Please welcome Eric – he needs your help.

Admittedly this is a pretty terrible photograph, but since I lost my telephoto lens when it fell out of my camera bag and into a bog somewhere up on the Mendip Hills, I haven’t had much luck with long shots. The macro lens on my camera helps a bit, being dual purpose, but in my efforts to get a picture of my dear friend Eric the herring gull I managed to knock over a jam jar full of parsley that was perched on the window and by the time I’d cleared up the mess there wasn’t time to find the camera, change the lens and blah blah blah – so there was just the phone.

Gulls are not, by their nature, the kind of creatures you can normally feel an attachment to. If you’ve ever looked into the cold eye of a greater black backed gull, you’ll know what I mean. I think it was Adam Nicholson who most accurately described these birds as being from a different world. Theirs was the ocean and ours was the land; or at least that was the way of it until plastic rubbish bags and fast food came along at which point they moved in. Noisy, garrulous, thieving creatures as they are, their principal virtue in cities was that at least they cleared up some of our mess before the rats moved in – although in our neighbourhood the sight of the ripped open bags with their contents strewn across the streets on a Thursday morning became the kind of issue that gets councillors elected.

In years past, the council removed nests and eggs, and recently they’ve taken to using a falconer who annoys the nesting birds with a beautiful Harris hawk. Most recently the absence of tourists has led to the quietest breeding season in many years. Where there were once dozens of gulls strutting their stuff on the roofs and parapets, now there are no more than a handful and – of course Eric.

I won’t bother with the whole sorry story of my interest in gulls except to say that it started in St Ives one January morning when I realized to my shame that there were any number of seabirds out there and I hadn’t the faintest clue what any of them were. There’s a link to it here, if you’re interested. Maybe it would have been quicker, easier and far far cheaper to have categorised them all as “seagulls” and moved on to something more obviously important, but I didn’t and – as a result of my resolution that day, I am able to say with confidence that Eric is a herring gull. If he were a lesser or great black backed, a black headed or anything else in that line I’d also be reasonably certain of not making a fool of myself. I should qualify that by saying that I have give him a gender but my knowledge of gull sexing is sparse to non existent so he/she could be an Eric or an Erica. But in my long history of accidental pastoral work it was usually angry men who, spotting my dog collar, would approach me on bus stops and railway stations and harangue me as if it was my fault that their partners had seen the light and dumped them. So on that entirely circumstantial evidence, I think Eric is a male

So – gull schmull – you might think; Eric is a solitary. Something terrible has happened and he wanders disconsolately around the green every day being mobbed occasionally by jays and sidling up to young rooks who really aren’t interested.

Back in the day, Hercules would have dealt with him. Hercules was an enormous tabby cat who kind-of belonged to the whole street. He had an owner, but when she moved to Greece she left the flat, and Hercules, in the care of her son who appeared not to care whether the cat lived or died. Maybe he just got fed up with clearing up the remains of Hercules’ last hunting adventure. Hercules was streetwise, independent and fierce and could probably take down a bull terrier, god willing and a fair wind. And so he took to patrolling our street and living on handouts from just about everyone. Every doorstep had empty tins of tuna (this is an upcoming area) and someone even made him a comfortable bed on the step. Then his owner returned from Greece, by which time the cat weighed about three stone, and she posted angry signs all down the street forbidding us to feed him and so we stopped. Shortly afterwards our beloved piratical moggie disappeared forever – he probably died taking on an otter for a laugh.

At least Eric the herring gull is safe – but not in a nice way. These most sociable of creatures have excluded him for some unimaginable breach of gullish etiquette. Sans partner, sans flock, sans everything – he wanders about on the green alone and my pastoral heart goes out to him. People feed robins and blue tits, but random gulls never get a look in. I wondered for a brief conspiratorial moment if the council has set up a top secret experiment to try to stop them breeding and Eric is the first graduate – I really hope not.

In these months of lockdown I can occasionally lean out of the window when the other gulls are circling and playing; shut my eyes and imagine we’re back in St Ives on holiday. Then I open them again and it’s the same old grey world. The Brazilian woman working out with her collection of rubber bungees, the dealers hanging about on the corner, the couple who meet up secretly everyday in an earnest huddle, the smokers, the drinkers and the sturdy beggars in from town because the tourists have gone, the couple practising their strange martial arts routine, the deranged, the homeless and the affluent; the cyclists whizzing past on their way to somewhere they can be important. They’re all part of the natural history of being human. And there’s Eric. What can we do to make him happy!

Adelina – tell me your secret, please?

Midsummer is almost with us, and the food is coming off the allotment at speed now, and so the centre of action is moving back to the kitchen, egged on by Madame’s Mediterranean moment . I sometimes wonder what’s the point of growing all this lovely food without eating it? I’ve never understood why some allotmenteers seem to enjoy the growing more than the eating, and when I see a broad bean muscling its way out of the pod like a bodybuilder’s biceps I think what a waste! – and don’t try to kid me they’re next year’s seed, for goodness sake you have to eat some of them surely?

So yesterday after the perfume was ordered for Madame and tranquility was restored, we settled on a mushroom risotto with some asparagus off the allotment and a couple of pan fried duck breasts. My mind immediately turned to leftovers and the mention of the Montalbano series prompted me to think about making some arancini – which was a good idea because I don’t sleep very well on these long warm nights so I was up at six and baking.

I have made arancini before but it wasn’t always a great success because once, when I made them small and dropped them into a deep fat fryer, they all exploded! So today I made them much larger – tangerine size. They’re awfully easy to do – you make a half, make a dent in it and drop in a teaspoon of mozzarella and them put the ‘top’ on and form them in your hands like a small scotch egg. Then you roll them in beaten egg and breadcrumbs and today I fried them in an inch of oil, turning them constantly – thereby avoiding explosions. We had them cold for lunch, with dollops of the fierce aioli I made yesterday. I’m quite sure the fictional detective would protest loudly because Adelina’s are a bit more of a performance; filled with a meat ragu in which the beef must absolutely not be minced or food processed but reverently chopped with a sharp mezzaluna; and somehow she manages to work some bechamel in too. Plus they’re the proper Sicilian conical shape. But – hey – life’s too short and one day when I’ve got all the ingredients to hand I might give them a try. They’re meant to be simple street food, not a Michelin workout.

When there are the freshest ingredients coming into the kitchen, cooking becomes an intense, contemplative pleasure; evoking memories of places we’ve visited and meals we’ve eaten. There does seem to be a strong link between cooking and the sense of belonging. Montalbano has the greatest difficulty in deciding between a weekend with Livia and the chance to scoff Adelina’s arancini. The arancini win, needless to say.

“A good restaurant is an extension of home cooking, without that restaurant taste that makes people feel full to the eyebrows. There is also that wonderful French kitchen maxim, rien se perd : it’s a wise restaurateur who never cooks a dish without having a plan for it if it’s not eaten. Never buy anything in bulk. Otherwise, you’ll have to find a use for it, whether it’s good or not.”

George Perry Smith

There’s something else about leftovers that came to mind today as I was cooking, and that’s the way that George Perry Smith who almost single handedly rescued restaurant cooking from its cordon bleu chains after the war, and trained some of today’s best – if not best known – chefs, (working as he did in the shadow of food rationing), would never waste any food. He was famous for the way he used leftovers creatively. Apparently the menu at the Hole in the Wall in Bath which he owned and in which he cooked had this sentence printed on it: –“Oddly enough, we are interested at least as much in doing our job well, that is to give you pleasure, as in making money out of it.”

When Madame talked me into making aioli on Monday, my first thoughts turned to bouillabaisse and other French fish stews. But actually, the gold standard fish soup for me was the one that Stephen Markwick produced almost every day in Bristol. We only ate it once in his Corn Street restaurant (when someone else was paying) but we frequently had it at the little bistro called Culinaria that he ran in Redland, later on. Stephen Markwick, and Joyce Molyneux both trained with George Perry Smith. Out middle son trained with Markwick as a commis chef and joined the succession of influence. He remembers when once he dropped an egg on the floor of the kitchen and Stephen threatened to dock the cost from his wages. But Markwick’s fish soup was made from the simplest ingredients, all of which you could buy in any local fishmonger. There were no rare and bony Mediterranean fish, no rascasse or unobtainable rarities, but I’d kill for a bowl of it any day and even now whenever I see fish soup on a menu I have to try it because I know it will immediately show the measure of the kitchen and the chefs who work in it.

Just as a Tai Chi teacher will advertise the lineage of their own teachers, so too chefs all come from somewhere if they’re any good. You’ve only got to look at a recipe by – say – Simon Hopkinson and you can feel his friendship with Elizabeth David. It was her books, almost certainly, that George Perry Smith learned from, he never trained formally himself. His pupils and the younger chefs that they influenced have been rather eclipsed by younger and showier media personalities who’ve often become wealthy and left the cooking to others.

So I’m profoundly grateful to the writers and cooks who gave me so much more than recipes; they gave me whole cultures, and when I’m in the kitchen they’re all in there with me – the cooks and the cultures; a whole world in a pan.

It was Madame made me do it

The view from what the landlady called “The romantic room” on the dockside in Sète. “It’s where all the businessmen bring their girlfriends” she said. Hm!

And now we’re stuck in the south of France and she’s reading me chunks from Simenon’s “My friend Maigret” as we eat breakfast back at the Potwell Inn. This all started yesterday evening when we examined the fridge – a regular lockdown highlight – and she asked ‘what shall we eat today darling?’ – and found a couple of salmon fillets. There were fresh new potatoes from the allotment and sugar snap peas as well, so it sounded like a sensible idea. “Oooooh …” she said – “know what I’d really like? …..” – my heart is murmuring like the loudspeaker in a lift: – ‘ground floor, funerary monuments’ it calls quietly as it plunges into the gloom. “I have no idea,” I said, “what would you really like?” there was a pause, and she said – “Aioli”.

I see it. A fish stew, a bourride, that I once ate in Corsica when the proprietor took an interest in me and gave me minute instructions as to how to eat it properly. I didn’t mind because she was being helpful in the way that anyone might help a hapless foreigner struggling to eat a soup with bones, in a loud sort of voice. Anyway, Corsicans are a bit like Bristolians, they often sound a bit rude when they’re just being friendly with a local accent.

So once the thought had dropped into my mind I wasn’t so much making aioli as recreating a whole remembered experience without most of the ingredients. I certainly couldn’t make a bourride or a bouillabaisse; but I could make the aioli – inflected by lockdown shortages; for instance I wouldn’t normally use olive oil but I had a bottle of cheap oil that we’d bought in desperation during the shortages, and aioli is so strong you could probably make it with Castrol engine oil and no-one would notice. I was revving up in a cheffy sort of way, and so I decided to add a bit of sweet pimenton to add a smoky note, and then a good pinch of saffron that would have to stand in for the rest of the stew – a big ask, I know, but it played out well. We have fresh green garlic from the allotment so I had an enjoyable minute or two with the garlic (lots), some salt, the pimenton and saffron; grinding them to a paste in my biggest mortar. In with the egg yolks and then, because I have no shame, out with the electric whisk. Drip, drip, gloop, trickle, pour and five minutes later we had the golden mayonnaise.

Of course it totally upstaged everything else on the plate but that didn’t seem to matter. It was fierce and powerfully reminiscent of eating in France and Spain along the Basque coast. Engorged with happy memories we would have turned immediately to an episode of Montalbano if we hadn’t seen them all three times before. We only watch them for the scenery and the food – the plots are terrible except for the way in which they’re so humane and non judgemental – rather like Simenon you might think – which is how we got to Madame’s breakfast recital of the Maigret story, which was when things got a bit out of hand.

“This book had six pages – honestly – that mentioned nothing at all except sounds and smells” – she said, and I believed her. That led into a minefield of mild eroticism as she told me about JoJo the maid, and the way that Simenon allows Maigret to notice that she smells a bit sweaty and has underarm hair which, just as I was just getting into the toast and marmalade, allowed the emergence from hiding of the memory of walking into a French supermarket once with Madame and having a bit of a supercharged moment passing a similarly interesting woman; the memory, which I shared, led us into a conversation about human odour and thence to perfume and thence to Annecy where great danger was lurking that, due to the momentum of the conversation, I was unable to prevent.

“Do you remember that perfume shop in Annecy?” “Oh shit” I thought as I plunged into the millrace. It was a beautiful day with friends and we were treated to a spectacular lunch at the Cottage and then wandered into town where we found this little perfumery and Madame spent an hour with the lollipop sticks and fell in love with the kind of perfume that makes people stop her in the street. Among the many passions we share we both love really good perfumes. And there I was suspended between a memory and the laptop and an online order.

We went for a walk, back to the Bathwick Meadows today where we found more marbled whites and Madame became monosyllabic and answered ‘oui’ or ‘non’ to my questions so I called her Marie, and rather hoped she would call me Henri and we could have a fun role play, but no; just a cloud of very French thoughtfulness.

I knew what I had to do.

That was the most expensive aioli I’ve ever made!

Small world

Having pretty much run out of plants to look at, and after my brief encounter with the wall lettuce, I found myself noticing one or two plants I’d never looked at properly before. There’s a posh word for an environment created by a large block of concrete flats with an adjacent car park that used to be a builders’ yard. It’s more often applied to old gasworks and factory sites and presumably was also used to describe bombsites after the war. It’s ruderal – which derives from the Latin for rubble and describes land disturbed by human activity, exactly like building a block of flats. I prefer to think of it as meaning rather rude – which is what you tend to become after three months locked up in a concrete block with the only view from your desk being a car park on an old builders yard. I think there’s an elegant circularity to that paragraph but you may disagree.

Anyway, style apart, I was wandering through the car park and I noticed a thin, straight line of tiny plants; eking out a living on the tarmac below the vertical line of windows at the back. Occasionally I get interested in these tiny wonders – like the slime mould that took all winter to descend the fire escape steps, or the rue leaved saxifrage on the same steps that gets away with its precarious situation by setting seed before the summer does for it.

But these little plants were tiny – really tiny – and clinging low to the ground, constantly being trodden on and driven over and baked in the heat of the sun in recent weeks. It seemed to me that this was all slightly miraculous and deserved a bit more of my attention. The three plants, I pretty sure, were

  • Procumbent pearlwort – Sagina procumbens
  • Biting Stonecrop – Sedum acre
  • Shepherd’s purse – Capsella bursa-pastoris

So the next thing to do was to take some samples and bring them up to the study for a closer look. The first obvious thing was that they had been much affected by their impoverished environment they were like miniature versions of their more prosperous cousins. But under a 15X lens I could see that the pearlwort had a number of even tinier, almost transparent beetles living on it. The plant itself was living on a substrate of some kind of moss, but I don’t have a microscope and so I couldn’t take the ID any further. And neither could I tell you what was the name of the beetle. If my knowledge of plants is a bit wonky, my knowledge of insects is non existent.

The next step was to set up a real camera with a macro lens and take a close-up photo. The photo at the top of the page is about 7X magnification of the pearlwort and if you look carefully at the top right quadrant you might spot one of the beetles. You can see that the presence of the water absorbing moss is probably part of the pearlwort’s survival strategy. Wonderful stuff. I was so pleased I started another list of plants I could see through the window which I may share if I ever complete it. Anyway I hope I’ve convinced you that there’s a whole small plant world that we tread on every day without thinking.

Back in the Potwell Inn I started a new sourdough loaf using a new organically grown and stone ground flour that we bought at the mill yesterday. It was nice to get out for a bit but the mill is extremely inaccessible and on both occasions I’ve been there I’ve taken a wrong turning and landed up driving down a narrow track with potholes big enough to lose a tractor in, and ending in an impassible ford. Madame adopted the brace position throughout and comments about my driving were exchanged and so we retraced our steps and took the proper track – which was almost as bad. Nonetheless the contactless handover (see yesterday’s post) was seamless and we drove home feeling that somehow we were dragging an elk back to the cave. At any rate the flour will see us in bread for another three months.

The rain has at last arrived, and this morning I checked the water butts to see if my elaborate water harvesting had worked, and yes – there was a satisfying increase in the stores – sufficient to check that the descending cascade linking the five 250 litre stores was working and it was. As each barrel fills, the water flows to the next in sequence.

Our life here is not exactly Selborne, but in many ways it’s just as rewarding to be able to make friends with these overlooked weeds. Tomorrow the sun will shine again and we may even take a turn around the farmers market – our first trip there for three months. Masks will be worn, of course. We almost went last week but we chickened out at the last minute. We’ll probably chicken out again tomorrow – we have no idea how to stay safe any more!

Note to Dominic Cummings – when you make a mistake, own up.

So yesterday I posted about a misidentified plant, calling a wall lettuce a nipplewort. In the great order of things it’s probably not that important, but I’ve corrected the posting and here’s the reason why I was wrong. From a distance – like for example the photo on the right of the group – it would be easy to misidentify a plant, which is why it’s all the more important to get close up and personal, and here are some of the reasons why this really is a wall lettuce plant.

  • Flower isn’t remotely like nipplewort which has a larger dandelion type flower. This flower is small and has distinct petals.
  • The plant is not hairy
  • Parts of the stem have a purplish colouration.
  • The leaf shape is different.

So by way of reparation I decided not to eat my hat but at least to re-wax it after a wash because it got too disgusting even for me to wear. This is a highly therapeutic activity for two, with Madame wielding the hairdryer and me on the tin of old-style Barbour wax. It’s not a Barbour hat at all, but it’s some sort of waxed cotton so it got the luxury treatment while I bathed in the memory of the smell of my old Solway jacket that fell apart decades ago.

Not content with that, I finally managed to contact Shipton Mill and arrange to collect enough flour to get us through the next expected lockdown; so as soon as I’ve finished this, we’re off on a scenic jaunt across North Wiltshire and Gloucestershire to the mill, where I’m told our flour will be waiting in the back of a white van with the invoice. No people, no contact – oh so dodgy sounding!

If this posting is a bit episodic it’s because I hardly slept last night after reading about the behaviour of a bishop I once worked under who’s just been found out for making a racially stereotyped entry in a reference which prevented someone from getting a job. Having been at the sharp end of a bit of C of E bullying myself, I couldn’t sleep for thinking about what might still be lurking in my personal file, but now mercifully I no longer have to deal with the venality and ambition.

Below is a photo of a ladybird larva. If you see these on your plants rejoice and forswear the spray; their voracious appetite for blackfly more than grants them an amnesty.

Chalet chic

Something’s happening in the world of allotmenteering; something that stirs up some old and important memories of a different age we thought might have gone forever. Allotments and allotmenteers, historically speaking, are inclined to be conservative – certainly not politically, but in terms of what’s ‘right and proper’ on the ground. It’s been more of a ‘National growmore’ fertiliser and double digging’ kind of an activity. The allotments of the past were pretty monochrome on the whole. There would be rhubarb and cottage kale; potatoes, celery and cut flowers and small sheds that tended to be much of a muchness. The present rules that govern our site are sixteen pages long and cover just about everything from shed sizes to bonfires and even percentages of plots allowable for flowers. Paths are minutely described and only two years ago one of our neighbours received a rude letter from the council because he’d left a few weeds on the path.

I remember those days all too well when, being in our twenties and full of ideas of self-sufficiency and organic methods, we assumed we were regarded with dark suspicion by the other, mostly older, allotmenteers. I think it’s fair to say that some thought we were hippies who were bound to do nothing but smoke weed and make a nuisance of ourselves having orgies in the long grass. No such luck, I might say if I didn’t know that Madame will read this; anyway I’ve always been far too shy for orgies.

Two years ago you could almost walk on to an empty allotment plot after a few weeks on the (imaginary) waiting list. Not today, though. The list has grown longer and longer and a last few lucky souls slipped through the gate just before lockdown slammed it shut. The result has been a huge influx of newcomers, many of whom have never done any gardening and have joined the site in search of something more than free vegetables. The site is transformed. I’ve long thought that newcomers who are experienced gardeners bring regional or national styles with them; but the newcomers are something else. They’ve brought flair and architectural imagination with them. They recycle bits of old building material as if they were precious objects, and a pallet has acquired the sort of value that mars bars attracted when I taught in a prison.

There’s a young man on our site who has built three sheds so far and already has a waiting list – some of his efforts are in the photo gallery below as well as the one at the top. Several other things have happened; physical boundaries have become important again. The idea of ‘my space’ has become very important. Most of the new buildings provide more than secure space for tools – they’re socialising spaces as well. Shelters built big enough for four people rather than one solitary gardener with cloth cap. Our neighbours have turfed half of their plot (against the rules) put up a wire fence (against the rules) built two sheds, one of them oversize (completely against the rules) and he and she spend alternate sunny evenings drinking wine with their respective friends and warming themselves on a bonfire (reach for the smelling salts!!)

But the sense of space is balanced by far greater social media openness. The new Facebook page is buzzing with shares and questions. We talk to one another – once, that is, the younger people have got over the fact that we older ones don’t resent their presence and neither is old age contagious which some of them had been led to believe. The fact that we are supposed to have stolen their pensions is not mentioned, and just in case, we take care to not to provoke them by driving a very small mud covered Hyundai i10 with the back seat permanently down to accommodate tools and more mud. One of the advantages of being much older (there are a few disadvantages too) is that you get time to reflect ruefully on the friendships you missed fifty years ago, and on another allotment, by being standoffish and shy.

I might have concluded that this is a peculiar Bath phenomenon except for the fact that we went today to see our grandchildren and their mum and dad on their allotment in Bristol and exactly the same thing is happening there too. You don’t want to be always saying “we did that too” even if we did, because allotmenteering is a lifelong learning process and no-one likes a smartass.

But there’s something indefinable in the air. When these young people start sharing their surpluses and their first thoughts are collaboration and co-ops; and when – after an age of nuclear families and steroidal aspirations – we come back to a more tolerant, less judgemental and less prescriptive ethic, then some of the conditions for change are falling into place.

Elsewhere in the Potwell Inn

Apart from seeing, but not being able to hug our grandchildren today – still it was joyful. The three year old was bewildered by the social distancing and cried bitterly while the others were more philosophical. I’ve been reading David Goode’s wonderful book “Nature in towns and cities” – you may recall we met him watching peregrines at the weekend. The first chapter is a run around the ecology of Bath, and I read it breathlessly, ticking off things I’d seen and making lists of things I’ve missed so far. Then, as I threw open the shutters on a grey morning, I spotted a gull and a black, crowish looking bird. But what sort of gull? and what sort of crow? I’m not, never have been, a birdwatcher but it was a moment of life-changing insight not long after I retired, when I realized I had no idea what sort of gulls we were looking at on holiday at St Ives. The problem was that they were black headed gulls in their winter plumage ie. they had white heads unless you noticed the small crescent of black. Clearly birding was going to involve minute attention to detail.

So when David writes in his book that there are flocks of lesser black back gulls and herring gulls I was obliged to get the binoculars out and have a closer look. Until this morning I’d never given it much thought, but now I know for sure that I can identify lesser and greater black backed gulls, black headed gulls and herring gulls pretty much on sight. So too, the black crowish bird I paid minute attention to as well, is – a young rook at which point I realized that using binoculars to survey the green could, at times, be misconstrued.

In the plant department I had my eye properly ‘in’ and spotted *nipplewort and pellitory of the wall barely twenty feet from the flat! Slowly, and as a result of the lockdown, I’m seeing the wealth of wildlife we’re sitting in the middle of. I still miss our walks in North Wales and Cornwall bitterly but I’m learning more plants every day, right here. Then to crown the day a perfectly ordinary Comma butterfly resting on the inside of the fruit cage. Is someone trying to tell me something?

  • * Pride comes before a fall! No it wasn’t nipplewort it was wall lettuce – should have looked more carefully. Also forgot to mention the greater celandine on the other side of the path. That’s three sites I’ve found in Bath – again it’s not rare but fun to find.

Benign neglect makes the best sourdough

Isn’t that a trixie photo? – artisanal looking sourdough bathed in summer light with a geranium filled window box in the background. It has all the authentic marks of the dreaded Lifestyle Blog; aspirational; sensitive; Laura Ashley.

If this was a mind map there would be two lines emerging from the photo. The first would take you to a box that explained that this was the loaf that flew close to the wind. We were almost out of bread yesterday and I’d forgotten to start the batter the previous night – it’s a bedtime job at the Potwell Inn. So I started it early yesterday morning, wondering how the new timetable would work out. Around two in the afternoon I added the main body of flour with the salt and a little oil; left it for twenty minutes and kneaded it. Then, just before we went to bed, I knocked it back and put it in the banneton overnight, knowing that if it was too warm in the kitchen it would flow over the sides and ruin. But when I woke, the domed top had just risen a centimeter higher than the edge and the banneton was full. Nice one! So into the oven and in half an hour it was done – full steam, 240C for ten minutes and 180C for twenty minutes more.

I think we tend to overestimate the effectiveness of our input into breadmaking. I’ve been making bread for sixty years if you count my first teenage attempt with cake flour and dried yeast (not a show stopper). If I’ve emerged with one lesson it’s not to worry too much and to stop fiddling about. I know the magazines are full of arcane advice about making sourdough but really, it needs no leylinesand no magic incantations and you can make it with pretty well any flour that you can lay your hands on. Some work better than others – I’ve never successfully made 100% wholemeal sourdough – it’s always reminded me of the Grant Loaf that was fashionable in the sixties; heavy as lead and about as much fun as a Methodist prayer meeting. The choice of ingredients for bread is more of an ethical decision.

what’s the point of showing bits of your dull life in a blog?

Dave Pole, The Potwell Inn

But the second line on my mind-map would lead to the question – what’s the point of showing bits of your dull life in a blog? Well firstly, life is not a bowl of cherries, or indeed strawberries because we didn’t have any cherries on the allotment – and a certain degree of dullness is to be expected in life, so as Socrates might have said if he hadn’t been forced to drink hemlock for the crime of not being dull at all – suck it up, it’s good for you!

Climate change deniers like to claim that environmentalists want to return us to the Stone Age. The truth is that if we want to live within ecological limits we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970’s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980’s

Naomi Klein – “This changes everything”

The other reason that it’s important to write about everyday life, as we try to live it at the Potwell Inn, is that it’s essential to oppose shroud waving politicians and their puppeteers with the truth that we can live rich and rewarding lives without neurotic consumption. We can live the very richest of lives, enjoy the best of food and remain sane, healthy, connected and spiritually alive with surprisingly little by way of material wealth. If I had any ambition at all for the Potwell Inn blog it would be to try to convey, through thinking aloud about our lives here, that saving the earth by changing our way of life, isn’t about deprivation and self-denial at all. It’s essential to explode the myth that we can only live fulfilled lives by becoming indentured slaves to consumption.

And I also think there’s an important distinction between showing off and inspiring others to give it a go too. The underlying reason for getting so evangelistic about it is that I’m not convinced that people will change their lives because we present them with any more, or any new, facts about the global ecological disaster that’s unfolding. The scene in the New York diner in “When Harry met Sally” when the woman on the next table says – ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ is a brilliantly funny way of expressing an important aspect of the human personality. We’re far more likely to adopt new behaviours when we’ve seen them modelled in some way. I know that growing vegetables hardly competes in terms of arousal, but my point is that the deepest ways of teaching and learning always focus on modelling the new behaviour – or to get slightly more philosophical about it, virtues are habits.

So let’s be honest about it, the Potwell Inn is a rather subversive school of virtues, the virtues that are being destroyed by our present way of life; and baking a loaf of bread or growing garlic (which I’m coming on to) has very little to do with nutritional values and everything to do with human thriving.

This is the row of garlic we planted in the autumn – it’s a variety of softneck garlic called Early Purple Wight – and it’s done well in this exceptional spring, although it needed a lot of watering. Garlic dislikes being waterlogged and being dry in equal measure, so finding the sweet spot in the middle is tricky. So far, so horticultural: but lifting the first bulb is a big moment, and when a crop does well, as this one did, there’s an unmatchable sense of occasion. Madame took the bulb and peeled back the first outer layer to see what we had and the most wonderful fragrance filled the air, and then,when we got it home we peeled it properly and the whole flat suddenly smelled like Southern France. It went straight into a red wine marinade, of course.

The first bowl of strawberries straight from the allotment, the crust of a sourdough loaf still warm from the oven and spread with butter and home made marmalade; a glass of the elderflower cordial we made last week; the first new potato – sweet and waxy; lettuce so crisp you can snap it; sugar snap peas straight from the vine and eaten raw; these are so much more than simply food – although they are simple food.

Our lives are all the richer when, rather than grabbing what we can from the earth like thieves, we live sacramentally; when growing and eating food becomes the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace to borrow a phrase from an old Christian catechism, and if that sounds a bit religious I’d say that my non-theistic borrowing is very far from heretical.

If the environmental movement is to achieve our aims, we have to move the game from endlessly rehearsing scary facts and data and stop shouting at people and start modelling great human lives. If rewilding the earth is to become an act rather than an aspiration we have to adopt another borrowing from faith language – the idea that virtuous lives are caught and not taught.

This is a cornflower – an almost extinct vagrant driven from its natural habitat by our agricultural greed and surviving on occasional handouts from local authorities who enjoy a bit of greenwashing as long as its cheap. It’s eking out an existence on the riverbank here in Bath until someone complains about the weeds and orders in the strimmers. Meanwhile we can exult in its quite unnecessary extravagance and perfection while they refill the mowers with petrol. That’s what’s got to change.

Cornflower

The Potwell Inn will not be returning to normal

Pottering around in the kitchen this morning after an uplifting moment with Naomi Klein I came to one of those moments of clarity where the way forward suddenly seems clear. We don’t have to go back to normal. I was just opening the tub in which we keep the bread flour and I noticed we’d used more than half of the 16Kg bag that we managed to scrounge from a local bakery when everything went crazy. So my thoughts turned to getting some more – this lot was bog standard ‘improved’ bakers’ white flour which has kept us going with the help of a bit of spelt flour for flavour, but my favourite flour has been unavailable for months. It’s organic for a start, less mucked about and uses more locally grown wheat. It’s crazy to have to dilute the protein in Canadian wheat flour with low protein cake flour when you can get it off the field with the right proportions.

Plenty of people are trying to reduce their daily lives in ways that do reduce their consumption. But if these sort of demand-side emission reductions are to take place on anything like the scale required, they cannot be left to the lifestyle decisions of earnest urbanites who like going to farmers’ markets on Saturday afternoons and wearing up-cycled clothing.

Naomi Klein “This Changes Everything” 2014

I take your point Naomi – but we have to start somewhere, and with democracy in its present perilous and ineffective state as a client of big business, there aren’t a lot of alternative ways of changing things than through consumer pressure and community action.

So there I am in the kitchen pondering about flour and making up a sourdough batter for tomorrow and I thought – we don’t need to go back! Maybe we should be more like my mother who, having endured food rationing during the 2nd world war, always kept a larder full of emergency rations. No more queueing, no more waiting like sheep being herded to a slaughterhouse in order to buy things we don’t need and food that’s making us obese and killing us with the promise of uninterrupted pleasure. No I’m not some kind of Savonarola, I’d just like for the earth to continue for our grandchildren’s delight and not as a smoking post-industrial slag-heap. I don’t want to go back to supermarkets whose produce is driven, container-shipped and flown from the poorest of producers to the wealthy world just so we can buy ever more chemically preserved and processed junk food while we choke on the air that’s been polluted by the getting of it to our tables.

The shortages and deprivations of the Covid 19 pandemic are not responsibility of some remote god, they’re a foretaste of what’s coming if we don’t mend our ways and it’s in this sense that the personal becomes political. There’s no technological Seventh Cavalry waiting over the hill to save us – to borrow a line from World Organic News we have to save the earth one cabbage at a time. We don’t have a functioning test and trace programme at the moment, but then – we don’t have a coherent food security policy either because it’s all been subcontracted out to the big four supermarkets; we don’t have a coherent renewable energy policy or sustainable agriculture policy neither do we have any policy for reducing dependence on cars and lorries by improving public transport nor do we have any leadership or political will to fix these problems. We behave like the alcoholics who are always going to stop drinking after one more glass.

I’m bound to say that the deprivations we’ve experienced personally during the lockdown are not related to toilet rolls, paracetamol tablets and avocados. It’s been not seeing our children and grandchildren close enough to hug them and smell their hair, not striking up conversations with random strangers and worrying constantly that no-one in government seems to give a damn what happens to us.

And so I don’t want to go back to normal. I want to go forwards into a more sustainable, kinder, more forgiving and much more caring world. Naomi Klein’s book was published in 2014 – that’s six largely wasted years ago. To go back to the metaphor of the alcoholic I used a little earlier (and I don’t have a down on alcoholics, I recognise all all the symptoms in myself) – do we have to wait until our livers are completely and incurably damaged to stop killing ourselves?

  1. and apologies for misspelling Naomi Klein’s name twice when this was first published. Should have waited for my breakfast!

Aix en Somerset

Madame and me are like Jack Sprat and his wife – I love the sunshine and hot weather and Madame isn’t so keen. So these last few weeks of almost Provencal weather have been a combination of bliss and lethargy for us. It’s OK for the most part, we know perfectly well we need to be aware of each others’ preferences and not beat ourselves up too much because we want to do different things. Naturally it doesn’t always happen that way and a bit of subterranean growling goes on.

Of course the other elephant in the lounge bar is the lockdown. The flat is sufficiently small to be able to vacuum the whole place without moving the electric plug, and the allotment is just 250 square metres.We’re fortunate to have the most lovely surroundings and the view from the flat makes it feel bigger than it really is but ……. the fact is, the continuing pandemic almost forces us to live introspectively and that can make for heavy going. This summer is turning out to be less than hazy, lazy and crazy – or maybe it’s all of those things but in a bad way.

It’s a non stop job. Constant watering of the parched ground keeps the allotment green, and the plants seem to be thriving, but it does seem to be a bit daft watering with chlorinated and purified tap water when there’s a river just across the road. It’s clear that the allotment can consume an awful lot of water. We’ve got 1250 litres of storage capacity which we’ll increase to 1750 this year – that’s 175 watering cans full which, if we were parsimonious with it, might stretch to six or eight weeks of drought. Right now we’ve got around 350 litres left and there’s no prospect of substantial rain anywhere in sight and so we, like all the other allotmenteers, are competing for water from the cattle troughs. It’s all dealt with politely, but not far under the surface the resentment is bubbling away. On the hottest days, allotmenteers are trawling the length and breadth of the site looking for a trough with some water in it, and the refilling rate is grindingly slow.

So I mostly get by by channelling my inner peasant and it’s been lovely. Whether a sunburned but overweight allotmenteer is a better adornment to the site than winter pale one is none of my business, and in any case if fellow allotmenteers are inclined to take exception to my shorts they’re far enough away not to worry me.

One year’s weed is ten years seed

Watering and weeding have taken over now that the propagation and constant re-potting have slowed down. Where on earth the idea comes from that you can create a model allotment in an hour a week baffles me. The ‘babies’ are all born and the health visitor isn’t needed any more, but as all new gardeners discover, the daily grind of putting the plants out and back at night, anxiously watching the temperature and fussing about pests and diseases – takes its toll. I’ve always found hand weeding extremely therapeutic – kneeling down at plant level teaches you a lot about weeds and their leaves. We sort all the villains into compost or exile departments. I know all that stuff about a weed being a plant in the wrong place but bindweed and couch grass are in a class of their own.

Our site has its particular pests – one of which is ironically quite scarce in our area and illustrates the ‘plant in the wrong place’ conundrum perfectly. Ramping common fumitory self-seeds ferociously and yet it’s a rather pretty and uncommon plant. But experience shows that our constant weeding seems to have no effect on its numbers. The exiles go to a large unkempt heap during the summer and thence to the incinerator in the winter. Any annuals that have set seed go there too, and the rest of the weeds which hopefully are not much more than leaf, go into the compost heap. However it illustrates the necessity of constant weeding because as the old saying goes, ‘one year’s weed is ten years seed’

Outside, and beyond the boundaries of our self-isolation, there’s an air of rather desperate celebration as the lockdown is prematurely eased against all scientific advice. On the green there were half a dozen large parties going on last night and if, as the latest research suggests, half of covid infections are asymptomatic – especially in younger people – then there were perhaps ten infected people out there partying last night. For those of us who are most vulnerable to this infection, the world begins to feel faintly menacing. I’m sure this constant vigilance eats away at our self-confidence and the whole fabric of our communities. What with politicians, rank weeds and viruses all threatening the Queen’s Peace the world seems to be self-medicating with alcohol and heaven knows what other substances. I’m thinking Berlin in the 1930’s!

I was cataloguing some photos last night and I came across a couple that I took when we took on the second half plot just two and a half years ago, when it was a field. I remember so well the day the shed arrived by lorry, and it was lovely to compare the photo at the top of this post, with the ones below. The best we can claim for ourselves is that we’ve gathered some of the energy that flows from the earth like a spring, and organised it as best we could, into a source of food, solace and joy.