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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt