Night bus

I haven’t yet got any photographs for this piece. There’s a reason. Allotments, fungus forays, natural history field trips all lend themselves to the portable memory of the mobile phone. Parties, bridges, seaside views and tractors do too, because they don’t show any signs of invaded privacy. However city streets at night or dodgy bars full of strangers – and night buses – demand a lot of street wisdom, and consequently floor the photographic brakes most of the time.

We used to love travelling and rarely felt intimidated when we wandered into the kind of places that gave us prickly feelings. “What are the chances?” we’d say to ourselves. On the station at Barcelonetta we were surrounded by a gang of muggers and once I’d made it clear that we’d fight for our cameras they decided not to take the risk. I was once advised that moving back from a threat was the wrong thing to do. “Lean into it and get in their faces”, I was told, “and although you might still get hammered they’ll more likely be intimidated themselves.” I’m sharing this information because my days of love, peace and let’s be reasonable have taught me that bullies and thugs rarely welcome a sensible discussion. As long as I get to walk away in one piece I’m content to let appearances give the false impression of fearlessness.

Anyway, last night we made one of our expeditions to Bristol which Cobbett would have recognised as a suburb of the Great Wen. We were off to an old friend’s birthday celebration in the same restaurant as we’d met in for a similar event 38 years ago. I’m not sure why Bristol enjoys such a high reputation – we both find it pretty sordid in many areas in spite of having lived and worked there for years. It’s noisy, perpetually jammed with traffic and the average age in the central areas during the day is about 25. At night, for those of a nervous disposition it’s best to keep your eyes peeled. Walking past the student hostels near the bus station the smell of weed lingers in the air, and a young woman coming back to the main door of her tower block looked anxiously around before scuttling in like a scared mouse. Nonetheless, once the initial negative impression has worn off I find it tremendously exciting. I’ve always had a thing about arriving at railway stations in places I’ve never been to and where languages are spoken that I don’t understand. Every sense is turned up to ten and it becomes a Brahmsian symphony of sounds, smells, noises, lights and unfamiliar tongues. Every kind, every nationality of food is available. Stokes Croft must have the highest variety of takeaways in the city. It’s not pretty but there’s a sense of community there

We always catch the bus into Bristol because parking is either impossibly expensive or just impossible; and we nearly didn’t make it this time because just as the bus was going down Union street, a young skateboarder slalomed into the bus at speed and the driver made an emergency stop which slammed us all into the seats in front of us. The skateboarder (with one of his lives expended) picked himself up and peered through the windscreen at the driver with a completely non judgemental look, more curiosity than WTF?!

We’d arrived at the bus station with an hour to spare, so we wandered up through the Independent Republic of Stokes Croft inspecting the graffiti which are very good and very dense – intelligent tagging. For such a diverse and alternative feeling area it had more obscurely named churches than a Welsh mining village. Getting saved would be a doddle here; far easier than in the wealthy highlands of Clifton, or the lush pastures of Southville. With time to spare we inspected the bars as we walked on, and settled on one with a big window so we could see what we were letting ourselves in for. At the bar I asked for a couple of lagers and the barman asked if I wanted glasses for them – it was that kind of bar. “Oh yes please,” I said, “I’m old you know …..I like a glass”. Next to me a young man with pinprick pupils asked me if I’d like to go mad? proffering something small and round. I said that I’d been there already and had no desire to go back and he laughed, along with the barman who could see the funny side of dealing to a man with not that much time left to abuse. This is where it all gets confusing because in spite of the slightly feral vibe, it was a very safe feeling. I often find it hard to read young people, but don’t see why they should even try to be understood. It’s their world and god knows we’ve all but ruined it for them. But the dealer was lovely with Madame and showed her where the toilets were and steered her away from the stinkiest areas – see what I mean?

So then to Picton Street which has a lifetime of memories for me because I used to buy all my radio parts from Pitts at the top, opposite the restaurant we were making for which was called Bell’s Diner at the time and is now an Italian called Bianchi’s – and very good it is too; great arancini. Among the guests was someone who spent his childhood in the street and whose family owned two shops there and he also bought bits from Pitts. We had such an animated conversation that Phil, our host, said we looked as if we’d known one another for years. Oh I do love a good party and this one was in honour of our old friend – a bit of an angel – called Ruth who once said something to me that changed the course of my life. It was so good a party, in fact, that we delayed leaving until much later than we’d intended and so, very slightly drunk, we wandered back down Picton Street just as as an imposing looking sound system was being set up. A queue had formed outside a hole in the wall fast food servery and we walked on down Jamaica Street to an almost empty bus station. There was the usual cleaner with a brush and pan sweeping up the day’s rubbish in a desultory manner. It was all quiet,

So only ten minutes later we set off in the 39 bus, but sadly the driver had not been briefed about a road closure so we waited in the canyon also known as Fairfax Street while he made a phone call to someone whose terrible stammer became something of an obstacle to planning the way out. An astoundingly drunk man got on and ricocheted from side to side up the bus to the back. Eventually we returned to the bus station but took a different route at Haymarket roundabout which must have left at least a few people waiting hopelessly in the cold at Wine Street. A few more got on, mostly tired and grey. At Temple Meads another drunk clambered into the front seat as if he were climbing Annapurna and then waved animatedly at his own reflection in the window. He was tidy and well spoken (in a more or less inebriate way) and looked as if he might have sprung unchanged from a 1930’s lodge meeting. At night the bus takes a longer route through Keynsham and the drunk man at the front asked if the bus stopped at Saltford (it does) and the driver declined to take the conversation any further.

Once we got to Keynsham the man in the front demanded to get off – he’d clearly forgotten where he was going. He stepped down from the bus and then took a wonderful tumble; bouncing harmlessly as drunks often do. The driver leapt out of the bus and helped him to his feet and he wandered off into the darkness. The bus pulled away once again and there was a loud crash behind as the other drunk fell off his seat. We stopped. The driver came up the bus and said “Oh I love my job” and reassured himself that drunk number two hadn’t done himself any serious harm. The rest of the journey was uneventful and as we got off I said to the driver that he deserved a medal. He didn’t disagree.

Home then, a glass of wine and bed; very very late – and not a single photo to illustrate our adventure. Next time perhaps …. I love catching the night bus.

Early blight?

Yesterday we were woken at 6.30am by the kind of groaning and grinding noises that you just know are not being generated by migrating birds or horny foxes. We’re slowly but relentlessly being gentrified here. In the past five years there has barely been a day that wasn’t accompanied by pile drivers, heavy equipment, jackhammers, scaffolders and speculators, who aren’t noisy but then, neither are covid viruses. We welcome our new neighbours, mostly wealthy absentee buy to let landlords who have slowly but surely blotted out every glimpse of the surrounding hills with their babel towers. The arrival of the cranes is the first clue we get as to the eventual height of their monstrous invasion. We protest to the planners, but these companies have big budgets and the legal artillery to beat down any local authority that dares to reject their advances. We are bombarded with emailed sweeteners that promise much but never deliver because they can wriggle out of their commitment to community infrastructure by paying a pitifully small sum into the cash strapped council’s account – on the grounds that they can’t make a big enough profit if they actually build all those promised schools, surgeries and community centres.

By way of absolute contrast see this –

This is our allotment site. To the left you can see the approaching armies of moloch. They would have us believe that their palaces of assisted community living for the wealthy are the way forward for a modern progressive city but I’m not even remotely convinced. These new buildings are bonded warehouses for etiolated souls.

the sounds of children doing something so vanishingly rare these days that I could see the moment being celebrated in a memoir many years down the line.

Yesterday also – but on the allotments – we experienced the glorious possibilities of The Commons. Anticipating the onset of spring by one day, and tempted by the glorious sunshine, the allotmenteers piled on to the site with spades and forks, picnics and children. Even the groaning of the cranes and the sirens of passing ambulances were unable to diminish the sounds of children doing something so vanishingly rare these days that I could see the moment being celebrated in a memoir many years down the line.

They were playing;

  1. Playing tag
  2. Making patterns with stones
  3. investigating ponds
  4. looking for frogspawn
  5. Making mud pies
  6. building dens
  7. building swings in a tree
  8. meeting school friends
  9. helping parents on allotments
  10. wheelbarrowing woodchip and leaves
  11. watching the grownups gardening
  12. learning how to thrive as humans
  13. even sowing a few seeds in their own garden patch

Many of the new allotmenteers live locally, often in gardenless flats, and know one another through their children at local primary schools – so they’re friends already and bring those friendships along to the site. Many of them are in front line occupations and their children are attending school in any case, but other parents have grabbed the opportunity offered by furlough to offer their children a much broader curriculum than barebones literacy and numeracy; introducing them to food production, natural history and getting to know a wider range of adults and our very different cultures than they would ever meet at school.

The allotmenteers represent the broadest spectrum of humans you could imagine. Just by walking down one footpath they might meet a lead trainer in gender diversity, a retired professor of French history, a retired vicar, several ex teachers, a professional musician, two nurses and a GP; male, female, straight gay and ‘haven’t a clue mate!” Not so long ago we had the retired director of the National Botanical Gardens of Wales. They might meet a Russian gardener, or someone from one of half a dozen Eastern European countries, several Afro Caribbeans who were born here or who’ve lived in Bath for longer than the vast majority of us; and an Indian national who’s travelled all over. Some of us are probably very well off and others not so, but we don’t worry to much about our differences and focus on what unites us, which is the love of gardening. It’s not perfect but it’s manageable.

During the afternoon, a fascinating pattern of distributed parenting developed where, without any obvious organisation (and certainly without a rota), responsibility for the children passed from adult to adult. The gates were locked by common consent and we all felt empowered to shoo them off if they were in danger of causing damage, without fear of reprisals from their mums and dads. When lockdown first started the whole site was tenanted very quickly and I think some of the younger ones worried that the old guard would not make them welcome. Eight months on and the integration of new members has been a blessing – they soon worked out that old age isn’t catching! The addition of children’s voices to the other wild sounds cheers everyone up.

When we – rather too easily – suggest that contact with nature is good for us, I’d suggest that the allotment offers a lot more to combat loneliness, isolation and poor mental health than any one off visit to a nature reserve. We are the new commons. The one place left that can give us access to a bit of shared land at an affordable rent; where a sense of community thrives organically rather than being organised by a committee of local councillors and property developers. For eighty quid a year we get not just our own fresh, organic produce; we get fresh air, exercise and access to a whole community of new friends. What you pay for is good, but what comes for free is priceless.

The penthouse flats in the riverside development cost over a million pounds. You can see the allotments from their balconies except it’s so windy up there you rarely see anyone using them. The roof garden is similarly empty for the same reason.

We don’t need any more unaffordable homes. We need allotments – lots of them – and soon; because they don’t just grow vegetables, they grow thriving human communities and happy human beings; and you can’t put a price on that – just a value.

Our improvised second stage seedling care – central heating and south facing window supplemented by a studio lamp with a daylight LED bulb.

Creeping agoraphobia

Madame’s drawings of some globe artichokes from the allotment

It’s rapidly approaching a year since we first ‘closed the doors’ of the Potwell Inn and went into withdrawal mode, and I’ve noticed a change in my mood, over the past few weeks. We’ve occupied ourselves with piles of reading and planning for next season. I’ve written most days and Madame has been drawing; but suddenly I feel like one of those cartoon characters whose flight from threat is expressed by comically rotating legs whilst not moving at all. Treading water is for too stately a description of this weird feeling. In the past few weeks we’ve only done half a dozen river walks because it can be quite busy with others doing the same thing. As for the parks, well forget it. What with cyclists in groups and runners passing close with no masks on, going outside feels a bit threatening. The other day we drove up to the allotment with several bags of potential compost and we had our licence plate recorded by a policeman standing at the side of the road. My fear is that if this crisis goes on much longer a whole generation of older and vulnerable people are going to have to add agoraphobia to their list of challenges.

Before anyone tells me off for making light of a serious problem, it’s actually something I know a bit about, because my father – who probably had undiagnosed PTSD as a result of his experiences during the war – suffered from agoraphobia for many years. But in this instance I’ve been thinking about the literal meaning of the term which, from the Greek agora, or market place. has a whole bunch of rich and enlightening implications. The agora was more than a bunch of market stalls, it was a communal meeting space and also a place where ideas were exchanged and where speeches were made. If there was any temptation to label the covid driven fear of the crowd, the supermarket and such like, as ubiquitous these days, there may be more – more significant and more damaging changes – going on. During the first (and much tougher) lockdown, the allotment community was an absolute lifesaver. We were mostly pretty good at hailing one another across the plots, and that sense of belonging drove out the isolation. It was good. There were a few exceptions. Allotments that had been unlet for years were taken up by a younger generation of furloughed allotmenteers, and among them were a few that seemed to regard old age as contagious in some strange way – as if talking to us might induce the onset of grey hair. One of our newcomers took to asking her neighbour if she could have a few sticks of rhubarb for instance, and would then strip the plant bare. She and her partner would have barbecues three or four times a week and invite friends around regardless of the rules. In fact it became clear that there was a real link between attitudes in the workplace; extractive, exploitative attitudes towards the client base and attitudes towards the allotments. You could see how it’s come to be that for many people our culture is dangerously detached from the natural world.

We hear a great deal about the healing powers of nature and I’ve wondered here before, if that doesn’t overegg the pudding. If you took an industrial farmer to the wilderness it would be more likely that they’d tell you it needed farming properly (ie intensively). A miner might pick up the odd stone and you’d be praying he didn’t find anything too valuable there. In Cornwall there’s a huge conflict brewing about mining for lithium for batteries to make sure the car industry can go on expending ancient reserves for short term gain. No – I don’t believe for a moment that the occasional immersion in nature as spectacle will change our culture.

However, just now we need hope, and this week the polytunnel kit arrived, delivered by a delightful lorry driver who was so moved at the sight of the allotments that he told us all about his childhood and how his father had paid him pocket money for picking caterpillars off the cabbages. Then yesterday our appointments for our first covid vaccinations came through, and a brief glimmer of light appeared. But I was more surprised to realise that the thing that gave me most pleasure was to send off an order for a packet of heritage runner bean seeds and a kilo of baler twine for supporting the tomatoes that will be growing in the polytunnel in a couple of months . The tools for putting up the tunnel have all been gathered together; lines, pegs, hammers, drills, spanner, power tools and spirit level and now we’ll wait patiently for this southwesterly weather to moderate a bit and give us some dry days.

I wish I had some pixie dust to sprinkle around the world. I wish there were words I could write that would reverse the violence of our (un)civilization and bring us to our collective senses. I wish there was a proper, functioning agora where we earth citizens could listen to one another and where we could be heard – but at the moment there is no such place and there are no such words I think. The only contribution we can make seems woefully inadequate and yet maybe actions really do speak louder than words and the earth can be saved – as the website of World Organic News says – “one cabbage at a time”.

I love Madame’s drawings of our artichokes. They’re so beautiful both on the page and in the flesh, but they’re fiercely thorny, and by the time you’ve trimmed them back to the choke there’s hardly anything left to eat. Then, all great art is wasteful if you try to reduce it to a spreadsheet. Our dream is to live simply within our means and hand our allotment on to a stranger in better condition than we found it. Is there a column for wonder in the neoliberal profit and loss account?

More feasting please


There’s a line in Peter Shaffer’s play Equus that’s stuck in my mind. It sounds a  bit religious but it’s not – here’s the full quotation:

Have you thought of the fellow on the other side of it? The finicky, critical husband looking through his art books on mythical Greece. What worship has he ever known? Real worship! Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that…I shrank my own life. No one can do it for you. I settled for being pallid and provincial, out of my own eternal timidity.

Wow! “without worship you shrink”. I’ve used that quotation dozens of times because it seems so profoundly important; and perhaps never more so than this moment in the history of the earth. Now this is absolutely not about getting you to go to church or adopt any strange supernatural beliefs.  Worship comes in all sorts of unexpected ways, like at the end of a headline set at Glastonbury when the air seems to thicken and stand still; or when a barn owl flies silently within inches of your head as you walk home in the dark; or when you hold your newly born child in your arms and the air suffuses his skin and it changes colour from slate to rose pink; or when the sheer undeserved generosity of the earth makes you catch your breath over a basket of fruit.

For many years my life was punctuated by festivals. A whole year was a book. Advent, Lent, Easter and Pentecost were the chapter headings, but there were paragraphs, sentences and even words that could bring me to my knees.  On Easter Eve I would sing a long unaccompanied modal song called the Exultet that was so powerful to me I needed to lock myself in the church and sing it over and over until I could get through it without breaking down.   It was never the theology that attracted me but the channelling of the emotions.  Who doesn’t long to be liberated, brought to life again out of captivity?  It was the blues, it was Gospel music, it was an ancient form of music that had been sung for maybe 1600 years just once a year without a break.  For the four minutes or so that it lasted I was always touched by an overwhelming sense of the divine. Music is potent stuff – that’s why they always try to crush it.

Now I live largely without the big festivals because the meaning seems to have drained out of them. My own favourites among the dishonoured escapees from paganism were always wassailing, Plough Monday and the Rogation services; all of them celebrations of the earth. Then there were other renegades like Harvest Festival and Remembrance Sunday that managed to draw the community together precisely by remaining doctrinally agnostic, and of course Christmas carols which in any case had been dragged in from the pubs. I always saw the church as a kind of lost property office where you might go to look for something you couldn’t quite remember but know for sure you once possessed.

But it’s all dying and our opportunity to experience real worship is more and more compromised, just at the very moment we desperately need to rediscover and celebrate our creative connection with the earth. And here I want to unpick the idea of worship a little bit because I know that we can all individually, and in the solitude of our own hearts find inspiration and perhaps bliss or even ecstacy –

 – and I am dumb to tell the crooked rose

My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

But I think we need more.  I think we need to rediscover forms of community liturgy; spoken word, poetry, dance and song; shared feasting and perhaps fasting as well. We need to liberate ourselves to worship the stars and the sun and the whole creation of which we are just a part, and which bore us and held us in its arms for millions of years. We need these community strengthening moments because there is no pleasure and no power in being isolated and right – we’re never right if we’re on our own. Individual salvation is a punishment for egotists.

So in the midst of the work we need to do if the earth is to become whole again we need to remember to add community building and worship to the recycling, the careful use of money, the growing and tending of crops and feeding ourselves with regard to the needs of the whole. Fasting (perhaps from meat) then becomes a gesture of solidarity rather than a demonstration of personal rectitude – it has some purpose beyond imaginary purity. And the liturgy, the work of the people, is an essential part of it.  It’s not as if we don’t have any precedents. Even a flower and produce show can be an act of public thanksgiving – it doesn’t have to be cringeworthy sub religious claptrap.

Without worship you shrink”  – that’s the harsh absence that allowed them to call the despoliation of the earth and its peoples a “green revolution”.  It’s time to turn worship around and reclaim it for our own.


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