It is a great joke, that the deepest commons have been passed on in daylight, unnoticed by thought police, secret police and dragoons.
No disguise, samizdat, remembered whisperings; no underground… These commons are bequeathed in a code that anyone can read – elegance of architectural design, fine lines of a boat, laughter and tears extracted by good verse and prose…
Ancestors speak and are heard, in spite of ephemeral yet despotic newspeak of a particular time. The soul of culture – liquid notes of blackbird, the blue bell wood in sight and scent, stitchwort and campion guide a lane to unspoken tenderness of generations, settled in one ecological space… – generational echoes – once heard, become rites of passage to adulthood and personal mortality. Become the echo, and we may claim a birth right – to be human, despite the coercion of power. A spade, chisel, needle, shuttle… well-sent, are enough.
Subjects of tyranny have called to the echo; to natal soil; to the vivacity of it; unseen by defilers and so undefiled. Yet it is not esoteric – the code is egalitarian – and simple – a pub chorus – hop gardens and barley fields apparent in a pint glass – touched shoulders imply Mesolithic ancestors brushed past too – a nod and a wink from Orwell’s Moon and Sixpence, or Falstaff, babbling of green fields, or from the curled sliver of oak from the careful and quieter stroke of the plane… expressed in the wood. And as Orwell also noted – subjugate a people and you must first remove their history. (That was the cue for Mr Rupert Murdoch and his tamed politicians)
All this is ordinary – the mysteries of nature are perennial to all times and so the mystery is an ordinary mystery. The mystery of skill is ordinary and perennial too. What is marvellous is ordinary.
Belonging – longing – of course we are dispossessed, commons are enclosed, means to livelihood removed; that stroke of the plane denied; responsible contributions denied…. Nevertheless, inherited human senses remain. The social impulse remains. Our companion – the mouse in the prison cell, is beauty – a shaft of moonlight through the bars. I don’t much like that last, but let it stay for an ancestor, while detention centres close steel doors and torture my ridiculous and fallible imagination for a while…
Everyone is sometimes the butt of the joke.
And the deepest part of every established religion is also inherited – it is where ancestral voices – the holy blissful matyr for to seeke – that had them holpen when they were weake – evoke the common. Older shrines and springs gain Christian names and chapels are built where people would have gathered, in any case.
If we reverently list the names – Dowland, Monteverdi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert… or similarly of painters, poets, or philosophers, then we should understand the impulses that built those earlier passage tombs, where ancestral bones were displayed. Ancestral commons over-rule the temporal imposition of personally-convenient rule. Will any music exceed the extra-ordinary expression of both beauty and truth in Monteverdi madrigals, or those late, Beethoven quartets? Of course, not. Some music may match them and join the chamber tomb of ancestral pleasures. Why should tombs be solemn memorials, and not archives of pleasure? Chamber tomb music – submerge to emerge to what’s perennial, resilient, common, sad, funny and deep.
And devotion to – and gratitude for – place and for an ancestral cultivation of it – a fitting and elegant arrangement of fields or houses, is not nationalism. If we think of commons, then nationalism evaporates. Nation states have come with violence of enclosure. Such violence is always ephemeral, insensitive and – stupid. Property and borders are ephemeral and stupid.
These times house an epic drama. Ancestral commons are ineffective in today’s political conversation, though they remain effective to guide our own good behaviour. We’ll not bring good sense to Teresa May by performance of Beethoven’s op. 135. Even the old balance of church and state was long ago sacked at the Reformation. Teresa’s high heels; Boris Johnson’s tossed locks fit neither a chamber tomb, or church. They click and strut polished corridors of tax-haven UK towards… – a balance of political influences – who is in? Who’s out? How will Mr Rupert Murdoch respond?
Earth’s atmosphere is unbalancing, natural resources vanish, a casino of usury and rent expands at precisely the rate that real economic assets are stripped and real people suffer – but that is only partially at the hands of administrative and corporate power.
Those things are by what we ordinary people do, one by one. We commute from an impossible suburbia, in an impossible family car, for a wage to pay rent, or mortgage in a property casino, which so exhausts our self-respect that we must holiday by impossibly profligate jet aeroplane (using idly-accumulated property value)– all – and it is in plain view – to remove a civilised future from our children. That is what we do.
We consume too much for the future to withstand. We know we do it. We say that we are coerced to do it and are trapped. So, we lobby the coercers, we donate a subscription to Friends of The Earth, or Greenpeace and sign petitions to governments and corporations. Yet, we exist. We cause climate change, while governments and corporations do not – they are abstractions. They have not the physics to cause climate change. They are voices in our heads, coercing us to behave badly.
For most of human culturing, people have behaved more or less properly by the guidance of ancestors – by proper use of the gift of inheritance. I propose that until about 1500BC (late Bronze Age), ancestors would have a larger influence than kings. Since then, and until the Reformation, they’ve probably had an equal voice. Today, where influence rides, they are unheard. It is time that we listened again. It is probable that the first impulse towards property enclosure was to silence ancestral voices – that is, the power of social commons.
As I began, the joke is that the voices remain in past trials and errors that produced the near perfect shape of a tool; the lovely balanced arch of a simple river bridge and there, in a shock of surprise, we may come upon evidence of a living ancestral representative in skilfully-pruned rows of orchard trees.
There’s currently a publishing production-line of affected footpaths into dialects of nature. They win literary prizes. Happen, there’s now’t awry fossicking in the liminal – but people drop such code words, twitch an eyebrow, pause, as if to say – I have the code, though I’ve not the tweed, or stout brogues. I’ve mooched in the Edge Lands – the good lands before climate change. Enough! Culture is what we do. That is the joke. Those books scoot the surface meniscus among other enclosures and prizes. There is no eclectic society of the commons. Ordinary is best – it is also, the deepest.
Of course, when we square up to our tormentors it can only be on the shallowest ground. The words, or bombs which pass, though often devastating, do not have meaning, because the powers live in an ephemeral world of personal advancement, where points scored, points lost, bombs restrained, or bombs dropped have become the meaning. Actually, only powerful ancestral commons can properly restrain a tormentor. Violence to answer violence has been temporarily effective, but is always improper – and is generally followed by further violence.
The tormentors are the voices in our heads. If we listen, then we’ve ourselves to blame. The ancestors endure – they are in our souls – the voice of our hearts. Even so, the tormentors of these islands have also endured – Bronze Age Brutus (of legend), Iron Age Caesar, early medieval William, reformation Henry VIII… then, Tony Blair, Teresa May… Here’s the thing, ancestry apparent in a terraced hillside, or a folk melody, lie in too deep a strata to encounter those on the surface. Of course, Teresa could sink though the accumulated layers of herself to find that common humanity. It is probable that she does – outside politics, but unlikely within.
Without, or forgetting those deeper strata, we are incomplete – and so liberated to misbehave. We can consume without guilt, while suggesting that a cast vote in the ballot is a good enough substitute for personally-proper behaviour.
That deeper moral is neither masculine nor feminine, yet it can be fierce. If we attend to it, we attend to our pre-enclosure inheritance – the inheritance to act – to shoulder, in our passage of time the duty to maintain the good life. We have what we need – that is ourselves. It is very ordinary – we need experience and judgement. No-one else can supply those things – not the latest research paper – nor dignified press releases by authorities in their fields… With regards to crashing casinos and climate change we know what we have to do without advice – we must live within our ecological means. Only I can know precisely how I live.
The continuation of culture is expressed in us as we come to adulthood. First – Is how I live replicable in the lives of my children? Second – Is how I live, similarly possible for my neighbours?
The first considers how an economy settles its ecology. The second, social justice. The difficulty is that as soon as we consider those very simple questions – the answers to which are no and almost certainly no – we enter the complexity of our life lived with others. At the depth of our being, we become less an individual of the species and more the species itself.
Some decisions are easy – Should I cancel the holiday flight? – Yes.
Should I stop shopping in super markets and instead, look for proper shops and trades’ people? -Yes.
Should I farm/garden organically? – Yes.
Should I buy electricity generated by wind, hydro and solar power? -Yes.
There are no (or very few) obstacles to deciding yes in those four cases. Remember, that failure to various degrees is pre-written in all adventures. All those yeses also lead to happiness.
If we have surplus money, then happy decisions should become easy – shares in, or donations to an energy scheme, sail-trade venture, land for allotments, or corner shop, pub, library, post office…
Should I instead, hoard my wealth in the rising value of property and rent? – No. That decision is easy.
Should I buy organically-grown food? – Yes, but I may find none nearby and my current wage may be insufficient.
Should I ditch the family car? Yes. But I may have no public transport to my distant work-place and can find no work nearer to home.
Should I cancel my business flight? – Yes, but that means, I may be sacked.
Such yeses remain true. They are also imperative. We should choose to be sacked. We’ve not the resources to power suburbia, the family car, aviation, profligate agriculture and so on. Those things not only contribute to climate change, they will also lead the current monetary casino to an impossible fantasy land and so collapse and with that collapse – economic and social collapse. We could argue that hastening collapse will reduce its eventual magnitude, but I think we should be urgently building a community network which is disconnected from that casino – one formed enough (by our contribution) to emerge alive from beneath the rubble. Collapse will come. We must also divest our lives from the causes of climate change.
Much can only be achieved in cooperation with others and so personally simple decisions mingle with the highly complex. But social systems are always complex, and so in finding complexity, we are at the entrance to a road to finding our way.
The ancestral joke is that we have inherited an understanding of right and wrong. That is intrinsic. By that inheritance, we form social systems. It is the bond.
How do we form a whole social system – its economy settling nicely inside its ecology? We don’t. Everyone does. Where economy meets ecology, is precisely where a tool meets its materials – that is by the fingertips and grasp of one pair of hands – that is – one’s own intelligent hands. My work is the most critical work, because it is mine. Everyone else must think the same. I listen, learn from others and so on, but the application is mine. All the other goings on of culture are in trust – about which we can put in a pennyworth – in gossip, admiration, even disapproval. But the complexity is beyond us – or should be, if we trust. The trust is inherited, accepted and then, in turn, bequeathed. Culture flows through the metabolic and nervous systems of ourselves. There is no one else. At adulthood, we take the trust. Our species has evolved, less by advantageous individuals, and more by advantageous groups. We are hard-wired to altruism.
Flocks packs and herds have leaders and so we’d be foolish to think that we can avoid human leaders. The thing about human leaders is that they are not supposed to hold tools, or to undermine the success of those who do. It is a perversity of our time that they do hold tools and undermine the success of tools. (oil monopoly, land monopoly, information monopoly) They are supposed to oversee the order of a social system, in which all the rest maintain the culture.
I caught a small voice through a chink in time.
Take back your tools – as quietly as is possible, remove them from the incompetence of parliaments and boardrooms. You are adult. If you live well enough to claim it, then the rows of skulls in my chamber tomb have space for your own. But it is your children, faced with a future that you have made, who may, or may not, place you there.
Teaser photo credit: By Msemmett – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35133225