Blessed are the cheesemakers

Smoked Westcombe Cheddar, Duckett’s Caerphilly and at the front, Westcombe Cheddar.

This is a bit of a catch up post for a multitude of reasons which would have to include the loss of British summer time, dark nights and 36 more days to be endured before the winter solstice gives us something to celebrate. I find it impossible to write when the black dog pays a visit and so there have been a few weeks now when it’s been hard to turn on the laptop. Madame and me have talked a lot about it and we came to the conclusion that spending almost two years on our own much of the time is at the heart of the problem. All of the groups and societies we belong to have effectively shut down; so no lectures, talks, classes and field trips; no galleries or markets and very few human interactions. The real world has shrunk to a first floor flat and the allotment – and it hasn’t been good for us – and then, just for pudding we have to live in a corrupted and feeble democracy; the obvious failure of COP 26 to honestly address the issues; and the inflationary effects of brexit.

These black dog episodes always come to a climax and so, having had flu jabs and covid booster doses we (truthfully Madame) decided to confront the beast head on and do something about it. That something really amounted to getting out and rejoining the human race; and so a week ago we went to the Saturday Market; raced around looking for a particular cheese – of which much more later – and scuttled home like anxious mice. Why does going to the shops feel like an act of defiance, I wonder? – or perhaps it’s the hordes of unmasked people who seem not to have noticed that there are still 1000 victims a week dying from covid.

The Potwell Inn strategy also included trips to the recently expanded and independent Toppings bookshop – which ought to be sufficient reason for coming to Bath because it’s huge! we reinstated the daily 5 mile riverside walk and re-joined the gym. If the gym sounds a bit unlikely, well sorry, but ever since I took myself into a gym for the first time 20 years ago I’ve loved it. There’s no finer antidote to the black dog than forcing yourself to achieve hard targets, and while Madame swims I prefer to occupy the rowing machines in a quiet corner away from the grunters, and row a 10K in as near to a wholly unachievable 50 minutes as I can get. Yesterday, on my first row since lockdown began, I would have struggled to do it in 60 but it was so good to be back. As any endurance athletes will know, there’s a moment in a long and hard workout where there’s a sudden release of endorphins into the bloodstream – so much so that in my running days I used to call one particular part of a run up Nightingale Valley in Clifton Gorge, the Lord’s prayer moment; so predictable was the rush. My knees are too shot for that malarkey these days!

And then Madame, who has taken charge of the re-entry programme, dragged us back to the bookshop where the strangest series of coincidences began to unfold. I should say that any Jungians would say they’re synchronicities – which sounds a bit more portentous. On our first visit last weekend they were still awaiting the arrival of some bookshelves, they said, and so we rather galloped around, avoiding the freeloaders with their gratis fizzy – searching for the natural history section which wasn’t there. After a quick email we discovered that the promised bookshelves might take a week or two. I said well, we’ll pop back when it’s quieter anyway. So yesterday we popped back. I’m a terrible impulse buyer of books. I know it and so I’ve learned to pick the book up, put it down and walk away and see if the magnetic field draws me back for a second or third time (depending on the price of the impulse). This was a two visit temptation called “A cheesemonger’s history of the British Isles” by Ned Palmer. Madame, who had been looking elsewhere, spotted it under my arm and said ‘oh I saw that one, I was going to get it for you‘ – which I took as her permission to lash out.

Now I love cheese more than is probably good for my heart, which needs no additional provocations from me. I took the book home and read the first third before bedtime; learning a great deal more than I’ve ever known about my favourite food. Fast forwarding to this morning, we went back to the Saturday market in search of the anonymous cheese stall that sells the best cheddar I’ve ever eaten – it reminds me of the way it used to taste before pasteurised block cheeses dominated the market. The stall only shows up irregularly – well, first and third Saturdays we discovered today. There doesn’t seem to be any sign advertising the company or the names of the cheeses – you just have to ask. So I’m there in the queue, and when my turn comes I buy a big piece of the favourite and smaller ones of a smoked cheese and a Caerphilly which also reminded me of the best Caerphilly I’ve ever tasted and which our grocer in Clifton told me was a “failure” that he’d bought cheaply because it wasn’t crumbly enough to qualify as a proper Caerphilly. The Caerphilly I bought today was exactly that experimental failure from thirty years ago, and it’s still just as delicious. So with my cup overflowing already I asked the young woman on the stall where the cheeses are made. “Westcombe Farm” she said, and a small explosion went off in my head. I’d just accidentally bought two of the finest unpasteurised cheeses on the market – not because of any prior knowledge or fawning write ups in foodie magazines, but simply because they tasted so good. The Potwell Inn tastebuds were vindicated! At that moment the maker himself – Tom Calver – turned up on the stall and I was reduced to a pitiful state of wordless admiration. Enough! you cry and I hear you.

The final synchronicity came as we feasted eclectically on the bits of cheese, porchetta, arancini and Indian street food we’d bought at the market. Life doesn’t get much better. I was (intolerable rudely) googling an article on Westcombe Cheddar when I had to ask Madame “who do you think is Tom Calver’s partner?” – “go on” –” It’s your hairdresser!” Drum roll for Mr Jung please.

Here we go!

It’s always the same. The seed order goes in some time in December – that’s the sensible list. At that point we congratulate ourselves on being supremely organised whilst during the next weeks we order one or two extras. Then a sunny day in February offers a tantalizing glimpse of spring and we consult the diaries and decide that Valentine’s day is perfect for sowing the tomatoes and chillies; spark up the propagators, sow seeds and then comes a flurry of doubt in case we’ve missed something out – a chink opens in the flimsy armour and voila! we seem to have ordered some outrageous outliers. Melon? ….. why not? A few more lavender plants – not just ordinary ones, the scour the catalogue types, oh and bee plants – we can never have too many bee plants. In the mind’s eye the allotment must resemble Chatsworth by now because there’s not a chance of finding enough space to plant them all out.

It’s been a harsh winter for all sorts of non allotment reasons with record breaking rainfall as well, but suddenly we notice an extra hour of daylight – a precious gift. The first tomatoes have germinated, there are daffodils about to blossom on the allotment hedge and some lovely miniature irises in the spring window boxes. There’s a barely contained excitement in the air fuelled by the tiniest glimpse of the sun.

So when’s the last frost date? the little voice in my head asks. I whisper May 14th. What! May 14th …. Are you completely crazy? That’s two months away!

The mere thought of spring is intoxicating and we’re ready to drink a full crate of it. It’s a year today since we last spent a day on the Malverns with our son from Birmingham – the photos came up today and made me feel sad. We haven’t seen our grandchildren face to face since the summer and our other two boys have had to socially distance, so the closest we’ve been to them is in the car park. We’re not allowed to walk in the Mendips, go on field trips or take the campervan out, so the allotment is having to fill the empty emotional spaces in our lives.

And it does more or less do the job. We get up in the morning full of plans and with things to do, and we decorate the gaps with imaginary melons. In our heads the allotment will be the Garden of Eden come July – and although it won’t quite get there, it won’t be far off.

Searching for my lyrical voice

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that sometimes the lyrical voice comes to find me. Back in the day I wrote a couple of short stories for the radio, and the eagle eared producer said that the pieces of mine she liked best were the lyrical ones- we’d worked together on some religious and World Service programmes as well so she’d seen a range of my work . The problem was (and still is) that I can’t just turn my lyrical voice on and off at will. What usually happens is that an experience of some sort sticks in my mind – it might be anything from finding a new plant to an overheard remark – and when I write about it the voice just emerges, as if it came from behind a door with no handle. The echo with the Holman Hunt “Light of the World” painting is a fair way of describing what is always a kind of visitation.

Then, in one of those intense conversations that Madame and me have sometimes, we were discussing whether Tracey Emin could have been influenced by Edvard Munch’s work – there’s obviously a kind of affinity there – and I recalled that an influence isn’t always an intellectual thing at all. Sometimes a memory finds its way into your being in a more tactile way; through the eyes and fingers. The senses – like – Proust’s madeleine – have their own language and logic.

So I’ve been staring at this photograph for days now, wondering what it was trying to say to me; I knew it was significant, or should I say it had legs but I didn’t know why. The boring answer would be that it was a good shot of a powerful cold front bearing down from the north east, presaging wind and rain overnight. So the most obvious and least interesting inference was that tomorrow we’d be wearing raincoats for our walk. Then, an hour ago I noticed the Abbey in front of the approaching storm; in fact both the church and the surrounding city looked as if they were about to be engulfed by a rather malign darkness.

If I tried to explain how it came to be that these days I find it so difficult to enter a church after all the years of preaching and pastoral work I’d probably crash out in flames. I didn’t so much lose my faith as find a better one, and the most painful part of that process was the growing realization that the golden cockerel that tops so many spires and towers wasn’t so much about chanticleer greeting the sun but was a powerful symbol of betrayal; about denial and cowardice. “Come here” – it seemed to be saying – “and see Christianity betrayed; in the endless processions and minute doctrinal disputes, in the overweening ambition, ludicrous dressing up and the mediocre oratory of preachers with nothing to say“.

So possibly the impulse that flooded through my eyes and into my fingers as I spotted this shot which I took three versions of, and then chose this one – perhaps the sense of the Abbey and the city being overwhelmed was carrying some personal freight for me; enough for my finger to press the shutter without quite knowing why.

But then there are trees in the foreground as well; bare leafless, winter trees, with twilight rapidly approaching. A time for huddling into your collar and jamming your hands into pockets: and as I digest this little gift; revelation, visitation, I realize that the moment encapsulated almost exactly, a whole cats cradle of ideas, experiences, memories and above all fears. The single moment draws to a meniscus; like a shockwave, and disperses instantly. No wonder they call it a shot.

This wasn’t a photograph of Bath Abbey at dusk with an approaching storm. It was an unconscious and instantaneous self portrait, because I am prone to sadness and these last months have been like an endless winter, and – to use a prison phrase – we’ve been “doing our bird” – trying not to get sucked under by lament or longing and clinging fiercely to the daily routines of allotment, cooking, walking and writing.

And then with the announcement of the vaccine our parole hearing hove into view and I got the maps out, blew the tyres up on the bikes, took out the kayak and got the trolley ready again and felt just a bit more alive again. We’ve developed this curious habit of watching films in the evenings – not for their artistic merit at all but for their settings. We’ve watched all the series of Montalbano – many of them are complete stinkers but who’s listening? We’re just enjoying the Sicilian landscape. Maigret (three series) for a bit of Paris – although the Michael Gambon versions are certainly not stinkers but don’t ask me to remember the plots. The whole new aesthetic of the Potwell Inn has been centred around locations; mountains, hills and rivers get stars as long as the script doesn’t intrude -although we also watch hours of psychopathic murders, torture and betrayal as long as it’s got some decent landscapes in it to leaven the darkness.

So I see how my lyrical voice falters. If I were a plant I’d be chlorotic after months sitting in the endless winter, deprived of light and food. People are going crazy here, flooding into the shopping centre looking for the only kind of hope this etiolated culture can offer, even despite knowing that this will give the virus new and enticing opportunities. Greater love hath no man – than what? to lay down their life for an Xbox or some new trainers? Spare me, but I’m too busy clinging to the legs of my disappearing voice. When the music and poetry and song die that’s real death.

I say to myself a hundred times a day – this will end and we’ll be able to celebrate the sacramental simplicities of life once more. Hugging our children, kissing our grandchildren, eating with friends, not being scared of crowded places but enjoying being a part of the crowd, not misting over with hatred when we’re lied to and when journalism has betrayed its fundamental principles for the umteenth time in exchange for a backdoor pipeline into the machine.

And on the promise of that glorious day, we’ve bottled up last year’s damson vodka – although we still don’t drink alcohol ourselves. But that’s another story! Be safe.

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