Backstage at the Moulin Rouge

Well no, no really, but we’ve go two really fine exhibitions going on in Bath at the moment – one is an exhibition of posters – many of them by Lautrec – at the Victoria Art Gallery, and the other at the Holburne Museum is a large collection of Grayson Perry’s early works.

I love Lautrec’s work; I love its vigour, the sweep of his line and the way he seems to make something beautiful out of tawdry, demi monde Paris. There’s a whole argument about the relationship between truth and beauty that I won’t bore you with, but Lautrec never had the rather cruel, forensic eye that you see in say Grosz or Beckmann and I think it’s because he was an outsider himself. I don’t want to write an art history essay here, but looking at the poster of the dancer La Goulou (“Greedy Guts”) there’s something about the drawing of the look on her face, described very economically in profile, that shows  compassion for her. I can imagine Lautrec sitting sketching in the wings and watching her perform to the crowded audience, and noticing something in her eyes that suggests she is simply working. She’s not engaging with the crowd, she’s certainly not flirting with them, she is not owned by them or dependent on them, not out for hire but just working. Lautrec gives her a kind of nobility.  He does that a lot in his posters – you can see that his characters aren’t taken in by the superficial glamour of what they do. The booze, the prostitution, the infidelites are all there but they don’t define the performers.  You notice that he’s far less sympathetic to the punters and that may be because he was an outsider too.  Disabled by a childhood injury – I can imagine that his bones were broken near the growth plates and they just stopped growing – he would have known what it felt like to be stared at, what it felt like to be regarded as both fascinating and horrible at the same time. And of course he had a gift that meant people had to engage with him on his terms. In a world of outsiders he was just another one; but he was totally accepted in the favela of the cabarets, the bars and the brothels.

Grayson Perry has the same ‘outsider’ quality. We went to see his work the day after the exhibition was opened and it was absolutely heaving with people.  He’s immensely popular, especially – it seems – with the over sixties, judging by the crowds. We liked his work very much – apparently quite a proportion of his earliest stuff was bought by people who lived around here. My biggest impression was just how hard he worked; it seems that ‘being yourself’ demands the kind of fierce concentration that few people would be prepared to give.

And then there’s Adam Nicholson’s book “The Seagull’s Cry” which I’ve been raving on about for long enough. I took a look at some of the reviews that came out when it was published – all of them very positive, but this one by Alex Preston in the Financial Times struck me as rather odd.

The poet Michael Longley said that nature was a way into, rather than an escape from, politics. “My nature writing is my most political,” he wrote. “Describing the world in a meticulous way is a consecration and a stay against damaging dogmatism.” The more you read The Seabird’s Cry, the more you recognise that this is not nature writing — generally a trite and provincial genre — but a powerful polemic, a call to arms. Science, Nicolson writes, “is coming to understand the seabirds just as they are dying”. He asks us to save the seabirds, but to save them through a radical sympathetic shift …

Now nature writing is undergoing a true renaissance at the moment; the list of fine writers on the natural world is long and distinguished, but to write – “this is not nature writing — generally a trite and provincial genre”  is, if you’ll forgive me, a particularly suburban and smug remark based on a false syllogism:

  • Nature writing is generally trite and provincial
  • This writing is not trite and provincial
  • Therefore it is not nature writing

The flaw is in the premise – as usual –  and Alex Preston clearly has no idea what is going on in the world.  I suppose you could call Gilbert White provincial but only in the strict sense that Selborne isn’t in the East End and inhabited exclusively by currency dealers and hipsters. In theology this kind of prejudice was known as “the scandal of particularity”. Nothing exists except as a shadow of its essence, he might argue, and therefore to concern oneself with the absolutely unique and material beauty of the dandelion in the crack on the pavement outside my flat is to miss (so he might say) its dandelionarity.  Surely you might expect a novelist to understand that no-one wants to read a book about stereotypes!

Nicholson’s chapter on the Guillemot makes for harrowing reading as he describes the way that the social mores that historically held these bird communities together through constant reinforcement, broke down as the food sources moved away from the nesting sites due to global warming. Deprived of the abundant food, the guillemots began to turn on one another, chicks were slaughtered by neighbouring birds that once might have fostered them. Reading the chapter, it was impossible not to extend the sense of danger to human communities as well.  Once the social bonds are broken there may well be hell to pay in the most literal sense.

And back in the very real and particular world of horse shit and hotbeds I’m pleased to report that ours has risen from 10C to 30C in less than a week. In Lautrec’s day the market gardens of Montmartre relied on hotbeds to grow early salad crops for export to London. Jack First’s great book on hotbeds – all you need to get going – quotes McKay whose book, published in 1908 said:

The French sent over to London up to 5000 crates of lettuces with 3 dozen lettuces per crate, 500 crates of carrots with a dozen bunches per crate, plus 100 crates each of asparagus and turnips and 50 crates of celeriac – every day – and all between Christmas and March.

All that and there was still time to go down to the Moulin Rouge and watch La Goulue.  I could get used to it!

Muck, but no mystery!

….. and suddenly, at last, the sun shone, the rain stopped and were able to get out on to the allotment.  In spite of the cold wind we took a chance on filling the hotbed, and so we drove over to one of my old parishes to sack up and bring back the first of two car loads of fresh, hot, horse manure. Most gardeners want the well rotted kind but for this purpose we need about twenty bags of strawy stable manure as fresh as possible.  Last year being the first time we’d tried this technique we asked my friend Annie to keep out as much straw as possible, but that proved a bit of a mistake because the bacteria that heat the heap don’t just need nitrogen they need carbon too – and that’s what the straw provides.  The theory is that this mixture will heat the bed quicker and hotter – but we shall see.  Our car is quite small and even with the seats down it’s difficult to get more than 10 full bags in at a time.

So as each bag was tipped into the deep frame – it’s a spade depth below ground level – we trod it firm and watered it.  We continue that process of topping, firming and watering until the heap is around 3 feet deep, and once it’s started to heat up we cover the manure with a home made mixture of topsoil, well rotted compost and horticultural sand.  This not only gives a good well drained bed for sowing, at the end of the season the whole lot of soil, compost, sand and manure go back on to the beds – about a cubic metre of it.  It’s most useful where we’ve terraced the beds, and every year we’re able to raise them a little more. Since our cold frames were stolen the hotbed will take over the work of germinating and bringing on early tender plants.

It’s amazing what a pleasurable experience a few hours of hard physical work can be after months of moping about indoors.  Annie was saying that they’ve been unable to let the horses out even for a taste of grass because the land is so wet.  As we drove across Lansdown on Friday we saw a herd of cows grazing on the few shreds of grass that have survived the wettest winter in memory.  When I mentioned it to Annie she said “he probably ran out of silage – he must have been desperate”. Desperate or not they were back indoors again today but that’s a measure of how hard this winter has hit farmers.

I read a lot about the impact of farming on climate change and so much of it is almost sectarian in its hatred of any opposing opinions. As we were filling the bags today, I was thinking about the way in which these small farms of a few hundred acres are maligned when they’re lumped together with enormous feedlots which really do create problems. Our half ton of manure is produced by horses which aren’t ruminants and don’t make the same methane contribution as cattle do. It’s a rich source of soil nutrients and helps to build up soil structure while it captures carbon in the process.  We use the soil to grow healthy organic food in a completely sustainable way.  After we’re gone the soil will be in a much better state than when we took it on. There’s a kind of virtuous circle going on here.  All our veg trimmings are recycled back into the same ground, and we even use our own urine as a liquid fertilizer.  Good, small scale farming operates the same virtuous circle. Crops are grown, the soil is enriched and the animals are fed.  Our southwest UK climate favours grass above all else, and so dairy and beef farming are the obvious way of using the ground. Grass fed beef – that’s to say beef that’s not been fattened on a high protein diet of expensive soya and grain – is far superior to feedlot beef. Animals that are free to roam in natural herds outside in the fresh air and with the sun on their backs are not, on the face of it, being cruelly treated. Any old-school farmer will tell you that  stressed animals get sick more often and don’t make either good milk or fine tasting beef. The snag, and there’s always a snag, is that we can’t have it both ways. High welfare, grass fed organic beef is bound to cost much more money and for most of us that means eating a good deal less of it.  The same goes for almost any meat, whether chicken, pork or lamb, we simply can’t go on eating it in the quantities and at the price we’ve become used to, if we want to tackle global climate change. As for species extinction the same kind of argument applies.  The price of cheap food is always going to be pollution, widespread use of chemicals, soil erosion animal cruelty and agribusiness. But to blame all forms of farming without discriminating between more and less harmful practices is counterproductive. Just to give one example from coastal restoration, the choughs that are slowly reappearing on the western coasts are doing so because they feed on grubs that feed on cattle dung.  Free ranging cattle on the clifftops have enabled the reappearance of this charming and acrobatic member of the crow family. The dung is dropped by ruminants in small and manageable quantities and is quickly broken down. That’s a far cry from spreading vast volumes of evil smelling anaerobic liquid manure on the land where it quickly runs off and pollutes streams and rivers.

A less meat based diet would be better for us.  Farmers could experiment with tree planting their expanses of grass, a technique that looks very promising. The trend for ever larger fields monocropping feed maize could be phased out, as could the relentless removal of hedges to make space for bigger and heavier machinery.  Less could really be more; better for us, better for the wildlife and better for the planet. At the moment it’s the poorest people on the planet who are paying the true cost of cheap food. That could end, but not until we – farmers, growers and consumers alike – are prepared to make some sacrifices ourselves.

 

The gulf between the reality and the plan

Here’s the reality

img_4903

– and here’s the plan …

 Click here to see the plan on growveg.com

There’s nothing quite like the slimy, viscous quality of re-purposed boards when they’re coated in mud and frozen. You need a tracksuit under your overalls, thick gloves and knee pads when it’s this cold.  The promised snow never arrived, possibly because Bath is in a kind of bowl, surrounded by hills and only divided by the valley of the River Avon.  So being at river level we get a degree of protection – that’s the upside.  The downside is that a mass of polluted air often hangs over us and that’s bad news for asthmatics like me. The City Council have been refusing to deal with the problem ever since the Buchanan Report 50 years ago. We breathe fumes and they see tourist revenue.  Every couple of years the set up another committee and kick the whole thing into the long grass.

However, the sun was shining and I really wanted to get on with building the hotbed today so that we can drop the hot horse manure straight into it on Friday.  It couldn’t be a simpler concept. I’ve built a rectangular 4’X3′ frame that can drop into any of the raised beds we’ve built. It will hold about 10 bags of manure capped with good quality compost. The picture shows it upside down because it’s not quite finished. In February of each year the frame is filled with the good stuff and then by the end of the season it’s all become well rotted and very rich compost.  So we’ll lift the frame off and spread the contents over the bed and move the frame to another place. It occupies just under half a bed and so in 50 years time, when I’m 132 we’ll be back at the beginning. Maybe we need more frames! but you get the general idea.  We allotmenteers are among the world’s greatest optimists.  We can see into the future, or at least to the end of the next season and we know that with a degree of good fortune and skill most of it will come to pass. What shall we grow in it?  We’re discussing that right now but some very early potatoes would be nice.  We grew ‘Jazzy’ in bags last season and they were pretty good but too close together.

My robin – well, the robin – is becoming ever more courageous and is beginning to dart very close whenever I’m breaking the soil. The ground is frozen solid down to a couple of inches, so it was easier to walk on it, but I made an interesting discovery when I moved some beetroot plants that were in the way.  Underneath the plants the earth was still soft. You can see just how well the earth is protected by growing plants.

We’ve had to remove quite a few crops as the beds were being built so Madame has been making soup almost every day. Today it was parsnip soup – fabulous!

But the plan and the reality are always worlds apart. There’s no sun, no rain and no snow on the plan and yet without them nothing would grow – and that’s why allotmenteering is so much fun. All day the weather forecasters were warning us ancients to stay indoors or face the terrible consequences .  Stuff them, I had a great time and I was as warm as toast. With my flask of tea and a stool to perch on – life doesn’t get much better.

Snow tomorrow ?

img_4900This is the season where the weather can be all over the place, and today as we walked down to the allotment we noticed the automatic greenhouse vents were open.  It was no more than 5C with a cold north westerly wind blowing and the ground was still frosted, but the sun was intense and a very little 6’X4′ greenhouse can soon heat up even in the winter. If we were on a mission it was mainly to get the three recently finished beds under cover before the snow. They need to warm up ready for the early plantings, but in addition I wanted to clear the way to build the hotbed, the wormery and the last two raised beds, as well as get rid of a few of the really nasty weeds – like bindweed and couch.

img_3596If we do get a substantial fall I’ll need to go up and clear the nets of snow.  In the past we’ve seen very strong steel frames bend under the weight. I received another photo this morning of the rapidly growing pile of very fresh and hopefully very hot horse manure that my friend Annie is saving for us and so I sorted out a dozen empty compost bags so we can transport the manure back in our little car.  Really I’d love a pickup – we had one many years ago and I loved it – but Madame very properly reminds me that you can’t take grandchildren out for the day in the back of a pickup. Warm clothes?  No probably not.

But it doesn’t take long on the allotment before an ethical dilemma creeps in, trolling me at the back of my mind.  We’re aware of all the downsides of bonfires and we compost the overwhelming majority of our household and allotment waste but after 50 years of trying every which way of killing bindweed and couch without chemicals, a very slow bonfire is the only one that’s 100% efficient.  Round here they’re called ‘burnabouts’ or sometimes ‘couch fires’ and the trick is to get a really hot fire burning in the incinerator before adding the matted wet roots. img_4896For the first couple of minutes it kicks off but very quickly it settles down to not much more than a whisp of smoke and steam.  It’s rather like burning charcoal – after a hot start you restrict the access of oxygen and then, with a bit of judicious topping up and maybe some wood chips sprinkled in now and again, it will burn immensely slowly for a week and reduce the weeds to ash that then goes straight on to the compost heap.  I know that some people swear by stacking it up and wrapping it in black plastic, or – even worse – just chucking it on the compost heap and rendering the whole heap a nursery bed for weeds. Sometimes you just have to do the least worst thing you can think of.

We at the Potwell Inn tolerate perfectionists – after all nobody’s perfect – but we resist being nagged into a state of paralysis, and when in doubt we turn to the evidence before we explore our feelings.  So yesterday I was innocently browsing on a farming website to try to find an answer to my question ‘what would happen to British agriculture if we all went vegan?’ and to my immense surprise I discovered the comments section had been infested with trolls who were pouring the most vicious abuse on farmers in general as if they were ‘all the same’.

I’ll pass on any comment about the trolls – they have to live with themselves and that can’t be a lot of fun.  But here’s an interesting fact, a real fact about which it’s completely imposible to get emotional because it is the case. I’ve seen it suggested that if all the farms turned their land over to growing pulses and vegetables we could save the planet from the coming environmental crisis, avoid the ecological crisis which is its twin sibling, and stop climate change in its tracks.

If you take a look at a map of the UK marked up according to the quality and function of its available land, you see immediately that virtually the whole south west, with its high rainfall and warm weather, is mainly suitable for mixed and dairy farming. You couldn’t convert it all to growing pulses even if you wanted to because the land just isn’t suitable. If then you look at all of the hilly land, so that’s most of Wales and Scotland, again however much we need soya and lentils we couldn’t grow it there.  The only land which is perfectly suited to arable crops is (no surprise) the flat fertile land in the south east. So if mixed dairy, sheep and pig farming were to disappear overnight it would barely add more than a few thousand acres to the available arable land, cost tens of thousands of jobs and increase the 40% of our food that we already need to import just at the time when it seems likely that the cost of food will rocket.

I loathe industrialised farming and we try never to buy its products so in no sense do I want to ‘defend’ industrialized extraction of the soil’s fertility and the impoverishment of the environment.

The only way forward is to abandon perfectionism and move forward on whatever fronts we can. Yes we all need to eat less meat if we’re not already eating no meat at all. That’s a good outcome that can only happen if we refuse to demonize people with alternative views.  The future needs to be ‘caught not taught’.  So low intensity mixed organic farming – both rural and urban wherever feasible – with grass fed cattle is worth pursuing over and against intensive pig units and cattle ‘feedlots’. Some will argue that it would put the price of meat beyond the poorest and that’s true so long as we refuse to utterly transform our whole economic system.  Market gardening around the big urban conurbations can save many food miles. Allotments are so productive they can be expanded wherever there’s a space, with all the health and welfare advantages they provide. Most people are not even cooks, let alone chefs, and so we’ll need to introduce a whole new generation to the skills we need to make palatable sustainable food unless we want the food manufacturing processors to gain ownership of veganism and vegetarianism and sell it back to us. We need to offer mentors and affordable courses for new allotmenteers. The battle’s hardly started and certainly not lost but there’s nothing to be gained from preaching from the high moral ground, and a world to be won by embracing farmers and small producers and above all buying their products thoughtfully.  Some years ago I met John Alvis, a dairy farmer and cheesemaker from Lye Cross Farm near Cheddar, at a Young Farmers meeting.  I was deeply impressed by his thoughtfulness, his commitment to educating children about farming and cheesemaking, and his whole approach to land stewardship. Why make an enemy when you can make a friend?

On the right, below, the site for the 6’X4′ hotbed in the space beween the espalier Lord Lambourne apple and the greenhouse. Hopefully the adjacence of a little heat to the apple tree may offer a bit of protection against late frosts. Theories, theories – we’ll see how it turns out. If Annie’s muck refuses to heat up, it can go into the compost with more seaweed and some of the straw I got hold of when I was going to try to make a hotbed with straw and urine.  The very mention of using our urine on the allotment makes some people so queazy they stop nicking our stuff altogether.  I think we might put some signs up – what about

all crops are regularly blessed with human urine – please help yourself!