Winter thoughts at the Potwell Inn

2018-02-06 09.16.28

In the world of virtuality that we bloggers inhabit, it’s tempting to create a parallel unverse in which we are self-perfecting and untouched by the blights that affect lesser mortals. And so, by carefully selecting from the events of the day and choosing our words as poets might, we convey our privileged position on the sunny highlands of human consciousness without for a moment descending into bragging.

It will be a strange sort of book, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree ; – & to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be as ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves.  Yet I do mean to get to the truth of the thing , spite of this.

Herman Melville in a letter to Richard Henry Dana on the first draft of Moby Dick

I read blogs. The best of them fire me up and get me back to work, but the worst of them make me feel inadequate – as if the only place to start a new life is “anywhere but where you are”. I see photographs of perfected lives, perfected allotments and perfected meals and I know that I could never compete. Nobody’s going to stick my face on an advert for the good life, so I created the Potwell Inn as a place where the real, the blight, the shit that happens, has a place as well – a place that I’m allowed to live in because I am fallible, I am human and I have never lost the longing for something better.

The Potwell Inn, in its first iteration by H G Wells, is set in the South Downs and it’s all orchard and grass and gently murmering river. It doesn’t rain – in fact the sun seems never to stop shining – but over everything hangs the shadow of Uncle Jim who may return at any moment in a drunken fury. H G Wells knew better than to write a novel of perfection.

So, mea culpa, in all my postings I’ve never mentioned anything much more frightening than allium leaf miner or a late frost; and you might run away with the idea that the Potwell Inn and its allotment exist in a faery glade at the edge of an exquisite Georgian city. It’s true that the city we live in has a lot of Georgian architecture – we’re lucky enough to live on the edge one of its most beautiful parks.  But Bath itself is a monster with a severe personality disorder that can’t make its mind up whether it’s a University town, a Roman tribute act, a continuously ‘in session’ meeting of the Jane Austin fan club or a vibrant modern shopping/eating/clubbing experience. In fact, “Bath – the experience” occupies a limited area at the centre and it’s surrounded by a hinterland that’s not so lucky.  Our beautiful Georgian terrace comprises mainly houses in multiple occupation filled with a shifting population of students, young families unable even to look in an estate agent’s window, and housing assocociation properties many of which have some deeply troubled residents.

So we live in a lovely flat near the centre of a beautiful city and the corner of our street next to the flat is a favourite spot for drug dealers because there’s no CCTV and there are four or five escape routes inaccessible to a police car if trouble kicks off. Through our windows we can enjoy a view of the river and the trees and also – at times –  violent domestic disputes, machete wielding ‘county lines’ enforcers and crack smoking minor league dealers on bikes. Most of the trouble never comes near us – just once I was the victim of the most pathetic attempted mugging in history. There’s a young man who lives a block away who we call ‘mong’ because he shuffles around as if he is permanently on spice or ketamine. He’s well over six feet tall so potentially could be a bit frightening if the fog ever cleared. I came down the road and despite the fact that he was already holding a mobile, he said “give me your phone” in his best menacing tone. I replied “fuck off!” in my most menacing OAP manner, and he said “there’s no need to be rude”. He probably had a good polite upbringing some time back.

The police and the local council are having a purge on rough sleeping and street begging in the centre because it scares the tourists. Naturally this means that the problem moves outwards towards us and street begging becomes petty crime – burglary, shoplifting, stolen bikes, muggings and such like. Sustaining a £200 a day habit either means a good begging pitch in town or something much more scary around the edges.  Our posturing local councillors – many of whom are part of the problem inasmuch as they own property and let it out at increasingly ridiculous rents – like to grandstand with talk about ‘zero tolerance’ but that does nothing to help the elderly residents who are terrorised by dealers and users.  We have no police station any more, and our air quality is so polluted by heavy traffic that we regularly break EU limits. So that’s where the Potwell Inn can be found – not in an  idyllic imaginary parallel world, but here on a cold December day when it’s too wet to get on to the allotment (again).

But this is where we’ve chosen to live and we love every moment. I’ve always had a conviction that there’s no better place than where you are set down, and the best way to live a flourishing, fully human life is to transform the place you live in rather than spend a fortune in time and energy looking for somewhere better. And so we get involved in the local neighbourhood and in its politics.  We all know that the source of many of these problems is lack of compassion and lack of resources compounded by a malignant ideology.  We love the fact that we can hear a dozen languages and more every day on the streets and we can shop in half a dozen food cultures within a mile.  We love the allotment and its capacity to provide for us, and our neighbours who live such interesting and occasionally complicated and exotic lives.

In one of those long meandering chains of thought that sometimes sieze my attention I began ten days ago with watching the riots in Paris on television and emerged 24 hours later with a changed perspective. That change of perspective took me to a single word; a crystallisation of the chain of thought and it was the word “commonwealth”.  The absence of the capital letter is absolutely deliberate because it is not a proper noun.  It doesn’t refer to any of the manifestations of the original idea that has been misappropriated so often from the days of Cromwell’s parliament to the cultural remains of the British Empire. It’s been so often misappropriated, in fact, that when I googled it, I looked at 27 pages of results without finding a single reference to its original meaning – a political community founded for the common good. This lovely idea seems to me to be slap bang in the middle of the Potwell Inn mission statement, or it would be if we had one!

I wondered for a long while whether to post this, and here it is. A provisional mission statement for the Potwell Inn, driven by the sheer baffling and beautiful complexity of human flourishing.

Commonwealth: A political community founded for the common good.


Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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