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.
This is going to be a very brief posting because we’ve had a long day – emptying the campervan this morning because somehow I don’t think we’ll be using it this year. The bad news was having to do it at all, but the good news was we found loads of food squirreled away in the cupboards, so less shopping (we haven’t been to the shops for over a week). Then this afternoon we went up to the allotment – we’re both concerned that the government may prevent us even from growing our own food – all because so many people have refused to comply with sensible voluntary restrictions *[we’ve just heard Johnson’s address and it looks as if we can justify driving alone to the allotment and working (exercising) as long as we don’t interact with any other allotmenteers – we shall see], but part of the urgency has been to get crops into the ground.
There’s nothing more important than keeping up morale, so tonight we had a pie that included our own leeks and purple sprouting broccoli, with tinned prunes out of the van. Very good they were too and our morale was appropriately boosted.
As promised, a few ideas on staying sane later; but first – and this isn’t a showoff, when I make a discovery, usually not remotely original or clever but just something I never figured out before, I like to share it in case someone else can use it. And so a sourdough tip. I’ve sort of known this for ages but this loaf so perfectly demonstrates the point that I’ll share it now.
Everybody loves a crusty loaf I’m sure, and most of us slash the top of our risen dough before baking. This little trick just helps you to choose what you want the crust to look like. I don’t like the kind of crust that looks a bit like a breaking wave on top of the loaf; it looks great but it’s often very sharp and can be positively dangerous to eat when it’s baked hard. In old money this is often described as a crusty or when it’s rectangular, a split loaf. I prefer the crust in the photo, it looks just as impressive in my view, but it’s less lethal to the mouth and it’s the kind of crust you get on what’s known here as a coburg. The choice between breaking wave and a smoother crust is controlled by the angle of the slash. If you want a loaf like the one in the photo – and this is a bit counterintuitive – you need to slash the dough vertically, straight into the top, as much as an inch deep. To get the wave look with the raised slash, you cut the dough diagonally at, say, forty five degrees or even less. Try it and see for yourself.
Which takes me neatly to survival mechanisms while we’re all doing our best to avoid social contact because it can be really boring stuck indoors. Why not spend some time learning to bake? If you’ve always wanted to make sourdough the best suggestion I can make is to ignore all the witchcraft and ley-line stuff about making a starter. It couldn’t be simpler, you just mix a couple of tablespoons of rye flour light or dark, doesn’t matter – with enough water, (tap water will do), to make it the consistency of double cream. Leave it uncovered for a few days in a warm place and it will start to bubble a bit. You don’t need to buy fancy starter kits because – trust me – the very air we breathe really wants you to make sourdough. And then once it’s working well – frothing up – you can throw half of the starter away or give it to a friend, top it up with a couple of tablespoons more rye flour and more water. When it comes to making the bread, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage recipe is as good as any but expect to add or subtract a little flour depending on the brand you bought. And don’t worry it’ll taste fine – don’t overbake it. I bake it in my steam oven for 10 minutes at 220C and twenty at 180C – that’s half an hour altogether, but it will differ according to your oven – that’s it. If you really want a blow by blow recipe and method, email me on the link on this page and I’ll send it.
And that was a very long winded way of saying use this unexpected gift of time to do something rewarding, because achieving a lifelong ambition really makes your day. We have a lovely breakfast each day using our own bread and preserves. We read a lot more and we tend hundreds of young plants or go to the allotment where everyone understands the 2 metres of separation rule. I can’t begin to express how a few hours of gardening can compensate for our restricted lives. The sun shone today and I was able to fill the water butts from the storage barrels. Madame sowed seeds and I planted cabbages and rhubarb chard – almost everything is under fleece because of the cold nights. We swerve between feeling optimistic and then moments of real panic at the thought of what may happen. It’s a bereavement for sure, to lose all our freedom, but the sight of so many (mostly young) people crowding the parks, markets, mountains and beaches in defiance of all the advice was a chilling sight.
My final time enriching wheeze is to play back all my botanical photos in a slideshow and try to name them all as soon as they come on-screen. I know I’m a complete propellerhead but there we are.
I think the allotments department must have had a bit of a binge last week because suddenly the site was crowded with newcomers, many of them thirty-somethings with children in tow, and some with parents and in-laws to advise as well. The sun was obviously a big factor, although there was a bitter east wind blowing across the higher parts of the site; down at the bottom we were more sheltered and soon started peeling off the precautionary sweaters and jackets. Clearly – and this is marvellous – the allotment has escaped its traditional culture and become something of a trend. Whether it’s to do with likely food shortages, the increasing interest in vegan and vegetarianism,or a turn against intensive horticulture isn’t clear, it’s probably a bit of all three.
The biggest worry is that although allotmenteering is marvellously therapeutic and healthy when everything goes according to plan, it can bring immense disappointments too; for instance the mice have just eaten the whole of our second sowing of peas. They had the first sowing too and so we’re starting the third batch under glass in root trainers while I purge the offenders. I think the whole therapeutic gardening meme deserves unpacking a bit. It shouldn’t promise instant happiness and freedom from stress because what it does far more selectively is accustom us to dealing positively with disappointment; to treat success and failure equally as imposters, as Mr Kipling said before he started the cake business. My guess is that some at least of these newcomers have very little experience of gardening. One of our new neighbours today was hacking at his very weed infested and tussocky plot in a way that’s guaranteed to bring disappointment later in the year when the newly invigorated bindweed kicks off. It’s hard to intervene when people aren’t actually asking you for advice. We should probably set up a mentoring scheme, but the men in particular as as likely to ask for help as they would ask for directions from a passer by. Why wielding a spade should engender such powerful elk-dragging feelings in young men is a mystery and so the apprenticeship often takes far longer than it need.
I think the ghastly phrase ‘self sufficiency’ has a lot to answer for. Short of inheriting 10 acres of prime mixed farmland and a private income, complete self sufficiency is a fantasy. The rest of us just have to grow what we can and buy the rest as thoughtfully as possible. Better still, accepting that we’re dependent on others as they depend on us is the foundation of human community – you know, that thing that’s not functioning very well at the moment, especially in supermarkets. Panic buying is the dysfunctional 21st century form of self-sufficiency.
Paradoxically the one thing I’d want as the first taught skill on my imaginary mentoring scheme would be digging, especially for prospective no-diggers. I watched my mother and father and my grandparents dig, long before I bought my first RHS book with those wonderful pictures of men in trilbys leaning on their spades in front of an immaculately trenched row. There’s really no easy way to get the ground ready for no-dig systems – I know because I’ve tried them all over the last 50 years – flame guns, strimming and even (wash my mouth out with salt water) – glyphosate! True, they all produce immediate results, but none of them produce more than cosmetic improvements. Get rid of the weeds by proper digging first and while you do that you’ll learn all about the depth of your soil, you can improve it by composting and break up any soil pan to improve drainage. Then – and it might take three years – you can put the spade in a car boot sale, although it’s pretty useful for lots of other jobs. You can grow things from day one as you clear the ground, but a thorough digging over as crops are harvested will help to discourage even the evil weeds like bindweed. Slow and steady is the way to go and year on year, results will improve.
My second tip would be to choose one guide rather than read a dozen books, all with different views. As time goes on you’ll find out for yourself what works. And my third tip is to invest in the best tools, seeds and plants that you can afford. Using poor tools makes hard work of any job. That’s it really.
I should say that most of us old-stagers have decided to interpret the social distancing rules as permission to do even more allotmenteering. My prediction is that this year could be a great year for allotments so long as we move the imaginary fences out a couple of metres and don’t insist on having face to face conversations. In fact I’d go further and say that local authorities ought to buying suitable land with a view to doubling or tripling the number of allotments as a contribution to the greening of the environment. Well tended allotments are highly productive and could make an important contribution to food security, biodiversity, carbon capture and – notwithstanding my earlier comments – general wellbeing.
When we first moved on to our plot the first thing I did was to repurpose some old planks we found and make a double bench. Before we turned a single spadeful we had somewhere to sit down, drink a cup of tea from the flask and plan. Sometimes our plans coincided and sometimes they didn’t but eventually we always came to a common mind. Gardening is at least 50% daydreaming, and rushing into the first plan is sure to give you backache. Just as it is with fitness training, the most important part is what’s happening when you’re not training.
The photo shows how the bench has evolved on our plot over the last four years. It’s a little piece of paradise, sheltered from the wind (and the neighbours) with a brolly and a grisly but free plastic table for picnics and potting. Everywhere was busy busy busy – it looked like a Pioneer Corps training camp today, and it filled us with pleasure.
Tomorrow I’ll write a bit more about our strategies for coping with self isolation. Meanwhile please respect the need for keeping a safe distance from older people and remember that many vulnerable people look pretty normal. Asthma, heart disease and diabetes are invisible so it’s better for everyone if we take a step or two back.
Well we’d better make a start with these early risers – just a dozen of the wildflowers – don’t say weeds – flowering this morning on the riverbank footpath. We took ourselves out for an hour in the fresh air today, fairly certain that we were maintaining our social distances in the required fashion. The only downside seems to be an increasing tendency for young people to look rather suspiciously at us as if we were causing the problem rather than being the principle victims. You can’t blame them I suppose, they’ve been repeatedly told that we stole their pensions – a bit of larceny I don’t remember at all – someone else must have taken my share! On the other hand the sight of a man crouching amongst the weeds may have led them to conclude I was about to expire and reminded them of the admirable advice in the parable of the good Samaritan, that’s to say – to pass by on the other side.
So this year I fear my botanising will be largely confined to these local wild and weedy thugs – aside from a trip to Whitefield meadow at Dyrham Park where with a bit of luck we’ll find the elusive orchid whose name I’m not even going to mention. The riverbank was reseeded with wildflower mix a couple of seasons ago, following flood prevention works, and although it looked quite pretty for a while is just didn’t look right. It was a jumble of wildflowers from quite different habitats including a few poppies. As I’ve mentioned several times I’m reading George Peterken’s marvellous book “Meadows”, (£35.00 and worth every penny), anyway he mentions in passing something that demonstrates exactly why the wildflower mix looked so wrong – there were poppies in it and poppies are arable weeds. In fact he says that there are no red flowers in flower meadows at all. I’m in no position to verify that nugget, but it sounds exactly right and completely underlined why the riverbank attempt at flower meadow flora was a bit – well, out of tune.
What’s more to the point, though, is that these expensive usurpers didn’t, probably couldn’t, last the course. They arrived in an alien environment; out came whatever passes for banjos and shotguns in the plant world, and the locals simply shouldered them out of the way as if they were old people in the queue for toilet rolls. The burdock that I was so sad to lose to the bulldozers and excavators has reasserted itself in its old home and the whole stretch of the river bank is restored to pretty much the way it used to be. Weeds! How long, I wonder, before public pressure is brought to bear on the council to get the strimmers out?
More silver linings for the family. The almost complete disappearance of tourists has led to a crisis in the holiday rental market and so suddenly, overnight, there are flats available for short term rent and our youngest son has found somewhere to live. Our middle son has just heard that the government is subsidising wages up to 80% – which will be a lifesaver in the catering industry where thousands have been laid off already.
But yesterday I spoke to our oldest, who is a teacher, and he was able to tell me about the traumas that students and teachers are experiencing when relationships that have taken years to nurture are suddenly ruptured. Young people have no idea how they will cope with the postponement of public examinations and they are quite properly distraught at being cut adrift at this crucial time in their lives, not knowing what lies before them. So he’s going to be working harder than ever to make sure they’re safe, properly fed and cared for. When you read about the schools being closed, remember that teachers aren’t going to be enjoying ‘garden leave’ but struggling to keep the show on the road. My advice is not to crack jokes about the ‘long holiday’ if you want to continue to enjoy your own!
There were crowds up at the allotment today. We were too emotionally exhausted to do much but the weather looks fine for tomorrow so we’ll have a day with as little stress as possible. To adapt a quote from Churchill, who seems to be on everyone’s’ lips at the moment –
The government can always be relied upon to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else!
Thank you, by the way, Ms Woolf, for the image. At last I have a space to work in – as opposed to the corner of a desk in a lumber room. The trouble is, its principal function seems to be a place to worry in. The piano left the building yesterday morning. Three removal men (is there a description for removal men that doesn’t include the word ‘burly’? – probably not I fear, it sort of goes with the territory); so three men of assorted sizes but all very strong, turned up at the crack of 10.00am and made lightish work of maneuvering a full sized music school upright piano out of the flat and down three flights of stairs. Three men, all Brummies: two of them tea with two sugars and the other coffee, also with two sugars. Three men, only one of whom qualified for the triple whammy as burly, cheerful and Brummie, and the other two with diminishing amounts of the first two qualities. I think it was one of those bizarre encounters fuelled by the British class system that ensured that everyone was looking down on everyone else. Final score, real world – three points; bookish and weird – two points. We all parted amicably; me with a room of my own and them with a substantial amount of cash, as they were doing a foreigner. (You can Google the term – it’s Midlands slang). Madame and me were talking about it afterwards and we agreed that we’d achieved the supreme paradox of both marrying beneath ourselves.
Needless to say, the unofficial and unelected chairperson of the Tenants Association – which hasn’t met since we moved here – found time to harangue them about possible damage to the walls, (which there wasn’t). Meanwhile the cleaner was lamenting the fact that she was being told either to work at night (less chance of meeting anyone) or lose her contract, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
And so the rest of the day was spent in rearranging the furniture, shredding old documents and throwing others away, and afterwards curating the books in my unique version of the Dewey system. Books I’m actually using at eye level alongside me, arranged by subject and all the rest somewhere else – but no more crawling under tables.
Meanwhile the bad news was leaking in like a faulty drain. One son’s job has gone up in smoke leaving him with no money because he’s neither sick, nor redundant nor unemployed but surplus to a business with no customers and big borrowings. We watched the news conference given by the Spaffer in Chief waiting to see if anyone in government was concerned about anything except businesses but they didn’t say a word about the people who work (or no longer work) in pubs and restaurants. There are probably tens of thousands of workers in this situation but hey! So a family with three children, one needing constant care because of a genetic disorder is thrown into potential disaster
Our youngest is still clinging to his job in the same business, but he’s between flats and he’s discovered his (ex) flatmate has has been stealing the rent and council tax money and hiding the resulting letters from banks and bailiffs. So he’s sofa surfing now. Our only properly solvent son was promoted two days before the Spaffalogue announced the school closures and so he’s become second in command of a large academy just as the shitstorm breaks. He said that members of the management team were in tears yesterday when the enormities of trying to feed and protect their most vulnerable children had to be confronted. We allowed ourselves half an hour outside the flat to collect our artworks from the exhibition which has closed prematurely
We are stretched. Madame went to the supermarket at 8.00am in the hope of finding something on the shelves but the locusts had swept through during the unobserved pensioners hour. If anyone dares to mention the spirit of the blitz to me I’ll scream. It’s everyone for themselves and let the weak go to the wall. Strangely, the worry feels completely different from anything we’ve ever experienced before. We’re floating in a surreal state almost like we’ve been sedated, leaving us conscious and cooperative – but with every piece of bad news flattened out. The anger won’t seem to come – perhaps my ever vigilant superego has declared a state of emergency somewhere inside.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man” they say. Oh not Spaffer ……. please – not Spaffer!
It’s a sad day because my piano for – I guess – about twenty years is about to be collected and driven up to Birmingham for our son. I bought it because I began (almost accidentally) trying to run a church music group where everyone else was a better musician than I was. I was a moderate but very rusty acoustic guitarist and a half reasonable singer but apart from guitar notation I couldn’t read music. My critics, and there were many of them, voted mostly with their feet when I tried to introduce new music to the church, but enough of them remained to fight a guerilla war with me and the musicians and ensure that there was a constant supply of scorn and hostility on offer. The only alternative was to get better at what we were doing and so initially I got some proper guitar lessons and when I was on top of that instrument I bought the piano and found a teacher. Actually I had two teachers – the first, Bryn, was a lovely man who would reminisce about his days playing the piano at strip clubs and how his dad was a star at the local pub but only ever played on the black notes because he reckoned it was impossible to play a dud chord whatever notes you hit. Hmm ….
My second teacher, David, was a brilliant musician, composer and choir director who would rap my knuckles with a ruler when I made daft mistakes. I never became a real pianist but I learned to read enough music to resolve most of the disputes that arose in the band. I took a couple of courses in music theory at the university too, and as the music group grew I taught myself to conduct and, ‘though I say it myself, we were pretty good for a bunch of amateurs and we had a lot of fun too.
Sad to say, since I retired and we moved here to Bath, I haven’t sung at all and the music has slipped away. Our flat is in a cast concrete box and so sound travels very easily. Piano practice is repetitive, noisy and downright antisocial so the lid has remained closed and the music is in my head. Bach has been a great consolation. Meanwhile my tiny study has become a pit and so after a clear out of books I knew I wasn’t going to read (I’ve more than replaced them with new books) the piano is the next thing to go and today when the removers leave I’m going to turn the desk around so I can look out of the window at last, and I’ll be able to get to the shelves that I’ve had to crawl under the desk to reach.
So a bittersweet moment to contemplate, but with months of incarceration to face, it makes sense. Yesterday we heard a commotion outside on the green, and about fifty gulls (lesser black backed) were circling around in a highly agitated state. Then we caught sight of a man down on the green who was flying a falcon – a Harris Hawk I’m pretty sure. The gulls surrounded it and harried it from a distance but the hawk was having none of it, nonchalantly perching in the trees for a breather and then setting off to menace them once more. I guess this is a new council attempt to discourage these visitors who make the most tremendous racket during the breeding season, and tear open rubbish bags, spreading their maggotty contents across the streets. It was wonderful to watch the hawk working.
Outside the streets are uncannily quiet and the supermarkets are struggling to cope. Our son’s partner was almost elbowed to the floor in Waitrose yesterday as the middle classes fought over the toilet paper. Later she witnessed a fierce argument at the checkout when one customer was not allowed to buy two four roll packs when the customer behind was allowed to buy sixteen in a pack. This morning I got a rebuke from Facebook for posting a completely innocuous photo of a joker in a hazmat suit because it ‘breached their community standards’ – I’d copied it from an online newspaper so I guess they’re a little behind the curve in their attempts to stifle discussion. These are strange times – I hope we’ll be able to get up to the allotment later today, I’m going stir crazy already.
If I had to spend the next three or four months staring at a wall I wouldn’t mind too much if it was this one at the Lost Gardens of Heligan. However that’s not going to be possible so it’s the magnolia – no, not the tree, the emulsion paint. We don’t actually feel very vulnerable, but everyone, from our children to the Spaffer in Chief keeps telling us both that we are and so I suppose we must be.
Our individual vulnerability isn’t confined to the prospect of becoming infected with coronavirus, although that would be bad enough, because the effects on our whole society will be much worse. In the last 24 hours two of our three sons have discovered that they’ll probably lose their jobs and in one case his home – they’re both chefs and one of them has three children, one of whom is exceptionally vulnerable due to a genetic disorder. Our third son is working around the clock to try to mitigate the effects of school closure on the most vulnerable children; those who will go hungry, those in violent and abusive homes, those who are self-harming and need daily support – not to mention trying to arrange effective home education for all the others. The National Health Service is coming rapidly to resembling the scenario of MASH (you have to be old to get the reference), and meanwhile our deep dependence on Europe is about to be demonstrated as the lockdowns in France, Italy and Spain cut off the source of much of our fresh produce – and now it seems possible that we shall be trying to keep the family show on the road with one income, two pensions and two allotments which have yet to produce any substantial crops because it’s so early in the season. Even the words “I told you so” taste like ashes in the mouth; there’s little comfort – even in anger.
And so we do the calculations of profit and loss here at the Potwell Inn. We’re pretty much confined to the flat except that we intend to carry on driving up to the allotment where we can self isolate quite effectively while we exercise as per government fiat. Our travel plans are all cancelled for the time being because we’re not supposed even to drive over to the campervan. We’ve booked weekly deliveries from the supermarket for the next month and we’ll rely on the boys for any other supplies. On the plus side I’ve assembled all the books and information I need and so my ‘staying sane’ project – apart from the allotment – is to try get my head around the National Vegetation Classification (NVC) system – not all of it but just the grassland sections. Meadow Foxtail – I’ve got you in my sights, and when we eventually get back out into the fields I hope, at last, to be able to nail the grasses.
There are so many wall-based metaphors I could use here: ‘going to the wall’, ‘turning to the wall’, ‘hitting the wall’ ‘going up the wall’ and they all have their applications within the Potwell Inn. This quote from Lenin was re-posted by a friend this morning.
“there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen.”
Perhaps this is the moment, the turning point when we take stock of our place on the earth, of our fragility; the ephemeral nature of our individual lives and of the related and hubristic ideologies that have brought us to the point where nothing seems to be working any more. The economic system has been exposed as a Ponzi fraud, food security is demonstrably broken, health and social care are collapsing and the earth is gripped by an environmental crisis. The Spaffer in Chief and his courtiers have taken to the beaches. In previous generations anyone who believed himself to be the reincarnation of Winston Churchill would have been sectioned and looked after in a secure hospital, but enthroned among the union flags, they have commanded the tide to turn. The tide is not minded to obey the commands of any man.
Is there cause for hope? There’s always cause for hope but it lives within human community, love, mutual respect and cooperation, not grandstanding and complacent talk of strong government. Yes we feel vulnerable – for our family this could be a calamity – so we’ll get our heads down and give it everything we’ve got because that’s what the Potwell Inn is all about. But when it’s all over things will have to change.
– but they certainly show that summer’s on the way. Sorry, by the way, for the lamentable joke but I’m cheering myself up because I’ve just discovered that we’re about to be subjected to house arrest for no greater crime than being over 60. Even worse, we’re being told that we’ll probably be ‘let go’ by the NHS in favour of the more economically active. They say it’s for our own good that we’re being sequestered, but I’m suspicious. Being made to feel lonely, marginalized and unwanted isn’t that great, but I think I’ll be alright because I’m so angry I’ll survive anything just for the pleasure of being there when the day of reckoning comes for this government, and meanwhile I’ll spend the time studying plants in the concentrated sabbatical I’ve always longed for.
The biggest worry is that we’ll be unable to maintain the allotment unless someone among the brain dead realizes that growing our own food is like going on a very lengthy shopping trip. Otherwise I’ll buy some night-sight goggles, put on my darkest clothes and garden secretly, in the dark – there are only a handful of police left on duty now in the whole city (post austerity) so it’ll probably be alright and I’ll be able to defend the allotment against the people who see a bit of illegal grazing as perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. Our neighbour once had all his pumpkins stolen a few days before hallowe’en.
The good news is in the photo – the asparagus is coming up. Actually, there’s been something to eat every day – not enough to keep us alive, but enough to keep us cheerful. There are still broccoli, leeks and chard and the hotbed is charging along so we’ll soon have some salad veg. I don’t think I’ve seen mention of this, but the complex reaction that keeps a hotbed going does need keeping moist, and we find that occasional watering invariably sends the temperature up by a few degrees 24 hours later.
Having time to calibrate the greenhouse drippers will pay off I’m sure, and by the time the warm spring weather comes and the plants are moved out of the flat, the whole system should work without too much intervention from us. We’ve got food deliveries booked three weeks ahead and our youngest lives near enough to pick up fresh food and keep an eye on things; our middle son is an allotmenteer (on another site), our neighbours are a great bunch and our oldest son has got the whole family connected for video calls, so we’re very fortunate.
George Peterken’s nook “Meadows” is a delight as well. I have to read it with the laptop, a couple of floras and a notebook to hand because it’s that rich, but every chapter feels like a long rewarding walk and brings back happy memories of botanical expeditions we’ve enjoyed and intend to enjoy again when we get parole.
I had a colleague who was once involved in a deadful car crash. He was driving on a dual carriageway when he suddenly saw a BMW upside down and in the air, flying towards him. He said it was so completely unexpected he simply couldn’t process the information and try to take evasive action. That’s what this coronavirus outbreak is beginning to feel like here in the UK. The absence of any compassion, intellectual heft or even basic organisation by the government is terrifying.
OK so – if you examine that statement from every angle it might look smarter than I intend. I do know my place, after all I’ve lived in it for most of 73 years, my speech is inflected with its dialect and there’s not much of it I haven’t walked, cycled, driven or tried to grow things in at some time or another. I recognise a respectable amount of its wildlife in a thoroughly non-professional way, and I know most of its history. So I know my place; I’m hefted to the area around two rivers, the Avon and the Severn, and to the land west of the Cotswolds and north of the Mendips.
And so by extension I know a lot less about many other areas that I love just as passionately, especially the far western parts of England and Wales, but they’ve been holiday romances rather than family. I make lists of plants, watch birds and animals and always come back refreshed and inspired. I’m an amateur, a bit of a peasant, an autodidact, living an inch from the edge of a howler, an intruder into the VIP lounge of proper (whatever that’s supposed to mean!) experts. And so reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral” has been a big struggle because I know, even with my street wisdom, that there’s something wrong with his argument – I just don’t quite know what it is. There’s porridge in the radiator, gear oil in the sump and quite a bit of well disguised filler in the bodywork and notwithstanding the good looks on the forecourt I know it’s a wrong ‘un.
I’ve been reading it restlessly, on and off. I shout at it, slam it shut, double check the data. I managed to struggle through the first couple of chapters, although I found some of the tales of superhuman derring do – paddling six miles out to sea in a kayak – running twenty miles before breakfast with a young Masai man, dodging bullets in a Brazilian mining settlement – well, a bit desperate. The beatific visions and revelations of true nature were a touch too Ignatian for me, and I was just waiting for the wrestling with bears bit so I could just accept it as a fictional ‘coming of middle age’ narrative . The picture of Vladimir Putin on a horse kept floating into my mind.
But when he kicked off on the so-called Cambrian desert I had to race to the laptop. Where is this scene of dereliction and abandonment overrun by malignant sheep and even more malignant Welsh hill farmers? A quick check on the BSBI website turned out to be difficult because reorganised boundaries have rendered the vice county list a bit impenetrable. Powys, for instance, includes bits of Montgomeryshire *(VC47), Radnorshire (VC43), Brecknockshire – Breconshire if you’re English – (VC42) and a bit of Denbighshire (VC50) and the Cambrian Mountains also embrace some of Ceredigion(VC46) and Carmarthenshire(VC44). That’s a lot of lists, but checking them all I couldn’t see even one of them with a significantly lower number of plant species; but I could see that there were quite a few rarities in amongst them. Even from my own scant knowledge I know that there are irreplaceable habitats there, bogs, mires and wetland areas. The road between Tregaron and Abergwesyn seemed to me, when I first drove it, a paradise. And what on earth is he suggesting when he writes in the same chapter that there were no birds? He seems to have set out with a self imposed vision of a despoiled land, and exercised iron discipline on himself to exclude any evidence to the contrary. The red kite, thank goodness, is now as common as medieval hill towns in Provence – who’d have thought it? I stopped reading when the book started to make me feel fearful.
But I know my place, and I can’t offer anything approaching a sensible review of the book from a more experienced perspective. I know it’s a contested area of thought and I’m slowly trying to catch up after decades of the more (dare I say) piles and varicose veins side of spirituality that is the life of an almost extinct species of country parson. So I searched through the original reviews, found some hiding behind paywalls, but some more that shared at least a few of my misgivings and then I stumbled on this blog by Miles King which has a review written with far more authority and expertise than I’ll ever have, and which I’ve found invaluable. I realize I’ve been rather harsh, but we’re in a crisis and what we need, more than anything else, is to follow the facts on the ground even if they contradict (especially if they contradict) our presuppositions and prejudices. Making up ‘facts’ to advance an opinion is morally wrong and – at the moment – dangerous because it hands ammunition to the enemy who will use exactly the sort of logical contradictions that abound in “Feral” to attack the whole project.
So I’m going to put the book back on the shelf now because I’ve just got hold of “Meadows” by George Peterken whose lecture we went to a while ago at Bath Nats. In the midst of a crisis there’s no time for a canonical literature to emerge, no place yet for the final word or the revealed truth, but there are enough half-baked ideas out there to furnish a lifetime of village flower and produce shows. “Meadows” looks to me to be a better bet if I want to find out what’s really going on and what we might have to do about it. There are plenty of elephants in the room already without parachuting them into Powys.
these are all vice-county lists of plants found in the designated areas and maintained by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland
Outside on the green, the buds on the trees are swelling, lending a faint green haze to the view, although the hawthorn is well ahead of the pack. Not the least reason for celebrating the leaves is that they obscure the riverside housing developments which are not only thoroughly ugly but also poorly built – so much so that after only four years many of these ludicrously expensive buildings are having missing fire protection and non existent waterproof membrane installed at vast expense (I hope) to the developers and even vaster inconvenience to the residents. Of course many of the Georgian buildings we so admire these days were thrown up in much the same kind of speculative fever, but at least they look good from the outside.
Enough of that, though, because as we approach the equinox, seeds sown during late winter and raised in the propagators are now demanding better lodgings, and like teenage children they have to be accommodated within our rather small flat. Each year at this time we get the camping tables out, one in front of each south facing window, and they rapidly fill with small plants. Every few weeks they need potting on into even bigger pots, and long before mid-May when we can put plants like tomatoes, chillies, courgette and peppers straight into the ground, we’re struggling to find space for them all. When removal day finally arrives the flat seems uncannily empty, but at least then we can change the early window boxes for their summer equivalents.
The kitchen doubles up nicely as a potting shed but the competition for space is fierce and so this year I’m fixing up the greenhouse to house a dozen trays of the plants as they slip off the end of the production line. It probably doesn’t sound much, but the allotment rules only allow a six by four structure; a rule that’s generally honoured in the breach by our neighbours but it’s a more manageable size for two of us. Incredibly, few of the bigger greenhouses are ever used to their capacity and almost every autumn we see a few over ripe tomatoes clinging to tinder dry brown foliage, roasting in the sun. It’s amazing how the enthusiasm of Easter fades as the season progresses.
Some kind of pattern finally establishes itself for us. It takes a season or two to adjust to the land and to our own needs, for instance we know we need to grow fifteen outdoor (blight resistant) cordon tomatoes to keep us in sauces through the year. In addition we need a handful of salad tomatoes, and a surprisingly large number of roots – ready for winter. We’ve cut down on potatoes, and this year we’re focusing on our favourite earlies. A couple of courgettes are more than enough, and we need more borlotti beans.
Last year we discovered, much to our surprise, that the aubergines and peppers and the less fierce chillies actually preferred it outside. We made far too many pickles, more than even our hungry extended family could help us consume, and so a single gherkin plant would probably do. Which brings us to the big economic question – is it cheaper to buy plants or sow seeds? Well, packets of F1 hybrids often only contain 10 seeds, but if you only want a couple of plants, it might be cheaper to buy them at the garden centre because they don’t last forever and they may not be viable after five years. The advantage of growing from seeds is access to a far wider range of varieties, but plants are professionally reared and get you going quicker. I don’t think there’s an answer except to put in a word for open pollinated and saved seed. With a little care, and once you’ve discovered what goes really well on your own patch, this is free source, and sometimes seed will even adapt to your precise environment and soil – just as potatoes and maize have done in South America.
Weatherwise, it’s been continuing in much the same pattern; a day of sunshine and a week of rain, even sleet today. The south west of the UK is fairly mild and they’ve had it much worse further north, but we’ve seen freak frosts and even flurries of snow as late as May.
I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral”. I’ve had it on the shelf for ages and made a start several times but put it aside because I found it – dare I say – a bit intense. This time I soldiered through the first couple of chapters and I think, at last, I can see where he’s going with it and so I’ve sealed my intent to finish it with a bookmark. More to follow, then.