Allotments, blogs and Twitter – with a word about Candide! Part 1

It’s odd, how the mind works.  There I was, working away on my new allotment, wondering why I was taking on such an immense and daunting task, something entirely new to me, and whether this was a meaningful or worthwhile use of my time.

A patchwork of allotments

I knew I wanted to write about it, in order to make sense of the question as to why I was really doing it but what was I going to say? Then, into my mind popped Candide’s conclusion at the end of the fantasy journey to which Voltaire had exposed him in his thinking about good and evil, the creation of the world, purpose and meaning.

I began to write – this was several weeks ago. I remember composing a piece of purple prose, with which I was really rather pleased. It spoke, more or less, of the patchwork of allotments,the variety of paths, textures, designs, shapes, colours, fruits, vegetables, sheds, tools – and how each allotment holder seemed to work entirely independently. I remember noting how different this appeared to  with its emphasis on community life and sharing, influenced by the growing awareness that we are facing reducing resources, that we need to attend to carbon emissions, that we cannot continue with ‘business as usual’.

For some reason, I was listening at the same time to Sir Ken Robinson. In fact, I wrote:

Here I am, writing, while listening to Sir Ken Robinson – an absolutely wonderful educator and teacher, he’s better than a stand-up comedian. He’s speaking on ‘Schools kill creativity’ Do watch this: you may never return here, though I hope TED opens in another window or that you’ll come back…(in fact, if you only watch Sir Ken, this blog will have done its job – though I hope we’ll journey further together.)

Sir Ken Robinson

I’d started with a reference to multi-tasking (in this case, writing and half-listening at the same time) because Sir Ken has a well-founded, witty, somewhat biting reference to the difference between men and women in regard to this (it’s actually at about 13 mins 45 secs – the complete lecture is about 19 mins 30 secs.)

Anyway, I was getting on quite well, and had more or less finished all I wished to say, composing direct on my WordPress blog. But somehow, I lost it all.

It was devastating – truly! (I’m not being entirely flippant, even though I fully recognise there are more important things in the world about which to be devastated.)

It’s happened before, but obviously not yet frequently enough for me to internalise the learning and compose on Word, where I’m a bit safer.

Later, I started again. It was not the same. I’d lost the enthusiasm. I managed the indented paragraph above and then I got into a muddle: once again, it was all to do with Sir Ken. I remembered that he’d made some remark about agriculture, which seemed to tie in well with what I was trying to write – but I couldn’t find it  because I was listening to the wrong

Sir Ken Robinson - RSAnimate

lecture (it can actually be found at about 14 mins 45 – in another TEDx lecture: ‘the Learning Revolution where he is comparing with the present ‘industrial’ model of education, currently in use, an ‘agricultural’ one which he recommends, where every child is seen as living and different. The best exposition of this, incidentally, is a brilliant RSA Animate that he did, that I also cannot sufficiently recommend    4.5million viewers have watched it!)

My thesis was easy. I want to save the world: that’s quite clear, though a few details need to be sorted out and I’m probably unable to do it by myself. But will spending 15 or so hours a week gardening do anything whatsoever towards my goal? I suppose it might keep me a bit fitter (more fun, more productive, less expensive than a gym); it may deal, to an extent, with some of Sir Ken’s pointed remarks about university professors – whose bodies are merely the means of transport for their heads;  but couldn’t I use the time better, in some way?

However, there’s another factor that might be important here: my TERROR and that is not too strong a word. I have never been a gardener and my allotment is huge and unknown. How can I possibly deal with all this? How can I clear it, prepare it, plant it, take care of it? I know nothing – as Manuel would say. This remains true, though six months on I’m learning a little and becoming slightly assured that as long as I do not rush and have too ambitious an expectation, I can find satisfaction in being out in the sunshine.

But – is that enough? Is that my best use of time? Should I not, for example, be blogging and twittering, building local and national and global alliances?

Candide - Title Page of 1759 edition

I was thinking all this – I remember exactly where I was, and what I was doing – when Candide popped into my mind and I decided I needed to look at the book, which I then found myself having to think deeply! What is going on in that Conclusion? One of the characteristics of great art may be that it sparks unending controversy because it is open to personal interpretation by every person in his/her own age and context. More than that, you don’t just ‘encounter’ great art: since it is living, it also enters you and forces you to think not only about it but yourself.

 Candide is about actions and events in the world and how we think about them. Halfway through the Conclusion, the ‘old woman’ poses the question:

I want to know which is worse, to be ravished a hundred times by negro pirates, to have a buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet among the Bulgarians, to be whipped and hanged at an auto-da-fé, to be dissected, to row in the galleys—in short, to go through all the miseries we have undergone, or to stay here and have nothing to do?

‘It is a great question,’ said Candide.

Shortly afterwards, Candide and his companions are invited into his home by a Turk, a Moslem, whose  sons and daughters set before them:

several sorts of sherbet, which they made themselves, with Kaimak [a cream dessert] enriched with the candied-peel of citrons, with oranges, lemons, pine-apples, pistachio-nuts, and Mocha coffee.

Candide asks his host the name of the Mufti, who, he has learnt, has just been strangled with two viziers. The old man’s response is clearly influential:

‘I do not know,’ answered the worthy man, ‘and I have not known the name of any Mufti, nor of any Vizier. I am entirely ignorant of the event you mention; I presume in general that they who meddle with the administration of public affairs die sometimes miserably, and that they deserve it; but I never trouble my head about what is transacting at Constantinople; I content myself with sending there for sale the fruits of the garden which I cultivate.’

Candide, at this point, becomes, perhaps for the first time, very firm and clear: ‘I know,’ he said, ‘that we must cultivate our garden. Voltaire continues: ‘The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops.’ Pangloss, whose constant philosophical refrain has been that ‘all is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds’ (despite all the horrors that it contains) demonstrates how right he has clearly been, once again and the work closes with Candide nevertheless insisting:

‘All that is very well,’  answered Candide, ‘but let us cultivate our garden.’

Voltaire's Chateau at Ferney

What is this all about? Is it suggesting that we ignore all that is happening outside our own patch? It is most certainly true that we must not assume that this is Voltaire’s own answer (though he was a keen gardener) by confusing the author with the character and, surely, there is no one definitive answer.  I am fairly sure that at present working on my patch is necessary, though I don’t know why, even if it is not sufficient. I’m also fairly sure that twittering, blogging and learning more about IT and social media is also part of the ‘mix’.

But what intrigues me most about the end of Candide is, in the words of the Earth Charter the ‘collaborative and participative’ work: the very different companions end their adventures and disputes working together on the garden!


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