Or, if you prefer, all this stuff takes a lot of effort to get from the top to the bottom of the site. We’re incredibly lucky to get almost unlimited free supplies of wood-chip and leaves from the Parks Department, and so a problem for them turns into an opportunity for us – one which is happily taken up by the allotmenteers who get quite competitive about the leaves in particular. We’ve got hold of a couple of 1000Kg builders bags, which are perfect for storing leaves, and as they compact and begin to rot we just top them up as long as there are leaves to be had. Almost all the books tell you that it takes a couple of years to reduce them to compost, but they’ll be pretty good mulch by next summer and we’re planning to accelerate the decomposition by adding what some modest folks call ‘human activator’ or diluted (10:1) urine which works incredibly well for the compost as well.
The wood-chip is equally useful (as I posted a couple of days ago) and so it is was gratifying to see both piles getting bigger and bigger up at the top. Meanwhile the timber arrived today for the next batch of bed building. I’m full of admiration for Chris the delivery driver who was carrying three 16′ boards at a time down the slope to our plot. I could just manage one at a time, but he’s made of steel!
But the point about the farmer’s boot is that all that fetching and carrying also allows a lot of time for thinking, and time without number the solution to a problem has presented itself unbidden while I’ve been shovelling and carrying back and forth. Today it was the turn of the the new compost bins. I confess to begrudging any growing space to the utilities, but our present composting method using cylinders made from sheep fencing presents real problems when it comes to turning the heap. So today I decided to use one of the 12′ X 4′ beds and use it for three square compost bins side-by-side, so we can turn them easily and frequently. Then I decided to build a ‘floating’ hot bed container that can be moved from bed to bed each year, working our way around all the beds one at a time.
Finally we’re going to refurbish the ramshackle supports for the grape vines that did us so well this year. I love a good project, and I can’t wait to get going – just give us some dry weather for a couple of weeks and we’ll be fine. But one of the new beds needs to be built quickly because today I took a peep at the propagators in the greenhouse, and next spring’s broad beans have started to germinate.
I can sense the raised eybrows over the expense and it’s true, some people make lovely and productive allotments using nothing but recycled materials. As always I’d argue that you mustn’t let the perfect drive out the good. It works for us and we’re probably 80% self-sufficient for vegetables. One person’s summer holiday is another person’s allotment …. or perhaps three allotments! All I know is that our two plots give us more pleasure than any of the other things we could spend our money on.
The little boy on the right is me, and it’s my sister who’s got her hand in the feed bucket. The photo was taken probably 67 years ago on my Grandfather’s smallholding in Stoke Row, Oxfordshire. In those days there were red squirrels in the woods behind, and now it’s an industrial estate. But this isn’t a lament for lost idylls, I’m making a much bolder claim. TPC was a carpenter from generations of carpenters who had assimilated what’s now called ‘generic’ building into their bones. He retired three times, his last job was as foreman on a restoration project working on medieval buildings in Bristol. He wasn’t an historian, he just knew how timber frames worked in the days when the knowledge was all-but lost, and he was 70 years old, younger than me now, but not that much.
A few months back I was laying the foundations for the greenhouse on the allotment and as I was trowelling sand between the flags I tapped the edge of the trowel twice on the slab . It was an instinctive gesture that went off like a fuse, deep in my memory, because I knew that I had learned that simple and completely unnecessary gesture from him. And I realized too that I had learned everything I was doing that morning from my grandfather and my father. That memory of helping my grandfather to feed the hens, too, is one of the threads from which the Potwell Inn is constructed.
Then yesterday I was working on the allotment when two of the grandchildren turned up and I knew that there was a duty inscribed in my memory that I needed to carry out. Here it is: the ride in the wheelbarrow – deeply subversive it turns out and rather like laying down wine for the future.
I compiled these statistics on 3rd April this year because my sceptical mind was making me curious as to whether the spring had been quite as wet as the newspapers were suggesting. Please look away now if you find this stuff boring, I wouldn’t blame you but for me it’s invaluable to look at the data before I start building the ark! There’s loads more on the site for non geeks!
These are the rain totals for Bath during Jan, Feb, March in mm
2007 4, 65, 97, 172.7
2008 183, 55, 119, 358.4
2009 No data
2010 62, 104 , 41, 208.3
2011 58, 58, 13, 129.6
2012 38, 30, 31, 100.4
2013 68, 17, 56, 142.6
2014 97, 77, 44, 219.2
2015 71, 41, 23, 136.6
2016 No data
2017 49, 42, 41, 133,
2018 91, 24, 101, 216.8,
So the median figure is 139.6mm and the average is 181.8.
Allowing for some missing data from 2009 and 2016 I think this shows that the year so far has been the third wettest since 2007; higher than average and much higher than the mean for the first three months. Which all goes to show that it’s wet, but not by any means biblically wet, just part of life’s rich tapestry! The figure for 2008 is interesting because that turned out to be a year of awful summer floods, and you can see that the ground was already saturated only to be drenched by heavy rain in August.
The Met Office data give the monthly averages as 82, 53 and 63mm giving a total of 199.4mm and that covers 1981 – 2010; so by that standard this spring is pretty average.
And so the traditional planting of potatoes on Good Friday begins to look a bit shaky because Easter Day can be any one of 35 possible days between March 22nd and April 25th and Good Friday could be any time from 19th March and 23rd April which covers a multitude of weather possibilities.
Wouldn’t it be sensible to plant potatoes some time around the second week of April which should see us free of frost before the shoots emerge?
Well that bold statement in April didn’t anticipate the “Beast from the East” a month later, and which felled our first planting of runner beans on May 1st. However the spuds we sufficiently underground to survive the onslaught. Here’s my diary entry for 16th April:
“Finally, after lunch I set out the rows for the potatoes (“measure twice, cut once”) and set about planting. I got the Sarpo Mira, the Desiree and the Pink Fir Apple in but then I ran out of space. In the plan I’d allocated twice as much space, but the purple sprouting and the other brassicas are still occupying the adjoining patch so the Jazzy and the remains of the Red Duke of York are going to have to go in one of the new beds on 168B. Still, it was a brilliant day and we achieved a lot. Now I ache in every bone and sinew and tomorrow I have to start all over building a new bed and path, digging the whole piece and fertilising it and then planting the remaining potatoes. But at least they’ll all be in.
The water level in the the trial hole next to the Lord Lambourne apple has dropped by two inches and the bottom is almost dry, so that’s great news and takes some of the pressure off. [Madame} has also been busy weeding so the plots are looking very good.”
While I’m on the subject of spring, it’s worth talking also about springs. The allotment stands at the bottom of the Avon Valley, overlooked by the southern end of the Cotswolds. So in wet weather there’s a great deal of water heading in the direction of the river. The old timers on the site tell me that there are three underground streams crossing it and there’s certainly evidence of one of them which flows across the pavement and on to the main road. I’m wondering whether our plots are near the course of one of them, which is good news and bad news depending on the season. As the photo of the trial hole shows, waterlogging is a real problem and so I hope all the remedial measures will help a bit otherwise we’ll be looking at more expensive options like land drains.
Great excitement at the Potwell Inn last night as I got the plot drawings out and prepared an order for the next batch of edging boards. The timber is quite expensive and so we can only buy it in batches as funds permit. I can get ten 6′ boards into the car, but it can be extremely hazardous driving down the steep hill into Bath, with a hundredweight of timber seesawing next to my left ear. The sawmill sales staff occasionally cheer me up with tales of poked out windscreens and totally destroyed dashboards.
So then I was wide awake at 2.00am pondering whether I’d got the measurements right, and whether the plots should be orientated North/South or East/West. I’m sure I went through this when I drew the plans but you know how it is in the middle of the night., insomnia gardening is the pits! Then I started worrying about the expense, do we really need all that new timber? Well there are two or three good reasons for moving to beds.
We have a real drainage problem on our plots, and last winter we couldn’t get on it for months for fear of compacting the soil and making it worse. That was the major reason for dividing the wettest of the plots into beds as soon as possible in the spring. I hesitate to call them “raised” beds because as we were digging them we were also levelling the soil which slopes downhill, and we wanted to introduce a degree of terracing. So what with about a ton of topsoil bought in, and more bags of composted manure than I dare put a price to, we’ve landed up with level terraced beds bordered with 22mm X 200mm gravel boards secured with long wooden pegs.
This is one of two 5′ beds
In order to assist drainage, the paths were dug out to about 18″ deep and a layer of gravel was poured in and covered with wood-chip, barrow loads of it, which is free on our site. The soil from the paths was used to raise the beds. I don’t much like plastic sheets or weed control mat because in my experience weeds very quickly overcome them and I wanted the maximum possible speed of drainage from the beds, besides which they never decompose and present a problem for the future. It’s worked very well so far, and apart from regularly hand weeding out the occasional Olympic athletes of the weed world like couch grass and bindweed, the paths have been maintenance free – except for the fact that bacteria, fungi and worms just love the material and it quickly decomposes into friable compost causing them to shrink. I love the thought that even the paths are adding to the organic material on the plots. That’s why I think they should be described as ‘forest paths’.
So to defend the expense – reason one is drainage. Reason two is to move towards ‘no-dig’ gardening and let the worms do the work. I’ve yet to be persuaded that it’s wormageddon if you lift spuds with a fork, but there’s a vast difference between gently lifting a potato haulm or a parsnip with a fork, and double digging the plot from end to end. Reason three is ease of maintenance of the beds. With a 4′ bed you can do everything you need from the path and never compact the soil. Of course you can leave gaps between rows on bare soil, but come February and they’ll be poached and compacted.
Anyway, the order went in this morning and it will be delivered on Friday. I love a bit of civil engineering, and if you look under the net to the right of the path in the photo above, you’ll see that next season’s garlic is already enjoying being tucked up in bed for the winter. My job today was to top up the paths and level them again. It’ll probably amount to fifty barrow loads before we’re completely finished, but the beds look lovely and they’re dead easy to manage.
The other job was to start filling our collection of builders’ delivery bags with leaves to make leaf mould. It’s amazing how quickly it breaks down. Last autumn we spread 4-6″ of leaves on to two beds and there was virtually nothing left by this spring – the worms had done all the work for us and we grew some lovely spuds on one of the beds.
“Provinder,” he whispered, drawing near to the Inn. “Cold sirlion for choice. And nut-brown brew and wheaten bread.”
Madame has pointed out that there is a major historical error at the Potwell Inn, inasmuch as there are no pickled eggs lurking darkly at the back of the bar – and therefore she is not able to indulge her favourite passion for consuming them, lurking like reproachful sheep’s eyes, at the bottom of a packet of crisps. I pointed out that the Inn is trying to move with the 20th century and may well introduce “Chicken in a Basket” at some point, and in any case Alfred Polly suffered terribly with indigestion and so pickled eggs were not his ‘thing’ as it were. Furthermore I could find no reference to them anywhere in the novel.
However a happy landlady is a happy pub, and so I have bowed to her pressure and produced a jar for her exclusive use. We always treasure our customer feedback. I must clean behind the cooker at some point!
I 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.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.
So 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.
I’d like to pay tribute to the absolute pleasures of the ordinary – in fact I think it deserves to be capitalised. The Ordinary stands for something very special. It’s our ‘daily bread’, the epiousios, the around and about us things that turn life from drudgery to joy.
Madame and I never had any money, never owned any property and, for the majority of our working lives have never done anything glamorous, well paid, or even full-time. Even the Potwell Inn is borrowed from a book! We’ve been supported by many kind and generous people who loaned us cars and cottages so that we could have holidays we could never otherwise have afforded. There are days like today when I feel we’ve lived richer lives than we could ever dream of when we were young. I’m not sure I could explain the visceral pleasure of spooning out home-made piccalilli, or seeing the table set for breakfast with three sorts of jam and marmalade, all tasting much better than the stuff you can buy, and all costing a fraction of the price. For goodness sake, it’s even enjoyable making it!
But I need to explain the capitalisation of the word ‘Ordinary’ because in this case I want to preserve a number of meanings in one term. The first two meanings come from the Christian church. The Ordinary, normally the bishop, is the person of ultimate authority in the diocese. It carries the sense that the ‘ordinary doesn’t just happen, it has to be nurtured.
Then there’s the sense of ‘ordinary time’ which, in the church calendar, means all the weeks that aren’t parts of special seasons like Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. Although it looks as if those seasons cover the bulk of the year, they only include about half the Sundays, from memory, so ordinary time doesn’t mean ordinary in the sense of ‘not worth bothering about’, but the bits of the year that are under the control of the Ordinary. What this complex idea offers is the sense that the administration of day-to-day, moment-to-moment ordinary life commands attention and respect.
A second layer of meaning comes from Ordinary Mind Zen Buddhism and the words that follow were spoken by Dizang:
You come here and use words like ‘tranquillity,’ ‘reality,’ ‘perfection,’ or ‘constancy.’ Worthy practitioners! What is this that you call ‘tranquil’ or ‘real?’ What is it that’s ‘perfect’ or ‘constant?’… Sounds and forms assault us every moment. Do you directly face them or not? If you face them directly then your diamond-solid concept of self will melt away. How can this be? Because these sounds penetrate your ears and these forms pierce your eyes, you are overwhelmed by conditions. You are killed by delusion. There’s not enough room inside of you for all of these sounds and forms.
‘Perfection.’ ‘Constancy.’ ‘Tranquillity.’ ‘Reality.’ Who talks like this? Normal people in the village don’t talk like this. It’s just some old sages that talk this way and a few of their wicked disciples that spread it around!
The words are quoted by Andy Ferguson in a webpage called tricycle.org, and he says this :
The “sublime gate” of signlessness is not at all empty of meaning. Traditionally, taking Zen’s signless path leads first to perceiving, then seeing through, reincarnation, the “wheel of birth and death.” What is quite profound is then inextricable from what is entirely ordinary. It is passages about the “ordinary,” where the difference between sacred and mundane is forgotten, that Zen literature takes on its peculiar flavor.
So Ordinary Mind is far from ordinary. Sacred and mundane are inextricable from one another. Stamp and circumponce are not needed, although the capitals are needed to remind us to slow down and pay attention.
A third thread is simply that ordinary is good. We’ve become so addicted to the exceptional, the sensational, the ‘out of the ordinary’, that we’ve lost the real treasure that lies everywhere at hand. I’ve been reading Richard Mabey’s lovely book on weeds which perfectly expresses the wonder of the riches we disdain to pay attention to. We’ve become spiritually and emotionally stunted, blundering around the word easing our pain with synthetic and powerful experiences of which we have no ownership.
Ordinary is another way of expressing the much misunderstood virtue of humility. As William Blake expressed it – “the world in a grain of sand”.
Auguries of Innocence
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour …….
I could as easily cite John Clare and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
So there it is. The Ordinary is a spiritual concept, expressed – in this case – by a few bottles of home made elderflower cordial that we bottled one morning, and some bread baked overnight. After a long day on the allotment, when we leave in the evening and turn back to look at it we’re filled with joy and amazement, and often overwhelmed by that sense of grace that flows from the Ordinary.
Megilp is not the hero of a western, but one of those words that get lodged in your mind and can’t be shifted. It first entered my head from the pages of a Windsor and Newton catalogue C1964 and it’s lived a kind of shadowy existence there ever since, emerging from time to time especially in art galleries. It sometimes comes in its original and incorrect form ‘meglip’ which was how I misread and remembered it first; so now when it emerges I have to go through this routine of remembering and then correcting the misremembered word. It is megilp and it is a painting medium, and I have just asked this computer to remember it too.
Megilp. If you Google it you’ll discover that it is a mixture of some kind of mastic, a natural resin, and linseed oil – more usually I think boiled linseed oil. Boiling the oil makes it set, or dry quicker and the added mastic gives the medium an unctuous and shiny quality which was much admired by painters notwithstanding its dodgy reputation for turning yellow and aging badly.
You see, I can talk about it now and in a school for artistic bluffers I’d be the Principal but then, in the pages of a very small (the size of a mobile phone) catalogue, it was suffused with a kind of mystery. What was megilp? What indeed were many other things in the catalogue. I dreamed of burnt sienna – I could almost feel the heat of an imagined Italian sun. The names of the colours alone were the passport into an imaginary world of incredible richness. The oils and pigments were for me a pharmacopeia of forbidden and illicit sensations. In my imagination I would load one of the hideously expensive boxes with even more hideously expensive colours and set out with my carefully chosen palette and my easel and I would ……Here the fantasy ran into the sand because I had never learned the skills to make a painting. Colour charts, though, were like maps to me. Each colour was the trigger to a sensation, a flavour if you like that unlocked feelings through its power of association. Cerulean blue held the power of the summer sky, while the ochres were landscapes reduced to simples. Their proper names became metaphors for the feelings they evoked.
And the words would pop out from my jackdaw memory whenever I smelt linseed or turpentine. If I saw a painting, particularly, let’s say something from the Newlyn School, a Stanhope Forbes for instance, a Matthew Smith or a Sargeant I would look at the sumptuous fat colour and the word megilp would insinuate itself into my mind. It wouldn’t be a French painting of course – I don’t know why, but megilp seems such an English word. It belongs with cowslip and cats ear.
Lists, classifications and categories become a kind of obsession. I could write my personal history by listing catalogues I’ve fallen in love with. Actually the series would have to begin with my own children’s’ encyclopaedia which was my first gateway into the seductive joys of words, it it was – in its way – a catalogue because each word had its own illustration and so from the earliest age I learned to associate words with pictures. The original ‘house’ was a lovely brick building in some leafy part of, let’s imagine, Surrey. Necessarily it became an iconographic building against which all other houses would need to be judged.
After that it was an Ellison’s catalogue and I lusted after itching powder and a Seebackroscope. I could furnish the complete works of Jung with dreams based on that catalogue. Secret powers, magic tricks and disappearing ink were all available and (because I never bought any of them), they never ever let me down. It was sufficient to know that such things existed.
Then there was the John Hall tool catalogue where I first encountered the bolster and the slater’s ripper. I adored and even bought a couple of box handled chisels which I still treasure fifty years later. They were naturally ‘firmer’ chisels and ‘though I had no idea quite what distinguished them from any other type, it please me to know that there was such a difference. Other tools were beyond avarice. A series of illustrated cabinet maker’s planes of such beauty I could fall asleep while fondling them in my imagination.
Then came Winsor and Newton and later, when I was in my twenties, The Whole Earth Catalogue which was the granddaddy of them all, and the loss of my copy grieves me still. Could you imagine what it would be like to own a knife forged from old Chevrolet springs?
Later again it was cookery books. Who could resist the thought of a cardamom or lardon? What of a mandoline that silently took the ends off your fingers. And pottery too. I fell in love with Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” because I was overwhelmed by the thought of Varcoe’s Ball Clay. Was there a Mister Varcoe ? and did he operate a small claypit surrounded by harts tongue fern and tussocky grass? Then came plants because words like toothwort and purging buckthorn were more beautiful to me than spring days because I could evoke them at will. I dragged these catalogues around with me like a comfort blanket and they stocked my vocabulary with all those delightful words each of which conjures up a picture.
There used to be a wonderful firm of ironmongers in Bath called Hine and Collinson. They were like the typesetters to my imagination. They could reliably furnish the most obscure object you’d ever found a word for. A man in a brown coat would go off in search of a ‘double duplex lamp glass’ and lo he would reappear from the dusty warehouse some time later with the very word objectified in a brown paper parcel. It was there I saw my first Tilley Lamp, an event which was for me like meeting Helen of Troy (which reminds me of a joke told to me by Mike Harris: Question …‘what is a millihelen?’ Answer …. ‘the amount of beauty required to launch one ship.’)
When at school we learned the poem ‘The naming of parts’ the irony escaped me completely and I was transported by the names of the parts of a gun. Words do that to me. Each one is like a precious stone with its own picture and its own special feeling which can be threaded one after another like stones in a necklace.
“Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica.
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.
OK so it’s not the prettiest sight, a very dirty hand, but I’ve come to see that sometimes the best therapy for November is getting out on the ground. I remember one of my spiritual directors once saying to me (at about this time of year) “there’s nothing wrong with you that a bit of sunshine won’t put right” and today, after a very grey day yesterday, that’s exactly what did the trick.
Yesterday I didn’t post because we spent the day with my old friend Big Al, and his wife. I’ve known them both for 28 years. Al was the very first person I met when I took on my first parish. I was sent to placate him one night because the Acting Head of the school in which I’d automatically become Chair of Governors, had made a disastrously bad decision. I think I was thrown over the wall to take the flack. The monstrous parent I was sent to sort out had, I quickly realized, got a real case. We got along famously from that moment and we’ve shared some great adventures together. It was Al who took me to Compiegne where the armistice was signed on November 11th 1918. We stood quietly immersed in our own thoughts in front of the railway carriage deep in the woods where the war ended. We were delivering some furniture to a place in Belgium, and apart from having the scary experience of driving the Green Goddess, a borrowed veg lorry, around the Periferique in Paris, we managed to visit as many 1st World War cemeteries as he could fit in. In Arras I got really ill and Al looked after me, calling the doctor and dealing with Madame (basically by not telling her). We stood at Vimy Ridge together in awe at the monstrous craters and the sheer number of dead. He’s traced and visited every single war grave of every soldier who came from the parish and died in action. I’m proud to call him a friend.
With Armistice Day on Sunday (it’s all been on my mind this week), I had a curious experience in Bath a couple of days ago as I walked past the Post Office into Green Street. I turned the corner and I suddenly felt the presence of children there- but not there – if that’s not too strange. They seemed to be sad, fearful, suffering souls asking me to help them or perhaps just to remember them. It was such a powerful experience I had to struggle to deal with it. But it’s bearing down on me to say that just remembering alone isn’t enough if it doesn’t change our behaviour. Why are we celebrating the dead of 100 years ago when we’re still manufacturing and selling weapons that we know are being used to kill and maim civilians and above all children? Are the employment statistics so important that they’re worth killing children for? That’s why it was a grey day yesterday.
So I’ve said it and it feels good. Madame is very sensitive to my melancholic states and she knows what’s good for me. Yesterday I coped by cooking for Al and Helen. I made the very last fresh tomato soup of the year as the rotting remains of the tomatoes damaged by the recent frost went on to the compost heap. It was a recipe from the Leith Vegetable Bible, and we were really delighted with it. Making veg stock is such a good way of using up the inevitable scraps from cooking. I think I rate this new addition to the library – two recipes and two successes.
This morning, with a bit of prompting from Senior Management we went up and spent the day at the allotment once I’d made some bread, labelled all the blackcurrant cordial, whizzed up the chilli sauce and labelled the blackcurrant jam. I’m very adept at displacement activity. Interestingly, this years is so much more flavourful than the last year’s batch we just finished – at least according to my breakfast slice of toast, spread with samples of both. The chilli sauce is so fragrant I could eat it by the spoonful. Say what you will, home produced food tastes just so much better.
So now we’ve planted all the alliums – 5 sorts of garlic, 2 of shallots, onion sets, and prepped the spring bed for leeks. We’ve planted broad beans ( Aquadulce Claudia) and overwintering peas (Douce Provence) and last of all, as it was getting dark, I grease -banded all the trees. What a filthy job! It took 3 washes of surgical spirit to break down the sticky coating on my hands. But the allotment looks great and I felt a whole lot better. It’s a good reason for prescribing gardening as a treatment for modern life. Cheap, drug free and free exercise as well. Oh and the root veg are doing so well.
Another bit of writing from maybe 10 years ago. I’m going to put it in a new category which I’ll call ‘longer writing’, and I’ll add some of the other stuff that fits more comfortably there. It’s fun and I think it still stands up. The obsession with crab sandwiches is still alive and well!
Six months ago, in April, we were in a beach café in Cornwall. It was the notice that caught my eye first. It was to the left of a whole line of fruit sundae goblets on the top shelf; written by hand on a piece of pale brown cardboard that was just an inch too deep for the space it occupied, and so it was folded over at the top and jammed fat-bellied into place. In particular the hand in which the sign was written told its own story as all the letters were inscribed in a slightly florid hand that drew inspiration from a hundred typefaces. The W in waitress resembled Neptune’s fork, which was fortuitous since the café, being perched at the edge of the sea, specialised in seafood. You could only imagine the sign resulting from a particularly trying day when steam clouded the windows and the tourists persisted in queuing at the sweets display. The owner, who was eating with friends near us had, or at least his haircut seemed to have, pretentions, notwithstanding which, I couldn’t think it was he who wrote the notice which was in too feminine hand. I scanned the waiting staff who were waiting indeed since it was a cold but bright day with a cold northerly wind and occasional flurries of hail battering down between periods of sunshine. They were students, any of whom would have knocked out a typographically perfect notice on their computers in less time than it takes to throw two teabags into a stainless steel pot.
Something about the notice seemed to be pushing beyond the pale‑blue painted wooden shingles and the gift shop next door, perched as they were on the edge of a cliff with nowhere else but the sea to expand. Something about the almost innocently applied curlicues and serifs of the felt‑tip writing that subliminally referred to a higher authority, One to whom passes would be shewn, and from whose carriages one might alight rather than simply get off. Something about the plurality of waitresses waiting to attend which elevated the café beyond the ordinary.
And yet it was the ordinary.
Maybe, I thought, the notice was supremely ironic. Maybe it was one of the waiting staff’s idea of a joke – but again a joke at whom? But the staff seemed too young and inexperienced to have developed the necessary detachment for such a quiet joke, and too worldly to be capable of feigning its innocence.
The proprietor’s mother came to mind, and then went again. His partner, perhaps? (assuming he had one) but then I was into the territory of the seaside postcard, of burst pretentions, red noses, weedy men and enormous women. Even storytellers have their limits. Any further investigation would have been pointless because the truth – were it ever possible to know it – would have been simple, indivisible and I suspect rather moving. A moment of innocent aspiration through which a cardboard sign came to embody something a bit weightier than the simple instruction “Don’t queue!” When someone gave a notice something extra and launched it into the world full of hope. Hope for a bigger, better world where hard work might be rewarded and beach huts might mature into restaurants: but eventually, just like those of us who also come to find something beautiful, lost at the sea’s edge, it was washed up on the top shelf, next to the fruit sundae goblets and other lost dreams. Worn down by that other tide that ebbs and flows up and down the motorway.
And weren’t we just a part of that tide? In October of the same year we were back again on an uncannily similar day. Squally north-westerly showers were driving across the coastal path. We had parked in the centre of Lizard village and walked across the fields to Kynance Cove along one of those raised paths you often see in that part of the country where the footpath is actually the top of the wall. There’s always a mild sense of illicit pleasure in following them. Kynance was, as usual crowded with visitors. Apart from one or two teenagers heedlessly surfing in the cold sea, the majority of us were crowding the beach in stout shoes and Gore-Tex jackets. The English middle-classes at leisure, replete with Labradors and wellingtons and loud voices and the certainty that everyone else on the beach will be fascinated to listen in on our conversations. Forty years previously we had stalked the same beach as students, and scraped our last coppers together to buy the best cucumber sandwiches we’d ever tasted. We had slept on the clifftop and camped at a local farm and I’d quietly hated all the people who seemed never to have to worry about money, and who called their children Henry, and who only needed to think of something in order to do it.
Walking then, as now, back to Lizard Point along the cliff nothing had changed. In the intervening years the chough had disappeared and miraculously reappeared a couple of summers previously. We had seen both the last of the original population and the first of the pioneers, newly arrived we were told, from France.
Then, our skin was brown, and our hair was bleached by the same sun that still appeared from time to time between the showers. Unaware of our beauty we resented the very people who would have given their right arms to have a single day of our freedom. It’s a malign culture that can so arrange our consciousness that we rarely understand what bliss is until it slips through our fingers.
Then, we had feasted one day on a plate of ludicrously expensive crab sandwiches and enjoyed every last crumb as if it were the foretaste of a kingdom of plenty in which we would always be the outsiders. So to tell the truth, I suppose half the reason for going back forty years later was to enjoy the sensation of ordering the same round of sandwiches – ‘no – lets have one each’- without caring what it cost. This was something of a challenge because, ‘though we now have a lot more money than we did, the cost of a crab sandwich was on the far side of my pain threshold.
So our revisit in the autumn had more than a touch of the pilgrimage about it. In the meantime I had tried to write about the notice which had unaccountably pressed itself on my attention. Why on earth should a piece of card become the central thought in a piece of writing – except why on earth should it not? It had got under my skin, as had the owner’s haircut, and exposed a vein of mean spiritedness in me that I disliked intensely. The writing – I didn’t know what to call it – had ground to a halt at the point where the real significance of the epiphany had run out, and all I could all upon to complete it seemed hopeless, shoddy, lazy and brutal.
Then we went back and a saw the sign again and I had the sudden urge to photograph it, to preserve it. With a bit of prompting I asked the waitress if she would mind. Was she the waitress though? There was something about her that radiated a bit more authority, as if she was moving in her space. She fitted her skin, which was a surprise because just by virtue of that observable fact my thesis – that the café was the site of an imploded dream – crashed in flames. She didn’t mind, ‘though she asked with a smile if I was photographing it because we had waited for so long. The café was crowded with walkers sheltering from the icy showers. I couldn’t tell her the reason, but she was happy enough for me to take it; she even offered to pose in front of it. ‘No need’ – I thought. We ate our sandwiches which were lovely. Brown bread and butter, crab meat with plenty of the brown meat heaped on. Nothing added and nothing needed. One pot of tea for two. I caught her giving me strange glances from time to time. Why on earth would anyone want to photograph a notice? I kicked myself for not taking up her offer to pose, and yet how would that have helped. She was probably the owner, or the co-owner, or the owner’s partner. They had built up a perfectly lovely café which was the expression of the best they could do there with that particular site and with their particular talents. It was, like every other human enterprise, good – very good in parts. The notice was factual – ‘Please take a seat, a waitress will come to your table.’ Well that’s what happened wasn’t it. Apart from the incredible castles-in-the-air- building capacity of my writer’s imagination.
Then I unexpectedly caught sight of myself for a moment in a large mirror. That’s never a very comfortable moment in my experience, with no time to compose the face and arrange the presentation. Just another middle aged, middle class bloke in an expensive waterproof jacket. Who, I thought, was feeling sorry for whom? Isn’t there always something melancholy about the seaside? That’s why we go there – to remind ourselves of our finitude. To listen to the melancholy soft withdrawing roar of our own aspirations and, if we are very lucky to eat a crab sandwich and laugh out loud at our pretentions.