More garlic

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Carcassone Wight hardneck garlic. Next year’s crop

Well I did say that garlic growing had reached a whole new level of personal interest after the Allotment Association talk last Monday, and I wasn’t wrong.  The book I ordered – all 450 pages of it – was definitely a good buy, and coupled with some information from the talk I’ve been doing a bit of online research to see what the state of play is for organic gardeners..

The first thing to say is that the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm is not an organic operation and makes no claim to being one. I certainly don’t want to mount any high horse about that; it sounds like a commercial decision based on the challenges of achieving a consistent crop, and we’re free to buy or not to buy their products. Two things that were said induced me to get online.  In the QA session after the talk it was said that the farm uses Dithane to control fungal diseases like white rot.  They also operate a seven year field rotation, so they’re obviously taking no chances.  When he was asked what to do if you get white rot, the speaker said “buy another farm!” – I’ve got more on that later.

In fact they can’t use Dithane because it’s been banned in the EU, and they probably went over to Systhane until that was banned as well, and current regulations seem to say that there are no chemical fungicides available to gardeners for use on food plants. That’s not a worry for us because we wouldn’t have used them anyway, but we have to accept that our losses to disease will be much harder to reduce and will need a holistic approach to plant health coupled with some hard observation of soil, weather conditions and rotation.

The second thought provoking suggestion in the talk was to give the garlic a dose of sulphate of ammonia in February.  Sulphate of ammonia is a chemical fertilizer, produced by reacting ammonia with sulphuric acid. It adds, I discovered, both nitrate and sulphur to the ground but there are all the usual downsides of producing sappy, insect friendly growth and so-on. It also uses 1% of the world’s total energy production in its manufacture.  But alliums – onions, garlic etc – all need sulphur which is one of the molecular components of the garlic byproduct, allicin, which is so good for us. Normally there’s sufficient sulphur in the soil, but apparently – and here you must remember my knowledge of plant biology is limited – apparently waterlogging does severe damage to plant roots and restricts the uptake of essential minerals.  The take home point for us is that when we inherited our allotment the soil was continually waterlogged in the winter, and despite adding tons of compost; digging drains and raising beds, it’s still on the wet side.

The sequence of plant problems is that weakened plants get diseases more quickly and more severely than healthy ones. For the third consecutive year our leeks have been a miserable failure while others on higher allotments have not been affected. So putting aside sulphate of ammonia what else could be available to us as organic gardeners? One suggestion is to spray with a solution of Epsom salts – magnesium sulphate. It’s apparently allowable, but I’m assuming it’s a manufactured chemical and I know it hasn’t been made from natural Epsom spring water in living memory so it feels pretty non-organic to me. Then I came across some research on seaweed fertilizer which pretty much fits the bill.  We often use it as a foliar spray, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to use it in February.  Research suggests that it’s a very effective source of minerals including sulphur. Anecdotally I can say that a car load of bagged and wet seaweed certainly smells as if it’s got some sulphur about it! – and it it makes a brilliant soil conditioner too. So in February we’ll spray the young alliums with liquid seaweed extract and I’ll report back. Other than that, I think we need to carry on raising the beds further above the water table and digging in organic material and horticultural grit.

Back to the book, and it’s been a revelation. I need to get a bit of organic chemistry into my head, but garlic’s claim to be a superfood seems to be well supported by independent research. The last 100 pages of the book are a summary of research into the use of garlic in folk and complementary medicine and  the use of alliums  and their derived substances as attractants, antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides and repellents in the environment. There’s all sorts of peer reviewed research in there including some work on companion planting which I’ve yet to read properly because I get excited and start skim-reading – a very bad habit and the reason why I’m not referencing any of the ideas.

But allotmenteering is all about taking the abstract and making it concrete, and so this all boils down to creating the best conditions for our own garlic by growing it in large pots filled with a home made mixture of soil, compost, horticultural sand, a sprinkle of fish blood and bone (not vegan then), and some vermiculite and perlite. This year we’re comparing 2 rows of Early Purple Wight softneck, grown direct in the allotment soil, and 25 plants of Carcassonne Wight hardneck in pots. They’ll all get the same seaweed treatment and hopefully we’ll be able to figure out how much the waterlogging is contributing to our difficulties. In practice this means carrying many kilos of ingredients down the steep paths and mixing them up in the wheelbarrow, which is extremely hard work but massively cheaper than buying bags of potting mix – which sometimes rely on peat in any case. This way we’ve only ourselves to blame if we get the mixture wrong.

So, after a hard day, we consoled ourselves with roasted root vegetables (mostly off the allotment) and couscous; another vegan tryout that was well worth the effort, but notwithstanding the affection of American readers for all things pumpkin – especially on Thanksgiving Weekend – even after being anointed with miso and all manner of herbs it didn’t really taste of very much.

The garlic book is –  “Garlic and other Alliums – the Lore and the Science” by Eric Block, Royal Society of Chemistry Press. 454 pages and I can’t put the price here because Madame occasionally reads this blog!

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Yes – that’s a hand saw

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In case you thought that we at that Potwell Inn did nothing but sit around debating obscure philosophical points, here’s part of this afternoon’s session on the allotment.  Our gigantic pumpkin (var. Big boy) was sitting in the greenhouse taking up a lot of room, and so Madame sawed it up with a hand saw and, after keeping some for ourselves, we managed to give some more away before consigning the last bit to the compost heap. I was still wheel barrowing wood-chip down from the pile to refurbish the paths.

While we were there we also transferred some sprouted onion sets into 5″ pots – another experiment.  We intend to make the most of the next few days of sunny but cold weather with a long list of jobs to do.Doesn’t the inside of the pumpkin look like something from Alien!IMG_20191129_134434

“Where’s the evidence – David”

IMG_20191129_105716I should dedicate this posting to Sid Harris, my sociology tutor at tech college, a thousand years ago, who would challenge my sociological flights of fancy with the words – “- that’s all very exciting David, but where’s the evidence?” If there is any way of sending a profound thank-you to the past it would be to Sid for providing me with the alethiometer (great TV adaptation isn’t it?) that all thoroughgoing sceptics need to get through the mire of speculation, quackery and sheer roguery that infests our culture.

But the question has its price – particularly that going after the evidence demands a lot of commitment, blind alleys and reading which, added up, mean you have to live until you’re at least 110 to understand a simple question like ‘why does peeling onions make your eyes water?’ My latest read – yes I get through 3 or 4 books a week – is “Garlic and other Alliums” by Eric Block, and which is a magnificent book that makes me want to cheer and applaud every other paragraph. But understanding the central chapters depends on a familiarity with organic chemistry which I don’t have.  Every opening door leads to another whole corridor.

But today I’ll start with a Guardian article that perfectly demonstrates the thought I’m working on. If you haven’t clicked on the link, the article concerns biochar – a form of charcoal made by burning wood in an atmosphere starved of oxygen – so far so ordinary charcoal – but by doing it in a retort that captures all, or most of the nasties that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. The hypothesis is that by making huge quantities of this compound and digging it into the earth we would be sequestering carbon in a way similar to, let’s suppose peat bogs or coal reserves. The article goes on to suggest that the biochar might also improve soil fertility and even the health of grazing animals at the same time. It’s a no-brainer, we should all go out and buy it right now save the world in a day. Except for a paragraph towards the end-

While academics and researchers are optimistic about the benefits of biochar, they are not blind to the risks either. “If we’re wrong, and we spread hundreds of thousands of tonnes of charcoal over the UK, we can’t get it back out of the ground. We’ve got to be right. The stakes are really high,” says Udall.

The evidence isn’t there yet.  It might be there in a year or two, if we do the research, but like most breathlessly announced breakthroughs, we need to slow down a bit. I imagine that the article itself will be mentioned many times, used as a sales pitch and generally enter the consciousness of allotmenteers and gardeners all over the world without the small-print warning following it.

When I started to read about the deep ecology movement I was puzzled by the phrase ‘aquarian conspiracy’ which often cropped up.  For me the ‘age of aquarius’ was a song in a musical where some people got their kit off on stage, I couldn’t associate it with the idea of a conspiracy. But what the phrase seems to allude to is the concept of a ‘new age’ in which all of the great challenges facing us are ‘solved’ by the application of new technology.  Apparently this became something of a Silicon Valley mantra. While you might think that making charcoal in a fancy retort is hardly ‘technology” it’s clear that the ideological use that it might be put to  could be a dangerous diversion from the pressing issue of our anthropocentric environmental greed. Soaking up excess carbon is a must, but you need to stop producing it at the same time.  The pressing danger of the ‘aquarian conspiracy’ is that it allows us to carry on polluting in the false belief that there’s always a technology around the corner.  And there’s no evidence for that either!

Evidence based science often clashes with the sales pitch – it’s hardly surprising – and the danger is that we rely so much on the carefully crafted ‘evidence’ produced for us like pre-digested seagull food, because we lack the skills to find out for ourselves. Here’s an interesting quotation from David Hoffmann’s book “Medical Herbalism”

I was asked to present a paper on the topic of “Herbal Alternatives to Prozac”.  This quest to identify a herbal alternative to Prozac is a perfect example of how the real gifts of herbalism can be deflected by underlying assumptions. It would, in fact, be more appropriate to consider the holistic alternatives to the current vogue for psychopharmaceutical solutions.

When judging outcomes in phytotherapy, the quality of an outcome depends on your values. If an RHS judge with a passion for formal gardens was asked to comment on our allotment they might say it’s a mess because it doesn’t meet their criteria (tidiness, straight lines, complete absence of pests and diseases), for “a good allotment”. A good outcome in holistic therapy (or gardening) might be an enhanced sense of wellbeing whereas a medical assessment might depend on a series of abstract measurements. Neither method is more correct than the other, they both try to be rigorous and they each have strengths that we depend upon – and in any case I have to say that being loved cared for and listened to is the best healer and that defies almost all science.

I remember well a ward sister at the General Hospital in Bristol where I was a part time chaplain. When she died in a riding accident, they put a plaque on the wall to commemorate her.  It’s gone now and they’ve turned the hospital into expensive flats – and I’ll  make no further comment on that subject! However Sister Valerie Helps – this is my little personal commemoration – had a gift beyond any scientific exploration.  Post operative patients in severe pain would feel better when she came on to the ward.  She would say -“could you hold on for just another half hour?” when they were calling for morphine, and they discovered that they could. She would challenge the doctors when they were attempting to do something stupid and inspire complete confidence in patients and relatives alike.

Lets do the science – masses of it – and be prepared to learn from it, even if it means changing some of our assumptions.  But for science and healing to work together they each need to broaden their underlying assumptions.  For science there’s the need to try to describe and quantify a broader range of outcomes which will have to include wellbeing and other ‘subjective’ states.  For herbalism, gardening and the whackier reaches of human culture we need to accept that not every hand-me-down remedy is necessarily, a priori, better.  I remember my mother talking about the lives saved when sulfonamides were first used during the 2nd world war.  They’ve been superseded now, for the most part, but in their day they were lifesavers. To go back to biochar, it may be a part of the answer to the climate catastrophe but in ethics they always say “you can’t make an ought into an is” and that’s not just a lesson for ethicists but for all of us.

If only it were true!

Another walk along the canal today, and I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the sign and a homeless person’s tent on the opposite side.  More often than not these temporary shelters are situated in places that are difficult for random thugs to reach because they are frequently targeted for abuse. This one tent is the tip of the iceberg and the canal is a favourite place.  There are probably dozens of rough sleepers along its edges – many of them with mental health and substance abuse issues, but it’s hard to tell.  Sleeping rough and living in fear of being beaten up or constantly moved on has its own corrosive effect. Then there are a large number of just-about floating narrow boats housing those who can afford the mooring fees but not much else.

Today the last half mile of the canal was rammed with boats unable to enter the river and head off towards Bristol.  The exit to the river through Bath Deep Lock is almost impossible in high water states because the long narrow boats have to enter the river broadside on, and the water was running like a train today.  Its deadliest state is always surprisingly quiet but always menacing.  Even Pulteney bridge gets quieter as the river rises and almost obliterates the weir in what looks more like a breaking wave. At this time of year when the Christmas parties get under way, the river has taken so many young lives it’s unusual to take a walk and not see a bunch of flowers tied to a fence.  Today was no exception. It’s cold at night, and the wet weather must have made life impossible for many homeless people.

Are we a humane society? We shall see in a couple of weeks, but I’m feeling despondent as our democracy is reduced to rubble by lies and deliberate lawbreaking.

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My favourite little patch of weeds is coming along nicely at the moment, and there was a hint of sunny weather to come as the birds practised a few bars of their spring songs. As we wandered back into the town centre we discovered that the Christmas Market had started hours earlier than we expected, and so we hunted down the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm stall and bought some more seed garlic and a few other bits and bobs from Rob Solari who gave the talk at the Allotment Society AGM. When we arrived home the monograph on garlic that I’d ordered had already arrived so we’re well set up now.  In honour of the occasion we baked some large mushrooms with a wholly improper amount of our own crop and shop butter and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Up at the allotment the Early Purple garlic has finally emerged in sympathy with our new-found commitment and so the world looks like a better place just now. The kitchen waste had piled up in the kitchen and so we took it all up to the site.  The compost heap is going well, but a winter heap is an entirely different proposition to a summer one.  It’s dense with peelings and vegetable leftovers and therefore more attractive to rats and prone to going anaerobic, so it needs a lot more brown waste like cardboard and it needs turning regularly to let some air in. But it’s nice and warm – around 25C – and the worms are still reducing it at a tremendous rate. However much we put on the heap it seems to shrink day by day.

Everything else is quiet on the plots, but the broad beans and overwintering peas are germinated and ready to go into the ground over the weekend when the weather looks much better. But it’s just as well the pace has fallen a bit because the constant shortening of the day length and the grey wet weather seem to lower our energy levels. The table is piled high with books to read but it was better to be out walking for much of the day. We shift into official winter on Sunday which is promising brilliant sunshine and cold conditions – proper winter then, and the garlic loves a cold spell. The photo was taken in Sydney Gardens where we walked past a large Ginkgo biloba – this one without stinking fruit surrounding it.  Someone must have swept it all up.

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Got anything for cold feet?

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Plantago major

IMG_20191126_141144All this rain! On the other hand, my incarceration in the flat has given me time to catch up with some reading, and I’ve immersed myself in David Hoffmann’s “Herbal Medicine”.  Slowly, slowly the pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place and the inter-relatedness of all things is showing itself wherever I look. In some ways I’m a million miles behind, especially when it comes to the complex decisions that phytotherapists need to make. But in other ways I feel pretty confident – the field botany, the Latin names and even the knowledge of where to look for plants have all been easy to adapt. In fact the extension into a related field of study has served to make plants even more interesting. The knowledge that a plant can function as so much more than a tick in a flora, but be a visual delight, a sign of the underlying soil conditions, a signal of ecological health or sickness, of ancient human habitation or recent of soil disturbance, not to mention its history, the literary references to it, its use as a food, flavouring and medicine.  It’s lovely that we can grow some of these herbs on the allotment, and it’s especially lovely that some of the plants with the most potent applications to human health are the least showy; often regarded as weeds. The capacity of plants to synthesise complex molecules from very simple ones is a miracle, and I’ve discovered the oral and worldwide cultural history that sustains herbal medicine goes back thousands of years, and which must make it one of the longest ever citizen science experiments.

I’ve also decided that rather than try to engulf the whole subject like a basking shark, it makes more sense to investigate plants as I find them, and possible uses as I need them myself. That way I don’t have to develop a fizzing brain and the certainty of my inadequacies through limited experience.

I’ve done a few of my own experiments, by gathering, drying and storing a few very easy ones and I’m pleased that the specimens I dried have kept their colour and survived for just under five months in a dark cupboard without any apparent loss of quality.  I’ve even tried a few completely safe things on myself – all this is beginning to look like a CV but really it’s not  – I’m just sharing how exhilarating it is to be so immersed. One highlight yesterday was to order up three herbs from a supplier to test on myself.

The Potwell Inn allotment is turning out to be a laboratory in which the plants do all the work and, at best, we’re the cleaners and porters who help out. Not only are we not the experts in all this, but it transpires that the plants don’t much need an expert.  As allotmenteers we provide room service for the plants, a bit of weeding and feeding here and there and perhaps a bit of pillow plumping while they get on with doing remarkable things.

It hasn’t all been a trip down the primrose path, though. While I was confined to the flat I got on with a few more computer moving jobs and while I was setting up a redirect on one of my old email accounts, I inadvertently created a logical argument that repeatedly copied copies of copies of emails back to their original senders, and one poor friend received 135 of his own emails before I noticed something wrong and pulled the plug. So If you happen to be one of the afflicted ones, please accept my apologies. As one of the victims said – ‘what is it about old people and technology?’ – I hope we’re still friends!

IMG_6262Then yesterday evening we went off to the AGM of the allotment society. The business part of the meeting was chaired with great efficiency so it was over in 3/4 hour and then after the inevitable tea and cake we had a talk given by Rob Solari from the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm. Talks can be anything from lethally sleep inducing to full-on loin girders.  Rob’s talk fell into the second category and in about an hour we realized how much we still have to learn about growing garlic. So much so that we were planning to change our whole approach by the time we got back home and by this morning we’d got a much clearer idea of what we would try to do this coming season.

What was also fascinating was some of the biochemistry of the health benefits of garlic.  Raw is better than cooked, for instance, although that’s intuitively true.  But I hadn’t known how much better it is to crush rather than chop the garlic.  I didn’t know that an infusion of elephant garlic leaves can deter slugs, or how to grow truly giant bulbs over two seasons, or that garlic shouldn’t be grown with peas, beans, asparagus, sage or parsley – hmmm – a bit of plant moving called for there; or that  hardneck scapes taste lovely. Isn’t it terrific to listen to someone who really knows their subject.  I was so inspired  I googled up a scientific monograph on garlic and bought it online. Luckily Rob has a stall at the Christmas Market here and we can buy the bulbs we now know we need to plant.

All this leaves me with a bridge to cross, because I have a visceral dislike of raw garlic – and I’m not the only one; one of our allotmenteering neighbours spent the whole talk with a giant handkerchief pressed to her nose. But the health benefits are so well established it would be marvellous if I could develop a taste for it.  RS Thomas used to eat bulbs of the stuff, but then not many people wanted to talk to him, with or without garlic breath. I used to work with twin brothers, welders, who would eat raw onions with a penknife as if they were apples, but I’m not sure I could stop myself from gagging.  However, the experiment must be done! I’ll say the missionary’s prayer ‘ “Lord, if I get it down will you keep it down?” and my new life will begin – or not as the case may be. But I had a quick look at one scientific paper earlier on, and I read a section from James Wong’s book “How to eat better” and all is not lost because there are workarounds that I can experiment with.

And just to finish, we were given some black garlic to try and it’s beyond delicious.  It’s ‘fermented’ at 60C for a month at high relative humidity and it emerges as a sweet black mildly garlic flavoured paste.  You could eat it with a teaspoon it’s so good.

 

 

 

 

More consolations of endings

1080863I love the sculptural qualities and the sheer complexity of this seed head.  It’s a wild carrot – Daucus carota – and this one was photographed earlier in the autumn on the Llyn Peninsula. The incurved stalks (peduncles I suppose) always seem protecting and enclosing of the dead flowers and long-gone seeds, and the whole shape resembles an old style willow lobster pot.

The procession of the seasons never really gives us the excuse to feel sorry for ourselves.  Like the procession of the stars, the seasons  (and all plants have their individual seasons), begin and end at the same time and place.  I remember what a revelation it was, when I was very young,  to discover that where the leaves fell from the conker trees, the new bud – perfectly formed – was all ready to go. In general the plants in autumn and winter are more sculptural and in spring and summer, the more painterly hues and impressionist sweeps of colour take precedence, but there’s never a time when nothing is happening. Just now much of the action is at ground level where the rosettes of next years plants are in plain view. Go take a look – it’s all there!

A smelly discovery at the botanical gardens

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Maidenhair Tree – Ginkgo biloba

But first, writing this is pure heaven because – thanks to a surprise gift from our son – I’ve finally migrated out of the Apple empire into the equally dubious but far more joined-up empire of Android. It was a tremendous gift because I was expecting a small tablet and when I opened the box it turned out to be a full-on laptop, all of which meant that with a bit of jiggery pokery, a few face to face tutorials from him, and a whole lot of automatic stuff the whole system works brilliantly. Just to recap I’d already inherited his previous Google Pixel phone a couple of weeks ago and this weekend, with the new laptop, I moved the last few files across and I no longer had to wait 25 minutes for my ancient MacBook to boot up and wheeze its way to some kind of functionality. I’m overjoyed at the knowledge that I can just get on with writing and not have to spend hours cleaning the system because the 4Gb RAM filled up with junk. I can even look at all the photos in the library without having to stop for a coffee in the middle of  a session. My ancient dread at changing operating systems turned out to be a folk tale put about by Apple. A couple of days offline was all it took. The Potwell Inn carrier pigeons and the old smoke signal machine have been retired to the outdoor privvy.

But back to today and, system up and running, we all went for  a walk up to the Botanical Gardens. The gardens have lots of good stuff in them but with constant budget cutbacks it’s a largely voluntary effort these days, and bits of the gardens are a bit rough round the edges.  However we had great fun using the Google Lens features on our phones to identify some of the plants and bushes in flower – it’s surprisingly accurate, quite as fast as some of the paid-for apps I’ve used in the past and well worth trying out, if only to narrow down the choices before making a formal ID using a key. We didn’t need to look for the Ginkgo because there was a nice big label on the tree.

There was no problem, then, in identifying the tree but the most interesting thing was the smell of the fruits rotting on the ground. I really didn’t know that they smelt so bad until we walked through the gate and T said “ugh – what’s that smell?” What indeed? A  quick check and we were offered rancid butter and vomit as possible descriptions.  I’d say dog poo and dead sheep came into it as well. For a plant with such powerful healing qualities it certainly does its bit to repel visitors. Fortunately the leaves were well beyond being worth saving and we’ve no means of extracting oil from the single seed inside the fruits, and so we escaped with a little more knowledge but no further need for dealing with the stink. The tree was right next to the entrance and it wasn’t hard to see other visitors taking surreptitious looks at the rest of us to see who’d stepped in something.

Late autumn and winter’s a funny time.  Everything feels as if it’s shutting down, but if you have a hunt around there are lovely things to be found.  The purple berries of the Callicarpa bodinieri were lovely, and the Verbena brasiliensis too was showing off just a bit. But I’m a sucker even for drifts of dead plants, and the birds in the area must be able to take advantage of the seed heads as a food source. 

As the solstice gets closer I get just an occasional insight into the significance of this season. As a sunshine loving activist I’m inclined to get fretful if I can’t get out on to the ground, and yet dealing with dearth and plenty, feast and famine, is fundamental to our human-ness. The earth is a complex, dynamic and interrelated system that has its own idea of what constitutes good practice. An annual season of reflection and contemplation is essential for our welfare. Screaming at an empty supermarket shelf because something we want isn’t there, is a sign that we need to get out more – not find a way of squeezing another crop out of the exhausted earth. So bring it on – the solstice will soon be here.

Pot bellied stoves, eyebright and portraits

MVIMG_20191107_115056There’s a shed with a chimney down on the allotments next to Bath Deep Lock on the Kennet and Avon Canal, and on cold days like this an inviting whisp of smoke goes up, suggesting a pot bellied stove and a comfortable carver chair. This, in my view, ought to be a part of every allotment so that on days unsuitable for gardening, some contemplative tea drinking could take place.  However, the rules are strict and this is not permitted on our site.  Our community hut is well on the way to collapsing and so we can’t have those days of idle chatter and shared plans – which is a shame, because from October until March we pretty much retreat from being a community and become singleton allotmenteers, wrapped in double layers of outer clothes and scarves and sharing nodding acknowledgements across the open spaces.

Which said, the winter opens up a number of other ways of idling a cold day away, aside from turning bue in a fierce north easterly. Shopping is one of the less favoured distractions but on our way through town yesterday we caught sight of an apothacary shop selling all sorts of herbal remedies. Buying some kind of eyebright preparation has been on my to-do list for ages.  I’ve had streaming eyes for as long as I can remember, I’m sure people passing me in the street think I’ve just had some terrible news – and I’ve had my eyes examined, put all manner of drops in and taken antihistamine tablets to the point where I was seriously bothered about the effect they might be having on me.  Nothing works.

I’m quite a shy person (don’t laugh) and so shops can be a bit of a challenge, but I went in and was skewered by an assistant with piercing blue eyes and an evagelical faith in the products.  “Got anything with eyebright in it?” I asked. A tiny and hideously expensive phial was produced and as she slipped into her sales pitch I knew I wasn’t going to get away without a whole new theology. “It’s got eyebright and hyaluronic acid in it”,  she said, – “I wear contact lenses and it’s brilliant”. I tried not to look alarmed at the prospect of dropping any kind of acid into my eyes and recalled the name being mentioned alongside a number of trending facial care products, so I acquieced and handed over the loot. I’ve been using them for 24 hours and they certainly ease the redness and irritation so it’s either another example of the placebo effect or they really work.  Either way round I’m happy – but the piercing eyes, oh my, I felt wholly unworthy!  Give me the earthy philoshophy of the tudor herbalists any day.

Then, later to a book signing at Toppings where we heard Celia Paul talking about, and reading from her new book “Self Portrait”. Another set of memorable blue eyes to cope with I’m afraid, but hers were altogether mistier and greyer. I’m hardly breaking any confidences to say that she had a ten year affair with Lucian Freud which began when she was an eighteen year old student at the Slade, and he was a visiting lecturer in his fifties. All this happened many years ago and she is now recognised as a painter in her own right.  The book is, I think, her way of putting her side of a complex story which has recently been told in another biography of Freud where what must have been quite a profound relationship is kind-of airbrushed away.

It was’t a huge crowd, and she was both present and not present in the room as a kind of wraith; her sentences tailed off, she spoke very quietly responding to questions without once looking at the audience.  By the end I was almost sure she’d finish the talk with a “but”.  Actually she writes very well and read her work beautifully but it was painfully obvious that she’s a solitary, a contemplative anchoress in her upper storey studio overlooking the British Museum.

This morning I woke very early with my mind full of her ghostly presence. Back in the 70’s, relationships between older lecturers and young female art students were almost two a penny, but now they’re be properly regarded as completely no-go. The ‘me too’ movement has swept through the acting and modelling sectors, but not – so far – the art schools.  If the lid ever comes off that one there will be some truly shocking abuses of power brought to light.

Enough of these gloomy thoughts. Celia, herself, most certainly doesn’t regard herself as any kind of victim, but her life, and the difficult choices she’s made in order to continue her painting are hard to ignore. We were glad to escape into the cold night.

This year we’ve given up the idea of a Christmas tree and spent the money on a set of LED’s outside the windows that we can share with all our neighbours, and as we walked back we could spot them from 100 yards away, rather blowsy and definitely lowering the tone of the green.  We await a visit from the planners.

 

Mexican fleabane bids for world domination

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I am absolutely full of admiration for this little plant. Three years ago someone further up the street planted some in a container and ever since then it’s made a slow march towards us, colonising every spare crack in the pavement. It’s tough, that’s for sure – forget anything the books say – it’s enjoyed relentless heat during the summer on the south facing terrace outside, and after the first hard frost I popped downstairs to see how it was and, as you can see, it’s still going strong. Every summer our caretaker, in her relentless pursuit of a sterile landscape, douses it in Roundup despite our protestations.  The man from the council – if he’s got a minute – hoes it off too and the dear old fleabane shrugs its shoulders in a planty sort of way and gets on with its long march to the western seas. Interestingly, its cousin the Canadian fleabane keeled over after the frost – which seemed counterintuitive, but then, plants don’t read textbooks.

Meanwhile the allotment is in winter mode.  Apart from the turnips, celery, celeriac,  beetroot, spinach  – actually I’ll take back what I just wrote – what I should have said was that much of the allotment is in winter mode. In truth the early purple sprouting is just beginning to push out little buds where the crop will soon appear. Every year we say it’s a waste of space because they take so long to grow, and every year we change our minds when we eat the spears.

We’re well into the winter truce, and while the allotment takes a deep breath and digests all the compost we’ve put on, Madame and me negotiate next year’s ideas. We’ve agreed (without rancour) that we’ll grow more cut flowers and increase the number and quantity of culinary herbs because they’re so expensive to buy. Whether I’ll get away with any more medicinal herbs remains to be seen but Calendula, lavender, thyme and hyssop will be there with many others in any case and most of the ‘wilder’ ones are great pollinators  – plus they’re beautiful.

Many of the typical ‘medicine chest’ herbs grow wild locally and could be foraged carefully without any adverse impact. I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing this – it’s not as if I’m a great consumer of herbal remedies, in fact I’m a bit scared of some of them, but they’re a part of the ‘gift’ of nature; deeply entrenched in our culture – especially our literary culture – and to know some of the properties of plants helps to foster a non-dualistic, non religious worldview.  That sound much grander than it’s meant to – when  looking at a plant becomes a kind of beholding, something happens at a level much deeper than the rational.  I suppose I could resort to that overused term spiritual, but I’d rather think of it as a deeper level of being human – no supernatural concepts are needed.

Anyway, the advantage of a bit more time is that it means a bit more time in the kitchen and the beginning of the annual war on black mould.  Living in a concrete building means learning some new skills and avoiding using the filthy smelling chemicals used for combating mould has been a priority.  But we’ve been experimenting with white vinegar which must work by changing the pH of the plaster.  Initial results look good and diluted vinegar is brilliant for cleaning the windows as well. Meanwhile it’s been bread, cakes, and pancake experiments for me.  The winter is a real change of gear, with abundant lectures, talks and exhibitions here in Bath.  Tonight we’re off to a book signing by Celia Paul, who has an exhibition on at the same time as her book is published and was  Lucian Freud’s muse.  I’m wondering how she’ll handle it because she’s reputed to be rather shy and not given to small talk. Her sister, Jane Williams, was my tutor for a while.

 

Ordinary – must clean the hob!

IMG_20191119_092759My mother was very good at the forensic gaze. This morning’s kitchen would have troubled her, I’m certain, but I didn’t even notice that it’s pretty filthy until I put it on the screen. That’s the way of things, I suppose – most of our interiors (mental as well as domestic) would look pretty grubby and a bit random if we were to examine them with the cold eye of a picture editor. But we don’t, and I took the photo to remind myself of the great joys of the ordinary over and against the set-piece strutting that we’d prefer to have you believe about us.

The kettle rarely comes off the hob.  The Potwell Inn, surprisingly perhaps, runs on tea.  Recently we’ve increased our repertore of tea – black tea in the mornings, green tea most of the day and chamomile tea at night.  Since we took a break from the booze we feel better, sleep better and – well – drink tea. The way I make porridge would annoy all purists, GP’s and food faddists – made, as it is, with full cream milk, salt, and eaten with a bit of sugar.  However it lasts all day and reduces fridge-raiding which tends to involve lumps of cheese, so I suppose – on balance – it’s largely neutral. Today the kefir was left sulking in the fridge because it was the coldest night of the season so far and we both fancied something hot.

The loaf of bread is my cover for the grubby hob.  It wasn’t taken out of the oven until late yesterday evening. It was one of those doughs that wasn’t quite right – a bit soft but not at all sticky; not sticky that is, until I came to tip it out of the banneton when it growled at me and refused to budge. After a little stand-off I finally dragged it out, but it left a substantial dollop of dough behind and the loaf itself was far too soft to slash in the usual way, so it had a homeopathic tickle with the knife and went into the oven.  I’ve discovered over the years that making bread needs a similar mindset to making raku pottery.  Letting things be seems to work best. However the whole process involved a good deal of escaping rice flour – which is usually the best for releasing the dough from the banneton – mess which I couldn’t be bothered to clear up apart from a cursory wipe with a cloth before bed.

The ordinary, the homely is the warp of the enterprise of being human and the experiences of the day are the weft.  Together they make cloth – in my case probably some sort of rough old drill and in yours, possibly, evanescent silk. I hacked a crust off the loaf this morning and it was lovely – it was individual; itself. Like Ryokan’s poetry.