Britannia lures the waves!

And – as the great ship of state sinks gently to the seabed of reality …….

Sometimes a photo is a ready-made metaphor for something you can’t quite explain! But then, it was such a nice day today for a reflective walk that even the provocations made me laugh. I’ve written before about the way each season carries intimations of the next to cheer us on, and today there was a tremendous sense that spring will come because time and tide bow to no-one, however powerful our inglorious leaders might like us to think they are. There were signs of occasional occupation in this boat until a month or two ago, but now it’s about to join the shopping trolleys and stolen bikes at the bottom of the river. Meanwhile the prophets of Baal (you can look it up, it’s a very funny story) whip themselves up into a froth of evangelical fervour as we stand alone against Johnny Foreigner – ready to show what we’re really made of. Sadly, there’s absolutely no sign of Elijah anywhere on the horizon – I certainly don’t think Keir Starmer cuts the prophetic mustard. Anyway as a sign of our preparedness for the coming troubles I thought the poor old wreck was a fitting tribute. Johnson’s new £10 billion navy – “Just needs a lick of battleship grey and a union flag and she’ll look as good as she did in the 1930’s”. And we all know how well that went.

So by way of a bit of diversion this two part graffiti on the river bank made me laugh out loud:

I thought the waggish “why?” completely demolished the rather earnest philosophical tone of the original comment. Elsewhere I thought you might like to see this 20th century brutalist response to the foppish grandeur of Georgian Bath.

Yes it’s the Avon Street multi story car park which is about to be demolished – but still much loved by skateboarders. Needless to say the offending building – like most of the truly ugly modern buildings in Bath was erected in Kingsmead – where we now live. This was the area that was most damaged during the Baedeker air raids during the war – the bombers missed the real target back in the day – but instead of grasping the opportunity to restore what was always a poor but vibrant mixed community they built lots of horrors like this and demolished even more small, historic houses across on the London Road on the spurious grounds that they were unfit. The tragedy, of course, is not so much the failure of architectural imagination – I’m not arguing here for mock Georgian multi-story carriage stables – it’s the shocking fact that someone, in an office somewhere, thought this was all we were worth. George Steiner wrote memorably of a critical test for literature – “What measure of [hu]man does this propose?” The architect Richard Rogers has written that buildings embody our idea of human worth, what we’re about and what we’re capable of. We’re not there yet by any means – the Western Riverside Development in Bath, done by Crest Nicholson resembles nothing more than a bonded warehouse or an architectural tribute to a Chernobyl housing project.

There are, however, grounds for hope. The lockdown has created economic havoc among some of the larger companies, but many of the smaller shops and businesses have proved themselves more adaptable; working collectively and capitalising on what feels like a real longing for a new order. The butchers and bakers and for all I know the candlestick makers too have tapped into something significant, exploring the meaning of local and community; and all it could take to demolish the supermarket myth for good will be another food supply crisis – like the one so heedlessly being put together at the moment. It used to be a raise in bread prices that caused riots – maybe this will be the first civil unrest ever caused by a shortage of jackfruit and avocados, but more plausibly – given the middle class aversion to any action bar gentle hand wringing – it will be provoked by the absence of the everyday things; the foodstuffs that (like it or not), most of us have learned to depend upon.

So back to my book of the year (so far). Here’s a section that caught my eye this morning:

We’ve now discussed, however briefly,the human ecology of field crops, gardens, livestock and wood crops with a view to constructing more sustainable farm systems for the future out of this raw material. Earlier I mentioned the idea of people re-wilding themselves in the context of that future – spreading themselves out across the landscape like other organisms to to skim its flows sustainably rather than concentrating so as to mine its stocks, practising the arts of self-reliance, knowing how to fill the larder, and knowing how to stop when the larder is full rather than pursuing an economy of endless accumulation.

Chris Smage – “A Small Farm Future” p 144

Well, Amen to that. The economy doesn’t just need the tyres pumping up or an oil change it needs to be exposed for what it has become, the means of extracting wealth, leisure and humanity from millions of people and throwing millions more into dependency, sickness and poverty. The etymology of the word crisis comes from the Greek crino – to choose – and so we have to ask who gets to choose when we reach the crossroads? – when the multiple crises facing us come to fruition at the same time because, in essence they are one massive connected crisis.

So to round off a pleasurable walk today, photographs of the two repurposed bridges from the ‘glory days’ of steam. The first the line from the old Somerset and Dorset, which brought coal (remember that) in from Midsomer Norton and the North Somerset coalfield into Green Park Station. The second, the old Midland Railway line. A third one comes in from the West and goes to London and is the only surviving working line. And of course there’s the lovely iron pedestrian bridge over the Kennet and Avon canal which no longer carries coal but pleasure boaters onwards towards London. The latest bridge across the river is for pedestrians and cyclists only. Steam has gone; coal has gone and the old station now houses market stalls, a butchers shop, food outlets and the local farmers market on a Saturday. The owner says he could let another six units today if there was space. Is this a sign of collapse or is it the foretaste of a new future, the first buds of spring that actually appear in late autumn when the leaves fall from the trees? If you look now you’ll see the buds there waiting. Only time will tell what fruits they will bear.

Digging in for the winter

Could there be a more boring photo than three Ball preserving jars in a pressure pan? I’ve always thought of cooking as a rampart against creeping despair and, curiously enough I was comparing notes with one of our (chef) sons and he felt exactly the same way. It turned out we’d both been spending hours at the stove, and both of us fighting off the onset of November.

Madame has been pining – well I have too – missing any real contact with our sons and grandchildren and so, with the prospect of another big lockdown in our minds we grabbed a chance of sharing a socially distanced walk with them. It was hammering down with rain, and the footpaths were nightmarishly slippery but we were all so overjoyed to see one another we’d have walked over embers to be there. Later we finished up at their allotment and they’re experiencing the same kind of thing as us. Their allotment site too was alive with activity during the furlough, and now as people have returned to work the plots are rapidly reverting to grassland. We found a cleared plot in exactly that condition, and in the middle was an apple tree groaning with fruit, and with dozens of windfalls on the ground surrounding it. None were being harvested and so we gathered up a couple of carrier bags of windfalls and took them to our respective kitchens. I should have photographed them, but we’re pretty sure they are Newton Wonder – a cooking variety that’s quite the equal of a Bramley in flavour but extremely vigorous. The fruits were very large too and we set too, peeled and chopped them and, after a small trial batch, added a little lemon juice, clove, a cinnamon stick and about a quarter pint of elderflower cordial with a bit more water. The apples took up rather more fluid then a Bramley would have done. And that was it – after 10 minutes in the pressure cooker to sterilize them they’ll go into store along with all the other preserves – six 750g jars in all.

The question of food security was on my mind today because an email arrived from a young friend in Guatemala, full of concern for her UK parents. And I think she’s entirely right to be concerned because the initial stages of the lockdown were marked by a collapse in food distribution here, with long queues and empty shelves everywhere. If, as we fear, the UK leaves Europe without a trade agreement things will get much worse, and with a gathering worldwide economic depression there’s a general feeling that the present economic structure has reached an impasse; greedily consuming far more resources than the earth can provide. I constantly want to shout out – “There’s no Seventh Cavalry about to charge over the hill and save us!” – like they used to do in the Westerns. I’m a very reluctant revolutionary, but – we don’t have decades for politicians to try to find ways of appearing radical while doing nothing.

I know I often quote poetry or poets here, but that’s because when they’re good they manage to cut through all the verbiage and tell it like it is. Recently I’ve been reading Louis MacNeice’s “Autumn Journal” and it affects me so much I tried to read a section to Madame the other day and scared the living daylights out of her by bursting into tears. MacNeice was writing about that period in 1939 that’s become known as the phony war; the months when nothing was actually happening but the tsunami was gathering strength just across the channel in Europe, and people were so desperately hoping that the politicians could lead the country back to something that looked and felt normal. That’s how it feels here right now, and I’ve no confidence that there is the leadership we need here to address the hydra headed monster of covid; economic and social collapse plus an impending ecological disaster. Only a new vision will do and it’s nowhere to be seen.

So we cook, and store, and get our gardens and allotments ready for a new season. We pine for our distanced families and friends and lay in stores and playlists of films and music to console us and remind us that although we may be deeply flawed – “glorious ruins” as one theologian described humanity; we are capable of being glorious, creative and loving to one another. November has broken in our hearts before its appointed time and this first week of Greenwich Mean Time has been as mean as hell.

But we harvested some rather lovely fennel, and the resident heron along the river obliged us by posing rather miserably in the rain and in a brief appearance by the sun the trees in Henrietta Park we remembered that this is – or can be – one of the most beautiful seasons of the year. And, of course, there’s about ten pounds of stewed Newton Wonder apples to raid in the February lean times.

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.

Sweet Cicely again.

Here at the Potwell Inn we’re beginning the sixth week of our lockdown because we started a little earlier than the Government. There have been many moments of doubt, but on the whole it’s been a positive experience because it’s affirmed the choices we’ve already  made over the years about the way we live. So baking, for instance hasn’t come as a new skill, nor has gardening or cooking. We hardly ever ate out; we gave up going abroad when we retired because we couldn’t really afford it any more. The biggest changes due to the lockdown have been the clean plates. We’ve eaten well but carefully and because we’re cooking smaller portions we finish it all. That’s it really.  The cleaner air, the absence of traffic and noise have been an absolute bonus. The biggest loss has been the fact that we can’t use the campervan and so a whole missing season of walking, botanising, mountains and seaside  therapy  has left a huge gap in our lives and we’ll never stop yearning for France. So far as I’m concerned that really doesn’t add up to saintly renunciation.

My biggest concern – it’s becoming an obsession – is that the covid 19 pandemic has displaced almost every other issue in public life.  I feel like the cartoon character with a billboard that proclaims the end is nigh! – people laugh, dismiss my concerns and take a wide berth; but the smallest glimpse at history teaches that civilisations and cultures really do come to an end when they are overwhelmed by their contradictions and overreach themselves. When Thomas Cromwell appropriated the wealth of the monasteries they were already well on their way to collapsing. The supply of peasant labour that kept the farms going was beginning to dry up and many of the monks were far from home, collecting rents.  The fabulous wealth of the church was ripe for the picking, it had become spiritually bankrupt and far too interested in projecting political power. It was Cromwell who had the cunning plan.

But when the prevailing ideology of a civilisation or culture is exposed as bankrupt, unworkable, fraudulent or downright dangerous it’s only a matter of time before it collapses.  That’s a fact of history, not a prediction for the future. This isn’t a long holiday paid for by the state, but it may be a moment in an historical earthquake. Climate change, economic collapse and species extinctions are not going to take a furlough while the politicians get the old, damaged economy back on its feet. The only question is – do we want to do survival the hard way or the catastrophic way? 

All of which gloomy thoughts have provoked me to write about Sweet Cicely because whatever the future, these precious weeds will have a part in it. Welcome to the Potwell Inn windowsill which is pressed into service as a greenhouse, a source of free light and heat and an entertainment centre through which we can watch the world even though we’re confined – aside from daily trips to the allotment. I’d long wanted to grow it because it’s an early riser like rhubarb and its natural sweetness and faintly aniseed flavour make the perfect companion to it. The best culinary herbs are often not the ones that shout at you like a trumpet in a Sicilian marching band. They’re more subtle – so much so that you only notice their absence and not their presence. So yesterday we gathered both and cooked them, and the addition of a few Sweet Cicely leaves makes an indefinable but profound difference, adding depth. Home grown rhubarb straight out of the ground is marvellous anyway, but this way it’s even better.

I spoke of it, just then, as a weed – and, in Yorkshire for instance, that’s what it is – as common as Cow Parsley is down here in the South West. Our plants had a difficult beginning. I actually bought some seeds three years ago, shoved them into some seed compost and waited – nothing happened. Did I ever write about the RTFM notice? Years ago I worked in a satellite radio station where there was a large notice written over the desk.  “In the event of equipment failure RTFM” I asked an engineer one day what it meant. “Read the manual” he replied tartly.

So after the Sweet Cicely had sulked for a very long time I read the manual and it appeared that they were tricky little devils to germinate because they needed a period of cold (vernalization).  So into the fridge they went, pots and all, in a plastic bag where I forgot all about them. Later we went to see friends in Yorkshire and there were plants growing absolutely everywhere – like weeds – in Nidderdale, where we were. So I grabbed a handful of the interestingly large seeds, shoved them in my pocket until we got home and then I put them into pots and left them outside without much hope. Up they sprang and I planted them into a corner where I thought they couldn’t do too much harm and that was that. Eventually I remembered the ones in the fridge and sunk the little pots into a bigger one and left them outside on the allotment where they too germinated. I can definitely confirm that once they’ve got their roots down they are completely worthy of their weedy reputation just as they are worthy of a place on any allotment – just for the rhubarb, although the green seeds are also delicious and have a lot of potential for cooking.

The other two plants on the windowsill were Dill and Lovage – also early risers on the allotment. Dill is just wonderful (in small amounts) added to parsley in a fish pie; and Lovage is a marvellous addition to any vegetable stock (oh and in Pimms too). In the trug yesterday was another cutting of Purple Sprouting Broccoli which is at its peak at the moment. The important point about it is that although it’s in the ground for almost two years, the sprouts themselves grow and ripen in days and so they are immensely tender – stalk and all. I suspect that’s the reason why commercial growers have adopted the term “tenderstem” – because non gardeners might cut the stalks off (oh horror!).  They’re as good as asparagus and a lot more prolific. At the moment our 12′ X 5′ asparagus bed is yielding a small feed every two days.  The Purple Sprouting (5 plants) would yield a trug full in the same time.

The other seasonal blessing is Spinach – it doesn’t care for midsummer and wants to bolt, so now is the time to harvest, and you can sow more in late summer for the winter months.  Meanwhile  the chards will take over.