Come on George Monbiot – you can do better than this!

Cattle doing what comes naturally – eating grass.
“‘Let them eat lentils’ won’t save us from animal farming – we must embrace meat substitute”.

From the very first sentence – “Our insatiable appetite for meat is laying waste to the planet. But the alternative is looking (and tasting) better by the day” – I can hear the voice of my one time sociology lecturer Sid Harris demanding “It all sounds very nice David, but where’s the evidence?” and this piece by George Monbiot is all too characteristic of some of his recent writing. It’s peppered with hot links most of which are references to scientific papers, some of them hidden behind paywalls so we get the headline but none of the supporting evidence. In fact they create the illusion of hard facts without letting us judge for ourselves. The hotlinks and the somewhat breathless style suggest an overuse of green ink and handwritten capitals. The most tendentious statements – like the one above – “Our insatiable appetite for meat is laying waste to the planet ……” is plain silly. I’m pretty hard up but I’d still bet a tenner that Monbiot couldn’t stand that one up without being allowed to empty the shelves of available prejudices and heavily redacted papers. I’ve linked to the whole article, not because I want to promote his fundamentalist views but because they’re an example of the evacuation of analytical thinking from too many mainstream media opinion columns.

Clearly we have an environmental crisis bearing down upon us, and clearly there is some evidence that some farming practices – like intensive feedlots and so-forth make a substantial contribution to that, but to pretend that there is any equivalence between small mixed farms, peasant and subsistence farms and intensive farms with thousands of cattle being fed intensively farmed soya is a deliberate distortion of the statistics. To suggest that meat farming is the principal engine of global climate change is pure vegan wishful thinking. In fact the continuing burning of fossil fuels in every part of the so-called developed world – some of which is used to drive farm machinery and make chemicals and fertilizers – but much of which is used by aviation, private car use, and the transport of foodstuffs over hundreds if not thousands of miles; this is what’s driving the crisis.

Do we eat too much meat? – undoubtedly the answer is yes. We eat too much of it and especially we eat too much of the wrong kind of it; the kind that’s fattened in conditions of appalling cruelty and fattened on food that makes cows sick. They’re ruminants, they evolved to eat grass not grain and soya meal. Should we ignore ethical questions surrounding farming and troll people who elect not to eat meat? Of course not, and I wish they’d stop the trolling in the opposite direction. Does referring to milk as an “animal secretion” encourage sensible debate? Do I really need to answer that? Is there any doubt among scientists that the way in which Co2 equivalent is calculated is at least questionable? – here’s a link to a paper in Nature that you can actually read!

As long as we allow this critical debate to be dominated by cherry picked evidence and hyperbolic statements on all sides, the battle to save the earth will be stalled. We don’t have the leisure of all the time we need to sort this out – successive COP meetings have seen time and energy wasted by bad faith and bad data.

The wildlife and plants that are so important to me and to millions of us have value in their own right, although they have no seat at the table to make their case. They are the canaries in the mine and they are disappearing by their hundreds and thousands while this sterile debate goes on.

If only it was true that we could save the earth by doing just one thing – ban farming; ban big cars, blah blah blah – but we can’t because it’s a hugely complex problem with more tentacles than the Hydra in Greek mythology. The simplest explanation – but it’s not that much help – is that the age of extraction, burning, waste and neoliberal economics has run its course. We need to find an alternative, but much as I admire some of George Monbiot’s work, columns like this one are not going to be part of the solution because they’re part of the problem.

Take a bow, Simon Fairlie

Photographs taken in the Lost Gardens of Heligan farm in October 2018

Walking, reading, thinking and writing just about sums up my idea of a good holiday. Mercifully Madame feels much the same and so on our trips away anyone keeping a close eye on us might conclude that we’ve nothing to say to each other; but they don’t see the subsequent conversations in which we read aloud extracts from the books we’re reading and share ideas. It’s just that when we’re out and about we don’t always need to talk because that’s when my eyes are on the hedgerows looking for plants and hers are focused in the trees looking for birds, butterflies and all the rest.

Anyway, this week amongst all the other things we’ve done I’ve been reading Simon Fairlie’s autobiographical book “Going to Seed”. I may as well get the unsolicited plug out of the way by recommending it wholeheartedly for many reasons – not least if you’re around the same age as me it will evoke warm memories of what turned out to be a brief and largely unsuccessful rebellion against the status quo, but also if you’re the same age as our children and grandchildren it will fill in the embarrassing details of how we lived our lives to the full in the 70’s and 80’s. Far from impoverishing their inheritance we (some of us) were actually trying to create a sustainable and more fulfilled future for them, but we were no match for the suits who were better practiced at creating the narratives of pure hokum which were the real cause of the current crisis. Those times were good and bad in equal measure, but we set up cooperatives, lived in a couple of communes and earned peanuts from insecure part time jobs. The book is a thoroughly good read and Fairlie never lets his self critical gifts slip. We got things wrong and underestimated the sheer inertia of the status quo. On the other hand, if ever there was a time to revisit some of those visionary ideas it’s now in the face of the global systemic failure of economics, species extinctions and environmental catastrophe.

Simon Fairlie has also written “Meat, a Benign Extravagance” – a carefully argued case for small scale sustainable mixed farming that takes on some of the shriller and sillier notions of fundamentalist veganism as well as demolishing the arguments of the agrochemical giants. It’s a joy to see the supporting evidence for all of his arguments – “go check for yourself” he invites us, rather than following the probably apocryphal story of the preacher whose sermon was annotated with the words “argument weak here – shout loudly!”

There’s a third book “Low Impact Development” that I haven’t managed to read yet but is available secondhand. But there’s another reason why I find an instinctive kindred spirit in him. Starting from opposite ends of the social spectrum we were both difficult, argumentative and occasionally reckless teenagers; both ultimately thrown out of school and both on a journey – me towards a proper education and he in pursuit of the practical skills of a social class from which he’d been excluded by birth and culture. Neither of us – and I’ve never met him – were apparently prepared to swallow the predigested bird food that passed for an education – the question “why?” was so burned into our souls.

You may have gathered that I’m a binge reader and so a modest amount of research threw up two excellent magazines, the first of which – The Land Magazine – he is co-editor, and another – Resilience – to which he is a regular contributor. One article that caught my eye can be found on this link to Resilience which lists all of his contributions. If you search for the article “A convenient Unruth” you will find a forensic takedown of the current debate about the methane emissions of ruminants. He makes a convincing argument that the widespread obsession with cattle emissions is based on bad reporting which is not the fault of the scientists who came up with an initial estimate of the global warming effects of methane which has been falsely used to imply that methane emissions are, in simple terms, 32 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. This false claim is possible only by ignoring the fact that methane degrades relatively quickly (a half-life of ten years) whereas carbon dioxide never degrades. I’m simplifying greatly here, but given that the size of the national UK herd has declined over the past 30 years whereas car ownership and Co2 emissions have grown enormously, the arguments pursued by George Monbiot – whilst they may have real ethical weight – are scientific nonsense. Fairlie is as firmly against intensive agrochemical farming as is Monbiot; but again the reason is the prodigious cost in Co2 emissions of fertilizers, agrochemicals, gigantic farm machinery and grotesque transport footprint. No amount of cherry picked evidence is forgivable if the net result is to send agriculture to oblivion and force feed the rest of us with junk food gloop produced by the multinational food corporations using huge quantities of green energy that would be better applied to new mass transport systems or ending the scandal of old people freezing in their homes.

So yes – hats off to Simon Fairlie, and if I ever buy a scythe it will be from him. Prophets are rarely appreciated in their own country.

Think of your Sole

Fishing boats hauled up on Cadgwith beach – January 2022

A couple of days ago I mentioned the sinking of the Crig-a-Tana off Cadgwith last November and the rescue of the two man crew by the Lizard Lifeboat. Both men were ironically members of the lifeboat crew and even more darkly ironically the boat was named after a pretty vicious looking reef off Kuggar called Crig-a-tana rocks. The sinking of the boat had nothing whatever to do with the rocks because she went down 6 mile southeast of Bass Rock and they are waiting for a report from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to discover what happened. Fishing and farming remain two of the most dangerous industries in the country.

Anyway, all best wishes to the crew who have been through a horrendous experience, but this raises once again the insecurities and dangers that the inshore fishing fleet have to contend with, and lends support to the idea that unless we support these industries by buying their produce they may not survive for the future. Interestingly the Government published their proposals for the ELMS scheme today – this is a payment support scheme that offers farmers subsidies in return for public goods – like environmental schemes. Once again the big arable farms will be able to claim most of the subsidies while small farms and hill farms will be competing for the scraps. I needn’t mention again the betrayal of the inshore fleet by the brexit debacle.

And that’s why we at the Potwell Inn try to buy as much as possible of our food from local sources, preferably direct from the producers and bypassing the supermarkets. With that in mind we trogged off to Porthleven yesterday for a walk and to buy some fish. Who knew that fish are seasonal? I sort of knew it in the recesses of my mind but when we got to the fishmonger she had some Lemon Sole on display, as well as Haddock – not a major fish around here, and of course crabmeat. Lemon Sole are bang in season at the moment and I think I must have cooked them badly at some time in the past and never bothered again. Madame on the other hand absolutely loves them so we bought a couple of fillets each of Haddock and Lemon Sole (more expensive!) plus a tub of mixed white crab meat with the brown splodgy bit). The brown meat is much cheaper and yet it’s full of flavour. So we’ve been gorging ourselves on fish, which in Cornwall has sometimes been tricky in the past – because apart from supermarkets you never see it fresh. Unlike the Continent, the local fisherman don’t sell their catch off the boat as a matter of course.

So £23 for three meals seems a lot, except fish prices have escalated; but think that we paid £6.00 for the crab meat and made three rounds of crab sandwiches which would have cost something like £30 in a cafe. We also lashed out on a £10 bottle of Muscadet which would have been marked up to £25 or £30. That looks like value for money to me. The haddock, which we had for supper cost about £8 – compared with £15 a portion for fish and chips. Then we had the Lemon Sole today – dusted with seasoned flour – and simply fried in butter and olive oil. The trick is to hammer the skin side until it’s crisp and then turn the heat down and turn the fish for a minute – it cooks quickly. Once again delicious with 1/2 bottle of cheap Albariño. Learn to cook – it’ll save you a fortune and you’ll eat like a Russian oligarch!

Seasonal fish isn’t always to everyone’s taste – I love Cod Roe – which is almost unobtainable now due to the complete absence of any other customers. You can buy smoked roe for taramasalata at almost any time but the raw roe probably looks too much like a pair of giant testicles to attract the faint hearted. These were the last I ate, seven years ago.

But the take home point is that fish have their seasons and like every other food it’s best to eat them while they’re ‘in‘ and when they’re local because they’re that much fresher and come without a contrail of air miles.

But we haven’t just spent the past few days eating. I finally got to scrambling up a cliff path to a patch of promising looking gorse and managed to identify the two most common gorse species in this part of the world. Growing next to each other made it relatively easy tpo see the differences and I’m reasonably sure of my ID because the larger Gorse/ Furze Ulex europaeus was in flower and the smaller Ulex Gallii – Western Gorse wan’t, and it fitted most of the other descriptors. Clive Stace – who must be obeyed in all matters botanical – demands the mean of ten measurements of certain flower parts before identification is made – but since one of them wasn’t in flower and wasn’t expected to be in flower until June I decided not to wait. It is quite absurd, the amount of pleasure to be gained from nailing the names of two plants so similar you need a magnifying glass to distinguish them but honestly it’s the best fun you can have while keeping your clothes on. Naked botanising among gorse plants in a brisk offshore wind is an overrated pastime. Finally, just to complete my joy I noticed a Cornish Heath nestling among its taller neighbours. I believe some vulgar botanists refer to this as a slam dunk. Here they are.

Jumping the chasm between ought and is.

“A half legendary miasma of once upon a time gallimaufry” – a quotation from my post yesterday.

I’d really like to be writing about leaping out of the car and measuring gorse thorns in search of Western Gorse – Ulex gallii, or paying a return visit to a possible Babington’s Leek – Allium ampeloprasum down near the watermill at Poltesco. It’s all so romantic – if you like that sort of thing. But actually what keeps grabbing me and shaking my shoulder is just one feature of the gathering climate catastrophe, and that’s the link between species loss, landscape devastation and what we like to think of as human culture.

Our materialistic worldview has taught us all that nature is a kind of evolutionary pyramid at whose pinnacle we sit; masters of all we survey but somehow separate from it at the same time. What the agonised debates surrounding climate change are beginning to teach us is that if the pyramid collapses we disappear with all the rest. A ridiculous ideological blind spot seems to allow us to carry on with destructive economics, dangerous fossil fuel burning and anthropogenic species extinctions regardless of the ecological damage – by systematic avoidance of the evidence.

And to take a step further in the argument we might ask – what is it that so scares us about the gathering storm that we can’t bring ourselves even to think about it? My suggestion is that it’s something along the lines that loss of species, habitats, farming and horticultural practices, manufacturing and the whole panoply of material practices is not just a loss of ways of doing stuff but of ways of being. So the loss of any of those practices entails a corresponding loss within our culture; chipping away at our sense of what it means to be human.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Here in Cornwall, and especially in North Wales the sense of loss is palpable. In Wales it’s language that has become the focal point of all that grief. To lose a language is the greatest tragedy that can befall a nation because it is the cultural matrix that holds past, present and future together and allows us to feel at home; fully human. In Cornwall it seems to be a festering grievance that the relationship between England and Cornwall has been essentially colonial. Great wealth has been removed from the county, won by miners working in appalling conditions, and now the English are completing their extractive work by pricing some of the poorest people in the county out of their homes, which are turned into holiday homes and AirBnb lettings.

Cultural losses are the inevitable collateral damage of material changes, and in that light the pushback by fishermen against quotas, and by would-be lithium miners against environmental objections is easier to understand. So too with farmers and vegetable growers struggling against piratical supermarket contracts; and especially hill farmers – because they all labour against not just the weather but the onslaught of trolling by smart ass politicians and commentators who’ve never held a spade or a net in their lives.

What this can easily result in is a kind of truculent resistance even to productive and necessary change and a clinging to an over sentimentalized vision of the past which can always trump the future because that’s a bit speculative. They’ve all heard “we’re all in this together” when the evidence is that they always seem to trouser the proceeds. The great thing about looking back is that you can always remember the full nets of pilchards but eliminate the memories of home made oilskins and regular famines. Stargazy pie celebrates the relief of a famine in Mousehole when a fisherman called Tom Bawcock braved a storm to bring pilchards back to a starving village. That was in the 16th Century – memories are deeply rooted here.

Only a new vision – and I mean vision – will give us the collective will to face the daunting challenge. Until we know, really know ourselves to be a part of nature, and as vulnerable as any red list plant or Orangutan or Whale then the difficulties will be insuperable. In this age of populist dictatorships the liars will always think of a more appealing narrative that allows the rich to drain the last drop of lifeblood until we all fall silent.

We have to be courageous enough to cross the chasm between the way things used to be by accepting that the past, its languages, symbols and culture enrich the future – we mustn’t let them threaten it.

This wonderful poem, first published in 1937 – that’s eighty three years ago – just about sums up what I’m saying. It’s a reflection on mortality, written in the shadow of the first world war and the gathering strength of nazi power accompanied by the Great Depression of the 1930’s. It matters because Thomas manages, almost miraculously, to frame in a non religious way the interpenetration of nature and humanity. It’s that kind of thought that will lay the first stone in the bridge between ought and is.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

Dylan Thomas

The biblical “Last Trump” probably sounds (and looks) a bit like this.

The Lizard lighthouse foghorns
Is Cornish culture on its last legs?

I can’t find a single photograph I’ve ever taken of the Lizard Village. We’ve visited it many times and, in the past camped there; in fact yesterday we saw a decommissioned helicopter parked incongruously in the paddock of a farm where we once washed ourselves in with nothing more than a cold tap and an outside privy. The post office where we waited for an emergency bailout from my sister has closed; the pub where I tried to sample every whisky and ended up knocking myself half senseless (the other half had already gone), on a low beam – closed. The little restaurant where we spent the last of our money and I tasted guinea fowl for the first time, closed. The only supermarket has gone and the last of the serpentine turners appears to have turned his last lighthouse ornament and then turned up his toes. The trippers still arrive like locusts in the summer and strip any green shoots of the old culture bare, so everything is distorted and could ultimately be destroyed by tourism. There’s barely a pig shed in Cornwall that’s not been converted into a holiday let or an airBnb, and hardly a spoil heap that’s not been turned into an “experience” by a small time entrepreneur.

Years ago John Betjeman described the Lizard as depressingly full of buildings like army married quarters, and it hasn’t improved over the past 50 years. The only remnant of our first ever visit is the Regent Cafe on the green where, a few summers ago we saw a poster advertising the ancient Cornish sport of whippet racing.

All that said, we still love the knackered old place and come back year after year because a short walk beyond the village takes us to the coast path and the lighthouse whose fog horn is a thing of wonder. I’m sure I permanently damaged my hearing, sitting as close as I dared when it was working and listening to the fan starting up and build steadily until an almighty blast straight from hell poured into the air and echoed all around the surrounding bays. It hit you in the belly and rattled your teeth; the tinnitus lasted for hours afterwards then there was silence. For a while.

Why so, then? As politicians often say “I’m glad you asked me that” and then go on to talk about the new cycle lanes they’ve personally fought for in their constituencies. Cornwall’s a mess but nobody could argue it’s all the fault of the English or the tourists. The road improvements to the A30 and the A38, and many other important infrastructure and cultural projects were paid for by the EU which the Cornish voted in force to leave. The fishermen who were especially keen to regain our sovereignty soon found that they could no longer afford to sell their fish in a Europe from which we’d separated ourselves. Some skippers known locally as slipper skippers sold their boats to the scrapyard and their quotas to the Spanish who repaid their naivety by dredging the sea empty. The NHS failed to receive the promised £350 million a week and the GP surgery in Lizard is now in a single tiny prefab building, and in spite of the enormous success of the lost gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project which have brought money and good jobs to the poorest part of Cornwall, when Tim Smit tried to open an education centre in Lostwithiel the objections from the locals poured in and the project looks like being scrapped. It seems that finding a future for Cornwall other than hospitality and seasonal homelessness is rather like the kind of hopeless task presented by what Michael Balint the psychoanalyst called “heart sinkers”.

All of which mournful thoughts floated around in my mind during what I thought was a terrible night but which my Withings watch scored at 100%. Re -reading Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild” recently I began to wonder whether our negative attitudes towards invasive plant, insect and animal species didn’t find an exact parallel in some of our instinctive responses to tourism. These attitudes in humans draw from deep wells. Apparently just as the English tell jokes about the Welsh and the Irish and never fail to wonder at the meanness of the Scots – none of which stereotypes have any foundation in fact; the Russians make fun of the Ukrainians, and we all know where that leads to; so the Cornish refer to out of county visitors as “grockles” who, given a moment’s reflection, are the one reliable source of income in a county which has lost virtually all of its traditional employment. The tin and the copper mines are gone. Fibre optics will probably mean that the copper market will never really gain strength. Fishing is largely gone due to overfishing which wasn’t all down to Spanish supertrawlers. The quota system is the bastard child of overfishing in the face of all the evidence.

Looking around there are no obvious replacements apart from tourism – I’ll probably get hate mail for this – so right now, any attempt to go back to some imagined past by legislating against the one reliable source of income is doomed to fail. The lithium mine being proposed is about the last thing Cornwall needs at the moment. The specialist workers may well be brought in from beyond the Tamar and in any case if you add in the principle that the polluter pays the environmental damage and the excessive use of water ought to scupper the project on the drawing board. The world needs what Cornwall needs – better mass transport systems and less cars on the road and a new vision of fulfilled life.

Living in Bath can feel a bit like living in a theme park at times but without the tourists (and the students) the local economy would collapse. We have become inured to the shock of crossing Royal Crescent in front of a battalion of portly Roman re-enactors, or weaving a course down Milsom Street between 100 variations of a Jane Austin character. I don’t suppose the Cornish are any more pleased at seeing people queuing on a beach to take Poldark selfies.

The Lizard is a real botanical hotspot as well as a half legendary miasma of once upon a time gallimaufry. In two days I’ve found a couple of real rarities and one local newspaper recently latched on to the possibilities of enticing visitors here with a different quarry than ice cream, pasties and fish and chips. Writers like Fred Pearce are arguing that alien species often bring new and vital energy to an ageing or damaged ecosystem and simply eradicating them is an expensive way of doing even more damage.

Changing the profile of visitors would be slow work and the massive problem of housing shortages would need a great deal of new affordable building alongside restrictions or (as in Wales) financial disincentives to second homes. Schemes like Tim Smits proposed Lostwithiel education centre need to be encouraged whilst perhaps steering them away from the NIMBY strongholds. There will need to be a huge emphasis on secondary and tertiary education because farming and fishing will remain profoundly important to the local economy, but embracing ecologically sustainable methods would pay a premium. Of course this would cost money, but the UK government seems to have £billions at their disposal for lining their rich mates’ pockets.

And let it never be said that the village communities are now broken beyond repair. We were chatting to a woman in a local Farm shop who told us that a local fishing boat had sunk just before Christmas. Luckily the crew of two were members of the lifeboat crew and did all the right things but spent 20 minutes in freezing water before they were rescued by their mates in the lifeboat. Within days the community had rallied round and raised thousands of pounds to support the two men who now had no means of earning a living. A few years ago the same village crowd funded the purchase of a vital building on the seafront that had been used by the fishermen for generations. What these threatened communities need more than anything else is a long term plan and the long term funding to bring it off.

Old Watermill in Poltesco.

Another day, another journey.

The kitchen sink is just out of shot.

The Potwell Inn, remember, is a moveable experience. When we go away in the campervan we normally prepare and pack it the day before we go, so we can drive to where it’s stored and then set off straight away. Leaving the flat to drive down to a rented cottage on the Lizard means we have to take everything down in the lift and load the car, and given that it’s a 20 mile round trip to the nearest supermarket in Cornwall we take as much as we can with us. Because we’re a pub at heart we took with us a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and a bottle of Mount Difficulty pinot noir which were meant to be a treat for our combined 55th wedding anniversary and my 76th birthday. However it was not to be because the hotel in Hay was so awful we couldn’t bring ourselves to open them in a cramped room that smelt so strongly of sewage we had to leave the window open and allow the -3C air to clear the air. I’m ashamed to say that we could have had three weeks in the campervan for the cost of three nights in a cramped room and eating terrible food cooked – at best – by a kitchen porter with a hangover whose partner had just left him.

So today, back on the Lizard, we dined on boeuf bourguignon which I cooked last week and froze, and drank the champagne while we toasted our out of date anniversaries. Yesterday we drank the Mount Difficulty after an hilariously easy drive down with me, well fortified with CBD oil. It’s a new attempt at taming my chronic anxiety and it seems to have some effect. My routine GP tests on Friday appeared to show I have become diabetic, but the nurse failed to explain that severe stress can cause blood glucose to rise and I had just spent three days attempting to upgrade my phone, connect the wonderful portable router through which I am now able to write this at all (no signal normally) and upgrade Madame’s phone at the same time – (pending the remembrance of a critical password) . The nurse didn’t tell me about the life threatening properties of customer helplines, but anyway I had the blood glucose test kit (I’ve been here before) and over three days my glucose has been perfectly normal -so in celebration we bought a packet of biscuits. As a bank manager once said to me – people like you make my life impossible – well hooray! – because I have no intention of going gentle into that good night.

I will write tomorrow about our first stroll around the village and the flowers we saw – a bit unexpectedly, because nature doesn’t read textbooks; but I leave you with the evidence that the fishing industry still lingers on here on the Lizard – three or four cod, obviously filleted on the boat with the carcasses left on the beach for the gulls to pick clean. And a final thought. The last time I wrote I was thinking about the power of nature to regenerate when left to her own devices. Given that it’s all but impossible to imagine how we could return to the imaginary good old days; the pilchard are gone and a global climate catastrophe is stalking us. So what shape could the future hold for the places I love most other than a hopeless longing for the past? Answers on a postcard??

Neoliberal politics
fillets everything in its path!

How to be a foreigner – and why MFK Fisher is such an inspirational food writer

The scorpion, by the way, was in our rented apartment in Uzès in Provence. Fortunately it was dead when we found it. But that’s another story.

I discovered MFK (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher by chance when I was reading about Julia Child, the famous American food writer and author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking . This enormous 2 volume opus became hugely influential in the US after the first volume was published in 1961 but when it was later published in the UK, Elizabeth David had already pretty much seized the narrative. I’d never even heard of MFK Fisher until very recently, and if you share my abject ignorance on her work then I’d recommend the book “Provence 1970” written by her great nephew Luke Barr, who also directed an excellent biographical film which is available on YouTube. In his book he writes about one summer when Fisher, Julia Child, and James Beard were all in Provence at the same time and talked cooked and ate together regularly. Richard Olney and Elizabeth David were also in and out of France at the time but it seems that they thought that as a cookery writer, Fisher was a bit of an imposter – they were absolutely wrong in the sense that Fisher could write them both into a cocked hat. David, of course, introduced the whole mediterranean food culture to the UK and for that she claims the laurels, but she was by no means the only one. Before David, Patience Gray was the better selling food writer, and remains one of my favourites. Each one of them brought something important to the table, as it were, and between them they changed the course of culinary history of both America and the UK.

So how can these writers, publishing so long ago, ( Fisher was born in 1908) still seem so critically important? In my view that’s a daft thought because Fisher is every bit as alive and relevant today as RL Stevenson, whose “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevenne” is as fresh and modern today as it was when first published. They all have something to say about being human, and Fisher across 25 books and countless magazine and newspaper articles, not to mention television appearances seems set to become closer to my heart than any of the others. She writes like a 21st century woman; she’s a forensic analyst of human cultures and as always Richard Olney and Elizabeth David – in their rather bitchy way – had something of the truth. She wasn’t such a great cook but she was a brilliantly perceptive eater. When you read her accounts of living in Aix, Arles and Marseilles – especially if you’ve spent time there; and when you read about her youthful life in Dijon with her first husband you feel that even as a foreigner she managed to see behind the triumphs, evasions and stubborn conservatism of the French culinary scene of her day.

Her life wasn’t all wine and roses, and yes, she had money which enabled her extensive travels in Europe, but her first marriage ended when she met the love of her life who was suffering from a terrible illness that took him away after only very few years. A third long term relationship was distant and dwindled away after the birth of her two daughters; and so she brought them up as a single mother. There were other relationships about which she remained discreetly silent. As I said earlier a surprisingly modern life for a woman born in 1908.

And she wrote like an angel. Madame would tell you, if you met her, that my enthusiasm for a book can be measured in the amount of time I spend reading passages aloud to her. Reading together in bed at the Potwell Inn can be a surprisingly noisy and competitive business. “Two Towns in Provence” in the chapter “The Foreigner” would serve more than adequately as a set text for a graduate course in anthropology – it’s just laugh out loud funny as she deals with an arrogant French lunchtime host who wastes no opportunity to compare unfavourably American food with French cuisine. MFK’s response – sending a coffin shaped basket of flowers, ending the acquaintance forever with a funeral gift – is one I’ll treasure and perhaps even borrow if the need ever arises. Here’s another taster:

There are myriad facets to invisibility, and not all of them reflect comfort or security. Often I have been in pain, in my chosen role of The Stranger. Just as often I have counted on being so, and was not. Learning to be invisible has, of course, some moments worse than others. Perhaps I felt them most fiercely during the first months of my stay in Aix in 1954. I was alone in Europe for the first time in my life really; always before I had been the companion of some- one well loved, who knew more than I did about everything, even things like tickets and monies. I had been younger, too, and full of confidence. Now I was single, with two small daughters, and a world war and some private battles had come between the two women of myself, so that I felt fumbling and occasionally even frightened.

Perhaps it was a little like learning to walk again: I must try hard to trust my weakened muscles, my halting tongue, and most of all the dulled wits in my graying head, so that my children would not suspect me and lose confidence.

MFK Fisher “Two Towns in Provence”

Of the writers I’ve mentioned only Patience Gray comes close in her understanding of the whole culture through its food. Where Olney and David were always difficult and insecure in spite of their fame, Fisher was obviously a writer who didn’t need to be liked. “This is what I found” – I can imagine her saying – “and if you don’t like it you can shove it!”. Her editors must have despaired at her unashamed openness. She had an erotic connection to food and life and it perfuses all her writing. I beg you to explore this body of work. The only book I haven’t enjoyed is a bit of a potboiler called “How to feed a wolf” which was commissioned to meet a market for a severely rationed wartime food supply. I sensed her heart wasn’t in it but her celebrity never paid the bills and she was a proper writer!

All’s well on the canal

Winter Heliotrope – Petasites fragrans

Exactly as I predicted there was a really good showing of Winter Heliotrope on the Kennet and Avon canal today. As we walked to the first deep lock the river was in full spate and at its most dangerous as we went along, and in places the banks were flooded. At Pulteney Weir the steps had disappeared and water was shooting upwards like a fountain as it curled back at the river bed. Heaven help anyone falling into that maelstrom – they’d have no chance at all. The eddies and deep currents seem to illustrate constantly changing anatomical illustrations of the musculature of unknown beasts. Fallen logs lifted helpless arms into the air, like Excalibur, and all the while there was a dangerous sound – far from the comfort of waves and waterfalls but the fretting water feeling for any weakness along the bank. The boats moored alongside the footpath were lifted high on their moorings. Any higher and they’d start to list into oblivion as the water flooded in. The canal, of course, is at one remove from all the mayhem and there’s a more peaceful regime altogether.

Once again we revisited the walk that kept us sane during the lockdowns, and in Henrietta Park an ever reliable tree stump was growing Oyster Mushrooms and what I think was almost certainly Silverleaf Fungus as well as the usual Turkey Tails. Further back in the park the magnificent trunk of an old pine looked especially beautiful. Hundreds of walkers were out and about celebrating New Year. We were passed by one crocodile comprising upwards of 20 walkers – no doubt a rambling club. It’s crazy how easy it is in England to assign social class to whole groups. I remember once taking a midweek communion service which usually had about four or five communicants but on this particular Wednesday the Lady Chapel was full to the brim with identically dressed, late middle aged men in tweed jackets and flannel trousers. It could have been a Monty Python sketch. Afterwards I asked them who they all were and they told me they were all High Court judges on a course in the hotel next door. Today’s walkers were equally monocultural. Several of them wished us a happy new year in clipped received pronunciation and I relapsed into full churl, willing my cheek muscles into a rigid smile as I responded with imperceptible grace.

It was a joy to find plants and fungi to identify at this time of the year. Even the vivid green of new foliage brought a foretaste of plants just waiting in the earth for the kairos – the appropriate time. Alongside the river a large group of Long Tailed Tits kept themselves busy in the branches of trees overlooking the cricket ground. On the other side at St John’s Church we not only saw a pair of Peregrine falcons on the tower but also heard their unmistakable voices. Before we’d even taken that unusual sight in, a pair of herons fled downstream in their prehistoric way, and later a couple of cormorants flew downstream as well. All this in the very centre of the city.

Back home again I cooked the last of the Christmas leftovers and we had an early supper. Below are some of the things we saw.

Spring in my step at last

Sea Campion, Silene uniflora -photographed near Gunwalloe church 18th January 2022

It really shouldn’t be a surprise because it happens every year, but suddenly the thought of another year’s joyful plant hunting is filling my mind. The photograph – taken in Cornwall – is proof that spring is just around the corner and I am so looking forward to it; sorting out the books and maps and planning our visits to try and maximise our chances of finding one or two rarities amongst the old friends. When we go out plant hunting in the company of the vastly experienced Bath Natural History Society leaders I can only marvel at their sharp eyes and encyclopaedic knowledge, but they are so willing to share their expertise I’ve realized that half the battle is learning to access the databases that are available to anyone with an interest in plants, so now we go out equipped with maps and lists which save endless wasted time looking for plants that just aren’t there.

Is this sudden shift in mood just down to day length? Is there – somewhere in my brain – a sensor that, just eleven days after the winter solstice, sends a signal to somewhere else in my brain, telling it (telling me) to clear the decks? Is there a causal relationship between day length and the fact that I just opened Google Photos and searched for images taken in January? Is there an underlying hormonal link between this rain soaked day which lasts just a few minutes longer than it did a fortnight ago? – because I’m quite certain that it wasn’t opening the application that led to the shiver of anticipation but the reverse. Opening the photo album merely confirmed what I already knew – somewhere deep inside – that Coltsfoot, Celandines and Sea Campions will be there waiting in a couple of weeks when we return to Cornwall. I remember, one December, visiting my Spiritual Director, a truly radical Roman Catholic Sister. I was full of woe and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself and she told me that I probably just needed some sunshine.

Now we’ve moved into a (very small) city there won’t be any Plough Monday celebrations and I’ve no idea whether the Littleton Cider Club will organise a Wassail in the orchard behind the White Hart that Madame once helped to plant; although I have heard that the cider apples were very small this year, and so full of sugar the resulting cider is fearfully strong. I’m sad that I’m no longer involved in all those ceremonial markers of the farming year but it seems that my mind is still ahead of the game without any need for dressing up or handmade prayers.

It’s New Year’s Eve. We shan’t be up late – but tomorrow morning the old year will be vanquished in all its economic and political stupidity. Half our Christmas cards this year have contained critical remarks about the state we’re in, and that’s something I don’t think I can ever recall happening before. Is the serpent awakening? Tomorrow looks grey, with more seasonably cold weather returning, but Monday will be sunny, briskly cold and we’ll be out like plant hounds – sampling the air with cold noses and thick sweaters and greeting each tiny promise of new growth with hoots of pleasure.

I’m tempted at this point to quote Mother Julian’s “All will be well and all manner of things will be well”, but there’s got to be a caveat because of course unless we change course, things will not be well at all. The government will tell us that there’s no alternative but only a fool would believe them. Madame and I have the tremendous advantage of being old enough to have lived some of the alternatives to the way we do things around here (one of my favourite definitions of culture). There’s no state sponsored cure for the challenges we face because turkeys don’t vote for Christmas (or Thanksgiving)! The answer may feel as if it’s occluded by anxiety and sorrow but it’s there, waiting to be rediscovered and it looks a lot like a successful human community rescued from the debilitating clutches of the Gradgrinds, the curators and gallerists and all the other gatekeepers defending the system against artists and poets. We’ll banish the ambitious and the greedy and those who have never even discovered their own shadows, let alone learned to live with them. We shall only escape the tyranny of spreadsheets, efficiency curves and economic growth when we refuse to play that game and return to joyfully experiencing of the riches of nature without giving anything an economic value. We’ll get back to singing, dancing and feasting together in ways that defeat all the categories of sponsored division and to a community where Jacob Rees Mogg and his pals will have to make a thin living as pantomime dames, being laughed at in village halls and impromptu community centres all over the country: what a wonderfully cheerful thought.

Here are some more January 2022 photos – Happy New Year.

Staunching pancheon expansion lust.

There – I thought that the headline would attract some small interest! The loaf, by the way, is a fifty fifty wholemeal/white sourdough mix that I made last year. As you see, it makes a lovely – if rather close textured loaf – but I rarely bake it because the flavour is so intense it tends to overwhelm whatever you eat it with. Our everyday recipe is a combination of rye starter with organic white flour which, over 36 hours, develops a lovely rich wheat flavour without shouting at you. Barely a week passes without me learning something new about baking and although occasionally when I’m in a tearing hurry I’ll use the bread machine (I’m not a fundamentalist Sourdough Savonarola), slow is always best, and if – through lousy organisation or sheer idleness – I resort to the supermarket, I invariably experience buyers’ remorse.

Any sort of food, but particularly bread, seems to embrace far more than calories and glycaemic index. It forms a cultural space where memories and experiences jostle with history; even sociology and anthropology. Hearth, home and heritage; journeys abroad or even unexpected food closer to the kitchen all combine in a cloud of metaphor, where cooking and eating become a performance that can wake you out of lethargy or melancholia and set you on your feet again.

Last night we watched a lovely Greek film called “Green Sea” which explains perfectly what I’m struggling to write. It concerns a woman who has completely lost her memory apart from being able to cook despite having no sense of taste. She washes up at a working peoples’ seaside cafe and cooks food so beautiful that it brings alive, occasionally to tears, the people who eat it. It not only recovers the memories of the customers but it eventually restores her own when she has an epiphanic experience with a teaspoon of honey!

You may have noticed that I read a lot of books. On my desk at the moment are MFK Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me”; “Welsh Food Stories” by Carwyn Graces, “Welsh Fare” by S Minwel Tibbott; “Beard on Bread” by James Beard and the recently published “English Food” by Diane Purkiss. On the shelves there are many dozens more. These are all books that explore so much more than recipes – but express cultures too. Films, in many ways, have a unique part to play in this exploration. I could – off the tip of my tongue – name ‘Couscous’, ‘Chocolat’, and Stanley Tucci’s ‘Big Night’ in which there’s a wonderful single shot scene involving his character cooking an omelette from scratch whilst conducting an argument with his brother. There’s ‘Babette’s Feast’, ‘Julie and Julia’ also starring Stanley Tucci with Meryl Streep and more recently ‘Bear’. Then there’s ‘Bagdad Cafe‘ – I could go on for ages. One day when I’m in the mood I’ll make a list.

So now, finally, I get to the pancheon thing. For fifty five years to the month, every loaf I’ve baked was proved in a Pyrex bowl. It was a wedding present given to us by my mother’s closest wartime friend. It’s grown into an icon for me; scratched to the point where I can barely see through it. But I’ve recently become so paranoid about breaking it that I’m finding it increasingly hard to use. It’s the only object whose use spans our entire marriage and I’ve got this irrational fear that something terrible will happen if I drop it. I’ve written before about my mother’s “little sharp knife” – a unique piece of bone handled but otherwise inconsequential wartime utility ware – that does it too. The few dressmaking knick knacks I still have from her working years – thimble, pincushion and so on have the same quality – and the sound of a sewing machine in the next door flat send me into rapturous childhood memories.

I need a new proving bowl, but finding one has become faintly obsessive. Fifty years ago I visited one of the few surviving local slipware potteries in the country at Wrecklesham. It finally closed down about ten years later after the claypit was sold off for housing land and the market for traditional slipware collapsed under the competition of pyrex, melamine and more glamorous (?) kitchenware, oh and the complete absence of skilled throwers . I’ll write more about that visit another day. They were still – just about – making a few pancheons for trendy interior decorations but they were way above what we could afford.

I’ve looked on and off for years for one, but the problem is that they’re very expensive when bought from antique shops and – not knowing when they were made – there’s always the suspicion that they’re lead glazed. Any acidic food left in them could lead to lead poisoning. It’s a shame because that glorious amber coloured and unctuous glaze is quite difficult to replicate without lead flux. But then, miraculously and almost certainly due to the surge of interest in home baking during Covid, one or two potteries have seen the gap in the market and begun to produce hand thrown slipware pancheons once again. Why bother? Well, for all the reasons at the top of this piece. Of course you can prove your dough in any old container, but bread making occupies a cultural space as well as the usual culinary one; and those of us who bake get tremendous pleasure from working within that almost extinct culture using traditional tools and equipment, and of course I trained as a potter when I was young – which is why I visited Wrecclesham all those years ago. Buying a new pancheon joins two of the threads of my life together. Best of all I’ve found a pottery less than twenty miles away that’s making them and as soon as they reopen in January I’ll be down there to check them out (fussy customer!) and if they’re good – and they look very good online – I’ll retire the Pyrex bowl and start afresh. It won’t do anything for the bread but it’ll do a lot for me.

More recently we found a potter called Nathalie Hubert down in St Quentin la Poterie in Provence and we bought some of her lovely oven/tableware which radiates sunshine into our flat whenever we use it, and then we invariably begin to talk about our travels there. Cooking, eating and sharing memories over a few glasses is at the heart of human thriving – not an optional extra for the wealthy. In fact the wealthy always lose out because they don’t have to struggle to learn the skills and find the money, they just flash the wad and it all falls into their laps, and straight out again. Of course it’s hard work excavating history, reading, practising, watching, talking and learning from the people who really know. But as Aneurin Bevan once famously said to a heckler – “If you’d just shut up and listen you might leave this place slightly less stupid than when you came in”

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