On resilience

IMG_4931No prizes for guessing that this was our local Sainsbury’s the day after the snow fell. To be fair it was a combination of equipment failure and panic buying but the same thing happens every time we get a period of severe weather.  The system collapses, people get angry and we realize that there is no slack, no resilience in it at all. I had a quick look on Google and I could see that there were people complaining everywhere – broken by the fact that they’d been forced to buy brown bread instead of white! This kind of event is almost designed into the system. Some time in the 20th century the notion of public good was set aside by the food industry in favour of profit. One kilo of asparagus is flown from Peru at the cost of 8 kilos of carbon released into the atmosphere Our passion for fresh, out of season vegetables and fruits may not (like meat production) be releasing methane into the atmosphere but it’s making up for that with all the other greenhouse gases  involved in transporting it a thousand miles overland, and even if you buy local produce, when the infrastructure collapses because it’s not properly maintained, the milk, the fresh seasonal veg and everything else that needs to be brought to market stays put and sometimes even rots in the ground.

I had a hilarious conversation with someone at the Lost Gardens of Heligan harvest meal last autumn.  He was a Cornishman, and he said he’d asked at the local Tesco if they were selling locally caught fish.  “Oh yes” he was told, “It all comes from Newlyn [about five miles away] but it has to go to the distribution depot first”. This isn’t the fault of the producers, it’s the result of a ‘designed for profit’ but completely sclerotic distribution system, designed in such a way that it has no resilience at all.  There’s nothing in storage,  and we’re only saved from serious disorder by the fact that the events that cause breakdown don’t usually last very long. Yet.

The alarming fact is that we’re not facing a number of separate  problems – climate change, ecological destruction, food security, poverty, migration, social breakdown, artificial intelligence and war.  They’re one big one!

You’d  have to be pretty old to remember this, but some of us may recall the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue back along, as we say in the West Country.  The cover was one of the first pictures taken of  Earth from space, with the slogan “We can’t put it together, it is together” .

Here we are, all looking for ways to save the earth by eating a tub of Ben and Jerry’s vegan ice cream once a week, when what we really need to be doing is thinking in a different way altogether. When the big man in the shiny suit comes around offering to take the load off us we need to consider his (or her) offer carefully. It comes with strings attached – read the small print!

Lets take a look at the Potwell Inn store cupboard:

Last night was one of the coldest I can remember. Our first floor window ledge went down to -3C. That poses a problem for us because we live in a 1970’s concrete building that grows black mould on the interior walls as soon as it gets cold. Yesterday we tried to go out but the pavements were covered with sheet ice and lethal and in any case the shelves in the shops would probably be stripped bare.  But here in the Potwell Inn – this is what resilience looks like. We have food – not exotic by any means, but plenty.  We have oats and bread flour and I suppose we could even broach the barrel of wine we made in the autum.  We could walk a quarter of a mile to the allotment and pick fresh vegetables, even winter lettuce. We’re not self-sufficient, in fact I think that whole idea is a dangerous myth.  If there’s a way forward out of this mess then it’s not going to happen if we separate from our neighbours, it’s ‘dog eat dog’ economics that has brought us to this place. The way forward will involve more trust, more dependency on neighbours and a lot more generosity of spirit. As the American cartoonist Walt Kelly said in his second Earth Day poster back in 1971 – “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Thinking globally and acting locally is the only way we can make this work. There’s nothing we can ‘pass a law’ about that will work faster or more powerfully than our local choices.

  • Would it be hard work? – yes
  • Would we have to do without some stuff we enjoy? – yes
  • Would it change the way we need to live? – yes
  • Would it be difficult to understand?  See Michael Pollan’s rule – “eat food, not too much, mostly veg”
  • Wouldn’t it be going backwards? – no –  going forwards into a sustainable future rather than one blighted by hardship and starvation.

Is this a nag? Well let’s say this kind of stuff keeps me awake at night. But I’m an optimist and there’s a crocus in flower right next to where I’m writing and I’m driven by the thought that we don’t own the earth, we just borrow it from our children and grandchildren.

Winter thoughts at the Potwell Inn

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In the world of virtuality that we bloggers inhabit, it’s tempting to create a parallel unverse in which we are self-perfecting and untouched by the blights that affect lesser mortals. And so, by carefully selecting from the events of the day and choosing our words as poets might, we convey our privileged position on the sunny highlands of human consciousness without for a moment descending into bragging.

It will be a strange sort of book, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree ; – & to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be as ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves.  Yet I do mean to get to the truth of the thing , spite of this.

Herman Melville in a letter to Richard Henry Dana on the first draft of Moby Dick

I read blogs. The best of them fire me up and get me back to work, but the worst of them make me feel inadequate – as if the only place to start a new life is “anywhere but where you are”. I see photographs of perfected lives, perfected allotments and perfected meals and I know that I could never compete. Nobody’s going to stick my face on an advert for the good life, so I created the Potwell Inn as a place where the real, the blight, the shit that happens, has a place as well – a place that I’m allowed to live in because I am fallible, I am human and I have never lost the longing for something better.

The Potwell Inn, in its first iteration by H G Wells, is set in the South Downs and it’s all orchard and grass and gently murmering river. It doesn’t rain – in fact the sun seems never to stop shining – but over everything hangs the shadow of Uncle Jim who may return at any moment in a drunken fury. H G Wells knew better than to write a novel of perfection.

So, mea culpa, in all my postings I’ve never mentioned anything much more frightening than allium leaf miner or a late frost; and you might run away with the idea that the Potwell Inn and its allotment exist in a faery glade at the edge of an exquisite Georgian city. It’s true that the city we live in has a lot of Georgian architecture – we’re lucky enough to live on the edge one of its most beautiful parks.  But Bath itself is a monster with a severe personality disorder that can’t make its mind up whether it’s a University town, a Roman tribute act, a continuously ‘in session’ meeting of the Jane Austin fan club or a vibrant modern shopping/eating/clubbing experience. In fact, “Bath – the experience” occupies a limited area at the centre and it’s surrounded by a hinterland that’s not so lucky.  Our beautiful Georgian terrace comprises mainly houses in multiple occupation filled with a shifting population of students, young families unable even to look in an estate agent’s window, and housing assocociation properties many of which have some deeply troubled residents.

So we live in a lovely flat near the centre of a beautiful city and the corner of our street next to the flat is a favourite spot for drug dealers because there’s no CCTV and there are four or five escape routes inaccessible to a police car if trouble kicks off. Through our windows we can enjoy a view of the river and the trees and also – at times –  violent domestic disputes, machete wielding ‘county lines’ enforcers and crack smoking minor league dealers on bikes. Most of the trouble never comes near us – just once I was the victim of the most pathetic attempted mugging in history. There’s a young man who lives a block away who we call ‘mong’ because he shuffles around as if he is permanently on spice or ketamine. He’s well over six feet tall so potentially could be a bit frightening if the fog ever cleared. I came down the road and despite the fact that he was already holding a mobile, he said “give me your phone” in his best menacing tone. I replied “fuck off!” in my most menacing OAP manner, and he said “there’s no need to be rude”. He probably had a good polite upbringing some time back.

The police and the local council are having a purge on rough sleeping and street begging in the centre because it scares the tourists. Naturally this means that the problem moves outwards towards us and street begging becomes petty crime – burglary, shoplifting, stolen bikes, muggings and such like. Sustaining a £200 a day habit either means a good begging pitch in town or something much more scary around the edges.  Our posturing local councillors – many of whom are part of the problem inasmuch as they own property and let it out at increasingly ridiculous rents – like to grandstand with talk about ‘zero tolerance’ but that does nothing to help the elderly residents who are terrorised by dealers and users.  We have no police station any more, and our air quality is so polluted by heavy traffic that we regularly break EU limits. So that’s where the Potwell Inn can be found – not in an  idyllic imaginary parallel world, but here on a cold December day when it’s too wet to get on to the allotment (again).

But this is where we’ve chosen to live and we love every moment. I’ve always had a conviction that there’s no better place than where you are set down, and the best way to live a flourishing, fully human life is to transform the place you live in rather than spend a fortune in time and energy looking for somewhere better. And so we get involved in the local neighbourhood and in its politics.  We all know that the source of many of these problems is lack of compassion and lack of resources compounded by a malignant ideology.  We love the fact that we can hear a dozen languages and more every day on the streets and we can shop in half a dozen food cultures within a mile.  We love the allotment and its capacity to provide for us, and our neighbours who live such interesting and occasionally complicated and exotic lives.

In one of those long meandering chains of thought that sometimes sieze my attention I began ten days ago with watching the riots in Paris on television and emerged 24 hours later with a changed perspective. That change of perspective took me to a single word; a crystallisation of the chain of thought and it was the word “commonwealth”.  The absence of the capital letter is absolutely deliberate because it is not a proper noun.  It doesn’t refer to any of the manifestations of the original idea that has been misappropriated so often from the days of Cromwell’s parliament to the cultural remains of the British Empire. It’s been so often misappropriated, in fact, that when I googled it, I looked at 27 pages of results without finding a single reference to its original meaning – a political community founded for the common good. This lovely idea seems to me to be slap bang in the middle of the Potwell Inn mission statement, or it would be if we had one!

I wondered for a long while whether to post this, and here it is. A provisional mission statement for the Potwell Inn, driven by the sheer baffling and beautiful complexity of human flourishing.

Commonwealth: A political community founded for the common good.


At Bath Farmers Market

One of our Saturday morning treats is to go to the market –  http://www.bathfarmersmarket.co.uk –  and wander about spotting some favourites. Some of the stalls only show up fortnightly and some are occasionals so there’s always something to see. But the regulars are reliable – butchers, bakers, fishmongers and greengrocers plus some of the best cheeses and deli – all locally produced. There’s a really good atmosphere and organic produce is always available.  Just imagine, if every small sized town or large village could organise something like this it would support local small businesses – especially startups – reduce food miles, build new human networks and challenge the hegemony of the supermarkets. If you think that’s a romantic dream, ask yourself why the big supermarkets are chasing to keep up with traceability, little farmer biographies (are they real?) imitation sourdough breads and ‘artisan’ gins.  Why would we be satisfied with the phoney if we could get our hands on the real and actually talk to the producers?

In particular there’s a stall run by a local organic group where anyone can sell their surplus produce and share the proceeds. That could be a boon to allotmenteers like us who often have surpluses of extremely good but perishable crops. The essence of this is not to attract car drivers from 50 miles away but to encourage them to set up their own markets and exchanges. We’ve seen the way that microbreweries are being bought up and sucked into the corporate beast, and that can’t be the way to go.  Upscaling artisan industries merely repeats the mistakes of the past, and equates profit with value. We need a broader set of values and a different mindset for a new kind of entrepreneur to implement them.  Values like slow, local, inclusive and respectful of local community aren’t backwards looking romanticism but revolutionary and challenging. Local businesses that implement these values are often driven out by predatory supermarket practices and the result is unemployment, waste and pollution. I had a long converstaion with a struggling dairy farmer several years ago and he said that in order to enforce price cuts on farmers, one big supermarket was importing cheaper milk from Eastern Europe to drive down the price.  How can that be right?  In a market economy it’s buying decisions that can make the world a better place.

Ever seen a cow smile?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI think these must be the happiest cows I’ve ever seen.  I took the photo in May 2010 when I walked 200 miles of the Camino between Le Puy en Velay and Cahors with my son Andrew. Purely by chance we were crossing the Aubrac hills just as the transhumance was going on.  Cattle were being walked back up to the high pastures with real ceremony and all the surounding villages were decked out for a party that seemed to go on for days.  This was “La France profonde” and we were pitching our tiny tent wherever we could because we couldn’t afford even the hostels. But these cattle had just arrived and they were so happy I swear they were smiling. We were too. The local cheese was wonderful and made a change from our terrible diet – we had no means of cooking with us and so we plumbed the depths of cold cassoulet eaten straight out of the tin. Most character forming.

They came to mind today when the (British) government released yet another report on bovine TB suggesting that lax bio-security, inadequate fencing, poor diagnostic tests and excessive movement of cattle between farms was at least as responsible for the spread of the disease as the badger which has taken most of the blame so far. The debate – if you can call it that – has become very polarized between the advocates of culling and those who put the welfare of the badgers at the forefront.

You can’t blame the farmers for wanting to do something about this hideously expensive disease, but they’re between a rock and a hard place. The consumers, the supermarkets and the government have pursued a ruthless policy of “cheap food at any price” and now we see the results. We have an ecological crisis in which we’re losing species at an unprecedented rate.  We have a crisis of obesity caused by junk food.  We have an environmental crisis which is being stoked by our overconsumption of meat. Farmers are stuck in the middle, with pretty well everyone blaming them, rather than the rest of us who made it happen.

Badgers love maize. For us at the Potwell Inn, that means they love our sweetcorn. Every year they drop in once a day during July and August to check how ripe it is and then they calculate when we’re likely to pick it and eat the lot the night before. This season we saved half of ours by netting it, but the badgers had the rest. So that’s why I feel competent to discuss this issue at all. I’ve lived and worked in farming areas for decades and I can see the problem from both sides.  TB isn’t just ’caused’ by a bacteria. We’re surrounded by bacteria and without them life on earth would cease, but the bacteria become a problem when they invade a host that’s stressed and unable to fight them off; and cattle on many farms are really stressed. Intensive farming on the scale we’re seeing it now, produces highly stressed animals that are vulnerable to all manner of diseases including TB. Bio-security is a hopeless attempt to carry on the way we are by locking the stressed animals in sterile prisons. We get the same problem on the allotment.  Plants that are stressed by drought, heat or over/under feeding are the first ones to get attacked by diseases and predators.

One of the contributory factors in this mess is almost certainly the increase in fodder maize.  It’s a very high value food but it’s not the same as grass – especially the old kind of pasture in which ‘weeds’ add to the value rather than having to give supplements.  Badgers love fodder maize and wherever it’s grown the badger populations seem to rise. Isn’t it just posible that the link between badgers and TB isn’t a causal link at all but nothing more than an association.

So if I were a farmer I’d be screaming at the government – “Well want do you want us to do, then?!!” Culling badgers – forgive the pun – isn’t a magic bullet. Vaccination could help, and it would be cheaper and less impacting on an ancient species, but if the underlying engine driving this is government/public encouraged overproduction, then by moving towards a more sustainable regime farmers could make a contribution to ecology, environment change and the national diet all at once. But they do need to make a living.

IMG_0112So back then to Aubrac and those wonderful smiling cows. We didn’t see any rich farmers on the whole walk, but we saw a lot of farms and villages doing their best to preserve a way of life that hasn’t changed in centuries. and so it seems we can have happy cattle and wonderful cheeses, and we can have wonderful meadows too, decked in spring with every kind of orchid and alive with insects.  But if we get rid of the farmers we won’t have any of those things, and if we want them badly enough the change we shall have to embrace will be to live more simply. If we really insist on eating Big Macs and smoked ribs every day for next to nothing, then we can’t expect to have anything except a degraded environment and a legacy of debt to the land that our grandchildren will have to pay.


Is it me that’s green?

IMG_4456Like many allotmenteers we think seriously about what we put on or in our soil. My guess is that many more of us buy so-called ‘green’ products on the basis of an ethical impulse rather than out of absolute conviction, and the manufacturers know this and exploit it. I could go on for ever about misleading labelling of so-called green sprays – you need a magnifying glass and a great deal of time to read the tiny print on a  bottle of insecticide that deliberately fails to explain the difference  between pyrethrum and pyrethroids with the consequence that customers are conned into using products that may compromise their organic produce.  It’s probably not as much dangerous as thoroughly dishonest. Continue reading “Is it me that’s green?”

It’s always local

I harvested the very last strawberry today and it was delicious.  We also pulled a few of the beetroots that are ready now and we continued picking the runner beans and French beans that we only planted as a gamble against the frost.  It was a gamble that’s paid off and although the tomatoes and the more temperature sensitive crops are beginning to show their age and vulnerability, we’ll still get a few more treats before we turn to the winter veg in earnest.  But on the plus side, the garlic and shallots have all burst into leaf since I planted them and today we went up to the allotment in pouring rain to check that the cold-frame lights were still in place and (inevitably) to have a good look around.  The only problem that Storm Callum seems to have caused was to displace part of the Enviromesh cover on the alliums, guarding against allium leaf miner. Continue reading “It’s always local”

A rant about journalistic idiocy


Twice in the last week the Guardian has excelled itself in printing stories so stupid that I had to check to make sure I hadn’t woken up on April 1st. The publication of a new report on climate change has been the occasion of a great deal of speculation, not least in the Grauniad, and first off the chocks was a report that scientists are thinking of spraying aerosols of some compound of nitrogen into the upper atmosphere in order to create conditions that screen the earth from sun – that’s to say that make artificial cloud. Then later another report came up with the brilliant idea that maybe advanced robotic bees could pollinate plants, replacing the ones we’ve already killed with neonicotinoids.   Continue reading “A rant about journalistic idiocy”