Ten top tips for bloggers

You know how it always takes a while to figure out what’s going on, but surely (at least in the UK) we can agree that it’s a cold spring – and I don’t mean that we’ve had some cold weather because that goes without saying, but after being lulled into a sense that winter is over by a couple of balmy days, we’ve gone backwards by what feels like six weeks; chilled by a seemingly immovable wind from the northeast which only occasionally swings around to the west to gather some more sleet. Over in France and Spain too they’ve experienced some very extensive damage to crops, including grape vines. It’s difficult to make a direct link to the climate emergency but these extreme events have every appearance of being the smoking gun. Something’s wrong when the average temperature is way below normal and yet we’re having to water because the earth is so dry. “That’s gardening” we say to ourselves hopefully – “… you win some and you lose some”; but are we just kidding ourselves? In Bath we’ve had to cope with illegal levels of atmospheric pollution for years because local politics has been torn between reducing traffic and increasing income from students, businesses and tourism. Now, to add to the evil mix, the SUV has become the vehicle of choice for city centre aspirationals. It seems we all agree that something must be done, but the proposals for reducing traffic have been so watered down by the tourism and transport lobbies that the politicians are running scared. Councillors elected on a green manifesto to reduce traffic have crumpled under the pressure and there are rumours of palace revolutions while local bloggers have poured out their bile on those of us who challenge their so-called ancient freedoms – like driving a three litre Range Rover 1/4 mile to collect Tarquin and Cressida from school.

Anyway, all this cold weather presents us with a storage problem at the Potwell Inn, because a traffic jam of tender plants has built up and is now occupying every conceivable space in the flat, leaving nowhere to germinate the next wave of cucurbits; the cucumbers, squashes and melons – not to mention the sweetcorn and the runner (pole) beans. We’ve hatched a plan to construct a third unheated propagator under our original daylight fluorescent lamps because they give out far more heat than the newer LED’s. Desperation inspires ingenuity and we can probably get by.

Not all ingenuity seems to work, though, and I have to report that my genius attempt to lure the rats into the traps with exceptionally smelly camembert cheese fell upon deaf nostrils, as it were, and the hoped for carnage did not come about. It was at least reassuring that the trailcam worked perfectly. Alas we’ve yet to find a reliable way of controlling their numbers.

If you look very closely you’ll see the rat emerging fit and healthy from the trap before exiting down the path.

Much of the week has been taken up by getting the campervan ready for a single night on the Mendips to make sure all the systems are working properly. Our last trip – over a year ago – saw the electrics collapse in domino fashion and we spent the week reading by torchlight and huddled in the sleeping bags to keep warm. When the electrics go in a campervan nothing works – water pump, stove ignition, lighting and heating all go into a sulk. All this was replaced and patched up a year ago but during lockdown we’ve never had a chance to test it out under normal conditions. I’m almost anxious about taking the van back on to the road but, on the other hand, it’s spring and I’ve got a year’s botanising to catch up with. I think I’ll get back to grasses and try to identify the early risers. Goodness why I find it so exciting to know the latin name of a clump of anonymous green stuff with almost invisible flowers – but I do, and yes, Madame finds it inexplicable as well. Glory be! a new book on UK grasses is on its way to me and I’ve already polished the hand lens (this is not a euphemism). It’s called “Grasses A Guide to Identification Using Vegetative Characters” published by the Field Studies Council – end of plug, except to mention that you can get it from the NHBS bookshop which carries an amazing collection of titles on every aspect of natural history, and not so much as a third cousin seven times removed has links to them.

Finally, I’m publicly registering my ferocious dislike for any newspaper or magazine article headed “Ten top ****” I remember one of the chief reporters on a local paper telling me once that most journalists are irredeemably lazy and the best way of getting your copy into print is to do the job for them. A whole industry has grown up around this character defect; it’s called lobbying – and/or – dare I say – influencing in which winsome young people earn money by making videos of themselves promoting various kinds of snake oil. These videos readily supply ten best anything stories about anything from parma ham to windscreen wipers. In this way I was provoked by a “ten best” on the subject of growing veg.

As a potter, way back, I was often penalized for my passionate interest in technique. Somehow a whole generation of art schools managed to make a distinction between “technique” – which you had technicians for; and “talent”. The outcome of this lamentable attitude was that many students completed their degree courses without the least idea of how the elements of their pieces were conceived of and built, and how they all fitted together to make a finished piece. I remember visiting a degree show where I spotted a glaze that I’d designed as a favour to the technician in that department. The student, not knowing me from Adam, was astounded when I gave her the outline of the recipe. The very best students had a firm grasp of technique as well as the creative competence to carry out their ideas.

This need for technique applies just as much to gardening or cooking as it does to ceramics, and one thing I’ve learned over the years by watching really inspirational potters, gardeners and chefs is that there are always more and different ways of achieving what they’re doing. Being trapped by any sort of ten best ideology is like handing over your brains to a stranger. I’m miles too old and ugly to be a persuader but I’ve been tempted. However I’m constrained by the terrifying thought that someone might have been so impressed by my fluent and articulate promotion of camembert cheese as a rat bait that they actually bought shares in in a cheese company and created an online rat bait outlet with its own logo.

I remind myself of Ernest Hemingway’s comment to his daughter that the purpose of education is to teach us to recognise bullshit. I would hate to think that my epitaph might read “Dave Pole – he couldn’t tell shit from pudding!” – so please pay no attention at all to anything I write. My life is a work in progress – until it’s not.

Rage against the dying of the light.

Some days go well and some go really badly and some can make you wonder what on earth is the point of it all. I’m writing this as a fully paid up member of melancholics anonymous, and I must stress right now there’s an important distinction between melancholy and depression – it’s not just a posh middle class word for being a bit down. I’ve had my fair share of the black dog too and it’s utterly different from other moods. Melancholy is a mode of being in which thinking – often deep and creative thinking – is still possible. Depression is paralysing, grey and empty and awful.

So the only property this melancholy shares with the black dog of depression is that it’s more likely to come on in the spring. Goodness knows why sunshine and the beginnings of new growth should provoke introspection but it does – it’s a statistical fact.

Yesterday we were on our way to see if the campervan would start after 5 months of complete lockdown and we had a conversation about the consequences of this pandemic. We know we’re paying a price for this lockdown but it’s incredibly hard to nail it down. It’s more than thinking to yourself that you’ll scream and smash your head on the wall if you have to pack the dishwasher in exactly the same careful and efficient way, even once more. Social division is certainly one of the costs. We’ve become suspicious of other people. Jean Paul Sartre once said that “Hell is other people” and until now I’ve never quite agreed with him. Now I understand a little more as we look out on the green and see huge groups of young people having fun while we feel isolated and left out. It’s not easy to accept the burdensome designation of “old people”. A couple of days ago we passed a stranger on the stairs and – because the security gates are broken and we’ve had all sorts of people digging through the rubbish and even smoking crack down there , Madame said -“Hi have you just moved in?”. Later he told his girlfriend (who we know quite well), that he’d been “challenged on the stairs by an old couple”.

Another cost of the pandemic is the lingering fear of illness and even death – it’s nebulous and fugitive but it’s there alright. We say to one another “I don’t think I’d manage very well without you” and the thought is so terrifying we change the subject immediately. But we’ve had to accept that so far as vaccination is concerned we’re in one of the highest risk groups. It’s changed the way people look at us in the streets – it seems that old age could – in and of itself – be contagious. I want to get a T shirt printed with “don’t worry my dear – old age isn’t catching”. I already own one with “I’m not old, I’m just very experienced!”

“Why me?” I think to myself – “I haven’t nearly finished yet” – but society seems to want to put me in my place; to stick me in a rocking chair on the verandah where I’m supposed to suck my teeth and tell the same story over and over. I’m supposed to hold all manner of retrogressive beliefs which, in truth, I’ve never had; and some younger people feel quite at liberty to believe that they invented childbirth, sex and environmental concern.

So this was a low point to begin a day working on the campervan which, for us, has been a source of liberation and freedom. We don’t so much go on holiday as go on field trips; carrying (but never burdened) with field guides, maps, cameras, camera trap and laptops. Its mere existence has kept us going through some dark times because it stands for something unequivocally good. It’s one of the few transitional objects (to nick a psychoanalytic concept) that we share between us. The best thing about a campervan is that you’re on holiday from the moment you settle into the driver’s seat. However, yesterday the van had other ideas and we couldn’t get it going. The battery was flat beyond the capability even of a 1000 amp emergency starter battery. So we connected the flattie to the generator 12V output and got it breathing again while I pumped up the tyres with the racing bicycle pump I’ve always used. Van tyres need 65 psi and so it’s great exercise normally, but my breathless failure to notice the sharp corner of an open window above my head cost me a black eye and a lot of blood. “I’m getting too old for this” slipped from my mouth; a greased weasel word if ever there was one, and dark thoughts of selling the van were shared as Madame mopped up the effusion of black bile.

So by the time we got home I was comatose with sadness about getting old; in fact we hardly exchanged a word in twenty miles. Losing the van on top of everything else would be like having our escape tunnel collapse. Visions of ‘old person’ conversations with well meaning social workers about whether “she” could rise unaided from a chair, finance officers who would means test you for the cost of a sandwich, occupational therapists and their confidence sapping paraphernalia of commodes and bath handrails, and deliveries of frozen ready meals – all stalked my imagination. “Do not go gentle into that good night” echoed around the my mind as I failed miserably to get to sleep.

Later I remembered the dramatic resolution to a long haunting by the black dog when I was in my twenties. This might be a bit counterintuitive but I was thrown into deep depression by the death of a friend – actually I hardly knew him but he was a close friend of Madame and he died of testicular cancer. The black dog sloped away one grey day when I realized that it was perfectly true that I was dying, but my inevitable death was not yet. There is a precious gap between the present moment and the inevitable end which is ours to fill in any way that we choose. Truth to tell, I don’t need to give a flying f*** (with a triple backflip) what anyone else chooses to think of me. I am not bound by the colossally limp expectations of others.

And so we rose early and drove back to the van with a rescue plan that worked first time and charged the battery so the van is ready for an adventure. We might even take the kayak. Then we drove home again and had a wonderful barbeque on the allotment with our youngest who refused to give us a hug until we’ve had our second jab – but said he wished he could! The sun shone in its least ironic manner, not to taunt us with our mortality but to warm our bones and it was good. In fact it was very good!

June 1st and first picking of broad beans

Vegetables seem to be remarkably regular in their flowering and fruiting habits regardless of the weather.  I had thought that we’d be picking the first batch of broad beans at least a week early this year, but in spite of the vast difference in weather between this year and last, we’re picking just two days earlier. Potatoes and tomatoes are a little later but they have both been put out later for fear of a late frost.  The biggest diference this year is the strawberries. Although we’ve got a fabulous crop on the way, last year we were picking ripe strawberries in the first week of June.  This year we’ll be lucky to see them by the third week. The potatoes, I fear, have been afflicted by the incredibly dry weather and they’ll pick up if we get the promised rain this coming week. I’m loath to throw too much water in the direction of the potatoes because I think it diminishes the flavour.  I was grumbling to our neighbouring allotmenteer about the poor flavour of Jersey Royals over the past couple of years and he said he thought it was because the farmers have been prevented from using seaweed because it was thought to be adding too much salt to the soil. Our asparagus, on the other hand is thriving on its thick mulch of seaweed over the winter and is five feet tall now. I do hope there’s as much activity underground because we shall enjoy a good crop next spring.

So this week has been incredibly busy, with a good deal of grandparenting and a trip to replace the water pump on the campervan.  A friend was charged €230 in France 2 years ago for a replacement, but after a bit of research on the internet I sourced a brand new replacement for £50 and fitted it myself at the additional cost of a packet of electrical connectors. I felt absurdly proud of myself.

Apart from that it’s been absurdly busy on the allotment – so much so I’ve hardly had time to write at all. We’ve fitted a hazel wattle screen between the shed and the greenhouse to create a sheltered area where we can grow tomatoes and peppers.  It arrived with one of the end posts pulled out because presumably the delivery driver had dragged it across the floor of his van (after all it weighed 30Kg and he’s probably never seen one before).  Rather than send it back I decided to have a go at repairing it – it took 2 hours of  somewhat grumpy effort but I did finally manage to separate all the woven horizontal branches with the aid of some steel bars, and reinsert the post. It’s now in position and will be an effective screen against cold north winds.  Then, today the temperature soared to 25C so we went up early and  I hammered in the supporting posts ready for the tomatoes, nonethleless we both needed a shower when we got home.  The weather will break tonight, according to the forecast, and we’ll get some rain, so great relief all round.

Someone wrote to the paper the other day lamenting the fact that weather forecasters seem to regard sunshine as inherently superior to rain.  You can tell they’re not gardeners.  In fact there’s a proper drought building up. Our usually damp plot is bone dry down to a foot deep and so we’ve been forced to water as if it were July. Given that a full watering can weighs 22lbs and the round trip to the tank is 100 yards, you can see it’s a bit of a workout to water the whole 250 square metres.

Yesterday my friend Rob – the real botanist – came to check my ID of the Fumaria I’ve been going on about – and,  joy of joys, I was right and it’s Fumaria murialis. This probably means less than nothing to almost everyone else in the world, but it means a lot to me because it shows I’m very slowly getting my eye in.

Tomorrow or Monday the outdoor tomatoes will begin their outdoor life, taking their chances with whatever the weather throws at them.  Meanwhile we’re making the second batch of elderflower cordial.  The first batch is growing on us as we drink it – the problem is that home made is essentially unrepeatable.  This time we’ve gathered a bag of 50+ heads from a purple, ornamental elderflower tree.  So far the result is a lovely rose pink colour.  Sadly we had to buy another eight 500ml  swing top preserving bottles because the rest are all in use, and so our “food for free” cordial, or at least this batch, will cost about twice as much as the commercial stuff. However as the years mount up, home made gets increasingly competitive.  As ever, though, the flavour beats anything you could buy