Taking stock & making stock

When we took on the first half-allotment four years ago almost exactly, I don’t think we’d considered at all what a big part it was going to play in our lives. We’d always grown things in a series of different houses and allotments –  you’d probably have described us as ‘greens’ for many decades, but over the years the sense of urgency has increased and where once we were content to have a few home-grown treats off our various gardens, by the time we moved here it seemed apparent that growing some of our own food was about to become a necessity. We had much less money once we retired, and there had been straws in the wind when relatively minor events like a bit of snow, or a petrol strike had brought the country to its knees and seen the shops emptied, and especially after the 2008 financial crash we felt that the system could no longer be trusted. Insecurity was becoming embedded in our lives and there was a growing sense of cognitive dissonance between the world as we and our children were experiencing it, and the world as it was being sold to us by politicians and their friends in the media.

So when we signed the first and then the second agreements on our two small plots, we felt that with the aggregate of 250 square metres – a British standard allotment plot – we’d be a good deal safer if the economy tanked. At that stage it was a conceptual move rather than one driven by an immediate threat.  The brexit vote and then the election of the new government did nothing to allay our fears that the future was darkening by the day, and yet never once did it occur to us that the occasion of the collapse would be an escaped virus leading to a pandemic. That was truly left-field.

Until very recently, growing your own has been a kind of lifestyle choice – in fact many allotment and cooking blogs are categorised as lifestyle blogs. Home grown vegetables,  and kitchen gardens tended to feature alongside gingham tablecloths and wicker shopping baskets at the homes and gardens end of the coffee table trade. Bread baking – especially the sourdough loaf – lined up with all manner of artisanal products as forms of conspicuous consumption among the hipster classes. It was all very ‘let’s pretend’ as head scarves worn 1940’s style with dungarees became fashion items allowed us (yes I mean us) to toy with the idea of wartime austerity conditions without actually having to put up with them. For a while offal became the latest trend in high end restaurants and you could show off to your friends by demonstrating mastery over removing 200 tiny bones from a breast of lamb before stuffing it with truffles and gold leaf.

And now it’s happened and everything has changed. Over the past 50 years 65% of the land given over to allotments has been sold off by local authorities for housing development or to be turned into parks – both extremely important social needs, but suddenly allotments are back in vogue because the cracks have opened up and the shelves are empty. The pandemic has demonstrated that our way of life has become so hollowed out that it no longer functions under stress. Four years ago when we signed our first lease you could barely give allotments away and now you’ll probably have to wait for years to get one as they work through the recently extended lists, and those who have taken them on for the first time have to cope with the closure of garden centres and shops and the seizing up of the seed supply chain.

Waking up this morning into a different world was a bit of a strange experience. There was sourdough batter proving in its warm spot on the stove exactly as it has done for years, but I was painfully aware that we’ve only got 1 Kilo of flour left and no idea how to get any more – we may, we may not, but whether this is the last loaf for a while lies outside my control. The freezer was stuffed to capacity but probably 50% of what was in it was only put there because we couldn’t think what to do with it back in the day.

And so I did what I often do when I’m troubled about something, I decided to spend a day on the stove. First up – and wheeze of the month – I decided to take all of the soft fruit out of the freezer, mix it all together and make a batch of jam under the label “allotment jam”. It contains redcurrants, whitecurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries, all picked last year, and it smells lovely. We (I) tend to make far more jams, preserves and pickles than we could possibly eat, but the boys like them very much. However even this simple idea led to a mini crisis, because I’d run out of honey jar lids.  Four years ago I bought a big batch from a wholesaler and proudly boasted that I’d never need to buy another lid – until today, that is. A quick scout around the internet revealed that the mighty Amazon have them at 10 (yes ten) times the price I could get from an old contact in the bee supplies business – so guess who I placed the order with!

Next, from out of the freezer,  came a load of old chicken bones and a bag of unidentified material I think may be pigs cheeks, bought because they were there on display at a time when I had no time.  The freezer can be a bit of a dustbin if you’re not careful. We had all the veg I needed to make stock apart from fresh herbs and leeks and so we went to the allotment and gathered some of each.  Once again, the takeaway point is that the leeks I collected were so small you wouldn’t be able to give them away at the supermarket.  As I’ve mentioned before, they didn’t do well last year, but dug, washed and trimmed they smelt better than anything you could hope to buy and they, and all the other ingredients are simmering away slowly on the stove, along with some more rhubarb. Bread, soup, stock and pudding all in hand.

This whole change of context has changed the way everything feels. In times of shortage, anything we can muster and make something from becomes that bit more precious. Intellectually I’ve known for years that our western way of life is unsustainable, but this painful lesson has taken us back from our focus on the detail to show the bigger picture.  Climate change, global extinctions, dirty air, poisoned land, polluted water, poverty, sickness and obesity are not discrete challenges that we can tackle one at a time when we get around to it – they’re one unified and terrifying challenge.

Yesterday we found the remains of a chicken on the allotment, almost certainly killed by a fox. I could see at a glance that it was (had been) a domestic bird because the remains of its crop were stuffed with maize. The condemned prisoner had enjoyed a hearty meal! Today when we went back every trace of the maize had gone; almost certainly eaten by a fortunate mouse.  The last of the feathers went on to the compost heap. That’s how nature works; endlessly recycling herself with no creature taking more than it needs or can find nearby, until – that is – we came along and tried to take it all.

“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!