Four hundred and fifty three thousand, seven hundred and forty four

No it’s not a telephone number, that’s how many words I’ve written on this blog – I mean, it’s a lot, even spread across 585 posts, and I’m aware that it’s a bit intimidating too. I suppose you could read it every day, in which case it would be like a sequential diary, but most people don’t, and only pick up on a particular search term that they’re especially interested in. I’m not sure what you’d call it because the bigger it gets the harder it is to search. So in the midst of a somewhat sleepless night it occurred to me to make a kind of pot luck offer in a tag cloud. You can click on any of the tags and see what’s behind it; pick a favourite topic or just have a random meander around the inside of my head – there’s plenty of social distancing space there; and search for your particular silver threepenny bit in the plum pudding.

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change compost compost bins composting coronavirus deep ecology earth ecology environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany foraging garlic global heating growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness intensive farming lockdown lost gardens of heligan marmalade meditation no-dig potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions spring sustainability technology water storage weather weeds wildflower meadows wildflowers

Sunset, dusk, twilight.

I could have titled this post ‘Nocturne‘ – a bit posey; or – ‘Be careful what you pray for!’ – except that usually applies better to well deserved comeuppances, so I settled on the one it’s got because today we walked through and enjoyed the subtle differences between all three evening states and now as I write this I’m looking through the window at the night – not Van Gogh starry night or Whistler night and especially not Turner night but just the car park, the backs of the terrace and the fast food joint chimney.

We wasted much of the day waiting for a delivery from Royal Mail that never arrived. To recycle a quip from John Mortimer, writer and barrister, “it’s like tantric sex; you’re in all day and nobody comes.” So (moving rapidly on) we didn’t set out on our walk until 3.00pm. Years ago we were walking in Leigh Woods in Bristol when a tramp – ‘rough sleeper’ carries a whole different set of connotations nowadays; this was a man who had chosen to live in the woods for whatever reason. Anyway he came rushing up to us in a state of high excitement and begged us to follow him. “I’ve been living here for ten years and I’ve never seen one before”, he said, and he led us off into the wood where he had found the first thorn apple he, or we, had ever seen there. Jimson weed, devil’s Snare or thorn apple, it’s got a bit of a reputation for being poisonous/hallucinogenic and the RHS entry for it spends almost as much time describing how to kill it as it does to grow it. We, however, were pleased to see it, thanked him and went on our way.

Yesterday I mentioned here that we haven’t yet seen the otters on the river and blow me if we didn’t meet a man who had – earlier today. Yesterday too, I mentioned that we hadn’t noticed the resident heron for a few days and there we were near an improvised shelter (bender) on the bank watching a larger heron that we haven’t seen before when this man came up to us and told us that only this morning he’d seen a female otter with two cubs, swimming at the exact spot we were standing in. It was beginning to feel as if we were on a roll.

What next? Well, a little further on we saw in one spot – without moving – two swans, one cormorant, one kingfisher, our usual heron and two – yes two peregrines. Admittedly the peregrines were about 60 feet up on St John’s Church spire but that was a bit of a moment to savour, and remember; this is all in the very centre of Bath. A group of young men were passing and joined in the peregrine watching. “They’re up there on the nest platform” I said; and one of them replied “I know, my dad made the nest box and two of the little ones have got together and had babies!”

There were hordes of people out walking in the parks and on the canal in spite of the slate grey and rain bearing clouds overhead. Somewhere up there there was rain falling high above us because a rainbow had gathered together all the sunlight that we weren’t seeing and formed an inverted bowl over our heads. Dogs, children, adults, students in careless groups of eight and ten oblivious to the wide birth we were giving them. It was an almost joyful atmosphere as we grabbed what fresh air we could before retreating into lockdown and endless repeats on the television.

As we walked along the river beneath the railway station a long express train pulled in and we noticed for the first time that the lights inside the carriages were glimmering on to the platform. There’s a marvellous sense of inside/outside as it gets darker and the whole townscape slowly changes from day to night. The sky was washed with Paynes Grey, possibly my favourite watercolour; and stationary tree trunks that the spate had brought downstream were riffling the water, making the street lights dance. We quickened our pace to get back where the otters were before it got too dark to see them, but it wasn’t to be. Still; now we know where they are, we can take the binoculars and search for a holt. It was a lovely walk, and completely, unexpectedly rich as walks so often are.

And as I’m writing I remember that among the plants in flower that I listed briefly yesterday, I forgot the hedge woundwort and prickly sow thistle near the canal. The woundwort looks very like a pink/purple nettle, but the killer trick for identifying it is the smell of the crushed leaves that can be anything from mildly unpleasant to almost nauseating. It’s supposed to be effective against boils and such like. I just love the English names of these medicinal herbs; they’re little poems – two or three syllable haiku. Latin names are more useful but I wouldn’t be without Mrs Grieve and Geoffrey Grigson’s lists of local names. I remember an old countryman telling my sister the local name for dandelions – ‘pissabeds’ and giggling as my mother glowered at him. In fact she knew them all very well but never mentioned the more earthy ones.

And then back home, hungry as horses, we fell upon homemade and home grown baked beans; our own borlotti and our own rich tomato sauce mopped up with our own everyday sourdough. Life doesn’t get any better.

Britannia lures the waves!

And – as the great ship of state sinks gently to the seabed of reality …….

Sometimes a photo is a ready-made metaphor for something you can’t quite explain! But then, it was such a nice day today for a reflective walk that even the provocations made me laugh. I’ve written before about the way each season carries intimations of the next to cheer us on, and today there was a tremendous sense that spring will come because time and tide bow to no-one, however powerful our inglorious leaders might like us to think they are. There were signs of occasional occupation in this boat until a month or two ago, but now it’s about to join the shopping trolleys and stolen bikes at the bottom of the river. Meanwhile the prophets of Baal (you can look it up, it’s a very funny story) whip themselves up into a froth of evangelical fervour as we stand alone against Johnny Foreigner – ready to show what we’re really made of. Sadly, there’s absolutely no sign of Elijah anywhere on the horizon – I certainly don’t think Keir Starmer cuts the prophetic mustard. Anyway as a sign of our preparedness for the coming troubles I thought the poor old wreck was a fitting tribute. Johnson’s new £10 billion navy – “Just needs a lick of battleship grey and a union flag and she’ll look as good as she did in the 1930’s”. And we all know how well that went.

So by way of a bit of diversion this two part graffiti on the river bank made me laugh out loud:

I thought the waggish “why?” completely demolished the rather earnest philosophical tone of the original comment. Elsewhere I thought you might like to see this 20th century brutalist response to the foppish grandeur of Georgian Bath.

Yes it’s the Avon Street multi story car park which is about to be demolished – but still much loved by skateboarders. Needless to say the offending building – like most of the truly ugly modern buildings in Bath was erected in Kingsmead – where we now live. This was the area that was most damaged during the Baedeker air raids during the war – the bombers missed the real target back in the day – but instead of grasping the opportunity to restore what was always a poor but vibrant mixed community they built lots of horrors like this and demolished even more small, historic houses across on the London Road on the spurious grounds that they were unfit. The tragedy, of course, is not so much the failure of architectural imagination – I’m not arguing here for mock Georgian multi-story carriage stables – it’s the shocking fact that someone, in an office somewhere, thought this was all we were worth. George Steiner wrote memorably of a critical test for literature – “What measure of [hu]man does this propose?” The architect Richard Rogers has written that buildings embody our idea of human worth, what we’re about and what we’re capable of. We’re not there yet by any means – the Western Riverside Development in Bath, done by Crest Nicholson resembles nothing more than a bonded warehouse or an architectural tribute to a Chernobyl housing project.

There are, however, grounds for hope. The lockdown has created economic havoc among some of the larger companies, but many of the smaller shops and businesses have proved themselves more adaptable; working collectively and capitalising on what feels like a real longing for a new order. The butchers and bakers and for all I know the candlestick makers too have tapped into something significant, exploring the meaning of local and community; and all it could take to demolish the supermarket myth for good will be another food supply crisis – like the one so heedlessly being put together at the moment. It used to be a raise in bread prices that caused riots – maybe this will be the first civil unrest ever caused by a shortage of jackfruit and avocados, but more plausibly – given the middle class aversion to any action bar gentle hand wringing – it will be provoked by the absence of the everyday things; the foodstuffs that (like it or not), most of us have learned to depend upon.

So back to my book of the year (so far). Here’s a section that caught my eye this morning:

We’ve now discussed, however briefly,the human ecology of field crops, gardens, livestock and wood crops with a view to constructing more sustainable farm systems for the future out of this raw material. Earlier I mentioned the idea of people re-wilding themselves in the context of that future – spreading themselves out across the landscape like other organisms to to skim its flows sustainably rather than concentrating so as to mine its stocks, practising the arts of self-reliance, knowing how to fill the larder, and knowing how to stop when the larder is full rather than pursuing an economy of endless accumulation.

Chris Smage – “A Small Farm Future” p 144

Well, Amen to that. The economy doesn’t just need the tyres pumping up or an oil change it needs to be exposed for what it has become, the means of extracting wealth, leisure and humanity from millions of people and throwing millions more into dependency, sickness and poverty. The etymology of the word crisis comes from the Greek crino – to choose – and so we have to ask who gets to choose when we reach the crossroads? – when the multiple crises facing us come to fruition at the same time because, in essence they are one massive connected crisis.

So to round off a pleasurable walk today, photographs of the two repurposed bridges from the ‘glory days’ of steam. The first the line from the old Somerset and Dorset, which brought coal (remember that) in from Midsomer Norton and the North Somerset coalfield into Green Park Station. The second, the old Midland Railway line. A third one comes in from the West and goes to London and is the only surviving working line. And of course there’s the lovely iron pedestrian bridge over the Kennet and Avon canal which no longer carries coal but pleasure boaters onwards towards London. The latest bridge across the river is for pedestrians and cyclists only. Steam has gone; coal has gone and the old station now houses market stalls, a butchers shop, food outlets and the local farmers market on a Saturday. The owner says he could let another six units today if there was space. Is this a sign of collapse or is it the foretaste of a new future, the first buds of spring that actually appear in late autumn when the leaves fall from the trees? If you look now you’ll see the buds there waiting. Only time will tell what fruits they will bear.

Finally some rain

If there’s a quieter, more beautiful or more remote place than this, I want to be there.

Bearing in mind that this photo was taken a year ago in the Yorkshire Dales, a couple of miles away from the border with Cumbria; the storm here, was very similar but the setting a million miles away. It was a long time coming, and after days at 36C there was a false start in the early evening when the clouds gathered so densely that a party on the Green began packing up. But at around 11.00pm the rain started properly and you can choose your own metaphor – biblical, if you must; stair rods? – but who knows what a stair rod is these days? – or cats and dogs? none of the usual clichés comes close. On the television yesterday we saw a derailed train, cars floating down rivers and I don’t doubt there will be crops beaten to the ground and ruined. Mercifully, the allotment is made of sterner stuff and seems unscathed after an urgent inspection in the morning. Yes, the rain was welcome but the intensity of weather events this year is an ominous sign of what’s coming and there’s little sign yet that our wretched government, which failed to prepare for Covid even after months of warnings, is prepared to listen to the fifty years of warnings since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, and species began to disappear under the onslaught of oil, chemicals and extractive agriculture.

So being human, which is – and always has been – the principal area of interest for the Potwell Inn, is getting harder but more important with every breath. The environmental catastrophe which is bearing down on us, is a result of losing our sense of what it means to be human in nature. Even the Shooting Times, for goodness sake, forty years ago, used to acknowledge that our responsibility towards nature was one of stewardship. It may have been down to self interest in preserving habitat for animals to be killed in for sport, (and I’d have that ethical discussion with them any day), but we might be better off thinking that at least some of the assumed enemies of change, are halfway towards us already. Now’s not the time for division and name calling. I remember once spending a day at an army camp in Wiltshire talking to the chaplaincy team and to some of the young soldiers who were training there, and being astonished at their moral maturity. During the run up to the Gulf war I noticed that the number of service personnel attending church suddenly increased dramatically as they approached deployment. I didn’t meet a single one who thought that it was a just war in any sense at all.

I don’t want this to be gloomy, and so I’ll stop there with the thought that being human is a desperately difficult road to walk, and to do it well we need to be aware of ourselves and our deepest needs. As you get older (and I’ve got a lot of experience in that subject) you can take a longer view, freed from timetables, busyness, childcare and then parent care; and things begin to become more clear.

I’ve been pondering for ages whether to take the blog down this track, but I fear that without the underlying philosophy, without a spirituality which is so essential to being human; all my talk of the allotment, of field botany and cooking and making bread, the junkies on the street, the environmental crisis and our beloved grandchildren might be taken as a number of separate disconnected interests that I happen to pursue. That’s not the case, and it’s essentially not the case. What I’m trying to tease out, because I don’t know the answer myself, are the threads, the warp and weft of being fully human. What are the essential aspects of a fulfilling and fruitful life, lived well?

I’ve tried religion (and I mean tried! thirty years of intense work is a bit more than a dalliance!), but as time went on I found myself more drawn towards Taoism and Buddhism. I was exhausted by trying to fit myself into a system that pretended it could make everything fit, but only by excluding so much of my whole being that I felt I hardly existed. Let’s not go there except to say that somewhere near the top of my list of crucial qualities is a thoroughgoing scepticism. Scepticism is a greatly underestimated strength.

Personal well being depends on relatively well understood factors. The problem is that resisting the spirit of the age can make you sound like a gimlet eyed extremist. A good diet, physical exercise, strength, heart health and time to stand and stare, contact with nature, love and friendship – human community, dreams and projects, curiosity, the love of science and creative art and some kind of spirituality that grows our ability for all these threads to work in harmony – this is what being human is all about.

Today I turned up an ebook of class notes by my old Tai Chi teacher Alan Peck. I was a pretty useless student, too busy to practice properly; endlessly missing sessions because of meetings and yet I always, without exception, felt better after a session and found some peace in the midst of all the demands being made on me. I opened the book on my laptop today and in a strange way I heard his voice as I read the familiar phrases from his sessions and I noticed an idea that positively jumped off the page at me. He was saying that it didn’t much matter which form you were learning, or how advanced you had become. All that really mattered was letting go into the practice and only then would you be able to receive. No amount of straining and grabbing would ever get you there. I can’t think of a better description of being fully human.

To “let go of everything” refers to an experience of understanding beyond concepts. Usually we label everything either consciously or unconsciously and experience very little that is fresh to our mind without previous conditioning. “To let go of everything” refers to a level of experiencing that does not rely on previously formed patterns of response. In this case, there is less judgement and more potential for creative response. It is an act of surrender.

Alan Peck teacher of Natural Way Tai Chi who died in 2010.

Getting control

It’s a concept I’ve always been a bit suspicious of – controlling can be a dangerous addiction for anxious people and yet these last few months of lockdown have revealed a more kindly, almost therapeutic aspect to taking control. This devastatingly unoriginal thought came to me this morning in the kitchen when I was working my way through half a dozen routine jobs and suddenly experienced a ‘flow’ moment while I was straining the kefir.

I guess during the lockdown and the general strangeness that surrounded us, especially at the beginning when we were unable to rely even on essential supplies, routine became comforting. Getting bread on the table, getting our hands on 16 Kg of bread flour, replenishing almost any supplies can go from being full of stress to offering strong reassurance that in spite of everything we’ll get through. In our case a stone heavier because we’ve been eating all that therapeutic bread, and don’t even ask about biscuits. But getting by, being even a little bit in control, is a a small blow against the chaos – a finger in the air against the malign gods of incompetence. All the queuing and bulk buying of toilet rolls and flour turned out to be a proxy battle against something else, even if we never worked out quite what it was.

The picture at the top is of some Lords and Ladies – Arum maculatum, the roots of which were occasionally eaten during famine times when it was known as Portland sago. It’s fairly dodgy stuff that needs careful preparation – roasting and grinding to destroy the irritant sharp needles that, if eaten carelessly could make you very ill. However for me today it was a reminder that we’re in high summer now and there are hints of autumn everywhere.

There is a real sense of sadness that the seasons have passed us by this year, although I’ll be forever grateful that being grounded for several months has forced us to explore locally; and there’s been so much to discover. The allotment has been our saviour of course and we were glad to be working flat out during the spring and early summer. Now, in high summer there’s a bit of a lull and that’s given us the time to resume some longer walks and explore some local delights.

Today, once I’d finished a pile of prepping in the kitchen – bread, kefir, stock – and brining some onion rings for tonight’s panzanella – we went up to Bannerdown in search of butterflies and for me to do some more grasses. Slowly slowly I’m becoming more familiar and realising that giving consideration to the habitat, for instance woodland, unimproved grassland or marshy ground, simplifies things enormously.

I was also using the Panasonic Lumix camera with a 45mm Leica macro lens. Phone cameras are so so good these days that most of the time they’re perfect, but some days, like today, I really want to play with aperture and speed to get effects like bokeh (which is a pretentious way of saying blurred backgrounds). Learning to control exposures and apertures takes a while but it’s always worth the effort. When we were at art school, technique was rather frowned upon – which was why so much poor work was produced. For me the beauty has always been in the detail, and although I do photograph whole landscapes from time to time, they’re usually taken as a scene setter for the detailed view. There are some of today’s pictures below, but there’s one I couldn’t take because even with pretty good kit it’s just too small.

I grew up with false oat grass – it was the one from which you could strip the seeds between your thumb and finger as you walked past – like popping bubble wrap but back in the olden days before it was invented. However, being familiar with something and walking past it every day is not the same as knowing it, and because it ages, ripens and deteriorates during the season it’s sometimes difficult to decide whether the mangled bit of dry straw is false oat or something else. I was examining an aged plant today and I took a very close (x20) look at the awn, it’s the bristle on the outside husk, if you like, of the tiny seed casings and it’s tiny, but so beautiful. It’s a world of arabesques and curlicues from the bend of the hook to the spiral markings at the base it could have been fashioned in gold by a fairy blacksmith. If I can’t get a photo I’ll have to make a drawing from the microscope and put it up. That’s what gets me about nature – it’s so unnecessarily and extravagantly lovely however you look, from telescope to microscope.

The other thing that blew me away today was how loud the insects are when they are working in such a rich environment. On a scale between exhausted industrial grass and irreplaceable pristine meadow, Bannerdown inclines towards the neglected grassland tag. But that’s still rich. I imagine they must cut it regularly or it would become scrub, but the flowers today were wonderful and the bees, flies and other insects were having a wonderful time. Their hum was continuous and generated by thousands of pairs of wings – like a symphony orchestra holding a long ppp note, full of harmonics; lush, fruitful and happy.

There were no wonders among the butterflies but the B Team were all playing. There were common blues, a couple of brimstone, speckled wood, meadow brown and innumerable little brown mothy jobs in the grass. As we left another butterfly spotter was just getting into his car. “Did you see any chalk-hill blues?” – he asked. “No we haven’t – are they around?” “Well I heard a report about one the other day but I haven’t seen any here for years”. Perhaps they should amend the notice board and put a “not available” sign beside it.

Back on the allotment we decided to give up on a group of bush tomatoes that have contracted brown stem rot, so we picked all the remaining green tomatoes – probably five or six pounds of them – and I’ll make chutney with them. The rot is caused by heat and water stress, and made worse by watering on the leaves. We’ve had temperatures going up and down like a fiddler’s elbow; we’ve had hot humid weather, days of intense sunshine and days of heavy rain. It’s enough to cause any plant troubles. With the green tomato crop secure now, we can let the rest of the Crimson Crush ripen on the vines. They’re our mainstay for the winter, and we make many litres of sauce and passata with them. With a bit of pasta and some parmesan, you can make a cracking meal in ten minutes. But tonight it’s going to be panzanella – my favourite tomato salad ever!

What to look our for in an artists’ garden

Tony and Glen Eastman have been our friends over many years – well coming on for fifty years, and this is their garden. I’ve wanted to write something about it for some years since a TV company attempted to make a film about it without having the first idea what an artists’ garden might be about. So all they saw was a tall banana tree growing in a city centre garden in Bristol. Hooked by the unexpected novelty, and in spite of Tony’s strenuous efforts to get them off the subject, the resulting film was a disappointment to all of us.

The tiger, by the way is a part of a very large collection of tiger artifacts and drawings brought together over decades. There are also O gauge railway toys and drawings, paintings and sculptures everywhere. They are a great lesson to aspiring artists who expect to be household names before they’re thirty (and consequently hitch a ride on the latest artistic fashion) – in that they’ve survived on small scale commissions and occasional exhibitions. Tony is fascinated by the Japanese culture and they have both travelled there, soaking it all up.

The garden reflects all of these interests . You might think there’s a touch of Henri Rousseau in the exact placing of the tiger. There are glimpses of Eastern art there, places for meditation, shelter from the sun and the rain and it’s all in what most people would think of as a tiny backyard. We were there today and notwithstanding the strenuous efforts of a team of builders working next door to reduce a similar town house to Trump Tower by digging out a huge hole in the ground and painting the breeze block walls with intensely blue paint, you could still sense some peace. Every living thing had been evicted from the building site next door and mercifully some of the invertebrates and birds have moved in. There are a number Echium pininana there, not exactly natives but brought to Cornwall from the Canaries they thrive in the sheltered climate.. In this garden the tallest is seventeen feet and today a procession of ants was ascending and descending as they feasted on the honeydew. Being a member of the borage family it’s hardly surprising that it was alive with bees.

There’s a sense that there’s nothing here by accident. Just as I’ve written about allotments saying something about their allotmenteers, gardens always tell a story about their gardeners – not by shouting but by inviting you to sit and see what comes along. Ask anyone who knows about gardening and they’ll tell you that the sense of the natural and the wild is the most difficult thing to accomplish in any garden – and just to remind you that this is not in the least “natural” there’s a repurposed lavatory pan in one corner. This is not a po faced, self consciously aesthetic garden, but it’s a place of prolonged meditation over many years, even decades.

This was our first trip to Bristol since March 14th so it was lovely to catch up with two of our oldest friends. We met them at a “happening” at Avebury Henge in 1972 when all the art schools in the country were circulated with a date, time and grid reference. How could we resist? There were about twenty people there plus a handful of rather obvious special branch officers who thought we might be up to no good. We all hoped they enjoyed the walk as much as we did. Later as we walked back from Fyfield Down the whole country was plunged into blackout as the electricity was turned off during the three day week brought about by a miners strike. We could see across to the Severn in the gathering darkness and it was one of the most special moments of my life. Life without power stations and coal mines would have its beauties!

So peace, tea, cake, cream and strawberries today and all in a most beautiful garden. Even a sparrow came to join us – a rare sound these days. Here are some more photos.

Where can I get some Sukebind seeds?

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This is positively the last tiny runnel of the Cold Comfort Farm oxbow, so it’s going to be a short post.  Firstly, Hardy did write one cheerful, and funny novel – “Under the Greenwood Tree” – which is required reading for anyone wanting to change anything at all in a church – especially the music.

Secondly, although Hardy isn’t well known as a poet he wrote some wonderful and very technical stuff in rhyme schemes that have proper Latin names. Generally speaking, technically dazzling poetry is a bit disappointing in the ideas department but his isn’t – although he shares the dubious honour (with RS Thomas) of writing his most powerful love poems to the dead partners whom they’d neglected to the point of abuse during their lives.

Thirdly (I’m stopping counting now) there’s one really interesting moment in CCF when a darker note creeps in.  Flora’s eventual soulmate, Charles, is described as being unable fully to enjoy a party because he cannot shake off the sense of guilt he has at having survived his time as a wartime soldier in Afghanistan when so many of his friends had died. It’s only one tiny sentence – barely even that – but the book was published in 1932, almost exactly midway between two catastrophic wars, and it’s clear that amid all the merriment of the novel, history is biting at Stella Gibbons’ heels.

And finally – I think I want to go into the sukebind business.  We could all do with a bit of cheering up, and what with everyone having children later and later and worrying constantly about identity and other imponderables, not to mention the government and the environment, I thought it might be diverting to sow lots of sukebind among the wildflower meadows of Putney and Nempnet Thrubwell in order to encourage more frolicking. I’m reading Dave Goulson’s excellent new book on *wildflower gardening and I can’t find any reference to sukebind – I expect big pharma is working on synthesizing it even as I write this – and probably Dominic Cummings has slapped a D notice on even mentioning it, but I was thinking of making a tincture to sell to Potwell Inn customers at £50 for 10 ml.   I’m ready for the knock on the door.

*Dave Goulson – The Garden Jungle – Jonathan Cape £16.99

 

A day with Amos Starkadder

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‘Aye ye’ve come.’ He laughed shortly and contemptuously. ‘Dozens of ye. Hundreds of ye. Like rats to a granary. Like field mice when there’s a harvest home. And what good will it do ye? [ ….] Nowt. Not the flicker of a whisper of a bit o’ good.’ He paused and drew a long breath, then suddenly leaped from his seat and thundered at the top of his voice: ‘Ye’re all damned!’

An expression of lively interest and satisfaction passed over the faces of the Brethren, and there was a general rearranging of arms and  legs, as if they wanted to sit as comfortably as possible while listening to the bad news.

And if you haven’t read Stella Gibbons’ book ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ you should, because it’s painfully funny, and a bit of a go-to remedy for a melancholic day.

It started harmlessly enough with the diplodocus that normally lives at the Natural  History Museum in London, but is now on tour across Great Britain in an attempt to make museums relevant and interesting to children. When I say it’s a diplodocus (known as Dippy to avaricious merchandisers everywhere),in fact I think it’s a resin cast of the long deceased animal, and it’s presently visiting the National Museum of Wales which, as a result, was crowded with coachloads of primary school children – and very sweet they were.  Indeed they stood aside  at doors and said ‘thank you’ with every appearance of meaning it.

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IMG_20200109_123815However I don’t think they’d have made much of the three exhibitions of photography upstairs. We had a pair of obsessive photographers of old pithead works, cooling towers and post industrial ruins all of which proved that we’ve moved decisively into a new age.  Whether it’s a better age is a moot point, although Martin Parr’s photo of coal miners washing one another’s backs in the pithead baths was enough to suggest that the romance of the collieries was not a million miles from the romance of L’Angleterre profonde pilloried by Stella Gibbons. There was a video of some ex miners at Deep Pit being interviewed and by chance I actually spoke to one of them when we were taking a primary school trip there some years ago. He told me he hated every minute of it, and then went on to say that the best bit about the job was the camaraderie, the clubs and competitions above ground. I was taught by a generation of teachers who were the children of Welsh miners, and whose parents were adamant that their sons should not go down the pits. My father was a railwayman and he had much the same idea.

As for the pit head works, it makes me feel ancient to say that I was brought up within the South Gloucestershire coalfield.  Our neighbour Mr King, who was the best allotmenteer ever, lived just up the street and I was told that he walked about eight miles to work at Pucklechurch every day, and then walked halfway back home underground before he started work. The Shortwood pit was closed before I was born but the pit shaft was still there.  Today our train passed Harry Stoke, an open cast mine that was still working during my childhood; and Speedwell (closed 1930’s) and Ashton Vale (closed 1920’s) on the other side of Bristol all left their mark on the culture of the area.  When I was first ordained and working in South Bristol I was taken aback that often, when I took funerals in Ashton Vale, the women would not attend the funeral service – an old mining tradition apparently.

Martin Parr’s photos – so joyous usually, had a streak of melancholy for a lost way of life running through them, and the Becher photos laid it out in all its architectural  glory. It’s no accident that I so love post industrial landscapes, but whether I’d love the life is another matter. I can’t get the Parr’s photo of a group of women on a night out at a working men’s club – out of my mind. Life affirming hardly begins to describe their fearsome independence.  Truly you would not pick a fight with them.

The function of the railways, of course, was to join all these industrial sites up, and notwithstanding all the electrification that’s gone on, possibly the worst way to enter any city is by railway, not least on a grey and rainy day. Slate roofs and back to back houses dominate the landscape as you approach the centre of Cardiff where the derelict patches of ground give way to a city busily reconstructing itself in concrete. For me it’s an alienating place that seems to demand a different kind of human being, one that I can’t identify with and would never want to become.IMG_20200109_121529

IMG_20200109_121649And so to the last exhibition that left me at one with Amos Starkadder and his sermon to the Quivering Brethren. The only way I can describe August Sander’s eighty photographs, taken in Germany in the period straddling the second world war is mortifying. These restrained, formal portraits, whose avowed purpose was to document Sander’s home country are a million miles from propaganda – and that’s what makes them so powerful. They are forensic, but not in an unkindly way, and when I say they include portraits of the victims of nazi persecution alongside a soldier and a member of the SS as well as the death mask of his own son who died in a nazi prison you have to wonder how Sander managed not to lose his mind. I guess they achieve exactly what he intended; a portrait of a whole country in change – and we now know what that change would bring. Simply to look at the photographs of the artists, writers and musicians who would become the objects of murderous hatred, for their race or faith and beliefs; or even simply for being creative, is to feel the chill of the possibility of it all happening again.

Did the dinosaurs see it coming?  Did the miners? the farmers and chefs and intellectuals of Germany see it coming? and do we see it coming?

Enough! There are other treasures in the galleries, not least a couple of paintings by John Dickson Innes – one of my favourite painters but incredibly difficult to find.  In the summer we made a pilgrimage to Machynlleth to see some, but the gallery seemed not to know where they were being stored! Oh and a lovely Cezanne landscape that was rejected by the National Gallery and also by the Tate – until Roger Fry intervened. Experts eh? Enough! – you miserable so and so, you forgot to mention the three little egrets you saw from the train just outside Newport. Surely that’s a small victory?IMG_20200109_133156

What have William Cookworthy, my everyday sourdough and organic chemistry got in common?

 

This is not a pub quiz question since it’s so personal no-one else but me could possibly know the answer.

Just for the record, the answer to my silly question is ‘time and temperature’. Actually thanks to David Green, one of the most inspired teachers I ever had, I’ve had William Cookworthy cluttering up my mind for decades in a more or less heroic sort of way. I don’t suppose many people, with the exception of museum curators and porcelain collectors have ever even heard his name but he’s the archetypal eighteenth century rags to riches and back several times Quaker entrepreneur. He was born in Plymouth and was apprenticed to an apothecary in London, but had no money for the coach so he walked there!

To cut a very long story short, back home and supplying ships, he got interested in making porcelain – everyone was at it at the time because there were vast fortunes to be made and lost, and if you could get it right you could become wealthy. He could import one essential ingredient, kaolin i.e. China clay, from America, but it was expensive and without the benefit of any geological maps – William Smith’s first geological survey wasn’t published until 1815 – Cookworthy found the mineral on Tregonning Hill in Cornwall. I went there once hoping to find some China clay, and it was just another gorse covered Cornish hill but I remember the smell of coconut from the warm blossom and the sound of stonechats interrogating the earth. 

Was it luck or a sharp eye with Cookworthy?  It was said that he got the idea from watching tin smelters patching up their furnaces and asked the tinners where they got the clay from. China clay is very pure and free from metal oxides and so it didn’t stain the porcelain or add impurities to the tin. The purity meant it could be taken to previously unattainable temperatures. My personal connection is that Cookworthy eventually bought a share in the Bristol Pottery which, when I was a child, was known as Pountneys and our next door neighbour, Jim French, was a glaze dipper there –  a beautiful illustration of six degrees of separation. 

The early porcelain makers soon discovered that the secret of making it was that both time and temperature were involved, and they were instrumental in much of the early research into minerals – there’s an amazing display of various ores in Truro museum. If you have a small propellor emerging from the top of your head – like me –  you’ll love it, just don’t take your children.

Why is there such a fantastic array of minerals all made from the same basic stuff? Once again, aside from whatever metal oxides and impurities were around at the moment the molten rock emerged from the core of the earth it all depended on time and temperature – how fast did it cool and how long was it in some kind of active phase? What happened to it over the millions of years that followed, was it washed into the sea by erosion, or pressed by the movement of the earth so that it changed its entire structure? That’s why copper can be extracted from a whole array of different minerals. Why did China clay come to be so pure? – I’ve no idea and I don’t suppose William Cookworthy did either, it just worked.

So why bread then? I can produce a batch of morning rolls in two hours by hand.  I suspect that sliced bread, made using the Chorleywood process takes half that time.  A slightly more respectable home made loaf could be done inside a working day, and soda bread in an hour.  But my everyday sourdough takes at least 24 hours and it could be allowed to take more, because breadmaking too is a time and temperature process. We like crusty bread because the crust is often the only part of the loaf with any flavour at all.  But when you leave a sourdough to ferment for 24 hours so many subtle processes are going on that every crumb of the bread is both healthier – white sourdough has roughly the same GI as wholemeal bread – and every crumb tastes rich and round, and is full of the flavour of ripe grain berry. Worth waiting for.

Where’s this all going, then? Well that just leaves my uphill struggle with organic chemistry.  I was getting totally bogged down in the sheer number of compounds out there.  It seemed that every species of herb had dozens of them with unpronounceable names, and it wasn’t until I thought about pottery minerals earlier that an answer of sorts popped into my  my mind, for instance in garlic, alliin reacts with allinase to make allicin, the bit that does you good. Why does it do that?  because when you crush it, the reaction takes place……. and why does it do that? ……… because it can!

Isn’t that so wonderful it could bring you to your knees? The fact that at the atomic level these simple molecules have atomic spaces on them and so like an unimaginably complex lego set they can combine into ever larger and more complicated molecules which might just be the ones we need to make good bread, good porcelain or a cure for human diseases. The time might vary from nanoseconds to aeons, and the temperatures from the icy cold of space to the heat of the sun, but out of these elementary particles emerge the ten thousand things and from the ten thousand things comes the zen saying:

That the self advances and confirms the ten thousand things is called delusion That the ten thousand things advance and confirm the self is called enlightenment. Ten thousand things represents the entire world.

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A single flower from a hyacinth shot with a macro lens. Pure poetry.

 

 

Pot bellied stoves, eyebright and portraits

MVIMG_20191107_115056There’s a shed with a chimney down on the allotments next to Bath Deep Lock on the Kennet and Avon Canal, and on cold days like this an inviting whisp of smoke goes up, suggesting a pot bellied stove and a comfortable carver chair. This, in my view, ought to be a part of every allotment so that on days unsuitable for gardening, some contemplative tea drinking could take place.  However, the rules are strict and this is not permitted on our site.  Our community hut is well on the way to collapsing and so we can’t have those days of idle chatter and shared plans – which is a shame, because from October until March we pretty much retreat from being a community and become singleton allotmenteers, wrapped in double layers of outer clothes and scarves and sharing nodding acknowledgements across the open spaces.

Which said, the winter opens up a number of other ways of idling a cold day away, aside from turning bue in a fierce north easterly. Shopping is one of the less favoured distractions but on our way through town yesterday we caught sight of an apothacary shop selling all sorts of herbal remedies. Buying some kind of eyebright preparation has been on my to-do list for ages.  I’ve had streaming eyes for as long as I can remember, I’m sure people passing me in the street think I’ve just had some terrible news – and I’ve had my eyes examined, put all manner of drops in and taken antihistamine tablets to the point where I was seriously bothered about the effect they might be having on me.  Nothing works.

I’m quite a shy person (don’t laugh) and so shops can be a bit of a challenge, but I went in and was skewered by an assistant with piercing blue eyes and an evagelical faith in the products.  “Got anything with eyebright in it?” I asked. A tiny and hideously expensive phial was produced and as she slipped into her sales pitch I knew I wasn’t going to get away without a whole new theology. “It’s got eyebright and hyaluronic acid in it”,  she said, – “I wear contact lenses and it’s brilliant”. I tried not to look alarmed at the prospect of dropping any kind of acid into my eyes and recalled the name being mentioned alongside a number of trending facial care products, so I acquieced and handed over the loot. I’ve been using them for 24 hours and they certainly ease the redness and irritation so it’s either another example of the placebo effect or they really work.  Either way round I’m happy – but the piercing eyes, oh my, I felt wholly unworthy!  Give me the earthy philoshophy of the tudor herbalists any day.

Then, later to a book signing at Toppings where we heard Celia Paul talking about, and reading from her new book “Self Portrait”. Another set of memorable blue eyes to cope with I’m afraid, but hers were altogether mistier and greyer. I’m hardly breaking any confidences to say that she had a ten year affair with Lucian Freud which began when she was an eighteen year old student at the Slade, and he was a visiting lecturer in his fifties. All this happened many years ago and she is now recognised as a painter in her own right.  The book is, I think, her way of putting her side of a complex story which has recently been told in another biography of Freud where what must have been quite a profound relationship is kind-of airbrushed away.

It was’t a huge crowd, and she was both present and not present in the room as a kind of wraith; her sentences tailed off, she spoke very quietly responding to questions without once looking at the audience.  By the end I was almost sure she’d finish the talk with a “but”.  Actually she writes very well and read her work beautifully but it was painfully obvious that she’s a solitary, a contemplative anchoress in her upper storey studio overlooking the British Museum.

This morning I woke very early with my mind full of her ghostly presence. Back in the 70’s, relationships between older lecturers and young female art students were almost two a penny, but now they’re be properly regarded as completely no-go. The ‘me too’ movement has swept through the acting and modelling sectors, but not – so far – the art schools.  If the lid ever comes off that one there will be some truly shocking abuses of power brought to light.

Enough of these gloomy thoughts. Celia, herself, most certainly doesn’t regard herself as any kind of victim, but her life, and the difficult choices she’s made in order to continue her painting are hard to ignore. We were glad to escape into the cold night.

This year we’ve given up the idea of a Christmas tree and spent the money on a set of LED’s outside the windows that we can share with all our neighbours, and as we walked back we could spot them from 100 yards away, rather blowsy and definitely lowering the tone of the green.  We await a visit from the planners.