Back again

There’s been another long gap in transmission. This time I can blame work followed by a holiday in Ireland and catching up with work again for the past week.

(I don’t know how some people manage to find the time to blog as much as they do. I only do this from home — because access is too slow at work and because this definitely isn’t about work, except tangentially — and I keep getting sucked into other stuff.)

Anyway, here are some random bits from the last few weeks.

We spent the last two weeks in August in Ireland — mostly wet, but with a glorious few days (including the day of the Connemara Pony Show, which was a blessing, given that most of the family wanted to spend the whole day there. Our base in Connemara was a cottage owned by Liz Kane, a local fiddle player. When we first arrived, she was still on tour in the USA, but when she got back she kindly dropped in and played for us. She also listened to the girls playing their violins, and talked about the way she teaches traditional fiddle to the local children.

What I found interesting was that in her teaching Liz said she concentrates on the sound. Rather than using formal written music, she uses a shorthand notation that is much easier for children to pick up, and her objective is to get them to play by ear. Along the way, some of them do learn formal notation, but that is incidental. Liz also looked at one of the music books that we had taken along, and was quite critical of it — not because the tunes were wrong, but because her understanding of the music and the practicalities of playing it led her to suggest some minor changes. In doing so, she amply demonstrated two things for me (and you should bear in mind that I am not musical, apart from enjoying other people’s playing). Firstly, her changes were clearly part of the tradition — just because one hears a tune played in a particular way, that does not mean that it is fixed that way. It is permissible, even encouraged, to seek alternatives that might sound better or suit one’s playing better. The second thing was that it made the poverty of explicit knowledge clear to me. A simple rendition of a musical score (an expression of the knowledge of the composer) will often be cold and lifeless. It is only when one can bring to the score a set of tacit understandings, opinions and traditions that real music results.

We spent the second week in a very different way. While the rest of the family rode every day (even the one recovering from a broken ankle), I tried being a tourist. However, it turns out that some parts of Ireland are truly short of interesting things to visit. (I think this is caused by a variety of things, but the island’s 20th century history doesn’t lend itself to the preservation of stately homes, which is one of the mainstays of Anglo-Scottish tourism.) As a result, I spent a lot of time in bookshops like Woulfe’s in Listowel and O’Mahony’s in Limerick. That’s my kind of holiday! I had gone with a stock of Irish-tinted books (such as Paul Muldoon’s survey of Irish literature, To Ireland, I, Gerard Donovan’s new collection of stories, Country of the Grand (a Librarything Early Reviewer’s copy), and At Swim-two-birds by Flann O’Brien), and I bought more, but the reading that made most impact on me was about France. 

Graham Robb’s book, The Discovery of France, is almost incredible. He gives a striking account of how rural France before (and in some instances after) 1900 was conventionally poverty-stricken and backward, but whose traditions and practices made perfect sense and probably produced a much more viable and sustainable community than the modern emphasis on commerce and constant economic improvement. His writing is beautifully lucid and often sheds light on modern issues as well as historic ones.

For example, in writing about the persecution of the cagots (a rootless tribe scattered throughout France), Robb illustrates the self-perpetuating truth of prejudice across the ages:

It finally became apparent that the real ‘mystery of the cagots’ was the fact that they had no distinguishing features at all. They spoke whichever dialect was spoken in the regions and their family names were not peculiar to the cagots. They did not, as the Bretons believed, bleed from the navel on Good Friday. The only difference was that, after eight centuries of persecution, they tended to be more skilful and resourceful than the surrounding populations, and more likely to emigrate to America. They were therefore feared because they were persecuted and might therefore seek revenge.

Then, referring to Flaubert’s fictional Yonville-l’Abbaye, home to Madame Bovary:

A progressive bourgeois like the town chemist, M. Homais, who is not directly dependent on the land, can afford to revel in the stupidity of peasants: ‘Would to heaven our farmers were trained chemists or at least lent a more attentive ear to the counsels of science!’ But improving land is expensive and animals are a comfort. A peasant might invest in fertilizer and increase the yield of grain, but why should she risk her livelihood in a volatile market? Grain prices are even less reliable than the weather. A pig in the paddock is worth more than the promise of a merchant in the city.

Only people who have more than one source of food would use the expression ‘stuck in their ways’ as an insult. The smallholders of Yonville had good reason to be cautious. At about the time when the novel takes place, in the little market town of Ry, which Flaubert appears to have used as a model for Yonville-l’Abbaye, a woman complained to the authorities that she and her children were starving to death.

If Yonville or Ry had been better connected to the city of Rouen, which in turn was connected by the river Seine to Paris and the Channel ports, they would have suffered more from shortages and unrest. In troubled times, towns and villages that lay within the supply zone of cities were sucked dry by military commissioners and the civilian population. Agricultural progress might create a surplus and encourage investment, but it could also create excessive demand and a transport network that would quickly pump out the region’s produce. Wheat growers and wine growers were more worldly but also more vulnerable to change. In the poorer parts of southern France, where the staple crop, the chestnut, was expensive to transport and not much in demand, winter supplies remained safely in the region.

There are pre-echoes of our flat world in this passage. As we have over-specialised ourselves, we have imposed similar specialisation on others. See the tragic irony in this report from Agence France-Press about the travails of Kenyan bean growers:


“Kenya strayed from sustainable farming and followed the temptation of exporting, when it’s clearly preferable to produce and consume locally,” says Claude-Marie Vadrot, an ecology expert with French weekly Politis.

“With subsistence farming, there’s more or less always a market for your products, but when French or European retailers no longer want beans, then Kenya will be left with nothing,” he explains.

Going back to Ireland, there is a link between this and the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century. It is claimed by many that one of the reasons why the potato blight had the impact that it did was that during this period Ireland remained a net exporter of food (grain and meat). The potato became the default foodstuff for the tenantry. When the crops failed, starvation was inevitable.

Who says we learn from history?