The Potwell Inn will not be returning to normal

Pottering around in the kitchen this morning after an uplifting moment with Naomi Klein I came to one of those moments of clarity where the way forward suddenly seems clear. We don’t have to go back to normal. I was just opening the tub in which we keep the bread flour and I noticed we’d used more than half of the 16Kg bag that we managed to scrounge from a local bakery when everything went crazy. So my thoughts turned to getting some more – this lot was bog standard ‘improved’ bakers’ white flour which has kept us going with the help of a bit of spelt flour for flavour, but my favourite flour has been unavailable for months. It’s organic for a start, less mucked about and uses more locally grown wheat. It’s crazy to have to dilute the protein in Canadian wheat flour with low protein cake flour when you can get it off the field with the right proportions.

Plenty of people are trying to reduce their daily lives in ways that do reduce their consumption. But if these sort of demand-side emission reductions are to take place on anything like the scale required, they cannot be left to the lifestyle decisions of earnest urbanites who like going to farmers’ markets on Saturday afternoons and wearing up-cycled clothing.

Naomi Klein “This Changes Everything” 2014

I take your point Naomi – but we have to start somewhere, and with democracy in its present perilous and ineffective state as a client of big business, there aren’t a lot of alternative ways of changing things than through consumer pressure and community action.

So there I am in the kitchen pondering about flour and making up a sourdough batter for tomorrow and I thought – we don’t need to go back! Maybe we should be more like my mother who, having endured food rationing during the 2nd world war, always kept a larder full of emergency rations. No more queueing, no more waiting like sheep being herded to a slaughterhouse in order to buy things we don’t need and food that’s making us obese and killing us with the promise of uninterrupted pleasure. No I’m not some kind of Savonarola, I’d just like for the earth to continue for our grandchildren’s delight and not as a smoking post-industrial slag-heap. I don’t want to go back to supermarkets whose produce is driven, container-shipped and flown from the poorest of producers to the wealthy world just so we can buy ever more chemically preserved and processed junk food while we choke on the air that’s been polluted by the getting of it to our tables.

The shortages and deprivations of the Covid 19 pandemic are not responsibility of some remote god, they’re a foretaste of what’s coming if we don’t mend our ways and it’s in this sense that the personal becomes political. There’s no technological Seventh Cavalry waiting over the hill to save us – to borrow a line from World Organic News we have to save the earth one cabbage at a time. We don’t have a functioning test and trace programme at the moment, but then – we don’t have a coherent food security policy either because it’s all been subcontracted out to the big four supermarkets; we don’t have a coherent renewable energy policy or sustainable agriculture policy neither do we have any policy for reducing dependence on cars and lorries by improving public transport nor do we have any leadership or political will to fix these problems. We behave like the alcoholics who are always going to stop drinking after one more glass.

I’m bound to say that the deprivations we’ve experienced personally during the lockdown are not related to toilet rolls, paracetamol tablets and avocados. It’s been not seeing our children and grandchildren close enough to hug them and smell their hair, not striking up conversations with random strangers and worrying constantly that no-one in government seems to give a damn what happens to us.

And so I don’t want to go back to normal. I want to go forwards into a more sustainable, kinder, more forgiving and much more caring world. Naomi Klein’s book was published in 2014 – that’s six largely wasted years ago. To go back to the metaphor of the alcoholic I used a little earlier (and I don’t have a down on alcoholics, I recognise all all the symptoms in myself) – do we have to wait until our livers are completely and incurably damaged to stop killing ourselves?

  1. and apologies for misspelling Naomi Klein’s name twice when this was first published. Should have waited for my breakfast!

We’re a neighbourly lot

Having barely left the flat for weeks – except for going to the allotment – we went out for a walk yesterday evening, drinking in the unusual peace and quiet. The trees on the green are stunning at this time of the year, not least the horse chestnuts in full flower.  The initial object of our enquiries was the state of the elderflower blossom which looks as if it will be ready to pick on Friday.  Cue for a great manufacture of cordial to last the year. Our neighbours have excelled themselves this spring with front door displays. These houses may look like haunts of the wealthy but they’re not. Moving clockwise from the top left, the third photo was taken outside a house that’s been abandoned for years.  The lovely display of Mexican fleabane is entirely spontaneous. The other doorways are all maintained by individual flat dwellers and they really lift the feel of the street. The photo of the window boxes on the bottom right are our window boxes from June 2017 – so a bit IMG_20200503_110448of a cheat. This years are going to be less opulent because we haven’t been able to get the plants from the garden centres which are all closed, but we’ve been propagating geraniums and ivy and we managed to get a few petunias by mail order so we’ll catch up eventually. But the main doorway to our flats is a bit barren and decorated only by a bit of graffiti that appeared a couple of nights ago. I suppose it slightly advances our edgy credentials, but it’s a shame.

So having checked out the elderflower crop we wandered on into town via some of the tourist hotspots.  Royal Crescent was all but deserted and the streets around it were much the same.  The main visitor car park was completely empty – not a car in sight, and as we walked along the deserted road towards the Circus a full moon was showing beautifully above the trees. Everywhere we walked was deserted with businesses closed – some for good –  and notices for creditors on the windows.  The Loch Fyne restaurant was boarded up.  There were out of date posters advertising long cancelled events, and the only signs of movement were cyclists delivering takeaway food. Delightful to see Bath in this way, but quite spooky too – something terrible is happening and it feels as if a whole way of life with its infrastructure of cafes, restaurants, bookshops, pubs, clubs and theatres is under threat. What will emerge is a hugely important question, but we can sense the drive amongst some politicians to get back to normal as soon as possible oblivious to the fact that it was the old normal that got us into this disaster in the first place.

For us at the Potwell Inn, this crisis is causing a complete rethink of where and how we buy the things we can’t grow ourselves. The deficiencies and inequalities in our society have been forensically exposed by covid 19. We can do better than this.



I’m in two minds about this posting, knowing how uneasy I can feel when writers I’ve enjoyed seem suddenly to change tack, shape shift; enlarge and offer a glimpse into another possibility of being human. Here’s this imaginary place called the Potwell Inn in which an allotmenteer and his partner live and where they cook and grow food and travel a bit and muse about this and that; alluding occasionally to past, pre retirement lives, children and grandchildren. All very neat and tidy until the big crises of the twenty first century intrude and we have to pay attention to the environment and economics and politics. But even then, a predictably leftist, new age, hippy dippy character who if not actually in a box, is certainly capable of being measured up for it.

Really? Is that it?

Once, in an early session that began years of therapy I burst into uncontrollable tears. This was before I finally left the armchair and walked to the couch – it’s a long way in a small room. I was talking about Odysseus’ return to his home in Ithaca where his wife Penelope, who doesn’t recognise him dressed as a beggar, orders her maid Eurycleia to bathe him.  Eurycleia, his childhood nursemaid recognises Odysseus by the old scar on his leg. The simple recounting of that story unexpectedly reduced me to helpless vulnerability.

Looking back, I think the extraordinary reaction was due to the exposure of my need to be known. I don’t mean famous, rich or powerful – just known, and that demands a level of trust that most of the time neither I or anyone else can easily manage, and so we spend (forgive me for generalising, I don’t think I’m alone here) – we spend more time concealing than revealing ourselves, and then we beat ourselves up when people don’t ‘get’ us.

And all this reflection was provoked because last night we watched the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s book “Normal People” – which Madame had read and thought I’d enjoy. To tell the truth I was deeply touched by it; by the parallels in our own early relationship but perhaps more than anything by the way it evoked the confusion, the bewilderment and the overwhelming sensuality of falling in love as a teenager surrounded by people who don’t get it – parents, teachers, friends – grown ups in general. I haven’t watched the rest yet, I don’t know if I want to, because there’s no drama in happiness, and no happiness in drama, that’s for sure.

But that’s teenagers, and now we’re all grown up and far too sensible, far too willing to settle for less, far too willing to judge harshly when others break out, (I thought to myself), and then, quite out of the blue, I realized that in some complicated sense I’m still a teenager, but that now the disapproving voices are all younger than me. Something dreadful happens and growing up brings with it the terrible danger of first becoming a metaphor of oneself and then a cliché. We can become the same hatchet jawed judges who once judged us and sneered that we’d soon know better.  We can become them, but we don’t have to, and we can even stop it if we wish to.

What this pandemic seems to have done is to evoke in me the same sense of powerlessness, of being subject to the will of others who don’t understand, who can’t live in the bright tumultuous sun, who can neither love or be loved but treat life like a game of musical chairs and will fight to the death to be the last man sitting.

And so the rain came last night, absolutely on cue.  If only the rest of our lives were so predictable.

*H’m is the title of one of RS Thomas’ collections of poems.  The photo was taken on one of the beaches in his parish.