Equinox

I’m a bit wary about complete happiness – I probably read too many Iris Murdoch novels when I was young …….. but! last night something unmistakably like complete happiness stole over us as we worked together on the allotment in companionable silence, transitioning between last season and the one that’s coming – the one that’s always going to be the best, the most productive and the least troubled by weather and pests and random troubles. And if you are wondering what happened to Sunday’s more sombre mood I’d argue that it’s the nature of happiness to be ephemeral and we can only accept it on its own demanding terms. We have to accept it as an act of rebellion, of resistance.

So we’ve travelled from the spring to the autumn equinox during the strangest year. Everything was strange, the weather, the extremes of wind, drought, heat and rain and, of course the plague. I like the idea of calling Covid – ‘the plague’ because in many ways it fits the linguistic standard for plagues which manages to draw together all sorts of explanations and responsibilities that, boiled down, suggest we had it coming. Of course there’s the scientific and medical explanation for the plague, but there’s an ideological reason too, and an economic and political reason; an ethical reason and an environmental reason and all of them demand contrition – that’s the thing about plagues as opposed to simple old pandemics – they demand a response; vaccines are not enough.

But aside from that, a shot of happiness on a warm late summer evening was like a surprise visit from an old friend. The allotment’s like that. We have more cucumbers than we know what to do with but as we contemplate the fall, the bin full of leaf mould that they were growing in so successfully needs to be emptied and spread on to the beds. The courgettes and aubergines that have served us so well won’t thrive in the approaching colder weather and the winter crops need a feed and a clear out, followed by a deep mulch. We took down the early runner beans and put the poles into store again while we are still feasting on the Lady Di’s. Calendula flowers are being extracted in almond oil. Tomatoes, chillies, peppers, aubergines – how much ratatouille can a couple on a diet eat?

Then there are the apples. As we walked up the path Madame bit into the first of the Cox’s and groaned – honestly. We’ve got five varieties growing but we’re all in the same boat as our neighbours; in a good year we all produce more apples than we can eat. So we tolerate a good deal of what you might call permissive browsing. Everybody plants Cox’s, and when they’re good they’re unbeatable but they are sensitive to any number of beasties and bugs so they are less reliable than some of the varieties that have been bred at East Malling or Long Ashton in the olden days when Madame worked there. In the bowl there are four, and possibly five varieties – all different and with different qualities. Some store well, and some are only any good straight off the tree. One of the games we play at this time of year is to try to identify the variety from the fruit. Much consultation of the books goes on and every now and then we get it right. Real experts can identify a variety on sight – George Gilbert, one of Madame’s old bosses was a master. I suppose these days you send a piece off to the lab to do the DNA tests. Where’s the fun in that?

This autumn we’re going to plant more soft fruit and two or three more cordon fruit trees around the boundaries of the plot. The original fruit cage is far too crowded and we’re going to savage it to create a better, more open environment for the existing row of apples. That became a cue for a large order from the sawmill so I can reshape some of the beds, build a new strawberry bed and (da dah!) dig a pond.

I think we gardeners have a weird way of living in several dimensions at once. All that stuff about being in the moment is well and good, but any gardener will tell you that we also channel the spirits of our teachers, parents and grandparents from the past while we also have the gift of seeing beyond the present weedy mess into the future. Autumn yields glimpses into winter and spring and the leafless branches bear their buds as a kind of earnest for the future.

So who’s afraid of the equinox? Autumn is the mother of winter and winter is the mother of spring. The earth rests and a moment of happiness is a moment of grace in whatever shape it comes.

Sleeping with the enemy?

30C all day – and so, counterintuitively perhaps, I spent the day batch cooking and making bread in the kitchen. It was hot!

George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian today, asks why it is that the RSPB, the largest wildlife charity specialising in birds in the UK has joined with the Woodland Trust, an equally large and well supported charity, in giving support to an enormous scheme to build a new town twice the size of Birmingham between Oxford and Cambridge. This project was universally opposed by residents and wildlife groups until now when these two significant charities have reversed their position to support the scheme. The full article is here .

I think I know a part of the answer to this because I recall reading in Mark Cocker’s book “Our Place” that the RSPB have got serious form in this area. When the proposal to build an M4 relief route was being contested vigorously by environmentalists because it would have destroyed five out of nine protected areas in the Newport wetlands, an RSPB spokesperson is reported as saying:

As far as she was concerned the motorway would not affect their site and might actually increase visitor numbers

quoted in Mark Cocker “Our Place” page 65

With friends like the RSPB who needs enemies? you might wonder. But in the free market freewheeling culture of charities competing for favours and contracts from government and big businesses trying to greenwash their activities we should hardly be surprised.

I well remember resigning from a homeless charity because as they began to grow and take on more and more managerial and administrative workers they put pressure on us – the volunteers who actually took food out to rough sleepers at night – to stop handing out a couple of cigarettes to them “because it encouraged them to sleep rough”. I think anyone who imagines that they would put up with the squalour and privation of life on the streets for the sake of a couple of free fags a week needs to get out more. But there we are – ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ and the most effective method of neutralizing any campaigning charity is to fund it. Outright persecution is far less effective, but once the campaign is ‘on the payroll’ a quiet word is all that’s needed.

All this would be OK if, as in Candide, ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds‘ , but it isn’t. The world is in crisis and the time for quiet words is gone – if it ever truly existed. Another couple of news stories fed into my laptop today. Yesterday I mentioned the pollution of the River Wye by intensive organic chicken farming. I also read that there’s a serious cluster of Covid 19 cases centred on a chicken processing plant (slaughterhouse) in Anglesea North Wales. There’s another larger cluster in a similar plant in Bavaria, Germany. The resurgence in Beijing is centred on ….. need I go on. This catastrophe all started in a wet market where animals are slaughtered in unhygienic conditions, and it’s thought that the virus passed into humans as a result of the trade in wild animals for human consumption driven by the growth of intensive foreign owned meat companies which leads to peasant and small farmers migrating to the edges of the remaining forests where they forage for wild animals or raise domestic animals on a small scale even though there is a constant danger of viral mutations, because that’s the only way left to make a living. But it isn’t all farming that causes these problems it’s bad farming.

The common factor in all these incidences is poverty, poor wages, frequent appalling hygiene (less so in this country it should be said) and intensive agriculture that drives traditional farmers out of business. All these crises; environmental degradation , economic collapse, health problems, epidemics, migration and social unrest are merely symptoms of a single cause; the idolatry of the unrestrained free market. To go back to where I started this piece, a new concrete city twice the size of Birmingham (UK) isn’t part of the solution it’s just another part of the problem, and when governments and environmental charities alike are feted and funded by lobbyists then they’re playing the same old gradualist, ‘leave it to me’ game. Shame on them.

The idyllic world of my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns is about to be trashed by another enormous government scheme for a high speed rail link, the economics of which have been shown from the outset to be spurious. Surely we need to call time on this madness – after all it’s our money that they’re spending in order to to make the world impossible for us to live in at all; let alone well.

What should be the role of environmental charities in all this? Surely – at the least they should remain independent even at the cost of contracts, power and influence. The cost of their discreet silence is much greater.

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.

H’m

IMG_6118

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.