Please God – no more tomatoes!

Just two trays of green tomatoes left to ripen, thank goodness and the cupboard is absolutely jammed with sauces, relishes, passata and now chutney.  I cannot look another tomato in the eye.

Blogging can get awfully repetitive, I fear.  There must be a limit to the patience of longsuffering followers when I enlarge yet again on the tomato.  It’s been a long season and I’ve entirely run out of things to say, but just imagine how much worse it would be if I was a dairy farmer – day after day when nothing much happens except milking the cows. “Daisy looked a bit off colour today” is even less interesting when Daisy is reduced to a number. The whole enterprise of blogging is an encouragement to big-up the achievements at the expense of the truth. “Finished seventh novel today, quick photo shoot with Vogue to model my latest line in dungarees and wellingtons”.

My days really can be a bit boring, apart from the fact that I’m rarely bored by the same thing more than a couple of times a month. I’ve often enough written about the rather sacramental quality to cooking and gardening, but the impact of that internality is the need to explain what’s going on inside my head while I cut up onions or dig potatoes. Revelations, unique insights and life enhancing lessons only crop up rarely and there’s essentially nothing external to look at, or describe.  The photo at the top of the page next to the unmentionable bottles of GTC is of Madame’s Grandmother’s collection of recipes.  As it happens it’s a recipe for tomato sauce which, being a wartime recipe, has the tomatoes bulked out by a whisked egg and some breadcrumbs to make it go further. Its only connection with today’s activities is the slender thread that connects our lives to hers – and it’s a good feeling to honour the past even by completely ignoring this particular lesson.  I’ve never been tempted to make parsnip cordial either. Much ordinary life is just same-old same-old, – except it’s not, because it’s the lived experience of being human and that’s a wonderful thing even when it looks a bit boring….

So today we dug the last potatoes, hopefully enough to keep us going for a few months. We scrumped an apple off a tree on an abandoned allotment (photo), and I cooked venison meatballs in T sauce (sorry). One of our neighbours beamed at us in the street, and we saw a man from the Christadelphians carrying a crate of cups and saucers out of their meeting room. I saw a gluten free pizza being cooked – it looked truly horrible – and we feasted on a few chocolate marshmallows – see what I mean?  Step away from the blog please, there’s nothing going on here.

IMG_6186All this, of course is displacement activity because what I ought to be doing is reminding you how important the latest “State of Nature” report is and explaining why it might be that these peaches were rotten before they were ripe, but that would involve an elaborate reconstruction of their immersion in gases, their interminable journey at low temperatures in large ship-borne containers or giant lorries. The fact is, they’re on the compost heap right now along with a big pile of cardboard that took ages to tear up into small pieces.  It’s essential to add plenty of carbon to a compost heap and that’s a bit of luck because one of our neighbouring flats has been refurbished and we’ve been able to recycle heaps of cardboard from the newly delivered white goods.  The downside is that the old and probably functional items were simply stacked in the basement and when we kicked up a fuss with the management company, the guilty party just dumped the rest in the road outside.

I may be a bit more grumpy than usual because living, as we do, in a block of flats with a high turnover of tenants means we get the odd nuisance upstairs.  Yesterday we spent all day listening to them having a noisy time until about midnight when all went quiet – only (it turned out) because they went out clubbing and came back at about 4.00am and started all over again. Childishly we retaliated this morning by turning two radios up to full volume in the hope of spoiling their lie-in. Did I ever claim to be a saint?

So that’s it – another ordinary day at the Potwell Inn – but we got some stuff done, we’re prepared a little better for the winter and for the clusterf**ck that is about to be visited upon us and I cling to the tiny hope that this is all a bad dream and that we won’t need those wartime recipes after all.  But then, did the Romans who built this bath house in Ravenglass ever imagine that within a couple of decades they’d be on the boat home. Wherever that is?IMG_6019

 

Chilli round-up+

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This little boxful was the third crop of chillies this season and I’m properly pleased with the way they’ve gone.  All five varieties provided a crop, and following James Wong’s advice to stress them a bit has paid dividends in the heat department as they’ve all reached somewhere near their potential. What’s been so interesting is the difference in flavour between the varieties, and the fact that some of the milder ones did better out in the sheltered parts of the open allotment than in the greenhouse. So next year I’ll look around for perhaps one new variety but I think I’ve found a good range of heat and flavour with an abundant crop. We’ve made chilli oil, chilli sauce; we dried some and we’ve eaten some raw. When I first thought of growing them, like most people I suspect, I thought they’d be far more difficult than they turned out to be.  I didn’t use any special compost and they only got fed with liquid seaweed.  The only specialist kit we used was the propagator with its daylight lamps to get them going in the late winter so we could give them the longest possible season. Looking back over the past two years the only real failures have been in germination – I think in the first year I had the temperature set far too high, in nervous anticipation of the supposed difficulty, because a steady 20 – 25C brought more reliable results in our set-up. The organge ones in the photo are Habaneros and the smaller red ones are the third flush of F1 Apache – much smaller than their earlier flushes. The organic farm shop in the market were selling these at 35p each, so they’ve more than earned their keep.

But much of today was spent at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath where we went to see an exhibition of ceramics by James Tower, and very fine it was.

It’s great to see a finished piece with its preparatory drawings – this one’s called “Copse” and I think it’s very beautiful.  Yesterday’s RWA Open was a selling exhibition and as always, very densely hung. I often find one or two pieces in a show that I really like, but the Open left me stone cold and I couldn’t quite figure out why. The pieces of work were often very competent (that sounds like faint praise, I know) but seen en masse it felt like gorging on sweets.  The James Tower exhibition gave the work (and us) room to breathe and we loved it. Suffering as I always do, from morbid introspection, I wondered why this work  seemed so much better. One awful possibility is that I’m old and set in my ways and unwilling to accept new media and ideas.  But really I don’t think that’s the case so much as the difficulty I have with much recent work that’s trying to teach me something. Didactic, concept driven art often lacks the contemplative and quiet side that I prefer.  I sat once in the Rothko room in Tate Modern, I was there for about 3/4 hour and during that time dozens of people walked in, walked around and out again. The work demands, and repays time spent with it. The much derided practice of copying favourite paintings is actually a rather good way of understanding them, and the sheer discipline of drawing is all-but disappearing from the curriculum. Does that make me an old fogey? I’m sure there’s a great deal of recently produced art that emerges from the kind of obsessive study and contemplation I’m talking about and, in fact, it’s possible think that those artists who are still pursuing drawing as a means of understanding, are still carrying the flame. We always make a point of going to the Jerwood Drawing Prize exhibitions, obviously only possible if you’re in the UK.

Anyway, there we are – I expect I’ve annoyed quite enough people by mixing up allotments and art but tough.  I’m also interested in philosophy, the price of fish, heading off the coming ecological and climate crisis and (consequently) economics.  I’ve spent a lifetime refusing to be simple and so should anyone who cares about thriving. Our culture wants us all to live as if we could fit life into a small shed, but I’ve discovered (with a great deal of help) that I actually live in a large, rambling and poorly maintained stately home which I choose to call the Potwell Inn. There are still rooms I haven’t been in yet; we’re not subsidised by the National Trust; it’s open all hours, and we’re always happy to have a lock-in with the right company. Tonight’s special is toasted cheese on sourdough.

A bit of re-mythologizing

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From Christmas with the demythologisers – Rev. E. L. Mascall, – to the tune of Good King Wenceslas

“Sir, my thoughts begin to stray

And my faith grows bleaker.

Since I threw my myths away

My kerygma’s weaker.”

“Think on Heidegger, my lad,

That pellucid Teuton;

Then you won’t feel half so bad

When they talk of Newton.”

Sorry, that’s a terrible theological in-joke, but writing earlier about the way the (my) mind works, prompts me to share this pretty awful character with you.  I invented him during a period of intense reflection about nine or ten years ago to try to think or write about the power of words to uncover/expose the inner workings of ideas. I’ve never had a problem with myths – understood properly they’re just about the best way to tell the truth about the most profound mysteries. Furbelow is, of course, one of many alter-egos such as we all adopt from time to time. They’re custom built and rooted in the confusing reality of our individual lives. Taking Furbelow and mythologising him deliberately gave me the chance to regard a fragment of my own inner life, as it were, from the outside. I’m hesitant to release him into a harsh world, but he hates being caged up in my head so here goes –

Captain Furbelow

At the edge of the River Severn in the month of December you might stand in the freezing cold one night, with the moon sitting low in the sky and the wind rattling down over your shoulder from the Northeast and driving the clouds across like fat schooners. And if you stood until your fingers turned white and brittle and waited and waited as the tide flowed and foxes went about their business you might wonder at the sheer size of the sky above your head. And you might, as you scanned the sky and thought to yourself – “this is the point in the film where the geese fly over, honking, and my blood freezes” – you might also begin to see the millions of stars above your head and among them you might notice the constellation of Orion with his sword and his belt. And you might think to yourself also that this dark sky reminds you a bit of your Dad’s huge black railway overcoat then you wouldn’t be far out. And imagine if you could search in his deep black pockets for sweets, and breathe in the familiar sharp smell of his armpits, and the smell of the bus, and the smell of the rain and the pub and you would feel very strange indeed perhaps and you would know that asking whether such a being as Captain Furbelow actually exists is a silly question, rather like asking whether the Potwell Inn exists. And when you have seen the stars that line his greatcoat stretched over your head in the dead of night, then you just know it, and the teachers, pharisees, inquisitors and pedants as usual, know nothing.

As to the facts, there’s not a lot to be said. He’s a weaver of meanings, creating a unique form of greatcoat cloth.  Some people have argued that there may be a whole hierarchy of Furbelows and such a thing may be as true as any other thing. What we know for a fact is that he lives on a hill near a seaside town – hence the name and rank – and he drives a yellow Morris 1000 van with stars and a crescent moon hand painted on the side, and he has a more or less scandalous and very intermittent liaison with “Oestral” who is an “International Clairvoyante” and whose visions regularly transcend the parish boundary.

The cloth which he weaves descends on the town at night which is why you can’t see it. It’s said he spends the day time at a huge loom in a wooden shack, and where he weaves the cloth from fragments he has harvested during his journeys. Anything from a ship’s manifest to a small advertisement could be woven. A tiny piece of conversation blown in the wind is not too small to escape his attention. He might be arrested by the arching of an eyebrow or the faint flush of the skin in a chance meeting between two people who do not yet know that they are lovers. A dog’s bark, a small joke or even a road sign might inflame him. A particular favorite of his are lists and catalogues which can easily be unravelled and used again. Memories, sounds and smells are the warp and weft of the cloth and if he can lay his hands on the glint of the sea he can weave it in judiciously so as to bring the whole fabric to perfection. The promiscuity of his means is a source of continual irritation to the town, and especially to the deacons of the local Baptist church who, being both strict and particular as well as Baptist, have only the one story which, is completely threadbare.

This may be the origin of the assertion that “Captain Furbelow is a creature of the night” – which phrase has a peculiar resonance for parish councillors and deacons. However it may be that the simple fact that he is, in reality, out and about more obviously during the night, is enough to remove the inverted commas and turn the criticism into an observation. Some qualification may therefore assist us. Captain Furbelow is especially a creature of the warm summer night. On such a night, when the sea-town is held in the air by the force of dreams. Faded seawashed driftwood spars, frames, orange-peel. Delabole slate, terracotta tiles, paynes grey, windworn rocks, seaworn pebbles, scrubbed sand, lichens, quoits and dracaenas like silks in a cabinet or an artists’ colour chart gather on the shore.   Then, on such a night, as the sun sets and the fast food shops are cleaned down, the soft warmth of evening insinuates its seductive aromas around the harbour. When the scent of hot tarmac, wallflowers, fish and chips, cigarette smoke and stale beer hang in the salt air like pheromones to the girls gathered like moths beneath coloured lights . When pasties, suntan oil and peeling shutters, (shriven by the summer heat), gift their perfumes to the sky as it turns from pale blue to indigo. When the people refuse the cadence of night and day.   When they try to stretch the day as if they could hold the tide at the rim of the horizon by sheer effort of will. Then Captain Furbelow will leave home and drive down the winding road through the town.

He is also a creature of the winter night, of the harvest night, of the wassail, of the night of mourning. He is both Captain of the Feast and solitary figure at the graveside. “Amen to that!” he cries, and the deacons and the parish councillors murmur damp threats and plan revenge so horrible that you would dream bad dreams for a month.

Truth to tell, I think Captain Furbelow is a bit frightening. The smell of his armpits and the acrid greatcoat speak of other adventures and happenings that aren’t so good. In fact they’re everything the deacons say. Sometimes he puts his hands deep down into his greatcoat pockets and you can hear things scurrying around in there. Terrible things. Some say that the Captain is exceedingly old, even as old as Adam himself and others maintain that he drifted into town in the nineteen sixties and never left.

Nothing goes with a greatcoat like a beard, and a cigarette. But this beard is different. So dense you could not hack your way through it with the sharpest billhook. A beard to occlude the sky and the clouds. A beard full of thorns and small nesting birds and fugitives hiding from justice. A beard full of things you tried to say and couldn’t. A grey beard with a golden stain that might come from poems spoken out loud or from constant furtive roll-ups.

Go well, Captain Furbelow out there in the world with your beard and your greatcoat. I’ll see you again at the Wassail in January.

 

 

Wet Sunday – much satisfaction.

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The title came to me as an imaginary reading from the i ching.  The photo is of a pretty ordinary patch of common weeds on the towpath.

It’s eight o’clock on Sunday evening.  I spent most of the  evening making bread and pastry while Madame prepped the filling for some Cornish pasties for tomorrow’s lunch with the boys (all in their thirties and forties now!) .  We’re working together on our middle son’s allotment tomorrow to start building the greenhouse we dismantled a few weeks ago in Bath.  It was going free and it was in pretty good condition and so he took it on.  Apart from that we went up to the allotment early to beat the rain – that didn’t work – and so we plodded on through increasingly sharp showers to clear more beds, cover them with compost and sheet them up for the winter.  By the time we got home we were very damp and very tired. I’d turned the three active compost bins, a very gratifying job because the resulting compost was some of the best we’ve ever made.  It’s hard to overestimate the impact of soil fertility on allotments – it’s not just bigger crops, it’s healthier and more resilient soil which makes for healthier and more resilient plants.  Our clay/loam soil which is prone to poaching and waterlogging is capable of withstanding flood and drought after three years of very heavy applications of organic material.  “What’s the secret?” people ask, and the answer is “there’s no secret – just compost”.  We stopped digging this year and the beds are firm enough to stand on now even when they’re wet. Goodness knows where it all goes, the asparagus bed swallowed up six inches of seaweed last winter and where we spread leaves as a mulch last autumn, there’s no trace of them now.  What we do have is worms – everywhere.  Did you know there are a number of British worm species? –  and they all live at different levels, so the fact that we don’t see some on the surface doesn’t mean they’re not there.

I didn’t feel much like writing today, we were both so tired after the session on the allotment we fell asleep in the armchairs. But there’s something rather special about working in the rain.  My broadbrimmed hat keeps the rain from running down my neck, and at this time of the year the rain and wind aren’t that cold.

I’m aware that writing about the allotment, the whole Potwell Inn way of life, travelling around in the campervan all adds up to a faintly mythologised life.  But it’s not mythic at all, it’s all  utterly ordinary.  Things go well, things go extraordinarily badly; I read books all the time, some inspire me and some fill me with fear for the future. I know a few wildflowers so I’m never alone, there’s always something or someone to talk to.  We work, cook, eat, garden – often in companionable silence. For every idea that bears fruit there are a dozen that don’t. The motivation for sharing by writing about it is that if we could teach more people to live within the ordinary – or perhaps I should capitalize it and call it the Ordinary, there would be a lot less sadness in the world.  In a day or a week when not much happens except for leaning on a fence and watching the plants grow, I never feel the need for anything more exciting. IMG_6167A slice of bread from a well made sourdough loaf spread with home made marmalade in the morning is a celebration of some terribly underrated domestic skills. Good stock in the fridge and tonight the smell of pasties cooking in the oven, fresh veg from the allotment – what more could anyone want?  – there is real authority in the Ordinary, the kind that makes many politicians look like two year old children in a tantrum.

The Potwell Inn isn’t some kind of metaphysical philosopy, in fact it’s the least metaphysical idea you could entertain. Stuff, dirt, earth, nature. Marvellous!

 

Will this be the turning point?

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I want to write something about this day of action against the climate disaster, but more than anything I want to approach it from a positive point of view.  It’s oh so tempting to reach for the standard ‘end of everything‘ metaphors like Arnold’s “melancholy , soft, withdrawing roar”, and tides certainly come into it – the rising sea levels that can make tides lethal; the storm surges to which the UK is no stranger already. We have a battle on our hands if we’re going to avoid being the last generation to know our wildflowers beyond pictures; the last generation before the extinctions begin, the last generation who – like the Easter Islanders – disappear without trace.

Let’s be clear, the earth can get along very well (probably better) without us.  The natural world doesn’t exist for our benefit – either as raw material or cultural asset. The best we can aspire to is to live in harmony with it as good house guests, clearing up after ourselves and not stealing the silver.

The rewards of living peaceably are less tangible than the latest lump of plastic, and the plastic is always going to be easier to sell because you can’t sell peace at all. It’s pointless trying to tell the owner of the 5L diesel pickup who’s just blocked the entrance that they’re ‘not really happy’, because they never felt happier than the day they picked up the £40,000 lump of sparkling junk from the dealer – never happier until the next must-have object came along. The rewards of living peaceably are free but not cheap.  Allotments, farms, gardens and relationships need a lot of time and commitment. There’s a lot of make-do-and-mend about it, a lot of stepping back, not taking the last biscuit, a lot of celebrating the gifts of others, a lot of learning, a lot of unexpected joy.

Our politics is broken, our culture is broken, our education, social services and health services are broken too but out of crisis comes the opportunity.  Our enemies see it as an opportunity as well, chaos is good for business and there’s nothing healthier than shortages for making a quick profit. Today is an opportunity for peaceable people all over the world to sieze the initiative. The word crisis derives from the Greek ‘crino’ –  to choose. When we come to a fork in the footpath we have to choose which direction to take and today we’re standing at the fork, and the signpost suggests that one path simply leads to more of the same.  The other path might look scary but it’s the way home.

What we’re looking for is hope. Hope for the environment, hope for the climate, hope for our children and their children, hope for rewarding and productive work, hope for the sense of belonging to something worth believing in.

We will not kneel at the feet of the economy or kiss the hand of the powerful but we will share in the cause of the millions who want nothing but to live peaceably and to flourish.

It’s the Potwell Inn manifesto

Clanger Pudding again

IMG_6117This is a family story, passed down to me and I’ve no means of verifying it, but it came to me from my mother who had inherited my grandfather’s habit of inventing names for dishes.  As children, if we asked what was for pudding and she said it was ‘Asquith’ my sister and I would groan  – “not rice pudding again!”

My grandfather and his three sons (my uncles) were all carpenters and builders and spent a good deal of time working away from home.  They had apparently invented a dish called ‘clanger pudding’ which comprised anything – literally anything – that could be warmed up in a pan and dumped on a plate.

Any half experienced allotmenteer will know that clanger pudding feeling, because crops don’t ever ripen in recipe order.  Gluts and failures invariably stand in the way of the fantasy that you can wander down to the garden and come back with a trug full of the exact vegetables needed for the recipe you had in mind. Pickling, preserving, freezing and bottling can take up some of the slack but at the Potwell Inn we have very limited space and there are only two of us so we are regularly invaded by masses of courgettes and – this week – broccoli.

When we packed up and drove to Lleyn on Wednesday the back seat of the car resembled a greengrocer’s market stall. We had harvested anything that was ripe on the allotment and brought it up full of good intentions to explore new vegetarian dishes while we were here. The first darkening on the horizon came when we discovered that many of the runner beans were a bit past it – well a bit kevlar to be honest and on the edge of becoming basket weaving material. Then there was the courgette that had become a marrow, a squash big enough for six and pounds of summer broccoli some of it on the brink of flowering. Cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, beetroot, peppers, aubergine, chillies, herbs in abundance – did we think we were going to spend 24 hours a day cooking and eating?

And there’s the allotmenteer’s torment.  It’s hard work growing things and so we don’t like to waste them. Naturally the colour supplement gurus have this under control by planting single seeds at 4 day intervals thereby offering a perfect succession. In the real world we have better things to do than a one mile round trip to sow a seed, so as the week progresses we feel more and more guilty and the smell of the broccoli in the veg compartment begins to spread through the cottage every time we open the fridge. We’ve had one or two successes on the veggie front, but it requires a good deal of ingenuity and we’re noticing a certain sameness about many of the recipes.  The temptation to add intense umami flavours to everything can make the vegetables – which should be the stars of the show – into mere carriers of the flavours.

Today was a C+ effort using the tomatoes we’d brought to make panzanella.  I wrote the other day about the “sourdough” we’d bought and this being a pretty shop free area I was stuck with it for this evening. I added in a grilled pepper and our own basil to reduce the surplus a bit more but as soon as I added the dressing the bread quickly collapsed into pulp. Clanger pudding in fact. But it was good enough, as was the large quantity of broccoli and stilton soup I made yesterday.  Jacket potatoes were OK too and we’ve eaten plainly but well. But I think the takeaway point is that if we’re going to eat as much as possible from whatever we can grow, we shall have to be content perhaps with less variety.  The upside is that the treats when they come along – I’m thinking of our own asparagus and apples – are all the more exciting.

Our time here is half gone, but we’ve done some good walks  and in the evenings we’ve entertained ourselves by reading to one another from our books.  It’s very efficient because we each get to read one and hear the best bits from the other.  Madame is reading William Feaver’s new book about Lucian Freud and I’m reading Richard Mabey’s “The Cabaret of Plants” – both of them excellent (and I wish I could read that last sentence as my eighteen year old self!)

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A new widget

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I’m inclined to think that we bloggers are better at talking than listening, and having banged on for a year at some (130,000 words) length on any subject that interested me, I realized this morning that if this blog is to be any more significant than a bunch of egotistical blah blah blah it needs to offer the opportunity for more engagement and more feedback.

I’ve long wanted the site to have its own email address so that readers could respond privately without having to use public comments or likes, but I’ve been wary of compromising our privacy by handing out my own addresses and being swamped. I realize that this could be risky but I’ve taken every precaution to keep the ‘contact@severnsider.com’ channel separate, and I hope and anticipate that this will add something to the whole experience of the Potwell Inn. After all, whoever heard of a pub where you had to listen to the landlord without being able to join in a conversation. So now there will be two ways of joining in, the ‘comment’ button for stuff you don’t mind sharing with everyone, and the ‘contact’ button for anything else. I can’t promise anything more than a slow response, but I will try and respond and I’m always pleased to receive constructive ideas, criticism  and further thoughts.

That, at least, was the intention when I woke ‘on a mission‘ this morning.  “It’s time” – I thought and I charged into action. Not being a computer geek I should have realized that nothing is as easy as it seems and I finally made it work ten hours later, which rather took the shine off my glorious optimism.

I’ll put up a ‘proper’ post later if I can find the energy, but meanwhile I hope you’ll find this a useful opportunity.  Do let me know if you agree, I get the sense that there’s a community out there which is struggling, like me, to make a lucid and useful response to our climate and ecological crises by living differently – hence the endless reading, the allotment and the emphasis on food.

We’re now in North Wales for a little while in our exploration of the regions and their different farming challenges. We seem to have been (I suppose we have been) travelling for weeks, but nothing has shaken my conviction that there is a way through this mess.

 

I’m not quiet I’m thinking!

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Actually that’s not totally true because like many grandparents find, school holidays offer lots more opportunities to be with grandchildren and this last couple of weeks we’ve also got together with all our grown up children. However that’s not where most of my energy has been going, because I’m in the process of changing my mind. This isn’t a small matter of believing X rather than Y, but a fundamental problem with the way X and Y have been understood. LIke the vast majority of people who are interested in natural history I’ve gone along with the prevailing view that the preservation of threatened species of all kinds hinges on re-creating the precise ecological communities – if necessary behind high fences –  that once allowed them to flourish. The vocabulary of conservation is spattered with words like ‘virgin’ and ‘pristine’ that imply that nature was OK until we messed it up and so we need to rewind the programme to the point where it went wrong and then press the freeze button for the rest of time. It implies that there is some kind of evolutionary plan that resulted in everything being the way it used to be before we spoiled it, and, even worse, that these ecological relationships were somehow ‘right’ and any deviation from them – for instance when so-called ‘alien’ species (the very word gives the game away), move in, they need to be removed, or perhaps ‘cleansed’ in order to return to the pre-lapsarian state of grace. Forgive the religious language but it’s actually a religious thought wearing a white lab coat, but it’s all wrong, and that’s where I’ve been stranded, reading furiously (in every sense of the word) and trying to catch up with a field I know very little about.

At the very moment I was finally getting settled into my botanical studies, I started to get interested in weeds because there are a lot more of them nearby to study; one thing led to another and now I’m in limbo trying to figure out what it’s all for.  What’s the direction we need to travel in in order to repair the ecological damage we’ve done, without  reducing the natural world to a desert with a few gated reserves dotted around to remind us what we’ve lost? What does a healthy and productive earth look like? – feel like? How can we live our lives fruitfully without making things worse? How did we get to the point where we defined the best interests of a tiny part of the human race with the interests of the whole earth? … and I don’t have any answers at all yet. Doubtless they’ll come along eventually but in the meanwhile I’m prowling around the Potwell Inn in a mist of self doubt needing to examine a large part of my experience and memory, paying special attention to the presuppositions that have been pit props and retaining walls to my inner world for decades.

Of course there’s a wider context for all this.  The political chaos that hangs over us like a black cloud is an inescapable source of anxiety, but personally too, things have happened that threw me off kilter.  A farmer I’d known well in one of my parishes fell down the stairs at the weekend, broke his neck and died the next day. It’s a heartbreaking event for his own family, but it leaves us all feeling that life is fragile, fugitive. What with the morons in charge and accidents and illness threatening, what’s the context in which we can  understand the earth, its tides and weather in the broadest sense.

It feels like grief.  Cooking and gardening feel like going through the motions, displacement activities. Yesterday I went to the local stationers and to my great surprise I was able to buy a card index – the beginnings of the Flora of Muckyannydinny Lane.  It’s a card index because you can’t design a database until you are able to define it detailed purposes and I’ve no idea yet what that purpose might be so it’s back to the technology of the quill pen.

But now I’m off to try to mend the fridge on the campervan before we take a break driving as far North and West as we can in England. Yet again we were drawn to the West, and we’re going further North too – right to the Scottish borders, completing the last link from Cornwall in the South and catching up with friends on the way.  There’s nothing systematic in this, just happenstance and curiosity and a big pile of books of which the latest is Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild”. Read it – it’ll explode your mind!

 

Unravelling a bit

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There I am, nose firmly stuck in Richard Mabey’s book “Nature Cure” to which I turned the moment I finished his “Weeds – the story of outlaw plants”, when Madame says to me – “I wish I could find more books like that for you” – the subtext reading something like -‘then you’d sit quietly occasionally’.

The books that have been most important in my life have all shared a number of characteristics in that they set me off on a binge reading spree of the author’s other books; I always read them twice or more; I also read the footnotes; I read the bibliographies and finally I then continue the reading binge by reading the sources.  In this instance many of Richard Mabey’s other books were already on the bookshelf, bought years ago and for reasons only peripherally connected to my present interests.  “Flora Britannica” was bought to supplement the books on botanical art, for instance. First time round the books were interesting and, if you like, out there in the sense that they didn’t get under my skin like they are now; all of which is a rather long introduction to the fact that I woke up this morning feeling cross and after reading in bed for half an hour I felt even crosser – mostly with myself. The phrase, a quotation, really crystallised a sense of unease I’d been failing to unravel or confront for weeks. I realized that I was feeling slightly miffed by the fact that Richard Mabey had perfectly articulated in 2005 a difficulty that I had steered around using a very sophisticated evasion.

But first I need to introduce a new term that I’ve not used before because I’ve tried to avoid using challenging language on this blog.  However this term (which I’ll explain once and then use the less provoking acronym PFTP) was a piece of advice regularly given to his students by Canon David Isitt who was Canon Theologian at Bristol Cathedral and one of my best ever teachers.  PFTP stands for “pissing from the pulpit”and it’s what you do when you explain how harrowing and difficult your sermon has been to prepare and preach. ‘Nobody wants or needs to know about your suffering!’ He would rage when some hapless student had broken his rule.

I have the gretest affection for everything David Isitt taught me, but in the particular instance I’m writing about now, I think a dash of PFTP is allowed. The process by which you unravel a difficulty is of interest if it might be of any help to someone else confronting the same problem. So was Richard Mabey indulging in PFTP when he quoted this phrase from Jonathan Bate, concerning the Romantic movement? :-

The price of this intoxication with with the spirit of things is a definite break with the human community. Pantheism displaces philanthropy, communion with nature stands in for social awareness.

He (Mabey) goes on to write – (see chapter 3 – Commonplaces) – to write brilliantly about the dangerous defects of almost all natural history television and books, their cutie cutie anthropomorphism and fabricated narratives. The question I couldn’t avoid asking myself, crystallised as a challenge.  “Isn’t your blog in danger of adding to that selfsame false consciousness that creates an entirely bogus world in which runner beans cavort in an organic paradise, and rare wildflowers (accompanied by lofty thoughts) spring up in your path as they did for the great saints.  Or to put it another way, is it ever OK to write when you’re angry or will that put off the readers, the people you’ve gulled along with your lovely word pictures and photos?

I can almost guarantee before I press the ‘publish’ button that this will receive less views and less likes than a piece of the same length about sourdough bread or interplanting Nasturtiums, and it concerns me that I’m so worried I self-censor, but it concerns me more that I could end up publishing stuff that implies “I’m quite the cleverest and happiest person in the entire world – just look at how beautiful my world is!”

So when I’ve written about the drug dealers, the machete attacks, the homelessness and the problems associated with living even in a small city –  problems like air pollution, unenforced planning regulations and such like, it’s not because I want to hint what an edgy existence we lead here at the Potwell Inn so readers can admire our tenacity, it’s because that’s the way life is around here, and the orchids have to set up shop in the midst of all this, just as we do. If I’m drawn to talk about the weeds it’s because the urban environment is – in its own way – just as fascinating as the pristine meadow. Can I escape from anything by creating the perfect allotment and going off to explore the western coasts in the campervan ? – of course not, and neither can anyone else.

This is a sceptic’s guide to being human and, to quote Jonathan Swift in his 1732 poem “the Lady’s Dressing Room” – “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”. (Sorry that extra vulgarity slipped in, but it expresses in a line what I’d struggle to write in a paragraph). Being fully human is – to quote Francis Schaffer, to be “a glorious ruin”, and more than anything else I think the greatness of human life lies in being able to live fully in the midst of the bigotry and stupidity of moronic politicians and their poisonous effluvia.  I don’t want to use (Wordsworth’s) daffodils as a distaction from my moral and ethical obligations to my neighbours and I’d be heartbroken if anything I ever write became a substitute for real action.

Life is a work in progress – until it isn’t any more – and there’s a lot more I’m trying to get my head around (sorry, more PFTP), but what’s shouting at me is that I can’t be an objective and detached observer of the natural world, however rhapsodic that might make me sound, because the best I can manage is to notice it from the inside. There’s no part of me, not a single cell or thought that’s not embedded, hefted in this mess – and, to quote Dylan Thomas – ” – I am dumb to tell the crooked rose / My youth is bent by the same wintry fever”.

Near where we used to live there’s a difficult place to find, called Damery Lake.  It’s hardly a lake any more but a small trout stream runs through it and it’s crossed by a narrow lane that winds for four or five miles between a farm shop I knew well, and a canoe showroom – so naturally I often found an excuse to take the long way home and go from one to the other. I stopped once on the small pack-bridge crossing the stream and I was struck by the most painful waking dream, that one day a century ago, a young officer, fighting in the midst of one of the terrible First World War battles came back to the lake in his imagination and escaped the horror for just a moment as he remembered his childhood nearby, and that some part of his consciousness had become attached to the place like a ghostly presence, filling my mind too, and so the scene ever since has been engraved in my imagination.  Two very small, very expendable human lives separated by a century and united by a place of great natural beauty.  I wonder if he ever found his way back to the lake, or even fished there? Writing the natural world has to embrace all these dimensions of life if it’s not to become escapist and dangerous, and I salute Richard Mabey for encouraging me to take the risk.

 

 

 

 

Sunny day kitchen rituals

One of the most frustrating things  found when I was learning to cook was that so many recipes depended either on specialised bits of kit that I didn’t have and couldn’t afford to buy, or on the immediate availability of things like “a light chicken  stock” or “a tablespoon of pesto”.  This could turn what was billed as a ‘quickly prepared light supper” into a prolongued campaign spread over several days and involving a great deal of improvisation. There were no glossy photographs to show what the dish was meant to look like and so there was always an element of doubt as to whether I’d nailed it or failed it. Well-travelled friends always seemed to know what to do with a scallop or what ‘al dente’ meant, but being entirely self taught was fraught with dangers. With Elizabeth David’s recipes for instance all you had to go on was a rough guide of the ingredients and method accompanied by a wonderfully evocative John Minton line drawing which, taken together, made you feel as if you were sitting on a shady terrace in Avignon. When, decades later, we could finally afford to get there we disovered that French cafes were a very mixed bag indeed, and that often the dishes I’d improvised at home were rather better.  There’s an ocean of difference betwen a cook and a chef.

That said, I remained faithful to Miss David and her ‘battery de cuisine’ and over fifty years I’ve managed to acquire most of the really useful bits of kit, and by buying the best quality I can afford, they’ll mostly see me out. Knives are one exception to the rule that you get what you pay for.  You can spend an absolute fortune on them, but I’ve discovered that the top of the range cooks knives sold by Ikea are more than equal to some fancy knives sold at ten times the price.

As for staples, having the allotment is obviously the best way of growing exactly what you need and cooking it at peak freshness – it really does make a perceptible difference. The stock has evolved over the decades but there’s always some in the fridge, condensed down so that a tablespoon will transform a litre of water and a teaspoon will lift an ordinary dish into something special. Cooking is an act of love and skimping on the ingredients sends a message to to those you cook for, that you don’t care very much about them. And reading that sentence back to myself, I can say that very few people – in fact only the ones who should really matter – will appreciate the care you’ve put in and reciprocate the feelings.

So there are mornings when I wake up and go into the kitchen and I know there are routine but essential jobs that have to be done.  Check the stock in the fridge – is there enough or is it time to make more? Does it need simmering for five minutes to make sure it doesn’t go off? – it doesn’t keep for ever! How about the sourdough starter? does it need feeding? Is there bread or should I bake more?  In an emergency I can bake some Scottish morning rolls and get them on the table in 90 minutes, but if it’s sourdough then it will need 24 hours at least. Check the fridge – it isn’t just professional kitchens that need to keep an eye out for the mouldy monsters lurking at the back. Make a list of ingredients in the cupboards that need replacing- there’s nothing more frustrating than going for the plain flour and realizing there’s none left.

Then, this is the month when the jamming, pickling and preserving move to the top of the agenda. Last year’s experiments with dill pickles were a bit of a mixed bag.  Although nothing went off, some of the textures and flavours left a lot to be desired and so this year we’ve grown  special variety of gherkins intended for pickling.  The three plants are incredibly prolific, why wouldn’t they be? they’re growing on the remains of the hotbed and they’ve got their roots into about 300lbs of horse manure! So the sheer quantity makes more experiments possible.  Of the recipes we tried last year the most successful – ie the ones we ate – came from Diana Henrys book “Salt, Sugar, Smoke” – so this morning I sorted a pile of similar sized gherkins and once we’ve been up to the allotment to dig some horseradish and collect dill – lots of it –  we’ll start this year’s pickles.  It’s all too easy with preserving to make much more than you’re ever likely to need, and we give lots away to our hungry and delightfully greedy family.  This is an area of preserving I’m not very familiar with, but for sure you need lots of flavour, lots of herbs and such like.  Rather like making pâté it seems that what feels like overseasoning works best.

I think there must be something in the air because today I had my very first thoughts about Christmas: must be those Boxing Day pickles! Autumn is around the corner and we’re feasting now.  My head is full of thoughts of pâtés and confits and now the potatoes are in full spate I might have a go at aligot again. We first came cross it at a summer fête in South East France.  People were queueing for dollops of almost indecently rich potatoes creamed with cheese, butter cream and garlic served with a lump of sausage. It was clearly a local favourite but a single plateful was probably a day’s worth of calories for anyone except a manual labourer. I cooked it years ago for our son and his girlfriend who was obviously more figure concious than any of us. She ate one delicate mouthful and pushed the plate away – too rich!

I know I ‘go on’ a bit but this blog is all about being human and although I range over a lot of topics, I keep coming back to the fact that growing food, cooking and eating it is at the very heart of the Potwell Inn philosophy. Gathering, sharing, eating, talking, having fun, telling stories, sharing troubles aren’t luxuries or extras, they’re it, they’re the point of being human.