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.
Today was the day of the cake stall that our seven year old grandson organised for the victims of the Australian bush fires, and in particular he was hoping to raise a substantial sum to support relief work for animals on Kangaroo Island. He’s pretty dotty about wildlife in general and with an Australian mum he was totally focused on the task, ‘though being a proper pom I don’t know the first thing about Kangaroo Island except that it seems that it’s name doesn’t reflect that it’s the last stronghold of disease free koala bears. I guess there must be quite a lot of kangaroos as well. What’s clear is that the climate driven crisis in Australia has become a worldwide cause for environmentalists and animal lovers and it’s reached into the hearts of millions of British people as well. The parents at his primary school really got on-side today and there were more cakes than you could shake a stick at but better still, hosts of customers willing to buy their own produce back at ridiculous prices, egged on by our grandson who was overheard telling one customer that ‘he didn’t do change’! All the teachers rallied round; the local firefighters turned up to support but then got called away to a fire and between them they all blew my estimate out of the water. I thought he might make £50, but it looks as if there was over three hundred pounds in notes, so by the time the coins are counted it’s going to go to four hundred if not five. What a magnificent effort for a seven year old! – even if it was with a bit of help from family and friends and especially Mum who was so nervous about today going well that she looked as if she’d burst into tears if anything went wrong.
I was despatched early this morning to go to a local catering supplier to get paper plates and I looked for paper bags as well, this being in response to an environmental crisis. I managed to find ample supplies of compostable plates, but paper bags came in 250’s which made them rather pricey. I spotted some reusable paper bags treated with beeswax, sold in tens, but they would have cost twenty times more than the paper ones. Tickets to the moral high ground are a bit pricey it seems. What was so encouraging was that people, dozens of people – many of them parents were getting it. It didn’t feel like our grandson was pushing at a door, it felt like he’d opened it and the people were pouring through. I know we get very dispirited by governments and the media for propagating and apparently believing their own lies, but here were around a hundred parents and their children in an ordinary British primary school refusing to buy their guff. I don’t have the bottle to accuse a bunch of bright seven year olds of being ridiculous and idealistic because they’re our hope for the future or, for me perhaps, their future if they’re to have one.
So I really believe that today’s effort was one more small step in the right direction. We can’t rely on national politics so we’ll ignore them and take on the task locally.
How do I finish off a day like today? Well, I wrote about my favourite breakfast of home made marmalade and home made sourdough, so here’s a picture. My cake baking efforts were unevenly received – I was up against some very stiff and colourful competition, so I bought back most of my cheese scones at a delightfully inflated price, but most of the blueberry muffins found a new home.
Since the sun shone this afternoon, once I’d finished baking we went over to Dyrham Park for a walk. In fact the park itself was closed because it’s a fairly unique combination of grass and limestone, so quite thin soil and easily damaged by walkers – which didn’t bother us much because we could walk down the main tarmac path to the house, following the course of a stream in full spate after all the rain. There were patches of waterlogged soil in many places, and we couldn’t drive home the back roads because the road was completely flooded at the top of Dyrham Hill. It’s a steep walk down to the house and gardens, and we were met there by one of the terribly efficient welcomers who offered us a leaflet about the gardens parts of which are in the process of restoration to something like the original plans.
I’m not a fan of formal gardens, I don’t like things to be too orderly and sterile, and so my heart sank a bit when this process began. The notices boast something like 40,000 bulbs planted, and new yew hedging no doubt accompanied by finely cut and weed free stripy grass. However once you leave the formal garden, which amount to less than half of the total area, things are altogether more interesting – with a lake, or I think more accurately a large pond with flowing water taken from the stream; a waterfall, and a much more informally planted area of shrubs and flowers. The leaflet described all the exotic plantings but could have made much more of the wildlife potential. Someone, somewhere had made the decision not to deadhead or cut back all of the seed bearing grasses but to leave them over the winter, a marvellous food source for birds and small mammals and very beautiful in their own right. I thought the leaflet had missed an opportunity to show people the potential of wildlife gardening. Dave Goulson’s book “The Garden Jungle” was on sale in the shop, and the subject seems to be rising higher and higher in the consciousness of gardeners everywhere, so why not put up some signage to say “this is what it can look like” – which is very beautiful.
Outside the house the snowdrops are flowering and you could almost have thought spring had arrived if it weren’t for the cold wind blowing steadily up the escarpment. We could see that it’s going to take weeks for the soil to dry out. Apparently things are even worse in Northern France.
On the allotment today Madame followed up on my idea that perhaps our rat trap had not been stolen but dragged off by a fox who’d found a rat in the trap and had carried it off to a more private place to devour the remains. My hunch turned out to be true, and the fox had eaten all bar the tiniest scrap of fur and even cleared out the last remains of the crunchy peanut butter bait, leaving the empty trap in its box about 50 yards away in some long grass. I’ve said before that I don’t in the least mind the foxes eating the rats, but I’d prefer it if they didn’t steal the plates and the cutlery as well – it’s such bad manners. Naturally we were relieved that it wasn’t another visit by our burglarious predecessor who now just owes us two net cloches, two water butts, two very expensive cold frames and a max and min thermometer. We can solve the fox problem by attaching the rat trap boxes to some long pegs, and on the plus side another neighbour who is moving to a different site has given us an enormous tarpaulin and a storage bench which he doesn’t want to take.
It’s lovely to see our early sowings taking off so well. I was so concerned about the waterlogging in one part of the plot which lies above an underground stream, that I gently mooted the possibility of digging a small pond on it, sealed by puddling it with the plentiful clay. Madame didn’t just disagree, she saturation bombed the whole idea and could see nothing but drowned creatures and malaria infected mozzies. I think I’ll put that one to one side – for the time being!
Back at the park, as we walked up the track I spotted a felled tree trunk – there are lots of them lying around with their associated brash, another sign that the National Trust policy is changing very much for the good. Once again the instinct for tidiness is being restrained to the benefit of the many plants, fungi, bacteria and small creatures who can both eat and shelter under the piles; and this particular tree had an array of turkey tail fungi – Trametes versicolour at one end, and cramp balls, or King Alfred’s cakes – Daldinia concentrica – at the other; neither of them the remotest bit rare but fun to name.
Nothing more to do this evening than bake a loaf and pack the cakes and scones into tins for our grandson’s charity cake sale tomorrow.
OK so most of us would agree that living on pasta, marmalade and Cornish pasties would be a tiny bit unbalanced, but the pasties – which Madame made for supper this evening – have additional benefits. They only have 1.5oz of meat in each one – the rest is pastry, potato and swede. You don’t have to be working class or wear trainer bottoms to eat one, just the ability to get over yourself – PLUS – they are better at cheering you up than any prescription drug after a rainy day. Obviously the pesto is lovely as well, and the two photos are only there to show how to make a sausage which you put into the freezer for 2 hours before removing it and cutting it up into servings. Last night we had it with tagliatelle, crushed potatoes and steamed broccoli – positively life affirming! and finally the marmalade which is enough to get us through until next January – that’s 365 breakfasts and 365 slices of our own everyday sourdough toast – possibly 400 if you include the greed.
It has been raining all day again. Last night’s TV documentary on the Church of England’s cover up of the predatory bishop Peter Ball – who I knew slightly when he came to theological college as an occasional lecturer – depressed me beyond measure, not least because it was so entirely predictable. A church hierarchy that protects its reputation before it protects vulnerable people is utterly unworthy.
Dave Goulson’s book “The Jungle Garden” which I’ve been reading made me gnash my teeth as well, but this time in a good way. You’ll never eat a shiny Cox apple or a Spanish non-organic grape again.
……. and thank you so much for reading this blog. Yesterday I had my largest number of views ever – completely inexplicable!
Well, not quite hiding but certainly not going outside. The weather has been filthy and looks determined to get filthier and so Madame made a large batch of pesto and then we worked together prepping what should be around 30lbs of Seville orange marmalade by the time it’s finished.
We’ve been intending to make a stock batch of pesto for ages – partly because we’ve almost run out, (it freezes very well), but also because we need the propagators empty in order to get chillies going fairly soon. For the sake of convenience we combined the two types – ‘Bolloso Napolitano’ and ‘Classico’ – both from Franchi – because we had them ready to harvest, although I think I prefer the first more, it’s got a hint of aniseed somewhere. These plants were grown in a home made compost mixture combining 40 topsoil, 40 composted manure, 10 vermiculite and 10 Perlite. The seeds were germinated and kept at around 20 C until the plants were ready to harvest and they were grown under 12 hours daily of overhead artificial daylight. They were only watered from below and once they’d got their feet down we fed them regularly with dilute seaweed feed. We’ve previously tried growing them in compost only, but these have been the best plants we’ve ever produced and the pesto today was absolutely delicious. It’ll be rolled and part frozen, cut into individual portions and wrapped. One important point is to sow thinly and then thin again to stop the plants competing and exhausting themselves.
The marmalade reminded me (again) that it’s always good to read even a familiar recipe twice, because we’d peeled, deseeded and knife cut six pounds of peel into fine shreds before I realised that we were going to have to add 12 pints of water for the initial cooking. That brought it almost to the top of our biggest preserving pan with no room to add the sugar so we’re going to have to share the big batch between two pans. I made the same mistake last year and there was a discernible difference between the two batches – both were very nice but just different in texture and set. I also need to climb up to the top cupboard to make sure we’ve got enough jam jars. When we first moved here I bought what I thought would be a lifetime supply of screw top lids from a wholesaler, but I think we’ll have used them all up with this batch of marmalade.
Meanwhile storm Brendan has spared us the worst of the wind and rain because we’re sheltered here in the Avon valley, but we cancelled a proposed overnight stay in the Forest of Dean because the campervan can rock and roll a bit in high winds. Tomorrow I’ll be back in the kitchen baking for our grandson’s cake stall. I’ve bought a muffin mould especially, but I’ve never made a muffin in my life so it could all go terribly wrong.
My friend Rose has texted to say that she’s modelled her whole life on Flora Poste (see previous posts) and Emma Woodhouse. It would be churlish to comment!
This is positively the last tiny runnel of the Cold Comfort Farm oxbow, so it’s going to be a short post. Firstly, Hardy did write one cheerful, and funny novel – “Under the Greenwood Tree” – which is required reading for anyone wanting to change anything at all in a church – especially the music.
Secondly, although Hardy isn’t well known as a poet he wrote some wonderful and very technical stuff in rhyme schemes that have proper Latin names. Generally speaking, technically dazzling poetry is a bit disappointing in the ideas department but his isn’t – although he shares the dubious honour (with RS Thomas) of writing his most powerful love poems to the dead partners whom they’d neglected to the point of abuse during their lives.
Thirdly (I’m stopping counting now) there’s one really interesting moment in CCF when a darker note creeps in. Flora’s eventual soulmate, Charles, is described as being unable fully to enjoy a party because he cannot shake off the sense of guilt he has at having survived his time as a wartime soldier in Afghanistan when so many of his friends had died. It’s only one tiny sentence – barely even that – but the book was published in 1932, almost exactly midway between two catastrophic wars, and it’s clear that amid all the merriment of the novel, history is biting at Stella Gibbons’ heels.
And finally – I think I want to go into the sukebind business. We could all do with a bit of cheering up, and what with everyone having children later and later and worrying constantly about identity and other imponderables, not to mention the government and the environment, I thought it might be diverting to sow lots of sukebind among the wildflower meadows of Putney and Nempnet Thrubwell in order to encourage more frolicking. I’m reading Dave Goulson’s excellent new book on *wildflower gardening and I can’t find any reference to sukebind – I expect big pharma is working on synthesizing it even as I write this – and probably Dominic Cummings has slapped a D notice on even mentioning it, but I was thinking of making a tincture to sell to Potwell Inn customers at £50 for 10 ml. I’m ready for the knock on the door.
*Dave Goulson – The Garden Jungle – Jonathan Cape £16.99
After quoting from Cold Comfort Farm a couple of days ago, I couldn’t resist reading it again for the umpteenth time and once again it made me laugh out loud on almost every page. I mean it’s not as if it’s a piece of great literature, but it’s absolutely joyful and it feels as if it was written in much the same way that Jack Kerouac is supposed to have written “On the road” – in one long binge. I’ve read it so many times, now, that I’ve worn it out over and over and my latest copy – bought from an Oxfam shop – started life at 2/6 – that’s half a crown or twelve and a half pence in new money. While I was reading today the spine began to break once more so that’s something else I need to look out for.
But there’s more to it than just the comedy. The book was written as a riposte to the Thomas Hardy school of literature. I’m a great fan of Hardy but you have to say the unremitting grimness of, say, Jude or Tess does make it something of an ordeal to read them – the grey wraiths of fate hang over them rather like an appointment for a colonoscopy….
But then I suddenly remembered my first ever sermon while I was training when one of the assessors said it was like being immersed in Thomas Hardy – which I didn’t take as a compliment. A rather kinder mentor said gently that it would be best if I didn’t try to say everything that was on my mind at once. Being a Hardy fan is not unlike being an old fashioned Marxist – you know something terrible is going to happen but you just don’t know when: which is precisely why my mind travelled to Amos Starkadder’s sermon after seeing the photographs in Cardiff last week. I needed something to laugh at amid the suffocating thought that something pretty awful is happening to us all.
Reading the whole novel again brought other rewards as well. Madame, for instance, reminded me that it was one of my father’s favourite books – a fact which I’d completely forgotten, and which prompted me to remember that I had seen him laughing until the tears ran down his face and he fell to coughing furiously. It was a great memory for displacing some of the more gloomy ones as he grew old.
Last night the south westerly wind was in one of those strange moods where it simply blew hard and steadily, without variation, finding the tiniest cracks in the window frames and causing a continuous soughing noise. We woke up this morning to rain, again the uncommon sound of a heavy and continuous shower, blitzing through the early sunlight as the sun rose over the roofs of the buildings opposite with a fine mist rising up in the intense brightness. All very Hardy-esque I thought. They call it synchronicity when events and thoughts seem to coincide. It happens a lot at the Potwell Inn. The other memory to bubble up from the silt was the phrase spoken by (I think) Mrs Beetle – “This won’t buy the baby a new coat” – one of my mother’s frequent expressions.
Yesterday I glimpsed a newspaper headline suggesting that the government had decided to treat Extinction Rebellion activists as potential terrorists. I’m not much of an activist but it amuses me to think that at my ripe old age I’m finally being taken seriously as a threat to the way we do things so badly round here. Good thing too, we need to shake things up a bit if we’re going to survive – this woebegotten bobbery pack of a government can stick their fingers in their ears and shout “lah lah lah” as much as they like but it hasn’t worked in Australia and it can’t work here.
After a somewhat gloomy posting yesterday I think it’s time to put the more positive side of life forward. For instance – today we spent a few hours at the allotment, weeding and gathering dead leaves (they attract slugs). The sun was shining and as I turned the compost heap I could see that it’s thriving and aerobic in spite of the wet weather and the preponderance of green kitchen waste which makes it rather dense. But the worms don’t seem to mind and they were there in their tens of thousands. We did nothing at all to introduce worms to the heap, they just moved in and they’re doing a brilliant job of reducing everything down. We’ve put substantial amounts of cardboard in with the waste – in fact all of the cardboard packaging that comes into the flat except the stuff that looks too shiny to be true because we suspect it’s probably got a plastic coating. Biodegradable tea bags go in and quickly reduce to something that looks like slime mould. The so-called green caddy bags are very persistent and so we now take them out. I think some manufacturers think that breaking big bits of plastic into tiny bits is biodegrading – it isn’t. The other big addition is the large corrugated cardboard boxes that come with furniture and especially bicycles. We saw the larger sheets up roughly and within a week or two they completely disappear.
The only disappointment was the fact that our persistent thief has stolen one of the rat traps. We’ve lost so much stuff over the past three years we’ve racked our brains to think who it might be, and we think it’s probably the tenant who was evicted from half of our allotment because he neglected it completely. He seemed to be bearing some kind of grudge against us – I see him often in the street and he gurns at me in a knowing way as if he knows something I don’t. What is it about thieves that makes them want to make their criminality known to the victims? In a thoroughly uncharitable manner I take delight that he’s expending so much spiritual energy trying to get at us and I smile back wondering if it ever penetrates his dull brain that we know and we don’t care. We just bolt things down more carefully.
Anyway the sun was shining and that was enough to redeem the shining hour; so it was a bonus when we found a box of Seville oranges to make this year’s marmalade – that’s a job for tomorrow, I think. I’ve also got to do some baking because our grandson is putting on a cake stall at his primary school, to raise funds for the victims of the Australian bush fires – his mum’s Australian. He’s only seven years old and we’re all immensely proud of him.
The street weeds are growing about an inch a day and I’m slowly checking and double checking what’s there. With no flowers you’ve only got growth habit, leaf shape and stalk colour and shape to go on which demands a bit more detective work sometimes but saying hello to them by name makes the walk to the shops more fun. Tonight, because the sky was clear, we had an extra half hour of daylight, a lovely feeling.
The other bit of positive news is that we went through the seeds today and we’ve got enough of nearly all the chillies to get them in very soon. Seed doesn’t last forever but four varieties of chilli cost quite a bit if you’re buying them fresh, so there’s just one more to buy. Last season’s habaneros are so hot that I think we’ve got enough dried to last for years.
And finally, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I took a load of books to a local charity shop last year. They emailed me today to say that they’d sold them and raised just under £500 for the charity. I think I’ll take another batch.
‘Aye ye’ve come.’ He laughed shortly and contemptuously. ‘Dozens of ye. Hundreds of ye. Like rats to a granary. Like field mice when there’s a harvest home. And what good will it do ye? [ ….] Nowt. Not the flicker of a whisper of a bit o’ good.’ He paused and drew a long breath, then suddenly leaped from his seat and thundered at the top of his voice: ‘Ye’re all damned!’
An expression of lively interest and satisfaction passed over the faces of the Brethren, and there was a general rearranging of arms and legs, as if they wanted to sit as comfortably as possible while listening to the bad news.
And if you haven’t read Stella Gibbons’ book ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ you should, because it’s painfully funny, and a bit of a go-to remedy for a melancholic day.
It started harmlessly enough with the diplodocus that normally lives at the Natural History Museum in London, but is now on tour across Great Britain in an attempt to make museums relevant and interesting to children. When I say it’s a diplodocus (known as Dippy to avaricious merchandisers everywhere),in fact I think it’s a resin cast of the long deceased animal, and it’s presently visiting the National Museum of Wales which, as a result, was crowded with coachloads of primary school children – and very sweet they were. Indeed they stood aside at doors and said ‘thank you’ with every appearance of meaning it.
However I don’t think they’d have made much of the three exhibitions of photography upstairs. We had a pair of obsessive photographers of old pithead works, cooling towers and post industrial ruins all of which proved that we’ve moved decisively into a new age. Whether it’s a better age is a moot point, although Martin Parr’s photo of coal miners washing one another’s backs in the pithead baths was enough to suggest that the romance of the collieries was not a million miles from the romance of L’Angleterre profonde pilloried by Stella Gibbons. There was a video of some ex miners at Deep Pit being interviewed and by chance I actually spoke to one of them when we were taking a primary school trip there some years ago. He told me he hated every minute of it, and then went on to say that the best bit about the job was the camaraderie, the clubs and competitions above ground. I was taught by a generation of teachers who were the children of Welsh miners, and whose parents were adamant that their sons should not go down the pits. My father was a railwayman and he had much the same idea.
As for the pit head works, it makes me feel ancient to say that I was brought up within the South Gloucestershire coalfield. Our neighbour Mr King, who was the best allotmenteer ever, lived just up the street and I was told that he walked about eight miles to work at Pucklechurch every day, and then walked halfway back home underground before he started work. The Shortwood pit was closed before I was born but the pit shaft was still there. Today our train passed Harry Stoke, an open cast mine that was still working during my childhood; and Speedwell (closed 1930’s) and Ashton Vale (closed 1920’s) on the other side of Bristol all left their mark on the culture of the area. When I was first ordained and working in South Bristol I was taken aback that often, when I took funerals in Ashton Vale, the women would not attend the funeral service – an old mining tradition apparently.
Martin Parr’s photos – so joyous usually, had a streak of melancholy for a lost way of life running through them, and the Becher photos laid it out in all its architectural glory. It’s no accident that I so love post industrial landscapes, but whether I’d love the life is another matter. I can’t get the Parr’s photo of a group of women on a night out at a working men’s club – out of my mind. Life affirming hardly begins to describe their fearsome independence. Truly you would not pick a fight with them.
The function of the railways, of course, was to join all these industrial sites up, and notwithstanding all the electrification that’s gone on, possibly the worst way to enter any city is by railway, not least on a grey and rainy day. Slate roofs and back to back houses dominate the landscape as you approach the centre of Cardiff where the derelict patches of ground give way to a city busily reconstructing itself in concrete. For me it’s an alienating place that seems to demand a different kind of human being, one that I can’t identify with and would never want to become.
And so to the last exhibition that left me at one with Amos Starkadder and his sermon to the Quivering Brethren. The only way I can describe August Sander’s eighty photographs, taken in Germany in the period straddling the second world war is mortifying. These restrained, formal portraits, whose avowed purpose was to document Sander’s home country are a million miles from propaganda – and that’s what makes them so powerful. They are forensic, but not in an unkindly way, and when I say they include portraits of the victims of nazi persecution alongside a soldier and a member of the SS as well as the death mask of his own son who died in a nazi prison you have to wonder how Sander managed not to lose his mind. I guess they achieve exactly what he intended; a portrait of a whole country in change – and we now know what that change would bring. Simply to look at the photographs of the artists, writers and musicians who would become the objects of murderous hatred, for their race or faith and beliefs; or even simply for being creative, is to feel the chill of the possibility of it all happening again.
Did the dinosaurs see it coming? Did the miners? the farmers and chefs and intellectuals of Germany see it coming? and do we see it coming?
Enough! There are other treasures in the galleries, not least a couple of paintings by John Dickson Innes – one of my favourite painters but incredibly difficult to find. In the summer we made a pilgrimage to Machynlleth to see some, but the gallery seemed not to know where they were being stored! Oh and a lovely Cezanne landscape that was rejected by the National Gallery and also by the Tate – until Roger Fry intervened. Experts eh? Enough! – you miserable so and so, you forgot to mention the three little egrets you saw from the train just outside Newport. Surely that’s a small victory?
I’d never noticed this plant until we moved here – it’s a Saxifraga tridactylides the three fingered or rue leaved saxifrage. I first noticed it growing on our fire escape where, because it was only rooted in about 1 mm of grime, it was a tiny little plant and I thought no more of it until today when I spotted its more fortunate relative growing in a luxurious crack at the bottom of an old limestone wall. Like most pavement plants it doesn’t exactly draw attention to itself, but unlike many of its posher cousins this saxifrage is an annual, and it survives the yearly baptism of Roundup by flowering and setting seed before the man from the council gets to it. Other pavement artists survive by looking as if they are entitled to be there. The Mexican fleabane spreads because most people think it’s a daisy and therefore deserves a chance. The Canadian fleabane plays Russian roulette with the ethnic cleansers (this is a very fertile city) so sometimes it gets hit and sometimes it gets away with it. The sowthistles seem to be resistant to the sprays, so they die back respectfully and then emerge stronger than ever. Ivy leaved toadflax grows on the walls and escapes that way. Let’s be honest, this obsessive tidiness isn’t remotely necessary, and the vagrant plants add a touch of life – even to our hallowed Georgian crescents. I’m just pleased to see anything showing signs of life.
Today started with me feeling a little short of sleep. I seem to be dreaming my entire life in a more or less random manner – my mind is slowly coming to terms with the fact that at last, through the magical surroundings of the Potwell Inn, I’m safe, and so having packed up and moved here four years ago my unconscious is wrapping up the past and packing it away because it (he) knows I don’t need it anymore.
Today’s re-lived experience involved the 8 mm film I once made of the funeral of a gangster who – it was widely thought – had been thrown down a flight of stairs and murdered. The police conducted an unenthusiastic investigation that took best part of a year, but there were no witnesses, no-one was talking and, to be frank, most people thought he had it coming. I was riding behind the horse-drawn hearse when the coffin very nearly slid out on to the road because someone had forgotten to insert the bolts, and the coachman turned to me and said – “he frightened my bloody ‘oss – e’s bin in the freezer for six months”. The surreal picture of a frozen corpse rolling down the hill was an addition to life’s rich tapestry, no doubt, but I spent most of the day in barely suppressed terror.
So enough of these troubling old memories, I’m wrapping them in newspaper and sticking them in some kind of interior shed – glad to see the back of them. But there are many more, and I think I’ll be dreaming them for the foreseeable future.
The good news was that on Monday we went to an excellent talk on Giotto’s paintings in the Scrovengni Chapel in Padua – the paintings were in Padua, that is, we were in the inestimable BRLSI. In the days of our pomp, when we had two incomes; most of our half-terms (Madame is an art teacher) were spent in galleries around Europe, sometimes with school parties and sometimes alone. Now we’re retired our scope is a bit narrower and we haven’t even been to London for years, but the talk reawakened all the old excitement and I suddenly thought – ‘well we live 10 minutes walk from a main line station, why don’t we buy a railcard and book ahead to get cheap train tickets?‘ I mentioned the idea to Madame and she added Glasgow and Edinburgh to the wish list and after an hour online we had our card and our first ticket – to Cardiff for the National Museum of Wales – great place. I don’t need to drive, or worry about where to park, and we don’t need to have the obligatory row as we drive in circles when the satnav fails. It’s a win win cultural feast with extra virtue on the side for taking the train. We’re like a couple of kids in a sweet shop when we go to a good gallery.
Back on the allotment (try to keep up – we get around a bit!) I checked the traps and for the first time this week there were no rats. A little dig around the compost bin suggests that either they have moved out or there were only ever a couple of them. The heap, which has been topped up to the brim three times since October has now rotted down to about 25% of the initial volume and is ready to be turned into the neighbouring bin. Everything looks very dormant apart from the overwintering vegetables which are all doing well. The garlic that we started in pots about three weeks ago is doing particularly well and even some red onion sets that we’d given up on have thrown up their first shoots. Suddenly I’m very aware that the chilli seeds need to be sown very soon to give them a long ripening season. Next week we’ll be complaining about having no time!
My friend Rose posted to say that she’d been down to Shapwick Heath to see the murmuration of starlings there on the Somerset levels. Lucky her, we’ve not yet been but I’m sure it was awesome. We used to see murmurations over Redcliffe Church in Bristol when I was there, but I’d be surprised if that still happens now. We did, however, see a robin on the plot today. We no-diggers are a bit of a waste of time for a hungry robin, but he he may have just turned up for a chat.
They were very large, very beautiful Cox’s and we agreed – Madame Eve and me to eat a couple. Sadly what followed was not the wrath of God, or being driven out of the Potwell Inn and into the desert but just – disappointment. In fact we’ve eaten, or rather not eaten any amount of lovely looking but ultimately disgusting, tasteless and pappy fruit ripened in a nitrogen filled cold store and pimped with wax and a little union jack designed to make us feel exceptionally virtuous. Advertising and presentation, supermarket snake oil, is just the way agribusiness can fool most of the people all of the time. “Well don’t buy them!” would be a well deserved rebuke, but we still do in the hope that they might be alright after all. The fact is, almost all supermarket fruit is artificially retarded from ripening, bred with genetically enhanced armour plated skins and designed for presentation and not flavour. In our experience many fruits like apricots, mangoes and peaches will never ripen at this time of the year.
So what’s good at the moment? …. Pears. Good old cheap as chips Conference pears eaten so ripe you have to eat them like a mango, with your sleeves rolled up. Forget the exotic fruit with all its glamour and airmiles and eat pears, preferably organic ones. And then there are Seville oranges of course, to make better marmalade than you could ever buy, at a fraction of the cost, and Bramley apples. Aside from them, stick to vegetables – it’s winter – and then when the new season comes around you can swoon with delight at the sheer intensity of in-season flavour. We’re still eating squashes, greens and spuds from the allotment, and of course there’s blackcurrants, raspberries. red currants and gooseberries in the freezer. It’s really not the end of the world if we have to wait a few months before the Discovery apples come off the trees, and in any case what are jams preserves and pickles for, if not providing us with a bit of food variety during the hungry gap?
But that’s enough. What really promoted this mini tantrum was listening to the BBC Food Programme this afternoon. The subject was Spirulina – blue green algae – which, it’s manufacturers claim, is the food of the future. full of protein, vitamins, minerals and so good for you you’ll live forever. After half an hour of listening to its breathlessly excited merchandisers it slowly became obvious that it tastes filthy unless you bleach-boil it in nitric acid for two days and then separate the tasteless powder in an industrial centrifuge. Even the vitamin B12 it’s had claimed for it, turns out to be unavailable to our digestive systems. The key question, put by the presenter of the programme, was never answered and it was “do we really want to increase the amount of industrially manufactured foods we eat?” Or put more simply, if it tastes and looks filthy and can only be made palatable by industrial processing, isn’t it likely that it will then be stuffed full of artificial flavourings and texturizers before being packaged, promoted and sold back to us as as the best thing since white sliced bread?
If, like me, you’re interested in the numbers, then it looks as if you’d probably do better to eat a boiled egg: and let’s not get into the ethical arguments because it seems possible that in our anxiety about food we’re so focused on the ethics we haven’t noticed that we’ve become the new battery hens; fed dangerous untested foods, confined in dingy polluted surroundings for 15 hours a day and discarded in old age when we’re no longer productive. If you want to live a long and healthy life the best advice I’ve seen is Michael Pollan’s dictum ” …. eat food, not too much, mostly veg.”
I wrote a while ago about the fact that I hadn’t initially understood what the deep ecologists were saying when they talked about the “aquarian conspiracy”, but here’s an excellent example in the way that our go-to solution for all problems has become industrial technology. We’ll solve all the problems that confront us by inventing new technologies like carbon capture, food technology, genetic modification, fusion power – and so the list goes on. If I put myself back on the couch and articulate all these unrealised and unrealisable desires to a psychotherapist they might, if they were any good, gently probe my deeper motivations. “What are you most frightened of?” My own psychoanalytic psychotherapist once cracked the funniest joke (extremely unexpected) after I recounted a recurring dream about being shadowed by two elephants. He responded “Oh, well I’m a Freudian so they’re sex and death!”
I’m convinced that, since the collapse of religious imagery, we’ve lost the means of articulating our deepest fears about both of my dream elephants, and so issues of sexual identity and the fear of death have found new expressions in our culture. In the past these fears were managed and exploited by the God industry and converted into secular power, political influence and some nice buildings. What’s happened is that a new bunch of hucksters have stepped in to skim the profits. These days you don’t need a knowledge of ancient Greek or Latin to understand the theology; a qualification in business studies and the ability to trace the true ownership of the latest quasi artisan brand of gloop will do better. They still trade on fear; fear of death, fear of illness, fear of the loss of vitality, fear of old age or ugliness or poverty or whatever and they are ready, so very ready, to monetize that fear.
Industry knows very well how to bait the hook to catch a fish, and the hook here is often additionally baited with the climate catastrophe, environmental destruction and species extinctions. Wherever you look within the food trade you see entirely specious claims – often more implied than in your face (for fear of breaching advertising standards regulations), that eating or drinking industrial gloop will save the earth in some unspecified way. So by linking together our personal fears with our justified fear for the environment they prop up a weak argument with powerful emotions. As an example of the power of advertising, smoking no longer makes you look sexy; but it did once! – and I well remember a photocopied herbalist’s catalogue from the early 1970’s among whose testimonials were accounts of satisfied customers coughing up or otherwise passing tumours in the kind of events that would have had me running screaming to A & E. Hope and fear are powerful sales tools.
For what it’s worth, there’s more sex and death on the average allotment than you’ll see in a season of Scandi Noir, and all of it absolutely real. My own mortality and vulnerability are contextualized within the ebb and flow of nature, with the sun and rain on my back; and at the stove and the table later where food becomes sacramental rather than instrumental. There’s very little difference in tone between foodie fundamentalists and religious ones, and between them they’ve precipitated the need for saving the earth by a warped religious understanding of our place within it, and invented an impractical and ideologically distorted plan for saving it.
Saving the earth and flourishing as humans certainly needs urgent action on our part, and won’t happen without some challenging changes in the way we live, but there’s no magic bullet.
Every gift horse should have its teeth examined regularly by a qualified vet.