When my grandfather died, my grandmother made a bonfire of all the books in his library she considered ‘subversive’. These included the complete works of Darwin, a stack of books by the agnostic humanist Robert Ingersoll, and an entire shelf of novels by a Southern writer called James Branch Cabell. My grandfather saw in Cabell’s mythical medieval world a satire on the contradictions of life in the South. My grandmother believed the books were pornographic. I wouldn’t know. I was barely tackling Huck Finn when Cabell and Co were burned at the stake. Or, more accurately, in the smokehouse. I reckon my taste for the subversive came from eating hams smoked with the thoughts of Darwin, Thomas Paine, William Cobbett and Cabell.
I still haven’t read Cabell. Medieval Romanticism is not my thing. Still, imagine my surprise at seeing a poster this week in Liverpool Street station with the message: ‘The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true’ James Branch Cabell, from The Silver Stallion, 1926. The quote latched on to me like a tick.
The truth is, if I start the day watching the Jacob and Shetland lambs jiving in the front meadow, I say a grateful prayer for this best of all possible worlds. But when I wake up to Farming Today and the desperate voices of England’s farmers sinking into a quagmire of debt due to the disastrous mishandling of the Rural Payments Agency, pessimism closes in like fog.
When I let the chickens out of their enclosure, once a Palais de Poulets, now a Guantanamo Bay, I buck and snort about Defra who’ve refused us the vaccine that every major country in the EU has accepted. In an impersonation of optimism I remind myself that a human pandemic caused by H5N1 is by no means inevitable, that the virus does not infect people easily. That tens of millions of birds have been infected, but fewer than 200 people.
Optimism holds until a late morning scan of an article from the New York Times forwarded by a fellow henkeeper. Entitled ‘How Serious is the Risk?’ it ends with advice from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta: to be safe, hold off on buying imported feather pillows, down coats and duvets. I remember words from Ingersoll rolled out by my farming grandfather during hot rainless summers: ‘In nature, there are neither rewards nor punishments. There are consequences’. ‘Forget bird flu,’ a cousin emails me. ‘If you’re wanting pessimism, think Iran.’ ‘Look, the planet is 4,500,000,000 years old,’ he writes. ‘Nuclear weapons have been around for 61. Until now, they haven’t been in the hands of suicidal fanatics fueled by religious ideology.’ He’s adamant: Iran is the most dangerous problem facing the planet. ‘What about global warming? Isn’t that the apocalypse now?’ I type back.
‘The world is now waking up to the anger of global warming. Hell, Evangelical Christians and Walmart are waking up. But the world is still dopey about President Ahmadinejad, who is developing nuclear weapons, says the end of history is only two or three years away, and claims that the appearance of the 12th Iman, Shi’ism’s version of the Messiah, is imminent.’
As I spray the belly buttons of the newborn lambs, I compose a letter to Radio 4: ‘Dear Sirs, Perhaps it’s time to replace “Thought for the Day” with “Fear for the Day”. And you might consider Mr Cabell for Book at Bedtime. Yours in hope against hope’
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on April 6, 2006.