Whatever it takes, please – please read this book!

I don’t normally do straight book reviews and neither do I promote anything; I’ve no desire at all to be an ‘influencer’ whatever that might mean, but I will mention books when they’re good, or important; and so over the last couple of years I’ve worried and written a lot about the ecological crisis we’re in, and some of the books that have guided my thoughts. One day I’ll make a bibliography and put it up as a purely personal and probably idiosyncratic list that might help someone to make a start. Back at the Potwell Inn there are shelves full of them but it wouldn’t be difficult to rank them. Some are academic and hard to grasp – that doesn’t make them bad but I’d hesitate to recommend a book that might put anyone off the trail. Some are so partisan and angry that I could only read them a few pages at a time for fear of being overwhelmed. We’re not farmers or a horticulturalists here, and so people like us sometimes figure in the shadowy world of the consumer in these books, the apparently dimwitted customers who, by demanding ever cheaper food, helped to create the crisis we’re now in.

I don’t like being hectored or finger-wagged at. I don’t like being treated as an idiot or being held personally responsible for the way things are – and neither do farmers or ‘newt counting’ ecologists. We really are – (after carefully wiping the politicians’ snake oil off the phrase) – ‘in this together’ and the only workable solution will come from working together. The system is broke.

So who better than someone right inside the mess to show us what it feels like from the inside. I ordered James Rebank’s latest book “English Pastoral’ on a whim. Madame had read his previous book ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ previously and been quite lyrical about it but being an old stick in the mud I resisted. So when I ordered the new book I made sure I’d read the earlier book first. It’s good – patchy but good. There was a touch too much of the caricature blunt Yorkshireman I thought, and I also thought the tales of youthful rebellion, ‘drinking and shagging’ as he puts it, and the ferocious arguments with his father were a bit over-egged until, that is, the little voice in my head reminded me that we always dislike in others what we most dislike about ourselves and my own school career ended when I was escorted from the school (by the collar) by the headmaster for being a disruptive and disobedient pain; beginning three years of sombre reflection in dead end labouring jobs. It was Madame who got me into college and back on course. There were more parallels than you’d find in a school geometry set.

So ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ was always a better book than my grudging soul would admit and I’m glad I read it. ‘English Pastoral’ is even better. I really couldn’t put it down. He’s apparently friends with Wendell Berry, and has read Henry Williamson and somehow manages to weave together the lyrical voice with downright practical wisdom, occasionally shocking earthiness and a better grasp of the big picture than anyone else I’ve read. But the big sell, for me, was that I felt I was being embraced as part of the grand plan. The occasional snarky remarks in the first book about tourists’ collective ignorance of what fell farming is really like, have disappeared. The narrowness and suspicion of outsiders and experts, ecologists and economists and interfering incomers in the younger farmer, have all gone and what’s left is a conversation being led by a farmer who commands and deserves respect; a mea culpa in places for going with the flow against his better instincts and a luminous vision of the way forward. Any fierceness is reserved for the agrochemical industry and their accomplices and lobbyists; the manufacturers of ever more destructive machinery; the greedy banks, and the economic orthodoxy that turned land and crops into commodities.

It’s a desperately needed working paper in a world of conflicting demands; offering a model that takes seriously the need for farmers to make a living, that addresses some of the key faults of the extreme end of the rewilding movement, and which dismisses any idea of a one size fits all policy. It addresses the need for food security and completely smashes any idea that what we need is another technological fix so we can carry on the way we are.

Read it, please, if you’re a farmer or a naturalist, or an ecologist or walker, and especially if you live, like me, in a city – and ponder what and where to buy sustainable food. Read it if you’re an allotmenteer because there’s a lot about soil there. Read it if you’re a banker or an economist because this movement is not going away.

When I was a child we used to catch the train up to Reading to see our grandparents who lived a country bus ride away in the Chilterns. The journey involved a change at Didcot, and what was most thrilling (and terrifying) about it was that the train didn’t actually stop at Didcot at all, but just slowed down so that the ‘slip coach’ could glide, engineless, into the station controlled by the guard who presumably operated the brakes.

This morning as I finished the book I remembered that childish adventure and pondered whether, when the great neoliberal train finally crashes the buffers at Oxford, they might discover that the rest of us got off at Didcot and that the banks and the hedge funds and the agrochemical complex have finally reached the catastrophic end of their triumphant journey. Alone.

Seasonal earthly delights

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It’s funny how other people see allotmenteering as a kind of gentle therapy in which you potter about the garden very ……. very ……..  slowly ……. and mindfully …… taking in the sights and scents and sounds whilst healing your mind with thoughts about the beauty of nature. In my experience you can only do that in other peoples’ gardens, and then only if they’re very good gardeners. It’s amazing how catching your silk meditation robes on a rusty nail can disrupt the pattern of good thoughts!

This is one of those times in the gardening year when meditation has to give way to the huge list of jobs to be done.  Plants can be very restful but at times they spend their time shouting at you – have you seen my leaves wilting? Will you please re-pot me immediately or I’ll expire and then you’ll be sorry ……!” And it’s hard to keep your zen composure when you’re pouring five litres of your own carefully saved urine on to the compost heap. Slugs can destroy a row of seedlings in a single night and so you have to deal with murderous thoughts of revenge.  One vegan allotmenteer on our site told us she was gathering slugs on her allotment and then roasting and grinding them up to make a deterrent powder.  Even I’d never thought of that one! The weather can turn on you like a banshee and confound the forecasters by shriveling the leaves on your beans  – oh my – it’s nature red in tooth and claw out there, and so I’m inclined to growl at people who insist that it must be therapeutic.  Really it’s up there with playing a musical instrument, writing a blog or painting landscapes – very hard work that occasionally offers intense rewards. 

So the delights of gardening could be over-egged if you focus entirely on the hard work aspect, but the real pleasure comes with harvesting. I never quite know whether to describe purple sprouting broccoli – which is effectively a biennial – as the final delight of last year or the first in the current year. It’s been there on the plot taking up space since it was sown in March or April of the previous year, and it really does take up space. Half a dozen plants is far more than we really need, but when it comes to planting out we usually put in a couple of spares – just in case – and that’s about thirty square feet taken up for a little over 12 months.  Every year around October we mutter about not growing it any more and then by the following March we’re urging it on, desperate to taste the first sweet florets. Then – and this is one of the great ironies of allotmenteering – after let’s say three weeks or a month of cropping, the pleasure begins to pale a little and we’re eyeing up the space. Seasonal foods are like holiday romances – intensity followed by – let’s be honest – boredom.  Who hasn’t looked at the 500th courgette and wondered what to do with it?

So this week the purple sprouting plants (trees) came out and the plot was immediately re-sown.  Once the flowers start to open it becomes a losing battle and so off they went to the compost heap complete with their intractable woody stems, smashed into fibres and pulp with the back of a small axe. Now the asparagus is gathering momentum and we have far more lettuces than we could possibly eat, will we ever get bored with them? The answer of course is yes, because seasonal food is – well – seasonal! Our tiny savoy cabbage seedlings wouldn’t cut the mustard in midsummer, but come the autumn they’ll be objects of desire. Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its fruits away – but they come back next years as fresh and beautiful as ever. Seasonal food, if I dare be serious for a moment – teaches us something about love and loss.  If there’s a therapeutic lesson in gardening it’s probably something to do with carpe diem – seizing the moment. Supermarket food is stale and dull; costly to the earth, fatal to the digestion and it’s unreliable as we now understand only too well as we (well, not me) stand in endless queues separated by an ocean of anxiety.

IMG_20200507_074922Last night, after a hard day gardening, I was baking and decided to try to imitate the old split tin loaves I went up the road to buy, as a child. It’s curious but just as everyone else seems to have turned to making sourdough, I’ve spent more time baking with yeast and trying to recapture the loaves of my childhood. I was particularly pleased with the results of the deep slash. To get that effect you need to prove the loaf under a tea towel rather than in a sealed and moist atmosphere so that the rapidly expanding loaf, when it goes into the hot oven, finds it easier to expand through the slash than by lifting the slightly toughened top. This was largely white flour with a handful of wholemeal spelt to liven up the flavour and texture. I’ve yet to produce one of those exuberant cottage loaves that resist rational slicing so have to be torn apart so everyone can get a piece of crust.

IMG_20200507_154625The closure of the garden centres has left us to improvise our own potting composts from whatever ingredients we can find. Today I wanted to fill some large planters to put on the patio area, and so I emptied all the spring window boxes on to a polythene sheet mainly to get access to the grit and sand in them and then mixed in new soil and compost with a few handfuls of chicken manure pellets, and filled lots of big pots.  It was great fun and represented another step towards the allotment as it was first imagined.

This is the time of year when inattention can cost us dearly. We scan the weather forecast morning and night to see what might catch us out. This weekend, for instance, we’re expecting high winds and a ten degree drop in temperature – enough to unsettle  and set back some of the plants we’ve already got in the ground. As I type this I’m looking across my study to a propagator full of replacement borlotti and runner bean seedlings – just in case. Earlier in the week I set up some improvised wind screens with some jute sacks and insect netting to protect the strawberries from the anticipated east wind. Later in the year I think we’ll invest in some hazel wattle fence panels because although our prevailing winds are south westerly; east and north easterlies are almost always bad news. Earlier I finally got the water storage organised but there’s no sign of rain for the next two weeks so as the temperature hits 23C we have to hand water.  Every morning  we unpack the greenhouse to give the plants some sunshine therapy and then we put them back at night.

There are brief seasons where an allotment can run away with you, and this is one of them. Bindweed, which is never truly vanquished, can grow two inches a day; and annual seedlings blown from neglected patches can germinate in green drifts overnight. I can almost hear our plot thinking – thank goodness for the lockdown, there’s no prospect of them going off in the campervan for a fortnight! I’m not entirely sure I agree.

 

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

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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.

Gove says it’s OK to go to the allotment – should we believe him?

For those who watch TV news (I don’t if I can help it because I can’t bear it), Michael Gove’s clarification won’t be news at all, although it may have slipped past them anyway. Allotments aren’t at the top of many peoples’ agenda at the moment, and there’s no particular reason why they should be. More to the point, his clarification bore all the signs of being made on the hoof and could easily be reversed twice before supper, but clutching at the lifebelt, most of us went up to the site today and worked in the sunshine while studiously avoiding any contact with one another.  We’ve yet to invent a social protocol for this kind of thing. Slightly unnervingly, the police helicopter appeared to be flying overhead but there was zero chance of any impromptu gathering; everyone down here is worried sick.

For the Potwell Inn, where we’re also having a bit of a lock-in, so long as we’ve got enough to eat, the absence of shopping malls, night clubs, cinemas and foreign holidays is never going to be a problem. Bookshops and garden centres are another matter altogether – but after a stroke of intuition we stocked up with potting compost and organic fertilizer on our way back from laying up the campervan and before the lockdown was intensified.

The only organisations that seem to be taken completely by surprise were the supermarkets whose websites all crashed yesterday. Either no-one from government gave them a heads-up or they failed to anticipate that telling the entire population they were going to be locked in for three weeks might cause something a bit worse than the Christmas Eve rush. We’re sad, angry, panicked and volatile here. We’ve been told we’re vulnerable and shouldn’t go out unless it’s absolutely necessary – for shopping for instance – and yet after hours on the computer I was unable to book anything.  There’s talk of having food delivered by volunteers but first you have to have food in the shops and then you have to find volunteers, either of which could take ages – during which those without the money or the ability to stockpile will have to do without while the wealthy post photos of their wine cellars and larders on the internet.  I knelt beside the asparagus this afternoon, willing it to grow faster! On television last night Jamie Oliver demonstrated how to make pasta with only two ingredients – flour and eggs.  This revelation was greeted breathlessly by a Guardian reviewer who appeared not to be aware that its normally made that way anyway unless it’s in Northern Italy where they leave out the eggs. The really bad news is that it’s almost impossible to get any flour because millions of people have decided to make their own bread.  That’s great news – or it would be except we’ve almost run out and I don’t think pasta made from eggs and water has got much of a future.

This ought to bring the question of food security to the top of the agenda but I’m not holding my breath. We have a cultural problem. We’ve become so focused on profit and ever more elaborate trading and delivery systems, that we forgot the producers and now we’re paying the inevitable price.

But enough of that.  I want to write about Thomas Berry, the American philosopher and what’s gone so terribly wrong with our culture – but I’m not quite ready yet.  I woke up this morning to an anxiety dream and that mood failed properly to shift all day.  When I’m feeling gloomy I often cook and because the National Trust has shut down even its parklands, I decided to make my favourite National Trust cheese scones.  I was going to make some yeast bread, something I don’t often do these days, but when I went through the larder I discovered that some of the odd packets of flour I wanted to use up are very (like 5 years) out of date – surely I’m not the only hoarder who’s making that discovery this week!  The scones were delicious although they could have been a bit cheesier but in my preoccupied mood I measured the milk incorrectly and one thing led to another ….. never mind, they  freeze well.

At home we’re potting on all the seedlings and so we have no propagator space and not a square inch in front of the windows. We shall eat well later I hope, but I’m fearful that allotment raiding will come into fashion as the national food supply dries up.  What a horrible mess we’re all in!