Uncle Jim drops by

The shed – damaged by vandals two years ago

Our hearts sank when a post on the allotment group Facebook page alerted us to the fact that once again we’d had intruders on the site who had broken into about 15 sheds. Luckily, this time we had escaped their attention. It’s impossible to overstate how insecure this made us feel. Theft and vandalism are almost universal on allotment sites and the emotional damage is enormous. There’s a huge difference between a garden and an allotment plot because your garden is usually attached to, and part of your home – whereas an allotment is often several miles away and also open to all comers. It’s almost impossible to insure your tools for that reason, and of course vandalism and theft of crops puts your plans back by a whole season.

A couple of nights ago I couldn’t sleep. My mind was churning over some big issues when I had a flash of inspiration about one aspect of the Potwell Inn that I’d never really articulated. The reasoning behind the name of this fictitious place comes from the HG Wells novel “A History of Mr Polly” and the campervan is called Polly for that reason. I first read the novel as an English set book when I was at school. I’d reached that awkward stage in life – my early teens – when nothing seemed to work. Nothing fitted or suited me and I felt bolshy and shy in equal measure. Most of my teachers had fought in the war and their various traumas were all too apparent – often rude, domineering and gimlet eyed when it came to any deviation from the straight and narrow of a lesson plan that could never ever accommodate my restless mind. There were exceptions of course. Bill Williams could make maths into an intellectual adventure; Chris Levinson introduced me to modern American poetry and literature. Whacker Allan, notwithstanding his considerable and violent canings never dimmed my determination to get to France; but Punch Neesham thought that a headlock was the best way to facilitate the removal of a sweet from a fourteen year old’s mouth. So reading “Polly” was a bit of a revelation to me – offering an escape route from all that. I didn’t identify with Polly, because for a while I became him. I wanted to fall in love – anyone would do. I wanted to clown around and, if need be, burn down the crippling suburban prison in which I felt trapped.

When eventually aged 17 I was escorted out of school by the scruff of the neck by a Headmaster who had a great deal to be modest about, it felt like a kind of liberation. Whatever crap I found myself wading through, I knew that it was my crap; my choice and I could endure it because the alternative was to fall into a pit of mediocrity in which you were promoted for not threatening the system.

The thought of finding or creating my own version of the Potwell Inn never left me. Sometimes it came to me as a kind of vision – like the memory of drinking a pint of Exmoor Gold leaning on the sea wall outside the Griffin at Dale. If ever anyone saw my eyes drifting away during times of particular hardship it was because I’d have taken a temporary absence in my mind. Back to the pub and the sea. Once I’d got together with Madame – I was 18 and she was only 15 – we were able to break away and create the first of many iterations of the Potwell Inn together.

But there was always Uncle Jim to contend with. In the novel he’s the landlady of the Potwell Inn (AKA the plump woman’s) nephew. He’s a violent drunk who believes he has been cheated of his inheritance – the pub – and occasionally turns up in the midst of their little paradise threatening terrible things. In our own lives there were lots of Uncle Jims and you never knew when, or in what disguise, they were going to turn up; often in the form of someone claiming to want to help, and especially as people who thought my whole purpose as a parish priest was to do exactly what they required of me and act as some kind of chaplain to their mysterious status quo.

My restless night suddenly reminded me that that Potwell Inn – that’s to say this particular version of it – is a very precious and visionary place that somehow overlaps our real lives and sometimes for a few hours or even days actually becomes our real lives. Most of the time, living in the centre of the city where in winter the sun really does set over the needle exchange we need the Potwell Inn to help us recover. In our souls we take it everywhere, especially in Polly the campervan.

Today, across the Green, the river is running higher than we’ve ever seen over the past seven years. The riverside paths are covered by up to a couple of feet of muddy water travelling faster than I could run, and Pulteney Weir has all but disappeared. We’ve had drought and record summer temperatures, a vicious cold spell, unduly warm winter weather and now days and days of heavy rain. We’re at a bit of a loss to decide what to grow next year because this global climate catastrophe is galloping up on us. A less than divine visitation by an all too humanly created Uncle Jim. And suddenly the Potwell Inn takes on a whole new dimension and becomes a kind of Ark.

December 2020 – this year the water is two rails higher.
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