We’re in Devon in Little Torrington for a couple of days at RHS Rosemoor, but after a sunny drive down, the promised weather closed in and we enjoyed a magnificent thunderstorm coming in from the north west. The last two days have been very exciting and challenging and I’ll probably write more about them tomorrow, but several days of gallery visits, and a wonderful afternoon at one of my old parishes plus some pretty ruthless gardening by Madame have precipitated a good crisis – the origin of the word is a Greek word ‘crino’ – to choose. And so yesterday I gave an old friend most of my church music and today I gave away my piano and all my other music. Then I think there are many other books that need to go to the Oxfam shop. I need space and (because I’m pretty ancient) I need to focus on the things I really want/need to do. Time to let go of some precious things so I can focus on even more precious things. Far from being sad about letting these things go, I’m quite exhilarated.
I once met a man on a tram in Lisbon. In the course of a five minute conversation he told me how he had become very ill and he had given everything – and I mean everything away, and started to travel in faith that things would work out for him. I’ll never forget the end of the ride when he entreated me to pay attention. He meant it, I remember his eyes and the way he held my hands.
So we’re here in the rain in Devon and I’ve brought the laptop, a camera, three pencils, a notebook and some good paper and we’ll see what happens. Instead of coming down all the way on motorways, we split off and came down the B roads. Now we really understand the idea of the rolling hills of Devon, but the rivers we crossed were running red with soil, presumably being washed from fields – most likely fields growing maize. The whole soil-wealth of this place seems to be in the process of being washed into the sea.
This is a pretty rubbish photo taken in a basement exhibition with my phone – the best way of getting an idea of this piece is to visit Fiona Hingstons website.
We spent yesterday with friends, eating, drinking wine, gossiping and then later trying to visit as many of the Fringe Arts Bath venues as we could. It turned out to be a more challenging and exhilerating day than I could have anticipated, and somehow this piece (there are two from the same series on display) really fired up my imagination. It’s a bit unfair to pick just one piece from four whole galleries worth of work, but it was the last exhibition we visited, so I think what finally clicked in me was an almost euphoric sense that something quite unexpected is happening.
First, a small confession. Before I started to search online for some of the artists whose work I’d liked, I made the assumption that they were all young and post art-school at the beginnings of their journeys. It’s true there were quite a few in that category and I’ll say a bit more about that in a moment, but one of the ‘gallery minders’ gave me the answer in the first exhibition and it took 24 hours to mean anything to me. We’d been in the first gallery in Walcot Street and I’d been excited by the work I’d seen. Grasping for an explanation I said to her that it was good to see that some of the idealistic ethos of the seventies hadn’t been crushed by the grim apparatus of austerity, and she said ‘oh no, the hippy ethos is still alive and well!’
After decades of the dead hand of the Arts Council, now shrunk to the skeletal remains of a sponsorship agency for big business, we’re beginning to see the re-emergence of the ‘underground’, the ‘counterculture’ – both utterly tainted and compromised in the way they were co-opted to shift product, but regaining something of their old strength. All of which is a rather long way of saying that there were artists of all ages and dispositions being shown.
That’s absolutely not to say that the exhibitions were living in a world wholly detached from the way we ‘do things round here’. These artists didn’t seem to be in any sense separatists, dreaming of a better place somewhere unreachably beyond where we are now. In fact I kept thinking of Anne Frank, Charlotte Salomon, Louise Bourgeois and for some reason Francesca Woodman. Madame made a hugely perceptive remark when I mentioned this on our way around. She said that some of the exhibits reminded her of Francesca Woodman in the way that it seemed the artist had passed through the room and left a ghostly trace of herself. For instance there was one group of works gathered together under the title “Enshrine”. Many of the objects were very small, the kind of thing you might make when there’s not much space to work in, no grand studios for rent – maybe living with parents. So they were being shaped by the brutal economics of the artistic life, but also there was something poignant in the background. The tiniest hint that these precious objects, filled with recovered memories and imagined worlds , could be hidden at short notice, stuffed into a bag when the knock on the door came.
There was a pervasive sense of threat to the environment which was being challenged by intense engagement. I found Fiona Hingston’s website I laughed out loud to see the title of one of her postings – “Making = Remembering”. Making, in this case, means making by hand using wire and masking tape. Obsessive reflective, meditative and faintly disturbing, remembering becomes a subversive act when it points out what’s been lost.
I think I’d fallen into the sad conclusion that all the dreams, prophecies and visions of the past had dried up and that we are condemned to live (and in our case probably die) in the frozen steppes of corporate greed. “Not so soon” was the reply. The pervasive feeling was that these artists’ work was a challenge to the ‘way we do things round here’. A challenge with force, with heft.
It’s a shame so few politicians ever visit a gallery except to rub shoulders with the wealthy and powerful. Culture is a far bigger force than a gallery with some free wine, and if I were in public office right now, I’d be nervous. These gardeners of the imagination have been working away, against the odds, and they’re not going away any time soon.
Sing loudly, cuckoo! – Well at least I heard one cuckoo on our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons a few weeks ago and I found it unbelievably moving, thinking that with the climate catastrophy upon us I might never hear it again.
But sumer most certainly is icumen in and so today we picked a load of elderflowers and started the first 3 litres of cordial. We felt almost secretive about picking it, hoping our neighbours wouldn’t spot us and join in – picking is best done in the sun for maximum flavour and there’s plenty for everyone but I fear very few people would go to the trouble any more even though the difference between our own home made cordial and the commercial stuff is striking.
Summer is as much a smell as anything more meteorological. Yesterday evening we were sitting in the living room when Madame said, “I can smell chewing gum”. I wrinkled my nose up in mimed solidarity and it was true but it wasn’t chewing gum it was cats’ pee. It was the smell of summer. There were the elderflowers infusing on the stove, and several different kinds of basil gently sunning itself in the propagator, along with a sink full of fresh spinach and a salad spinner loaded with newly picked lettuce. Oh yes summer is good.
We spent the morning at two exhibitions in Bath. The annual open exhibition of the Bath Society of Artists is always worth seeing several times. In some ways, although it’s a lot smaller, it’s better than the RWA open. Several friends and acquaintances had pictures in, and there’s less of the gulf between ‘high art’ and village show about it. Many of the artists necessarily earn their living from other things, but their work is really good – the product of a lifetime’s labour without the deadly grip of the Arts Council. As we left we hubristically resolved to submit some of our own work next year
Then we dropped in at BRLSI (Bath Royal LIterary and Scientific Institution) where there was an exhibition of artifacts and books from the permanent collection. The headline catcher was a small phial of liquid taken from the barrel in which the body of Lord Nelson was brought back from Trafalgar. Not terribly interesting really, the value was all in the caption. My own favourite things in the exhibition were the botanical books, pressed flowers and drawings which were all on the subject of medical herbs. But one exhibit was truly bizarre –
The other gadget, the tobacco smoke enema, has no modern parallel. At first an ordinary clay pipe was used and someone administered the smoke enema by poking the stem through the anus and blowing on the bowl. The risk of burns led to the invention of safer apparatus.
Well thank goodness for that! The afternoon was spent at the allotment as the flat is gradually emptied of plants. Much of my time was spent in energetic watering, but I did manage to find 20 minutes to sit with my back to a compost heap, measuring and inspecting our mystery fumitory with a copy of Rose at my side. Then in the evening we worked in tandem in the kitchen, prepping spinach, elderflowers and tomorrow’s family BBQ and cooking supper. We had inspected the peas earlier, hopng for a first taste, but they’re not quite ready. Next week maybe.
This last few days I’ve been tempted to say that I’ve been feeling the same kind of energy and excitement I had when we first went to art school, everything seems inflected with possibilities. But I’m a melancholic and I’ve read Tolstoy and Iris Murdoch so I won’t tempt fate by saying I’m happy. Maybe ‘pretty happy‘?
No I can’t inflict another list – but carrying on from yesterday I found 18 more plants in flower, bringing the total up to 55. I’m completely aware that my sense of pride and joy makes me a total propellor head, but today we took an appropriately slow and stately walk around the coast path so I could find a few more flowers and it made me very happy. Why on earth photographing and identifying plants should bring such intense pleasure, I don’t know except that knowing the names of things really does. I suppose you could liken it to moving to another town, like we did when we retired. After living in a village for 25 years we knew pretty much everyone, but when we moved to Bath we had to start all over again, learning names, figuring out relationships and understanding where every one lived. Three and a half years on we’re slowly getting there.
So imagine going for a walk in a beautiful place like St Davids and not knowing the names of any of the flowers. You could certainly get around the coast path quicker than we do, but we have the pleasure of greeting old friends. Doing just a bit of botany enables us to recognise families and relationships, to enjoy the successions of the flowers through the seasons and to see how well, or badly, the landscape is doing. So one reason for knowing the names is that you’re always surrounded by friends.
But another, equally good reason is that if you don’t know the names, you’ll never know when they start disappearing. Caring for the environment is just about the most important thing we can do at the moment because it’s ailing. At home we care for it in the way we grown things and the things we eat. Here we care for the things that – because they’re simply beautiful in their own right – make us richer. Knowing the name of a plant means we’re in some kind of relationship which brings responsibilities.
Learning to identify plants involves a level of attention that makes the world infinitely richer. The differences between members of the same family sometimes demands profound attention to tiny details – the shape of a leaf, the disposition of the flowers or a row of hairs on the stem that can only be seen with a hand lens.
Finally, although there are many more reasons for doing a bit of botanising, there’s the aesthetic dimension. Flowers and plants are simply beautiful. They can be enjoyed with most of the senses – by sight obviously, but by smell and taste and even sound. It makes me want to paint them in order to understand them better.
With three days almost completely taken up with the exhibition in Bristol, we came down to earth yesterday – quite literally – with less of a bump than a sigh of relief. We had the greatest of times, met so many people, and it was fun but I went into extreme extrovert mode which, I’ve discovered is a kind of protective device. I’m much shyer than I appear to be – especially in big crowds of strangers. The benefits of sailing through the occasion and having a wonderful time are always offset by the payback. I was greatly assisted by the little pendant I was given that said I was an artist. Although I had a painting in the show I’ve never felt able to describe myself as an artist so the badge helped save me from trying to explain.
Luckily an early bus gave us a chance to wander around Bristol Docks on Sunday morning. Sadly St Nicholas Market (above) was closed but quite apart from team loyalties – we were both born and brought up in Bristol – any comparison between the dockside development in Bristol and Cardiff, which I wrote about last week, would come down in favour of Bristol just for the sheer diversity on offer. It’s more than 30 years since we lived on the docks, but we were there for 20 years in a succession of different flats and I have to pay tribute to Peter Ware, the architect, who almost single handedly started the fight to preserve the Georgian buildings in Hotwells and the character of the whole area. Consequently Bristol has retained and repurposed hundreds of old buildings that set the context for the new ones.
But time and seasons wait for no-one and so we went up to the allotment at the crack of lunchtime to see what needed attention. Our first job was to remove the protective netting on the garlic and shallots which seemed to give a sigh of relief and stretch towards the sky. I swear they were six inches taller after a feed with liquid seaweed which also gave them a good watering.
The fleece also came off the peas, and we put a net over the whole bed to protect it from the birds. Birds, especially pigeons, are a particular menace on the allotments and without wishing them any ill will, we do everything we can to persuade them to go elsewhere. The other most frequent visitors are jackdaws which are great eaters of grubs. Some people shoo them off, but I think they’re irresistable in their glossy black coats and grey capes. Robins, come too when we’re digging and we even once spotted tiny goldcrest which came and then went, never to be seen again.
Gradually we’re taking the propagated plants up to the allotment and we’ve regained one of the windows. The chillies are all doing very well and I’ve been snacking on the Hungarian Hot Wax as they slowly turn yellow. The tomatoes are due their last re-pot before going out and the greenhouse aubergines are flowering.
Down on the coldest patch, the potatoes have shrugged off any frost under their fleece which is being lifted upwards on the shoulders of their haulms. Suddenly the allotment is taking on its summer form once more. We spend a lot of time weeding and watering which are both jobs I really enjoy – unlike many people, I know. But allotments, while they can be sometimes very domineering and far from the cliché of outdoor therapy, have many sides to them. They aren’t just about the satisfaction of growing food. They certainly feed the spirit, but there’s also a strongly aesthetic feel about them as well. Like works of art in themselves, they are expressive of their gardener’s personality. So maybe I really do deserve the little pendant with an A on it?
It was always going to be a bit of an odd day divided into several parts, and things turned out pretty much as expected. The grandchildren came over for the morning and while I was up at the allotment strimming, Madame went with the Brigade of Mischief for a trip around Prior Park (a National Trust property) after which we all met up at Uncle Jo’s pizza place for lunch, where they lined up to watch him turning their foraged ramsons into a garlic flavoured pizza. There, in a single photo, is the reason why we’re so driven to secure a future for them. How could we hope to be remembered with any affection if we hand them the rags of a devastated environment?
So after lunch and some writing for me, we caught the bus to Bristol for the opening night of the exhibition. A couple of old friends from art school days celebrated their annversary by renting the Centre Space Gallery and inviting thirty of their artist friends to submit some work. It was a brilliant evening and the gallery was packed with people we either knew or wanted to get to know. Names and faces were put together after decades of never getting around to meeting. I guess if we’d met fifty years ago, someone would have got drunk, someone would have started a fight and someone would have rushed out in tears – (actually I could have done any, or all of the three) – but now in our mature(ish) years there were fewer sharp edges and less easily bruised egos.
I continue to be obsessed with the way that age alters our faces but leaves us somehow the same, and so I have to be careful not to stare (almost forensically) at people who find it disturbing. It was hardly surprising, then, that my painting was a watercolour illustration of a purple sprouting broccoli leaf rescued from the compost heap and absolutely stunning in its decomposing colours of green, yellow and brown. Generally leaves don’t get offended by staring, but I’d love to find a model prepared to put up with it. One of the guests told me a story about failing to recognise one of his old models because he’d never seen her with clothes on.
We caught a late bus back – an extraordinary experience because we almost never stay out late, especially in Bristol. And so the bus was absolutely rammed with as big a cross section of life as you could imagine. There were chancers and inebriates of every age, edgy looking teenagers trying to look cool and one club bouncer who pulled his hi-viz jacket over his head and tried to sleep. There was a dog that barked randomly at those who failed an unspoken test, a freemason in pinstripes with his regalia in a leather case, and a couple of young women conducting a mobile phone feud with an unknown recipient. Someone smelt pretty bad and so the windows were opened to let cold air in, and someone with nowhere to go was going nowhere in particular, eating his supper out of a rucksack. We spend so much time in our own isolated lives it’s a proper shock to be nose to nose with complete strangers in a noisy bus – we should do it more often.
Anyway, part two of the party today with a meal together in Bristol and then tomorrow hand-to-hand combat with a BT engineer, and then bliss. A couple of weeks with no commitments except the allotment and possibly a short trip to Wales.
Even managing to get this photo on to the laptop seems like a major triumph of hope over BT, who, for approaching 2 weeks, have not only failed to provide any broadband service but have convinced themselves that they’ve actually done something. They’ve already sent out three engineers on two separate occasions who have all eventually confessed to not being sufficently trained or equipped to do the job. They sent the first mini hub to the wrong address and the second never appeared at all and so I’ve been completely dependent on my phone connection and a big overspend on extra data. The sales people claimed that we had fibre to the building when it fact it’s finished at the green box up the road and is dependent on copper wire for the crucial final 250m. The company was split up into three to encourage competition, but although they work with identical customer bases the IT systems don’t talk to each other which leads to the sort of tooth gnashing conversations that make it clear that no-one has the faintest idea what’s going on.
Enough already – get on with it! – I hear you cry – so I shall. On Monday morning I am promised positively smoking digital speeds. We’ll see, I’m already eyeing up the contract to see if they’ve broken their part.
So yesterday we had to take some of our artworks by bus to an exhibition in Bristol, which is an infrequent pleasure. Later we went up to the allotment and I set up the wigwam supports for the runner beans. I hesitate to get all philosophical about it, but it does seem that the simplest gardening jobs can attract a good deal of unconscious baggage, and none much more powerfully than hazel bean sticks. We cut and gathered these at our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons last year which makes then both free of cost and simultaneously greater in value. Now that hazel is hardly ever coppiced, the sticks have become a bit of an expensive rarity, having been replaced by imported bamboo, or worse still plastic. But in a more environmentally conscious world they could provide a subsidiary source of income on a mixed farm with a bit of woodland. But honestly that’s not the thing that shouts at you, it’s the sense of tradition that comes with them.
So today has been a mixed bag with grandchildren visiting. The oldest picked wild garlic in the woods and we took it to Uncle Jo who runs a pizza hut, and he made a special pizza using the harvested ramsons – how’s that for a life lesson in foraging? I managed to get a couple of hours parole on the allotment and I finally got the strimmer out to cut all the paths. I once worked for several years as a school groundman, and I picked up some terrible habits like wanting to eliminate every weed in sight. With a powerful tool like a strimmer I have to order myself to leave clumps of weeds – especially nettles – around the plot for the butterflies. I also leave the long cut grass lying because it’s full of seed for the birds. Slowly I’m conquering the demon of excessive tidiness! Doesn’t the herb garden look splendid, with the asparagus behind? The big umbellifer is angelica which is stunningly sculptural, and contrasts with the darker greens of lovage and dill. I guess that among all the plant families the Apiaceae, the carrot family have most to offer a gardener and cook. Underneath you can see our 1000L of stored rainwater which I hope to at least double during the year. I can only see a future full of water shortages if we don’t do something to curb our excesses soon and so, although I’m no survivalist, a couple of tonnes of water in store is likely to be useful. To that end I’m going to put a roof over the compost heaps to capture water from 60 extra square feet, and I’ve half a mind to build a solar heater from an old radiator to provide underground heat for the coldframes or even the greenhouse. I saw it demonstrated at the Alternative Technology Centre in Machynlleth, and it worked impressively well considering it was entirely constructed from waste materials. What I don’t know is whether the winter sun would be hot enough to provide any heat benefit. But even a marginal gain might protect from a cold snap, and maybe it could be constructed around some thermal ballast for storage, after all the cold frame alone offers some protection from all but prolongued cold spells.
When you cross over the Brecon Beacons via the Beaufort road you suddenly cross a line between the open moorland and the post-industrial landscape, marked by a line of electricity pylons. I’m not sure which side of the line I prefer. Surprisingly, perhaps, I admire and even like the post industrial landscape inhabited by the ghosts of miners, steelworkers and the lost fortunes of entrepreneurs and the dreamers who made porcelain in works like Nantgarw where beauty and purity emerged from the smoke and filth of the potbanks. I like it and yet I loathe what’s become of it in the industrial estates and business parks that replaced it.
Today we drove to Cardiff to see the David Nash exhibition in the National Gallery of Wales. While we were there I tried to search out the old Welsh Academy building in Bute Street where I did a bit of work in the 1970’s, and the terrifying Dowlais Arms pub where we would take our lives in our hands to book a taxi by CB radio to take us back to the Railway station for the last train back to Bristol on a Friday night. But it’s all been demolished and redeveloped. The only bit I recognised was the long stone wall where I swear I remember the words “Tubal Cain” painted in huge letters – presumably long since painted out by someone who failed to understand the Old Testament history of the name. The fading neo classical building in which the Academy was once housed seems to have been demolished along with everything else. If I can be a bit contrarian for a moment we found very little to commend what’s replaced the derelict docklands. There were endless coffee bars and restaurants of exactly the same provenance you would find in the centre of almost any large city. We could have been in Birmingham or Bristol or the London docklands – it really didn’t seem to matter. Any sense of place, of history had been erased by the uniformity of 21st century life. Everywhere and nowhere in the span of a short walk, history is contained and defeated by streetside captions, theme pubs and signposts. In fact the very word ‘heritage’ has become yet another resource to be strip-mined and sold off by the new ‘creative’ entrepreneurs and their theme parks – just at the time we most need to reflect on the industrial revolution, what it gave and what it took away from us, and where the degradation first gripped us, as it will grip the nations where it is beginning today. This aetiolated version of the past is fed to us like pre-digested pap and serves an ideological purpose. There’s something very perverse about the fact that the Assembly building is so hemmed in by building developments and chain restaurants. Instead of leaving the building in isolation within the context of the ruined industrial landscape that might suggest “this is what we’re here to redress”, the new buildings press against the assembly building like silent lobbyists saying – “remember who you’re here to serve”. The steel magnates and mine owners have gone, to be replaced by an equally rapacious economics that, having taken the coal, has returned to frack the last drops of value out of the nation.
I once (supervising on a school trip) said to a retired mine engineer at Big Pit in Blaenavon – “You must miss the camaraderie of the job. He replied “No I hated every bloody minute of it!”. The camaraderie, the courage and resilience of the communities are not things to be celebrated as much as admired. Yes we can appreciate the resilience of the communities but this was essentially a survival mechanism against the terrible behaviour of a class of human beings who belived that it was perfectly alright to sweat a natural resource like coal or steel through the exploitation of less powerful human beings.
There was a small craft market going on and Nick went to buy some Welsh cakes. He asked the woman in charge (he’s a fine chef) “do you make these with all butter or a mixture of butter and lard (the traditional way)? ” “Stork (margarine)” she replied. We tried them but they stuck to the roof our mouths like stale puff pastry.
The David Nash exhibition was something else. It was everything that the city has turned its back on. Here is an artist who has made it his business to look at the natural world not as a resource to be extracted and sold off, but as the object of a prolongued meditation. They’re almost religious in their intensity. It’s an exhibition of fifty years of work since he bought an old chapel in Blaenau Festiniog for £200 in which to work and presumably do a lot of thinking. What did I admire most? – well he can draw, I mean he can really draw. There’s a playful element (in the very best sense of the word), that reminds me of the intensity of children’s play. There’s a sense of the re-enchantment of the world through a profound attentiveness. It smells good when you walk into the gallery – is this a normal term of art criticism? It was just so good! We’d seen another film about the large lump of carved tree trunk that was cast into a stream and followed in its passage to the sea at Barmouth some years later, but watching a slightly fuller version on a large screen encouraged us to sit down and watch it right through. It sounds a little like conceptual art but it was much fuller, richer, and much more meditative than most work in that mode. There’s a lot of work in the exhibition and I came away thinking that there’s a very close kinship between the kind of attentiveness that artists like David Nash exhibit, and the attentiveness of the scientist. All that nonsense put about by CP Snow about two quite different forms of consciousness has entered into the bloodstream and it was wrong. My old music teacher, AF Woodman, used to shout at us – “I know you can hear it but have you been listening?” Call it close attention, call it meditation or mindfulness – it really doesn’t matter much, but we’ve spent so much time quantifying, describing and judging the output of artists so we can make lists in order of importance, that we’ve missed the really important bit. Once again I’ll apply my entirely subjective way of judging an exhibition – does it make me want to work? – yes. Does it change the way I look at things? – yes.
Finally, and on an entirely different subject, how do you make a perfect poached egg? Here’s the answer – no stirring, no vinegar, no little plastic doofers. Crack some eggs – they need to be so newly laid they’re almost warm – and put them carefully into a bowl. Bring the poaching water to the boil and then slide the eggs in. Ta da! perfect poached eggs.
I don’t care for ‘Misery Lit’ or – (sorry) – blogs that describe ‘battles against’ this or that horrible disease. I’m absolutely not prepared for going down that route anytime soon, and that’s that. However – and imagine me saying that ‘however’ slowly, stressing all three syllables and ending in an upspeak question mark …. Having had a bit of hand-to-hand combat wth the idea of mortality these last couple of months, I thought that getting all positive test results would pick me up and set me down exactly where I started. It didn’t!
You don’t, it seems, *wrestle with the anonymous angel during a sleepless night or twenty and get away with it altogether. Jacob didn’t, and I’m no Jacob, so after a couple of days of sheer relief I got completely fired up at the thought of what kind of world we’re leaving our children and grandchildren – which was the prompting for yesterday’s rather anguished posting. The Potwell Inn, since it’s imaginary, has no cash-in value and we’re perpetually hard-up so there’s no stately home, not even the flat we live in, or anything much else to leave our descendants except an earth capable of sustaining them.
So we need to get on with it because we’re not going to last forever
Look at that angelica at the top of the page. Like all its cousins in the genus Apiaceae from alexanders to hogweed it is staggeringly beautiful in the early spring as it emerges from its winter sleep. Same too for the crozier like leaf forms of emerging bracken and ferns – they make you stop and fill you with wonder and they can, if you let them, suggest that the natural condition of the earth is beautiful. You might say that hemlock water dropwort isn’t beautiful because it’s deadly poisonous, and so is every part of the yew tree except the red fruit surrounding the seed, so too the foxglove. But of course none of them are in the least dangerous so long as you recognise them and treat them with respect. The problem is that the vast majority of us don’t recognise them and respect for the wild increases the more we understand about it; and that’s a shame because the very things we need most, may be quietly hiding there in the immensity of the natural world.
I write about the allotment because it brings me face to face with the food we eat. Often on my knees, I weed quietly between the rows and I try to know the name of every wild plant I’m discarding in favour of our preferred crops. In fact I absolutely love spending a contemplative hour hand weeding, almost lying at ground level pinching them out between thumb and finger. Lovely, but also a great teacher of the basic ethic of proper gardening which is that we only possess the capacity to dispose, never to compel. But agribusiness has no time for disposing. Money in a hurry needs results, predictability and certainty. Humility in the face of nature is a sign of weakness and weeds are considered as ‘overheads’ – even people, the ones who work in the fields, are regarded as ‘overheads’ – no more than cells on a spreadsheet. We see the results in the earth. After decades of intensive cultivation, the stones stick out through the earth like the bones of a starving human being. Hedges are torn up and so the birds no longer sing, and gigantic tractors stride across the fields microdosing chemical insecticides and fertilizers under the instruction of their satnavs.
I write about food because at the Potwell Inn we regard the growing, the preparation of food and eating it together around a table as a sacramental activity. I write about art because – to pinch a line from Peter Shaffer’s play Equus – “without worship you shrink”.
I’m struggling to find words for this new mood. but there is a connection. Maybe an unwelcome reminder of my own mortality has brought the vulnerability of the earth into much sharper focus. In the same way we take our own existence for granted until some accident or illness reminds us otherwise, so we comfortably assume that the earth on which – from which – we derive our existence, is always there. It’s one of those givens like gravity and tides. But it’s not and if we really think about it we know that’s the case.
But how do we change anything? The starting point, I’m sure, is to ease back on the nagging and move forwards on wonder. Maybe what we need is not to spread the understanding of the present linked crises of climate change and environmental degradation but to re-enchant the natural world – because what we revere and love, we protect. Which brings me back to the allotment.
What’s the point of herbs? Look – mint, chives and rosemary. Elsewhere on the allotment in various beds and corners there are angelica, lovage, dill and fennel; several thymes, sage, coriander, tarragon, other flavours of mint and parsley. They’re amongst the most resilient plants in the garden, getting on without any great attention while we fuss over keeping the chillies and aubergines warm. They enliven our food and provide inumerable oils and essences whose healing properties have been studied and used for millennia. Scientists come and go, along with their theories, but in the background and within the immense diversity of the plant world, trillions of rather beautiful and tiny leafy-laboratories have been syththesising substances beyond our dreams since the beginnings of life on earth. They have no marketing departments, no PR budgets, patents or guardians except us.
Being old often means being invisible. You get used to being walked off the pavement by much younger people so absorbed in their mobile phones and their busy lives that you feel you’re an obstacle. And yet yesterday I went into a local bookshop and was struck forcibly by the fact that Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” was selling by the dozen to those selfsame people. ‘Wonderful’, I thought, ‘more allies’, and yet you couldn’t blame them for thinking that we baby boomers are at least a part of the problem, because it happened during our years of vitality. There was a vegan food fair at Green Park station yesterday and although I was a bit puzzled by ‘vegan fish and chips’ and vegan hot dogs’, I refuse to be scornful and dismissive because long after we’ve left the scene, these beautiful, idealistic young people will have their chance to roll back the damage of industrial food production. Meanwhile the best thing we can do is to supplement the TV natural history documentaries with real hands-on experience of the wild. Nature’s not a safari park, and we learn more about nature by squeezing a mint leaf from a plant we’ve grown on the windowsill than watching any number of films – and that mention of mint leads me to think about peas. The douce Provence peas we sowed in the autumn are coming into flower even though they’re barely six inches tall.
and the story about Jacob wrestling with an angel at the edge of the river he’d just crossed, leaving behind everything he’d known and striking out into the future is one of my absolute favourite Old Testament stories. You don’t have to be remotely religious to be inspired by it.
Yesterday, before the news of the Christchurch killings came in, I was hunting for something in my room and I found a watercolour brush that had fallen on the floor. I don’t know, because I’ve never painted in oils or acrylic, whether painters in those media treasure particular brushes, but I know watercolourists do. Brushes for particular purposes, there’s one brush I only use for correcting and removing paint, it’s a cheap as chips student range brush but it’s perfect for the job. The brush on the floor was a top of the range sable brush. When I picked it up it seemed to speak to me – use me. I put it back in its tube and thought no more of it until this morning. Then the hate words started spilling into the room through the internet and I felt suddenly that words – the medium I’ve lived and worked with all my life – had become tainted by association. There’s no more devilish weapon than the tongue, and its works. Words have consequences, but drawing and painting are silent, contemplative and so much more eloquent about the experiences that lie beyond language.
So, with due consideration for the weather forecast, we took the bus into Bristol today to see a couple of exhibitions. On the bus stop there was a person dressed in fatigues, with a bedouin style scarf completely covering their head and the whole assemblage topped by a pair of blue-tinted motorcycle googles. There was not a square centimeter of human being exposed anywhere. They were genderless and without any clue as to who they were. They got on to the bus carrying a snooker cue and got off the bus at Temple Meads. Puzzling.
We went to see an exhibition of new sculpture and one of Henri Gaudier Brzeska’s drawings and sculpture at the RWA. Sculpture, after years of playing second fiddle to almost any other visual art form seems to be in rude health at the moment, and Gaudier Brzeska’s drawings have not dated in the same way as his sculptures. Does that sound like faint praise? It’s not meant to. We agreed that his drawings are really wonderful. One of the faintly condescending comments on the wall suggested that he was “self taught” – as if that accounted for some deficiency in his work. Come on – all great artists are self-taught, only the mediocre ones rely on tricks they learned at art schools.
The Leonardo drawings at the City Museum were so small, and the gallery so crowded that you’d have done better with a decent book. As we left we were directed into the inevitable ‘experience room’ where there were drawing materials and books available for anyone to have a go. I was absolutely ready to dismiss this as yet another attempt to make art relevant and educational at the same time until I spotted a man who didn’t fit at all into the usual suspects category (like us) who was copying a drawing with rapt attention. If I eat my hat can I spit the label out? I should have remembered the extraordinary gifts of some of the men I taught in prison. As I write this I can see him, completely unselfconscious and absorbed in his task, putting me and my selfconciousness to shame.
Back down then to the bus station via Christmas Steps where we stopped for me to photograph a building that my grandfather came out of retirement to work on when he was 72. He was what’s known as a ‘generic builder’ – a carpenter by trade, for whom timber framed buildings were familiar from decades of experience. At the base there used to be a very good chippie but it’s gone now. Bristol was our ‘home city’ for many decades but now it’s easier to catch a bus than to negotiate its ever more sclerotic traffic system. When we got home I found a box of Jiffy 7 modules on top of the piano so while I cooked, Madame sowed seeds. Tomorrow we’ll be marooned in the flat for most of the day by the Bath Half Marathon, but if we defy the stewards and run across the road we might be able to get to the allotment for a few hours.