I fell asleep reading a new book – ‘Galileo’s Error’ today – absolutely no criticism of the author Philip Goff, I was just feeling exhausted, for no obvious reason save for the fact that we feel lost, confused, abandoned by our government; and my son had sent me the book after several of our long philosophical telephone discussions about materialism and consciousness. One of the cruelties of the pandemic is being separated from our family. It’s been my mission. all my life, to find ways of talking about, and being, fully human; and the allotment, cooking, natural history, remembering and celebrating are all a part of the picture.
But being fully human seems to involve other, more controversial elements which can often become points of division. There are words I dislike using – like ‘spirituality’ or ‘soul’, for instance – not because they don’t correspond to anything meaningful but because the settings in which they’ve been developed and discussed have been fatally compromised. They became keywords in the history of religious slaughter and abuse. However, it seems almost impossible to do without them if we want to embrace life in all its fullness. My son recommended the book as a possible way towards a solution of the difficulty – ‘”it’s a popular book” – he said – “A four hour read, but a real challenge”
I always find the very best books get me on my feet, pacing about; thinking carefully. Sleeping isn’t normally a way of pacing around, but today – in a throwback to a previous life – I dreamed a part of the way out. Until today I would have associated the word Kaddish with Allen Ginsberg the American poet.
My dream took place exactly where I was, in fact, lying asleep but I seemed to be fully conscious of all the sadness surrounding us; and somewhere in the background was the sound of the Kaddish being sung. I’ve never heard the Kaddish being sung but I knew for certain that this was it – glorious, defiant, haunting. There were dream tears running down my face and then I heard the altogether closer sound of a cat purring just behind my head. I reached behind to the arm of the sofa where it was sitting and stroked it. And then I woke in the absolute certainty that this was what the Jungians would regard as a significant dream needing to be brought into the light of day.
If ever there were a more telling dream lesson of what we’ve neglected through our greedy materialism I’ve yet to hear it. We’ve had anger in abundance; we’ve had politics and economics, and every half-wit with a computer has offered their theory. But there’s been no lament; no Kaddish for the dead but merely statistics, theories and the counting of money.
What about the cat? Well, the thing about a cat, or a dog or whatever other pet is that essentially there’s a relationship – even a relationship of love. But materialism has even turned big nature into a paid-for TV experience. We could perhaps do well to emulate our love for pets in our love for weeds and birds and insects and wildflowers.
I’ve no idea what to do with this insight – yet – but I guess I will one day.
A friend once told us how isolated his parents were becoming when he noticed that they began to have conversations like – (looking out of the window) – “that green car isn’t there again!”
Well it isn’t there again today and we’re fully occupied finding strategies for staying sane that fall short of car spotting. There’s dogs and drug dealers of course but they don’t change much. British summer time has also thrown a bit of a spanner in the works and we stay up much later than usual but then my inner clock seems not to know that I don’t need to get up at 6.00am. Today I got up early, made tea, read for a bit, made coffee, went to sleep, woke up and read for a bit more – got up at 10.00am. It’s no life, honestly – if it weren’t for the allotment we’d probably be playing ‘I spy something beginning with W’, and the answer would always be ‘window’; – ‘wall’ being disallowed as unpatriotic.
Our other favourite diversion is trying to figure out how to observe the government advice to stay indoors and get shopping delivered when there are no delivery slots to be had at all and every website we go to is shut down due to overload. Ah well … However just to prove that life goes on outside the bubble, a tractor showed up this morning to give the Green its first cut of the year. Last year, if you remember, it was agreed to leave an unmown strip around the edge to let wild vegetation grow up – I think ‘wildflowers’ is a bit overheated in our instance, but I like weeds, and more to the point, so do loads of insects. My word, these are powerful machines they use these days. Last year by the second cut the rewilding project lay in shreds because the message about the wild strip failed to get through to the tractor drivers. Today, though, the tractor drove underneath our window and stopped and then the driver consulted some kind of plan in a ring binder and then slowly and deliberately left a wide border all around the green. Early days yet, I know, but there’s elder, burdock and wall barley in them there borders, and a new generation of children might just learn about ‘itchy coos’ and darts.
Then, among the excitements, a brilliant idea occurred to me this morning regarding the pigs’ cheek surplus. Madame had turned her nose up when I presented them in their unadorned form – too much information I suspect – and so I minced them up, added herbs, sweet pimenton, some softened onions, a little egg and breadcrumbs; rolled them in flour, fried them and then baked them in our own stored tomato sauce et Voila! – as you might say if you were French – they were transformed into meatballs and became today’s meal. Every little triumph adorns the day.
But the pandemic is never far away, and yesterday we were texted by one of Madame’s nieces to say that their father, our brother-in-law, is in intensive care with confirmed coronavirus. Is this it? Is this the spirit of the blitz that people who’ve never even experienced food rationing, let alone bombing – like to evoke. We plough on in spite of the dangers, we dare to make small plans for ‘when it’s over’, we say silent prayers for our loved ones because we don’t like a fuss. There’s nothing inspiring or admirable in any of this and true compassion isn’t ever a public act.
And then just I was about to press the send button on this post I heard the sound of a machine outside, and when I looked, there was a smaller mower removing the violets and celandines outside the house. Morons!!! – we’re lions led by donkeys.
This is the new view from my desk – OK it’s not brilliant but it’s outside; I can see the sky and the clouds and I can watch the comings and goings of our neighbours in the car park. The view from the front of the flat is far nicer, but this is sufficiently mundane not to distract me too much. It’s only possible because my piano has gone to Birmingham. I don’t mind because I wasn’t able to play it in this building – but as if by magic, Madame has put on one of our Mose Allison albums just as the piano has joined the long list of ‘might have beens’ in my life.
If you dislike my seriously political deliberations you should probably skip the next two paragraphs – it gets slightly more rhapsodic after that!
Meanwhile the lock-in continues. The equinox passed by the Potwell Inn without being noticed – we were all too preoccupied with the weather, the weather of events, that is. Huffing and puffing about the failures of others, or our lamentably deficient government takes away the pain for a bit but the black dog comes back, sniffing around the bins of our lives and lifting his leg against our certainties. We’ve tunneled so far into the mountain of greed that the entrance has collapsed and there’s no way out any more.
The media have decided that what we need more than ventilators and nurses is – a metaphor. ‘The blitz’ is winning hands down at the moment; it’s cheap and cheerful but there are no supply problems and it focuses all our attention away from the real problem and on to our personal response. In fact, they hint without spelling it out, that this is an opportunity – an opportunity to show what we Brits are made of and so the miracle of diversion is accomplished so effectively that public opprobrium falls more heavily on those who refuse to celebrate this opportunity for self-transcendence than it does on those who disregard the distancing measures – not least cabinet ministers.
Today marks the beginning of British Summer Time. I’ve no idea why I find that as exciting as I do, but I guess I like sunshine a lot more than I like fog and rain and the odds are on the summer providing more of my favourite days. I will contradict this statement later in the year when I declare the autumn to be the finest season by far, just before I settle ‘finally’ on the joy of frosty mornings. The only safe approach to anything I write is to say accept that change is inevitable and variety is a jolly good thing. However (and you knew that was coming) there are some unexpectedly lovely things, even in the midst of a pandemic, that can wake you up with a smile. So today we lay in bed and heard a church clock chime seven. It wasn’t even a very nice church clock, in fact the bell was a bit of an old boiler, but it filled me with joy and reminded me of my childhood when I would listen to the clock in Page Park (similarly washboiler tuned) chiming out the hours at night when I couldn’t sleep.
The rationalist in me points out immediately that it’s Sunday morning (i.e. less traffic) and there’s a north easterly wind carrying the sound across from Julian Road or wherever the church is. But there’s more to it. We’ve had Sundays and north easterly winds before and only once heard the clock in over four years. But this crisis has resulted in a dramatic fall in traffic through Bath. The constant ambulances which, in order to negotiate the jams, always used their sirens now cruise silently and unhindered to the hospital a mile away. We can hear birds singing again and the moaning of the wind in our leaky windows, and our neighbours in their flats. The cloud of polluted air over the city has lifted and the streets are empty. The tourists have all gone, and the holiday rentals are empty – it’s a disaster by all the conventional measures, and yet I wonder whether anyone is anxious to return to the status quo ante bellum at the end of all this.
It only takes a few empty shelves to demonstrate what we’ve all known in our hearts for a very long time, that our present way of life offers a huge diversity of things to buy, but at the expense of almost everything else we say we value. What’s the value of a line of identical tasting breakfast cereals to ‘choose’ from when the wildlife on the earth they were grown in has been poisoned out of existence?
So back to believing impossible things because I’ve always been deeply interested in the mechanisms through which we are able to ignore the evidence that contradicts our presuppositions. We once lived on a farm in Wiltshire and our walk to art school every day took us down Middlewick Lane, in which there was a cottage with the most beautiful garden you’ve ever seen. In three years we’d watched it through the seasons; we knew that the owner was an elderly man called Mr Monks who lived alone. We even knew that he liked a pinch or three of snuff from the handkerchiefs drying on the washing line, stained yellow from his useage. I can’t, after all this time, say exactly what the garden contained but it remains in my memory a pure Gertrude Jekyll cottage garden with the addition of the most wonderful vegetable plot to one side. After an age of scurrying past and trying not to stare, we graduated through nod to friendly nod and eventually we spoke. He even gave me a pinch of snuff once but it blew the back of my head off and made my eyes water. Just before he died we finally plucked up the courage to ask the question that had been hovering in our minds for several years – how did he grow such a magnificent garden, so free of pests? He answered without hesitation or any embarrassment “DDT” he said. Suddenly the garden crumbled in our minds like the picture of Dorian Gray in the Dickens novel. There were still many years to pass before we saw our first raptors in the sky again.
We seem to persist in our belief that our culture – the way we do things round here – is all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and nothing seems to shake us from that belief – except when we are overtaken by a major breakdown, and we see the promises of everlasting growth, plenty for all, more choice, more power, more leisure, more everything, as the false prospectus it has become. Leibnitz’s kindly God whose benign hand was thought to be behind all that was good in the world was put out to grass, and a smart new manager called “the economy” was drafted in to conduct the affairs of the earth with more efficiency ‘going forward’. Statisticians say that football clubs who change their managers in the hope of better results are misguided. When you actually look at the statistics a change of manager is no more successful than leaving the old ones in post. The point is, we want it to be true, and we’re quite prepared to add it to the list of impossible things before breakfast in the hope that it might become true.
There is an exception to the football manager statistics, though. When the season ticket holders are sitting on their wallets, the fans on the terrace have stopped cheering, the team are all looking for other jobs and the grandstand collapses for lack of maintenance it might be a good time to take a look around.
The earth managed herself successfully for millions of years – let’s get her back in charge!
There can’t ever have been a more appropriate day than today to publish a book on UK food security – not since 1939 – and that, I promise, is the last mention of the war in this posting because however terrible the present pandemic is, it isn’t a war and you can’t ‘win’ it with threats, flag waving and bombs. What this microscopic particle of viral life has achieved is to shine a light on the 21st century; on all our political, economic, employment, transport, social, medical, manufacturing, food and farming systems. Every one of them is being stress tested at the moment and the vast majority of them are creaking, even where the rivets aren’t yet popping; and that’s before the brexit negotiations even start in earnest.
This new study by Tim Lang, probably the leading light in the study of food security, and published today, couldn’t come at a better time. Here at the Potwell Inn we have some experience on the subject because Madame once worked at a university research station and has watched their crucial work on fruit growing privatised and the plantations sold off for building land. Our son once earned some pocket money helping a local fruit farmer grub up his cider apple trees only to be paid to plant them again ten years later. I can remember standing at a field gate looking at a sea of blue flowers with the farmer. “It’s a marvellous crop”, he said, ” – and I don’t even have to harvest it. If the crop’s too wet and gets ruined. I just have to drive a tractor on to the field and I can still claim the subsidy”. I’ve stood in the queue at the local Methodist church to collect my free portion of the EU butter mountain – oh yes – we’ve been living dangerously in the UK for a very long time and this week we’ve all experienced what food insecurity feels like; endless queues, empty shelves, unobtainable food staples, profiteering and sharp-elbowed shoppers pushing the elderly and vulnerable to one side, and it’s not a pretty sight. We’ve seen ambulance personnel attacked, food delivery vans burnt out and the supermarkets overwhelmed and underprepared. Farmers and producers are banging their heads against a brick wall because they are unable to recruit their usual seasonal employees due to closed borders, and the very existence of many small artisan food businesses and producers which are the best hope for a sustainable future is threatened because they lack the cash reserves of the food industry.
And then there are all the other issues that demand the attention of our politicians.”Could do better” hardly begins to describe them. Suddenly our niche attempts to grow at least some of our food begin to look important. One of our allotmenteers has a dig for victory up on their shed. In the sunshine today our site was busy with newly unemployed people trying to extract at least something positive out of the pandemic and because the garden centres and the allotment trading hut have all closed down there will be a lively free market in swops and shares. all conducted recognising the two metre exclusion zones which are being rigidly observed by everyone. Ironically there have been many more shouted conversations than have ever happened before; the sun’s shining, things are growing and just doing something feels a lot better than moping around and feeling cross.
It’s a bit soon to be thinking about what we do after this is all over, and yet there will never be a better time to reflect on just how insecure our food supply has become. I’ve only read the preface this afternoon, but here are a few words to give a taste of the argument Tim Lang is pursuing
The UK has a benign but very varied climate. It has some rich soils and extensive uplands and grasslands. No critic says the UK should be growing its own bananas or mangoes, but that it imports huge quantities of what it could perfectly well grow here suggests a failure of political economy. Vast amounts of land are used to produce feed for cattle, when almost all scientific advice is to reduce cattle and to shift production from red to white meat (but that too has problems).
This is not a misty eyed yearning for the past, but the honest recognition by a respected scientist (and one-time farmer) that we’re on a collision course with reality here. Some problems can be too big to solve unless they’re addressed at a national and international level. There are voices already that the initial cause and then the main vector of transmission of the coronavirus is the product of a dangerously out of control addiction to productivity and profitability, low prices and the industrialisation of agriculture.
What started in a wet market in China wasn’t an act of God but, as it were, the terrible but predictable consequence of intensive agriculture driving what was once a sustainable peasant economy into the ground and creating a semi legal and shadowy trade in live meat beyond any health and safety controls. What would be an absolute tragedy would be to conclude that only industrialised agriculture is safe enough to feed the world. Like weapons manufacturers across the world, the industry will claim that it has no moral responsibility for the impact of its products on the lives of the poor. We’ve known since the SARS epidemic in 2003 that these zoonotic crossovers were an ever present threat and this is the seventh transmissible viral infection to be identified. The subsequent breakdown in health provision and food supplies are all the evidence we should need to provoke deep reflection. I very much hope that this book will provide some calmly argued evidence for a complete rethink around our food.
As promised, a few ideas on staying sane later; but first – and this isn’t a showoff, when I make a discovery, usually not remotely original or clever but just something I never figured out before, I like to share it in case someone else can use it. And so a sourdough tip. I’ve sort of known this for ages but this loaf so perfectly demonstrates the point that I’ll share it now.
Everybody loves a crusty loaf I’m sure, and most of us slash the top of our risen dough before baking. This little trick just helps you to choose what you want the crust to look like. I don’t like the kind of crust that looks a bit like a breaking wave on top of the loaf; it looks great but it’s often very sharp and can be positively dangerous to eat when it’s baked hard. In old money this is often described as a crusty or when it’s rectangular, a split loaf. I prefer the crust in the photo, it looks just as impressive in my view, but it’s less lethal to the mouth and it’s the kind of crust you get on what’s known here as a coburg. The choice between breaking wave and a smoother crust is controlled by the angle of the slash. If you want a loaf like the one in the photo – and this is a bit counterintuitive – you need to slash the dough vertically, straight into the top, as much as an inch deep. To get the wave look with the raised slash, you cut the dough diagonally at, say, forty five degrees or even less. Try it and see for yourself.
Which takes me neatly to survival mechanisms while we’re all doing our best to avoid social contact because it can be really boring stuck indoors. Why not spend some time learning to bake? If you’ve always wanted to make sourdough the best suggestion I can make is to ignore all the witchcraft and ley-line stuff about making a starter. It couldn’t be simpler, you just mix a couple of tablespoons of rye flour light or dark, doesn’t matter – with enough water, (tap water will do), to make it the consistency of double cream. Leave it uncovered for a few days in a warm place and it will start to bubble a bit. You don’t need to buy fancy starter kits because – trust me – the very air we breathe really wants you to make sourdough. And then once it’s working well – frothing up – you can throw half of the starter away or give it to a friend, top it up with a couple of tablespoons more rye flour and more water. When it comes to making the bread, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage recipe is as good as any but expect to add or subtract a little flour depending on the brand you bought. And don’t worry it’ll taste fine – don’t overbake it. I bake it in my steam oven for 10 minutes at 220C and twenty at 180C – that’s half an hour altogether, but it will differ according to your oven – that’s it. If you really want a blow by blow recipe and method, email me on the link on this page and I’ll send it.
And that was a very long winded way of saying use this unexpected gift of time to do something rewarding, because achieving a lifelong ambition really makes your day. We have a lovely breakfast each day using our own bread and preserves. We read a lot more and we tend hundreds of young plants or go to the allotment where everyone understands the 2 metres of separation rule. I can’t begin to express how a few hours of gardening can compensate for our restricted lives. The sun shone today and I was able to fill the water butts from the storage barrels. Madame sowed seeds and I planted cabbages and rhubarb chard – almost everything is under fleece because of the cold nights. We swerve between feeling optimistic and then moments of real panic at the thought of what may happen. It’s a bereavement for sure, to lose all our freedom, but the sight of so many (mostly young) people crowding the parks, markets, mountains and beaches in defiance of all the advice was a chilling sight.
My final time enriching wheeze is to play back all my botanical photos in a slideshow and try to name them all as soon as they come on-screen. I know I’m a complete propellerhead but there we are.
Well we’d better make a start with these early risers – just a dozen of the wildflowers – don’t say weeds – flowering this morning on the riverbank footpath. We took ourselves out for an hour in the fresh air today, fairly certain that we were maintaining our social distances in the required fashion. The only downside seems to be an increasing tendency for young people to look rather suspiciously at us as if we were causing the problem rather than being the principle victims. You can’t blame them I suppose, they’ve been repeatedly told that we stole their pensions – a bit of larceny I don’t remember at all – someone else must have taken my share! On the other hand the sight of a man crouching amongst the weeds may have led them to conclude I was about to expire and reminded them of the admirable advice in the parable of the good Samaritan, that’s to say – to pass by on the other side.
So this year I fear my botanising will be largely confined to these local wild and weedy thugs – aside from a trip to Whitefield meadow at Dyrham Park where with a bit of luck we’ll find the elusive orchid whose name I’m not even going to mention. The riverbank was reseeded with wildflower mix a couple of seasons ago, following flood prevention works, and although it looked quite pretty for a while is just didn’t look right. It was a jumble of wildflowers from quite different habitats including a few poppies. As I’ve mentioned several times I’m reading George Peterken’s marvellous book “Meadows”, (£35.00 and worth every penny), anyway he mentions in passing something that demonstrates exactly why the wildflower mix looked so wrong – there were poppies in it and poppies are arable weeds. In fact he says that there are no red flowers in flower meadows at all. I’m in no position to verify that nugget, but it sounds exactly right and completely underlined why the riverbank attempt at flower meadow flora was a bit – well, out of tune.
What’s more to the point, though, is that these expensive usurpers didn’t, probably couldn’t, last the course. They arrived in an alien environment; out came whatever passes for banjos and shotguns in the plant world, and the locals simply shouldered them out of the way as if they were old people in the queue for toilet rolls. The burdock that I was so sad to lose to the bulldozers and excavators has reasserted itself in its old home and the whole stretch of the river bank is restored to pretty much the way it used to be. Weeds! How long, I wonder, before public pressure is brought to bear on the council to get the strimmers out?
More silver linings for the family. The almost complete disappearance of tourists has led to a crisis in the holiday rental market and so suddenly, overnight, there are flats available for short term rent and our youngest son has found somewhere to live. Our middle son has just heard that the government is subsidising wages up to 80% – which will be a lifesaver in the catering industry where thousands have been laid off already.
But yesterday I spoke to our oldest, who is a teacher, and he was able to tell me about the traumas that students and teachers are experiencing when relationships that have taken years to nurture are suddenly ruptured. Young people have no idea how they will cope with the postponement of public examinations and they are quite properly distraught at being cut adrift at this crucial time in their lives, not knowing what lies before them. So he’s going to be working harder than ever to make sure they’re safe, properly fed and cared for. When you read about the schools being closed, remember that teachers aren’t going to be enjoying ‘garden leave’ but struggling to keep the show on the road. My advice is not to crack jokes about the ‘long holiday’ if you want to continue to enjoy your own!
There were crowds up at the allotment today. We were too emotionally exhausted to do much but the weather looks fine for tomorrow so we’ll have a day with as little stress as possible. To adapt a quote from Churchill, who seems to be on everyone’s’ lips at the moment –
The government can always be relied upon to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else!
Thank you, by the way, Ms Woolf, for the image. At last I have a space to work in – as opposed to the corner of a desk in a lumber room. The trouble is, its principal function seems to be a place to worry in. The piano left the building yesterday morning. Three removal men (is there a description for removal men that doesn’t include the word ‘burly’? – probably not I fear, it sort of goes with the territory); so three men of assorted sizes but all very strong, turned up at the crack of 10.00am and made lightish work of maneuvering a full sized music school upright piano out of the flat and down three flights of stairs. Three men, all Brummies: two of them tea with two sugars and the other coffee, also with two sugars. Three men, only one of whom qualified for the triple whammy as burly, cheerful and Brummie, and the other two with diminishing amounts of the first two qualities. I think it was one of those bizarre encounters fuelled by the British class system that ensured that everyone was looking down on everyone else. Final score, real world – three points; bookish and weird – two points. We all parted amicably; me with a room of my own and them with a substantial amount of cash, as they were doing a foreigner. (You can Google the term – it’s Midlands slang). Madame and me were talking about it afterwards and we agreed that we’d achieved the supreme paradox of both marrying beneath ourselves.
Needless to say, the unofficial and unelected chairperson of the Tenants Association – which hasn’t met since we moved here – found time to harangue them about possible damage to the walls, (which there wasn’t). Meanwhile the cleaner was lamenting the fact that she was being told either to work at night (less chance of meeting anyone) or lose her contract, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
And so the rest of the day was spent in rearranging the furniture, shredding old documents and throwing others away, and afterwards curating the books in my unique version of the Dewey system. Books I’m actually using at eye level alongside me, arranged by subject and all the rest somewhere else – but no more crawling under tables.
Meanwhile the bad news was leaking in like a faulty drain. One son’s job has gone up in smoke leaving him with no money because he’s neither sick, nor redundant nor unemployed but surplus to a business with no customers and big borrowings. We watched the news conference given by the Spaffer in Chief waiting to see if anyone in government was concerned about anything except businesses but they didn’t say a word about the people who work (or no longer work) in pubs and restaurants. There are probably tens of thousands of workers in this situation but hey! So a family with three children, one needing constant care because of a genetic disorder is thrown into potential disaster
Our youngest is still clinging to his job in the same business, but he’s between flats and he’s discovered his (ex) flatmate has has been stealing the rent and council tax money and hiding the resulting letters from banks and bailiffs. So he’s sofa surfing now. Our only properly solvent son was promoted two days before the Spaffalogue announced the school closures and so he’s become second in command of a large academy just as the shitstorm breaks. He said that members of the management team were in tears yesterday when the enormities of trying to feed and protect their most vulnerable children had to be confronted. We allowed ourselves half an hour outside the flat to collect our artworks from the exhibition which has closed prematurely
We are stretched. Madame went to the supermarket at 8.00am in the hope of finding something on the shelves but the locusts had swept through during the unobserved pensioners hour. If anyone dares to mention the spirit of the blitz to me I’ll scream. It’s everyone for themselves and let the weak go to the wall. Strangely, the worry feels completely different from anything we’ve ever experienced before. We’re floating in a surreal state almost like we’ve been sedated, leaving us conscious and cooperative – but with every piece of bad news flattened out. The anger won’t seem to come – perhaps my ever vigilant superego has declared a state of emergency somewhere inside.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man” they say. Oh not Spaffer ……. please – not Spaffer!
– but they certainly show that summer’s on the way. Sorry, by the way, for the lamentable joke but I’m cheering myself up because I’ve just discovered that we’re about to be subjected to house arrest for no greater crime than being over 60. Even worse, we’re being told that we’ll probably be ‘let go’ by the NHS in favour of the more economically active. They say it’s for our own good that we’re being sequestered, but I’m suspicious. Being made to feel lonely, marginalized and unwanted isn’t that great, but I think I’ll be alright because I’m so angry I’ll survive anything just for the pleasure of being there when the day of reckoning comes for this government, and meanwhile I’ll spend the time studying plants in the concentrated sabbatical I’ve always longed for.
The biggest worry is that we’ll be unable to maintain the allotment unless someone among the brain dead realizes that growing our own food is like going on a very lengthy shopping trip. Otherwise I’ll buy some night-sight goggles, put on my darkest clothes and garden secretly, in the dark – there are only a handful of police left on duty now in the whole city (post austerity) so it’ll probably be alright and I’ll be able to defend the allotment against the people who see a bit of illegal grazing as perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. Our neighbour once had all his pumpkins stolen a few days before hallowe’en.
The good news is in the photo – the asparagus is coming up. Actually, there’s been something to eat every day – not enough to keep us alive, but enough to keep us cheerful. There are still broccoli, leeks and chard and the hotbed is charging along so we’ll soon have some salad veg. I don’t think I’ve seen mention of this, but the complex reaction that keeps a hotbed going does need keeping moist, and we find that occasional watering invariably sends the temperature up by a few degrees 24 hours later.
Having time to calibrate the greenhouse drippers will pay off I’m sure, and by the time the warm spring weather comes and the plants are moved out of the flat, the whole system should work without too much intervention from us. We’ve got food deliveries booked three weeks ahead and our youngest lives near enough to pick up fresh food and keep an eye on things; our middle son is an allotmenteer (on another site), our neighbours are a great bunch and our oldest son has got the whole family connected for video calls, so we’re very fortunate.
George Peterken’s nook “Meadows” is a delight as well. I have to read it with the laptop, a couple of floras and a notebook to hand because it’s that rich, but every chapter feels like a long rewarding walk and brings back happy memories of botanical expeditions we’ve enjoyed and intend to enjoy again when we get parole.
I had a colleague who was once involved in a deadful car crash. He was driving on a dual carriageway when he suddenly saw a BMW upside down and in the air, flying towards him. He said it was so completely unexpected he simply couldn’t process the information and try to take evasive action. That’s what this coronavirus outbreak is beginning to feel like here in the UK. The absence of any compassion, intellectual heft or even basic organisation by the government is terrifying.
A couple of days of intensive grandparenting have kept us pretty busy at the Potwell Inn, and yesterday we bussed over to Bristol to look after the two youngest during the day while their mum and dad were at an event. We’d planned taking them to the Museum and Art Gallery – always a haven for wet days and access time for glum looking parents, but due to a mix-up with the buses into the city centre we spent most of our time on the bus. The museum turned out to be closed on Mondays anyway but – and this is the important point – the children were wonderfully philosophical and loved the buses which, I suspect, they don’t get to use much. We use them whenever we can because it keeps the car off the road and it’s free. This is no mean achievement for the government, a social policy that older people love, use all the time, and must surely be good for the environment. It makes no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor (a truly malignant calculus) and I can’t understand why politicians don’t stop waffling on with endless pious hopes about public transport and support it with hard cash. People will flock to it if it’s cheap (and clean), but when a single bus fare from Bath to Bristol in peak time costs £5 there’s very little incentive to leave the car behind. The poorest, of course, have no choice.
Yesterday we walked up to the museum through the centre of town and there’s no denying it was a miserable experience. Quality of life in Bristol has deteriorated on almost any measure you could name. The walk uphill past the main hospital was so polluted by noise and car fumes we just stopped talking altogether and I could feel my chest tightening. I’m a bit deaf these days, and such was the intensity and volume of the roar being bounced between the concrete buildings I had no idea where it was coming from. It was the human equivalent of a gannetry; stinking, filthy, violent and overwhelmingly noisy. Buildings were covered in graffiti – the old Bank of England building near Bristol Bridge was a particularly poignant example, and there were beggars everywhere. Nobody, it seems, wants to help them find jobs or homes.
Meanwhile, the great British public, unable to raise ourselves above apathy in relation to the climate emergency have stripped the shelves in Sainsbury’s so that not a single toilet roll was on sale this morning. Our son saw someone in the street dressed in what looked like a hazmat suit carrying a load of them today. When I first heard him tell it I thought it must be one of those lovely stunts that the Natural Theatre Company used to get up to with Brian Popay. It’s not our sanity as much as our sense of priorities I worry about. I’ve no doubt that blame will soon be assigned to the hapless people who brought coronavirus here and as soon as we know who to hate we’ll all be happy again, but it does seem odd that we have learned to tolerate public squalour and the devastation of the environment but are galvanised by fear of a virus. I don’t know how many children and old people will die of asthma related disease aggravated by traffic pollution in a so-called ‘normal’ year but as sure as hell it isn’t zero. Neither do I know how many people will die from neglect and cold, even from starvation; but that won’t be zero either.
I suspect that the trick is to find a suitably disposable scapegoat and to pin the blame on them but – in a phrase I overuse – ‘we have seen the enemy, it is us’ And so for example the enemy could be the cow and the only way out is – apparently – more mass produced junk food but without any meat in it. It seems we’re willing to contemplate eating processed seaweed and intensively grown soya until we turn green – anything except ending our dependence on burning fossil fuels. We love our cars so much we’d rather choke to death than catch a bus.
Is it just me being an old fogey? Younger people seem to manage the noisy canyons by wearing headphones and walking holding their mobiles. I suppose it’s a kind of insulation against the reality of the streets. Am I hopelessly out of touch with the realities of life? am I just another middle class, old white man too fastidious to want to deal with the way we do things round here? It’s always possible – I know enough about myself to know that I don’t know anything much about me, my fears and obsessions. But just sometimes we have to make the choice between more of the same and something much harder that demands commitment, resources and a lot of courage.
The rewards of walking hand in hand with my grandchildren and playing riotous games with a home made peashooter made out of a cardboard roll – well they take some beating, but the thought that they will never hear a nightingale or a nightjar, or see a wild hare in a field or be safe to play away from home is really scary. The thought that their lives will become precarious and stripped of the pleasures of eating together by food insecurity and industrial gloop; that their inner lives will be curated entirely by Google and Apple and shaped by the interests of the corporations – that’s a hellish vision.