You’re not having our apple harvest – Jack Frost!

Madame was always better at interpreting weather charts than me.  I think she learned to do it at the research station, and she would bandy around phrases like “cold front” when reading the papers, which I always took as being fearfully clever, and I would have loved to discover that she was making it all up, except she wasn’t.  So now she is the official meteorologist at the Potwell Inn which means that she gets first dibs at the weather app on my phone. Anyway the salient point is that we were occupied from early in the morning with a hospital appointment which left me sedated and unable to think straight until the evening.  My insides have now been investigated from top to bottom and nothing very threatening has been found – which is an enormous relief after several months of worry.  It’s not all silver spoons and turtle soup at the Potwell Inn.

So, to return to the weather, it wasn’t until about 7.00 pm that it dawned on my last two functioning brain cells, that a severe frost was mentioned by the ghostly voice of the Potwell Inn weather forecaster in the early morning. Jumping to attention like a teenager on holiday, I said I thought we ought to go and fleece the apple trees.  And so we walked up to the allotments – I wasn’t allowed to drive for 24 hours – and wrapped every vulnerable plant and tree we could find with heavy duty fleece.  The plot looked rather like a Christo scupture, but we’ve invested so much money, not to mention time and energy, that the thought of losing the blossom to a frost was intolerable. When the consultant had said – “I’ll just pop this in and let you float off into the clouds”, he hadn’t mentioned anything about landing, and so the process of wrapping all those plants warped into a kind of slow motion movie in which I could see myself at a distance but not – in a sense – actually join in. At Madame’s request I took some rather underexposed photos that needed editing today, but that was because they were taken well after sunset. What a joy! – seriously – to be able to work in the evening at last.

And so we wandered home feeling quite sure that the plants could survive the frost, and I slept the Sleep of the Just (note capitals) dreaming about the summer and making plans.  When we woke, the park outside was white with frost and I was almost pleased to see it.  Madame is infallible. And today I bought a new satnav because the maps in our present one are so out of date we spend most of our time apparently driving across fields, then we booked some time back at the Lost Gardens of Heligan and bought a ready meal because we could.

Later we tested a batch of frozen pesto.  It was another of our experiments to spread the summer glut across the hungry gap.  It was delicous, and we’d just finished our 50 Gram pot when our youngest dropped in.  We asked him if he’d ever frozen pesto and he said -“Of course, but we make it 5 kilos at a time”. Humph!

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It’s more like music now

IMG_5138This is the time of year when there’s a sudden rush of new allotmenteers on to the site. Some are experienced gardeners and some absolute beginners.  With the newcomers it pays to be circumspect because we all come to the ground with a set of expectations, and it’s no use blundering around or bashing them on the head with your pet enthusiasms which – in my case at least – were first formed in a very different era. My gardening heros were neighbours like Mr King, Mr Monks; my grandfather and the Mr Digwell cartoons in the Daily Mirror. The first book on gardening we bought together was an RHS publication called “The Vegetable Garden Displayed” in which – apart from the gardeners who all appeared to be from BBC Central Casting – vegetables were grown in straight lines surrounded by acres of weed free space. In fact, space never seemed to be a problem and allotments in monochrome photos and of gardens too, stretched into the blue mists of aerial perspective.  A small garden was something less than an acre without a permanent staff.  I wish I was joking …

Nowadays, I think anyone beginning an allotment comes with an entirely different set of objectives than – say – someone in the 1930’s whose main aim would have been to put food on the table.  There’s always been a recognised recreational element in allotmenteering too but now we have a gathering ecological crisis, uncontrolled climate change and a widespread feeling that the industrialised food we’re eating is doing us harm. So allotmeneering (and gardening too), has become more radical in its outlook and we’ve taken a long inner journey towards the way we do things at the Potwell Inn.

I’ve still got those old gardening books and when I read them I shudder to think how those imaculate weed-free plots were preserved. In all innocence, gardeners and farmers too were pouring dangerous chemicals and concentrated fertilisers on to the land and the soil was degrading as fast as the natural world above it. Only yesterday we were planting out young lettuces when Madame suddenly wrinkled her nose as said – “Simazine, I can smell Simazine!” – and true enough we looked up and saw one of our neighbours merrily spraying his allotment from a bottle.  It wasn’t Simazine because that’s banned for domestic gardeners, but the chemical smell was utterly distinctive.

So that gives a whole new load of priorities for allotmenteers but there’s another too. More and more of us now live in tiny houses with no more than a gloomy patio, or in flats. We’re more disconnected from the natural world than ever before and it’s bad for our minds and souls just as industrial farming is bad for our bodies.  That’s a lot of new priorities to honour on half a plot, say 100 square metres of ground.

And it all plays out when we plan what to grow and how to grow it. We don’t just have to worry about getting food to the table, we need to think about a wider constituency of new neighbours. Humans, smaller mammals like foxes and badgers and even rats, amphibians and birds and especially insects.

My grandfather would have planned for crop rotations and that was it. His smallholding in the Chilterns was immersed in an unbelievably rich natural world. When our Mother died, my sister and I wondered if we might scatter her ashes in the beechwoods behind the cottage she was brought up in.  It was too late, though. The whole area had been built over and the land has become an industrial estate.

These days crop rotations aren’t enough because on a tiny plot there simply isn’t room to do it in the traditional way, and we need to fit in a whole world of new plants and flowers to care for the pollinators and other insects and I’m coming to think of crop planning in almost musical terms. A garden without any planning is a meaningless and incoherent jumble that will only deliver gluts, shortages and damaged crops. Let’s say the traditional garden is like a song in strict meter, with equal verses, often dull and always predicable. But the new approach is more like Baroque or Gospel music. There has to be a strong structure for it to work at all, but it’s full of decoration, little grace notes and filigrees – they’re the companion plants, the interplantings, the insect and pollinator plants. And so the Potwell Inn allotment is slowly evolving from that dream of order and control towards something more akin to a performace.  Yesterday I was planting out Nasturtiums and Calendula under the apples. The carrot family, the Apiaceae, are great for insects – when did you last see hedge parsley or cow parsley without a crowd of insects and hoverflies? So angelica, lovage, dill and fennel get squeezed in wherever we think they’ll thrive. Any rows of plants vulnerable to slugs and snails get their companions of French marigolds. There are wallflowers, and yesterday they were finding bees, and here and there in odd corners there are other unexpected plants – sweet cicily in a corner by the shed.

In a way, Madame and me are opposites, and the allotment is the expression of the way we resolve our different approaches – I do the structure and Madame delights in shoving things here there and everywhere and so the result is a performance full of the unexpected.  All our favourite gardens have moments that stop us our tracks and even make us laugh out loud, like when we found a parsnip growing from a dropped seed, in one of the woodchip paths. Realistically it’s not going to save the world, at least on its own, it can’t.  But allotmentering is a kind of hedge school for radical ideas that might, just might make a big difference.

 

 

 

Who’ll march for these?

If you’ve been following every posting for months you’ll know that on 21st December 2018 I told a story I’m about to revisit because it bears on another news story today.  To be honest my original piece had very few readers.  I generally try not to get preachy  but today it was reported that in the UK pollinating insects had diminished by 25%  

There’s clearly something wrong and if you thought that the main suspects – neonicotinoids – had been completely banned in the UK you’d be mistaken. Here’s the DEFRA information from just over a year ago:

Further restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides have been approved following a vote by EU member states today.

The UK voted in favour of the proposals that will see a ban on outdoor use of three neonicotinoids – Clothianidin, Imidacloprid and Thiamethoxam.

Currently, their use is banned for oilseed rape, spring cereals and sprays for winter cereals, but they can be used to treat sugar beet, various horticultural crops and as seed treatments for winter cereals.

What the press release also goes on is to say that there are exceptional variations available …. etc etc.  So it’s good news that the use of these pesticides has been reduced but it’s simply not true that they’re completely banned. Of course the reason for the decline of wildlife in general is complex, but agricultural practices have to be a part of the problem. I spend much of my time defending farmers, and the way they’ve been squeezed between a rock and a hard place is nothing short of shameful, but there’s no prospect that the sowing of wildflower meadow mix in suburban gardens and allotments is going to reverse this decline. DEFRA admits that the value of insects as pollinators exceeds half  billion pounds a year. If the UK leaves the European Community and abolishes even these limited restrictions, many of these precious pollinators may well disappear altogether. I’ve seen maize seed treated with neonictinoids it’s bright blue and it’s so toxic you have to protect your skin from contact.

Biodiversity isn’t just an economic issue, it’s a spiritual issue, an aesthetic issue and a moral issue as well. Last night we watched the news on television with increasing dismay and we talked about The Potwell Inn and our little allotment which sometimes feel like they hold the key to the future. Should we engage or withdraw? All I know is that I can remember the exact moment I photographed each one of the beasties at the top of the page and my life would have been all the poorer without them.

So maybe we should adopt a Benedictine saying. As you enter the chapel in the monastery you read the words “To pray is to work” and when you leave the chapel to carry out your daily work – possibly in the garden –  you read  “To work is to pray”. Can’t argue with that, even if I never quite know if anyone’s listening.

In an ideal world I’d grow more flowers

IMG_5112But we don’t live in an ideal world – even at the Potwell Inn, and so even photos like this are compromised by the fact that the last touch of sun from a beautiful day was just disappearing behnd the trees. On the other hand, when we went up in the morning to plant the last few potatoes, the sun was reaching the whole of the plot after its winter sleep. Roughly speaking it reaches all parts directly between the two equinoxes, which means that for the whole of the growing season we’re no worse off for sun than our neighbours at the top of the slope and much better protected from the wind all year round. Prospective allotmenteers often reject the plots at the bottom of the site, especially if they come in mid winter with the ground frozen hard, and it’s worth remembering that it can take several seasons to get the measure of any piece of ground.  I’m quite sure that real allotments – as opposed to the imaginary variety – all have their different challenges, and waiting for the perfect plot to come along is a recipe for never doing any gardening. Half the fun is knowing your patch of earth and working with it to produce some food.  There’s an issue of mindset here – piece of ground isn’t a blank canvas, it’s a complex ecosystem that you can only join on its own terms. The saddest thing is when new allotmeteers take on a plot, blitz in in spring and sow or plant anything and everything only to see the weeds reassert themselves and the crops fail in the sumer.

But to return to the starting point, I love flowers and I’d dearly love to grow more of them but with limited space it’s a matter of priority to grow food and so our compromise is to grow as many beautiful insect and bee attractors as we can.

These are lifted from Ken Thompson’s excellent book “The Sceptical Gardener” –

  • Of the lavenders Hidcote Giant is shown as better than Hidcote
  • Marjoram
  • Cardoon
  • Erisymum linifolium ’Bowles Mauve’ (Wallflower) – best for butterflies
  • Echinops – Globe Thistles
  • Catmint – ‘Six Hills Giant’
  • Borage
  • Agastache foeniculum – Giant Hyssop
  • Echium vulgare – Vipers Bugloss
  • Salvia verticillata – Lilac Sage, Whorled Clarey

The photo at the top of the posting is of our globe artichokes which, with a bit of luck will flower this year.  Yesterday we were casting around for somewhere to plant three angelicas we’d raised from seed and they can grow to very tall plants so they needed to be somewhere they wouldn’t stifle the neighbours.  It’s a gamble but I though the two old toughies could fight it out between them. We grew angelica in a previous garden and it self-seeded freely for several years and then disappeared, but it’s a lovely flowerhead that attracts insects (like all its cousins in the Apiaceae) and better still, the stalks are edible.  I’m desperate to make a bit of crystallised angelica for the Christmas sherry trifle!

So flowers that attract pollinators and that you can eat are a double whammy.  We scour the books looking for likely companion plants, and grow herbs wherever we can.  We’ve got two specific herb beds one for tall ones and the other for short ones – drrr – not exactly Gertrude Jekyll but it works for us, and that’s all that matters. Last week we spent a happy hour just chewing herb leaves – how sad is that? There’s an empty patch in the herb bed where we’re hoping last year’s begamot will eventually wake up and show its head but who knows?

The chillies, aubergines and peppers are all roaring along in the propagators and will have to be displaced this week by the tomatoes.  Hello summer, goodbye floorspace! And we ‘solved’ the oversupply of seed potatoes by planting all the Red Duke of York in big bags and pinching half a bed for the Sarpo Mira. We even found time to have an afternoon snooze in the sunshine – the very essence of allotmenteering.

Potwell Inn? – not here mate!

P1080742The owners of this car are on holiday.  We know that because after the signs went up and the heavy machinery rumbled on to the street, and after a large number of men in high viz coats, traffic wardens and council officials had conferred and made telephone calls it became clear that the car would not be moving because its owners were having the time of their lives (we hope) getting away from it all. Reality, however, cannot be got away from so easily, and so when these lucky people return from whatever beautiful and unspoiled part of the world they’ve been rendering slightly less beautiful and unspoiled, they will find their car sitting in a four inch deep patch of the way things used to be round here. Not exactly Roman Bath, but decade of austerity Bath.  There’s an election, possibly two elections coming up and so let’s say the incumbent party (no politics round here please), have promised a new police station, the police have been patrolling very visibly for weeks now, the drug dealers and their customers have been moved on somewhere else and the streets in this electorally volatile part of the city have been paved with gold – or at least tarmac. All this joy and benificence will have passed our happy holidaymakers by as they contemplate how to jack their car out of its heritage hole, being close-parked at both front and rear.

The tarmac gang were almost balletic in their team work. Big- really big – lorries were reversed down the road to discharge tons of hot tarmac into the waiting arms of the laying machine which opened its wings like a butterfly to receive the load.  All this carried out at speed and centimetre accuracy.  Road rollers, white line markers, excavators and road sweepers seemed to work like some great computerised automaton and all this choreographed heavy industry was going on in the streaming rain and wind.

Meanwhile in another corner of un-ignorable reality I took a trip to hospital to have my biennial endoscope – a procedure which I hate having and most of the nurses dislike having to do.  But plentiful sedatives, more great team work and a cup of tea later I emerged into the newly minted sunlight clutching my discharge papers with some grisly looking photos of my oesophagus but otherwise good news. They’ve given me a three year MOT.

I know, I should be describing the idyllic world of the Potwell Inn not writing about tarmac and pre-cancerous conditions but there is a point, and it’s this. Most good things are forged amidst the realities of life.  Of course I could create ……

The Potwell Inn Perfect World Experience

– but it would be a fraudulent unreal place, a place to hide in (like our holidaymakers) and pretend things had never been better. Real life with all its tenderness and, if we’re lucky, love, has to be lived in the real world with all its coughs and sneezes, brutality and greed.  I woke up absurdly early this morning, freed from anxiety about the endo and my head filled with thoughts of the allotment and a new season.

Carpe diem. We melancholics need to be a bit more like Jacob and wrestle a blessing out of the fear without a face.

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Natural – Wild – Ordinary

I photographed these lovely spring wildflowers today, all within a few yards of one another in the bottom of a hedgerow. So clockwise from the top there are Red Campion, Alexanders, Daisies and a Dandelion, a Lesser Celandine most of whose leaves are obscured by young shoots of Cleavers and probably Hedge Parsley, and finally some flowering Gorse. It seems a bit daft to talk about plants being happy, but these are definitely very happy indeed. Through long naturalisation in a setting and climate that suits them perfectly, they thrive in a way that most of us gardeners can ony dream of for our own produce.  Further up the same lane and outside a house there were Daffodils that stood out- I should say shouted out  as unnatural additions to the landscape.

Of the plants I photographed, Red Campion doesn’t seem to be edible but was once used to cure snake bites, and the roots contain saponin which has soap like qualities. Alexanders really is edible, especially when young, but I’ve never eaten it so I couldn’t say whether it tastes good. Daisies – not really, Dandelions make good salad leaves and the flowers make really good wine but I’d beware of collecting any flowers at dog level for obvious reasons, and I should point out that the local name from my part of the world used to be “pissabeds” – you can draw your own conclusions.  Dandelion roots were dried and toasted and used as a coffee subsitute during times of hardship and they’re probably best when only used in desperation. Lesser Celandine is also known as Pilewort due to the acrid sap which was used to shrink hemorrhoids and although I did read somewhere that the leaves are edible I think they look prettier and safer in the ground. Gorse smells heavenly, especially when it’s got the sun on it and the flower buds are reputely good to eat. So I guess if I had been foraging today I could easily have picked a few leaves and flowers and enjoyed eating them, but I’m pretty sure I’d have still been hungry when I got home.  Nature is not our servant and does not exist completely to furnish our needs and so it has always been a basic aim of agriculture and horticulture to improve, encourage and refine those essentials offered to us by the truly wild.

It’s hardly a pearl of wisdom to say that the farming landscape is far from  natural. Here in the UK – excluding the National Parks and wilderness areas – there is hardly any natural landscape left.  The total overuse of the word in advertising gives a clue to its power through appealing to our emotions. My usual retort to those who abuse it is to say foxgloves and arsenic are natural, as is oil and coal, but that doesn’t give them a free pass into general use. The word “wild” isn’t used nearly as much in advertising because its connotations are not so good at shifting product, and shifting product is what our greedy culture is all about.  The only exception to that is when the word can inflate the value of the product beyond measure.  One of my sons – a chef – once had to deal with a whole box of Pignuts, probably dug up from a pristine site and sold at ludicrous prices. Wild sells truffles but probably not dogs or cats; salmon and Ramsons but not Blackberries (unless you’re a highly specialized plant hunter who can distinguish between over 250 hybrids.

In fact farming, horticulture, and even allotmenteering are all attempts to improve on the natural and, in the case of extractive farming, to bludgeon nature into conforming to our greedy desires. The Potwell Inn and the allotment have heated propagators under electric daylight lamps. We have a greenhouse, a hotbed, cloches and fleece – all of which we use to persuade tender plants that the weather is better and the days are longer than they really are – and so we are able to grow tropical and subtropical crops, the like of which you would never encounter in any wild setting in this country. Some we win and some we lose, but I don’t think anyone would argue that aubergines, chillies, peppers, even the humble potato and runner bean, belong in the Flora Britannica.

Organic gardening (and farming) are a wise and timely attempt to mitigate the worst effects of industral farming – and I’m bound to say, of industrial overeating as well.  Permaculture goes a step further and tries to rely more heavily on perennials and, in essence, returning to a foraging lifestyle. Vegetarianism and veganism focus on achieving something of the same ends by focusing on and changing what we consume. Even the most traditional farmers are beginning to see the benefits and opportunities of locally sourced and sustainably produced foods. It’s crazy for those of us who care about the natural world to pick fights with one another and – rather like Brexit – spend our lives in pointless posturing and squabbling about minor doctrinal differences while industrial farming, environmental degradation and climate change go unchallenged.

A friend of mine was in a hospital visiting her uncle when she heard a commotion on the opposite side of the ward. A fierce family row had broken out across the bed, and my friend noticed to her dismay that the occupant had actually died. It was she who called for a nurse to attend to the deceased person, not the squabbling family.

I don’t need to labour the point of telling that story here, the parallels are all too painfully clear. But to finish on a brighter note, I know that many natural historians love to go after the rare specimens, but I want to put in a word for the ordinary. The ordinary is the bit we don’t notice because it’s there all the time – at least it used to be there all the time but now it’s disappearing because of our abusive relationship with the environment. So I want to campaign for the ordinary because that way it can’t disappear without anyone noticing. Recognising, naming and treasuring our wildflowers and native fauna is the most powerful way of energising the fightback against extinctions. The ordinary is special.

 

Thinking space at the Potwell Inn

IMG_4384After a lifetime of being up at 5.30am we’re now a lot gentler on ourselves, and I generally get up at 7.00.  When we were both working full-time, Madame would leave the house at 7.00am and then I would have a couple of hours to think, read and write before the random demands of the day commanded my attention. But now those precious couple of hours have settled into a new routine where I get up and make tea for us both, and then I head for the kitchen or my ‘study’. As long as I supply occasional coffee and stick my head around the door now and again Madame is happy to read while I get on with my thing which is noodling around.

IMG_4272It’s surprising how much time it takes to feed the sourdough starter, check all the seedlings and make sure they’re happy, strain and feed the kefir and, on bread days, knead dough.  Then there’s reading and planning and working out what’s needed on the allotment and what we need to eat most urgently.

Allotmenteers live by a rather different set of food rules because – if we’re not going to waste the things we’ve grown – we need to even out supply and demand either by eating more of the vegetable in surplus, or by preserving it in some way against the day when there’s none of it to be had. In late summer we look at the enormous purple sprouting broccoli plants that have occupied their inordinately large patch of ground for an eternity, and wonder why we bother.  We’re inundated with all the good things the autumn can give us and we find it hard to fast forward to a day like today when we’re longing to have the first taste.

Although we’ve still got kale, savoy cabbages and red cabbage in the ground they represent last season and the broccoli is a foretaste of new, tender growth.  But that leaves the problem of what to do with the laggards of the last season. The answer today is to cut one of the larger savoy cabbages and make sauerkraut. IMG_4828Yes, as Madame pointed out, you normally make it with gigantic summer cabbages that weigh 25lbs and need a whole barrel to themselves; but I don’t see why you shouldn’t make a couple of pounds with a Savoy and see what happens. After all, theoretically, you can ferment anything with enough carbohydrate in it to get the process going. So I’m off to the allotment this morning to check whether the drip watering system in the greenhouse worked earlier on, to take the temperature of the hot bed (they’re like children, you know), and to cut the cabbage and bring it back to the kitchen.

My wonderful cistern watering device needed a tweak first thing because I’d attached the supply strip to the wrong side of the cork and there was too much of it submerged.  This hi-tech gadgetry is very demanding! The weather here at the Potwell Inn in beautiful, but difficult for us gardeners because it combines growth inducing warm days with frost at night – a potentially dangerous combination, but yesterday we had our first picnic of the year on the plot.  Being at the bottom of the slope we get less direct sun than our neighbours at the top but on the other hand we’re protected from high winds by the same trees that take our sun.  The worst problem is that we’re in a frost pocket which demands attention to our earliest crops – we use a lot of fleece. As we left we noticed that the site was busy with allotmenteers but there wasn’t a lot of work going on.  It was catchup time – another of the hidden benefits of growing things.

How to find the Potwell Inn

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I know where the Potwell Inn can be found, because it’s somewhere around me.  It’s what you might call a ‘container’, a fictional construct whose elements are all real. This is all a bit philosophical I know, and as soon as I can I’ll post again and push this one down the queue – BUT – last week I was on the allotment alone, working away at filling several of the new paths with woodchip, a bit of an urgent job because supplies of woodchip are  spasmodic and can disappear within a few hours, carted away by any one of about 100 eager allotmenters.

So there I was in a world of my own (The Potwell Inn) when suddenly, walking down the path, came an old friend from years past who had managed to track me down in a way that I dare not describe for fear of all the regulars turning up in a coach one day.  How weird is that?  Then in the evening a text message from another person I’d been out of touch with – for 30 years at least – appeared on my phone out of the blue. Extraordinarily joyful but it threw me into a tailspin.

I love the freedom of imagination. The Potwell Inn, the bar, the garden, the kitchen and even the distant landscape and weather were – I always thought – mine to play with: like an imaginary friend in whom I could invest my deepest feelings. I hadn’t factored in the obvious fact that sharing involves risk.  The moment I press the ‘publish’ button my private world belongs not just to me but to the people who read it, who relate to it and are kind enough to want to share my space. All this is not simply some dry technical stuff about growing stuff and cooking it.  It’s about what really matters to me and what I believe should matter to everyone else as well. Without our Potwell Inns we shrivel and dry up.

Here we are in the midst of the age of extinctions, of what’s come to be known as the ‘anthropocene’, where we can see what we’ve done to the earth through our compliance with greed, through our own greed too. And part of the purpose of the Potwell Inn is to explore the idea that – in the words of fellow blogger Jon Moore –

we can change the world, one cabbage at a time!

The most radical force in the world is not fear or anger or intellect, but delight. Delight stops us in our tracks, changes the way we see things, changes the way we live our lives. If you want to find the Potwell Inn you must follow the line of delight and there, at the end of the journey, you will find the building with the crooked chimney and the sound of jackdaws playing in the trees. But it’s never an easy journey because so many people find delight annoying, at best, and at worst threatening.  How many times have you seen a beautiful fungus stamped into the earth, as if its very existence were a threat? Delight is the slow-cooking movement of the inner life. Walking anywhere takes a age because there’s so much delight to be found in the ordinary, and once experienced in that rather Blakean way –

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand.

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.

And Eternity in an hour.”

2017-09-05 15.44.28then the ordinary becomes the Ordinary and the most everyday actions like cooking and eating together; growing and harvesting, singing and talking are infused with delight, and it’s precisely that that so pisses authority off because delight is its own authority and its own legislator and defers to no lawyer or religion, and that is why it’s perceived as being dangerous.

 

 

As for the Potwell Inn – it’s an insidious corruptor of commonsense and small mindedness.

When did we get so scared of food?

2018-02-06 14.20.29I can answer that question for us at the Potwell Inn because one of our children suffered from his earliest months from what was thought to be lactose intolerance. It turned out to be something else and he’s now approaching forty and in good health, but that’s not the point.  For us that possibility – in the era before smartphones – meant that shopping became a nightmare in which small print was obsessively pored over and during which we carried a long printed list of safe foods which had to be updated every few weeks because manufacturers would change recipes and what was ‘safe’ one week would contain lactose a month later. Lactose was a cheap and easy recipe component that found its way into the most unexpected places. What that experience did – and this is the takeaway point – was to pathologise food for us. We were in an unusual and rare position and eventually, after several years of  hospital admissions, it became clear that lactose wasn’t the underlying problem and things kind of settled down again.

But once pathologised, food never really recovers and for many of us the relationship with it has become damaged.  ‘Lucky you’ you could justifiably say if you’re a subsistence farmer or relying on food banks to get through the week. What shameless narcissistic self-indulgence to be prattling on about the dangers of food when you’re so rich you can afford to throw it away.  ‘Just give us a share in that dangerous stuff you’re so scared of eating!’  This isn’t just an abstract ethical issue. Last night we were late getting home and I resorted to buying a ready meal (yes really) at the local supermarket just before it closed –  you should try it some time, it’s an eye opener.  There was a significant proportion of obviously poor people snapping up the reduced price food before it went to the bins. I even spotted one man who I know to be a street beggar with a basket of food. It was a big jolt, we mostly prefer poverty to be on the other side of a high cultural wall – who needs concrete and steel?  Wouldn’t we rather they waited an hour and stole it from the waste bins at the back or is it just their pride that stops them?

But for the lucky ones, aided by countless newspaper and television programmes, the message has become imprinted in our minds that food is potentially dangerous and by micromanaging our food intake we can live longer lives.  It’s a no-brainer as we all know, and so whilst we are fortunate enough (most of us) to live in the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey [Oh my God, milk? factory farmed and lethal: and honey? – unless it’s manuka honey at £15 a gram – pure lethal carbohydrate]; many who can afford it live on an aetiolated diet that keeps them perpetually anxious and those who can’t, eat manufactured junk that gives you diabetes and makes you fat, and disabled by shame and guilt.  Of course we all smile bravely and tell ourselves we’re really happy but:

We’re secretly as miserable as it’s possible to be!

Having a bad relationship with food, and tap water, and the air we breath, and with any number of ordinary indispensible aspects of our lives is so widespread that we hardly notice it, and when we do notice there’s often an ‘expert’ on hand to help us through. But all too often the experts want to sell us their remedy rather than attack the basic problem.  So we buy processed ‘slimming meals’ – there’s an oxymoron for you.  We lug vast quantities of bottled water around and – if we can afford it – buy organic food not realizing that the major producers have negotiated exemptions on the use of many chemicals we assume we paid extra to be spared from. We buy food supplements and herbal snake-oil in case they can stave off old age. Our behaviour, and especially our children’s behaviour, has been pathologised as well and we medicate five year olds in order to make them more ‘normal’. Our relationships, our culture and family life and sadly our dependence on bacteria (think only of our terror of rotting, even controlled rotting) have all been pathologised too and we’re frightened of a caterpillar on our cabbage and a bit of dirt on a potato, so we’re reduced to buying happiness on interest free credit from some behemoth that knows that the effect wears off when you unwrap it and then you’ll buy some more. Surely this can’t be good?

The Potwell Inn doesn’t actually have a ‘mission statement’ because trying to express the idea of flourishing without getting into psychobollocks, merchandising and quackery is harder to do than you’d imagine. But ironically we all know what flourishing feels like even if we can’t put it into words.  Equally a discussion about ‘being fully human’ is fraught with difficulties in a society that runs away screaming if it senses that even a mention of humanness is attempting to chainsaw the legs off diversity.  When did we get so scared of food? When did we get so scared of getting old? When did we get so scared of germs, or other people, or commitment, or thinking about hard stuff?

The Potwell Inn stands for flourishing and not, most certainly not just happiness which is an ephemeral pleasure that’s always ready to be driven out by the next dark fear. It’s flourishing we’re committed to and in order to flourish we believe that we need to overthrow the tyranny of pleasure altogether. I’m talking about both ancient (how about Aristotle?) and modern – Positive Psychology [feel free to skip a sentence whenever your mind clouds over].  I’m no academic, but if I were, I’d be looking at the work the Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham (UK) is doing.

What I am completely committed to doing is discovering through experience – through growing and harvesting and cooking;  through making and thinking, and learning not to be scared of my neighbours, and – to steal a phrase from Ernest Hemmingway in a letter to his daughter, “to recognise bullshit when you see it”; I’m learning about flourishing. What I’m conducting is a very practical experiment with the hope I might be able to share the results with a few other people.  It’s called the Potwell Inn because it’s open to anyone (except if you’re barred by the landlord for being a pain) and it’s a place of joy.

 

 

 

Today’s special

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There used to be  – may well still be – a building supply company down near the fruit and veg market in Bristol. The company was run by the friend of a friend, and they were very particular that they were “a specialist building supplier”  That’s to say although you could buy all manner of obscure and popular things on the builder’s mind, you could not buy sand and cement and other bulk supplies. This led to a good deal of good-humoured banter with customers who would deliberately request these unavailable items just for the fun of a firm but polite refusal – “I’m sorry sir, but we are a specialist building supplier”.

The reason I recall this is that this morning I’m pondering how best to avoid disappointing people who come to the Potwell Inn looking for something we don’t, (or can’t) supply. I suppose in the great Wild West of the blogosphere pretty well anything goes and, after all, a like is a like and a visitor is a visitor so why worry?  But I do worry.

At the top of the page is a carefully considered statement – it says: “A sceptic’s take on being human” . So it’s not a guide to being human in any sense not least because I’m a sceptic and I can’t buy into big systems and I’d be pretty crap at guiding anyone anywhere. But it also suggests that being human is a deeply puzzling business that isn’t just a given, like breathing. The Potwell Inn isn’t the destination but a place I can go to and feel a bit human.  It’s a left luggage office for memories, ideas, experiences and overheard conversations that people can come to to search for something they think they might have lost even though they can’t exactly name it.

And so in this restless business of being or becoming human there are some things I’ve discovered that seem to help. Firstly and above all there’s people, there’s eating and cooking, there’s growing things on the allotment and are books and poetry and the visual arts and there’s French Nouvelle Vague films and botany – and so the list goes on.  But this isn’t a blog about any of those things on the list although it includes them all. So I don’t do recipes or advocate any one particular way of running an allotment I don’t promote vegetarianism, veganism, paleo diets or anything lke that.  I just ramble on about stuff I’ve found that I like and stuff that makes me wonder why I don’t like.

I once worked for a tree man, a forester called Pat McGlyn. Knowing next to nothing about forestry I would help him out in all sorts of totally unskilled ways like directing traffic and dragging tree limbs around.  He was a pretty terrifying character -he had lost an eye blowing up tree roots, and in extremis when he was collecting a bad debt he would remove the glass one leaving a deep and horrifying hole there.  He usually got his money! We lost touch for  couple of decades and then one day he unexpectedly turned up at the door, obviously suffering from some sort of dementia. He said – “I know I know you but I can’t remember your name”. He’d parked his old Volvo outside and he was very proud of the fact that it was full from floor to ceiling with discarded artificial limbs which he was going to send to some war-torn corner of the Balkans where he thought they would be useful. We had several cups of coffee and talked about the various friendship groups he’d set up in troubled parts of the world. He drove away and I never saw him again. Being human comes in all sorts, shapes and sizes and Pat was uncompromisingly human.

On my last day working with him we stopped off for a pint on the way home somewhere near Castle Combe.  The pub was closing down for good that night, and he looked at the long mahogany bar and stroked it and pondered aloud about its beauty, the trees that had provided the timber for it and the history and all the conversations it had been a silent party to over the years. That old bar has become the bar at the Potwell Inn. We serve anybody here – fancy today’s special?  Game terrine, piccallili and sourdough bread and butter, every bit of it prepared in our kitchen and grown on the allotment.