This is a postscript to yesterday’s piece which mentioned the philosopher Roger Scruton and the way in which some of his dodgier ideas seem to have infiltrated the writing of David Fleming and his book “Lean Logic; a dictionary for the future and how to survive it”.
I knew when I went to bed that there was some unfinished business on this subject and it came to me in the middle of the night that one among many dangers that face us is the sentimental turning back to the old days – you know the kind of thing; village greens, cricket, warm beer and old ladies on bicycles as John Major tried to explain it.
Of course it’s very tempting to look for an off the shelf strategy for coping with the oncoming catastrophes of global heating, collapses in biodiversity, economic collapse, mass migration and so it goes on; but the key point is that the current crisis has no real precedents, and so you might use the metaphor of a failed relationship: it’s no use either party in an acrimonious relationship breakdown asking why can’t we go back to the way we used to be? because the bridges have all been burnt. Moving on means letting go.
These thoughts were prompted by a conversation with our son last night. I had been thinking about the way in which I discovered that many of my early heroes had feet of clay when it came to facing the challenges of the last century. In my twenties I read the whole of Henry Williamson’s output. Tarka the Otter, of course; but also the multi volumed (15 in all) Chronicle of Ancient sunlight and the four volumes of “The Flax of Dream”. I borrowed all the books through the library and I was initially completely in love with them. His knowledge of natural history was so deep I began half living in his mystical Devon landscape. But as time went on and volume followed volume; small doubts began to accumulate and eventually I did a bit of research and discovered that Williamson had become a fascist sympathiser. I was devastated.
Ezra Pound also tumbled into the broken box; as did so many other artists and writers. Talking to our son last night he reminded me of another hero of mine, the philosopher Martin Heidegger who went even further and became an active supporter of Hitler and never subsequently repented. I began to wonder whether the passionate love and advocacy of the natural world was (and may still be) just one false step away from authoritarian and backward looking beliefs.
This isn’t a big deal if we understand it and guard against it. There’s always risk, so we should be really careful which thinkers we invoke when we’re trying to plot a course into a saner future. It’s too late to ask David Fleming why he repeatedly quoted Roger Scruton in illustrating his theme, and it may be that he was doing so because a selective use of those particular words seemed to support his argument. Fleming stood for many of the features of a possible way forward that we would support. Commonality, local networks, carnival, ritual and so forth. But if, lurking in the background, there’s an unspoken narrative that excludes – ‘others’ – strangers and pilgrims from other cultures, then that’s not on. If the image is of an old society that collapsed through its own inequity or cruelty, it should be a no-go for us, because real life is not a costume drama. Maypole dancing might be a powerful metaphor for community life; but no amount of prancing around on a plastic village green is going to usher in a sustainable and more equitable future.
Madame is in the kitchen cooking pasta al fagioli and the earthy fragrance of the borlotti beans, simmering with the onion, carrot and celery and a bunch of rosemary from the allotment is already wafting around the flat. With the excesses of Christmas out of the way we’ve needed to rest not just from the cooking, but the eating of so much rich food. If there’s a symbol of seasonal excess it’s the enormous French cast iron paté mould that I bought on impulse maybe fifteen years ago and which annually lures me into making more paté than we could ever eat at one family meal. We eat it all eventually, with the help of the freezer, but it takes most of the year. So: home baked everyday bread and this hearty cross between a soup and a stew is what we’ll eat today. The borlotti beans are our own, grown on the allotment along with most of the other ingredients apart from the pasta and some lardons. It’s the day of the seed order and, fortified with cake and cups of tea, we negotiate next season’s crops, sort out boxes of leftover seeds to eliminate the out of date ones, and complete the online orders. Oh and we have our annual discussion about indexing seeds better so that we don’t double buy on impulse, or forget something really important.
Completing the seed order feels as much liturgy as chore. Our discussions invoke memories of meals, successes and failures as well as new opportunities. We work from a computer list that I wrote years ago and update each January. You’d think that level of organisation would display at least some talent for planning, but every year the list is overwritten with so many pencilled amendments and flashes of inspiration that it becomes a kind of aspirational but redundant piece of crumpled paper. As I said; it’s liturgy – confessions and absolutions. The smell and the creamy taste of the cooking beans are so far beyond the agri industrial canned products you could cheerfully eat them with no more than some salt and a dash of oil. In fact you could keep the beans for another day and just drink the cooking water! It’s not about virtue. Virtue is just the spinoff from the sheer pleasure of growing, cooking and eating.
Depending on the way you frame it – whether or not they have any spiritual significance for you – these weeks between the solstice and the epiphany are days of waiting. Solstice is a moment, but it always seems to me that this is one of those great seasonal pauses; a kind of transitional silence as the enormous inertia of the solar system resolves itself and settles for the months until the summer solstice in June, into ever longer days. Traditionally – I mean possibly even for millennia – this period has marked a break in the farming year overlaid by twelfth night and inscribed beneath that, yuletide. The land was too cold, too hard or too wet and so the labourers deserted the unworkable fields. The day after Epiphany, on the 6th January marked the return to work.
So there’s an ingrained sense of therapeutic idleness tucked away somewhere in our unconscious memory; a break from the routine marked by partying and also – quite often – by being out and about, intensely alive and perhaps a bit drunk, late at night. All of which is a long winded way of saying that the constellation that I associate especially with this time of year is Orion. It would be nice to call these the dog days, but that title has already been bagged by Sirius in high summer, when it rises just before the sun. Normally the word “dog” before almost anything in nature is a sign of something inferior or unworthy but in this instance the term comes from Canis Majoris, the constellation in which Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest object. Anyway, the listless and sultry days of high summer are not in the same league as the high energy memories of dancing home in a winter frost with the stars so bright they seem to generate an angelic music beyond the reach of your ears: as if you could listen to a single phrase of Tallis’ Spem in Alium through some undiscovered faculty of bone and brain. You look up and there is Orion the the hunter, sword in belt, and the meaning of that music is on the tip of your tongue not to be spoken, ever.
However this year I haven’t seen Orion because not only was it the mildest December on record, it was also the dullest; cloud upon cloud heaping up from the south west. Clear skies and partying opportunities have all but disappeared; courtesy of Covid and climate change. Madame – who specializes in delphic announcements in the middle of the night – woke me against the sounds of the young people upstairs, partying on New Year’s Eve and declared “ There’s no-one we can have a laugh with.…… ” – and she’s right. Our social life has all but withered on the vine these last two years; we’re not evolved to live like this. How can we sing our song in this strange land?
Such mournful thoughts were soon blown away when we went scouting for Seville oranges and found them on exactly the same day – my journal records – as we did three years ago. And so we brought three kilos back and we shall have marmalade again after months of abstinence. I love blackcurrant jam and damson jam (my personal favorite) but breakfast without marmalade is an impoverished feast. We eat so much of it I should make around forty pounds to keep us going until next January with a bit to spare. We’re going down to Cornwall, to the Lizard, soon and God willing and a fair wind as my old friend Joan Williams would often say, I’ll be able to lie on my back on the grass to seek out Orion in a clear sky, and listen to the angels singing again.
Rather than drowning in the sentimental guff of New Year’s Eve television, last night we chose, rather, to watch a documentary made by her nephew, on the late and wonderful Joan Didion who died very recently. While I couldn’t say I’ve read all of her work, I can say that when I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem reprinted in a collection of the same name, two thoughts filled my mind; firstly that I had finally read someone who had embraced and seen the darkness beyond the summer of love through the lens of Haight Ashbury; and secondly that she stands (writers never die, they go out of print) with Simone de Beauvoir and William Cobbett as someone who dares to see what is on the ground and then writes it.
My own love affair with that tumultuous period she was writing about, ended at a free music festival in Bath which took place in 1971 on a small and almost unknown patch of open land behind St Swithin’s Church and which drops down to the river. These days it’s probably the least visited park in the city because so many people walk their dogs there it’s dangerous to enter without boots and impossible to sit on the grass safely. On that hot summer afternoon it was rammed. There was a single standpipe on the site and I had seen dozens of people filling bottles with drinking water – but then I caught sight of a young woman with her baby, and she was scraping the shit off a nappy against the tap. That was the moment the fantasy collapsed. We were surrounded by beautiful young people who were displaying precisely the same capacity for destructive behaviour as the generation we thought we were moving beyond. Any thought that Shangri la was to be the next evolutionary step slithered on to the grass that day.
I’ve never written about it before – but Joan Didion almost certainly would have done. Nothing was too trivial or too painful for her to write. She, like my most important teachers, never flinched, never chickened out from telling it like it was and still is. My own gifts are on an altogether more modest scale of course, but the temptation to smooth over the cracks is still always there. A couple of months ago a piece I wrote about the plague of rats on the allotments failed to find its way into the newsletter – I guess because it failed the prevailing narrative tradition that everything in the garden is, and always must be lovely.
And so I write about the city as it is, which has to include the beggars and drug dealers as well as the way the evening sun catches the Georgian buildings and turns them to gold. I write about the river and its wildlife but I refuse to stop talking about flooding and sewage pollution just because it detracts from the PR engine. Bath, like any other World Heritage city is a fur coats and no knickers kind of place – perfect for free spending tourists who never stay long enough to glimpse into the shadows, but less fun if you’re number 8000 on the waiting list for somewhere to live. Cherry picking the best bits reduces the city to a cipher. In truth it’s possible to walk the streets and wonder if it’s a film set for a costume drama. It often is – we haver somewhere between a Jane Austen tribute band and a bunch of Roman Legionnaires on R & R after subduing the natives.
And that’s the glory of it – the sheer craziness of its loopy, deluded and partially sighted self-image within which we at the Potwell Inn run our oasis and refuge. Uncle Jim has been vanquished but we still have Rainbow and Nutter begging outside the Roman Baths. We still have twitchy punters hanging around on the corner of the Green waiting for the dealer to turn up, or hurrying down the towpath in that exaggerated purposefulness they seem to adopt – heads down, hoodies pulled over so as to look as if they had somewhere better than oblivion to get to.
And so this New Year’s resolution is to stay true to the city in all its contradictions and to get as close to being human as this crazy age will allow. We shall grow food without claiming any special expertise; cook and eat while harbouring no thoughts of turning it into a business. I shan’t pretend to be enlightened or spiritually adept or better read than anyone else. Most of all I want to spend time with the wild plants and animals that scratch a living here as well. I expect to spend part of the year completely dry and other parts a bit wetter because in vino veritas is a good motto for someone who’s interested in the truth.
The real agony for any writer is that the occasional moments of revelation are prone to make us absolutely silent. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent – Mr Wittgenstein wrote – and I agree. Writing, even at its best, is so much chatter in the darkness; but Joan Didion got closer to the fire than most.
I know that’s a bold claim to make, but time without number I’ve found that baking cakes beats any antidepressant on the market. Yesterday was a total bummer, what with the shed and the greenhouse being vandalized; and it went on getting worse when the lights all failed, and then Madame came out of the bathroom with wet feet and we discovered that for the second time we were being inundated with water from the flat above. Actually after some frantic messaging on the house Whatsapp group, we discovered that the water was coming from two floors above us and filtering merrily down through the electricity conduits and out through a light fitting! – it was the result of a botched attempt to remove a blockage from a bath that somehow disconnected the whole pipe. Luckily we caught it in time and after a couple of hours dripping into a bowl, we ran the dehumidifier flat out for a couple of hours. Living in a concrete building means that the winter is a constant battle against black mould and so we circulate the dehumidifier around the flat to keep it under control. Profuse apologies from our upstairs neighbour gave us the chance of a first conversation, although I’m not sure what he made of us.
Of course the night before last was pretty much taken up with lying in bed staring at the ceiling and trying to manage my anger. I think I got about four hours sleep in the end; my placid and saintly response yesterday was only possible after an exhausting inner battle. Then very early today – just to compound our joy – there was a burglary next door at four thirty a.m. with a good deal of shouting and revving of engines none of which I heard because I was sleeping with my deaf side uppermost. Helpfully, Madame soon woke me and obliged me with a running commentary. The police turned up mid morning and gave the owners a crime number, which will be the last time that anyone hears anything.
If there’s a lesson in all this it’s simply that sometimes I find I have to manage my anger intellectually and then allow the resolution to percolate through to my unconscious for a couple of days to mature into acceptance. The shed and the greenhouse were our Christmas presents to one another five years ago when we took on the second half-plot on the allotment. But there – we can walk away from any unforgiving, angry feelings because we are free to be free of negative thoughts. The people who did the damage may not have mastered that gift yet and more likely than not, their lives are completely impoverished and blighted by destructive instincts . I wish them no harm other than the harm they bring on themselves which, if they choose, can become the motivation for change.
Anyway, an early grocery delivery had me out of bed soon after six, and I decided that the only way forward was to bake a cake, make some bread and go up to the allotment to finish the running repairs – which is what we did. I think we both came to the conclusion that rather than spending a great deal of money on replacing the toughened glass, we could substitute polycarbonate sheets that, ‘though they wouldn’t be quite as good, are at least much harder to smash. When we first took on the allotments we wanted everything to be as perfect as possible but the thieving and vandalism are so prolific we just can’t risk the expenditure – and so just as we did when the cold frames were stolen – we look for a route around the mountain rather than over it. The shed window is now covered with an old compost bag, and the greenhouse is swaddled with some left over pond liner held in place with posts, staples, and gaffer tape. It’s not pretty but it keeps the wind and rain out. We’ll never let the darkness win.
When I started this blog I put in a category called “Uncle Jim” which I don’t think I’ve ever tagged a post with. For a long time I considered removing it from the list of categories. In the HG Wells Story “A history of Mr Polly” – which gave me the name for the blog – there’s a drunken and violent character known as Uncle Jim, the landlady’s nephew, who remains a constant threat to the hero until one day, he returns to the Potwell Inn breathing fire and revenge. After a series of epic battles and in the course of the ninth chapter he manages to steal Mr Polly’s coat and an old rifle and then disappears altogether only to be found washed up on a beach wearing Polly’s coat. He is then misidentified as Polly which frees our hero (and his wife) from a suffocating marriage. She claims the insurance and finds happiness running a cafe in Canterbury, and he returns to the generously proportioned landlady of the Potwell Inn – a sort of Ma Larkin – in a setting suspiciously familiar to me. And so, today, I’m tagging this post as the first and possibly the only time I’ll use the category Uncle Jim.
Tomorrow we shall have tea and cake and do the seed order. I can almost taste those Minnesota Midget melons already!
Well I will write a little about our Christmas at the Potwell Inn – which went extremely well; everyone behaved themselves and we had some great time with our family. I can also write a bit more about our attempt to feed ourselves from local and ethical sources. The almost inevitable criticism of locally, sustainable, ethical and organic food is that for every added adjective there’s another substantial markup in the price – and it’s true; there’s no denying it, and if price, disregarding any other consideration, is the final arbiter – there’s no argument either. However the other side to the argument is that the adjective laden local etc. etc. food not only fulfills an ethical, environmental and economic function; it almost always goes further and tastes far better plus it’s healthier in every sense. The catchall argument that cheaper is necessarily better is at the heart of a collapsing environment.
But that’s enough theorizing – we grow our own vegetables as far as we possibly can and trust me the premium in flavour is not some kind of placebo effect. We buy locally produced milk from a machine in the market and, because it’s low temperature pasteurised and not homogenized but treated just sufficiently to get past the regulatory hurdles it’s perceptibly better. The commodification of milk has resulted in an inferior product that carries a big carbon footprint and depends upon the exploitation of sentient creatures. We get better tasting milk, the cows get a better life and the farmer earns a sustainable income from the business.
The same trade off applies exactly to much of the food we manage to source locally, and the tragedy is that if governments across the world transferred the subsidies presently paid to fossil fuel industries mining coal and oil, to sustainable farming we’d all be able to eat better quality food for less while tackling environmental degradation, atmospheric pollution and the climate catastrophe at the same time.
However what’s really on my mind is the fact that we were attacked by vandals on the allotment over Christmas and they trashed our greenhouse, smashed the shed window as well as poking holes through the polytunnel. They also damaged three other allotment plots. I don’t want to start building any simple narratives about this. Anger, hatred and revenge are paralysing distractions when there’s so much we need to be getting on with.
These are strange times indeed; and on Boxing day we were sitting in the flat with four of our extended family, taking lateral flow tests and consulting the NHS app on mobile phones. Of all the things we might have imagined two years ago at the beginning of this pandemic, a game of self-testing would have seemed ridiculous. What’s truly worrying is that our society seems to be breaking down not just at street level but at the very top as well. It recalls the Chinese curse – may you live in interesting times!
Trying to protect the earth from our own collective greed and stupidity sometimes feels like trying to row the Atlantic in a coracle. As Thomas Edison once said – Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration – but perspiration without vision is a treadmill – so let’s keep the vision going!
Only one of these photos was taken at exactly 15.58 and that’s the one at the bottom left. The one of the sheep was taken in the flat while we could still see the setting sun and the other two are of Green Park Station which is shamefully used as a Sainsbury’s car park most of the week, only realizing its vocation on Saturdays when the Farmers Market takes temporary possession. What a gem it would be to see it used seven days a week as a proper, continental style market with stalls, cafes and restaurants. That said, we’ve got a vested interest because our youngest son runs the pizza place at the far end – this year he won second place in the national pizza awards.
Anyway I wanted to mark the solstice on the Potwell Inn site because for us – as it must be for all growers of food – it marks the one of the four quarters of the growing year, being the astronomical beginning of winter; the shortest day; and – more to the point – the moment at which our hearts become fixed on the coming season. The paradox is simply that contrary to all common sense the solstice marks the moment at which we’re closest to the sun; we’ve got the whole winter in front of us. The reason is simple enough. We’re closest to the sun but at the same time we’re in such a position relative to it that the sun’s rays strike us at their most oblique angle; having to struggle through the atmosphere and all its pollution; and so reaches us in its most attenuated form. In high summer the sun shortcuts through it all and beams down on us (at noon) from directly above our heads but at a greater distance.
But for now, this afternoon, we could watch the sun set knowing that in a week or two the days will be perceptibly longer. It’s one of the most ancient festivals of all, and runs deep within our collective imagination; so much so that the upstart religions that arrived much later on the scene were obliged to fit themselves into the deep calendar. It’s a festival of the rebirth of the life-giving sun and was celebrated as such at a time when the UK was an infrequently visited and inhospitable corner of the European land mass where the Celts – which is a bit of a cultural construct; let’s say the stone, iron and bronze age age cultures were far richer and deeper than we give them credit for. The present psycho-geography of the earth is a palimpsest in which many older cultures are inscribed. So – cutting to the chase – the “Celts” observed the next twelve days as if the sun were standing still – and kept a yule log burning to preserve the light until the return of the daylight was perceptible.
For me the celebration of these festivals seems to be engraved somewhere in the DNA – and Christmas is one of the more recent layers of the ancient sediment; and so today we were in festival mood at the Potwell Inn. We spent the morning at the allotment, where providence had provided a new pile of wood chip alongside the enormous bunker full of autumn leaves. So paths were repaired and topped up (they need repairing every year); and looking back as we left, our patch of land finally looked ready for another season. We brought back with us root vegetables and herbs for Christmas but left the sprouting broccoli on the plants until Christmas Eve to stay fresh. There aren’t any Brussels sprouts on the plot now because such was the inexplicable weather during the season they fruited in mid summer. The broccoli did the same thing but fortunately we left the plants in the ground and they’re giving us a second crop. To be honest we haven’t yet learned how to make the best of the polytunnel, but still we have lettuce, chard, even a few radishes growing well there. Then of course we’ve all the stored squashes and masses of pickles and preserves as well as tomato sauces and passata. We’re happy!
Then this afternoon we rushed out to get milk from the direct vending machine – run by a local farm – which is when I took the photos of the station. Madame thought it was slightly weird to be racing back for 15.58 but I really wanted to toast the moment and take a photo to celebrate it – and that’s what we did. Tonight we’ll celebrate with an ultra glamorous meal of breast of lamb, rolled around homemade stuffing with bubble and squeak – which is probably completely unknown outside the UK and, since it contains sprouts may be as revolting to vegetarians as the lamb which has been a great standby in times of poverty since we were students. Oh and we toasted the solstice with a glass of wine too. Last night I fed the Christmas cake with brandy. We never eat it at Christmas and I’ve long since given up wrapping it in marzipan and icing – but on freezing January days it makes a perfect tea break on the allotment with a cup of thermos tea. On the near horizon comes the seed order and the sowing of the earliest crops. My study and the kitchen too will be filled with light from the propagators. Hopefully, if Covid permits, one of my old churches will continue the Plough Monday tradition on Zoom and the cider club will manage some form of socially distanced wassail down on the banks of the Severn.
Somehow, and in spite of the best efforts of the modern Savonarolas who hate anything they don’t understand, or can’t find it referenced in the ten pages of the Bible they still read; we sense and honour the wisdom of our ancient forebears and celebrate the solstices and equinoxes as best we can through fire and earth and rowdy carols. The sun will rise again!
Translating from one language to another is always tricky and there are many bear pits into which the unwary can fall. “Fanny” and “Pants” should be used with extreme caution if you’re an American visiting the UK. “Lush” and especially “gert lush” are very dangerous anywhere near Bristol because although both gert and lush are popular dialect words, in my experience they are never conjoined except by outsiders. As for the Bristol accent; don’t even think about it. Back in the day there were around seventeen distinct local, even parish, dialects and so coming as I do from Staple Hill, I could immediately distinguish Kingswood, Easton and Lawrence Hill. Outsiders often confuse all this diversity and substitute a form of central casting oooh aaar.
When we lived in Stoke on Trent, everyone assumed we were Cornish and a couple of years ago in Birmingham a waiter asked me if I was a farmer. I’ve never seen the need to ditch my native dialect, although I seem to lapse deeper into it in the few places (a local sawmill for instance) where it survives intact. The downside is that some people assume I must be a bit thick because I drop my aitches – it’s a mistake they only make once!
Anyway, back to gush and lush – and I will attempt to explain what the link is between these two words and homemade calendula cream. Over the years I’ve accumulated a lot of books on herbal medicine and so looking for a recipe can be a bit of a trial. Today was calendula day for no better reason than making the salve is both celebratory and extremely simple and we had half a litre of calendula flowers steeped in almond oil for several months and wanting something doing with it – like making small Christmas gifts. Eventually I found the recipe I’d used before in “The Herbal Medicine Makers’ Handbook” by James Green. It’s a lovely book, but not being a Californian I find I have to engage a kind of inner translation mode to tone down the gush into a more familiar (and uptight) lush. This is by no means a criticism. James Green would take my self conscious and muttered thanks to the plants I harvest and turn them into a polyphonic liturgy. I’m envious, embarrassed and scared at the same time – and yet, why not? Surely a life marked by thanksgiving and celebration is an improvement on ‘work, buy, consume, die‘ which I saw spray painted on the wall of Bristol Central Library many years ago.
So back in the kitchen I did manage to give profound thanks for an impulse buy in the Williams Sonoma store near Columbus Circle in New York a few years ago. It’s an awesome shop for a greedy cook, and my eye settled on a small, easily transportable memento that’s done me proud ever since – a set of American liquid measures – from one cup to a quarter cup – that’s made me a into bilingual cook.
The recipe is so simple. Take off the flower heads – we grow hundreds all around the allotment – steep them in almond oil for a couple of months, giving you the most intensely golden extraction; strain them into a bain-marie and add about an (English) ounce of beeswax to each (American) cup of oil, warm them through slowly until the wax dissolves and then do a quick test with a very cold spoon to make sure it sets to the consistency you want and then, fill your jars. It’s ridiculously easy and calendula cream/salve in its many forms is crazily expensive. We buy amber glass pots from a herbal supplier and use them over and over, because the recipients are only too willing to return the empty jars, knowing they’ll get another full one back again.
While all this was going on I was proving a loaf of our new style everyday sourdough bread. Its surprising how just changing the way we prove the bread has demanded a number of changes in the recipe and even in the way the loaves are slashed. This was a lazy Sunday for us. We lingered in bed until half past ten, reading, drinking coffee and talking about food. Our oldest son rang and chided me gently for lurking in bed when he’d been out for a run at five thirty am. We’re a family of chronic overachievers, but I think I’m well over it now.
I see the UK Government have fallen on each others throats, brawling and shouting at one another as if it was already Christmas. These parties can get completely out of hand in a moment – especially when there isn’t an adult in the room. Meanwhile if anyone’s got any thoughts on managing the Omicron variant there’s a vacancy coming up soon.
Here’s our Christmas tree – and ‘though you wouldn’t know it, even the shape has huge resonance for me because although it’s just a pruning from the fig tree it’s also the shape of the trees on the crest of Freezing Hill which was the distant horizon of my childhood. There was a line of trees there taking the full blast of the prevailing southwesterlies and therefore bent over with trunks facing the weather. So the shape is one thing and another is the fact that, being a fig, the fruits are already there. It’s an image that manages to embrace both summer and winter at the same time; an earnest – if you like – a promise of good things to come. The lights speak for themselves except for the fact that in much the same way that we especially love the black and the red wine gums in the packet, I love the lights when they’re all red – which only happens at the moment you turn them on and so, utterly childishly – I lie on the floor so I can reach the switch while watching the lights and for a moment there’s a sense of of bliss. I probably need professional help for that one.
Of course I’ve made no secret of the fact that this is the time of the year when the black dog visits and Madame, after decades of practice, finds the exact sweet spot between nagging and encouragement. Heaven knows why I find it so difficult to visit the allotment but I really do; and yet when I finally capitulate and get a project in my sights, the black dog seems to slink away defeated for another year.
So while Madame got on with clearing out the fruit cage and doing some winter pruning, earlier in the week, I wheelbarrowed the last five loads of leaves down to their bin to make leaf mould and then turned my attention to repairing the wood chip paths and mulching the apple trees and fruit bushes. You’d think that leaves are much of a muchness when it comes to composting, but in fact a bit of a browse around the storage bay, repays the time and effort because when it comes to leaf mould not all leaves are equal. For instance I find that large sycamore leaves tend to accumulate in dense mats which seem to resist rotting very well; whereas smaller leaves especially when they’re broken down by mowers. Sycamore, then, make the better mulch. As for the chemistry I know from my pottery days that wood ashes from different trees have radically different chemical profiles which can be exploited in the making of glazes. I have no idea whether the same applies to composted leaves, but in nature, variety is (so far as I understand it) a good thing; and so I try to get as many trees as possible represented in the leaf mould. Of course reductionist thinking tends to skate over the differences as if nature could be made to adhere to some kind of simplified formula – like NPK fertilizers for instance – and we know where that kind of thinking takes us!
This is most certainly not a self-help posting, but I would say that hard exercise in the cold weather is a great way of cheering yourself up. After art school I spent three years working as a groundsman at a large public school (I know my place), and the Christmas holidays were always a favourite time. With no rugby or football pitches to maintain and no mowing of the outfields, this was the time we maintained all the tractors and equipment and also did the fun jobs like laying hedges around the field edges. I absolutely loved it, and the frostier the better as far as I was concerned.
So notwithstanding the unseasonably mild weather this past week it was still good to be out there. I write about this time of the year as if it were all about preparation; but (the farmer’s boot being the best fertiliser), you can’t help noticing the subtle changes on the allotment even before astrological winter has begun. As the solstice approaches something stirs in the depths of the soil. The borage plants which died so spectacularly in the autumn that I thought we’d lost them, have put in an appearance already. In fact we planted loads of perennials last season and so angelica and lovage are in the beginnings of leaf and we’re expecting loads of self-seeders to pop up in the next two months. It comforts me to know that the ever reliable sweet cicely can only be just below the surface and, cheating slightly, we have an abundance of parsley and coriander in the polytunnel.
Suddenly, as Christmas comes closer and the solstice is only three days away, everything seems brighter. We know that some perennials are listed as “short lived” and maybe we should see ourselves in the same way; living – as the old saying goes – as if we might die tomorrow, and farming as if we will live forever – and that’s two farming proverbs in one post! Each plant that reappears we’ll greet as an old friend in a world of fugitive pleasures – marvellous!
As we left the allotment today it looked, well, cheerful. There was a wisp of smoke curling up from the incinerator as the last season’s bindweed met its maker. The residual ashes all go on to the compost heap to add a touch of I’ve no idea what, but it seems to work – to the process.
Later, over a glass of wine, I thanked Madame for her vigilant and healing nudges I think our children probably regard us as a couple of curmudgeonly old farts, but having seen seventy five seasons through; sixty of them as gardeners, we have come to understand that the greater pleasures come very slowly, and I say to them – you only find that out if you’re lucky enough to live a long time.
So after the philosophical tone of the last couple of posts, I thought I’d share an anxiety free photo of a wheelbarrow. There’s not much going on at the allotments at the moment – mostly the site is like the Marie Celeste; full of signs of occupation but devoid – apart from the diehards – of human company; no gossip to be had.
There are two especially dangerous moments for new allotmenteers – six months apart but equally fatal to the morale. In July the early optimism of cleared ground and early sown crops gives way to an explosion of weeds – especially on newly won ground. In December, once the pruning is done and any bare earth covered or mulched, the cold and often grey, greasy weather is a powerful disincentive to gardening. These days, knowing what we do about air pollution, it’s even difficult to justify the bonfire – the old friend of bored allotmenteers on winter days.
But composting goes on whatever the month, and with time on our hands it’s the perfect opportunity for clearing up, leaving lots of habitat for overwintering insects; any bits of civil engineering that have been on the “to do” list for several seasons and, if you’re lucky like us, starting next season’s leaf mould. I remember many years ago buying one of Christopher Lloyd’s books – I think it was The Well Tempered Garden – and becoming increasingly dismayed that his idea of a small garden was about the size of three football fields, complete with mature trees and an abundance of compostable materials. For the vast majority of us, the materials available for composting are extremely limited.
However, our local authority, in a bid to save money, has now built a number of gigantic bunkers on various allotment sites around Bath in order to save the cost (I can hardly believe this!) of dumping leaves. Obviously we’re delighted but slightly overwhelmed with this generosity. Added to regular supplies of free wood chip they’re a blessing and in the past they disappeared almost as fast as they arrived. Possibly not so any more.
Leaves are a threefold blessing, as well as being – for different reasons and in different phases – biochemical miracles. As green leaves attached to their trees they convert sunlight and water into sugar and, with the aid of countless fungal networks and bacteria, swap sugar for micronutrients in ways we’re only just beginning to understand; storing carbon in the soil at the same time. As fallen leaves they make a perfect mulch for soft fruit bushes and empty plots. We once covered a patch of cleared ground with six inches of leaves and threw a cover over them. When winter was over we removed the cover to find that they’d all but disappeared due to the actions of worms..
But stacked in one of our compost bins – ours will accommodate ten bags similar to the one in the photo (just big enough to be able to lift and empty when full)- and through the action of moulds, fungi, bacteria and the whole gamut of leaf eating insects they slowly decompose. By March the heap will have shrunk by around a third and we’ll cap it with six inches of compost to grow a prolific crop of ridge cucumbers whose roots reach deep into the moisture holding leaf mould.
Then in a final act of beneficence the finished leaf mould will be mixed 50:50 with our own compost which will be spread on our plot in the autumn when the whole cycle starts again. I suppose in a perfect world the leaves would be left to rot where they fall, but we try to accomplish the same thing whilst growing food – which brings me to an excellent article in today’s Guardian which reports on a new piece of research that supports the idea that allotments can make a substantial contribution to food security and local (ie low carbon footprint) sustainable food networks. If only forward thinking local authorities would take up the challenge and secure leases on plots of suitable land surrounding villages, towns and cities, the waiting lists (thousands in some cases) could be reduced and a secure supply of wholesome, mainly organic food could be in place within a couple of seasons.
Another trip to the farmers market yielded a chastening surprise at the weekend. We were in something of a hurry because we we expecting a family visitation to celebrate our son’s birthday and so we sold our souls and picked what looked like a healthy looking bakery stall and stocked up on padding. Not – I should add – the indispensable thin sliced industrial white (only used for summer pudding at the Potwell Inn), but sourdough loaves bearing all the imprints of banneton and human labour and with a corresponding price tag.
Being a regular home baker myself, I expect to make better bread than most bakeries simply because my time and experience come free of charge. There are no rents, rates or wages to find each month and if the loaves are a couple of hours late coming out of the oven, nobody dies or goes bust. So what can you say about bread that looks exactly like the real deal but lacks any single distinguishing feature? With bread, and almost any other artisanal food you could name; time equals flavour. Bread that’s rushed through the process in a few hours will never, can never develop the full flavour of the wheat or rye. It might look like the real thing; the crust bursting with energy, the crumb textbook, the rise prodigious but without time – and I mean lots of it – it will never taste of anything and be fit only as a platform for something that does taste delicious. Good bread, cheeses, pickles and ferments are all the same in their demands for time and human judgement.
There used to be a Chinese restaurant in Bristol whose menus were masterpieces of brevity. “Steamed fish”, for example was a whole carp, steamed on a bed of aromatic vegetables – wonderful. It was always honest as well; no item on the menu was buried under a landslide of adjectives. You either liked chickens’ feet or you didn’t with or without the anointing of such words as luscious, velvety or exotic. There’s a huge Chinese supermarket in East Bristol that will sell you a box of frozen pork cervix. Please don’t feel obliged to buy them on my account!
We’re so accustomed to supermarket photographs of fictionalised farmers surrounded by their happy animals (my chickens are soooo free range they even have a community centre and a table tennis team) that we don’t so much buy nourishment as lifestyle narratives, and of course this means that we rarely get to taste the real stuff. Of course you can bake bread that looks like the loaves in the latest edition of Country Life but I fear that a splash of sourdough starter for flavour accompanied by a good deal of conventional yeast, a short warm rise and a lot of steam is what we usually get. Worse still, our palates are so habituated to bland food, we find fully flavoured properly made food overwhelming, even unpleasant. Just as a treat I bought in some really good cheeses for the family to try on Saturday. Apart from me, nobody liked them – their loss, my gain I suppose but what a shame to live in a world of bland, grey flavours when you could experience the orchestra of a well made Cheddar. Sadly, in marketing food, all too often more creativity is expended on the promotional material than on the product.
Anyway, there’s been more than food alone on our minds this week. The campervan roof light has been leaking recently and after a few abortive emails to local repairers we made contact with the company that built our van and they immediately agreed to repair it yesterday. The snag was that we had to be there when the workshop opened and it was on the far side of Dartmoor. So it was a 4.00am alarm and then a drive down to the banks of the Severn to collect the van from its storage facility, and then driving down the motorway in what still felt like the middle of the night. There’s always something exciting about night driving and by 7.00am we could see the first intimations of sunrise as the sky took on a faintly damson flushed with peach hue to the east, with a three quarter waning moon in the sky above and the Somerset levels frosted in the first really cold night of winter. We arrived in good time and after three hours the van was restored and we drove north with Dartmoor to our left, looking ravishing in the clear blue skies.
More about rats
I was turning the compost heap last week and, one after another, three large and very sleek rats abandoned ship and scooted off up the path. One of them went in the general direction of Madame – who was weeding – and a piercing cry went up – an eeeeeeeoooooaaaaaaach – sort of noise. I don’t know about the rat but it scared the living daylights out of me. I think it’s as much the unexpectedness of their appearances that’s the most unnerving thing. They have a tendency to sit the disturbance out until there’s no alternative but to bolt. I’ve had one jump right over my shoulder on one occasion. We’ve got a trail cam on the plot and we’ve filmed cats, mice, foxes, squirrels and badgers, but it’s the ubiquitous rats that trigger the camera more often than any of the others.
So are there so many more this year? Without the benefit of a proper survey, I’d say that without doubt this year has seen the largest infestation we’ve ever seen. It’s not quite Hamelin but it’s almost impossible to drive past the entrance without disturbing two or three, and there can be very few allotmenteers who haven’t seen a few at least. They have a prodigious capacity to breed, and therein lies one possible solution to the problem. It’s entirely natural for populations to grow to the point where disease, overcrowding and food shortages drive the population down again. It’s a possibility but we shouldn’t hold our breath.
It’s said that the lockdown and the closure of the restaurants and fast food outlets led populations of rats and gulls alike to look for food beyond the city centre and, I suppose, we’re providing it. I’ve read that the gulls hardly bred at all in the first lockdown although they certainly seem to have recovered well by now. We’ve tried just about every conceivable way of discouraging them and there’s no single answer. I suppose not composting kitchen peelings and veg waste would be a start but it would be at the expense of our compost heaps. You can always see when they’ve paid a visit because they dig distinctive tunnels in the upper surfaces and often have toilet areas where you can see their droppings. We all know that rats can be carriers of leptospirosis so at the very least we need to be meticulous about wearing gloves and observing personal hygiene when handling compost. They don’t like being disturbed and they won’t enter very hot heaps – which is an encouragement to turn heaps regularly and work them hard. 55C plus a yard fork will put the most determined squatter off.
I’ve never made bokashi but it’s said that rats don’t like the strong taste and smell of fermented waste. Kitchen waste can be converted in a wormery so that there’s little left of any interest to the rodents. Traps, to my mind, are a waste of money because rats are clever little critters and once they’ve been activated they’ll never go near them again. We won’t use poisons because we love the other creatures, and secondary poisoning is a real issue with rat poison and slug pellets alike. Ask yourself why there are no hedgehogs on our allotments?
And that leaves barriers – fine chicken wire wrapped around wooden heaps and tight fitting lids because they’re great climbers. But they’re also great tunnellers so the chicken wire needs to be brought out horizontally at the bases of heaps as you might do when fox-proofing a chicken run. One final suggestion which we’re testing at the moment is to fill any tunnels with wire wool and ram it in firmly with a crowbar. Apparently they are greatly averse to chewing through it! – and who could blame them?
What doesn’t work? Gardening lore is about as useful as Old Moore’s Almanac so ignore the advice that they don’t like citrus peel because they do, as do the worms as well. And there’s one more tactic which does absolutely nothing to reduce numbers but it can transform our relationship with rats. Actually they’re very clever, very resourceful and often quite handsome animals. If we’re serious about wildlife gardening then we don’t get to choose the cuddly bits and slaughter the rest. This year we managed to keep the badgers off most of the sweetcorn with a ring of steel; but the rats simply moved in and took their place. We would see them swaying at the top of a plant nibbling away happily. But we managed to harvest about half the crop and enjoy it. We don’t moan when the bees eat our pollen or the birds eat our seeds so maybe the rat too should be considered part of life’s rich tapestry and a perfect supper for a hungry fox too.