Telling it like it is

This week I was reading a newspaper feature on the natural history writer Richard Mabey that revealed a certain tetchiness about the representation of nature as an entirely positive – not to say cosy -icon.

 “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”

Richard Mabey in a Guardian interview with Patrick Barkham

Someone once said to me “you know your trouble is that you constantly set up a lovely scene in your writing and then you go and spoil it!” At the time I was a bit rattled by the remark but increasingly I think it was bang on the mark: – that’s exactly what I do; but not because I enjoy raging around my most elegiac visions but because that’s the way the world is. As I’ve said many times before, (sometimes even at a funeral service), love is impossible to imagine without loss – or at least the threat of loss. The greatest joys are too fugitive to hang a lifeline on and so you just have to throw yourself headlong into the torrent and hope for the best. The best writers can inscribe a single moment of the ebb and flow of life without for a moment implying that this is somehow the nature of it.

By way of an example I offer the blackthorn which, today, was in glorious flower outside our son’s allotment. You could never say the flowers were strongly perfumed but they were there in such profusion that the nearby air was infused with the richness of their nectar. Their fruit will appear in autumn, hard and bitter as aloes, and which are utterly unapproachable until they have seen a frost or two and are infused in gin and sugar. The picking of them is a genuinely Good Friday experience because their dreadful thorns will fight you for every berry and leave a septic puncture wound for which you will not forgive them until two years hence in November when you break open the mature bottle of sloe gin. Blessings come with their troubles – they’re contrary sides of the same currency.

So if I write about rats on the allotment I’m not breaking the code of omerta on the darker side of growing things; it’s a touch of duende, of the whole as against the partial. I’d love to be able to show a photo of me in a 1920’s wraparound apron and headscarf; all vermilion lipsticked and gathering sheaves of golden corn but I’d look silly in Madame’s clothes.

The control of rats on any allotment is a necessity mainly because any system of composting except doing it in a hermetically sealed retort, puts two features of rat heaven together – namely food and shelter. Consequently we often meet one another in the way that erstwhile enemies pass in the street; with grudging respect. Not using poisons for obvious reasons, means that the choice lies between chasing them with a garden fork which is likely to result in serious injury, though rarely to the rat; or trapping them as quickly and lethally as possible. Of course turning the heap regularly stops them from building nests and having babies, but they’ll always be there – close by. Today I woke with a possible solution to the challenge, because the problem with trapping is that rats are not stupid and once they’ve seen uncle Pentstemon meet his maker with peanut butter on his whiskers, they’ll avoid peanut butter as if it were made by Rentokil. But we have another problem apart from rodents – which is my fondness for Camembert cheese.

Camembert is surprisingly difficult to buy in prime condition. Supermarkets usually sell it refrigerated so hard it is beyond maturing and completely tasteless. However the local Co-op must be managed by a Frenchman because their Camembert is alway perfect straight out of the chiller. But after a couple of days the smell begins to leach out of our fridge and fills the kitchen. It smells as if there may be a dead sheep behind the washing machine and Madame has a hatred for dead sheep. Normally I would put up with the glorious ammoniac stink of a good one but it has all come to a head. Double wrapping will not do at all and I have been given an ultimatum. Either the cheese goes or she does. It’s an intolerable choice.

And so – this morning I thought suddenly that Camembert might make the most seductive ever bait for the rat traps! Imagine the potential slaughter of six traps baited with lumps of Camembert – I mean – at least twice in each one; twelve fat rats vanquished from the face of the allotments and universal praise from our neighbours who are far too polite to contemplate such a bold plan. I’ll feed the rats to the foxes and film them with the trailcam – which will look great on the allotment WhatsApp page. I shan’t charge a penny for the service – unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin – because 1000 guilders seems a bit steep – and I’ll be allotment Rep by the end of the year as long as the vegans don’t gang up on me.

My uncle Charles was a rat catcher – seriously – and he would always leave the antidote to his cyanide at home so he’d know where to find it. He was a bit eccentric and would occasionally resort to the shotgun and cheerfully loose off half a dozen cartridges after a rat. He was also a terrible shot, so his chicken houses were always infested with them. My Aunty Dingles, his serially adulterous but glamorous wife, (don’t ask!) also made the best clotted cream in Berkshire which is a county not known for clotted cream so maybe it wasn’t that good.

And that – considered as a whole – is probably why I prefer to tell it as it is. It’s kind of comforting not to have to live up to impossible role models and I was at least spared that fate.

What’s your game sunshine?!!

Unravelling a bit

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There I am, nose firmly stuck in Richard Mabey’s book “Nature Cure” to which I turned the moment I finished his “Weeds – the story of outlaw plants”, when Madame says to me – “I wish I could find more books like that for you” – the subtext reading something like -‘then you’d sit quietly occasionally’.

The books that have been most important in my life have all shared a number of characteristics in that they set me off on a binge reading spree of the author’s other books; I always read them twice or more; I also read the footnotes; I read the bibliographies and finally I then continue the reading binge by reading the sources.  In this instance many of Richard Mabey’s other books were already on the bookshelf, bought years ago and for reasons only peripherally connected to my present interests.  “Flora Britannica” was bought to supplement the books on botanical art, for instance. First time round the books were interesting and, if you like, out there in the sense that they didn’t get under my skin like they are now; all of which is a rather long introduction to the fact that I woke up this morning feeling cross and after reading in bed for half an hour I felt even crosser – mostly with myself. The phrase, a quotation, really crystallised a sense of unease I’d been failing to unravel or confront for weeks. I realized that I was feeling slightly miffed by the fact that Richard Mabey had perfectly articulated in 2005 a difficulty that I had steered around using a very sophisticated evasion.

But first I need to introduce a new term that I’ve not used before because I’ve tried to avoid using challenging language on this blog.  However this term (which I’ll explain once and then use the less provoking acronym PFTP) was a piece of advice regularly given to his students by Canon David Isitt who was Canon Theologian at Bristol Cathedral and one of my best ever teachers.  PFTP stands for “pissing from the pulpit”and it’s what you do when you explain how harrowing and difficult your sermon has been to prepare and preach. ‘Nobody wants or needs to know about your suffering!’ He would rage when some hapless student had broken his rule.

I have the gretest affection for everything David Isitt taught me, but in the particular instance I’m writing about now, I think a dash of PFTP is allowed. The process by which you unravel a difficulty is of interest if it might be of any help to someone else confronting the same problem. So was Richard Mabey indulging in PFTP when he quoted this phrase from Jonathan Bate, concerning the Romantic movement? :-

The price of this intoxication with with the spirit of things is a definite break with the human community. Pantheism displaces philanthropy, communion with nature stands in for social awareness.

He (Mabey) goes on to write – (see chapter 3 – Commonplaces) – to write brilliantly about the dangerous defects of almost all natural history television and books, their cutie cutie anthropomorphism and fabricated narratives. The question I couldn’t avoid asking myself, crystallised as a challenge.  “Isn’t your blog in danger of adding to that selfsame false consciousness that creates an entirely bogus world in which runner beans cavort in an organic paradise, and rare wildflowers (accompanied by lofty thoughts) spring up in your path as they did for the great saints.  Or to put it another way, is it ever OK to write when you’re angry or will that put off the readers, the people you’ve gulled along with your lovely word pictures and photos?

I can almost guarantee before I press the ‘publish’ button that this will receive less views and less likes than a piece of the same length about sourdough bread or interplanting Nasturtiums, and it concerns me that I’m so worried I self-censor, but it concerns me more that I could end up publishing stuff that implies “I’m quite the cleverest and happiest person in the entire world – just look at how beautiful my world is!”

So when I’ve written about the drug dealers, the machete attacks, the homelessness and the problems associated with living even in a small city –  problems like air pollution, unenforced planning regulations and such like, it’s not because I want to hint what an edgy existence we lead here at the Potwell Inn so readers can admire our tenacity, it’s because that’s the way life is around here, and the orchids have to set up shop in the midst of all this, just as we do. If I’m drawn to talk about the weeds it’s because the urban environment is – in its own way – just as fascinating as the pristine meadow. Can I escape from anything by creating the perfect allotment and going off to explore the western coasts in the campervan ? – of course not, and neither can anyone else.

This is a sceptic’s guide to being human and, to quote Jonathan Swift in his 1732 poem “the Lady’s Dressing Room” – “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”. (Sorry that extra vulgarity slipped in, but it expresses in a line what I’d struggle to write in a paragraph). Being fully human is – to quote Francis Schaffer, to be “a glorious ruin”, and more than anything else I think the greatness of human life lies in being able to live fully in the midst of the bigotry and stupidity of moronic politicians and their poisonous effluvia.  I don’t want to use (Wordsworth’s) daffodils as a distaction from my moral and ethical obligations to my neighbours and I’d be heartbroken if anything I ever write became a substitute for real action.

Life is a work in progress – until it isn’t any more – and there’s a lot more I’m trying to get my head around (sorry, more PFTP), but what’s shouting at me is that I can’t be an objective and detached observer of the natural world, however rhapsodic that might make me sound, because the best I can manage is to notice it from the inside. There’s no part of me, not a single cell or thought that’s not embedded, hefted in this mess – and, to quote Dylan Thomas – ” – I am dumb to tell the crooked rose / My youth is bent by the same wintry fever”.

Near where we used to live there’s a difficult place to find, called Damery Lake.  It’s hardly a lake any more but a small trout stream runs through it and it’s crossed by a narrow lane that winds for four or five miles between a farm shop I knew well, and a canoe showroom – so naturally I often found an excuse to take the long way home and go from one to the other. I stopped once on the small pack-bridge crossing the stream and I was struck by the most painful waking dream, that one day a century ago, a young officer, fighting in the midst of one of the terrible First World War battles came back to the lake in his imagination and escaped the horror for just a moment as he remembered his childhood nearby, and that some part of his consciousness had become attached to the place like a ghostly presence, filling my mind too, and so the scene ever since has been engraved in my imagination.  Two very small, very expendable human lives separated by a century and united by a place of great natural beauty.  I wonder if he ever found his way back to the lake, or even fished there? Writing the natural world has to embrace all these dimensions of life if it’s not to become escapist and dangerous, and I salute Richard Mabey for encouraging me to take the risk.

 

 

 

 

More weeds

 

The family land holding just increased by 135 square metres, although when I say “holding” I mean rental because our middle son has just taken on a somewhat neglected allotment about 8 miles away from us. We spent Sunday morning there together with a 100 metre tape and some wooden pegs marking out where the beds would go and sampling the soil, the aspect and generally establishing some kind of route from where he is to where he wants to be. I’m immensely proud, but mindful of the huge effort of balancing his working hours as a chef with his family life with his partner and their three children, as well as growing an allotment. But ironically I was also a bit envious because the work of breaking an allotment and bringing its soil up to scratch is so rewarding. The pioneer days have their charms. His main challenge is the covering of rampant Blackberries across the whole plot.  Even no-dig demands at least one season of the usual hard work to clear the soil of the worst of the noxious weeds.

But following on from Sunday’s posting, I’ve been thinking a lot about weeds and I went back to the bookshelf to re-read Richard Mabey’s book – “Weeds- the story of outlaw plants”  It’s an absolutely lovely book from a writer who’s hardly written a dud word in his life and it’s definitely one for the Potwell Inn library. You’ll look at weeds differently once you’ve read it, and I realized, as I turned the pages, how much of his book had soaked into my memory and formed my own attitude.  The history of weeds often includes periods when they were immmensely valuable as medicinal herbs, and if you read the labels of many beauty products you’ll see that they’re still in use today. My favourite discovery is that a well-known brand of natural fibre sold as a laxative, uses the seeds gathered from a member of the Plantago family.  The plantains still have their uses, and instead of composting them I’m now inclined to let them fatten up and then harvest them as I might harvest  any other useful food plant. Quite apart from their use to us, weeds are of the utmost importance to many of our moths, butterflies and other insects, and a large part of the ecological crisis that’s unfolding is the result of the chemical war on weeds. We should love them for all their irrepressible vulgarity and powers of survival.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, the incoming vegetables – particularly the unstoppable flow of courgettes and gherkins is testing our ingenuity.  I confess I’ve never been a fan of ratatouille – it’s a reaction to being force fed the stuff many years ago while camping. I can still see the cook crouching behind a windbreak muttering incantations and boiling it down into a dreadful slush that tasted mostly of methylated spirits. But in the interests of harmony I’m suspending all my food prejudices in order to find a way of enjoying all the stuff we grow.  Madame and I have between us tried just about every recipe for ‘rat’ that’s ever been written down.  Today it was the turn of Simon Hopkinson whose recipe Madame found in one of the cookbooks (we’ve probably got over a hundred). The advantage was that the vegetables were fried to the point where they still had some bite, and then they were anointed with some of last year’s tomato sauce, a couple of black olives and a handful of fresh basil from the windowsill. It was without doubt the best ratatouille I’ve ever tasted.

I’ll write one day about the dynasties of chefs – it’s a subject I’m very interested in because we have two in our immediate family and they are both very much the product of the mentoring and training they received.  More on that one another day, but now we’re getting to the start of jamming, pickling and freezing. Some of the brine pickles we experimented with last year have been quietly dropped, and we’re hoping that this year we’ll pull off some really decent pickled gherkins.

But on top of all this there are grandchildren to be looked after from time to time, and our campervan which has a fridge that won’t work as it should on LPG. Mechanics are expensive and I’ve come to question their skills over the years so I’ll have a go at anything I’m legally allowed to do. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours measuring voltages and resistances and pondering over the service manuals.  Most problems are stricly logical ones – X doesn’t work because Y – and so forth. The difference between mending it myself and paying someone else to do it can amount to hundreds of pounds so I’m eagerly awaiting a package with what (I hope) will solve the problem inside. It’s important because in a few weeks we’re celebrating Madame’s birthday with a week in the Yorkshire Dales and then onwards into the Borders and Scotland. With a bit of wildcamping in view we need the gas fridge.

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