A couple of years ago there was a television advertisement that mesmerised me. It begins with a cog rolling along a table, striking an exhaust pipe which rotates and hits piston rings before rolling into an engine block, which triggers a ballet of movement along a Heath Robinson arrangement of car parts. Along the way, windscreen wipers walk crab-like across the floor and tyres roll uphill. The film ends in front of a fully assembled Honda Accord and the comforting baritone of Garrison Keillor asking ‘Isn’t it nice…when things just…work?’
The Keillor query has become a mantra here on Cold Comfort Farm. I say it when the hens start laying again and when I see the blue powdered tattoos on the backs of the ewes, proof that the new ram knows what to do. I say it when the grapes we picked in October reappear as wine, and I chant it beneath the silver birch trees when the crocuses turn into a Persian carpet. Only this morning I mumbled it like a prayer as I gazed at the peacocks. Each year they shed their preposterous tapestry of tail feathers in midsummer, only to grow a new display in time for the mating season. It is a creative miracle, and every spring my heart is full of gratitude that the peacock tails still work.
Because so much doesn’t. For years I’ve shoved expensive vitamins down the reluctant throats of my family. Now I’m told that I’ve been shortening their lives. With high moral dedication I take the train to London instead of my car, only to be dumped halfway there and put on a coach that doesn’t have enough room for all the passengers. My low-voltage light bulbs, which cost the earth but are meant to save the planet, leave me in an unreadable fog.
I admit these are petty unworkables in a world of real unworkables. The daughter of the cleaner, against great odds, got through medical school. Now a junior doctor, she can’t get a job and works at St. Thomas’s Hospital as a volunteer. A widowed friend in the next village returns home from her weekly bridge game to find a burglar inside her house. Not your local opportunist: he’s cut the phone lines and the alarm, taken only the good stuff. The artist whose pictures I love collapses weekly. At Papworth they tell him he needs a new heart valve. Maybe in June.
The television commercial for the Honda that is still fixed in my memory was called ‘The Cog’. The two-minute ad took six months to plan, a week to film, over 600 takes, 20 sets of alloy wheels. It’s considered one of the greatest ads ever made. But now the latest Honda ad has made its way like a microchip into my consciousness. It’s about the engineer who hated diesel engines because they were noisy and dirty. So he changed them. Again, Garrison Keillor’s voice: Hate something. Change something. Make something better.
I’d want this to be my new mantra although I hardly know where to begin. Like shooting ‘The Cog’, it appears so simple, but it requires a feat of planning beyond the vow to buy Fairtrade and organic, to recycle paper and glass, to Just Say No to plastic bags and turn off the lights. Still, the snowdrops look like a goosedown duvet beneath the beech tree. The lone cygnet on Lake Bofus comes to us when we call; the winter rains filled the reservoir; the newly ploughed furrows for the potatoes look as beautiful as a painting by Cézanne. It really is nice when… against all predictions… Spring still works.