It is that time of year when New Years resolutions are made and broken. I know this because the yoga class I go to is always packed out in January. It thins out by mid-February though. Also there are lots of books published around Christmas which have an agenda – to make the reader ‘do something’; take up a new past time, de-clutter, or this year’s hit … be mindful. So ‘The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness’ seemed the obvious place to start. ‘Muck and mindfulness’ … has a ring to it; might be a good title for a blog some day. Amazingly my alter ego, Martin features heavily in this book. ‘By practicing mindfulness, Martin has found his inner peace, even though he is being kidnapped by swans.’ Exciting thought, and there is even a lovely picture of Lord Muck on some kind of throne heading skywards with a flock of swans clutching silken ropes in their beaks. Other parts of the book are a bit darker. ‘Clive likes to practice loving kindness meditation…Clive finds this easier than bothering to meet his friends or lend them money.’ Even more alarmingly, ‘Mindfulness has taught Leanne to accept things as they are; rubbish, expensive, unfair and out of date every six months.’ That sound suspiciously like a description of a new years resolution to me.
So does mindfulness involve buying lots of soon to be out of date stuff? All those colouring books, relaxation tapes and tracts on how to be mindful. Well yes…the implication is that purchasing them and retiring to your room to spend time with them is the path to something sacred and special, unless that is, you can afford to retire to a mountain top to practice, which is even better…. and even more expensive. All very West Coast/Marin County; something I satirised in ‘Spilling the Beans’, some 30 years ago. It is the notion that you need to ‘find time’ to meditate that really grates. Usually that actually means stopping looking after the kids or something else you want to duck out of. Not being one for the sacrilising approach, my ‘mantra’ for the past few decades has been ‘the meditation of every day life’. And what pray does that mean when its at home? Well, speaking of home… doing the washing up, cleaning the hens, hanging out the washing (my favourite, on a warm spring day… nothing better) hoovering (there is a certain strange joy to hearing those bits of dirt rattling up the nozzle and into the bag) and putting all the kitchen waste onto the compost, knowing that without doing a thing, it will be ready to spread round those vegetable seedlings in three months. That’s the joy isn’t it, knowing that you don’t have to do a thing – sun and wind will dry the washing and worms and insects will do their composty bit. As the Buddhist saying has it; ‘Don’t just do something; sit there’.
I had a real pre-Christmas treat visiting my eldest daughter and her partner in Edinburgh. Living in the New Town just below Calton Hill, their neighbourhood restaurant is somewhere called ‘Gardener’s Cottage’. Like the rest of that part of the New Town, said cottage was built in 1836 by William Playfair and is located in Royal Terrace Gardens, where unsurprisingly the original purpose of the building was to be … the gardeners cottage. The gardens still look great, but they are maintained by Edinburgh Corporation these days, and the cottage was for many years abandoned and in a ruinous state. Until a few years ago when the council reckoned that really it ought to be demolished, but as it was a listed building, it couldn’t be. A competition for a new use; and the winners were a couple of chefs Dale Mailley and Edward Murray who opened their new restaurant in 2012. It was an immediate hit with the critics and the locals. The concept is simple. Very simple. Three trestle tables seating 10 each, one in a small room and the other two in the main dining room which has the kitchen off it – no larger than many household kitchens. The Lord Muck party end up in the wee room, whitewashed walls, and dressers piled high with jars and bottles; ‘Rowan jelly 5 October 2015’, ‘Plum jam 2 October 2015’, ‘Beetroot kvas 25 may 2105’, ‘salted pears’… artfully artistic meets practical. The entrance lobby is just the same, rows of neatly shelved and labelled bottles and jars. The trestle tables are bare and the candles are in pewter candlesticks. The apogee of hippy sophistication. The tables lend an up close and personal dimension to the dining experience too as diners share space and condiments – and even the occasional alcoholic top-up. And .. the food. It is rather wonderful to walk up the short gravel path to the restaurant between rows of home grown veg, right there in the city centre. Brassicas, salad crops, and herbs all very much in evidence. Some serious cultivation – in December. The menu reflects this, local, seasonal, home grown, quite a bit of foraging nothing remotely ‘sourced’ from a catering wholesaler. Not much in the way of choice, but flexibility for vegetarians. A ‘tasting menu’ approach, so seven courses served (there was a little bit of nervousness about quantities from one member of the party, and jokes about will we need to stop by for fish and chips on the way home.. all entirely unfounded); oyster tempura to start, something fairly amazing with mushrooms and crispbread, a serving of hake with kale leaves (almost certainly from the garden) and slithers of potato, a ‘cheese course’ consisting of whipped goats cheese served up in a tiny cornet made from ‘ground burnt leek’ with a piece of toasted beetroot as the ‘flake’, poached pears and chestnut with ice cream dessert. Mind you, serving up a dish with Jerusalem artichokes as its base, is a recipe for distinct indigestion. The drinks menu was a masterpiece of inventiveness including a local micro- brewery beer, ‘fig pucker’ (think David Cameron’s student exploits…. actually no, don’t) and something stronger, brewed with local foraged berries; the makers of both known personally to other members of the Muck party. Ours was a late evening booking so by the time the ‘petit fours’ had been consumed it seemed wiser to retire back to base and drink our own Calvados. But what a spot, an island of simple sophistication in what can be a pretty crazy city.
For me, two books published this year have taken different and inspiring approaches to the weather and the outdoors. As we watch water cascading down the very streets in Yorkshire that the British leg of the Tour De France traversed just last year, Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: journeys of a London bicycle courier (Notting Hill Editions) chronicles the unforgiving nature of the messengers existence on the fringes of society, while at the same time examining the physical dimensions of the journey itself; gradients, road surfaces, wind, rain and the way the bike wants to flow down hill following the ancient ley lines of the city’s subterranean rivers. Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: writers and artists under English skies (Thames & Hudson) is an ambitious literary and cultural history, the story of the stories that people have told each other about the weather across the millennia from Anglo-Saxon scribes to Virginia Woolf and Zadie Smith. As the weather we have associated with the British Isles begins to change irrevocably, she reveals the great storehouse we carry in our minds; the names we find for the hail, the wind and the mist, the traditions of the seasons, the Frost Fairs and the riddles.
A shorter version of this blog first appeared in the review section of The Guardian on 26 December 2015.
American artist Theaster Gates sprung to peoples notice with his work on urban regeneration-meets-art projects on Chicago’s South Side. Since then he’s worked in Istanbul and Kassel, Germany amongst other places. In November he staged ‘Sanctum’ in a ruined church in Bristol. The Temple Church has been left unrestored since it was destroyed in the Blitz in November 1940.
In ‘Sanctum’, Gates created a performance space inside the shell of the church, a space that hosted 24 days of music, song, and spoken word, 24 hours a day. And what a space it is. Built from salvaged beams, old bricks, 18c floor planks and old doors and windows; it is part Hobbit home, part inverted wooden ship and part gigantic allotment shed. Lord and Lady Muck and friends got to visit on the afternoon of the final day. A beautiful, sunny, and cold day. The church itself, hardly ever open to the public – some of the structure isn’t safe, is a bleak reminder of the horrors of war visited upon a city that suffered more than its fair share of bombing 75 years ago.
Inside, Gates has created something both provisional and eternal, turning dead space into something alive. Alive that is with the continuous performances. It is all a bit chaotic – as it should be. Admission is free so just turning up and queuing is how it works – probably not much of a queue at 5am on a weekday morning, but what unexpected joy might there be then? A harpist perhaps or a singer. Turning up at any time it could be a ‘famous name’, (Mercury Prize nominees Slaves appeared at one point) or more likely a mash up of Bristol bands and singers, poets, speakers, or performers. You can stay for an hour, and groups are admitted at 20 minute intervals at busy times, leading to a sense of the sea, as a gentle tide of people empty and fill the space as their time-slots commence or expire. The space is small, welcoming and flexible. Bristol-based singer Julia Turner was on to entertain the Muck party, with her fellow performer violinist Annalise Lam. ‘Girl with a trumpet’ was one of their star turns (you can check out the actual performance on You Tube) and they performed a couple of Bill Withers numbers too (as in, ‘how do you turn in a duck into a great blues musician?’ ‘You put it in the microwave till its bill withers’) but the one that touched our hearts was ‘My Victorian boy friend’.
Meantime children played on the wooden structures that cover the stones that mark the remains of the original 12c Knights Templar church and we gazed in awe at the quality of the workmanship that went into the construction of this supposedly temporary venue. A temple to allotment sheds world wide, right there in the Temple Church.
As the political class digest the implications of Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide win in the Labour leadership elections it seems appropriate to remind ourselves of the importance of his allotment in his political trajectory. Throughout the leadership election campaign Lord Muck was reminded of our similarities: ‘..but Martin he rides a bike, makes jam, and has his own allotment!’ What is this supposed to tell us? That Lord Muck should lead the Labour Party? No thanks.
Instead let us turn to the real story. Jeremy Corbyn’s allotment. The media has made a few passing and often dismissive references to the allotment – mostly of the ‘well he can always retire to his allotment if he loses’-type comments. He didn’t lose, so now the allotment assumes a much greater political salience. Of course we have been there before – in fiction. Remember Chance, the Peter Sellers figure in the film ‘Being there’? The humble gardener who who determines Presidential policy in the White House, on the basis of his observations about the weather and the seasons. Now we have the chance to watch nature imitate art.
But back to that allotment. Where is it ? In East Finchley, north London. How long has he had one? About twelve years; to be precise since March 2003. Apparently his name came up on the waiting list a week or so before the invasion of Iraq – so that spring planting and digging season got missed. Most important, what does he grow? According to an interview in The Independent on 9 August – the only interview to take his interest in allotments seriously, this year he is growing potatoes, beans, soft fruit and apples. Good choice. Its been a great year for all of them. The Indy quotes his gardening style thus: ‘I try to grow things that don’t require a lot of watering because I don’t get up there regularly enough. But I always make time for my allotment. You like a dry summer because the weeds don’t grow. You water what you need to water and the weeds can sod off.’ For a busy gardener its a technique that works – most of the time – as long as you don’t want to grow anything like lettuces. But then he is clear he doesn’t. How has it influenced his policy positions? This still remains to be seen but he has argues that Labour should build houses with gardens for everyone so that ‘anyone who wants to be a beekeeper should be a beekeeper’ (his environment policy is strong on protecting bees). I don’t recall that as being the wellspring of previous Labour housing policy. And the jam? In an interview in the ‘Sunday People’ he refers to making ‘apple and blackcurrant jam’. Figures; he has already told us about the apples and soft fruit.
What I want to know though is; does he grow roses? We all need bread (or potatoes) but we all need roses too. Jeremy will be well aware of the famous bread and roses strike by women textile workers in Lawrence, Mass in 1912, orchestrated by the Industrial Workers of the World (the ‘Wobblies’). Like him, they won. Rose Schneiderman’s refrain was; ‘The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.’ and it led to the song whose second verse goes;
‘As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men
For they are women’s children and we mother them again,
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!’
So come on allotment holders of the world, Unite! Demand the impossible of Jeremy. More roses!
It really has been one of the most miserable August Bank Holidays I can remember. And it has capped a summer that has for the most part been cold and often gloomy. The only consolation of this from a gardeners point of view has been the opportunity to spend time with a book. And the book has been wonderful. It is The Gardener by Jan Brykczynski (Dewi Lewis Publishing, £25). I was first alerted to its existence by an article in the New Statesman in July by the poet John Burnside. It is a photo essay about urban gardening taken in four cities, Warsaw, New York, Nairobi and Yerevan. in a way it is quite unassuming, because the photos are of people and activities that are quite unassuming.But enormously revealing and touching too. The photos are introduced by a couple of short essays; one by Malu Halasa catches the struggle and the success of these urban gardeners perfectly. ‘Quaintly human touches emerge in simple but poetic acts of recycling. Old glass jars hang from trees, plastic catering buckets are fixed to fences and disused tyres become miniature herb gardens. An empty garden chair or chaise longue sits alone under a tree or in a field.It is the absence of a person that gives such scenes their poignancy and hints at the inner life of those who frequent this place and commune with nature.’
Anyone who has spent time on an allotment will immediately relate to that and to the photos themselves: beehives weighed with pudding stones tilt amongst the sunflowers on a rooftop, a grey haired Armenian woman poses in a orchard clutching her scythe, while thousands of miles away a man in his fifties sports a ‘Bronx chicks rule’ rubber apron and relaxes in a plastic chair beneath a leafy bower. Brykcznski himself lives on the third floor of an apartment block in Warsaw and as he puts it; ‘My feet get to touch real earth just once a year during a two week holiday. I have a deep feeling that there is something wrong about this and that I’ve been cut off from my roots…’ From this came the idea of this book watching planes come into land above the allotments near his apartment and realising that through them people were fulfilling the same need that he had for contact with the earth.
Burnside was drawn to the book – as indeed I have been, not just by a marvellous collection of images – something I aspire to emulate both as gardener and as photographer, but also because of its prophetic nature. As he puts it: ‘How we live with the natural world, the green world, the animal, the weather, the elemental is surely destined to change as the soi disant developed world collapses around its own greed and arrogance.’ It might sound a depressing subject for an abjectly rainy summer weekend, but the spirit that comes from this book warmed me, and as I looked out of the rain-spattered window made me realise that the rain is only doing those green spaces we cherish, good.
Twenty five miles outside Edinburgh, often referred to as ‘the Athens of the North’ is its counterpoint, Little Sparta. On Sunday my eldest daughter, her partner and I took a trip out into the Pentland Hills to visit. Little Sparta is the garden of the artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay. Described by Sir Roy Strong as ‘.. one of the few made post 1945 which must not be lost. It remains to me still the only really original garden made in this country since that date.’ Strong words. And a visit much anticipated because being remote and in a fragile landscape, it is both hard to reach and rarely open. The stars aligned though and we set off in a car club car (thank goodness for such a civilised mode of transport) through the Edinburgh suburbs and soon into the hills of South Lanarkshire. The walk from the tiny car park isn’t short, but its well worthwhile. The weather wasn’t kind – it drizzled the entire time, and the sun was nowhere to be seen, but it felt appropriate to the landscape which is hardly redolent of Greece. The weather kept visitors to minimum and the size of the gardens allowed us to lose ourselves barley noticing the presence of the dozen or so other visitors.
Finlay, who died in 2006 was a prolific artist and poet and the garden combines the two in his concrete poetry – literally, as the shapes and lines and the choice of different fonts and sizes, as well as the meaning of the words are carved into stone, not by him but by craftsmen collaborators. There are some 275 pieces around the garden. If that sounds a tad overwhelming the space absorbs them well and although it feels like an art gallery it also still feels like a garden. The artworks have several themes, amongst them the French Revolution, WWII, and pre-Socratic views of the nature of the world. The garden is divided into eleven elements including an allotment, a wild garden, a Roman garden and an area called The English Parkland. There are many striking inscriptions and sculptures, not least the one overlooking the lochan (small loch) set out on eleven large stones saying ‘The present order is the disorder of the future. Saint Just’. Equally dramatic is the stone byre converted into a temple to Apollo with Corinthian and Ionic columns painted onto the front with an inscription ‘To Apollo, his music, his missiles, his muses’ set in one of the more homely elements of the garden the temple pool garden, with a gorgeous lily pond in front of it. Wandering through the wild area by the lochan I came across all kinds of carved inscriptions such as ‘The world has been empty since the Romans. St Just’ (him again). True, but they never got as far as South Lanarkshire; the Antonine Wall is some way south. One of the most charming elements is the series of small flowerpots on a stone shelf, each one with the name of a female French revolutionary and on the wall of the house behind the caption ‘Les femmes de la Revolution’. The house isn’t lived in any more which is a pity and the whole place is quite low key – the lady taking the money sells a few postcards and pamphlets but trade was slow. She did have time to answer my question about the little wooden sign round the back which didn’t look as if it had the mark of the great man about it, saying ‘Morris : Finlay’. Something to do with two great artists perhaps? No, it was to direct the heating oil delivery men to the correct tanks for this and a neighbouring households winter fuel supplies.
The summer solstice passed a week ago, even Glastonbury is over, but this year’s elderflower is only just going over now. Its been a cool spring and early summer and there has been a particularly bountiful crop. Now I have a demi-john of the stuff bubbling away in the kitchen, slightly to the amazement of visitors who mostly guess correctly that it is wine-in-the-making, but hardly ever guess that it is elderflower. Elderflower really is the queen of flower wines. The aroma when it is mashing is divine and fills the whole house, and the wine itself is one of the most refreshing and distinctive I know. Of course elderflower don’t have to be used to make wine – the cordial ain’t bad either.
Actually I’ve branched into something new with them this year too – elderflower frittata. Picking the flowerlets before breakfast and then collecting the eggs (such willing hens….) what could be better. So good indeed that it has ended up as a recipe in my forthcoming book The Cowley Road Cookbook, where foraged ingredients play more than just a walk on part.
But back to elderflower wine. After three days mashing, it take at least another month before the contents of the demi-john are fully fermented. Then its time to bottle. And after a few months, drink. My friends Jo and Eric reckon if you can keep some till after the flower burst the next year there is a particularly flowery aftertaste. I’m sure they are right. Its just I never seem to have any last that long!
Spring has arrived and with it my Airbnb guests. I had my first ever visitors from Vietnam earlier this week, business student Phuong and her dad Son, visiting her from Saigon. On arrival I mentioned to them that I needed to go out to my allotment shortly to tend to my vegetables. The comment produced an outpouring of enthusiasm. ‘How wonderful – could we come with you?’ This is definitely the first time guests have expressed such enthusiasm, mainly the questions are on the easiest way to get to Bicester Village or which colleges the Harry Potter films were shot in. But of course the tradition of home vegetable growing especially the much prized ‘private plots’ allowed under communism, have a strong resonance – especially as they constituted about 1% of the cultivated land but produced 25% of the food in many communist regimes. They were suitably delighted to discover how close the allotment was – they had assumed a lengthy bus ride rather than a five minute walk.
On arrival Son and Phuong were clearly amazed at the lushness of it all, especially the range of flowers on some plots, which did look rather beautiful in the evening sun. An inspection of my plot followed – the source of greatest surprise being rhubarb, a totally new concept to them.The garlic came in for approval but I was stumped by their questions about ‘black garlic’ something I’ve never seen nor heard of. After a quick visit to my space in the shared poly tunnel where they admired the basil and tomatoes making great progress in a rather chilly May, the final stop was the orchard plot. This produced the strongest reaction. Cherries just netted against the birds, and apples and pear blossom just setting were viewed with reverence and delight.
As we came to leave I pulled some of the rhubarb, just as a typical English rainstorm loomed, and we took it home and stewed it with dried fruit and served with yoghurt. So Saigon will now be regaled with tales of the strange fruit they grow on those British ‘private plots.’
At last a bit of rain! So I was off to the orchard plot on my allotment to scythe the rapidly growing grass under the fruit trees. Some damp on the grass works a treat and my two handled scythe from Simon Fairley of Tinkers Bubble cuts through the new growth like a knife through butter in these conditions.
But before I’d even reached the plot and commenced scything, two fellow allotmenteers had accosted me and made jokes about my resemblance to Aidan Turner (not) and his scything in ‘Poldark’. So controversial! Not everybody agreed with his style which certainly looked more like hacking at the grass than scything as I understand or practice it and debates have raged in media ranging from the ‘Daily Telegraph’ (see link) and Patrick Gore-Langton in the ‘Daily Express’ to the News Quiz.
As for me.. well the scything was going just fine until the rain came down again with about a third done. So its the shirt-on Ross Poldark look-alike(ish) up on the plot again later in the week.