Well it took a bit of time to get going, but we spent the day with our family – sons, partners and grandchildren to celebrate a seventh birthday with Sunday lunch, birthday cake and presents; junior membership of the RSPB, inexpensive binoculars, a microscope; you get the picture – no pressure whatever. Our son (not the proud dad one), who’s a bit of a prankster in these matters, had to be persuaded to drop the idea of a (pregnant) rabbit or a mixed pair of African snails, but there’s always another year! No one ever quite captures the quiet joy of getting along together or the dubious pleasures of “here comes the farmer” accompanied by screams of pleasure and “again Grandad”. Families don’t always work, and ours has had its share of ups and downs, but when fair family weather comes along it’s worth celebrating.
Home again in the relative silence of the flat, I weighed out the tomatoes we picked yesterday ready for another big batch – probably 10 litres of what we call “Hazan number one” – a sauce so good you could eat it without the pasta. Just now that might be a relief because we’ve had pasta for supper three nights on the trot, testing out freezable recipes for rainy days. I’d love to increase our repertoire to a dozen sauces because they can be used to beef up vegetarian recipes without the beef. Pru Leith does an excellent vegetable stock in her “Vegetable Bible”, and I’m slowly being convinced that the move towards eating less meat doesn’t in any way mean sacrificing rich flavours.
Then, the nuclear option for cheering myself up – I started a sourdough loaf that will be ready to bake in just over 24 hours. The sight and smell of a newly baked loaf is one of the most cheering sights in the world – simple but life enhancing. If they knew how good this feels they’d tax it or make it illegal.
I don’t think we’ve ever had a nicer drive back from Lleyn than yesterday. The full sun gave the mountains an extra degree of grandeur, and some we’d only guessed the names of previously made themselves known at last by their crystal clear outlines. A couple of days ago I wrote about the way local people sometimes refer to the land beyond Porthmadog as ‘the mainland’ and yesterday it was easy to see why. The whole horizon to the east, the north and the south was taken up by mountains, and the only way into mid Wales was either over them or around the coastal edges, and that made it clear why there are so many tiny abandoned coves and ports around the coast – the sea was the only viable way of moving goods in and out of the area. Out went the spoils of quarrying and mining and in came anything that coudn’t be grown or produced locally.
I also had am interesting conversation with the man who delivered bottled gas to the cottage as we left. I had totally forgotten that like most people on Lleyn his first language was Welsh, and so as we were chatting I asked him how the farmers were doing and what the crops had been like this year. I could sense a pause in the conversation and I assumed it must have been because he didn’t have an ear for my speech, but fully a minute later he answered my question completely – it had been a good year all round for grain, straw and hay. The awkwardness had come as we talked about nothing in particular while he translated my English question into Welsh and his answer back into English. Later in the day I read in the newspaper that Welsh speaking patients in hospitals are greatly inconvenienced and even endangered when the doctors only communicate in English.
I also noticed the Welsh slogan Cofiwch Dryweryn (remember Tryweryn – a village flooded to build a dam) painted on walls in a couple of places – one at the end of the lane leading down to the cottage. RS Thomas would have approved, but I was surprised to see the old slogan being wheeled out again in support of the justifiable feeling of being left behind. The language is making slow progress, but the whole culture is under economic attack as never before.
Back home in six hours including a couple of breaks (it’s 240 miles across three mountain ranges) we unpacked, filled the washing machine and went straight up to the allotment where we discovered that our two toughened glass cloches had been dismantled and stolen while we were away. No-one seemed to know anything, but whoever stole them must have been there for at least 3 or 4 hours because it took me twice that time to assemble them. They cost us £250 and they were an integral part of our plant raising in the spring, but we can’t afford to replace them. Needless to say we were upset at this invasion of our quiet lives and neither of us slept well, but entertaining thoughts of bloody revenge is a great waste of energy and desperately bad for the soul. I can’t think of a single religious philosophy that doesn’t see thieving as as destructive of the thief as it is distressing for the victim. We’ve had stuff stolen before – it’s a fact of life on allotments – and it would be nice to think that fellow allotmenteers would refuse to buy our cloches as a knockdown price unless their provenance could be proved, but it always takes two to tango and without honest upstanding customers prepared to look the other way, thieves would be out of business in a week.
At the end of a sleepless night, by which time it was almost dawn, we decided that the empty foundations could be extended upwards to make a new and much larger hotbed – another job for the early winter. It’s a fabulous source of re-energised soil for the rest of the plot, and it grows crops even earlier than coldframes with the bonus that stealing two tons of hot horse crap is much harder than unscrewing aluminium bolts.
We have two other categories of allotment nuisance in addition to outright thieves. There are the browsers who wander around indiscriminately plucking a strawberry here or an apple there. Then there are the grazers who will take a vine load of grapes, or a tree load of figs – we know who you are Mr Jaguar driver! One of our jobs this winter is to remove the vulnerable vine which is massively productive of inferior grapes, and replace it with something else a bit more useful to us.
But notwithstanding the upset, we carried home another twenty pounds of ripened tomatoes for preserving, with at least as many again left. The wisdom of growing the more expensive but blight resistant F1 hybrids has been demonstrated for a third successive season.
Dealing constructively with loss is a fact of life for gardeners and allotmenteers, but I first learned the lesson when I was making pots. If I say I like watercolour painting, rapid drawing, and making raku and saltglaze, you’ll see that I’m completely energised by the risk and uncertainty of these media. There’s no second chance and no going back. The first time I realized I was going to have to learn a new life-skill was one day at art school when I opened a saltglaze kiln containing two months work which I had overfired so much that the entire contents were fused together and had to be removed with a sledgehammer. It took a couple of days to get my head around it but I got there. It’s a skill I’ve had to use a lot.
First off, why do I use the difficult Welsh names for places? Because that’s what they’re called and everybody speaks Welsh up here. Secondly, Welsh is a completely phonetic language as I learned many years ago trying to catch buses up and down the South Wales valleys running writers groups. Learning the basics of pronunciation made catching buses easier and me seem less of an amusing floor show! So how do you pronounce Mynydd Rhiw? Try Munith (with the u as in pun rather than mule) and then rheeoo – like the sound of a buzzard but lower. so –
Couldn’t resist a last stroll up Mynydd Rhiw for this year. It’s been such a beautiful spell of warm weather and the flowering gorse and heather had brought out a few late butterflies not to mention all the other insects. As we left the road we watched a kestrel hovering over the fields below us. For many years I’d only ever seen kestrel from a distance or from below, sillhouetted aganst the sky. The key identifying feature came to be its unique fluttering style of hovering – head down, maybe thirty feet above its prey. Then in Cornwall last year we saw one very close up on a cliff path and saw for the first time its stunning chestnut colour – so surprising that I had to go and double check that it was, in fact, a kestrel and not some other bird of prey. Today we were able to watch for some minutes from above and again, in the bright sunshine, the chestnut colour glowed once more. The kestrel never looked more beautiful than it did today. As for buzzards, they’ve become so common these days that seeing three flying together on the other side of the hill seemed unexceptional.
With the hills taking on their autumn colours, we looked across and could see Snowdon more clearly than we’ve ever seen it before. The last time we were here in April it was still capped with snow but today the great rills below the summit ridge stood out in the hard light. My camera, missing a UV filter hardly managed to capture the scene, but I suspect this would have been one of the rare days when, from the summit, you could see both Cardigan Bay and the Irish Sea.
As befits this day of protest about climate change, we could see an oil platform out at sea and as we arrived at the trig point we found one of those enormous pickup trucks at the top with its occupants and their dog eating a picnic and taking in the view, having presumably driven up the access track to the radar and communications mast. It’s full of paradox, this place, with the peace regularly shattered by military jets flying low overhead. RS Thomas, who fought so hard with the Keating sisters, against nuclear power stations and the industrial development of campsites on the coast, lived just below here and I can just imagine that he – as an inveterate walker and birdwatcher – must have shaken his fist at more than a few of them.
I imagine too that local beekeepers must take advantage of the heather to produce its distinctive honey – so thick and gel-like that it’s almost impossible to extract in a spinner, but makes superb comb honey: however we saw no hives today on our walk.
Several of the local farms have bought into government schemes that subsidise environmental outcomes rather than being paid by acreage or subsidised crops. This scheme is scheduled in Wales to replace all farm subsidies in a couple of years but in these uncertain times it’s not clear what’s going to happen. Instinctively I’ve always felt most sympathy for the small farmers, and there’s no doubt that many of them will go out of business without subsidies. But the real subsidy junkies are on the other side of the country. The system is so rigged that the biggest and wealthiest landowners collect the vast majority of the cash, but if you’ve read Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm” you’ll know that intensive extractive agriculture can hardly survive with subsidy let alone without it. Dieter Helm’s book “Green and prosperous Land” explores the unintended consequences of subsidy for the environment and is well worth a read.
But too much reflection can turn a walk into a lament and today, ‘though it may well be the last but one day before the tail end of an expired hurricane rattles through, is all the more beautiful for its fugitive nature. Autumn has its own rewards and I can’t wait to get back to the allotment to carry on with some winter projects.
On our way down the track I stopped to photograph this Soft Puffball – Lycoperdon umbrinium. There were three or four lying on the ground having been uprooted or kicked aside by some mycophobic walker – I had to type that last word twice, Freudian slip!
I want to write something about this day of action against the climate disaster, but more than anything I want to approach it from a positive point of view. It’s oh so tempting to reach for the standard ‘end of everything‘ metaphors like Arnold’s “melancholy , soft, withdrawing roar”, and tides certainly come into it – the rising sea levels that can make tides lethal; the storm surges to which the UK is no stranger already. We have a battle on our hands if we’re going to avoid being the last generation to know our wildflowers beyond pictures; the last generation before the extinctions begin, the last generation who – like the Easter Islanders – disappear without trace.
Let’s be clear, the earth can get along very well (probably better) without us. The natural world doesn’t exist for our benefit – either as raw material or cultural asset. The best we can aspire to is to live in harmony with it as good house guests, clearing up after ourselves and not stealing the silver.
The rewards of living peaceably are less tangible than the latest lump of plastic, and the plastic is always going to be easier to sell because you can’t sell peace at all. It’s pointless trying to tell the owner of the 5L diesel pickup who’s just blocked the entrance that they’re ‘not really happy’, because they never felt happier than the day they picked up the £40,000 lump of sparkling junk from the dealer – never happier until the next must-have object came along. The rewards of living peaceably are free but not cheap. Allotments, farms, gardens and relationships need a lot of time and commitment. There’s a lot of make-do-and-mend about it, a lot of stepping back, not taking the last biscuit, a lot of celebrating the gifts of others, a lot of learning, a lot of unexpected joy.
Our politics is broken, our culture is broken, our education, social services and health services are broken too but out of crisis comes the opportunity. Our enemies see it as an opportunity as well, chaos is good for business and there’s nothing healthier than shortages for making a quick profit. Today is an opportunity for peaceable people all over the world to sieze the initiative. The word crisis derives from the Greek ‘crino’ – to choose. When we come to a fork in the footpath we have to choose which direction to take and today we’re standing at the fork, and the signpost suggests that one path simply leads to more of the same. The other path might look scary but it’s the way home.
What we’re looking for is hope. Hope for the environment, hope for the climate, hope for our children and their children, hope for rewarding and productive work, hope for the sense of belonging to something worth believing in.
We will not kneel at the feet of the economy or kiss the hand of the powerful but we will share in the cause of the millions who want nothing but to live peaceably and to flourish.
We had the most fabulous sunset this evening. The cottage looks westwards and so sunsets are always good, but tonight as the sun sank in the in a clear blue sky, the sea remained brighter than the sky or the land even until the last vestiges of slate blue had disappeared. It was a bright silver band full of luminescence as if it were shining from its own depths. We waited to see if this was to be our chance to see the green ray that’s reputed to happen after exceptional sunsets. It didn’t matter at all really – as my grandmother would say – “enough is a feast”.
Ten days ago (or a hundred years as it seems) we were shivering in the wind and rain in the western fells and lamenting the onset of autumn, but it seems the weather had different ideas and so here we are – still a little less north and just as west – enjoying what may turn out to be the last few days of the oddest season I can remember. Since the beginning of the year the seasons have switched on and off, occasionally in the wrong order, and kept us allotmenteers guessing. The settled order of the seasons has been torn up by climate change which leaves us wondering how bad this could get. The answer of course is – even worse than this. It’s hard when we’re offered these balmy days both very early and very late in the season not simply to embrace them and be thankful, but the inexorable warming isn’t just providing us with a few extra sunbathing days, it’s melting the ice cap, melting glaciers and raising the sea level whilst heating the sea and generating huge destructive storms. I’ve only been in the path of an oncoming tide once, when a spring tide corresponded with a big melt of snow and a strong wind blowing the surge up the river Avon in Bristol. We were living right next to the river and as the water topped the walls it came across the road towards our house making a sound I’ll never forget. We didn’t get much sleep that night until the tide turned and took the flood away.
But today the farmers were out baling the straw, and with a couple of days left before the rain returns, they’ll be ready for the winter. The last peaks of the Snowdon range that form a natural boundary to the Lleyn peninsula were standing clear in the blue skies. We walked along the clifftop and below us an abundance of birds were sunning themselves on the rocks – it’s a little paradise here when the wind drops and the sun shines. Much of the time it can be pretty rough. Near to where we’re staying there are a number of coves you can climb down to, all empty of humans apart from us.
Any spare tme I’ve had this week has been spent clearing gigabytes of junk off my long-suffering laptop which is ten years old now and I need to keep it going as long as I can. I hate the tedium of messing about with computers but, on the other hand, I completely rely on everything functioning seamlessly in order to be able to concentrate on writing – so routine maintenance is a necessary evil. But art will out, and aside from a few photos of the view I grabbed a closeup of the dried remains of a wild carrot which must have provided the model for an old style lobster creel – I’ll add it to the list of drawings I’ll attempt in the long winter evenings.
An early morning walk on the beach this morning became something of a meditation on melancholy, impermanence and fragility. Apart from the plashing of the incoming waves, the crunch of pebbles underfoot and a few end-of-season walkers celebrating the unexpectedly fine weather, the beach was quiet and being rapidly erased by the tide . As we came to the top of the steps a group of women, three generations of Welsh speakers came towards us speaking quietly like a happy hive of bees as they cooed over a baby in a pushchair. Welsh is still the first language in this part of the country and local people sometimes speak of the places beyond Porthmadog as ‘the mainland’. Every village here has a tall, grey and hard-faced buildng with words like ‘Morab’ and ‘Ebenezer` carved above the door. The churches are mostly closed down, the subscription books stored in dusty archives as the subscribers turn to dust in the churchyards outside. “No one comes to the brittle miracle of the bread” On Sunday I did spot a preacher in his best suit, bible under his arm and with the look of a man who had something to say. I wanted to pull over and ask him what it was that pleased him so, and depending on his answer I might have stood at the back of the chapel where the uncommitted stand, and heard him out, but I couldn’t bear the thought of being disappointed again.
Why does it slip through my fingers all the time? The meaning? – and so when I’m in this way I’m filled with questions whose answers are always just a sentence away but out of reach. On the way home we spotted a buzzard on a telegraph pole and he must have caught my question because the answer came back quite clearly –
This is a family story, passed down to me and I’ve no means of verifying it, but it came to me from my mother who had inherited my grandfather’s habit of inventing names for dishes. As children, if we asked what was for pudding and she said it was ‘Asquith’ my sister and I would groan – “not rice pudding again!”
My grandfather and his three sons (my uncles) were all carpenters and builders and spent a good deal of time working away from home. They had apparently invented a dish called ‘clanger pudding’ which comprised anything – literally anything – that could be warmed up in a pan and dumped on a plate.
Any half experienced allotmenteer will know that clanger pudding feeling, because crops don’t ever ripen in recipe order. Gluts and failures invariably stand in the way of the fantasy that you can wander down to the garden and come back with a trug full of the exact vegetables needed for the recipe you had in mind. Pickling, preserving, freezing and bottling can take up some of the slack but at the Potwell Inn we have very limited space and there are only two of us so we are regularly invaded by masses of courgettes and – this week – broccoli.
When we packed up and drove to Lleyn on Wednesday the back seat of the car resembled a greengrocer’s market stall. We had harvested anything that was ripe on the allotment and brought it up full of good intentions to explore new vegetarian dishes while we were here. The first darkening on the horizon came when we discovered that many of the runner beans were a bit past it – well a bit kevlar to be honest and on the edge of becoming basket weaving material. Then there was the courgette that had become a marrow, a squash big enough for six and pounds of summer broccoli some of it on the brink of flowering. Cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, beetroot, peppers, aubergine, chillies, herbs in abundance – did we think we were going to spend 24 hours a day cooking and eating?
And there’s the allotmenteer’s torment. It’s hard work growing things and so we don’t like to waste them. Naturally the colour supplement gurus have this under control by planting single seeds at 4 day intervals thereby offering a perfect succession. In the real world we have better things to do than a one mile round trip to sow a seed, so as the week progresses we feel more and more guilty and the smell of the broccoli in the veg compartment begins to spread through the cottage every time we open the fridge. We’ve had one or two successes on the veggie front, but it requires a good deal of ingenuity and we’re noticing a certain sameness about many of the recipes. The temptation to add intense umami flavours to everything can make the vegetables – which should be the stars of the show – into mere carriers of the flavours.
Today was a C+ effort using the tomatoes we’d brought to make panzanella. I wrote the other day about the “sourdough” we’d bought and this being a pretty shop free area I was stuck with it for this evening. I added in a grilled pepper and our own basil to reduce the surplus a bit more but as soon as I added the dressing the bread quickly collapsed into pulp. Clanger pudding in fact. But it was good enough, as was the large quantity of broccoli and stilton soup I made yesterday. Jacket potatoes were OK too and we’ve eaten plainly but well. But I think the takeaway point is that if we’re going to eat as much as possible from whatever we can grow, we shall have to be content perhaps with less variety. The upside is that the treats when they come along – I’m thinking of our own asparagus and apples – are all the more exciting.
Our time here is half gone, but we’ve done some good walks and in the evenings we’ve entertained ourselves by reading to one another from our books. It’s very efficient because we each get to read one and hear the best bits from the other. Madame is reading William Feaver’s new book about Lucian Freud and I’m reading Richard Mabey’s “The Cabaret of Plants” – both of them excellent (and I wish I could read that last sentence as my eighteen year old self!)
That doesn’t mean that technique isn’t important – it’s everything!
Every summer, as soon as the solstice passes and the nights begin to lengthen I know that I’ll resolve once again to capture the intensity of these colours in a painting. I did it today as I wandered around the garden of our borrowed cottage and photographed some of the wild fruits growing here. The trickiest subject by far was the hawthorn tree which resisted every attempt to capture its brilliance against the blue sky. Painting is a very tactile experience, from the texture of the paper, the sensation of freedom in a running line and the intense concentration of mixing and applying colour. The smell of the paint, even the resistance, heft and suppleness of a good brush can be exciting, as can the accidental granularity of the paint as it spreads on the rough surface of good paper.
But talk is cheap and whereas I can write easily, painting doesn’t come naturally at all. I have an uncompleted painting of a hyacinth that’s three years old, alongside a folder full of drawings, tracings and macro-photos but still it defeats me. The intoxicating complexity of the petals, lit as they are from every angle around the stem; their intense waxy blue; the stiff lanceolate leaves with their almost invisible longitudinal grooves make the process of painting into a profound and humbling experience. Far from envisaging the artistic process as flowing from an exceptionally gifted mind to the paper, I’ve come to see it as a challenge from the subject – the plant, flower or whatever – to the artist; an act of discovery through enchantment. Any kind of ego is an absolute barrier to understanding, and the greatest moments in my creative life have been more like meditations in which I am able to step aside and allow the work to happen. It doesn’t happen often, but then I have no deadlines or quotas to meet. That doesn’t mean that technique isn’t important – it’s everything! – and then you can forget about it.
I was painting in a group a couple of years ago and using a bit of a technical wrinkle to create the highlights in a painting of a decaying leaf. One of my class asked me what I was doing and so I explained what I’d been taught by our teacher who is always worth paying attention to. “So it’s just a trick” she said disparagingly. “No it’s a trick but not just a trick, it’s a technique”. I think she was under the impression that learning technique somehow interferes with the artistic process. You can’t blame her, art schools are full of lecturers who believe the same thing. It’s not a matter of being – not everybody who wears a beret and smokes Gauloises is going to become Jean Paul Sartre! It’s a matter of sheer bloody minded doing.
So here I am at the moment full of aspirations that must be defended at all costs from the siren temptations of cooking, gardening and loving our family. About once a year I pull off something worth looking at, but the process is as slow as a sloth’s bowel movements and we need to eat. Today we went for a walk but mistimed the high tide due to my inability to read a 24 hour timetable. So we went to a gap in the clifftop bushes and leaned on the fence gazing at the view. We agreed that you can do too much walking and so we thought we’d just lean on the fence and take in the smell and sound of the sea. Then we went to the shop and bought some cake. A perfect day.
Sometimes the hardest things to spot are invisible because they’re everywhere. Like the air we breathe, or as the sea appears to a fish, the all encompassing embrace of the big ideas have insinuated themselves into our inner and outer landscapes and become the framework itself. We know this is the case but it takes a film like The Matrix to spell it out. Today’s Guardian publishes a report on farm subsidies that makes scary reading in the precarious real world we inhabit. $1 million dollars a minute to pay farmers to do the wrong thing is such a preposterous idea that you might wonder whether it could possibly be true, but the reason it slips past us is because we never stand in a bank watching a man in a green overall withdrawing millions in cash.
The best place to see the madness of subsidy is locally – we’re in Lleyn, for instance, and we’re staying right next door to a typical small mixed farm. There are a few cattle and sheep, the adjoining field has a mixture of tups, and some Jacobs sheep graze the clifftops. There are all the usual features of the small farm here, hens, a couple of noisy ducks and some mangy looking cats eyeing us up. As we arrived here the farmer, whose knees are shot from handling sheep, was moving multiple trailer loads of nitrate fertiliser on to the farm. I reckon about 30 tons of the stuff passed by us. He’s not rich for sure, and he’s struggling to keep going in a market that’s rigged against him; impoverishing his own land in order to stay in the game. Ironically we saw him yesterday carrying a heavy bag of seaweed up from the shore, over his shoulder. He knows what he needs to do but he can’t do it.
A mile away we found another dairy farm while we were out searching for a source of freshly caught fish. You’d hardly know it was a dairy farm, it looked more like an industrial estate with its huge barns, silos and tanks. Everywhere there were warning signs that this was a bio-secure area and we were not welcome. Little bucolic charm there, then, but another sign of a broken farm economy.
The government last week announced a huge extension of the badger cull. With tuberculosis becoming endemic in dairy herds, the cost of compensating farmers is enormous and yet almost all the scientific evidence suggests that badgers are not the main source of the disease. TB is a disease that spreads most quickly in highly stressed environments – such as when you force cows to produce far more milk than they are properly capable of. The principal feed crop grown on intensive dairy farms is maize, which is deficient as food without supplementation – rather like living on Big Macs! Badgers absolutely love eating maize and so the farmers are the most likely cause of the explosion in the badger population by providing thousands of acres of their favourite food. Add to that the constant movement of cattle around the country and it doesn’t need a degree in agriculture to see that the problem is probably another example of agricultural self-harm.
And yet, I read an intriguing article in the same newspaper last week that reported how many industries are quietly greening their approach because it makes more economic sense. Ironically they’re not publicising this because public perception is that ‘doing the right thing’ results in more cost and less quality in the product. Some Portuguese wine producers have gone organic without announcing the fact, because they get bigger yields and better quality and they can sell at the same price.
The only way to tackle this desperately urgent challenge is to take on the stakeholders, the industrial farm corporations, the supermarkets, the manufacturers of damaging fertilizers and lethal farm chemicals, but most challenging of all, ourselves. I remember one tired old management cliché that might fit here – culture eats strategy for breakfast. The answer always comes back “we’re only giving the public what it wants!” and it’s true. The situation won’t really change until we see through the ideological fog that sustains intensive, destructive, subsidised farming and demand something better.