abandon the delusions he’d once said were the truth.

 

The only contact now was at the temple door.

 

“Apfazd, you are welcome. Blessings of this place upon you.”

 

“Thank you, Wise Guardian,” he replied, and bowed to the briefest of touches on hand and head. Breathing in deeply, he smelled the priest and lingered, tried to draw strength from the touch, but the benediction was over.

 

Another few struggled paces and Apfazd was inside the calming cool of the temple. There were the usual rapid embarrassed glances as he clambered noisily into place. The bench was always empty but for him.

 

He prayed for faith. He always prayed for faith, for some sign that he was being heard. He didn’t need anything dramatic, nothing external. Just some feeling or answering voice in his head, even the subtlest reassurance. He longed for faith to fill the gaping void.

 

Maybe the others here had access to something that he didn’t; maybe they’d paid attention to something that he’d missed or were more virtuous than he had ever been. He felt exposed at the back, as if the priest was always looking over the others and directly at him. He shuffled rigidly to one side, towards the fluted column that ran up to the roof.

 

He prayed to be able to go home. Really home.

 

“Look inside yourselves,” the priest clicked. Apfazd did, into a shattered landscape that made no sense. He blamed himself and wanted to believe. Somewhere out of reach, before the pain, it had all gone wrong. He mustn’t have been paying attention. It was his fault. He had dreamed of ages long gone by, and in his dreams very different beings walked the Earth. “Find the inner light,” but inside Apfazd Apfazd found only a battlefield on which every corpse had his face, and where every torn and broken limb had once been part of his wrecked body.

 

His eyes snapped open although he hadn’t noticed that he’d closed them. Every face in the row in front was turned towards him. He was leaning against the column.

 

“Quiet,” one of them said as if Apfazd had been talking or moaning to himself.

 

“I’m sorry,” Apfazd mumbled scratchily, but they’d all turned away.

 

At the end he waited. If he went first he’d hold everyone up; the whispers would all be behind him, pushing at his senses. So he sat and waited. He let the cold stone column numb his whole left side, and he stared at the dusty floor beneath the bench in front.

 

“Thank you, Wise Guardian,” he said on his slow way through the door.

 

“Patience and fortitude, Apfazd,” the priest said, and he touched him again in reluctant benediction. Apfazd stopped under his hands.

 

“I try,” he said, “I try, but…”

 

“That is all that we can ask,” the priest said hastily, casting his eyes left and right; withdrawing his hands. A moment later he’d gone back inside and the door was shut.

 

Apfazd took ragged deep breaths and began his walk to the small apartment in the street by the town wall. He counted the inflamed places where the desert had entered his body, and he watched the pain move. At times he could distance himself, as if none of this was real, as if he was watching someone else.

 

They talked as he passed. They watched him and they talked. He walked through the pain, a street at a time, reacquainting himself with each corner as he leant to rest. His legs cracked and his carapace grated. He thought about which parts of him felt all right. His right arm was pain free, it felt empty, and his right eye was clear. If only he could be all there, if only he could take away the rest of him.

 

“Dirty stranger,” hissed at him. “Dirty heretic.”

 

He turned the corner into the shady street that followed the town wall, a gust of shell-husk dry air picked up sand and threw it in his face.

 

His neighbour was watching him, a female so ancient that her face was scoured to the colour of the desert. Her antennae moved slowly, suspiciously. She looked towards Apfazd’s door. It was open. “You have visitors, Broodless,” she said.

 

Apfazd wanted to tell her that he did have a family. Had had a family. Just not here, a long way away. He wanted to tell her how much he wanted to go to them, how little he wanted to stay in the street by the town wall. Instead he stared at the open door. His leg twinged painfully.

 

“The usual ones, Cripple,” the ancient added. Apfazd looked at her. She was hard, wore her years like armour.

 

“Thank you,” he said to her, and as if shocked by their sudden unaccustomed neighbourliness, she scuttled away into the deep gloom of her own abode.

 

He didn’t like the front door. It was heavy and it creaked. When it shut it always slammed and made him wince. He always wondered whether it would open the next time he tried it.

 

A sunlit shaft of golden dust fell into the middle of the apartment floor. The two agents from The Embrace stood with their backs towards him. They were far too close to the two floorboards that could be lifted. At the scrape of his feet they turned, one emotionless, the other a studied mockery of sympathy and kindness. Apfazd had seen the look before, he associated with a cracking noise, with the shattering of his leg. Pain jabbed at him.

 

“Apfazd,” the kindly torturer said, “getting around, I see.” Apfazd nodded stiffly. He felt sick. “Don’t look so worried, Apfazd, you’ll make us feel unwelcome. Apfazd looked down directly at the floorboards that could be moved, realised what he was doing and so looked all around, quickly, as if he were quite mad. He rubbed his face and pulled nervously at an antenna.

 

“We’re just here to make sure that you’re well,” said the one, as the other, who never spoke, walked around behind him. “Just to make sure that none of the unfortunate ideas have returned; the thoughts we helped you to get over when you stayed with us.” He paused and inspected Apfazd. “You are well aren’t you, Apfazd?”

 

Apfazd nodded or twitched, and then nodded again. “I’d like to go home,” he said. His voice sounded small and his leg was shaking. The one behind him had reached out and put his hand on Apfazd’s back, it moved towards the long jagged crack and the hole.

 

“Of course you would. We just need to be sure that your disturbing delusions have stopped worrying you, and that they won’t threaten The Collective. You remember them don’t you, Apfazd?”

 

Apfazd closed his eyes and shook his head.

 

“Dreams of the ancient past? Dreams of other beings?”

 

“No. I don’t remember.” He kept his eyes closed in case he looked down at the floorboards again.

 

“Who do you talk to Apfazd?”

 

“No-one.” Apfazd convulsed and took half a step forwards. The hand probed into his broken carapace. “No-one, I see no-one. I don’t even recall my, my illness. I just want to go home.”

 

A raised hand from the talker and the hand withdrew. “The Embrace will consider your request, Apfazd.” The talker looked around not hiding his distaste. “You have such a nice home here though,” he said. “We must be going, Apfazd. Until the next time.”

 

Apfazd’s thorax expanded and contracted rapidly, his head spun and pain rolled in waves down his body. By the time he’d recovered enough to collapse into his chair, the agents of The Embrace were long gone.

 

The shaft of light moved across his body, kissing him with gentle warmth even as the evening chilled. At last he stood and went to the floorboards that could be lifted. Anxiously he listened. He was alone. He pulled up the boards shakily and lifted an old case from the darkness below. It had been here empty when he’d first arrived, that and the scratched ramblings of tiny graffiti the only signs of previous occupation.

 

It hurt his hands to click the case open. Inside, laid out neatly and packed in cloth, were rows of fossils, at least that’s what he’d believed them to be when he’d collected them. That much he could remember.

 

He didn’t know how Oblotz had found him. “Apfazd, I’ve found you,” he’d said.

 

“No,” Apfazd had replied, “I don’t know you. You don’t know me, leave me alone.” But Oblotz had insisted, dragged him into a side alley, and made him take him to the apartment. “I’ve brought you some of your finds,” he’d said. “You can keep up your work.”

 

“What work?” Apfazd had raged. “There is no work. You must go before it’s too late.” He’d pushed Oblotz around and out of the door, finding strength he didn’t know he had. He’d been left though, with the specimens, the last remnants of whatever madness had destroyed his old life and taken him away from his home.

 

There’d been another civilisation, a long time ago, that’s what he’d once said, written, taught. The creatures still walked in his dreams; they demanded that he believe in them. They were fleshy bipedal nightmares from an imagined ancient history. Why did they visit him? And what were these stony shards that he couldn’t bring himself to throw away?

 

Apfazd picked up a specimen and turned it over in his one good right hand. These secret things haunted him, proved nothing and only brought fragments of memories tumbling into his mind. “If they let me go home,” he said aloud, “all of this stays here, under the floorboards. All of this madness.”

 

I have no Uncle Jack

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Reaching out one night with blunt fingers

Uncle Jack explored the creases

A packet of Fisherman’s Friends so old

That he’d forgotten they were there

He walked his hand to the tall glass

Slurped warm water

Went for a lozenge

Softened, gone granular

They’d stuck together

Abandoned the shape they’d long known

Little did Jack know

As he rammed the damp powder into his gums

Hoping only for a little clarity and cool sinuses in the tightness of the night

He too would soon lose the form in which habit held him

When the darkness began to melt

As purple snot ribbons ran down the walls

Magnolia in the light of day he was sure

He had the idea that all was not well

He was wide-eyed, bulging, face stretching

Three gurned days it went on

His transformation

Long twisting nights

Stretched and enveloping

Short days too fast for Jack to reach the curtains

To tear them open to the sky

He was a changed man after that

My Uncle Jack.

Long Tired Night

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4.22

Reaching out liminally

Atomic light

The same time as last night

Presage of the hour of my death

One day, some year

 

Children know

Don’t reach out into darkness

Tidal and deep

Other things live there

 

Edging to the kitchen door

Through sleep and through the sleeping house

No darker within than without

Just deeper

My own scream wakes me

 

I used to sleep with my head under my pillow

Safe and tucked in

Except the thick darkness embraces, you see?

Nightmares reach in

It takes the pale dawn to thin it

And the singing of the birds.

The Farm on the Fjord – Part Twelve & The End – Snorri

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Snorri

When I awake my father is standing in the doorway looking out on to a bright new day. The Sun is shining down from a clear blue sky on deep snow all around. I go to him and look too on the changed world; the fjord is perfectly still, a mirrored silver ribbon running away into the crystal distance.

‘The dwarf has gone,’ my father says, ‘he left a purse of gold hanging over the hearth. No tracks in the snow. None at all.’

‘Do you think we’ll see him again, Father?’ I ask, but he doesn’t answer. Pétr and Gorm come past us, taking Father’s hand in turn and shaking it. They embrace one another and leave, going their separate ways, their tracks cutting down into the snow, throwing glistening powder into the cold air.

The warriors too are ready to leave. Floki leaves first saying only a simple ‘Thank you.’ When Egil comes to depart he is carrying the sword that the other man arrived with. ‘I cannot be certain that he murdered Guthrum,’ he says. ‘He wanted to me to have my brother’s sword.’

Then all that is left are the tracks in the snow and Bjorni and his family who will stay the whole winter with us because they have no house to which they can return. ‘In a few summers your boy Snorri will need a wife,’ Bjorni says, ‘and my eldest girl will need a husband.’

‘That would seem a good arrangement,’ Father agrees, ‘she is a pretty girl. And all of us living together this winter will give them time to become friends.’

‘Always a good start,’ Bjorni nods. I will not mention that Evja and I kissed as children kiss last summer in the meadows. I have almost forgotten about last night already.