Creeping agoraphobia

Madame’s drawings of some globe artichokes from the allotment

It’s rapidly approaching a year since we first ‘closed the doors’ of the Potwell Inn and went into withdrawal mode, and I’ve noticed a change in my mood, over the past few weeks. We’ve occupied ourselves with piles of reading and planning for next season. I’ve written most days and Madame has been drawing; but suddenly I feel like one of those cartoon characters whose flight from threat is expressed by comically rotating legs whilst not moving at all. Treading water is for too stately a description of this weird feeling. In the past few weeks we’ve only done half a dozen river walks because it can be quite busy with others doing the same thing. As for the parks, well forget it. What with cyclists in groups and runners passing close with no masks on, going outside feels a bit threatening. The other day we drove up to the allotment with several bags of potential compost and we had our licence plate recorded by a policeman standing at the side of the road. My fear is that if this crisis goes on much longer a whole generation of older and vulnerable people are going to have to add agoraphobia to their list of challenges.

Before anyone tells me off for making light of a serious problem, it’s actually something I know a bit about, because my father – who probably had undiagnosed PTSD as a result of his experiences during the war – suffered from agoraphobia for many years. But in this instance I’ve been thinking about the literal meaning of the term which, from the Greek agora, or market place. has a whole bunch of rich and enlightening implications. The agora was more than a bunch of market stalls, it was a communal meeting space and also a place where ideas were exchanged and where speeches were made. If there was any temptation to label the covid driven fear of the crowd, the supermarket and such like, as ubiquitous these days, there may be more – more significant and more damaging changes – going on. During the first (and much tougher) lockdown, the allotment community was an absolute lifesaver. We were mostly pretty good at hailing one another across the plots, and that sense of belonging drove out the isolation. It was good. There were a few exceptions. Allotments that had been unlet for years were taken up by a younger generation of furloughed allotmenteers, and among them were a few that seemed to regard old age as contagious in some strange way – as if talking to us might induce the onset of grey hair. One of our newcomers took to asking her neighbour if she could have a few sticks of rhubarb for instance, and would then strip the plant bare. She and her partner would have barbecues three or four times a week and invite friends around regardless of the rules. In fact it became clear that there was a real link between attitudes in the workplace; extractive, exploitative attitudes towards the client base and attitudes towards the allotments. You could see how it’s come to be that for many people our culture is dangerously detached from the natural world.

We hear a great deal about the healing powers of nature and I’ve wondered here before, if that doesn’t overegg the pudding. If you took an industrial farmer to the wilderness it would be more likely that they’d tell you it needed farming properly (ie intensively). A miner might pick up the odd stone and you’d be praying he didn’t find anything too valuable there. In Cornwall there’s a huge conflict brewing about mining for lithium for batteries to make sure the car industry can go on expending ancient reserves for short term gain. No – I don’t believe for a moment that the occasional immersion in nature as spectacle will change our culture.

However, just now we need hope, and this week the polytunnel kit arrived, delivered by a delightful lorry driver who was so moved at the sight of the allotments that he told us all about his childhood and how his father had paid him pocket money for picking caterpillars off the cabbages. Then yesterday our appointments for our first covid vaccinations came through, and a brief glimmer of light appeared. But I was more surprised to realise that the thing that gave me most pleasure was to send off an order for a packet of heritage runner bean seeds and a kilo of baler twine for supporting the tomatoes that will be growing in the polytunnel in a couple of months . The tools for putting up the tunnel have all been gathered together; lines, pegs, hammers, drills, spanner, power tools and spirit level and now we’ll wait patiently for this southwesterly weather to moderate a bit and give us some dry days.

I wish I had some pixie dust to sprinkle around the world. I wish there were words I could write that would reverse the violence of our (un)civilization and bring us to our collective senses. I wish there was a proper, functioning agora where we earth citizens could listen to one another and where we could be heard – but at the moment there is no such place and there are no such words I think. The only contribution we can make seems woefully inadequate and yet maybe actions really do speak louder than words and the earth can be saved – as the website of World Organic News says – “one cabbage at a time”.

I love Madame’s drawings of our artichokes. They’re so beautiful both on the page and in the flesh, but they’re fiercely thorny, and by the time you’ve trimmed them back to the choke there’s hardly anything left to eat. Then, all great art is wasteful if you try to reduce it to a spreadsheet. Our dream is to live simply within our means and hand our allotment on to a stranger in better condition than we found it. Is there a column for wonder in the neoliberal profit and loss account?

St Francis of the boot rack

Our youngest son has a fine sense of irony

I’ll get back to St Francis in a moment but I know that many of you will be desperate to see the Potwell Inn Christmas Day Menu. Excluded from Europe and the physical company of everyone we love, we decided to tear up tradition and please ourselves entirely as regards what we ate in splendid isolation – and so:

  • Tea in bed
  • Breakfast: muesli (made by me)
  • lunch: Christmas pudding with crême fraiche – nothing else
  • Supper: Chicken fajita

The children were a bit shocked to see that we had wilfully abandoned the family tradition; rather more, I think, because it somewhat undermined their own efforts to keep it alive. But in these circumstances I always quote the famous last six words of every great institution – “we always do it this way” – and being old is the perfect time to become an iconoclast because no-one else seems to want to put Christmas out of its misery. It was surprisingly easy to do; to wave away the orgy of overspending and overeating; and under the circumstances we felt no compulsion to pretend that everything was back to normal. “Bah humbug” – you accuse, and affecting not to understand we reply “que?!

And so to St Francis.

I did say that I intended to write something about some kind of green spirituality, but the more I thought about it the harder it became until Joe’s Christmas present was delivered. It was a bit of a shock I must say. How would you describe something that’s hilariously funny, excruciatingly kitsch and borderline blasphemous?

I’ve always had a soft spot for heresy, whether the religious sort or the Christmas dinner menu makes no difference. A good heresy is the engine of change because good heresies are always tempting, otherwise they wouldn’t be any good. All great paradigm shifts are kicked off by a heresy. So St Francis of the boot rack (the name came to me instantly in a moment of pure grace), put me on the back foot in the most wonderful manner and rather than accepting the gift with a fake smile and gritted teeth I thought to myself – “this is marvellous”. But why???

Forgive me if you’ve read a previous post where I told this story but it fits well here. Some years ago we visited Chartres Cathedral which, on first impressions, was a kind of religious Disneyland. Queues of pilgrims clutching plaster models of the Virgin Mary waited to have them blessed. The building was heaving with visitors and I was rigid with the kind of anger that comes from fear; fear because I couldn’t understand what was going on. Nothing in my aesthetic experience had prepared me for such a festival of utterly bad taste. Until, that is, I was overwhelmed by a sense of holiness that was completely impervious to the cattle market atmosphere. I was so overwhelmed that I took off my shoes and socks and, for a hour, walked barefoot around the building as it spoke to me through my feet. It was one of the shortest pilgrimages ever conducted and I still haven’t fully digested it but, like a zen koan, it shorted out my overeducated theoretical mind and showed me another mind space altogether.

Pop. There goes another one!

So St Francis of the boot rack – what’s he saying? Well I think he’s teaching a lesson about idolatry – and I’m sorry for the big, loaded word but it’s a crucial shorthand way of describing the way we habitually try to cram an ocean of meaning into a fishbowl. This piece of fibreglass kitsch has no aesthetic merit at all and yet its strength lies somewhere else altogether – perhaps in its innocence, its naivety, its acceptance that it claims no more for itself than the grid reference can claim to be the mountain. Idolatry just means worshipping the part, thereby diminishing the whole. St Francis of the boot rack is a device for popping ego bubbles.

Next, sometimes reading a book can lead to the uncanny sense that the writer has somehow broken in to your mind and carried off your memories. I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the second clue to constructing a green spirituality came to me when he wrote about an experience that exactly parallelled my own – not that it was a special revelation at all, but simply the puzzle, for a non believer, of dealing with the sense of thanksgiving for an entirely undeserved gift that comes out of nowhere. When picking blackberries in the autumn; when coming across a field full of fresh mushrooms; when harvesting a crop on the allotment. Who to thank?

I suppose we could walk away from such an experience congratulating ourselves on our foraging expertise, mycological acumen or horticultural skill; but it never seems enough because, in truth, we make very little contribution to our good fortune .

Of course there are any number of theological readymades queueing up to claim these oddly numinous experiences for themselves, but they all come with a heavy price tag. They all require that you buy into the whole system with all its inconsistencies and occasional cruelties just in order to give you a mailing address where you can post your thank-you’s.

For the avoidance of idolatry that narrows these experiences down until they become trivial; and the avoidance of the great systematic theologies that confine these ecstatic experiences like wild animals in a zoo; any credible green spirituality would, for me, need to remain largely silent. In fact you might steal a concept from the Carthusians and other religious communities who keep a great silence after compline each day. Such a great silence would need to stop struggling to explain things while giving us a space to which to bring our thanksgivings and laments. There is so much that lies beyond our present capacity for explanation (maybe our science needs a paradigm shift as well) – that there’s no need to invent supernatural entities to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. There is the earth whose ways are still largely unknown to us. There is the sun, the moon; there are stars and there is weather and there are the great orders of living things. I’ve naughtily paraphrased St Francis great Canticle of the Sun because I still kind of identify with him in his artless extremism; his simplicity and his love of nature. I should own up to the fact that I was once a lay member of the Anglican Third Order of the Society of St Francis and like all the best teachers, Francis embedded himself in my mind even though I moved on and away from the orthodoxies.

The religious systems of the past don’t have the monopoly on concepts such as humility –humus, the condition of the earth – on forgiving or on generosity, on equality or thanksgiving or human love. They’re all there ready to be recycled and repurposed in ways that work for us, speak to us and generate new meaning. Naturally the concessionaires and leaseholders of the existing spiritualities will kick up a fuss – they would, wouldn’t they – and we shall always have to look out for a new breed of snake oil salespeople who talk the talk but don’t do the other bit, they’re human after all, just like the rest of us. But – I’m just speaking for myself now and I don’t expect you to agree – for me a Green New Deal without some kind of spirituality would be too thin to survive. A farming method or an algorithm for life without poetry, music and dance , without thanksgiving and (dare I say?) liturgy would be a poor half-starved creature; unfit for purpose.

Just forget the dogma, the hierarchy, the keyholders and all the bureaucracy. Forget all that “we always do it this way” stuff and gaze in wonder at the daft plastic statue of St Francis of the boot rack. What better reminder of our frailty do we need.

Searching for my lyrical voice

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that sometimes the lyrical voice comes to find me. Back in the day I wrote a couple of short stories for the radio, and the eagle eared producer said that the pieces of mine she liked best were the lyrical ones- we’d worked together on some religious and World Service programmes as well so she’d seen a range of my work . The problem was (and still is) that I can’t just turn my lyrical voice on and off at will. What usually happens is that an experience of some sort sticks in my mind – it might be anything from finding a new plant to an overheard remark – and when I write about it the voice just emerges, as if it came from behind a door with no handle. The echo with the Holman Hunt “Light of the World” painting is a fair way of describing what is always a kind of visitation.

Then, in one of those intense conversations that Madame and me have sometimes, we were discussing whether Tracey Emin could have been influenced by Edvard Munch’s work – there’s obviously a kind of affinity there – and I recalled that an influence isn’t always an intellectual thing at all. Sometimes a memory finds its way into your being in a more tactile way; through the eyes and fingers. The senses – like – Proust’s madeleine – have their own language and logic.

So I’ve been staring at this photograph for days now, wondering what it was trying to say to me; I knew it was significant, or should I say it had legs but I didn’t know why. The boring answer would be that it was a good shot of a powerful cold front bearing down from the north east, presaging wind and rain overnight. So the most obvious and least interesting inference was that tomorrow we’d be wearing raincoats for our walk. Then, an hour ago I noticed the Abbey in front of the approaching storm; in fact both the church and the surrounding city looked as if they were about to be engulfed by a rather malign darkness.

If I tried to explain how it came to be that these days I find it so difficult to enter a church after all the years of preaching and pastoral work I’d probably crash out in flames. I didn’t so much lose my faith as find a better one, and the most painful part of that process was the growing realization that the golden cockerel that tops so many spires and towers wasn’t so much about chanticleer greeting the sun but was a powerful symbol of betrayal; about denial and cowardice. “Come here” – it seemed to be saying – “and see Christianity betrayed; in the endless processions and minute doctrinal disputes, in the overweening ambition, ludicrous dressing up and the mediocre oratory of preachers with nothing to say“.

So possibly the impulse that flooded through my eyes and into my fingers as I spotted this shot which I took three versions of, and then chose this one – perhaps the sense of the Abbey and the city being overwhelmed was carrying some personal freight for me; enough for my finger to press the shutter without quite knowing why.

But then there are trees in the foreground as well; bare leafless, winter trees, with twilight rapidly approaching. A time for huddling into your collar and jamming your hands into pockets: and as I digest this little gift; revelation, visitation, I realize that the moment encapsulated almost exactly, a whole cats cradle of ideas, experiences, memories and above all fears. The single moment draws to a meniscus; like a shockwave, and disperses instantly. No wonder they call it a shot.

This wasn’t a photograph of Bath Abbey at dusk with an approaching storm. It was an unconscious and instantaneous self portrait, because I am prone to sadness and these last months have been like an endless winter, and – to use a prison phrase – we’ve been “doing our bird” – trying not to get sucked under by lament or longing and clinging fiercely to the daily routines of allotment, cooking, walking and writing.

And then with the announcement of the vaccine our parole hearing hove into view and I got the maps out, blew the tyres up on the bikes, took out the kayak and got the trolley ready again and felt just a bit more alive again. We’ve developed this curious habit of watching films in the evenings – not for their artistic merit at all but for their settings. We’ve watched all the series of Montalbano – many of them are complete stinkers but who’s listening? We’re just enjoying the Sicilian landscape. Maigret (three series) for a bit of Paris – although the Michael Gambon versions are certainly not stinkers but don’t ask me to remember the plots. The whole new aesthetic of the Potwell Inn has been centred around locations; mountains, hills and rivers get stars as long as the script doesn’t intrude -although we also watch hours of psychopathic murders, torture and betrayal as long as it’s got some decent landscapes in it to leaven the darkness.

So I see how my lyrical voice falters. If I were a plant I’d be chlorotic after months sitting in the endless winter, deprived of light and food. People are going crazy here, flooding into the shopping centre looking for the only kind of hope this etiolated culture can offer, even despite knowing that this will give the virus new and enticing opportunities. Greater love hath no man – than what? to lay down their life for an Xbox or some new trainers? Spare me, but I’m too busy clinging to the legs of my disappearing voice. When the music and poetry and song die that’s real death.

I say to myself a hundred times a day – this will end and we’ll be able to celebrate the sacramental simplicities of life once more. Hugging our children, kissing our grandchildren, eating with friends, not being scared of crowded places but enjoying being a part of the crowd, not misting over with hatred when we’re lied to and when journalism has betrayed its fundamental principles for the umteenth time in exchange for a backdoor pipeline into the machine.

And on the promise of that glorious day, we’ve bottled up last year’s damson vodka – although we still don’t drink alcohol ourselves. But that’s another story! Be safe.

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 climate emergency compost compost bins composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany food security foraging garlic global climate crisis global heating growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness Hotbeds intensive farming lockdown meditation no-dig polytunnels potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology water storage weeds wildflower meadows

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 out 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