The realisation that I might have a bit of a problem came about unexpectedly during a conversation with our son. “You remember” – he said – “that preserve you made with brined aubergines a couple of weeks ago?” Frankly I didn’t remember; not even the faintest glimmer of a memory shuffled into my mind. Alcoholics have this kind of experience, I believe. Evenings or weeks disappear and they have no idea where they went except people they thought were friends start crossing the road to avoid them and they find a hideously large till receipt for a club they didn’t know they’d ever visited.
Madame corrected my forgetfulness immediately. “Of course you did!” she said – “The thing with the aubergines”. Hm. That wasn’t much help. So we (or rather she) hunted around for ten minutes looking for the evidence which eventually we found in one of the cupboards; at which point the memory cleared like a Cornish sea mist and I knew what everybody had been talking about. “Oh that one ” I said, hoping to cover my shameful lapse. But it was too late, and the realisation that I have a problem, not just with pickling but with jams, preserves, ferments, sauces, ketchups, chutneys, marmalades and bottled fruits flooded into my consciousness.
I rang our son back and told him I’d found it, which relieved him of the possibility that he’d dreamed a whole conversation with me, and I said that I thought I might be overdoing it on the preserving front. “Good” he said – “I’ll always eat the spares”. Not on this scale, I thought to myself; but it’s comforting to know that I’ve got one fan outside the flat.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. I have a memory of a huge crop of blackberries that I harvested with Madame when we were young (we’ve been together for a very long time), and I’ve written here before at the resulting blackberry chutney that was so full of pips you could have used it for scouring burnt saucepans. Many people would have given up preserving at that point and taken up something sensible like fretwork or morris dancing, but I had been bitten by the thrill of making food last beyond the green and hairy stage. And so every cupboard in the flat has its complement of stowaways, and the overflow is stored in cardboard boxes awaiting the arrival of the next great famine, or a no deal brexit – whichever comes first.
Whether any of this frantic preserving activity has any purpose is a moot point. This thought crossed my mind when we had to move a redcurrant bush in the fruit cage. Every year we pick twice as many currants as we could ever eat and rather than just giving the surplus away I make stuff with it which involves the expense of fuel, sugar and jars. I must also confess to being slightly obsessive about jars too and the thought of having produce in a medley of different sized pots would keep me awake at night. My antidote to industrial preserves has to look as uniform as a supermarket display, and yes – I probably do need (more) counselling. Rationally, it would be better to dig up the surplus redcurrant bush and plant something different but then my obsessive thrift kicks in and ……..
Madame has not left me over my pickling peccadillos, but I notice the cold looks when the boxes invade her studio. The best I can do is limit the production levels on the allotment to meet our needs plus sharing a smaller surplus with anyone who needs some.
Today’s contribution to the pickle mountain was a single bottle of fermented chilli relish – absolutely heavenly, ‘though I say it myself! But my insight is timely. Once again, I over-ordered on the garlic, but I’m going to lop two of the three blackberry plants off the list before I send the next order off, and we’re going to have thatconversation about the seed order. The solution to my woes is to control my impulses, but my nemesis won’t be an old girlfriend or a new shirt. It’ll be a £2.00 seed packet or a fabulous new recipe for hot smoked and pickled raspberries.
We have a friend – Harry -who’s a retired orthopaedic surgeon; and an all round good guy. On his 90th birthday he gave a truly witty after dinner speech in which he tried to account for his long life and 60 years of happy marriage by listing the virtues that he thought might have contributed. The virtue I remember most clearly was thrift, which he illustrated by telling a story about apples. Harry has a large garden and orchard and he said that he had the utmost difficulty in leaving windfalls on the ground – it just seemed wrong to waste them, he said – and the consequence, he noted, was ” …. of course you never eat a decent apple!”
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that all these synonyms have a faintly negative air about them – but I know exactly what Harry meant. We’ve got a load of really nice, almost perfect, Lord Lambourne apples stored in the meter cupboard; but those aren’t the ones we’re eating because we like to finish up the windfalls and blemished ones first. And so every morning when I prepare our muesli I cut the bad bits out of yesterday’s windfalls and grate the rest – they still taste just as good and, pound for pound, they contain exactly as many nutrients as their smooth cheeked cousins in the cupboard. The point. though, is that we couldn’t even give them away. When we go (infrequently) to the fruit and veg stall in a supermarket, we see nothing but perfect examples of each variety, flying off the shelves complete with all the residue of the repeated sprays that have bestowed their cosmetic perfection on them. “Another slice of organophosphate and neonicotinoid pie?” is the one question we’re most unlikely to ask at the dinner table.
But simply by working the allotment our worldview has changed. Because we’ve planted and nurtured our own vegetables; tended and watered them through drought, storm and snowfall; pruned, fed and picked the fruits we’re a lot less inclined to discard them because they don’t look like the ones in the supermarket (or especially the seed catalogue). Yesterday I was writing about how pleased we were to have a small crop of Florence fennel and I forgot to take a picture to share – so here it is – and, as you can easily see, although I extolled the flavour and texture yesterday, it’s hardly a textbook example of the genre; on the very edge of bolting and not about to win any prizes at any flower and produce show I’ve ever been to. When you grow your own veg, you’ve got to learn to love them in rather the way you love your children – seeing nothing but sheer beauty and giftedness in them in spite of all the evidence to the contrary!
There’s an old saying that says “everyone should eat their peck of dirt”. and equally if you’ve never seen a slug or an earwig on your plate you’re probably part of the reason that our rivers are so heavily polluted by runoff from farms. It wasn’t for nothing that the Edwardian gardeners at the Lost Gardens of Heligan called their stirrup pump sprayer the widowmaker.
Isn’t it a supreme irony that we’re so scared of insects or a bit of dirt, or especially the idea of composting toilets and using urine as a fertilizer; while we are quite prepared to tolerate some of the most dangerous nerve-gas derived chemicals ever invented, all over our lettuce or fruit. How on earth did that happen? Well I guess it’s because we can’t see it, and a lot of money has been spent on persuading us it’s perfectly safe.
Allotmenteering teaches so much more than a few horticultural tricks. It teaches some of those virtues that Harry was praising on his 90th birthday. It teaches us to value diversity, stop dreaming about the perfect and above all to stop wasting the good things that the earth has given us. And, how could we leave this one out? – allotmenteering gives us a sense of awe and gratitude that’s so easily lost in this era of mendacity and stupidity. That’ll do for us.
The new pond – which Madame rather acidly refers to as ‘the lake’ is all but finished now. We’re just waiting for the membrane to arrive and it should be filling with rainwater within a week. I suggested that perhaps a wave machine might add something but she wasn’t biting on that one and merely asked when the fish were arriving.
Enough of the Potwell Inn domestics – we’re nowhere near as much fun as the landlord of one pub we used to go to. He would lurk in the lounge bar and his wife was in charge of the busier public bar; and they would hurl abuse at one another through the connecting passage: it was the best show in town. Every night at ten o’clock on the dot Mr Rossi would turn up in his chef’s apron smelling of heavenly Italian food and we would vie with one another to sit next to him because we could never afford to eat in his restaurant.
And speaking of Italian food; his year- at last- we’ve had success with the Florence fennel. We’ve tried often before but it tends to bolt very easily and so, when we read somewhere that it’s best to delay sowing until after the equinox – as the day length declines – we decided to give it a go and it’s paid off handsomely. Tonight we feasted on onion soup, followed by a pear and fennel salad and I have to say in all modesty (ho ho) that it was the best and most tender fennel we’ve ever eaten. It’ easy enough to buy it in the supermarkets, I know, but we often find it rather tough and sometimes quite stringy, as if it’s spent a long time on a lorry – which of course it usually has. Our own fennel, not as big as the supermarket ones but with a properly formed bulb, had a sweetness behind the aniseed flavour and best of all, sliced very thinly, it was as tender as a cos lettuce . We ate in respectful silence enjoying every mouthful. I guess it’s one of the strengths of seasonal food that when it appears it’s always at its prime; and when there’s none left there’s usually something different but just as good coming along.
The related job on the allotment is to use the soil from the pond to build up a new strawberry bed. There’s been a good deal of to and fro with the wheelbarrow, but it’s all coming together and we’re now ready to order some new strawberry plants. The fruit cage is almost clear and at last the apple cordons have been given more space to breathe by relocating some redcurrants and gooseberries.
It’s been hard work, and there’s a lot more construction still to go. It would be easy to think of an allotment as a rather static entity; but as we learn more about the soil and the microclimate on the plot we move things around and add new features. This winter we’re planning for pollinators, insects, reptiles and small mammals – that’s for the earth, and for us a sheltered level area to sit and enjoy the wildlife.
I’ve never quite understood how fine words could fail to butter at least a couple of parsnips – as long, that is, as someone is paying you to write them. Sadly, though in my case nobody pays me to write anything and so the Potwell Inn parsnips are only ever buttered thanks to our extremely modest pensions. Still; what’s the price of a pat of butter against the pleasure of eating our own organic parsnips straight off the allotment.
Yes it’s parsnip time again; having seen off the last of the summer vegetables. Parsnips and all the other roots shuffle modestly to the front of the queue and surprise us as they do every year. I imagine you could (just about) eat them boiled with a knob of butter; or mashed with the aforementioned and a bit of pepper but for me the glory of the parsnips is roasted until they’re golden – in olive oil rather than butter which burns too easily. For even greater transports of delight (so long as you’re not a vegetarian) I’d roast them with carrots, squash, and possibly beetroot in the meat juices left in the pan while the joint is resting, but that, for us these days, is a very occasional extravagance (and all the more enjoyable for it). But really any which way is good, and with care and attention you can even achieve the chef’s holy grail and possibly mythical quality – balance. Balance, I think, is how you describe a perfect culinary chord in which (to carry on the musical analogy) neither the first violins or the horns are getting all their own way.
Parsnip soup is one of those dishes beloved of pub chefs with a limited budget, who want to honour local sourcing without lashing out on salt marsh lamb. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved by a bit of TLC. I’ve tasted some truly grim versions. Don’t rush it; get the best fresh ingredients and give it time. Parsnips, especially shop bought ones, can be a bit woody towards the end of the season; so preparation should include cutting out the woody cores, because however long you blitz the resulting soup for, it will still taste as if you dropped a corner of the kitchen table into the pan. Your guests will not be impressed as they pick the splinters from their teeth if you extol the rustic virtues of their lunch. And finally, don’t over season it – let it speak for itself – and give it a swirl of sage oil and a dollop of crème fraiche. There isn’t a better way of marking an otherwise dull day.
It’s mid October and the daylight hours are shortening dramatically. When the sun shines, the autumn colours of the leaves are wonderful; but on a day like today when it’s drizzling; the allotment stares back at us like an estranged teenager and the earth is cold. It’s hard to see beyond the moment if the rain’s running down your neck and even the grass has taken on the blue green hue that’s an autumn speciality. Any pause in the traffic and you can almost hear the slugs munching. So we drifted off to a garden centre to get supplies of potting compost, sand and fine grit for a new garlic bed which needs to be well drained. We could make our own potting compost, but if the lockdown goes on we’ll have run out by the busiest time in March.
If you think that my occasional forays into philosophy or poetry, environmental politics, or spirituality are unexpected or random, I’d have to push back a bit and say that being human – I mean really human – can’t be boiled down to cooking and eating parsnips (thank goodness) or, for that matter, growing them. The allotment and the kitchen are two of the most important spaces in the (imaginary) Potwell Inn; but only two of them. Neither the natural history of Bath nor the contents of the bookshelves or the paintings on the walls, finish crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. I couldn’t even begin to make a list of my favourite marks of humanness and neither would I dare to suggest that my list enjoyed any kind of privilege in the great order of things. But the unique and glorious bird’s nest of borrowings and learnings that furnish my/your/anyone’s inner life is a symphony, a work of art.
And on the wet days and the ones where nothing seems to go right, it helps to have that precious bird’s nest. Goodness knows I was fed up today – so fed up I started reading Rilke! What I wanted to say is that full humanity needs its stories and poems and pictures and perhaps above all, its spiritualities, songs and music. It’s only through these shared arts that good and bad can be held together in hope. So although fine words may butter no economic parsnips, they can raise two fingers to the gods of chaos, war and destruction. And without those internal resources, there’s no symphony, no texture; just a solitary busker with a hat full of rain.
I had a bit of a comments discussion with one of the Potwell Inn regulars yesterday, concerning what she called ‘covid fatigue’, and then someone else joined in – in the way that these spontaneous conversations pop up – you know, cold wet day outside (at least for us, ‘though not in her part of the US) and we chewed over the awfulness of it all for a bit and agreed that constant bad news and bad politics is sapping our energy. We were, all three, leaning in a virtually socially distanced way, on the imaginary bar, lamenting jobs not done and feeling a bit lethargic.
And later as I wandered around the flat, picking things up and putting them down again and sharing the umpteenth cup of green tea with Madame, I noticed – or rather paid proper attention to the fact that we’ve got one heated and one unheated propagator going, with basil, coriander, winter hardy lettuce and parsley all germinated, and the overwintering broad bean seed (Aquadulce Claudia) had just arrived in the post and we’d managed to clear most of the allotment for the winter crops. As often happens, it seems, our lethargy had been rather upstaged by our seasonal autopilot. I wrote a couple of days ago about linear versus cyclical time, and there’s no doubt that for farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners it’s a no-contest. The rhythms of the annual cycle of sowing, tending, harvesting and clearing get embedded in our minds and sink, like chi energy into our fingers.
So it was off to the computer for me, and I spent most of the daylight hours watching the rain running down the windows, and renewing the growing plan for the coming season. By the magic of the software, a single click can transfer last year’s plan to 2021 and (provided you’ve put the dates in properly) clear the beds in another click and declare that the game is on once again. Of course virtual allotmenteering is a good deal less physical than the real thing, but at least you get a big red warning when your rotations go awry – which warnings you’re free to ignore because allotments on 250 square metres are not so easy to rotate as a 400 acre farm.
The next challenge was to match our physical seed store with the virtual one, and that’s always a bit of an eye opener. If I could make a helpful suggestion to new allotmenteers it would be to steer clear of garden centre seed displays. This is advice we never take ourselves, of course, so the result of this disobedience is the annual search for out of date seeds. Yes, the second most important bit of information on the seed packet is the bit we most frequently cut off and discard – the ‘sow by’ date. Seeds, like gardeners, only stay viable for a time. If you only wanted to grow poppies you could probably bulk buy as a teenager and carry on sowing them until they cart you off; but there are other more sensitive seeds that are only viable for a year, some that need a rest in the fridge before they’ll germinate and some that won’t germinate unless they’re resting in daylight.
I used to work on a radio station in which, posted in huge letters over the desk, was the legend “In the event of equipment failure RTFM”. I asked someone what it meant and he answered(testily) ‘read the manual!’. Seed packets seduce with their photos but disappoint if you don’t read the small print. Every single word.
All of which failure to take our own advice leads every autumn to the clear out of un-viable seed, and we’re ruthless because you can lose a whole crop if you miss the optimum sowing time. So any packet with a missing date goes out regardless of whether it’s got seeds in it. There’s a picture (top right) of yesterday’s haul above, and if you were to examine the contents you’d discover that 80% of them were garden centre impulse buys.
Next comes the seed order; so last year’s order is reprinted as a starter, and then we go through it to remove some things we didn’t like and add some that might do better. Then we check the box(es) of seeds against what we want to grow and eventually – after a lot of argy bargy and a sheaf of notes – I get to type out the definitive seed order for – in this case – 2021, along with suppliers etc. We shall, as ever, almost certainly ignore the list as soon as we leave the virtual world and set foot on the dirt!
But it all filled a rainy day and we spent a few hours together around the table enjoying the prospect of the Promised Land in all its unrealised potential. The allotment will never look better than it does in October, inside our heads, and suddenly we realised as we sat down later that we’d crossed the Rubicon, notwithstanding covid fatigue and all the provocations. We’d strayed over the border into 20121 without intending to and it felt very good.
This morning the sun is shining as Storm Alex slowly passes, leaving floods and damage everywhere but our refurbished water stores brimming. Last season (dare I say that now?) was a huge challenge, undertaken in the most difficult circumstances. We couldn’t get new seed so we had to busk it. We couldn’t buy most of the sundries we rely on and at times we felt terribly isolated from our friends and family. Our government seemed incapable of seriously addressing the challenges and even today we have no idea how this will all turn out, but that’s all linear time. The fact is, in spite of everything we grew food, adapted, changed our whole diet to fit our circumstances and stayed better friends than ever! Nil carborundum we say, and carpe diem too, but we usually say it in some form of English as we exercise the inheritance of resilience and resourcefulness. that our parents and grandparents passed on, along with the time to plant potatoes. It’s OK to be human too.
A year ago last September I wrote a very short piece on harvesting borlotti beans . To be honest it wasn’t Proust, but I think a link must have been posted on someone else’s site because that single post has had more views than anything else I’ve ever written. Maybe it’s just one reader who’s developed a pathological interest in that posting, or perhaps it’s lots of people wondering to do with their beans, but whatever it is, the keyword ‘borlotti’ seems to have some magic effect on the stats.
And so just over a year later, and in the great cycle of allotment life, we’ve just picked the beans again. This year we were so overwhelmed with other good things to eat that we left the borlotti on the vines to ripen and dry, so we’ll have a supply during the winter. They’re relatively easy to grow in the UK, but like most legumes they’re big feeders and they need regular watering. Growing beans for storage always seems a bit of a risk because the difference between a basket of beans in their pods and the resulting pile of shelled beans can seem like a poor return on time and space. The good news is that when you soak them overnight they double in size; you never need that many in a single meal, and they’re such a wonderfully flavoured source of nutrients – especially their protein and fibre levels. A meal with beans needs little extra carb rich ‘padding’.
But the bean harvest always coincides with a kind of equinoctial shift of consciousness in the kitchen. As the salad crops diminish, the roots and winter veg step up to the table with their very different flavours and qualities. Even having eschewed potatoes in our diet (William Cobbett would have approved!) there’s not much that beats roasted roots, even if they need cautious portioning. The default winter diet is more suitable for a peasant working out in all weathers than someone who spends their time in front of a screen, and that’s fine by us because we’re allotment peasants in any case. The compost reached 60C this week; but only as a result of regular turning, and since a full bin weighs about a ton, I claim my Fitbit Peasant’s badge.
So here we are with the last of the abundant tomato harvest bottled in various forms; in passata, sauces, and oven dried in oil. It’s a full time job. There are jams and preserves – the bottled figs look irresistible – and yesterday I preserved the last of the aubergines in olive oil. There are chillies fermenting away in the larder but no pickles or chutneys this year because we haven’t finished the last lot. The good news is that they go on improving for several years before the decline sets in and you wonder what on earth they might have been. Does this sound like a man on a diet? My word, the temptation is killing me!
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – I’m eternally grateful to my grumpy teachers for punishing me by making me memorise Shakespeare and loads of poems. Any apparent literacy in my past life has flowed from my disruptive schooldays. So thanks Mr Keats, and you were right – the mellow fruitfulness extends to my mind too and this is the season when I love standing at the stove, dreaming up dishes I once read about and conjuring memories of great evenings.
The new harvest of borlotti necessitated eating up the last of the stored dried beans and my greedy mind turned to a cassoulet. There was no confit duck in the Potwell Inn larder, so I used fresh duck legs and added some of my favourite confit spices – some allspice, mace and juniper all add a bit of winter warmth. It’s there in the oven now, beans, pancetta, a bit of chorizo and half a bottle of opened passata from the fridge, and the usual onions, celery, carrots and lots of garlic – cooking for about eight hours at just over 100C – I can’t wait: it makes approaching winter seem almost tolerable.
But it’s also the time of year when I start lusting after bits of kitchen equipment – this year it’s a new sauté pan. Before we retired we invested in a set of heavyweight pans but they had a non stick finish which, by now, is showing signs of breaking down – even though we only use plastic and wood implements. But I have a big 3 ply stainless roasting tin and it’s both heavy and bombproof and, amazingly, so hard it’s possible to use metal tools (carefully). After five years the working surface is as good as new, and releases burnt on and caramelized gunk with just a stiff brush. Like Oscar Wilde, I can resist anything except temptation and I’ve googled ‘3 ply stainless sauté pan’ so often that now it’s almost the only annoying pop-up advertisement on my laptop. In the twisted logic of the panstruck cook, I tell myself that it’s inevitable I’ll get it in the end – so why not now, this very minute, you know it makes sense ……. and even more terrifying I heard a little voice in my head suggesting that it would see me out. Probably when Madame hits me over the head with it for being extravagant!
Meanwhile as the 10,000 calorie supper gathers strength in the oven, we’ve forsworn anything except half a kipper and green tea until supper time by which time we’ll be fainting. We know how to suffer for our art at the Potwell Inn.
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
I want to start with a verse from John Donne’s 17th century poem in order to work together two threads of an argument towards a green spirituality; not a particularly ambitious attempt – which would require many more threads, but to try to lay down some markers for myself and for anyone who’s interested to read my post. Hopefully there are one or two out there in the darkness!
The significance of Donne’s meditation on our connectedness with all human life was never more significant than it is today, when it’s so under threat. The second thread, though, concerns time; our understanding of it and the way that understanding shapes our lives.
I watch the television (my grandfather always called it ‘the idiot’s lantern’ – although he was the first person in his Chiltern village to own one because he was also an inveterate early adopter. There are phrases and ideas that come up over and over again on TV – so often, in fact, that they take up residence in our minds as a dreadful kind of common sense. ‘Taking control’ is probably a good idea if you’re a passenger in a speeding car when the driver has just collapsed – but if it comes to be applied in every aspect of your life it’s a thoroughly bad one. My favourite example of this perfidious lunacy is the idea of taking control of the covid virus – after you Boris! If we really want to take control of something it makes sense to consider whether control is appropriate or even possible. King Canute demonstrated his limited powers by sitting in the path of the oncoming tide and ordering it to stop. Point taken, then. In nature, taking control can be delusional.
‘Because I’m worth it’ is another one. Why anyone except an idiot would consider that their personal appetites should override any other consideration demands an explanation. What both popular phrases demonstrate is what happens when we stray from John Donne’s insight that we stand or fall together. We are either a part of the human race in our whole lived experience, or we have become parasitic grazers of experiences that please us.
So let’s insert this dangerous selfish gene into the DNA of another idea, the idea of time. Boldly put, is the unfolding of time a kind of line that begins with the big bang and ends when the sun runs out of heat? In a sense that’s undeniable, but the timescale over which it happens is so vast as to be beyond our understanding. There are more pressing problems at hand than the cooling of the sun in millions of years time, because our concern has to be whether the earth becomes a barren wilderness within a few hundreds of years. The ultimate fate of the earth becomes an almost metaphysical argument when it’s compared with the extinctions that are pressing upon us.
The limited argument here is that ‘taking control’, ‘because I’m worth it‘, and similarly superficial slogans, have become a default defence for the destruction of the environment.
Never mind about these temporary worries, we’ll soon find a fix and we’ll all march together into Canaan where there will be food for everyone and we’ll all live forever in magic houses where robots do everything for us.
There should be a mea culpa at this point from Christian theologians for inadvertently providing the ideological weaponry for our troubles; and yes, I have read St Francis and Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhardt and Matthew Fox and all the others, but sadly they were always outsiders. Mainstream theology focused on sin, redemption and getting into heaven – popularly known as ‘pie in the sky when you die’. The idea of challenging the status quo, right here and right now, so often landed up being trumped by the thought that it didn’t much matter in the end because this miserable life was a bit naff unless you were a bishop. To put it in more academic terms, the theory of evolution plus Christian eschatology (the doctrines of the ultimate ‘last things’) leads into a linear mindset that (when the religious impulse fails) supports an ideology of endless progress towards the perfect society. It’s an entirely instrumental view of life without a shred of validity or vitality and with more in common with Marx than it does with the future of the earth.
So let’s oppose this linear, instrumental view of life with something very different. It’s worth doing this, I think, because trying to oppose the extractive ideology of the present day by offering counter facts doesn’t seem to work. The government say fracking is a great idea because we (actually it should be they) get lots of free fuel. We put up all the scientific arguments against, but nobody is listening and no-one is changing their mind because they’ve got too much invested in the way we do things round here. The agents of destruction don’t believe what they do because they are in possession of a different set of facts which we can alter by offering some better ones. They are able to do these things because their entire worldview is contained within a powerful culture. ‘Because they’re worth it‘ means they have every right to ‘take control’ because that is the law that flows from their understanding of nature.
For all practical purposes the fullest human lives are lived in a more cyclical manner. What I’m getting at is that we’ll never change the world by only pursuing counterarguments. It’s important that we carry on arguing but it’s a hopeless task because we’re always fighting on their linear, instrumental turf. They offer facts, we offer counterfacts and they offer counter-counter facts and someone says ‘lets’ set up an enquiry’ and before it’s finished deliberating for a couple of decades the lights have gone out and it’s ‘goodnight Irene’.
Putting aside the inevitability that the earth will one day perish, (because it’s always better to deal with the proximate danger first); opens up the possibility of arguing that because the inglorious moment of the last instance is so inconceivably far away, that we can forget the idea that there will be a cunning plan someday soon and adopt a radically different notion of passing time.
So what if we were to engage people by living better? Instead of inhabiting this linear worldview where there’s always something better just down the road that never arrives; the ship that never ‘comes in’: we could choose to incorporate and live out the polarities, the cycles and rhythms that have sustained the earth and all her ecosystems over millennia and would continue to do so for millennia more if we only let them? Let’s not fight just with facts, let’s change perspectives because once we’ve changed someone’s perspectives their collection of facts will have to change too because they don’t work any more.
I think it’s fair to argue that when I look at the sun rising in the morning, I can be sure that if I were around in twenty million years time it would still look much the same. The cooling down of the sun is slow slow slow. But global extinction is fast. The earth is finite – just like us. The earth has her cycles and seasons; the moon has hers too drawing up and releasing the tides. The seasons were once beautifully represented in the Christian liturgical year – it’s all gone now, but Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, Pentecost, Harvest, Remembrance and – finest of all – Ordinary Time – all reflected the rhythms of the earth and our own lived experience of feast and famine, joy and sorrow; the sadness of loss and bereavement and the witnessing of new life in the fields and in our homes. We’ve lost the ability to dream our dreams and sing our songs. This is absolutely not an appeal to get back to the local tin tabernacle for a prayer and a bollocking but it is an appeal to consider our humanness as essentially sacramental rather than instrumental. The will to fight for the environment is, (to pinch a phrase from the evangelicals), better caught than taught, and there is an alternative that we can communicate in its lived form, rather than belittling people’s innocently acquired beliefs with angry counter-arguments.
We grow food because it is in our nature to grow things and it teaches us gratitude and humility. We love to eat together because we are essentially creatures of community. We care for one another; the old, the young and the sick because that’s where our humanity grows. We can build on core values like joyfulness, gratitude, openness and – dare I say – thriftiness; and the greatest benefit of living sacramentally is that it’s completely sustainable because that’s the nature of earth, and we can live in peace rather than in violence and greed because in the end, any other way of life is self-defeating.
Of course some will say this is idealistic nonsense, and the favoured trap, laid especially for us, is fear. “It’s all so complicated” we’re taught to think – “we don’t even know where to start; what happens if it goes wrong; better the devil you know etc etc …..”. But the choice isn’t between the groundhog day of eternally repetitive cycles – peasant life, in fact; and the pursuit of technological dreams that are destroying the earth. Sacramental life is endlessly creative; no two seasons are the same any more than any two people are identical. Nothing in nature’s cycles precludes innovation and change for the better. It’s a way of life forged in music, songs and stories, dancing, drama and pictures. The only limiting factor is that we must stop laying waste to the environment simply because we were taught to believe that we’re worth it. In fact we’re worth much more. We’ve seen the enemy – it’s us.
This is a long post and it’s possibly more open about some fairly personal stuff than you may feel interested enough to read. It deals with the challenges of retirement and the emotional impact of health problems. Normal service will, I promise, be resumed immediately so if you skip this one that’s fine, but it’s here in case anyone else might find it helpful.
I was maybe fourteen years old when I first read this passage and allowed it to take up residence in my mind, along with Peggoty and Duffy Clayton (you’ll have to look that one up).
“A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr. Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular”
The History of Mr Polly – H G Wells
It was always going to be a bit of a culture shock, coming back to Bath after ten days in the most idyllic and secluded place you could imagine, overlooking the Irish Sea in North Wales; and in the way that astrologers write about trines, and other unusual alignments of the planets and astronomers plot eclipses and consequential movements of the planets; my own little solar system threw up a large spanner in the form of an anniversary. In fact the fifth anniversary of my retirement.
I remember asking my old friend Mags, whose partner had retired three years previously, how long it had taken for her to settle. The answer – “three years at least” took me by surprise – I’d come to think of my retirement in rather conventional terms, you know – big party; warm words (mostly exaggerated); a few glasses and off into the sunset and a new life – just like Mr Polly. Then Rose, another friend, warned us that one of the biggest perils was that every night became Friday night. They were both right but both underestimated the length of time it would take for the dream of my/our retirement fantasies to morph into a much deeper reality.
On Monday last, (a beautiful late summer’s day), we drove across the mountains once more and six hours later arrived home. Nothing had happened particularly in the meanwhile: the flat hadn’t burned down and the allotment was pretty much as we’d left it; but the city – lying in its natural basin – was airless, thronged with visitors taking a chance with COVID; students moving towards their new independent lives, armed with implausibly large amounts of alcohol and – of course – the Easy Jet planes were overhead, bringing Typhoid Mary and her mates back from their holidays. Ambulances as always were crawling through the traffic, setting out from and returning to the Royal United Hospital.
One thing however was very different. A large stretch of the river had drained by a depth of about five feet – due to a problem with one of the sluices – and dozens of boats, some of them peoples’ homes, had dropped, one-sidedly, on their mooring ropes and filled with filthy water. This much photographed riverside area, worth millions to property developers began to look like a 1970’s photo of the old Caldon branch of the Trent and Mersey Canal; cluttered with abandoned and stolen metalwork – bikes, a stolen motorcycle, dozens of supermarket trolleys, old computers and general rubbish….. Hm!
The bottom right photograph (just about) shows the rarely seen overflow from the hot springs that drains warm water into the river after passing through the official Roman Baths and also through the rather expensive and privately run Spa. All the newly exposed river bed needed was a few dead dogs and Morris 1000 complete with skeletal passengers to complete the dystopian vision.
So what to do? Snowdonia ached in our memories and we were facing an enforced desensitisation back into our normal lives; living like urban foxes, avoiding unnecessary human contact and constantly COVID watchful. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but then he was a relatively wealthy and well educated man who probably lived in the better part of town. While Bath is, doubtless, a work of art – it’s more Bosch than Leonardo. The city looks great on a sunny evening when you’ve come in a coach and the buildings glow like ripe apricot as you are driven along London Road and back up to the motorway; but living here is very different.
Enough! We’ve forged our lives here now – I chose the word carefully – and much of the time our lives are so full we hardly notice all this. A therapeutic trip to the allotment surprised us. The first of the parsnips was a giant, the chillies, peppers and aubergines had all flourished in the days of our neglect. Another 5 kilos of tomatoes to prep, chillies to brine and ferment and more good things to eat. All good news there.
Our re-entry strategy was to revisit our favourite walks. The local ones are all calculated take us around the quiet edges of the city; be around five miles long, and capable of being taken at a bit of a challenging pace. There are no walks here that don’t involve hills.
To put all this exercise in some kind of context we both finished the first lockdown seriously overweight – my bread baking was probably the engine of much of it, but being indoors so long didn’t help, and comfort food was our principal survival mechanism. But there was more – Madame had endured a knee replacement; we’d both scored badly on blood glucose (pre diabetic) in the last set of tests and I’d had a series of troubling encounters with endoscopes, followed by a separate diagnosis of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. My heart would go into uncontrolled pointless and ineffectual racing leaving me feeling faint and (so I discovered) very likely to have a stroke or a heart attack. Our visits to the gym were more dangerous than I’d ever realized.
My medical issues were quickly resolved by medication to control the wayward heart rhythms and reduce my blood pressure, but emotionally the effect was deeper and more difficult to budge. Looking back, I began to make accommodations, telling myself it was only natural to slow down at my age, and all that blah blah blah. Fear of becoming a wreck was making things worse, and introducing negative feedback can only go one way, putting the brakes on life. We were shrinking in ambition even while we grew slower and bigger and so we did something about it. Long before the lockdown; we gave up alcohol – it’s fourteen months now with no more seven Friday nights a week and – (this is not a nag) – after a few months we felt so much better it was difficult to understand why we hadn’t done it sooner. Some of the worrying symptoms disappeared, and then six weeks ago we put ourselves on a low carb diet; I lost 20lbs and all my other stats – blood glucose, blood pressure, body fat, BMI and resting heart rate dropped quickly into the normal or even optimal levels. After a lifetime of never listening to good advice we bit the bullet and it worked. The diet is demanding but we soon got used to it. One of the biggest obstacles was getting past the pharmacists who seemed to think it was wrong for me to check my own blood sugars in case I “wore my finger out” taking samples, or (more likely) was too stupid to get medical help if self-testing showed up a problem.
But accompanying the appearance of these promising new shoots; the reappearance of my waist, and the clothes I never thought I’d ever be able to wear again, there was something else lurking in the background that came so from from left-field it knocked me flat because the way in which the inner world inflects our experience of the outer world is always present whether we notice it or not. The dystopian experience of coming home from the unsustainable idyll should have been a warning that something needed sorting.
So we took the campervan for its annual MOT at a garage in one of my old parishes and while we waited I thought we’d drive around for a while, near some of the places we’d both loved during the time we lived there. We turned off up a narrow lane from the main road for no reason that I could explain and then in a moment of completely clear insight I knew two things. Firstly that I’d been trying to forget, to push to the back of my mind, the whole 25 years of work in the parish, although much of it was pure joy, because there were some bits of it that had been terrible and that had inflicted real damage on me. But the second insight was that it was OK to own all the good things. I needed to remember them safely because they represented a third of my life. So two insights in a narrow lane that (who’d have thought it?) led directly to a farm and to someone who’d been good to me in a completely unaffected way, and we banged on the door and were welcomed as old friends.
A lot of my life has been taken up with unravelling birds’ nests of memories. We say casually that so-and-so ‘was in pieces‘ and that’s often truer than we think. Years of helping other people to put their lives back together demanded that I took my own puzzle just as seriously – it’s a work in progress, you might say.
Anyway that could be the longest imaginable introduction to a couple of walks – one of them a restorative stroll around Bannerdown where we were delighted by two usurpers, both probably garden escapes but Michaelmas daisies are so much a part of autumn, and the Canadian goldenrod was just as pretty, neither of them the least rare or even genuine native wildflowers but hey! The real ram-stamped native was the plant gall known colloquially as a robin’s pincushion.
Then yesterday we went across to the Mendips to walk down the length of Velvet Bottom and instead of turning back up the Longwood Valley, we carried on down through the Black Rock nature reserve as far as Cheddar Gorge – who could resist those names? I’ve talked a lot about the peculiar geology of the place which, due to lead pollution from mines that have been operated since Roman times, has its own very specialised flora. I’ve written about it, but some of the plants are harder to spot than you’d think. Not, however meadow saffron – sometimes known as ‘naked ladies’ because the spectacular flowers appear after the seeds have been set and the leaves have disappeared for the winter.
And there’s another reason for writing at such length. I once taught a young South Wales man doing an incredibly long prison sentence for affray. He used to joke and say that if I crossed him he might have ‘one of his blackouts’. Let’s call him Owen. Apart from a gift for throwing furniture and televisions through windows, he knew more about Romano British settlements in South Wales than anyone I’ve ever met. If anyone ever demonstrated the fact that you can’t stuff a real life into a bag marked ‘historian’ or ‘botanist’ it was Owen. As Stephen Blackpool was inclined to say in “Hard Times” – ‘it’s all a muddle’ – and in real life, as opposed to the relentlessly (artificial) successful and happy bloggers’ persona, for every meadow saffron there’s an awful lot of ragwort that can’t be swept under the carpet. The Potwell Inn remains committed to life in all its fullness, richness and joy – allowing for the fact that some idiot could leave the sluices open at any time.
I like the way they do harvest in Provence where everything ripens by the end of July and for the next six weeks it’s too hot to work the land so there’s nothing but fêtes, bull runs and general mayhem. The bull runs are especially good fun because they get a fairly safe bull with blunt horns and all the village lads dress up, douse their white shirts in red paint, put on their red neckerchiefs and get completely hammered before they dash drunkenly up the main street between walls of steel barriers, being chased by the bull. No-one seems to get hurt but it seems to work like pheromones with the local girls. In Uzės, on the other hand, it’s a big deal where the local Camarguais cowboys (and girls, but cowpersons sounds like a secret Bayer agri project) drive a genuinely scary bull down the main street, galloping flat out on either side of it out while the young men try to dive between the horses and wrestle the bull away from its escorting riders by grabbing it by the tail – that’s serious! It’s an extraordinarily moving spectacle, especially because the riders are all dressed in traditional costume and they’re ferociously good riders, and the competing young men are completely fearless. Hundreds of spectators line the street and some of the drunker ones even squeeze between the barriers at great risk.
Back at the Potwell Inn it’s a bit more prosaic. Harvesting the last of the tomato crop today we reckoned we’ve picked around sixty or seventy pounds which have been preserved as sauces (3 recipes), passata and dried; while there are still two trays of green tomatoes and one of immediate eaters. We’ve got jams in three or four flavours, damson vodka and sloe gin (even though we don’t drink), and pickles and couli and I’ve spent days on the stove, bottling and preserving and there’s still more to do – and so today as we carried the latest trays back up to the car Madame said “It’s harvest festival”, and she’s almost right. It’s been the weirdest season ever but as the summer crops come to an end we’re pleased that we coped as well as we did. Everything about the weather has been hyperbolic – wettest, coldest, windiest and hottest, sunniest and most disappointing – and yet we coped and learned a great deal and began to plan for next season when we’ll be introducing far more wildflowers and a pond.
But as for a harvest festival, well that’s a different thing altogether. We spoke to a couple of fellow allotmenteers as we carried the last tomatoes up and laughed about the weather (it was raining) but as for any kind of community thanksgiving – not necessarily religious – there’s none. Religious or not it seems churlish not to give thanks for the sheer generosity of the earth, and I’m perfectly sure that I’m not in a minority of one. Maybe it’s because it feels weird to offer thanks to an invisible power without any apparent content to get a handle on. On the other hand I’m perfectly at home with the experience of thankfulness without attributing my good fortune to any particular branch of the God franchises on offer. Perhaps that’s the answer to my own question “who, or what should we thank?”, and it’s this: It’s the thankfulness that matters much more than the address you send it to.
The autumn – which we’ve just entered untidily – is one long occasion of thankfulness, and nothing dents my enthusiasm for it; not long hours at the stove with a backache, not turning the compost or watching plants you’ve tended all season die back, because the joy is the way we can preserve food and ourselves against the coming winter.
But that doesn’t answer the other part of the question. While I can find thankfulness in my own, or our own few square yards of the earth it’s hard not to be sharing it with others. There used to be a big flower show in Bristol, in fact they happened in almost every village in the country and they’re dying out. The Bath allotmenteers used to have a show until the council imposed insurances and form filling made it no longer viable. The Church of England used to be another kind of place you could take your bit of thankfulness and share it with all the other lukewarm or absolutely non- Christians; just bring the courgette that grew and grew and that was your ticket with no fear of any theology spoiling the occasion. Now they’ve taken out the back row and it’s full of gimlet eyed enthusiasts.
The big flower shows and harvest festivals were the last survivors of an age when a full larder and good friends was the difference between surviving the winter and starving. We’ve been sold the lie that we can feast every day and forget about famine, except that there are tens of millions of children in the UK who know differently. Our inner lives have been broken up and sold off in lots to private enterprise along with the air we breathe and the water we drink and there are powerful people who think that protesting against the injustice is the same as terrorism. Am I beginning to sound like William Cobbett? In “Cottage Economy” he wrote that the only time you could rely on a visit from the local minister was after you’d killed the fattened pig for the winter.
So what does that make a harvest festival? is it a worrying far left demonstration against the food industry? A sign of how far we have to go to escape the clutches of irrationality? A sales opportunity for artisan producers of pickle and gin? Or is it an enormous freewheeling gale of gratitude from those of us who have grasped the essential fact that our culture, our agriculture and our food industry are on the road to ruin, and who are trying to live differently.
‘Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith’
Proverbs 15:17 (you’d better believe it – no faith required!)
More rainy days, and so the Potwell Inn kitchen becomes the centre of the universe again. Summer has fled but in compensation we are bringing back so much food from the allotment we’re almost glad it’s raining today. Early this morning, before the rain came, we went up to collect more tomatoes and before we’d finished picking the clouds darkened and the rain began sheeting down. Ironically that just made it more fun and we larked about and laughed with the water running down our necks as we picked tomatoes, apples, beans and figs to fill the preserving jars. We’ve used up so many jars this year I’ve had to order more, and now, as I’m writing this, the flat is full of the perfume of roasting tomatoes, shallots, herbs and oil which I’m about to turn into a batch of rich passata.
Bottling and preserving is one of the greatest compensations for the loss of summer, and storing food for the winter becomes a fulfilling challenge. Freezers are all very well, but brining, pickling, fermenting and bottling all add complex flavours to their raw ingredients, and can bring a taste of summer to a February meal, and in any case glass preserving jars can be stored without using electricity or gas and they can be used over and over. We use different types of jar for different purposes – Kilner jars, for instance are good for pickles because there’s no metal to come into contact with the vinegar fumes, and we always keep a supply of new rubber rings for them, and lids for jam jars because we avoid using them more than once. A fresh top costs much less than a whole jar of spoiled preserved fruit, and if you bulk buy jars and lids from a beekeeping supplier rather than a kitchen shop they’re miles cheaper. Of course you can recycle old jam jars too, but I find that cellophane tops held on with elastic bands and waxed discs won’t protect the contents nearly as well as a new lid, although my mother and grandmother used nothing else.
As you can see, the Potwell Inn kitchen is a bit of a galley really – nothing big or grand about it but we’ve always bought the best equipment we can afford because it lasts so much longer. The oldest Pyrex bowl, which is used several times a week, is 53 years old, full of warm roasted tomatoes right now, and still going strong.
I’ve written often about the fact that growing, cooking and eating your own produce is much more significant than saving a few pennies. It’s no accident that so many of the world’s religions celebrate their key moments through gathering and eating. Day by day we see people passing our window on their way into work – heads down or talking into their mobiles – drinking coffee, eating snacks on the hoof and engulfed by their headphones in a solitary world. When our family were young we had instances of their school friends who came to our house and had never eaten a meal at the table before. Tables are great! gatherings are great too, and eating together is a constant joy through which we renew relationships and share meals that express continuity. Arguing, laughing and joshing one another around a table is one of life’s great pleasures and while I’m cooking for such a gathering I’m always thinking of the people who will eat the food and trying to remember what they love and what they don’t. In restaurants they call it “service” and that’s not a nod to an obsequious tradition of waiters and customers – it’s about treating a customer as well as you would your best friend. Ready meals eaten in front of a quiz show on the telly simply don’t do it for me.
Maybe there should be a slow eating movement to complement the slow cooking one. Growing your own food and, where you can’t, buying locally from growers and farmers you trust and living well but frugally, means you can live better, eat better and waste less while doing something for the environment at the same time.
And so, today in the kitchen I’ve been in heaven. You might disapprove of the way I use vegetables that might be thrown away by cutting off the bits that have been chewed by slugs or grubs and using the rest, or the fact that I try to think of something to cook with leftovers, but if you’d spent months growing them and dealing with their problems, or gone out in six inches of snow to make sure they were well covered maybe you’d see waste differently. What’s really left after all the re-purposing can still be recycled; “leave no trace” applies as much in the kitchen as it does on a weekend, camping on Dartmoor.
Anyway that’s enough about the Potwell Inn kitchen. Our flat is quite small, and every nook and cranny is filling up with winter stores. Leaving our European neighbours in an acrimonious divorce will (not “could” – will) lead to food shortages in the new year, let alone the disruption that will almost certainly be caused by a surge in Covid 19 infections, and so I feel like I’m channelling my parents and grandparents who knew what food rationing felt like; although I don’t think we’ll be keeping a pig secretly. However our friends with the damson tree phoned this morning and invited us over for a socially distanced picking, so there will be more jam, vodka and even – if there are enough – some chutney to be made. I’m sure the family will be pleased to help us out with the forbidden carbs at Christmas
Finally, on the allotment yesterday, while the sun shone, we cleared away the remains of the sweetcorn to leave access to both sides of the borlotti beans. We’ve had a first taste of the new crop of borlotti in one of Madame’s thick beany soups and they’re lovely – well worth eating young. As soon as they’re harvested we can clear the bed and start to prepare for the new pond. Weather permitting there’s a good deal of carpentry to be done before winter sets in. Life really is good at the Potwell Inn.