Keep all disturbing dreams away

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I suppose what counts as disturbing depends on the sort of person you are, so to me, with any amount of psychoanalytic assistance over the years, a dream about holding the Queen’s hand and saying a prayer for her has to be struggling to say something.  The line – “keep all disturbing dreams away” – comes from the compline hymn; one of few the monastic offices to survive into the present day and a pretty  constant companion on retreats – unless you’re an ultra evangelical when you spend an hour telling God (in tediously repetitive language) what he needs to do in the morning.

I mentioned Dick England, the miller, yesterday.  What I didn’t say was that he had the most exceptional tenor voice and sang in the church choir where I was training.  I always loved singing and so on Thursday evenings in Lent I would go to choir practice and then, after the young members all left, the rest of us would sing compline in the darkness, illuminated only by a few lights in the choir stalls. In those few moments we sometimes seemed to enter a different dimension where past and present were continuous. Whatever had happened during the day; the disjointedness of events, the triumphs and disappointments, felt as if they were being taken back into a great dark and forgiving silence. Do I sound as if I miss it?  Well the institutional church ‘moved on’ to spreadsheets and brisk improving homilies and ‘going forward’ became a synonym for going nowhere. 

So why the Queen? I’m a lifelong soft republican ; all that stamp and circumponce leaves me cold; so is this about continuity? Did my mind come up with a convenient – if slightly embarrassing – symbol for continuity and security at a time when nothing seems to work properly?

Here we are, locked down in the city and doing our best to cope and comply with the rules, while we are lectured from afar by celebrities in their gilded retreats. All manner of people who we assumed to live in London turned out really to be permanent residents of somewhere else a long way from the viral hotspots. Solidarity turned out to be a one way street patrolled by a policeman with a blind eye. I was horrified to learn yesterday that council food waste collections have increased by 20% this week, presumably down to panic bought food going out of date.  Meanwhile dairy farmers are reportedly pouring fresh milk into their slurry tanks because it’s not needed by processing factories.

So in the midst of a life turned upside down I dreamed about the Queen because I desperately need some sort of continuity,  and bizarre though it seems to me, my mind came up with her. The news is studded with miserable statistics and I read yesterday that old age is becoming a criterion for withholding treatment- not, we’re assured because we’re worthless but because other younger people are more worthy, for which read profitable and, no-one thought that closing down hospital beds, shrinking the National Health Service  and making nurses pay for their training might have consequences. A thousand people died today and all we get is anodyne ressurances that everyone is doing everything possible. Our GP neighbour said today he and his wife couldn’t sleep – they’re not the only ones. Sans tests, sans ventilators, sans vaccine – sans leadership or strategy in fact sans everything!

So allotment therapy was the only relief today and we spent most of the day up there sowing, planting and picking. We came back for lunch with the makings for our first rather spartan summer snack, a few sticks of asparagus, some radishes, some home made bread and some shop mayonnaise.  I’ve never quite got the hang of making our own mayonnaise reliably. But the disturbing dream never quite left me and I’ve never felt quite so undervalued – and that, for someone who’s worked as a parish priest, is quite shocking.

In flour again.

Much gratitude to my son for arranging it, and his mate the baker who, between them, came up with a 16 Kg bag of bread flour that should see us through the lockdown. It’s perched on a chair in the hallway at the moment but I’ll get it into a food bin first thing tomorrow because flour gets infested with tiny moth caterpillars incredibly quickly.  Baking with a new flour is always a bit of an adventure until you’ve baked a few loaves because they all behave quite differently.  My old mate Dick England who had his own flour mill up in Berkeley on Severnside, always reckoned to leave the new wheat to ripen for a while before it was fit to mill and make bread with. It’s strange how even potatoes have their seasons as well.  The man who ran the Regal fish and chip shop in Hotwells would shut down for several weeks as the new season main crops came in because he didn’t think they were good to make chips from.

So new flour and new adventures demanded a celebration and I made a Dundee cake for our tea breaks on the allotment. It was hot today and we worked for around five hours setting up  a new bed for the peas.  We’re growing a traditional variety called Alderman which we tried last year.  In our haste to be greener than thou, last year we tried to grow them on jute nets, but they were so prolific and heavy they just tore the nets down – so this year they’re going to be grown up sheep wire attached to some strong poles. While I was doing the civil engineering bit, Madame was busy sowing and potting up – it’s a very busy time of the year both on the allotment and at home where we made a start on replacing the spring window boxes with their summer equivalents. They’ll be mainly geraniums this year because the garden centres are all shut and we won’t be able to buy ridiculously expensive bedding plants to supplement our own.

The asparagus bed is so nearly there, it’s frustrating, but the early spears were deformed by the cold nights so we’re hoping that a spell of warm nights will give us our first proper feed. Our son went off to get some beer for the beer traps.  Slugs are a menace and at least we send them off happy.  Last year’s very unscientific experiment seemed to indicate that they’re real ale buffs – they much preferred the expensive brews to my cheap stuff from Aldi.  Tonight Jo dropped off four cans of bitter for a pound.  I’m not optimistic. We sent our best numbers off with Marston’s Pedigree Ale but it cost about tenpence a slug.

Today Greg made a few essential alterations to his shed!

sunbathingI remonstrated with him of course, and told him it only needed a lick of paint but he wouldn’t listen. Meanwhile, having left it pretty late to go up to the allotment because we hoped it would keep the overall numbers down, we harvested a few more radishes and a bowl of purple sprouting for tonight’s meal and then did a bit of watering and weeding.  Strangely, after such a wet winter, the ground surface is drying quickly.  This is no problem to the veterans from last year who’ve got their roots down, but the little ones who’ve only been planted out during the last few days need nurturing carefully for the first week.  Not drowning, mind you – but just a touch of water when (or preferably just before) they get dry.  Later on when they’ve settled down it’s better to leave them to send their roots down deep or you’re in danger of creating a major job for yourself and having to water every day.

The radishes and broccoli were lovely – we’re about to cut the first lettuce grown under an improvised frame because ours got nicked. Growing’s hard work enough without thieves undermining the effort but we press on in the hope that the misbehaviour of a few won’t lead to a ban on us even going to the allotment.  Someone opposite my study was certainly obeying the spirit and the letter of the law today , precariously sunbathing her legs through the window. A ban on allotmenteering would put paid to our whole season and cost the country a fortune in vegetables left to waste during a massive food shortage. If there was no alternative for the health of the country then we’d have to comply but if I thought we were to be locked in our flat because of the behaviour of people like the two young men who were sitting chatting on the grass outside smoking weed then I’d be really cross.

While we were up there one of the foxes that looked fine just a month or so ago, passed close by barely paying attention to us.  It had mange badly and looked as if it was half dead already, poor thing. Even foxes get sick sometimes.

Bread baking, of course, has stepped up a notch and I’ve gone back to making a few yeast loaves as well.  Sadly though I’ve only half a bag of flour left.  Apparently the problem lies with packing and not with a shortage.  Of over fifty flour mills, only five repack into 1.5Kg bags as sold by supermarkets – so it’s not a shortage of flour. However I can’t even buy a 25Kg bag because all the websites are closed except to commercial customers. Ah well ….

Something about simmering!

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I realise that pig’s cheeks may not be everyone’s favorite during this time of stress, but I recall exactly why I bought them about two years ago, and as always it was down to the memory of a grocery and delicatessen in Clifton, where we used to live, and which occasionally sold Bath Chaps – which is a local name for pigs’ cheeks, cured like bacon and then coated in breadcrumbs and presumably deep fried  – exactly the sort of dish an ambitious gastronaut ought to be having a go at. The shop window could have come straight out of Mrs Beeton. Needless to say I never actually bought any, and I’ve never eaten one either, but they always looked so good in the window – I’m a sucker for anything coated in breadcrumbs. It was a lovely shop; they cooked their own hams and did all the things that deli’s stopped doing years ago, and the clientele (apart from me) included many of the great and good like the Lord Mayor who used to send his butler round for a swift gammon.  He (the butler) was an immensely large Cornishman, well over six feet tall, who  always wore a morning suit that looked a bit grubby and stained and who spoke with a rich Cornish accent.

So when I encountered these pigs cheeks my gastronomical imagination was aroused and I bought six of them for next to nothing.  The rest of their time at the Potwell Inn was spent in the freezer awaiting the moment which never seemed to come and so they went into yesterday’s stock and after a long braise they came out again and I tasted one rather gingerly because they were in the part of the stock that I normally throw away. It tasted pretty good too but Madame refused to even look at them and so I guess they’re a secret snack for me.

At least, being of no interest to Madame, I’ll be safe to snaffle them. Treats, under lockdown conditions, can be a source of tension – in fact almost anything can be a source of tension when you’re banged up in a first floor flat and your partner the only person in the world allowed closer than two metres. I have filed away her incendiary behaviour over my shortbreads, and even forgiven her through gritted teeth for taking the last cold sausage from the fridge but it takes a saint! Last night we were sitting amicably watching the television when a strangely sulphurous smell crept into the room.  Suspicious glances were made and denials of responsibility were issued but it wasn’t until I came to clean down in the kitchen that I discovered a clove of garlic had stuck to the underside of the stock pot and was caramelising away gently, emitting a horrible burnt garlic smell.

So yesterday’s fruits included a loaf of everyday bread – subtly different in flavour and texture because I’ve run out of rye flour, but still very good.  There’s the stock reduced and stored, and fifteen pounds of new allotment jam in the cupboard as well as space in the freezer available for speculative and impulsive purchases (not including pigs’ cheeks) if the shops ever open again. I was pretty tired by the time we finished, and slept badly so woke up this morning feeling – well – jaded, I’d have said hung over if I’d had a drink but we foreswore alcohol last June and haven’t lapsed. Notice I didn’t say ‘yet’!

This morning I decided a mid-morning nap was allowable but it didn’t work out.  Living in a flat, especially a concrete walled flat, inevitably means a degree of sharing.  This morning I shared my peace with two or perhaps even three radios tuned to different stations and a builder two floors up who was using a hammer drill non-stop for two hours. The sofa is about a foot shorter than I needed for snoozing so I got cramps. Living banged-up can have its irritations.  I remember once reading about a murder (true story this) committed on a sewage farm.  It was a remote site with a house occupied by two men  who didn’t get on to the extent that one killed the other in a fit of rage and chucked his body in the tank. The subsequent trial revealed that the festering tensions between them had all boiled over and the rest was history – at least it was for one of them. I’d have thought there was no better place for festering tensions than a sewage farm.

I hope that the Potwell Inn emerges from this crisis with all its staff intact, but as time goes on the outside world becomes that tiny bit more threatening.  I wonder whether there will be thousands of new cases of agoraphobia after months of this.  We’re lucky to have the allotment to go to  and this afternoon it came as close to being a carnival as conditions allowed.  Everyone seemed to be there and we all hailed each other across the empty space as if we hadn’t seen each other for months.  The council have turned on the water supply at last and so we all observed a thoughtful queue at the required distance as we watered our seedlings.  We’ve been fortunate that our stored rainwater has just about lasted us until now, and during the summer I can install the last two storage butts so we can be even more self-sufficient.

In spite of the record rain during the winter, the recent dry spell and its winds have dried the upper surface of the ground and so seedlings need a lot of attention and watering, but it was the kind of attention we were relieved to be able to give – you could almost feel the young plants saying thank-you. The new season has begun and even in the midst of this pandemic there’s something good emerging. Our GP neighbour said today that the new personal protection gowns they were issued with look as if they’ve been made from bin liners – as always, life is like the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts!

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”

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This is the new view from my desk – OK it’s not brilliant but it’s outside; I can see the sky and the clouds and I can watch the comings and goings of our neighbours in the car park. The view from the front of the flat is far nicer, but this is sufficiently mundane not to distract me too much. It’s only possible because my piano has gone to Birmingham.  I don’t mind because I wasn’t able to play it in this building – but as if by magic, Madame has put on one of our Mose Allison albums just as the piano has joined the long list of ‘might have beens’ in my life.

If you dislike my seriously political deliberations you should probably skip the next two paragraphs – it gets slightly more rhapsodic after that!

Meanwhile the lock-in continues. The equinox passed by the Potwell Inn without being noticed  – we were all too preoccupied with the weather, the weather of events, that is. Huffing and puffing about the failures of others, or our lamentably deficient government takes away the pain for a bit but the black dog comes back, sniffing around the bins of our lives and lifting his leg against our certainties. We’ve tunneled so far into the mountain of greed that the entrance has collapsed and there’s no way out any more.

The media have decided that what we need more than ventilators and nurses is – a metaphor. ‘The blitz’ is winning hands down at the moment; it’s cheap and cheerful but there are no supply problems and it focuses all our attention away from the real problem and on to our personal response. In fact, they hint without spelling it out, that this is an opportunity – an opportunity to show what we Brits are made of and so the miracle of diversion is accomplished so effectively that public opprobrium falls more heavily on those who refuse to celebrate this opportunity for self-transcendence than it does on those who disregard the distancing measures – not least cabinet ministers.

Today marks the beginning of British Summer Time.  I’ve no idea why I find that as exciting as I do, but I guess I like sunshine a lot more than I like fog and rain and the odds are on the summer providing more of my favourite days. I will contradict this statement later in the year when I declare the autumn to be the finest season by far, just before I settle ‘finally’ on the joy of frosty mornings. The only safe approach to anything I write is to say accept that change is inevitable and variety is a jolly good thing.  However (and you knew that was coming) there are some unexpectedly lovely things, even in the midst of a pandemic, that can wake you up with a smile. So today we lay in bed and heard a church clock chime seven.  It wasn’t even a very nice church clock, in fact the bell was a bit of an old boiler, but it filled me with joy and reminded me of my childhood when I would listen to the clock in Page Park (similarly washboiler tuned) chiming out the hours at night when I couldn’t sleep.

The rationalist in me points out immediately that it’s Sunday morning (i.e. less traffic) and there’s a north easterly wind carrying the sound across from Julian Road or wherever the church is.  But there’s more to it.  We’ve had Sundays and north easterly winds before and only once heard the clock in over four years. But this crisis has resulted in a dramatic fall in traffic through Bath.  The constant ambulances which, in order to negotiate the jams, always used their sirens now cruise silently and unhindered to the hospital a mile away. We can hear birds singing again and the moaning of the wind in our leaky windows, and our neighbours in their flats. The cloud of polluted air over the city has lifted and the streets are empty.  The tourists have all gone, and the holiday rentals are empty – it’s a disaster by all the conventional measures, and yet I wonder whether anyone is anxious to return to the status quo ante bellum at the end of all this.

It only takes a few empty shelves to demonstrate what we’ve all known in our hearts for a very long time, that our present way of life offers a huge diversity of things to buy, but at the expense of almost everything else we say we value. What’s the value of a line of identical tasting breakfast cereals to ‘choose’ from when the wildlife on the earth they were grown in has been poisoned out of existence?

So back to believing impossible things because I’ve always been deeply interested in the mechanisms through which we are able to ignore the evidence that contradicts our presuppositions. We once lived on a farm in Wiltshire and our walk to art school every day took us down Middlewick Lane, in which there was a cottage with the most beautiful garden you’ve ever seen. In three years we’d watched it through the seasons; we knew that the owner was an elderly man called Mr Monks who lived alone.  We even knew that he liked a pinch or three of snuff from the handkerchiefs drying on the washing line, stained yellow from his useage. I can’t, after all this time, say exactly what the garden contained but it remains in my memory a pure Gertrude Jekyll cottage garden with the addition of the most wonderful vegetable plot to one side.  After an age of scurrying past and trying not to stare, we graduated through nod to friendly nod and eventually we spoke.  He even gave me a pinch of snuff once but it blew the back of my head off and made my eyes water. Just before he died we finally plucked up the courage to ask the question that had been hovering in our minds for several years – how did he grow such a magnificent garden, so free of pests? He answered without hesitation or any embarrassment  “DDT” he said. Suddenly the garden crumbled in our minds like the picture of Dorian Gray in the Dickens novel. There were still many years to pass before we saw our first raptors in the sky again.

We seem to persist in our belief that our culture – the way we do things round here – is all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and nothing seems to shake us from that belief – except when we are overtaken by a major breakdown, and we see the promises of everlasting growth, plenty for all, more choice, more power, more leisure, more everything, as the false prospectus it has become.  Leibnitz’s kindly God whose benign hand was thought to be behind all that was good in the world was put out to grass, and a smart new manager called “the economy” was drafted in to conduct the affairs of the earth with more efficiency ‘going forward’. Statisticians say that football clubs who change their managers in the hope of better results are misguided. When you actually look at the statistics a change of manager is no more successful than leaving the old ones in post. The point is, we want it to be true, and we’re quite prepared to add it to the list of impossible things before breakfast in the hope that it might become true. 

There is an exception to the football manager statistics, though. When the season ticket holders are sitting on their wallets, the fans on the terrace have stopped cheering, the team are all looking for other jobs and the grandstand collapses for lack of maintenance it might be a good time to take a look around.

The earth managed herself successfully for millions of years  – let’s get her back in charge!

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!

Cheer yourself up – cook something.

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This is going to be a very brief posting because we’ve had a long day – emptying the campervan this morning because somehow I don’t think we’ll be using it this year.  The bad news was having to do it at all, but the good  news was we found loads of food squirreled away in the cupboards, so less shopping (we haven’t been to the shops for over a week). Then this afternoon we went up to the allotment – we’re both concerned that the government may prevent us even from growing our own food – all because so many people have refused to comply with sensible voluntary restrictions *[we’ve just heard Johnson’s address and it looks as if we can justify driving alone to the allotment and working (exercising) as long as we don’t interact with any other allotmenteers – we shall see], but part of the urgency has been to get crops into the ground.

There’s nothing more important than keeping up morale, so tonight we had a pie that included our own leeks and purple sprouting broccoli, with tinned prunes out of the van.  Very good they were too and our morale was appropriately boosted.

More tomorrow

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