This is beginning to look like my Mother’s siege larder.

Another day on the stove, processing, stirring, sieving, tasting, bottling and so forth. Obviously not all of the stores in the photo were made this week – in fact some of them were made three years ago, but ignoring all advice from the recipe books we’ve found that chutneys, pickles and ketchups – provided they’re properly sealed and sterilized – will go on improving for years. The only proviso is that if you’re planning on keeping them that long you need to use Kilner type jars with rubber seals or acid resistant Ball types. Metal lidded pickles often evaporate or deteriorate and the lids will even rust through occasionally. The mugwort, collected in 2019, is said to provoke lucid dreams. My dreams are so surreal and occasionally scary that I’ve never thought greater lucidity would be much of an improvement.

The flat is full of spice and cider vinegar smells as I make 3 litres of tomato ketchup, and while I take a break to write this, Madame is cooking a batch of ratatouille. Against all the odds we seem to coexist peacefully enough in the kitchen as long as we don’t attempt to share the stove.

So why the urge to preserve? Well, part of it I’m sure is an atavistic re-enactment of childhood. My Mother and Grandmother had both lived through the hardship of two world wars and Madame’s Grandmother also was a gardener and a good cook. My grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns was as self sufficient as it was possible to be, and one of my earliest memories is of being with my sister, raking the hay into stooks on one of the fields. The rake was probably twice as tall as me!

But apart from that, after two years of lockdown shortages and in the midst of a massive cost of living crisis there’s every reason to do all we can to grow, prepare and store as much food as possible because it seems obvious that no help will ever come from the present government. Then again we also love cooking for ourselves, our family and friends too, and slow food, locally and organically produced isn’t some kind of middle class affectation, it’s the way we need to go. The present system of food production and distribution is simply unsustainable without further damaging the earth, her climate and biodiversity. Local and sustainable is a potential lifesaver and yes, we’ll need to embrace a rather different lifestyle but what’s to say it might not be better, richer and more fulfilling for a far greater proportion of our population.

That said, it’s pretty relentless hard work even being a part time peasant, but against all the odds we’ve had a good year on the allotment and we’ve harvested a bit more of most of our regular crops in spite of the drought. I took the photograph of these dying Harts Tongue ferns in a friend’s garden – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sight like this before. It doesn’t take a genius to see that these extreme weather events will have a huge effect on food crops and therefore prices in general. Do we really want to live in a society where a few people live in utter luxury while many others are struggling to feed their children. I went to a supermarket earlier this week to get some eggs. We try to buy organic and free range eggs but when I looked at the price I saw that they were charging £6.00 a dozen for them. That’s frightening – so frightening I didn’t buy any.

The last 7 days have been truly odd. Last Thursday we went up to Birmingham to celebrate Madame’s birthday with our son and his partner; but first the car broke down and then there was a rail strike (which we completely support by the way. My father was a railwayman who spent his whole working life in fear of redundancy), and so we took the bus.

I love Birmingham but the bus station in Digbeth gives a pretty awful impression of the city. The whole area looks run down and ready for demolition in spite of a multitude of small businesses from car repairs to import export firms and money transfer shops. Exactly the kind of businesses you usually find occupying the lock-ups under railway arches, and in spite of the bleak surroundings they seemed to be getting by.

The buses were running late due to holiday traffic on the motorway and so we were able to see an entirely different side of the Second City away from the more glamorous centre. Fifteen years ago the centre of Birmingham had a very different feel; self confident, almost brash, with plenty of big-name stores. Now it’s different. There are all the usual signs of economic stress with empty shops in many of the principal shopping streets- even the John Lewis store has departed the Bullring. The Museum and Art Gallery, however, still has a radical agenda that makes it such a joy to visit. Where else in Britain would you see exhibitions devoted to Trades Union activism, Black Lives Matter, and even raves and club life in the 70’s. Industry is celebrated, not least by remembering the small workshops that sprang up everywhere- servicing larger industries like the now defunct car manufacturers. You get the feeling that by standing firm and facing down its undeniably racist episodes the city has begun to come to terms with the past. There’s an unapologetic multicultural community that doesn’t feel the need to tread carefully. The city centre gets rebuilt every decade – so there’s still money somewhere – and the Clean Air Zone along with decent public transport including trams to Wolverhampton, suggest that the spirit of Joseph Chamberlain has not quite been monetized and sold off to the asset managers. The biggest problems, though, are not in the past but in the present.

Standing and chatting to some of the other passengers in the queue for the National Express bus home, you could see the stress eating into their lives. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but he was wealthy and well educated and I doubt if he ever queued up amongst hoi polloi to see what was troubling them. For most people the city is less a work of art and more a ransom note. I chatted for ages to a young woman, looking fantastic, who was going for four days to a holiday camp near Brean in Somerset with her daughter who never once looked up from her iPad and her mother who never stopped talking on her mobile. In ten minutes I had the bare bones of her life as she talked about her dad, now dead but a hero to her – and her ex partner Dave, who’d cleared off – and as she spoke I felt that her holiday was an expensive lottery ticket to a more hopeful future. Later, after the weary queue for the late Weston Super Mare bus had departed I sat down and overheard a young woman behind me talking about her unexpected pregnancy at the age of 14 and how she’d been completely unaware of it until the ambulance crew spotted what was happening. I prayed silently and without much faith, that things would look up for them both.

Then, on Saturday I had my biennial (actually a year late) endoscope, to check that some rogue cells in my oesophagus hadn’t mutated into something really nasty and well, subject to an 8 week delay on the biopsies, it seems that everything is OK for now. However this regular brush with my own mortality through a very invasive procedure always has a profound effect on me. Luckily, after a day of being legally over the limit and confined to bed for most of it, on Sunday we went to see Carters Steam Fair which is always great fun. Being pretty ancient myself, it’s fascinating to reconnect with the fairground rides that I remember from childhood. Steam and grease and old rock and roll records have a fatal attraction for me as I remember the Rogers family and the Hills who took it in turns to visit Page Park and Rodway Hill. Sadly the Naughty Nineties girls with the free for all boxing booth will never reveal themselves to me because the girls are now in their nineties and the local ruffians who once fancied their chances in the ring will all be dead. The grandchildren shared none of these mournful thoughts as they embraced the fairground joyfully and ate candyfloss between the dizzying rides.

During all this to and fro, I finished reading Carwen Graves’ excellent new book “Welsh Food Stories”. His previous book “Apples of Wales” is essential reading for anyone thinking of planting an orchard. The names of the varieties alone – Pig Snout and Goose Arse are just two – are a delight to the poet’s ear! I long for the day when you don’t need to be a food researcher to find fine local produce. At the moment, for many people, the future of food is like an unfinished building, because we know something about what the structure needs to be but hardly anything about what it will look and feel like. Books like “Welsh Food Stories” address the lack of a sustainable food culture by filling in some of the pictures.

Time’s running out

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A friend in Australia wrote today about the situation in Tamborine Mountain, South East Queensland. Here’s what she wrote:

The water situation is now getting desperate. Families are completely running out of water, and having to wait weeks while the only local supplier tries to keep up with demand.  Meanwhile, multiple commercial extractors continue to take millions of litres of water to fill plastic bottles.  The creeks are dry and the trees are suffering …….

It’s a scary example of the global phenomenon we’ve come to describe as the climate catastrophe.  But of course the example says something else which is, or should be, equally challenging, because the global climate catastrophe and the global economic structure aren’t two problems, but one. The uncontrolled commercial extraction of water; the drought which is causing widespread suffering, the uncontrollable fires, the degradation of the environment and the destruction of forests, are symptoms of a single problem – I could go on, but I know there’s no need for me to write it because every single person who reads it will understand – it makes us feel sick with anxiety or overwhelmed with anger or at its worst, cynicism.

There’s a reason I don’t write much about UK politics.  The fact is there are no easy answers because we are living in a time of what Thomas Kuhn called ‘paradigm shift’. Anyone who claims to know what life will be like in 2050 is almost by definition a charlatan. It feels as if the ship has sunk already, and we’re in the water arguing about which lifebelt to grab hold of and which of our fellow passengers knows how to pilot the lifeboats, now the crew are all drunk after raiding the stores.

Do you remember the political fashion, so beloved by New Labour, of ‘evidence based policies’?  Loved, that is, until the evidence started to show that things were going to hell in a handcart because the patient was fundamentally sick, and a few paid ads saying that ‘everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ was not selling well in the derelict mining towns of the North East. This is the most terrible and heart wrenching mess and it’s all connected in a rat’s nest of trans-national  greed.

However we have the opportunity in the UK this week to turn protests into policy. Saving the earth from climate catastrophe begins with challenging an extractive economy that destroys the water we drink, the air we breathe and the food we need to eat. It throws people across the world into slavery and poverty in the name of international trade, and blithely dismisses mass extinctions – including even the human race. When I walk around the grand Georgian crescents of Bath, built on slave money, and see the same people in power, I know that nothing’s changed, and I know that unless we seize the opportunity nothing will change.

There is no area of our lives that hasn’t been disfigured by so-called austerity, whether it’s health care, pensions, social care, education, cultural development, employment protection, environmental policy, transport – you name it.  So I’m voting for change, real change. I want to be able to teach my grandchildren their plants and butterflies in the knowledge that they’ll still be there when they’re my age. I want our sons to move out of squalid rentals into properly built houses and I want them to feel secure in their work without facing arbitrary contract changes. Selfishly, I’d like for us to be able to look to a future in old age without fear, and to walk down the street and hear ten languages spoken and a dozen cultures celebrated openly.  I’d like to be able to write about the allotment without the lurking fear that the council will sell the land off to another property developer, and if that meant paying a few quid more in tax I’d be happy to oblige as long as the offshore muggers paid theirs too. 

There isn’t an option out there to allow us to ignore the climate catastrophe in the hope of building some new technology to purge our sins and let us carry on as before. Our electoral system is rigged against us in the name of stability – i.e. more hardship – and so this coming Thursday is possibly the only opportunity we’ll have to vote for change; paradigm change, and in the US – your chance will come next year. We already know they’re scared, from the tide of promoted lies that flood like effluent into our minds every day.

I had a radio producer once whose recorded message said “you know what to do, so do it!” Let’s do it then.

 

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