Away with the fairies

Spring has sprung at Findhorn, and memories of nature spirits are re-awakened

Spring has arrived, it seems. The daffodils are pushing up in my garden. Normally I would be pleased — new life, growth, all of that — but the spectre of global warming dampens my enjoyment. It feels too early. I am concerned about global warming though worrying about it will not keep it at bay - and I am also glad that the days are getting longer, the air is warmer and the flowers are coming up.

It is very beautiful here and I feel, as many of us do, that I am lucky to live in such a place. Many people are drawn to Findhorn initially by the Foundation, the community or the eco-village - but often they stay because of the land.

There are parts of Scotland that are more rugged and dramatic than this. The landscape is quite gentle, consisting of farmland, low hills, gorse-covered dunes and of course, the Moray Firth and Findhorn Bay. Most of the drama is occurs in the sky in the sunsets and cloud formations. There is, nevertheless, something very compelling about this place.

In the early days Dorothy Maclean believed that she received messages from the nature spirits, the entities that she called devas. Each plant species had one. The Sweet Pea Deva was her first contact. She also named devas with a larger remit such as the Landscape Angel, the energy that presides over this particular spot. In the founders’ minds all places had an angel that gave it its particular character. I find this particularly easy to understand when it comes to cities. The Angel of London is clearly not the same kind of creature and the Angel of New York. In any case the Findhorn Landscape Angel is a powerful presence.

It may seem that the area is special because the community is here, but one can also see it another way —the community is here because the area is special. The mundane explanation is that the community is here because this is where the Caddys and Dorothy ended up homeless and jobless. They would have said otherwise, that they were guided here because this spot was selected by God as part of a greater plan.

Whatever you may think about nature spirits and devas, belief in a real consciousness in nature was central to the Findhorn ethos in the early days. Back then there was no doubt in the community that successfully creating a flourishing garden on a sand dune was a direct result of communicating and cooperating with nature spirits. The rationalist would say that it had more to do with the fact that we have a nice little microclimate here - that is warmer and drier than is usual for this far north. The rationalist would argue that along with heavy composting, this accounts for their success. It was probably a bit of both — Peter listened to the fairies in the garden and read books on the subject.

Today we don’t talk so much about the nature spirits. Now it is all about energy efficiency and carbon footprints. We have become more down-to-earth and practical, and are adopting scientifically based technologies, like the living machine; a method of using plants to cleanse wastewater. This is as it should be. We need to be practical if we are to help preserve an environment in which we can not only survive but that provides us with the sense of connection and spiritual nourishment that we need to be healthy and whole.

Just recently, some people here celebrated Imbolc, the Celtic festival of Bride in which the goddess emerges from the darkness of the earth in her maiden form and heralds the beginning of spring. Others, like your regular contributor, Jonathan Dawson, are busy organising a conference on going carbon neutral that will be held next month. Both ways of relating to nature are present and thriving here and that’s a good thing because both are needed.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.