Damage Limitation

We had an interesting discussion in the car last weekend, my wife and I. It almost became a ‘heated debate’, but not quite. We are accommodating adults mainly, who fail to agree sometimes on certain fundamentals.

We were driving up to see our friends, Howard and Lynda, on their organic farm not far from the Gouffre de Padirac, that great hole in the limestone causse that attracts tourists by the apparent millions. It was a beautiful autumnal Sunday morning and Debs was on a mission of mercy.

Howard had been attempting to hold a sheep against his body so that Lynda could clean all four feet to prevent infection and disease. Although they have the most placid flock of sheep in France, the animal writhed and wriggled and twisted until Howard toppled backwards in such an awkward way that the sheep fell against his knee. Sheep aren’t cows, but they weigh more than a fully-grown adult apparently. It’s an occupational hazard of farming that we mortals would never imagine.

So my angel of mercy was going up to see them ostensibly to massage Howard’s swollen knee and keep him roadworthy. Unbeknownst to me, however, she wanted to pick up a picture reserved for my birthday at Lynda’s last exhibition in Carennac. Howard’s a writer and Lynda’s an artist by trade, who paints beautiful icons on found wood using traditional methods. Like many creative artists over here – or everywhere for that matter – neither of them can give up the day job. Lynda sells a few paintings whenever she exhibits her stuff, but supplements her income by making beautiful hand-painted cards to sell via a health food shop in nearby Gramat.![](upload://7Dvwe7NfYu4OhVKHxOiKx8BJCQj.jpg)

I don’t know how we got onto the subject in the car, but Debs and I started discussing good and evil. My wife is a member of the half-full glass club: optimistic and a firm believer in the power of love. My glass tends to be half-empty. I’m usually pessimistic about the future and only too aware of the forces of evil.

We are Mrs. Chalk and Mr. Cheese, who have found a good balance to temper the other’s more extreme tendencies. On probing a little further, we found some common ground. Yes, we agreed, there probably are more good people on earth than there are bad people. I contend, though, that all the good done by the good people is an exercise in damage limitation. In other words, all that accumulated goodness just about keeps the evil under control. Without it, the malignancy would spread like a fungus and contaminate the world.

For me, this seems to be one of the most elementary lessons of history. The evil that the odd tyrant and sociopath contrive to unleash is so tout puissant that goodness seems puny and ineffectual in its face. How many column inches in the history books, for example, are devoted to Hitler’s Final Solution or Stalin’s Gulags as opposed to, say, Jonah Salk’s efforts to cure polio or… or… or? Help me out someone.

Just recently, Pandora’s box seems to have been opened again. It seems that we are hurtling towards hell in a handcart with no brakes. Increasingly, I’m spending more and more time signing on-line petitions: urging the Russian government, for example, to stamp down on a new sick craze in Moscow to poison dogs and post films of their suffering on the internet. It’s reassuring to see all the thousands of other people signing, but you know that someone like dear President Putin is unlikely to give a monkey’s. Even if all these petitions achieve their ends, this propensity for evil doing will never diminish.

Lynda tends probably to ally herself to my wife’s philosophy, while Howard’s is probably nearer mine. No sooner had we got there than they presented us both with the picture that Debs had reserved for me. It turned out that I had reserved the exact same picture – a watercolour of a bee in flight – for her next birthday. Faced with such marital synchronicity, they decided to offer it to both of us as a joint present from both of them.

Howard is reading a book on Young Stalin. Probably to explore the mind of the Adult Stalin, whose story he has also devoured recently. We discussed our in-car debate and Howard contributed the metaphor of building a house. A team of people, united in a common good, can put up a house in a matter of months. But it only takes one bloody-minded bar steward with a sledgehammer to smash it all down in a few hours.

After Debs had anointed the swollen knee with her essential oils, we took their dogs, Beano and Dandy, a pair of Jack Russell brothers, out for a walk around the neighbourhood. Our hound tagged along peacefully while the brothers, who have to be kept straining on a lead to stop them tearing off over the hills and far away, panted around their familiar circuit. We said our goodbyes and drove home to hang our new picture under Lynda’s painting of St. Michael, the sad-eyed patron saint of everlasting lingerie.

I went back in the week to help them dig up some of their potatoes and took Howard The Stalin Epigram, a novel written by an American friend of ours, Robert Littell, who lives in a glorious house near Martel. Just to round off the picture of a megalomaniac, who would probably tie Adolf Hitler in a TV show where viewers had to vote (by telephone for not more than a pound per minute) for the most evil man in history.

It was another beautiful day. Digging potatoes is hard work, but a rewarding change from sitting in front of a computer all day long. Turning soil over to find clusters of fresh white spuds is akin to digging up buried treasure. And it’s rich soil, to be sure. They must have worked very, very hard to create such regular parallel mounds of friable earth. A lot of digging, weeding, natural compost and rigorous crop rotation. Afterwards, I helped wheel their wheelbarrow up to the barn to spread out the potatoes to dry on recycled bed bases.

I only managed half a day of such hard labour, before driving back for a soak in our bath to ward off problems with my lower back. It occurred to me that what Howard and Lynda do – working all hours to tend the soil in the age-old way – is also like an exercise in damage limitation. Are they and others like them fighting a losing battle in the face of the relentless march of factory farms, monoculture, agro-chemicals and scorched earth?

I sincerely hope not.

Oh yes, definitely Norman. I would usually have made a large pot of dosh too. For once in my life.

Maybe this should appear on a different blog or something, but have you ever thought about it and said (about a book) 'Oh I wish I had written that?'

I am a notorious Bibiliophile and they love me at Vides Greniers - except I only buy cheap! Being a very visual person I am always attracted by a book that is well illustrated and well laid-out, even more than the actual writing. It is rare to find a combination of all these things, but a few years ago I found the book below, 'Bouquet de France'.

It is such and extraordinary publication that I have often toyed with the idea of an update, but I don't think I could replicate what is involved. It is a travel guide, food guide, restaurant guide and a collection of pencil art of the highest order. Written and illustrated by an American, Samuel Chammberlain in 1952, it was in this case an update of the one he wrote before the War. In the book he travelled France, found amazing restaurants, local delights, got recipes from the restaurants, and illustrated towns and buildings. He also did one for the UK which I also have.

Early in our marriage we tried in a small way to replicate his coverage of the areas around France, and were amazed at how many of the restaurants still existed and offered the same meals. It would be nice to have the money to be able to do it again, and more!

I am sure that this appreciation of his work would have pleased him, and maybe those of us who write have some vague hopes that our work might, just might, last beyond our own lifetimes? Or just be enjoyed by those of today? I know when I started producing my books I had hopes of making a lot of money, which to date has not materialised, but I think I probably would still have done something similar as the subject of graphic design has been my life AND my hobby. How lucky can you get?

Right Norm. If I make a couple of hundred quid from my book then I am lucky. The hourly rate for writing is cents, in single figures at that! So yes, nutters one and all.

Anyone who writes books or paints pictures expecting to make a fortune is doomed to disappointment. Those of us who do it are born 'nutters' who can't help ourselves!

Curiously in my life I have had no fewer than 60 of my paintings stolen, sometimes quasi-legally where they were on sale in Wine Bar in Oxford Street in London and gor taken as 'assets' of the business when it went broke. Mostly they just vanished from different locations where they were displayed. I suppose it is flattering, but I would (and have) rather given the works away to those who liked them.

My earlier life as a Commercial Artist made more sense, as although the stuff wasn't 'creative' as we think of it today, many, if not all famous and great artists did commercial works in their time. That's what paid the rent in most instances. You don't see much of it these days though, as computer generation is faster, cheaper and i suppose more effective if I am honest about it. That's life.

Mark, it is academic, they do not accept under 250,000!

Thanks for your perspicacious and supportive comments, gents. I'm ashamed to say that I haven't heard of Jebb or Korczak, Brian. Will do some research. Meanwhile, the very best of British/French/European with your book. 300,000 words! Heavens. I take my hat off to you, sir. That's a wordsmith and a half!

You have certainly highlighted a common dilemma, the good that people do is oft overlooked when History is being rewritten, Like Brian my wife was a professional working in Child Protection and she has a different outlook to my own on such things, it has to be said that she steadfastly looks for the good in those she meets. I wonder if studying the Hitlers and Stalins helps to make sense of the horrors carried out at their behest. The efforts to be organic should be supported, if we keep having "good" activities as an example perhaps we can help mitigate some of the evils, simplistic I know but a point of view, it does seem that the good that a man does is quickly forgotten but let him do something evil and it is a different story maybe it is a quirk of human nature.

Beautiful Mark, and not just beautiful but lovely and I wish my soil would produce lovely white potatoes too! From my professional position and all that I believe in, I concur with what you say about colun inches devoted to 'Hitler’s Final Solution or Stalin’s Gulags as opposed to, say, Jonah Salk’s efforts to cure polio'. As you may have picked up by now, my main professional commitment (and that of my OH) is children's rights and who knows about Eglantyne Jebb or Janusz Korczak (I shall leave you to Google them) but those of us in this working environment? I have recently finished a 300,000 word book on children's citizenship which is at present with reviewers and then I shall know if Springer Academic will publish. If not, next publisher and the jumping through hoops all over again. What goes into a 'serious' book, very few people know and very few more read ever. But we do it. But sometimes it is far more gratifying cleaning sheeps' feet.