Fine words butter no parsnips

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These were grown on a piece of the allotment that the previous tenant said nothing could be grown on and demonstrates two points at once.  Firstly, there’s no saying what a piece of ground will grow once you’ve removed not just one, but two layers of carpet and weed control mat separated  by a four inch layer of soil and weed roots; and secondly that the old tale that parsnips fork when they’re grown in recently manured ground may be a bit more complicated than it seems.  There’s some evidence, apparently, that parsnips and other roots fork as a result of eelworm infestation, so it may be that the forking eelworms (dare I say?) like manure. Who can tell?  This ground was absolutely inundated with well-rotted horse manure  after we discovered what the problem was, and then uncovered and removed it- well, sort of rolled up!.

So that’s the parsnips almost dealt with except to say that roasted with carrots, one of our ukichi kuri squashes and some of our potatoes and rainbow chard made the most lovely treat. The difference in quality and flavour between shop bought veg and our own is beyond dispute.

So that leaves butter and fine words.  A couple of days ago I ran out of olive oil when I was baking, so I substituted the same weight of butter in my everyday sourdough and it worked perfectly well.  However there’s a difference in the texture that I can’t quite put my finger on, so I probably won’t do it again unless I run out of oil.

And finally, fine words. LIke all bloggers I pay attention to the stats, and like everyone else I love it when they go up and I wonder what I’ve done wrong when they go down. When a whole continent disappears for three days I do worry a bit – and if anyone says they don’t care about things like that, they’re telling fat porkies. The Potwell Inn would be simpler to describe in terms of what it isn’t than what it is. In particular it isn’t a feelgood site, a natural history site, a life coaching site, a spirituality site or a cookery site although, confusingly, I write about all these things. So I have to expect that sometimes when people follow the Potwell Inn because they have an allotment, they might be disappointed when – especially in the winter – there’s not much to write. “Went to allotment to take up the kitchen waste, very muddy” is not going to butter any parsnips or, indeed, crack any pots in Warrington.

In fact, yesterday we took the kitchen waste up to the allotment and dug a few parsnips. I uncovered the compost heap, which I’ve been turning frequently to bury the rat attracting food under the older stuff.  I don’t mean cooked food scraps – they go into general waste because the council won’t collect food waste from our block of flats; but rats also love to chew a lump of raw cauliflower trimming or a sprouted potato. As I turned the waste in, a sleek brown rat jumped out from somewhere near the bottom and scuttled around looking for a way of escaping.  I was holding a murderous looking four pronged stable fork but the sight of the rat’s rather lovely shiny fur softened my heart and I stood back while it went on its way.

The winter heap is very different from the summer heap.  Apart from the rats, the worms love a winter heap and multiply in their thousands if you keep it aerated and warm.  You can almost hear them chomping away at the kitchen waste, and as long as I keep the heap from going anaerobic and smelly it consumes kitchen waste, shredded paper and cardboard faster than we can put it in.

Winter compost and summer compost are very different. Winter words and summer words are very different too. Life at the Potwell Inn has its seasons, and as it moves on, my interests, experiences and outlook change as well.  At the moment there are over 250,000 words in this blog.  Sometimes – it’s lovely when it happens – someone will come on to the site and read fifteen or twenty pages at one sitting.  Many readers seem to dip in and out and as the blog has grown I’ve realized that people access it in different ways and for different reasons. I’m looking to change and re-index the categories and tags to make it easier for readers to access the bits they’re interested in. But the core purpose of the Potwell Inn blog is to reflect on the whole tricky business of being human and staying human in whatever ways catch my attention from day to day.

I’d like to reach more people.  The Potwell Inn is, hopefully, a sanctuary for the alternative, the bewildered, the joyful and the curious – against the onslaught of the free market vultures. If you’ve read H G Well’s novel you’ll know that the Potwell Inn has a river running through its grounds. There were once fish in it and a ferry to make the crossing. The brewers are desperate to close it down and sell it for redevelopment as a gated housing development. I’d love it if you passed the link to the site on to your friends – I’m confident that if you like the site I’d like your friends too, so do press the button. Small is beautiful but a bit bigger would carry more weight in the fight against all that diminishes our humanity.

 

 

 

 

Everyday sacred

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Writing about baking bread the other day I was casting around for a way of expressing just how important ordinary actions and objects can be. I’ve written in the past about the ‘ordinary’ and I’ve no doubt I’ll keep coming back to it. Ordinary is a word inflected by its use by the church to describe the authority of regularity, of obedience, of order, but in  institutional hands it came to mean repetitiveness, blind obedience and hierarchy. Sometimes it’s possible to blow the dust off an old word and restore it to its full meaning, but maybe ‘ordinary’ has been taken to the charity shop once too often and so it just means ‘a bit meh’.

So my loaf of bread, ordinary though it is to me, because it embodies a whole network of responsibilities and regularities – and great beauty too, aside from its utility as a shared food – ‘ordinary’ doesn’t quite stretch to it.  So I tried another word. ‘everyday’.   Everyday bread perhaps, for some people, conjures up a faint memory of ‘daily bread’. The word stuck in my mind and although I’ve tried writing on a number of other subjects I keep coming back to the idea of ‘everyday sacred’.

I’m really worried about using these kind of words because they’ve been so hijacked and starved by by their association with organised religion with which I’ve had a long relationship in the past.  But that leaves me with a problem because if ‘spirituality’, ‘sacred’, and all their associated concepts are put beyond reach by the institutions that hold the concession at the moment, we have to start from scratch in describing what for many of us is a deeply felt connection with the earth, and with one another, that transcends the ‘selfish gene’ nonsense peddled by Old Testament atheists like Richard Dawkins.

I no longer have a belief in the supernatural.  I dreamed about losing it and then it just happened one day as I stood watching the River Severn in flood, and I saw it float away in the fierce water.  It wasn’t at all dramatic; I wasn’t as much ‘losing my faith’ as being set free to find it again in another place, free of the rigidity and dogma. I’ve never spoken about this before and it may come as a bit of a shock to some of my friends so I’ll have to pace up and down  a bit before I press the ‘publish’ button, but there we are – it’s a relief to have written it.

So now I can write about everyday sacred without any ambiguity about my intentions. This blog isn’t about selling anything it’s about being human – delightfully, stupidly and increasingly decrepitly human.  When I’m in the kitchen making bread I feel connected.  When I’m on the allotment I feel it too.  On my way through the park today I stood face to face with a pair of long tailed tits in the hedge who seemed as curious about me as I was about them, and the urge to thank somebody, something, surged inside me.

Everyday sacred is that sense of gratitude because the earth provides so much that we need. The photo is of a sketch I made of a garlic bulb – this was a more successful one, I did dozens of others that turned out like schoolboy phallic graffiti – it’s hard to get it right. Knowing that it’s so good for us to eat and knowing something about the quite amazing molecular transformations that go on within garlic, within so many plants whose secondary metabolites can cure our diseases and put us back together again – that induces the same sense of the everyday sacred.  The hawthorn – we called it ‘bread and cheese’ as children and ate the leaves when they were new and not full of tannin – hawthorn has an outrageous array of natural gifts to offer.

So the Potwell Inn is for: dancing, singing, making music, eating together, telling jokes, falling in love, breaking the rules, growing our food and listening to each others troubles; healing, challenging and forgiving – these are the everyday sacred, and I say to the churches – “thank you for looking after the ball for so long,  but please can we have it back now.”

Ordinary – must clean the hob!

IMG_20191119_092759My mother was very good at the forensic gaze. This morning’s kitchen would have troubled her, I’m certain, but I didn’t even notice that it’s pretty filthy until I put it on the screen. That’s the way of things, I suppose – most of our interiors (mental as well as domestic) would look pretty grubby and a bit random if we were to examine them with the cold eye of a picture editor. But we don’t, and I took the photo to remind myself of the great joys of the ordinary over and against the set-piece strutting that we’d prefer to have you believe about us.

The kettle rarely comes off the hob.  The Potwell Inn, surprisingly perhaps, runs on tea.  Recently we’ve increased our repertore of tea – black tea in the mornings, green tea most of the day and chamomile tea at night.  Since we took a break from the booze we feel better, sleep better and – well – drink tea. The way I make porridge would annoy all purists, GP’s and food faddists – made, as it is, with full cream milk, salt, and eaten with a bit of sugar.  However it lasts all day and reduces fridge-raiding which tends to involve lumps of cheese, so I suppose – on balance – it’s largely neutral. Today the kefir was left sulking in the fridge because it was the coldest night of the season so far and we both fancied something hot.

The loaf of bread is my cover for the grubby hob.  It wasn’t taken out of the oven until late yesterday evening. It was one of those doughs that wasn’t quite right – a bit soft but not at all sticky; not sticky that is, until I came to tip it out of the banneton when it growled at me and refused to budge. After a little stand-off I finally dragged it out, but it left a substantial dollop of dough behind and the loaf itself was far too soft to slash in the usual way, so it had a homeopathic tickle with the knife and went into the oven.  I’ve discovered over the years that making bread needs a similar mindset to making raku pottery.  Letting things be seems to work best. However the whole process involved a good deal of escaping rice flour – which is usually the best for releasing the dough from the banneton – mess which I couldn’t be bothered to clear up apart from a cursory wipe with a cloth before bed.

The ordinary, the homely is the warp of the enterprise of being human and the experiences of the day are the weft.  Together they make cloth – in my case probably some sort of rough old drill and in yours, possibly, evanescent silk. I hacked a crust off the loaf this morning and it was lovely – it was individual; itself. Like Ryokan’s poetry.

Changing platforms

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I think that, in the manner of these things, the relationship was cooling for years. Me and Apple were an item, but when the relationship started Madame and me were both working full-time and we could (sort-of) afford it. There were moments I can remember when the chill started, like the day the Apple Store declared my laptop too old to mend, and I no longer fitted the customer profile they were after. They seemed to think I was too old and too hard up to bother with being polite to. A visit to the Apple Store started to seem like attending church, with young acolytes gliding effortlessly on an invisible field of moral superiority.  Uninvited updates to my phone would suddenly disable apps that I’d paid for; they fixed the software so that the phone would die, like one of the robots in Bladerunner, at the press of a button by the Tyrell Corporation, and they tried to charge me more than the phone was worth to replace the batteries. My laptop grew ever slower  as programmes grew more and more bloated with Bow bells and steamship whistles that I had no need of, and the desktop headed off into senility.  Indifference turned to hatred.  I wanted to stand in the middle of the store and shout “I just want an effing lead” so I could be escorted out by the ever smiling white robed security advisor. Then, in the summer – horror of horrors – I noticed that my son’s photos were much better than the ones I was taking on my iPhone 6. I had to do it secretly, but I started to back things up on the non-Apple cloud.

One thing led to another (how often have I heard that phrase as a parish priest!) and the parting began to be more a matter of ‘when’ than ‘whether?’ But it was the offer of my son’s old (not very old) Pixel phone that pushed me over the edge, and on Saturday we sat down together in Birmingham to seal the deal.

Normally I avoid platform changes because the idea scares me to death. That suits the major players who rather like scaring their captive customers to death at the thought of going somewhere else. And the scheming goes all the way down to street level – the Saturday handover failed to work due to some obscure security settings I could only access at home and so I naively brought the gift phone home and set out to buy a lead to connect it to my iPhone. However it seems that even independent phone repair shops have some kind of rule of ‘omerta’ going on regarding platform switching, and I’m still waiting for my son’s widget to arrive in the post.

I’m moving to Android – there, I’ve said it! I need a bail-out option as my Apple stuff gets older and the astronomical price of replacing them moves ever further out of reach  I’m moving because I’m hacked off with Apple products and I’m moving because the vast majority of writing I do lands up on this blog, and the Google products integrate almost seamlessly with WordPress as opposed to endless directory searches for photos. I’m content to have cut-down online versions of the clunky programmes whose features I never use. All that stands between me and the future is a mountain of accumulated data, contacts, emails and blather that I felt sure I might need ….  one day ……. maybe?

One of the surliest customers to deal with on the failed switch was contacts – way over 600 of them and so in the absence of the ‘moving-stuff-over’ widget, I thought I’d have a clear out after I moved them across manually.  This in itself had me frothing at the mouth with frustration as barriers were constantly thrust in my way.  This weeding is where it all gets a bit metaphysical, because although many contacts were no-brainers – like the suprisingly large number of deceased contacts – there were many others I remembered well, some even with affection. Highlighting them and pressing the ‘delete’ button became a much more serious, almost cathartic process. There was no hierarchy of usefulness or prospective gain in the selections.  Many of the names went back to activities that I was engaged in years ago – names and phone numbers of builders, suppliers of candles, BBC producers. Some were people who carved me up in some way – button pressing became a pleasure there; and some were left in because I remembered them fondly. Within a couple of hours I’d whittled them down to just over 200 in a list that looked like it truly belonged to me.  So I’m sorry Phil and all the rest, it was great but it’s over now and yes, it was Phil the funeral director I was dreaming about this morning when I woke up. He was running a wonderful butchers shop somewhere in France, and he invited us down to the local cafe for a drink. I couldn’t tell him that I’m not that person any more.  I can’t hack any more grief.

Next job will be to reduce my email providers down to one.  Now I’ve got the list of contacts sorted I’ll email them all and give them my one and only address. More clearing through the thickets, I think.  Big ticket programmes will have to go too, subscriptions ended so I can keep the ancient machines running for as long as possible – it’s all very exhilerating – this decluttering business.  And if you’re reading this you’re not among the fallen, I promise.

So tonight, I hope, will be switch-off day for the old phone. I’ll lie them together on the table – connected by the new lead – and with one click, the iPhone will say, in an electronic sort of way: –

All that I am I give to you and all that I have I share with you.

And the Pixel will say “thanks mate” and after a few quiet moments the corridors of the iPhone, once hectic with malware, spyware and foreign security agents clogging up the arteries will fall silent and I shall remove the SIM in the reverential way that Phil the funeral director would adopt for the the removal of pacemakers and other explosive devices from the deceased, and the screen will go dark.  Well that’s the theory at least. I fully expect a bit of tooth gnashing as well, and then onwards and – well – onwards, I suppose. I just want to write about borlotti beans and when the equpment gets in the way it can only end in tears.

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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