Less is more

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A friend once told us how isolated his parents were becoming when he noticed that they began to have conversations like – (looking out of the window) – “that green car isn’t there again!”

Well it isn’t there again today and we’re fully occupied finding strategies for staying sane that fall short of car spotting. There’s dogs and drug dealers of course but they don’t change much. British summer time has also thrown a bit of a spanner in the works and we stay up much later than usual but then my inner clock seems not to know that I don’t need to get up at 6.00am. Today I got up early, made tea, read for a bit, made coffee, went to sleep, woke up and read for a bit more – got up at 10.00am. It’s no life, honestly – if it weren’t for the allotment we’d probably be playing ‘I spy something beginning with W’, and the answer would always be ‘window’; – ‘wall’ being disallowed as unpatriotic.

Our other favourite diversion is trying to figure out how to observe the government advice to stay indoors and get shopping delivered when there are no delivery slots to be had at all and every website we go to is shut down due to overload.  Ah well … However just to prove that life goes on outside the bubble, a tractor showed up this morning to give the Green its first cut of the year.  Last year, if you remember, it was agreed to leave an unmown strip around the edge to let wild vegetation grow up – I think ‘wildflowers’ is a bit overheated in our instance, but I like weeds, and more to the point, so do loads of insects. My word, these are powerful machines they use these days. Last year by the second cut the rewilding project lay in shreds because the message about the wild strip failed to get through to the tractor drivers. Today, though, the tractor drove underneath our window and stopped and then the driver consulted some kind of plan in a ring binder and then slowly and deliberately left a wide border all around the green. Early days yet, I know, but there’s elder, burdock and wall barley in them there borders, and a new generation of children might just learn about ‘itchy coos’ and darts.

IMG_20200401_132638Then, among the excitements, a brilliant idea occurred to me this morning regarding the pigs’ cheek surplus. Madame had turned her nose up when I presented them in their unadorned form – too much information I suspect – and so I minced them up, added herbs, sweet pimenton, some softened onions, a little egg and breadcrumbs; rolled them in flour, fried them and then baked them in our own stored tomato sauce et Voila! – as you might say if you were French – they were transformed into meatballs and became today’s meal. Every little triumph adorns the day.

But the pandemic is never far away, and yesterday we were texted by one of Madame’s nieces to say that their father, our brother-in-law, is in intensive care with confirmed coronavirus. Is this it? Is this the spirit of the blitz that people who’ve never even experienced food rationing, let alone bombing – like to evoke. We plough on in spite of the dangers, we dare to make small plans for ‘when it’s over’, we say silent prayers for our loved ones because we don’t like a fuss. There’s nothing inspiring or admirable in any of this and true compassion isn’t ever a public act.

And then just I was about to press the send button on this post I heard the sound of a machine outside, and when I looked, there was a smaller mower removing the violets and celandines outside the house.  Morons!!! – we’re lions led by donkeys.

 

 

 

Something about simmering!

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I realise that pig’s cheeks may not be everyone’s favorite during this time of stress, but I recall exactly why I bought them about two years ago, and as always it was down to the memory of a grocery and delicatessen in Clifton, where we used to live, and which occasionally sold Bath Chaps – which is a local name for pigs’ cheeks, cured like bacon and then coated in breadcrumbs and presumably deep fried  – exactly the sort of dish an ambitious gastronaut ought to be having a go at. The shop window could have come straight out of Mrs Beeton. Needless to say I never actually bought any, and I’ve never eaten one either, but they always looked so good in the window – I’m a sucker for anything coated in breadcrumbs. It was a lovely shop; they cooked their own hams and did all the things that deli’s stopped doing years ago, and the clientele (apart from me) included many of the great and good like the Lord Mayor who used to send his butler round for a swift gammon.  He (the butler) was an immensely large Cornishman, well over six feet tall, who  always wore a morning suit that looked a bit grubby and stained and who spoke with a rich Cornish accent.

So when I encountered these pigs cheeks my gastronomical imagination was aroused and I bought six of them for next to nothing.  The rest of their time at the Potwell Inn was spent in the freezer awaiting the moment which never seemed to come and so they went into yesterday’s stock and after a long braise they came out again and I tasted one rather gingerly because they were in the part of the stock that I normally throw away. It tasted pretty good too but Madame refused to even look at them and so I guess they’re a secret snack for me.

At least, being of no interest to Madame, I’ll be safe to snaffle them. Treats, under lockdown conditions, can be a source of tension – in fact almost anything can be a source of tension when you’re banged up in a first floor flat and your partner the only person in the world allowed closer than two metres. I have filed away her incendiary behaviour over my shortbreads, and even forgiven her through gritted teeth for taking the last cold sausage from the fridge but it takes a saint! Last night we were sitting amicably watching the television when a strangely sulphurous smell crept into the room.  Suspicious glances were made and denials of responsibility were issued but it wasn’t until I came to clean down in the kitchen that I discovered a clove of garlic had stuck to the underside of the stock pot and was caramelising away gently, emitting a horrible burnt garlic smell.

So yesterday’s fruits included a loaf of everyday bread – subtly different in flavour and texture because I’ve run out of rye flour, but still very good.  There’s the stock reduced and stored, and fifteen pounds of new allotment jam in the cupboard as well as space in the freezer available for speculative and impulsive purchases (not including pigs’ cheeks) if the shops ever open again. I was pretty tired by the time we finished, and slept badly so woke up this morning feeling – well – jaded, I’d have said hung over if I’d had a drink but we foreswore alcohol last June and haven’t lapsed. Notice I didn’t say ‘yet’!

This morning I decided a mid-morning nap was allowable but it didn’t work out.  Living in a flat, especially a concrete walled flat, inevitably means a degree of sharing.  This morning I shared my peace with two or perhaps even three radios tuned to different stations and a builder two floors up who was using a hammer drill non-stop for two hours. The sofa is about a foot shorter than I needed for snoozing so I got cramps. Living banged-up can have its irritations.  I remember once reading about a murder (true story this) committed on a sewage farm.  It was a remote site with a house occupied by two men  who didn’t get on to the extent that one killed the other in a fit of rage and chucked his body in the tank. The subsequent trial revealed that the festering tensions between them had all boiled over and the rest was history – at least it was for one of them. I’d have thought there was no better place for festering tensions than a sewage farm.

I hope that the Potwell Inn emerges from this crisis with all its staff intact, but as time goes on the outside world becomes that tiny bit more threatening.  I wonder whether there will be thousands of new cases of agoraphobia after months of this.  We’re lucky to have the allotment to go to  and this afternoon it came as close to being a carnival as conditions allowed.  Everyone seemed to be there and we all hailed each other across the empty space as if we hadn’t seen each other for months.  The council have turned on the water supply at last and so we all observed a thoughtful queue at the required distance as we watered our seedlings.  We’ve been fortunate that our stored rainwater has just about lasted us until now, and during the summer I can install the last two storage butts so we can be even more self-sufficient.

In spite of the record rain during the winter, the recent dry spell and its winds have dried the upper surface of the ground and so seedlings need a lot of attention and watering, but it was the kind of attention we were relieved to be able to give – you could almost feel the young plants saying thank-you. The new season has begun and even in the midst of this pandemic there’s something good emerging. Our GP neighbour said today that the new personal protection gowns they were issued with look as if they’ve been made from bin liners – as always, life is like the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts!

Staying positive

I promised I’d say something about Thomas Berry’s book “The dream of the earth” which I’ve been reading for a couple of days. It’s a bit dense but the idea that runs through it is very simple. We like to think of ourselves as rational and scientific creatures who have collectively transcended millennia of superstition and religion and emerged at last confident in our capacity to organise the earth far better than nature ever managed on her own. Industry and science have delivered (we believe) all the things that previous belief systems had bundled up into a kind of visionary future that will deliver peace, prosperity, food for all and universal happiness because we can all access the very things our unfortunate ancestors could only think of in religious terms.  The sick will be healed, the dead raised (cryogenics) and we shall all share in a great banquet of goods and services exactly tailored to our innermost and secret desires. It’s hard to fault it, and as Gandhi was reputed to have replied when asked about European civilisation – “it would be a good idea”.

But the thing about religious ideologies  – and Berry is suggesting that’s what we have got here – is that you can’t question them. The evidence that our present way of life is destructive and dangerous is everywhere to be seen and yet remains invisible to millions of people. Who knows why? All we do know is that presenting the evidence doesn’t seem to shake belief in the status quo at all. What we seem to need is not better evidence or better presentation of the old evidence but something which more closely resembles a religious conversion. The continuation of life on earth, he argues, depends on a universal and thoroughgoing change of perspective. We need to rediscover the sacred earth.  We need to embrace our creatureliness in order to rediscover our true creativity.

I hope you’ll read the book, but meanwhile here’s some scary background reading on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, written by Brendan Montague who is editor of the Ecologist magazine. And here’s a very good example of the aquarian fallacy that believes there is always an industrial solution to every problem. Here a commercial forestry expert advises the planting of more conifers to save the world because they grow more quickly.  Sadly he doesn’t seem to notice that even if they capture carbon for 25 years as they grow, immediately they’re felled they begin to release that stored carbon back into the atmosphere. There’s only one way, and that’s to end the way we consume the earth. That consumption is enabled and fuelled by the false ideology of never ending progress, the fantasy that there is no limit to growth

Which links nicely to today on the allotment because the absence of cars on the streets has made our plot more beautiful than ever – less polluted by the busy road, less noisy and quiet enough to hear a blackbird sing across the road. Call me an old romantic but I really like it.

After a few hours out in the sunshine while we sowed, planted and prepared the bed for the runner beans that will climb up their supports when they’re planted out in mid May, we took some photos and wandered home again. On a day like today this doesn’t feel too much like hardship. The hazel bean poles came from friends in Wales (thanks Nick and Kate) and always bring back memories of old gardens and older mentors from the past. We were able to talk to friends on the telephone and all our children keep in daily touch.  The food we eat has simplified because there’s no opportunity for impulse buys which has a knock-on effect on our waste.  Inside the flat the window tables are full and growing steadily.  We’ve tried to work to the point where – if the lockdown intensifies – the allotment can look after itself for a week or two.

Anger is a corrosive emotion, and I’ve lapsed into real anger more then once over the past few weeks, but today was too good to waste on recriminations. The time of reckoning will come soon enough, but meanwhile our biggest hope is that our economics and politics could escape from the hubristic prison of its false claims, the false choices that are presented as the only possible ways forward; the wolf of extractive capitalism disguised as a disturbingly green lamb, the kind that glows in the dark.  Several times today I’ve thought about the lines from Asinaria, written in 195 BC, by Titus Maccius Plautus –

One man to another is a wolf, not a man,

It’s not the full quotation which is rarely used, but the reason it’s almost always cropped is because it does seem to express something of a universal truth about our capacity for mutual harm.

Rediscovering the sacred earth isn’t about wandering through the bosky woods with your mind full of fluffy feelings. Creatureliness is vulnerable, fragile, ephemeral, capable of great love and great cruelty. Being a part of nature completely resets our relationship with the earth and with one another.  No spirituality that follows, (and any change of perspective as profound as this will involve a spiritual dimension), can be co opted and repackaged as just another product of Western materialism.

Our allotment isn’t a panacea, a free pass to a world suddenly put right again; it’s a shoulder to the wheel, that’s all. An invitation both to celebrate and to fear the seasons, but at least to be a part of the great cycle. A way of understanding our creatureliness through growing, tending, sharing and eating; through poetry, music and song, even building, and above all a way of understanding our dependence on the earth and on nature as the foundation of real wisdom.

Cheer yourself up – cook something.

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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.

More tomorrow

A room of my own at last

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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!

 

Piano Story

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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.

 

 

Going to the wall.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Two swallows don’t make a summer

– 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.

Still waiting for the police to drop by!

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Well, we’re not exactly expecting anyone to break down the doors but every time we walk back to the flat we look up and see the daylight lamps blazing away over the propagators we think it should at least raise a tiny bit of interest. In any case I’m longing to invite a suspicious officer into the flat to check us out, with –   “Sorry mate – Madame’s maxed out on the basil today and she can’t really speak at the moment, but do come in for a cup of green tea and a flapjack“. 

We love our propagators.  They take a bit of getting used to but once you’ve got the hang of it even so-called difficult subjects become a lot easier.  The first year I sowed chillies I faffed about so much with the temperatures that the only seeds that germinated at all were the Hungarian Hot Wax. The second year went much better, but we discovered that far from being terribly delicate, the old monsters – well at least the Hot Wax and Jalapeno actually preferred it in a sheltered spot outside on the allotment. Only the hottest ones needed protection.  They also resented overcrowding – so if you’re struggling with hot chillies try giving them more space. We also went from ordinary seed compost to composted coir, but we’ve decided that for all its green credentials it’s better to make a home made mix of compost, soil and vermiculite rather than pure coir. One more thing worth trying is to get them germinated and then turn the heat down a bit.  Ours germinate well at 25C but once they’re looking healthy we’ll turn the heat down but still give them lots of light – about 12 hours.  I’m sure there are dozens of experts out there who know better but this year we’ve had 100% germination of the chillies.  ‘Don’t worry’ seems to be the order of the day.

But we’ve also had two dry days and so at last I made a start with moving the water butts to a new and much higher position alongside the shed. There’s room for three 250 litre butts, but when they’re full they’ll weigh 750 Kg  and so the stand needs to be really – no really strong.  The maths is easy –  one litre weighs a kilogramme. I like that kind of unit.  But I don’t like the proliferation of standards that makes joining the water butts together into a nightmare. When Britain ruled the world we just made up a standard, announced it to the world and expected everyone else to comply – and if they didn’t we sent a gunboat up the high street.  So in what ought to be the simple issue of things like nuts, bolts and pipe fittings there are always two standards – one for the heritage lovers, let’s say British Standard Pipe fittings – doesn’t that sound grand – and another for the rest of the slightly more intelligent world. But marooned on this delusional island as we are, it becomes necessary to learn three standards for almost every fitting except those you can hit, and there is a flourishing but incomprehensible market in adaptors which sit like translating apps between a threaded hole and a pipe.

Why bother? you might wonder.  Well it’s because standard water butt taps turn a big – 25mm outlet into a very small one – about 1/3 the diameter which, when you’re filling a watering can or trying to feed a soaker hose turns a generous flow into something with prostate problems.  So my idea is to replace the cheap plastic taps with much more expensive 25mm all-the-way-to-the-pipe taps, and join all the butts together with fancy blue pipe so I can fill a watering can before it gets dark.

The carpentry bit went smoothly and I was able to build the platform without any outlay, just using timber left over from other projects on the allotment. I baled out the first butt and moved it on to the stand but my first attempt to fit a new bung failed miserably.  Like all good gardeners I carry a vernier in my toolbox – no really – and the replacement seems to be just under 1mm bigger in diameter than the original, although they’re both supposed to be 3/4 BSP. Is this, I wonder, because these mains pressure components are meant to be what we experts call “a bash fit”?  Who knows? But as a precautionary measure I’ve ordered a different manufacturer’s so-called ‘compatible’ component which I’ll try tomorrow.  The take-home lesson for today is the one that all plumbers understand and cost into their quotations, namely nothing ever fits first time and endless waiting at the stores counter is just part of life’s rich tapestry.

The fates never smile across the whole of the Potwell Inn at once, and I’ll settle for 100% germination even if the payback is a lot of fiddling around with pipes – at least the sun shone and the birds sang and Madame sowed the first parsnips – which will probably take until midsummer to germinate. In a tiny vignette from our charmed existence at the Inn, we were sitting companionably on the sofa watching something tedious on the idiots’ lantern and I turned to Madame and said – “you smell nice”.  “Oh” she said – “you smell sweaty”. Hm.

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This is why we do it!

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Naturally – and I mean that literally – naturally none of this is actually available on the allotment right now.  I could almost certainly walk across to Sainsbury’s and buy them all, relatively cheaply but today we don’t need them because today we picked the first of our purple sprouting broccoli.  That’s a red letter day in our calendar. We still have potatoes – although they’re starting to sprout now, and we have leeks plus all the stored tomato sauces and passata, a few herbs, rhubarb and loads of frozen pesto.  We shan’t starve, but the point is we spent the day on the allotment clearing the last of the beds.  I was building the frames for a new arrangement of water butts which should give us easier access to stored water at slightly higher pressure, with the aim of using it in soaker hoses.

Is it hard work – on the allotment?  Well yes, I suppose it is.  For sure, hammering large posts 2 feet into the ground is hard work, but they’re going to have to support 750Kg of water. In fact most of the infrastructure work is quite hard – building paths and beds; wiring supports and wheelbarrowing compost around; turning compost is really hard going and yet although I’m pretty ancient by most standards, however hard a day on the allotment turns out to be I invariably feel better at the end of it. I didn’t take a photo today because to be honest there wasn’t much to look at.  About 2/3 of the beds are empty – they’re prepped and ready for planting out – but not yet.

And that’s the point of the photo from early last season. Apart from the potatoes which were grown in sacks, everything came out of the hotbed and they’re all in there again doing what plants do; sending down roots, making friends with the soil and all its inhabitants , soaking up whatever sun is available and gathering strength every day. I suppose Madame and me were doing exactly the same thing today. pottering around and dreaming of the first taste of all the plants we’ve sown, soaking up the brief moments of sun, listening to the birds and enjoying that strange semi-meditative state that can make mundane jobs, like weeding, into a pleasure. Gardeners don’t see the earth in the same way – we see the potential for wonderful food where anyone else might see bare earth. There’s a marvellously companionable side to allotmenteering and gardening, because the plot quickly becomes a kind of friend; a friend with funny ways and particular preferences like a dog that loves being scratched behind one particular ear. The wheelbarrowing and weeding aren’t work as much as caring as you might care for a friend.  In return the earth gives us back our efforts with compound interest – food with peace of mind thrown in, plus bird watching, insect spotting, butterflies and moths, field mice, badgers, deer, hedgehogs, rats, wasps and bees, shared produce and neighbourly chats – all for £40 a year. The allotment teaches us patience, resilience when the inevitable failures come along, attention towards small things.  It sets the day and its troubles into a longer perspective, gives us time to think and often to be grateful and brings home the old Benedictine couplet – “to work is to pray, and to pray is to work.” – and I don’t mean all that religious stuff, I mean real prayer that takes you out of yourself (ec-stasis) – and gives you some sense of belonging to the earth rather than just standing on it.

It seems odd to me, writing in this way because all too often blogging becomes a list of things we’ve done rather than trying to explain what they mean to us. Growing food carries meaning far beyond the nutritional value of the product. What we do can’t really be measured in productive units, calories,  added value or any of the usual metrics so beloved of economists. Growing food is a way of life but not a lifestyle. It’s the hub of a wheel of interest and concern whose spokes extend to every part of our lived experience. We become naturalists, ecologists, economists, community activists and politicians because that’s where growing food leads us.

So, to say:-

Today I banged in a couple of posts

really doesn’t even begin to tell it as it is!