…if you want to understand the recession, and where Alistair Darling is going wrong, then you need to have a grasp of the essentials of damsonomics.
Alistair Darling, things are even worse – our damsons are in distress.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, said the poet Keats. Yeah, well. He was right about one thing. We had plenty of mist yesterday morning. Then we had rain, then drizzle, then a bit of a downpour.
In fact the whole of August has been an exhibition match by the English weather, an opportunity to show off all the interesting ways of making water vapour condense and precipitate upon the heads of the suffering people.
I have no doubt Keats was spot on in thinking there will be more mist ahead. It’s the mellow fruitfulness that’s missing, frankly, and if the poet Keats had been with me in the garden, and if he had stared up – through the mist – at the damson tree, he would have seen a catastrophe of biblical proportions.
It was only last year that this tree had fruited so prodigiously that the boughs sagged with vast grape-like bunches of damsons. We picked thousands, literally thousands, off a single bush.
We filled bag after bag, and then we boiled them up in dozens of pans with about a hundredweight of sugar, and we marvelled at the properties of the damson, this plum of Damascus, given to this island by the Romans.
We watched the weird alchemy by which the yellow flesh turns bright red in the vat, and then we poured the arterial gloop into so many pots that we not only sorted out everybody’s Christmas present but I was thinking of going commercial.
It may sound odd, but I have actually been looking forward to autumn and the return of the damsons, and mentally rubbing my hands every time I pass the trees. The general level of anticipation has been so high that in June some friends gave me about 30 jam pots for my birthday.
That is why it has been so heartbreaking to look up, this year, at the damson trees and their branches – naked, desolate, mystifyingly barren. In the places where they clustered, fat and round with their denim-blue bloom, there is nothing this season but twigs and yellowing leaves.
Here and there, in solitary silhouette, you can see the pitiful survivors of the damson massacre of 2008, shrivelled like the sad dugs of some sub-Saharan famine, or white-spotted with premature mould. There is no doubt about it: this year the jam jars will remain as tragically empty and unused as the bath that Andromache ran for Hector.
I turn my peasant face to the watery sky and I want to know why. Why, oh Lord, has the damson crop failed so spectacularly this year? Why now, on top of the rain and the credit crunch and everything else?
And then an answer comes through the fog. It is a sign. It is a portent. It is a lesson from nature. In this season of gloom and economic woefulness, I believe we can learn and profit from the tragedy of my damson trees, and I say this particularly to the Comment Editor, who had the nerve to complain last time I wrote at length, on this page, about making jam.
Look here, he said, it’s all very well, this Tolstoyan jam stuff. But where’s it going? Where’s the relevance to British politics? Where is the cutting-edge economic analysis that the readers expect?
Well, I can tell him that if you want to understand the recession, and where Alistair Darling is going wrong, then you need to have a grasp of the essentials of damsonomics.
Lesson number one is that nobody knows quite what caused the problem – and, in case you think I am making heavy weather of this, my damsons are not alone in experiencing a disastrous downturn.
According to Christine Walling of the Westmorland Damson Association, the harvest is likely to be the worst since that body was founded in 1996. Prices are up 300 per cent.
Jam manufacturers are being forced to use frozen stock. In the damson heartlands of England – Herefordshire, Kent, Somerset – local papers are running stories headlined “Damson in Distress” and, as with the general economic conjuncture, the experts are divided as to the primary cause.
Some put the blame on the shortage of bees, essential for pollination. Some say it was a late frost; some say it was the torrential rain. But which was the real killer? We don’t know, any more than we understand the exact chain of events that has led to our current economic plight.
Was it really American sub-prime mortgages? Was it the Chinese lust for oil and grain, and the surge in commodity prices? Was it too much easy credit?
Damsonomics teaches us that we cannot predict when disaster will strike, because the field of causation is too vast, and we cannot predict when the crisis will end. Alistair Darling may be right to say that this downturn is the worst for 60 years; and there again, he may be wrong.
It is quite possible that next year the damson trees will burgeon and put forth their plenty, just as it may be that confidence will next year (or the year after) return to the economy as swiftly and inexplicably as it went.
And this year’s damson tragedy teaches us an important lesson about the limits upon our powers to intervene.
I could try pruning the trees, snipping here and there in the vague hope of getting rid of the unproductive twigs, just as the Government could always try new regulations for the diseased parts of the banking and mortgage sector, and in our blundering we could both of us end up making the position worse, creating the next crisis by trying to solve the last one; and then there is the final, vital lesson of damsonomics, and that is the importance of flexibility.
Britain – and especially London – should be well-placed to survive the recession, because we are, or should be, an increasingly high-skilled workforce, capable of adapting to all manner of shake-outs and disappointments.
Even in our forties and fifties we need to be psychologically prepared to use our talents wherever they are most fruitful. And that is why I find myself eyeing up those blackberry bushes, which seem to be coming on nicely, and look at those apples: they could be apple sauce, or maybe even cider.
Yes, folks, that’s the final lesson of damsonomics: adaptability. You may find yourself picking blackberries and not damsons, but it’s still a plum job.
[First published under the heading ” Alistair Darling, things are even worse – our damsons are in distress” in the Daily Telegraph 02 September 2008