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
‘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.
However 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.
And 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?
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.
There’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.
My mother was very good at the forensic gaze. This morning’s kitchen would have troubled her, I’m certain, but I didn’t even notice that it’s pretty filthy until I put it on the screen. That’s the way of things, I suppose – most of our interiors (mental as well as domestic) would look pretty grubby and a bit random if we were to examine them with the cold eye of a picture editor. But we don’t, and I took the photo to remind myself of the great joys of the ordinary over and against the set-piece strutting that we’d prefer to have you believe about us.
The kettle rarely comes off the hob. The Potwell Inn, surprisingly perhaps, runs on tea. Recently we’ve increased our repertore of tea – black tea in the mornings, green tea most of the day and chamomile tea at night. Since we took a break from the booze we feel better, sleep better and – well – drink tea. The way I make porridge would annoy all purists, GP’s and food faddists – made, as it is, with full cream milk, salt, and eaten with a bit of sugar. However it lasts all day and reduces fridge-raiding which tends to involve lumps of cheese, so I suppose – on balance – it’s largely neutral. Today the kefir was left sulking in the fridge because it was the coldest night of the season so far and we both fancied something hot.
The loaf of bread is my cover for the grubby hob. It wasn’t taken out of the oven until late yesterday evening. It was one of those doughs that wasn’t quite right – a bit soft but not at all sticky; not sticky that is, until I came to tip it out of the banneton when it growled at me and refused to budge. After a little stand-off I finally dragged it out, but it left a substantial dollop of dough behind and the loaf itself was far too soft to slash in the usual way, so it had a homeopathic tickle with the knife and went into the oven. I’ve discovered over the years that making bread needs a similar mindset to making raku pottery. Letting things be seems to work best. However the whole process involved a good deal of escaping rice flour – which is usually the best for releasing the dough from the banneton – mess which I couldn’t be bothered to clear up apart from a cursory wipe with a cloth before bed.
The ordinary, the homely is the warp of the enterprise of being human and the experiences of the day are the weft. Together they make cloth – in my case probably some sort of rough old drill and in yours, possibly, evanescent silk. I hacked a crust off the loaf this morning and it was lovely – it was individual; itself. Like Ryokan’s poetry.
The two pictures don’t belong together geographically. The eyebright – Euphrasia officinalis agg was photographed in St Davids and the sea-wall was in Mousehole, Cornwall. Linked together (just about) by the Atlantic ocean which they shared, but opposites in almost every other respect; the one transitory and vulnerable and the other adamantine and massive. There’s one other thing that they share: they both made me stop and pay rapt attention to them.
Identifying flowers can be quite challenging when they’re very variable. The little “agg” after the Latin name means that there are in this case something like 30 recognised variants and/or 71 wild hybrids – they all look a bit like this apparently but how would I know? Even the magisterial Clive Stace makes it sound hard – it’s an eyebright and it’s very small and very beautiful and I’m resisting any temptation to enlarge on its healing properties except to say it seems that it’s still in use for its medicinal properties.
The harbour wall, equally could have been built in an almost infinite variety of configurations from the stone at hand. That monster five-sided stone must have taken the combined strength of three, maybe four masons to lift into place, and it could have been laid with any of its sides at the base. Was it a collective decision? Did the foreman say “it goes like this”, or was the culture of building so strong that they all just knew where it should go? The form, the pattern of both flower and wall are characteristic of a basic structure but capable of many variations, any of which seem, as I discover them, to be absolutely perfect. To use an analogy from jazz, there’s a pulse, a starting key, a sequence, an idea, and thereafter an emerging and embodied performance.
I’ve never thought of a plant or a wall as a performance before, but it’s an exciting and provocative thought. And what about a moth or a cat or a daffodil? Or to use a much simpler (because speeded up) example – what about a sudden parting of the clouds over the horizon as the sun sets? Why is it that my response, so often, to the unexpected discovery of something lovely – is to cry out, to clap my hands as if I’d just heard the most brilliant improvisation.
That’s exactly the underlying idea from the title of John Parkinson’s 1640 book “Theatrum Botanicum – The Theatre of Plants”, reworked again by Richard Mabey’s 2015 book “Cabaret of Plants”. Plants, flowers and all of nature wrest from us an emotional response that goes way beyond our recognition of their usefulness. We give them names and use their names because in their performance they force us to go beyond any instrumental, reductive thoughts and into relationship with them. And the idea of treating our relationship with plants (or sea walls) as a kind of performance reminds us that performances are not complete without readers, listeners or viewers – and the better we are at those tasks, the greater, the more illuminating and powerful the performance can be. I owe to A F Woodman, my much loved music teacher at secondary school, this phrase – “I know you can hear it Pole – but are you listening?!”
On a plain, grey day in November with nothing much going on, I’m flicking through my photos looking for inspiration. Nine times out of ten, my postings are initiated by a photograph – something that caught my eye, made me stop what I what I was doing at some point during the day. But some days are unrelieved by those moments of illumination. Some days when everything seems flat and spare I have to wrest a blessing from the moment, hang in there. And today my consolation is in the eyebright I found at St Davids in the summer, and in contemplating that great granite sea-wall, shouldering off the waves tide after tide, storm after storm and still there as the first celandines peep through the snow – upcountry.
So yesterday I started thinking about the colour set for the red cabbage leaf painting. If I were to use the closest colours I could get to the ones printers use in three colour printing, I could use them in two alternative combinations of warm and cool. But this morning as I was trying a few swatches, it occurred to me that I could get closer to the purple red I need by using alizarin crimson. Then a couple of experiments with the two blues moved me towards French ultramarine which gives a warmer touch. But there are also many browns and greens to be got and sticking with my three tube resolution I tested cadmium orange and Indian yellow. Why bother? Why not just open a different tube for every colour I can see? Well, because it’s far less interesting and it costs a fortune and I don’t need to work that way. I’m just an apprentice, and I just learn a lot more by using a restricted palette. Didn’t I learn all this at art school decades ago? No I didn’t because art schools went through a long phase of treating technique with great suspicion. Imagine a conservatoire that didn’t allow students to practice scales because it might disrupt their inner musicality? That was what art schools were like in the seventies – ideas were supposed to emerge untroubled by anything resembling skill. I’ve no idea whether things have changed, but if I were offered that kind of education on a huge loan I’d think twice.
Anyway, today was meant to be a drawing day because the forecast was for rain, but it didn’t rain and so we went up to the allotment and while Madame sowed peas – douce Provence do well over the winter – I dug up strawberry offsets and planted them out in their new bed. It’s a little late to be doing it but if they get their roots down and we have a decent autumn we’ll have new plants for free and we can give many of the fruit bushes more space when we move them.
It’s been a good year for Jays – we saw six together yesterday, but todays unusual sighting was a parakeet. We heard it first, and then caught sight of its brilliant green plumage. Sadly we also noticed that someone has nicked a bag of compost – there’s obviously a thief on the site, but very little we can do about it. I’m cooking pork shoulder in cider tonight, with pommes dauphinoise and chard off the allotment. If this is brief it’s because I’m knackered. The only thing we could do to prevent any more compost being stolen was to get it all on to the beds – which involved much heavy lifting. As I was prepping the new strawberry bed I noticed that the worm population has exploded since last year – good news and confirmation that all this emphasis on organic matter is paying off. Not so, sadly, with the leeks which have been struck down for the second year running by allium leaf miner. There are just a couple of plots that haven’t been affected but the variety doesn’t seem to matter. Next year we’ll have to think whether leeks are one crop we should give up for a year or two.
I’ve ordered second hand copies of Gerard’s and Culpeper’s herbals – Gerard was only 17p so well worth a try. Culpeper just arrived and that’s where I’m off next.
Let’s be honest, some of our produce isn’t going to win any prizes, but the fact that it tastes so good and we know it’s proper organic rather than ‘organish’ means we don’t want to waste a single leaf. Today we harvested celery, carrots, beetroot and a load of herbs. We even discovered a hyssop plant that we’d given up on, quietly thriving under the French tarragon. As the allotment matures, we get lots of those kinds of surprises – like the coriander and caraway that are growing away vigorously after self-seeding. Marigolds and nasturtiums are just as bad, but does it really matter? There’s space for everything and we can always dig up and move, or just cut down anything that’s in the wrong place, because we know we’ll be growing them every year in any case. The key is recognising the plants when they’re still in the seedling stage, an operation that’s greatly helped by the fact that most herb seedlings smell just like their parent plants from very early on – and of course when spring comes along they’ll be up and running without any intervention on our part.
Last night I was browsing in a catalogue of medicinal herbs and I was greatly amused by seeing “Dactylis glomerata” seeds on sale for £2.50. The English name is cock’s foot, and the thought of buying seeds for such a common weed never occurred to me. On the other hand I could probably put a few clumps up on ebay – I could even throw a bonus offer of “goutweed” in for the real enthusiasts – as long as they don’t plant it anywhere near our plot.
Today was one of those greasy days where it never quite rains and yet it never really stops either. Misty dampness clotted the sky with grey and we pretty much had the whole site to ourselves. So it was mostly pruning for me – cutting the autumn raspberries back hard and pruning the grape vine, while Madame sowed seeds and weeded. The greenhouse is almost full with autumn sown vegetables and outside the overwintering garlic and shallots are all now planted in their beds. There’s a risk of a particularly late spring leaving these premature sowings leggy and poor after too long under cover, but it’s always worth having a go. The compost heap has risen to 30C so there’s lots of action there and I’ll probably turn it as soon as the temperature starts to drop; and even the leaf bay feels warm to the hand – it’s amazing how much good gardening gets done without any work on our part.
At home the summer window boxes are all inside now and we’ll be taking cuttings for next year. Tomorrow looks set to be wet from the outset. Before we left this morning, I sorted out a corner of my room because we’ve decided to have a ‘drawing day’. I aim to spend an hour or so doing the colour swatches tonight so that I can begin the first draft paintings tomorrow. It’s fascinating to see how different “daylight” lamps can be from one manufacturer to another. I prefer to work with quite high light levels to bring out all the subtleties of colour, and for very fine work I use a big desk magnifier, so you can see three distinct ‘daylight colour’ sets on my desk, and I have to negotiate my way through the various options.
Madame was off life drawing at the university today so I thought I’d better put my money where my mouth is and make a start on painting that leaf. There’s an algorithm, a way of getting on with a painting that side-steps all those anxious moments when you doubt whether you’re up to it. I say this because from time to time I get very blocked with negative thoughts and this is the way that I deal with it. I break the task down into easy steps and in the process I render the subject ‘strange’ – I transform it into something I’m not in love with or in awe of in order to get on. So I start with lots of photos, because these ephemeral subjects can change very quickly – they curl up and dry out and they change colour dramatically. You can already see that happening above, in just a couple of days the leaf has got substantially more brown. The good news is that I’ve already got the colour set that attracted me to it in the first place.
So photos – lots of them to refer back to, and then I make a tracing of just the outline and the main features on to tracing paper, strengthen the image with indian ink, grid it up for later in case I change the size, and then reverse the tracing paper so I can transfer the image to a sheet of watercolour paper. The next stage is to carefully draw in any areas like holes, that need to remain completely white, with drawing gum – that includes the entire outline. At this stage I’m working on an increasingly remote stage of the original image, turning the page around to work – which all helps with the distancing process, because the painting that will be is not a leaf but a painting with its own set of rules, rituals and standards. I can move things around slightly, emphasise some parts and move some back in the interests of clarity. I can even alter colours just a bit on aesthetic grounds.
When all that’s done I can start painting, in this case mostly wet-in-wet which demands good quality paper. The first few trys might well be practice runs, clarifying any methods I’m not sure of and practicing the colour mixes. When I first started a couple of years ago, Julia Trickey – our marvellous tutor – had us do a colour exercise using only three primary colours – printer’s primaries – cyan, magenta and yellow which can all be bought in warm and cool hues according to your taste. I’ve stuck with the same three colours ever since, because it saves lugging around a massive collection of dried up tubes. As ever the better the quality the easier it goes. Oh and a tube of lamp black is sometimes useful right at the end.
Why am I writing all this here – well it’s certainly not because I’m an expert because I’m not one of those by a country mile, but I enjoy it and I notice things – structures, textures, colours and minute details that really help me to get a better purchase on field botany – and I’m not an expert in that either.
I don’t hold much with notions like exceptional talent in painting and music, writing, or green fingers in allotmenteering. It’s not about luck it’s about practice and I think it’s one of the great crimes of our education system that so many young people leave full-time education having been talked out of their creative potential. So I’d say to anyone have a go! – no-one dies if your early attempts aren’t very good and you’ll get better as long as you don’t talk yourself out of even trying, it’s much better to be an amateur painter than a professional charlatan. Just think – if the thought of watching politicians lie in their teeth, unchallenged by spineless journalists gives you the creeps, redeem the shining hour by doing a painting or writing a letter, anything. Pay no attention to them, they’re not worth it, but vote well; vote carefully because global heating and species destruction are symptoms of a corrupt ideology.
And speaking of trying, the Christmas puds survived their spell in the pressure cooker and they’re all packed away in the cupboard. The allotment is looking very stripped back now but there are a lot of seeds germinating and quite a few winter vegetables just about to come into their own. I took the temperature of the compost heap just to see if it was feeling well, and it’s running at 25C – so there’s obviously some microbial action going on, but not so hot as to drive the worms down. I even put a temporary hard roof over the first bay to keep the rain off.
“Hello” – I say, as I shuffle up the garden in my baggy corduroy trousers with my two ancient laboradors following – “I’m worrying about my hyacinth.”
I daydream in bed, listening to the wind and rain buffeting the windows and knowing from the outset that this is it for the day. All there is to do is to watch the hyacinth growing in its special pot and know in the depths of my heart that it will flower sooner or later and I shall have to paint it, or rather finish painting it. Madame is peacefully asleep but I make tea anyway open the shutters and muse aloud about the weather. More tea, then strong coffee – why on earth do I drink stimulants when what I need is something to send me to sleep until the sun shines? Back in bed I read fitfully and take a wild and fruitless leap at a conversation. “It’s like living with a tornado when you’re in one of these moods”, she says.
Every rainy day needs a plan. The campervan battery needs replacing but I can’t do that in the wet. We need to go to the garden centre to get more seed sowing compost and some extra modules but the Christmas bonanza has started in earnest and you have to fight your way past Father Christmas and the intoxicating smell of cinnamon candles to get to the gardening bit – bah humbug! Finally the idea of baking the Christmas cake floats into my mind. Up again, I discover a huge cache of half-full packets of dried fruit none of which is full enough to make a Christmas cake and much of which is beginning to crystallise – this is what happens every year and instead of throwing the old ones away and buying new, I will get lumbered with another stash exactly the same size next year. Wouldn’t it be good to buy them loose?
And then in a typical bit of mission creep, I decide to make a Dundee cake as well and so it goes …..
Sainsbury’s, it’s clear, is suffering from brexit already. Things are unexpectedly missing and there are notices appearing about supply interruptions. Barring the possibility that the identical aspiration to make Christmas cakes today has struck half the population simultaneously, I’d say that some shelves were suspiciously empty. I set out in search of dried porcini mushrooms. They were missing from their usual spot and even the customary label was missing. I asked one of the assistants who did a search for me on her handset – “They’re on hold” – she blurted out; not “sold out” or “impounded by customs” but “on hold”. Which sounds suspiciously like one of those sharp suited London types is frantically trying to renegotiate a post-brexit supply from the porcini groves of Putney. This will end in tears.
And so, for a breath of reality to the Farmers Market in Green Park Station. We like going there because it’s a good place to get some sense of what our vegetables are worth – quite a bit is the answer – although one farmer is still selling sweetcorn on the cob – probably not very sweet today, more like fodder maize. Farmers markets aren’t the complete answer to all our woes, but they’re certainly a step in the right direction. We’ve three independent bakers, two really good butchers, a man who sells game, a fishmonger, artisan cheesemongers and any number of value added food stalls. You can even buy cannabis oil products but I hate queuing. Today there was a newcomer with a fabulous display of fungi. It was like being in France again, and he had dried porcini mushrooms.
The dreadlocked couple on one of the bread stalls had obviously struggled with the effect of the wind on their wood fired oven because all their loaves were baked several steps beyond perfection, but it didn’t seem to matter to the crust loving customers.
Farmers markets are a bit more expensive than supermarkets, but the upside is that you can talk to the producers and get the measure of them before you buy, and the difference in the price could probably be expressed in animal welfare and/or organic standards. But the biggest advantage is that they’re local – I think the furthest travelled food on sale today was the kimchi – up from Salisbury. What it all boils down to is a personal choice, would I prefer to eat organic free range beef maybe a couple or three times a year, accepting it as an occasional luxury? or carry on as usual turning a blind eye to the abuse of animals, the environmental impact of intensive food production and the terrible quality of mass produced food. Local and small scale food production creates many more real skills and jobs for local people who spend their money locally. And I’m not away with the fairies imagining that we can change the world by thinking nice thoughts – we must make the polluters pay for their mess and pay their taxes like the rest of us. We will have to legislate too, if it’s going to work, and of course the industrial farmers and their chemical industry supporters won’t be very happy about it – tough!
Without wanting to pick a fight, the choice isn’t binary – either vegan or feedlots, but exploring the possibility of less impactful lives and engaging with (willing) food producers to discover what we can jointly do as producers and consumers. The face to face interaction of a farmers market is exactly the right place for this to happen and I would dearly love to see the whole of the undercover part of Green Park Station turned into a giant continental style food market. But for now, there’s no choice but to go to a supermarket for some more currants and sultanas because I didn’t get enough. The Dundee cake is just out of the oven and smells fantastic, and when we get back we can put the rest of the fruit into a bowl to soak with some brandy until I make the Christmas cake tomorrow, when the clocks go back and it gets dark at lunchtime but at least the sun’s going to shine.