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.

A very genteel affair!

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Yesterday afternoon, after a long fish and chip lunch (working class dinner) with friends, we both needed a walk so we wandered up to the Botanical Gardens with no particular quarry in mind except the vague hope that there might be some traces of a physic garden in amongst the plantings. No such luck, though – the garden has its seasonal moments, but apart from a couple of very nice borders the trees are the main survivors of the relentless pressures of austerity.  The garden is just far enough from the tourist hotspots to allow the City Council to neglect it without much fear of being called out. Any protesters can be labelled as ‘minority activists’ citing the pressing and greater needs of social care and claiming that these sorts of things are expensive fripperies  – like libraries and galleries …… and – the list goes on, the cuts get deeper and the fabric of society begins to disintegrate. The Garden is only a short walk from Royal Crescent which is constantly crowded with visitors who photograph the lovely architecture without giving a thought to where the money came from.  William Beckford whose folly overlooks Bath from a commanding position on Lansdown was one such landowner.  His Wikipedia entry gushes on about his achievements as an art collector, novelist and politician but remains silent on the slave plantations that provided his inherited wealth.

So it was a relief to find Carters Steam Fair setting up next door.  Carters is unlike any other funfair you might have been to – for a start you’re safer at the fair than you would be crossing the A4 to get to it.  When I was a child, travelling fairs were thought of as being a bit rough and risky.  On the hot evenings fights would break out like summer showers and I can recall the boxing booths where the local lads would get up and have a go.  There were still a few freak shows and I even remember the name of one burlesque act, called “The Naughty Nineties Girls”.  These all added to the erotic undertones of the funfair.  During the afternoons it was mainly attended by families and children, but as a teenager when I was first allowed to go at night, it took on an altogether darker and more exotic life.  As you approached, you could hear the raucous music and see the lights. What was so wonderful about it?  Well, it was edgy, liminal – you had to cross the penumbra of scattered light to enter – it was everything that life at home wasn’t – joyful, noisy, disorderly, open-ended.  They played rock and roll music and there were girls. The young men running the rides were like young predators stalking their supper. It was Weimar Berlin, bathed in diesel fumes and the smell of the summer night.  There were huge noisy generators run by men who’d seen it all, there was mud and straw and the greatest thing of all was that it would disappear after a week leaving just tyre tracks and yellowed grass. A truly proletarian event.

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Carters has all the old rides, the paper roll steam organs and the rock and roll music. There are generators and candyfloss and hotdogs but it’s resolutely respectable and run by a family who spend their winters restoring the unloved relics of the dangerous days. They even run courses on funfair lettering and painting.

Re-live Grandma’s Yesterday

That’s the slogan on one of the lorries and we’ll be there on Saturday afternoon when it opens, listening (I hope) to the Everly Brothers and photographing the spectacular machinery. All very low-tech, 1950’s and hauntingly beautiful.

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