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.
A year ago last September I wrote a very short piece on harvesting borlotti beans . To be honest it wasn’t Proust, but I think a link must have been posted on someone else’s site because that single post has had more views than anything else I’ve ever written. Maybe it’s just one reader who’s developed a pathological interest in that posting, or perhaps it’s lots of people wondering to do with their beans, but whatever it is, the keyword ‘borlotti’ seems to have some magic effect on the stats.
And so just over a year later, and in the great cycle of allotment life, we’ve just picked the beans again. This year we were so overwhelmed with other good things to eat that we left the borlotti on the vines to ripen and dry, so we’ll have a supply during the winter. They’re relatively easy to grow in the UK, but like most legumes they’re big feeders and they need regular watering. Growing beans for storage always seems a bit of a risk because the difference between a basket of beans in their pods and the resulting pile of shelled beans can seem like a poor return on time and space. The good news is that when you soak them overnight they double in size; you never need that many in a single meal, and they’re such a wonderfully flavoured source of nutrients – especially their protein and fibre levels. A meal with beans needs little extra carb rich ‘padding’.
But the bean harvest always coincides with a kind of equinoctial shift of consciousness in the kitchen. As the salad crops diminish, the roots and winter veg step up to the table with their very different flavours and qualities. Even having eschewed potatoes in our diet (William Cobbett would have approved!) there’s not much that beats roasted roots, even if they need cautious portioning. The default winter diet is more suitable for a peasant working out in all weathers than someone who spends their time in front of a screen, and that’s fine by us because we’re allotment peasants in any case. The compost reached 60C this week; but only as a result of regular turning, and since a full bin weighs about a ton, I claim my Fitbit Peasant’s badge.
So here we are with the last of the abundant tomato harvest bottled in various forms; in passata, sauces, and oven dried in oil. It’s a full time job. There are jams and preserves – the bottled figs look irresistible – and yesterday I preserved the last of the aubergines in olive oil. There are chillies fermenting away in the larder but no pickles or chutneys this year because we haven’t finished the last lot. The good news is that they go on improving for several years before the decline sets in and you wonder what on earth they might have been. Does this sound like a man on a diet? My word, the temptation is killing me!
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – I’m eternally grateful to my grumpy teachers for punishing me by making me memorise Shakespeare and loads of poems. Any apparent literacy in my past life has flowed from my disruptive schooldays. So thanks Mr Keats, and you were right – the mellow fruitfulness extends to my mind too and this is the season when I love standing at the stove, dreaming up dishes I once read about and conjuring memories of great evenings.
The new harvest of borlotti necessitated eating up the last of the stored dried beans and my greedy mind turned to a cassoulet. There was no confit duck in the Potwell Inn larder, so I used fresh duck legs and added some of my favourite confit spices – some allspice, mace and juniper all add a bit of winter warmth. It’s there in the oven now, beans, pancetta, a bit of chorizo and half a bottle of opened passata from the fridge, and the usual onions, celery, carrots and lots of garlic – cooking for about eight hours at just over 100C – I can’t wait: it makes approaching winter seem almost tolerable.
But it’s also the time of year when I start lusting after bits of kitchen equipment – this year it’s a new sauté pan. Before we retired we invested in a set of heavyweight pans but they had a non stick finish which, by now, is showing signs of breaking down – even though we only use plastic and wood implements. But I have a big 3 ply stainless roasting tin and it’s both heavy and bombproof and, amazingly, so hard it’s possible to use metal tools (carefully). After five years the working surface is as good as new, and releases burnt on and caramelized gunk with just a stiff brush. Like Oscar Wilde, I can resist anything except temptation and I’ve googled ‘3 ply stainless sauté pan’ so often that now it’s almost the only annoying pop-up advertisement on my laptop. In the twisted logic of the panstruck cook, I tell myself that it’s inevitable I’ll get it in the end – so why not now, this very minute, you know it makes sense ……. and even more terrifying I heard a little voice in my head suggesting that it would see me out. Probably when Madame hits me over the head with it for being extravagant!
Meanwhile as the 10,000 calorie supper gathers strength in the oven, we’ve forsworn anything except half a kipper and green tea until supper time by which time we’ll be fainting. We know how to suffer for our art at the Potwell Inn.
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
I want to start with a verse from John Donne’s 17th century poem in order to work together two threads of an argument towards a green spirituality; not a particularly ambitious attempt – which would require many more threads, but to try to lay down some markers for myself and for anyone who’s interested to read my post. Hopefully there are one or two out there in the darkness!
The significance of Donne’s meditation on our connectedness with all human life was never more significant than it is today, when it’s so under threat. The second thread, though, concerns time; our understanding of it and the way that understanding shapes our lives.
I watch the television (my grandfather always called it ‘the idiot’s lantern’ – although he was the first person in his Chiltern village to own one because he was also an inveterate early adopter. There are phrases and ideas that come up over and over again on TV – so often, in fact, that they take up residence in our minds as a dreadful kind of common sense. ‘Taking control’ is probably a good idea if you’re a passenger in a speeding car when the driver has just collapsed – but if it comes to be applied in every aspect of your life it’s a thoroughly bad one. My favourite example of this perfidious lunacy is the idea of taking control of the covid virus – after you Boris! If we really want to take control of something it makes sense to consider whether control is appropriate or even possible. King Canute demonstrated his limited powers by sitting in the path of the oncoming tide and ordering it to stop. Point taken, then. In nature, taking control can be delusional.
‘Because I’m worth it’ is another one. Why anyone except an idiot would consider that their personal appetites should override any other consideration demands an explanation. What both popular phrases demonstrate is what happens when we stray from John Donne’s insight that we stand or fall together. We are either a part of the human race in our whole lived experience, or we have become parasitic grazers of experiences that please us.
So let’s insert this dangerous selfish gene into the DNA of another idea, the idea of time. Boldly put, is the unfolding of time a kind of line that begins with the big bang and ends when the sun runs out of heat? In a sense that’s undeniable, but the timescale over which it happens is so vast as to be beyond our understanding. There are more pressing problems at hand than the cooling of the sun in millions of years time, because our concern has to be whether the earth becomes a barren wilderness within a few hundreds of years. The ultimate fate of the earth becomes an almost metaphysical argument when it’s compared with the extinctions that are pressing upon us.
The limited argument here is that ‘taking control’, ‘because I’m worth it‘, and similarly superficial slogans, have become a default defence for the destruction of the environment.
Never mind about these temporary worries, we’ll soon find a fix and we’ll all march together into Canaan where there will be food for everyone and we’ll all live forever in magic houses where robots do everything for us.
There should be a mea culpa at this point from Christian theologians for inadvertently providing the ideological weaponry for our troubles; and yes, I have read St Francis and Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhardt and Matthew Fox and all the others, but sadly they were always outsiders. Mainstream theology focused on sin, redemption and getting into heaven – popularly known as ‘pie in the sky when you die’. The idea of challenging the status quo, right here and right now, so often landed up being trumped by the thought that it didn’t much matter in the end because this miserable life was a bit naff unless you were a bishop. To put it in more academic terms, the theory of evolution plus Christian eschatology (the doctrines of the ultimate ‘last things’) leads into a linear mindset that (when the religious impulse fails) supports an ideology of endless progress towards the perfect society. It’s an entirely instrumental view of life without a shred of validity or vitality and with more in common with Marx than it does with the future of the earth.
So let’s oppose this linear, instrumental view of life with something very different. It’s worth doing this, I think, because trying to oppose the extractive ideology of the present day by offering counter facts doesn’t seem to work. The government say fracking is a great idea because we (actually it should be they) get lots of free fuel. We put up all the scientific arguments against, but nobody is listening and no-one is changing their mind because they’ve got too much invested in the way we do things round here. The agents of destruction don’t believe what they do because they are in possession of a different set of facts which we can alter by offering some better ones. They are able to do these things because their entire worldview is contained within a powerful culture. ‘Because they’re worth it‘ means they have every right to ‘take control’ because that is the law that flows from their understanding of nature.
For all practical purposes the fullest human lives are lived in a more cyclical manner. What I’m getting at is that we’ll never change the world by only pursuing counterarguments. It’s important that we carry on arguing but it’s a hopeless task because we’re always fighting on their linear, instrumental turf. They offer facts, we offer counterfacts and they offer counter-counter facts and someone says ‘lets’ set up an enquiry’ and before it’s finished deliberating for a couple of decades the lights have gone out and it’s ‘goodnight Irene’.
Putting aside the inevitability that the earth will one day perish, (because it’s always better to deal with the proximate danger first); opens up the possibility of arguing that because the inglorious moment of the last instance is so inconceivably far away, that we can forget the idea that there will be a cunning plan someday soon and adopt a radically different notion of passing time.
So what if we were to engage people by living better? Instead of inhabiting this linear worldview where there’s always something better just down the road that never arrives; the ship that never ‘comes in’: we could choose to incorporate and live out the polarities, the cycles and rhythms that have sustained the earth and all her ecosystems over millennia and would continue to do so for millennia more if we only let them? Let’s not fight just with facts, let’s change perspectives because once we’ve changed someone’s perspectives their collection of facts will have to change too because they don’t work any more.
I think it’s fair to argue that when I look at the sun rising in the morning, I can be sure that if I were around in twenty million years time it would still look much the same. The cooling down of the sun is slow slow slow. But global extinction is fast. The earth is finite – just like us. The earth has her cycles and seasons; the moon has hers too drawing up and releasing the tides. The seasons were once beautifully represented in the Christian liturgical year – it’s all gone now, but Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, Pentecost, Harvest, Remembrance and – finest of all – Ordinary Time – all reflected the rhythms of the earth and our own lived experience of feast and famine, joy and sorrow; the sadness of loss and bereavement and the witnessing of new life in the fields and in our homes. We’ve lost the ability to dream our dreams and sing our songs. This is absolutely not an appeal to get back to the local tin tabernacle for a prayer and a bollocking but it is an appeal to consider our humanness as essentially sacramental rather than instrumental. The will to fight for the environment is, (to pinch a phrase from the evangelicals), better caught than taught, and there is an alternative that we can communicate in its lived form, rather than belittling people’s innocently acquired beliefs with angry counter-arguments.
We grow food because it is in our nature to grow things and it teaches us gratitude and humility. We love to eat together because we are essentially creatures of community. We care for one another; the old, the young and the sick because that’s where our humanity grows. We can build on core values like joyfulness, gratitude, openness and – dare I say – thriftiness; and the greatest benefit of living sacramentally is that it’s completely sustainable because that’s the nature of earth, and we can live in peace rather than in violence and greed because in the end, any other way of life is self-defeating.
Of course some will say this is idealistic nonsense, and the favoured trap, laid especially for us, is fear. “It’s all so complicated” we’re taught to think – “we don’t even know where to start; what happens if it goes wrong; better the devil you know etc etc …..”. But the choice isn’t between the groundhog day of eternally repetitive cycles – peasant life, in fact; and the pursuit of technological dreams that are destroying the earth. Sacramental life is endlessly creative; no two seasons are the same any more than any two people are identical. Nothing in nature’s cycles precludes innovation and change for the better. It’s a way of life forged in music, songs and stories, dancing, drama and pictures. The only limiting factor is that we must stop laying waste to the environment simply because we were taught to believe that we’re worth it. In fact we’re worth much more. We’ve seen the enemy – it’s us.
So yesterday I completed the new raised strawberry bed in a bit of a rush because the weather forecast was predicting a week of rain. It was in the same place as the two glass cold frames that were stolen last year, so I just used the same board foundations. However, the business end – ie. the new planting surface – is about two feet higher than the old frames, and the idea of simply burying all that topsoil was too much to bear (about £150 to replace) so I dug it out, down to the subsoil, and moved the good stuff on to two nearby beds. I’ve got a bit of a ‘thing’ about never wasting soil. When we moved on it was very poor after years of neglect, and covered with not one but two layers of buried carpet. The official description of the soil is ‘clay loam’ but that hardly described the waterlogged and claggy mess that we inherited. The previous owner had assured us that the ground was hopeless and nothing would grow on it – but he’d failed to investigate beyond the top three or so inches, so he never figured out why it was so bad. We’ve also got two underground streams running through the middle and along one edge of the plot, so you can see that soil management became the number one priority.
When building an allotment on quite a steep slope as ours is, terracing is the obvious answer. Initially we dug deep trenches to form the wood chip paths which function (quite successfully) as drains, and threw the topsoil up on to the beds, so it’s hardly rocket science to point out that left us with rather sunken ‘raised beds’. Over the last four years we’ve added tons of compost, brought in topsoil, leafmould and, in the wettest places, agricultural sand and gravel to increase the depth and improve drainage; and the upshot is that every ounce of topsoil has become precious, with nothing ever going off site. Now, after four years, the beds are level and uniformly deep (a full spit and more of rich dark earth) and we’ve managed to steer a middle path between too much and too little drainage. The driest areas are at the bottom of the plot where the retaining boards are 18″ deep and the drainage must be quite fierce.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and without any intention of conducting an experiment, Madame recently shoved a few desperately weedy looking Swiss chard plants into one of the plots because there was a space, and they just roared away. Now they look like veg catalogue supermodels. The empty strawberry bed is waiting for me to dig out the new pond, and all the subsoil from the big hole will go into the base of the raised bed where we’ll cover it with a layer of woodchip, followed by a mixture of compost, topsoil and sand. I’ve heard experts say that woodchip increases acidity and locks up nitrogen, disrupting fertility for ages. They also say that leaf mould does much the same thing and I can only respond by saying – not in my experience. Wood chip rots down pretty quickly on the paths, and whenever I dig into it I always find an abundance of earth worms in the degraded layer. As for leaf mould, the soil is hungry and will consume all the leaf mould we can produce. Indeed when we moved on we covered several of the beds with six inches of leaves straight off the trees and covered them with sheeting. By the spring they’d all disappeared, taken down by the worms, and the soil texture was greatly improved. If I put on my potter’s hat for a moment, leaves and wood from different species all have different chemical characteristics and Chinese potters exploited this to control their glazes – some leaves rot fast and others don’t. It’s life’s rich tapestry and the lignin in the leaves is the resistant residue that does wonders for soil structure. In our experience both wood chip and leaf mould make excellent mulches; they don’t however, add much by way of fertility so plants still need compost and any other food you care to use. The exception might be raw seaweed, straight off the beach and, stinky though it may be, rots down quickly and adds some very valuable minerals to the soil. In the photograph top left, beyond the stolen cold frames is the asparagus bed. It produced so freely in the summer that we (almost) got fed up with eating it. But that too needs lots of compost and a good mulch. Two years ago we brought an enormous sack of seaweed back and mulched the bed and the asparagus and the soil both loved it. The bed was so smelly when we spread the seaweed that our neighbour packed up and went home.
There’s no magic ingredient or secret recipe, heritage variety or anything else you can market that makes good produce. It’s about soil.
Press here for the politics!
The soil is the beginning and the end of it all. When I look at some of the impoverished stony waste that much industrially farmed land has become and watch farmers struggling to force one more harvest out of it with ever more powerful chemicals, I’m sad rather than angry. Having worked in rural parishes for 25 years I grew to admire and respect the farmers I knew, even though I profoundly disagreed with the path they’d taken. It was the British government that started the madness during and after the war by driving productivity at the expense of everything else. Industrial chemical manufacturers were left with nothing to sell after the use nerve gases was banned and so they repurposed their factories and their research departments to make insecticides and herbicides. Then the supermarkets bludgeoned the farmers into a downward spiral of land abuse and falling prices aided by industry lobbyists acting as advisers. Finally the CAP made everything even worse by subsidising quite the wrong things. How did this all happen without a fuss? Well maybe the way in which government ministers are offered ludicrous amounts of money to work a few hours as corporate ‘advisors’ in these industries when they leave government has something to do with it. It’s not corrupt in the most direct sense. Nobody is suggesting that the big companies actually bribe government ministers, but surely the prospect of huge corporate earnings after a career in parliament, acts as an incentive not to annoy the future paymasters? In the case of the defense industry it’s even easier – you just let them drive a tank and they’re yours forever!
In the end, as the Ash Wednesday ceremonies have it – we are dust and to dust we’ll return -glorious, holy, space dust (you don’t have to be religious to see this) living in all our infinite diversity on the thinnest of layers on the surface of the earth. Every atom in our bodies has been circulating since the big bang in a myriad of forms, both animate and inanimate because the earth wastes nothing – nothing that is until the human race came along and imagined in our hubristic way, that it was all put there by some beneficent God (insert variety here) who put it all there for our exclusive use and pleasure.
And that thin layer, the ecosphere on which all our futures and possibilities are rested, is dying. Everything we know or have ever known or loved and treasured has come out of that vulnerable crust of soil.
And that’s why the allotment is – in the broadest and least sectarian manner – holy. Allan Ginsberg (and Patti Smith) were right. This is urgent!
It’s almost a week since I last posted, but it’s been very far from lazy – in fact we arranged to take the campervan down to Cornwall and then, 24 hours later and in view of the worsening Covid situation, we cancelled. Whatever respite the relaxation of the restrictions brought, it’s been blotted out by the imminent arrival here of 22,000 students from all over the world – that’s 25% of the population of the city and enough of a threat to make us want to pull up the drawbridge once again. I certainly don’t think it’s fair to blame students for the flare-ups across the country; everyone with more than two grey cells knew that trying to persuade thousands of young people to live like saints was never going to happen, and the punishment of having them locked in their halls with the threat of not being allowed to return home for Christmas is cruel. Goodness knows what they’ve been through these past months with the A level fiasco, and this added burden must surely lead to mental health problems for some. In my view they should never have been encouraged to return to university only to be penned up like sheep. There’s an irony in the fact that our youngest son’s halls were designed by the same architects who designed Swedish prisons!
And of course the great joy of living in an HMO (house of multiple occupation) – as we do, is that we have a continuous stream of students moving in and out, hardly any of whom we ever get to know -so our minds, once again, are focused on staying safe and working on the allotment to secure next year’s food, bearing in mind that next season we’ll have brexit affecting food supplies too.
We’re nowhere near self-sufficient, but our whole lifestyle has had to change. No more popping out to Sainsbury’s – we plan ahead and get one food delivery a week, which has meant that our food expenditure has dropped – no more impulse buys. So when we weren’t at the allotment, much of our time this week has been spent preserving and storing food for the winter. Our relationship with the food we eat is so much closer; we don’t throw leftovers away and we’re more and more vegetable based.
Back on the allotment
On Thursday the big delivery of timber arrived from the sawmill and all of it needed taking down from the path at the top where the driver and me unloaded them. Trust me a wet plank nearly 5 metres long is a tricky carry. As ever I’d accidentally ordered the larger diameter wooden stakes – that’s about the third time I’ve done it now; so the long awaited storage racks look rather over-spec now I’ve finally built them. I’ve also rebuilt the collapsed water butt stands- adding new supports and tomorrow with a bit of luck, I’ll build the new deep beds for the strawberries. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned it’s not to grow crops that need a lot of attention like watering and regular picking anywhere the least bit inaccessible. The easier it is to get to them the better they’ll grow and this is the fourth move in four years for the strawberries.
Then the musical chairs begin in earnest. First we need to empty the compost that’s ready, and the leaf mould that’s also ready and get them on to the empty beds to make room to turn the first bin which is now full, and start a new empty one for the masses of autumn green waste. Then we need to dig out the topsoil from the new strawberry beds and store it so that the subsoil from digging the new pond can be used as a bottom layer. The hotbed also needs emptying – spent hotbeds are full of wonderful soil conditioners and compost. The plan is to give the whole plot a couple or three inches of mulch. Trust me it’s easier to write than to do; turning a couple of cubic metres of compost is backbreaking work, and all the other civil engineering jobs are based on sheer manual labour.
The really big project is to build a sheltered area and pergola into the gap between the greenhouse and the shed. I’ve been designing it in my head for weeks now, and it’s a tricky one because the roofs of the shed and greenhouse are aligned in different directions so I’ve been experimenting with folded card to see how to join the two together. The answer came in a flash of inspiration while I was playing with some cardboard and all I need to do is fold the roof at the correct compound angle. The next job will be to calculate the angles and lengths exactly and work out what the best joints will be – I’ve no intention of resorting to joist hangers. The object is to create a sitting area for Madame and me because at the moment we’ve only got room for a chair and a stool. Guess who usually gets the reclining chair ….. bitter …. me?
I’m never happier than when I’ve got a bit of a project going, and what this prolonged period of lockdown has taught us is that we need to focus on more than just growing food – or at least we need to broaden the project to feed our souls as well as our bellies – hence the wildflowers and the pond and, just maybe, a little fire pit for the cold days in winter.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that we enjoy an apple I/D competition and I bought the RHS apple book for Madame earlier in the year. So finally we think we’ve identified our inherited apple tree as a Ribston Pippin. It’s not easy to sort it out from Lord Lambourne, which we have always thought it was, but the tiniest details of shape, ripening time and (would you believe?) stalk diameter and length seems to have clinched it. The tree was very neglected when we inherited it, but some pruning to restore something resembling its original espalier shape and a lot of TLC have seen it giving us some big yields. This year many of the fruits have been affected by bitter pit but to be honest the skin is a bit tough anyway and the blemishes disappear with the peel. You’d never be able to sell it in a supermarket but the flavour is marvellous.
We’ve also begun ordering next year’s seed – 3 garlic varieties and overwintering broad beans are on their way, and when it rains on Wednesday next we’ll spend the day making lists. That’s the thing about allotments, there’s never a truly slack time. These past few sunny days have been a blessing and the clearing, mulching and temporary sheeting are all going well. We did think about green manuring, but it doesn’t fit well with no-dig, and so we compost all our green waste and let the worms do the digging.
But the big story today turned out to be compost. As I mentioned above, turning a 3 cubic metre pile is hard going, but first I had to empty the next adjoining bin to make space. Home made compost doesn’t look like the commercial stuff until you’ve run it through a coarse sieve but it’s ten times better than anything you could buy. Today’s take home point is that if you’re trying to produce compost in a short time – say a under a year- then don’t add any woody waste unless you’ve got a shredder, it won’t rot in the time. The second point is that as we’ve gone on experimenting I can say that so-called compostable caddy bags will eventually break down but I’m not convinced that they’re reducing to anything innocuous. We leave them in but I’d like to know whether we’re just adding microscopic particles of plastic to the allotment. What definitely don’t break down are ordinary tea bags and Jiffy Seven modules so they’re off our list. The only tea bags that definitely disappear seem to be the Tea Pig range – after about a couple of months they begin to degrade into something that looks like translucent seaweed and then you can’t find them any more.
Today the heap was at 40 C and turning will only make it hotter – I was astonished that a single rat beat a hasty retreat as I was working – talk about a cushy life. But organic life is the heart and soul of the allotment and as I worked there were countless brandling and, towards the cooler area at the bottom, larger earthworms, not to mention all the centipedes, millipedes, earwigs and their companions in the drier parts. Good heaps don’t smell bad at all. If they stink they’ve gone anaerobic and need turning immediately and probably lots of shredded cardboard added too.
The sieved compost looked great. I wheelbarrowed four or five loads out to the beds and spread it around two inches thick – the plants just thrive on it. The photo at the top isn’t very good I know, but it illustrates one of the most important qualities of compost. You’ll see that it’s clumped into larger particles and this isn’t clay, but the action of colloids, and they’re part of the story of how compost improves water retention. I suspect that all of the compost in the photo had passed through the guts of our worm population which makes it worth its weight in gold. The other major soil additive is leaf mould, and that’s awaiting my attention later this week. It’s stored for a year under the weight of some bags of compost which helps it to compact and rot (aided by ten or fifteen litres of urine in three applications) – and this year we grew a magnificent crop of cucumbers in the grow bags – because they were able to source water but probably not much nutrient in the leaf mould. However it does wonders for soil structure and so we produce a couple of cubic metres a year from the leaves that the council dump on the site. Leaf mould is a largely fungal process and therefore slower, but compost relies on bacteria and millions of tiny invertebrates. I wouldn’t want to be without either.
Exciting times, then. The propagator is on in my study with the first crop of winter basil and it seems the new season is well and truly underway.
I’m a bit wary about complete happiness – I probably read too many Iris Murdoch novels when I was young …….. but! last night something unmistakably like complete happiness stole over us as we worked together on the allotment in companionable silence, transitioning between last season and the one that’s coming – the one that’s always going to be the best, the most productive and the least troubled by weather and pests and random troubles. And if you are wondering what happened to Sunday’s more sombre mood I’d argue that it’s the nature of happiness to be ephemeral and we can only accept it on its own demanding terms. We have to accept it as an act of rebellion, of resistance.
So we’ve travelled from the spring to the autumn equinox during the strangest year. Everything was strange, the weather, the extremes of wind, drought, heat and rain and, of course the plague. I like the idea of calling Covid – ‘the plague’ because in many ways it fits the linguistic standard for plagues which manages to draw together all sorts of explanations and responsibilities that, boiled down, suggest we had it coming. Of course there’s the scientific and medical explanation for the plague, but there’s an ideological reason too, and an economic and political reason; an ethical reason and an environmental reason and all of them demand contrition – that’s the thing about plagues as opposed to simple old pandemics – they demand a response; vaccines are not enough.
But aside from that, a shot of happiness on a warm late summer evening was like a surprise visit from an old friend. The allotment’s like that. We have more cucumbers than we know what to do with but as we contemplate the fall, the bin full of leaf mould that they were growing in so successfully needs to be emptied and spread on to the beds. The courgettes and aubergines that have served us so well won’t thrive in the approaching colder weather and the winter crops need a feed and a clear out, followed by a deep mulch. We took down the early runner beans and put the poles into store again while we are still feasting on the Lady Di’s. Calendula flowers are being extracted in almond oil. Tomatoes, chillies, peppers, aubergines – how much ratatouille can a couple on a diet eat?
Then there are the apples. As we walked up the path Madame bit into the first of the Cox’s and groaned – honestly. We’ve got five varieties growing but we’re all in the same boat as our neighbours; in a good year we all produce more apples than we can eat. So we tolerate a good deal of what you might call permissive browsing. Everybody plants Cox’s, and when they’re good they’re unbeatable but they are sensitive to any number of beasties and bugs so they are less reliable than some of the varieties that have been bred at East Malling or Long Ashton in the olden days when Madame worked there. In the bowl there are four, and possibly five varieties – all different and with different qualities. Some store well, and some are only any good straight off the tree. One of the games we play at this time of year is to try to identify the variety from the fruit. Much consultation of the books goes on and every now and then we get it right. Real experts can identify a variety on sight – George Gilbert, one of Madame’s old bosses was a master. I suppose these days you send a piece off to the lab to do the DNA tests. Where’s the fun in that?
This autumn we’re going to plant more soft fruit and two or three more cordon fruit trees around the boundaries of the plot. The original fruit cage is far too crowded and we’re going to savage it to create a better, more open environment for the existing row of apples. That became a cue for a large order from the sawmill so I can reshape some of the beds, build a new strawberry bed and (da dah!) dig a pond.
I think we gardeners have a weird way of living in several dimensions at once. All that stuff about being in the moment is well and good, but any gardener will tell you that we also channel the spirits of our teachers, parents and grandparents from the past while we also have the gift of seeing beyond the present weedy mess into the future. Autumn yields glimpses into winter and spring and the leafless branches bear their buds as a kind of earnest for the future.
So who’s afraid of the equinox? Autumn is the mother of winter and winter is the mother of spring. The earth rests and a moment of happiness is a moment of grace in whatever shape it comes.
This is a long post and it’s possibly more open about some fairly personal stuff than you may feel interested enough to read. It deals with the challenges of retirement and the emotional impact of health problems. Normal service will, I promise, be resumed immediately so if you skip this one that’s fine, but it’s here in case anyone else might find it helpful.
I was maybe fourteen years old when I first read this passage and allowed it to take up residence in my mind, along with Peggoty and Duffy Clayton (you’ll have to look that one up).
“A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr. Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular”
The History of Mr Polly – H G Wells
It was always going to be a bit of a culture shock, coming back to Bath after ten days in the most idyllic and secluded place you could imagine, overlooking the Irish Sea in North Wales; and in the way that astrologers write about trines, and other unusual alignments of the planets and astronomers plot eclipses and consequential movements of the planets; my own little solar system threw up a large spanner in the form of an anniversary. In fact the fifth anniversary of my retirement.
I remember asking my old friend Mags, whose partner had retired three years previously, how long it had taken for her to settle. The answer – “three years at least” took me by surprise – I’d come to think of my retirement in rather conventional terms, you know – big party; warm words (mostly exaggerated); a few glasses and off into the sunset and a new life – just like Mr Polly. Then Rose, another friend, warned us that one of the biggest perils was that every night became Friday night. They were both right but both underestimated the length of time it would take for the dream of my/our retirement fantasies to morph into a much deeper reality.
On Monday last, (a beautiful late summer’s day), we drove across the mountains once more and six hours later arrived home. Nothing had happened particularly in the meanwhile: the flat hadn’t burned down and the allotment was pretty much as we’d left it; but the city – lying in its natural basin – was airless, thronged with visitors taking a chance with COVID; students moving towards their new independent lives, armed with implausibly large amounts of alcohol and – of course – the Easy Jet planes were overhead, bringing Typhoid Mary and her mates back from their holidays. Ambulances as always were crawling through the traffic, setting out from and returning to the Royal United Hospital.
One thing however was very different. A large stretch of the river had drained by a depth of about five feet – due to a problem with one of the sluices – and dozens of boats, some of them peoples’ homes, had dropped, one-sidedly, on their mooring ropes and filled with filthy water. This much photographed riverside area, worth millions to property developers began to look like a 1970’s photo of the old Caldon branch of the Trent and Mersey Canal; cluttered with abandoned and stolen metalwork – bikes, a stolen motorcycle, dozens of supermarket trolleys, old computers and general rubbish….. Hm!
The bottom right photograph (just about) shows the rarely seen overflow from the hot springs that drains warm water into the river after passing through the official Roman Baths and also through the rather expensive and privately run Spa. All the newly exposed river bed needed was a few dead dogs and Morris 1000 complete with skeletal passengers to complete the dystopian vision.
So what to do? Snowdonia ached in our memories and we were facing an enforced desensitisation back into our normal lives; living like urban foxes, avoiding unnecessary human contact and constantly COVID watchful. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but then he was a relatively wealthy and well educated man who probably lived in the better part of town. While Bath is, doubtless, a work of art – it’s more Bosch than Leonardo. The city looks great on a sunny evening when you’ve come in a coach and the buildings glow like ripe apricot as you are driven along London Road and back up to the motorway; but living here is very different.
Enough! We’ve forged our lives here now – I chose the word carefully – and much of the time our lives are so full we hardly notice all this. A therapeutic trip to the allotment surprised us. The first of the parsnips was a giant, the chillies, peppers and aubergines had all flourished in the days of our neglect. Another 5 kilos of tomatoes to prep, chillies to brine and ferment and more good things to eat. All good news there.
Our re-entry strategy was to revisit our favourite walks. The local ones are all calculated take us around the quiet edges of the city; be around five miles long, and capable of being taken at a bit of a challenging pace. There are no walks here that don’t involve hills.
To put all this exercise in some kind of context we both finished the first lockdown seriously overweight – my bread baking was probably the engine of much of it, but being indoors so long didn’t help, and comfort food was our principal survival mechanism. But there was more – Madame had endured a knee replacement; we’d both scored badly on blood glucose (pre diabetic) in the last set of tests and I’d had a series of troubling encounters with endoscopes, followed by a separate diagnosis of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. My heart would go into uncontrolled pointless and ineffectual racing leaving me feeling faint and (so I discovered) very likely to have a stroke or a heart attack. Our visits to the gym were more dangerous than I’d ever realized.
My medical issues were quickly resolved by medication to control the wayward heart rhythms and reduce my blood pressure, but emotionally the effect was deeper and more difficult to budge. Looking back, I began to make accommodations, telling myself it was only natural to slow down at my age, and all that blah blah blah. Fear of becoming a wreck was making things worse, and introducing negative feedback can only go one way, putting the brakes on life. We were shrinking in ambition even while we grew slower and bigger and so we did something about it. Long before the lockdown; we gave up alcohol – it’s fourteen months now with no more seven Friday nights a week and – (this is not a nag) – after a few months we felt so much better it was difficult to understand why we hadn’t done it sooner. Some of the worrying symptoms disappeared, and then six weeks ago we put ourselves on a low carb diet; I lost 20lbs and all my other stats – blood glucose, blood pressure, body fat, BMI and resting heart rate dropped quickly into the normal or even optimal levels. After a lifetime of never listening to good advice we bit the bullet and it worked. The diet is demanding but we soon got used to it. One of the biggest obstacles was getting past the pharmacists who seemed to think it was wrong for me to check my own blood sugars in case I “wore my finger out” taking samples, or (more likely) was too stupid to get medical help if self-testing showed up a problem.
But accompanying the appearance of these promising new shoots; the reappearance of my waist, and the clothes I never thought I’d ever be able to wear again, there was something else lurking in the background that came so from from left-field it knocked me flat because the way in which the inner world inflects our experience of the outer world is always present whether we notice it or not. The dystopian experience of coming home from the unsustainable idyll should have been a warning that something needed sorting.
So we took the campervan for its annual MOT at a garage in one of my old parishes and while we waited I thought we’d drive around for a while, near some of the places we’d both loved during the time we lived there. We turned off up a narrow lane from the main road for no reason that I could explain and then in a moment of completely clear insight I knew two things. Firstly that I’d been trying to forget, to push to the back of my mind, the whole 25 years of work in the parish, although much of it was pure joy, because there were some bits of it that had been terrible and that had inflicted real damage on me. But the second insight was that it was OK to own all the good things. I needed to remember them safely because they represented a third of my life. So two insights in a narrow lane that (who’d have thought it?) led directly to a farm and to someone who’d been good to me in a completely unaffected way, and we banged on the door and were welcomed as old friends.
A lot of my life has been taken up with unravelling birds’ nests of memories. We say casually that so-and-so ‘was in pieces‘ and that’s often truer than we think. Years of helping other people to put their lives back together demanded that I took my own puzzle just as seriously – it’s a work in progress, you might say.
Anyway that could be the longest imaginable introduction to a couple of walks – one of them a restorative stroll around Bannerdown where we were delighted by two usurpers, both probably garden escapes but Michaelmas daisies are so much a part of autumn, and the Canadian goldenrod was just as pretty, neither of them the least rare or even genuine native wildflowers but hey! The real ram-stamped native was the plant gall known colloquially as a robin’s pincushion.
Then yesterday we went across to the Mendips to walk down the length of Velvet Bottom and instead of turning back up the Longwood Valley, we carried on down through the Black Rock nature reserve as far as Cheddar Gorge – who could resist those names? I’ve talked a lot about the peculiar geology of the place which, due to lead pollution from mines that have been operated since Roman times, has its own very specialised flora. I’ve written about it, but some of the plants are harder to spot than you’d think. Not, however meadow saffron – sometimes known as ‘naked ladies’ because the spectacular flowers appear after the seeds have been set and the leaves have disappeared for the winter.
And there’s another reason for writing at such length. I once taught a young South Wales man doing an incredibly long prison sentence for affray. He used to joke and say that if I crossed him he might have ‘one of his blackouts’. Let’s call him Owen. Apart from a gift for throwing furniture and televisions through windows, he knew more about Romano British settlements in South Wales than anyone I’ve ever met. If anyone ever demonstrated the fact that you can’t stuff a real life into a bag marked ‘historian’ or ‘botanist’ it was Owen. As Stephen Blackpool was inclined to say in “Hard Times” – ‘it’s all a muddle’ – and in real life, as opposed to the relentlessly (artificial) successful and happy bloggers’ persona, for every meadow saffron there’s an awful lot of ragwort that can’t be swept under the carpet. The Potwell Inn remains committed to life in all its fullness, richness and joy – allowing for the fact that some idiot could leave the sluices open at any time.
I just couldn’t leave Wales without a piece on our day trip on the Ffestiniog Railway on Tuesday. Last year we travelled the Welsh Highland Railway line from Porthmadog to Caernarfon which climbs through the mountains past Snowdon (or Yr Wyddfa, if you will) and down again to the sea – a magical five and a half hours there and back, with mugs of tea and Welsh rarebit to keep body and soul together. This year with Covid restrictions there are only half journeys available so we opted for the Ffestiniog Railway up to Tan y Bwlch.
We’ve got history with the railway -well more of a one night stand actually – because when we lived in a self described commune in Bristol we spent a weekend working there as ‘volunteers’. The word volunteers is italicised because anyone who’s ever lived in a commune will recognise the fact that there’s almost always one person whose revelatory vision everyone else is expected to serve. That was John then, and probably still is. The pith helmet and khaki shorts of his childhood were invisible to most people but always rankled with me and so, with the certainty that winter follows spring we clashed. He was born to be a district agent in the great days of the Empire when Palmerston was Prime Minister and I could only aspire (in his mind) to be that insolent little chap – what was his name again? -who served the tea. Funnily enough he brought two of his admirers into a cafe I was in a few years ago and I recognised his booming voice immediately – I was so troubled by it I had to get up and leave.
Anyway this mountain adventure was an entirely ‘voluntary’ weekend event with the usual unspoken three line whip. Most of the commune members were doing office or teaching jobs, so a weekend breaking stones in Wales was probably more attractive to them, but we dutifully went along and even took two friends – Mike and Di – along with us. It was the weekend I first saw – rather heard – a Hydram (hydraulic ram pump) in action. I followed the camp water supply down the steep hillside towards the sound of the pump, each rifle shot crack sending a pulse of water up the pipe. Eventually I found the source in a walled off dam at the end of an old drift mine shaft, and I fell instantly in love with a machine that could raise water at least a hundred feet, free of charge and all day, every day. Sustainability in an elegant lump of cast iron with no more complex engineering than a pressure chamber and a couple of flap valves.
So that was it really. It snowed heavily and the bunkhouse felt like a scene from a Russian gulag. The occupants regarded us with suspicion; several of them were explosives experts who seemed to prefer to make a cutting through the mountain by reducing it to vapour. Others were living in the dream of the completed railway line so completely they were socially unavailable to the present moment and so like all bored twenty somethings we found our own fun and climbed the neighbouring mountain Moelwyn Bach in our wellies – cue major ticking off for irresponsibility, but the view was worth it! Then we rode a truck down the mountain from the end of the line and lost control of it completely, jumping off and watching it roll down the hill. After that no-one spoke to us, can’t blame them really, and mercifully we were never invited again. On our way back down the line on Tuesday we caught sight of the same kind of (refurbished by now) truck.
But that was then! On Tuesday we joined the socially distanced mini throng of travellers, and an elderly guard locked into our sealed compartments: third class with bench seats, to play with the leather window straps while we waited. Our engine – called Palmerston after the previously mentioned Prime Minister of the British Umpah era was steaming copiously at the front – possibly a tad too copiously as it turned out. The Ffestiniog railway was originally built to bring slate down from the quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog. It’s a narrow gauge railway run almost entirely by volunteers and they run it well. The line climbs steeply uphill on its way to the mid point at Tan y Bwlch and the little engine was straining at every valve on the steeper bits. Then half a mile before the station the engine gave up the ghost altogether and we stopped in silence. For a while it was like Adlestrop, just the engine wrapped in a cocoon of steam, a few sheep and the sound of the drizzle. Welsh Mountain drizzle could fill a small lake in five minutes; it’s the only kind that you can actually hear drumming on the windows. Rebellious noises from passengers began to mount and the ancient guard trudged up and down the line trying to explain through the windows without having much of clue himself what was going on.
Eventually they sent a replacement engine to tow us up the last section of the line and Palmerston, humbled, was brought into Tan y Bwlch station three quarters of an hour late. At this point communications seemed to break down entirely with railway volunteers on their mobiles and engineers of all genders poking and pointing. A diesel (if I was making this up it would have been number 666 and called Harold Wilson – but that wouldn’t be true) so a diesel engine came along and shuffled two lots of abandoned carriages around the station until they were in the right order and yet another steam engine came and pulled the first train down the hill while we drank tea from paper cups and took lots of photographs under a temporary canvas canopy. Then they brought yet another engine and we set off back to Porthmadog.
I’m not a steam engine enthusiast in the usual sense. My dad was a railwayman and I was born next to the railway and so the sounds of trains been a part of my whole life – they still are, we can hear the engines passing through Bath Spa station quite clearly. Then there’s the coal to think about. How do you balance the desire to see the back of coal as a fuel with these hundred year old engines, restored and in regular use. I can’t see it attracting many visitors if they put electric motors in the engines and stuck red light bulbs in the fireboxes!
Steam trains have all the features needed to become a true addiction; a uniform, a private language (who knows what a top link man is these days?) and a proper set of exams to pass. Then there’s the sound. I once heard a recording of the foetal sounds that are the soundscape we all inhabited before we were born. You can’t tell me the similarity doesn’t trigger an aching sense of familiarity in the mind. But I remember my dad having to memorise miles of railway line when he went for his guard’s promotion. He would put a woollen blanket on the table and cover it with file cards filled with the esoteric language of the track. But he hated the railway, hated the shifts and the hours and the constant threat of redundancy during the Beeching era. So no, I’m not the least romantic about the railways. But I love Snowdonia and I love those trains – a beautiful paradox.
Sorry, it’s not the best photo ever but today the blog is held together, if it holds at all, by the photos. We were out walking the clifftop today. The sky was a colour I’ve always thought of as ‘china blue’ and I’ve never known until very recently why that name fitted this particular sky so perfectly but it came to me – as these things do – that it’s very like the pale blue of some Chinese blue and white pottery. I have to say ‘some’ because although all ceramic blues come from cobalt, the colour was sourced from different minerals that contained other elements, for instance manganese, which subtly affects the colour. For most potters since the 19th century, blue meant – well, darkish cobalt blue; but for thousands of years the Chinese had valued this colour for its almost spiritual quality and equally valued the various hues to be got from minutely different sources. Manganese, for the sake of an illustration, when mixed with cobalt might well yield a colour not unlike the devils bit at the top of the page. Goodness what glorious ceramic piece it was that took up residence in my mind; and neither do I recall where I might have seen it but it lodged there as the colour of the autumn sky; faintly milky but infinitely deep, and which is a feature of the sea sky and big wide estuaries. China Blue it will always be, so I’ve capitalised it to nail the point.
Anyway, there it is – autumn, the Irish sea stirred up by a blustery South Easterly and more birds than you could shake a stick at – greater black backed gulls, herring gulls, black headed gulls, common tern (I’m pretty sure), shag, kestrel, swallows, turnstone, oystercatcher, meadow pipit, rock pipit. We sat and watched them, especially the tern which – now we’ve got them in our heads – are more and more interesting to watch; diving like gannets but delicately and acrobatically, aborting a dive at the last moment and turning in the air to resume their patrol.
But everywhere along this northern coast of the peninsula are signs of abandonment: collapsing corrugated iron sheds flapping noisily in the wind, rusting gear and capstans half buried in the sand at the head of abandoned slipways. All landscapes have this capacity to hold their histories written in heaps and mounds, or walls and chimneys. This particular landscape is rich in earthworks that could be ancient but more likely are the leavings of attempts to drain the marshy ground inland from the sea. An abandoned customs lookout reminds us that this area was once frequented by sail-coasters crossing from Ireland, which is so close here that our mobiles have, once or twice, tried to connect to Irish phone masts. Roaming here can be costly.
The largest farms are replete with the latest technology – one in particular with hostile warnings about entering what looked like a small industrial site. Others – the ones that haven’t converted all their outbuildings to holiday cottages – look careworn and shabby; needing a lot more than a lick of paint. This is traditional farming practised under the constant threat of the bailiffs – you can smell it in the air – fishing, shipbuilding, coastal trade and farming all slowly sinking. A late boom in tourists might not be enough to mitigate the effects of coronavirus and a hard brexit.
But to get back to the beginning, the devils bit has a good back story. Until the nineteenth century it had a big reputation for its healing qualities, and the tale goes that it was so good that the devil intervened and bit off part of its root to prevent the people being healed – you can see where this is going. So here’s another photograph – same walk, same sky and this time it’s a large roofless and abandoned enclosure.
Of course, with one door gone, you wouldn’t necessarily recognise it but there it is again; the same militant slogan and probably the same graffiti artist but this time half of the door has been battered off by the storms and now the gateway to nowhere is blocked by a huge pile of plastic jetsam awaiting collection. The fruits of another unfolding tragedy.
I wrote a couple of days ago that if I were a Welsh voter I’d be thinking hard about independence and after I’d pressed the ‘send’ button I wondered if I’d thought this through clearly. Trust me, readers punish me if I overstep the mark and for 24 hours I waited for some kind of reaction. With this blog it’s as clear as a bell; the numbers drop – I can almost hear the screens being slammed shut. But – on the other hand – we’ve got to think about these difficult issues, and this blog is about being human and not necessarily being perfect. If I thought there was a solution to our current multifaceted crisis – the collapse of species diversity, uncontrolled global heating, gross pollution, poverty and unemployment, homelessness, the disappearance of whole cultures (it’s not just the Amazon we need to worry about) and the relentless gathering of wealth into fewer and fewer hands – if I thought there was any way of addressing this without speaking out and making people feel uncomfortable – then I’d give up and do field botany.
Being fully human isn’t a part-time job and it involves some agonising dilemmas. Looking at the lonely nationalist slogan and the accompanying pile of rubbish today forced me to realise that the only way we’ll ever save the earth from our own behaviour is to draw together, not split apart. The present governance of the Western world is kept alive by division. Common goods are all too easily destroyed – like the roots of devils bit in the telling story. Where our few leftover treasures and cultural possessions, languages, memories and stories stand in the way of profit, they are excised, and the more we can be persuaded that the cause of all our problems is those Welsh, or those Scots or those English or those refugees or those Europeans or whatever other separated scapegoat for the disastrously wrong turn the human race took after the 1950’s; the easier it is for them to pick us off one group at a time. So to answer my own question in an epically convoluted way – no I wouldn’t be campaigning for devolution I’d be campaigning for change, for a functioning democracy that gives us all representation.
One flower I haven’t mentioned is yarrow – there’s lots of it in flower on the cliff tops here. Traditionally yarrow stalks were used in the casting of the I Ching. I’ve got a set at home, gathered for that purpose decades ago and as I passed a plant today with all this swirling around in my mind I remembered that the whole ethos of this ancient art – it’s called divination pejoratively as if it were like reading tea leaves- is to seek the path of balance. Good government doesn’t comprise conning everyone into thinking they can have what they want. When balance is achieved, when we work in harmony with the Tao that calls the ‘ten thousand things’ -including the ‘hawkish’ plant below, the hair grass bending to the wind, and the chamomile – into being, then we thrive.
“Cofiwch Dryweryn” – remember Tryweryn painted on the wall at the end of a lane that leads to the cottage we’re staying at, and the Free Wales sticker on the adjacent traffic sign.
We’re practically in R S Thomas’s old parish here and he would have hated the souvenir shops, the way the caravan sites have multiplied and the fact that house prices have risen beyond the reach of local people. He sounded as English as I do, but with a much posher accent, the accent of the English ruling classes, which must have been a constant reminder to him that however hard he tried he would never truly be Welsh. He learned the language but could never write poetry in it – not that it stopped him haranguing the local butcher for writing his labels in English. He hated tourists with equal ferocity and apparently would drive his Morris 1000 traveller around the parish as slowly as possible, creating traffic jams of frustrated tourists and locals alike. He flirted with the Free Wales Army during their campaign of burning down holiday cottages although there’s no evidence he took part. He was a fierce opponent of the proposed nuclear power station just up the road in Edern and he wasn’t even popular with many of his parishioners. I guess he just needed to be that much more Welsh than anybody else. Peter Firth, who worked for the BBC and later became Bishop of Malmesbury was a devoted fan of RS’s poetry and he once told me that while he was making a documentary about the great poet they scoured the parish to find someone who would talk about him. Eventually they found a man willing to talk and after buying him beers all evening they settled down to interview him. The first question – ‘did you know RS Thomas’. ‘Oh yes I knew him,’ came the reply – ‘miserable bugger‘.
I met RS once at a reading in South Wales and I’m bound to say he was delightful, with a terribly dry sense of humour but I can see how he might have antagonised those who would have preferred the usual parody of a priest. I was told by the organiser that he once completely captivated a huge audience of schoolchildren in Cardiff as he talked about his work which was, quite rightly, part of their syllabus.
We’re in one of the last strongholds of the Welsh language here on Lleyn. Everybody is bilingual, of course, and they can spot a tourist at 100 paces so I know before I open my mouth they’ve mentally switched to English. So how do I feel about the less than welcoming sign at the end of the lane? It’s famous in mid Wales, reflecting the anger at the way a whole community was flooded so that Liverpool could increase its water supply. That sense of grievance lives on in a thousand Welsh towns stripped of their natural assets; exploited and then abandoned by the English, and is still palpable, but there’s not much mileage in saying I know how you feel, however sympathetic I might be.
Every night we watch the local television news and the inescapable conclusion is that by and large the quality of political discourse and leadership here, shows up the English parliament as a bunch of clowns. If I was Welsh; hearing as we did today that the the Tory Government intends to take back control of road planning from the Welsh Assembly, in order to build its filthy relief motorway across the Newport levels, obliterating three SSSI’s and nature reserves against the will of the Welsh Assembly, then I’d be thinking hard about independence.
No, I think there’s no way of escaping the sense of being the object of suspicion. Many years ago Madame and me were in a bar way down in Southern Ireland – so far South that we were warned it would be dangerous for us to visit one of the local towns – it was at the height of ‘the troubles’. We were enjoying a drink when a group of IRA fundraisers came in and entertained the locals with violently anti-English songs. We sat in complete silence, not daring to utter a syllable we were so truly petrified. Next day we went back and the landlady apologised profusely for what had happened. I said – ‘well we are English’ – as if to suggest we had it coming. ‘Yes I know’ she said, ‘but you’re tourists!’.
And there’s the paradox in a nutshell – what happens when a desperately needed tourist becomes an incomer? We slide effortlessly between the loved tourist and the loathed incomer, and in this drift into nationalism I no longer know what ‘British’ means any more; it has no content and so it’s unusable. ‘English’ is too tainted by the extreme right, and the only term that embraces the fullness of my identity is ‘European’. Wales has shared many ancient trading links with the continent since the Bronze Age and I constantly notice how many Welsh words are rooted in ancient Greek – as Gerry Angel, my old Greek teacher said – there are only two languages in the world worth learning and the better of them is Welsh!
Yesterday we had a brief conversation with a local family who were walking on the clifftop, and during the course of it one of them said “we desperately need tourists here”. Perhaps that’s it. We’re needed here because the economy is so dependent on us, and nobody’s stopping us from loving the country as passionately as we do, but that doesn’t bestow any right of possession on us. We are here on exactly the same terms as we are everywhere else on the earth – as strangers and pilgrims and it behoves us to behave modestly and as good guests.
This ancient culture, rooted in the language of farming, seafaring and fishing is so fragile it could easily disappear forever, just at the very moment in history when it has most to teach us if we are ever going to learn how to live sustainably.
I don’t normally do straight book reviews and neither do I promote anything; I’ve no desire at all to be an ‘influencer’ whatever that might mean, but I will mention books when they’re good, or important; and so over the last couple of years I’ve worried and written a lot about the ecological crisis we’re in, and some of the books that have guided my thoughts. One day I’ll make a bibliography and put it up as a purely personal and probably idiosyncratic list that might help someone to make a start. Back at the Potwell Inn there are shelves full of them but it wouldn’t be difficult to rank them. Some are academic and hard to grasp – that doesn’t make them bad but I’d hesitate to recommend a book that might put anyone off the trail. Some are so partisan and angry that I could only read them a few pages at a time for fear of being overwhelmed. We’re not farmers or a horticulturalists here, and so people like us sometimes figure in the shadowy world of the consumer in these books, the apparently dimwitted customers who, by demanding ever cheaper food, helped to create the crisis we’re now in.
I don’t like being hectored or finger-wagged at. I don’t like being treated as an idiot or being held personally responsible for the way things are – and neither do farmers or ‘newt counting’ ecologists. We really are – (after carefully wiping the politicians’ snake oil off the phrase) – ‘in this together’ and the only workable solution will come from working together. The system is broke.
So who better than someone right inside the mess to show us what it feels like from the inside. I ordered James Rebank’s latest book “English Pastoral’ on a whim. Madame had read his previous book ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ previously and been quite lyrical about it but being an old stick in the mud I resisted. So when I ordered the new book I made sure I’d read the earlier book first. It’s good – patchy but good. There was a touch too much of the caricature blunt Yorkshireman I thought, and I also thought the tales of youthful rebellion, ‘drinking and shagging’ as he puts it, and the ferocious arguments with his father were a bit over-egged until, that is, the little voice in my head reminded me that we always dislike in others what we most dislike about ourselves and my own school career ended when I was escorted from the school (by the collar) by the headmaster for being a disruptive and disobedient pain; beginning three years of sombre reflection in dead end labouring jobs. It was Madame who got me into college and back on course. There were more parallels than you’d find in a school geometry set.
So ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ was always a better book than my grudging soul would admit and I’m glad I read it. ‘English Pastoral’ is even better. I really couldn’t put it down. He’s apparently friends with Wendell Berry, and has read Henry Williamson and somehow manages to weave together the lyrical voice with downright practical wisdom, occasionally shocking earthiness and a better grasp of the big picture than anyone else I’ve read. But the big sell, for me, was that I felt I was being embraced as part of the grand plan. The occasional snarky remarks in the first book about tourists’ collective ignorance of what fell farming is really like, have disappeared. The narrowness and suspicion of outsiders and experts, ecologists and economists and interfering incomers in the younger farmer, have all gone and what’s left is a conversation being led by a farmer who commands and deserves respect; a mea culpa in places for going with the flow against his better instincts and a luminous vision of the way forward. Any fierceness is reserved for the agrochemical industry and their accomplices and lobbyists; the manufacturers of ever more destructive machinery; the greedy banks, and the economic orthodoxy that turned land and crops into commodities.
It’s a desperately needed working paper in a world of conflicting demands; offering a model that takes seriously the need for farmers to make a living, that addresses some of the key faults of the extreme end of the rewilding movement, and which dismisses any idea of a one size fits all policy. It addresses the need for food security and completely smashes any idea that what we need is another technological fix so we can carry on the way we are.
Read it, please, if you’re a farmer or a naturalist, or an ecologist or walker, and especially if you live, like me, in a city – and ponder what and where to buy sustainable food. Read it if you’re an allotmenteer because there’s a lot about soil there. Read it if you’re a banker or an economist because this movement is not going away.
When I was a child we used to catch the train up to Reading to see our grandparents who lived a country bus ride away in the Chilterns. The journey involved a change at Didcot, and what was most thrilling (and terrifying) about it was that the train didn’t actually stop at Didcot at all, but just slowed down so that the ‘slip coach’ could glide, engineless, into the station controlled by the guard who presumably operated the brakes.
This morning as I finished the book I remembered that childish adventure and pondered whether, when the great neoliberal train finally crashes the buffers at Oxford, they might discover that the rest of us got off at Didcot and that the banks and the hedge funds and the agrochemical complex have finally reached the catastrophic end of their triumphant journey. Alone.