Tuesday, 19 July 2016

On the edge of success

A picture speeded up; summer’s exudation of greenery – leaves, tendrils, stalks, flowers, fruit, pods, tubers and all I define as weeds – burgeoning, profuse, like descriptions of far greater heat in Lampedusa's novel of Sicily which I read long long ago - the sun like a lion, the oestrus mares in the palace stables. It makes winter scenery unimaginable – as in winter, this summer abundance is remote. Yet I’m not content. 

The pleasure of my allotment is being shared with a snails, slugs and caterpillars. Pigeons and magpies drop in to enjoy the feast. On a Facebook site devoted to allotments the administrator has been asked to censor the next member who posts a clip of killing slugs; 
Yet again certain people still find great pleasure in posting slug and snail killing pictures. You should be band!!!! You know who you are and so do we. There is no need for it. Personally I don't want see It!! And sure that most other people don't want to either. Thought we had moved on!!! Admin need to step in.
We’ve had human thieves on Victoria Jubilee. They clambered over the site’s metal railings at night, looking for power tools. Nothing from us, since we have none. They borrowed a hammer of mine to break into a neighbour’s shed, leaving it on the ground outside. No-one accuses me. They broke into our shed. I’ve repaired their damage. Oliver helped. Winnie restored order inside; tidying their strewing. The police have other priorities. It's mostly forgotten already. 

Instead of just rejoicing inwardly at the progress I’ve made, learning about working an allotment, slowly but steadily transforming unpromising boulder clay, I and other plot-holders inherited in 2010, into something like fertile loam, laboriously eliminating vestiges of the couch grass that invaded the 200 square metre plot, teasing out its nutrient leaching rhizomes, spreading and pegging weed suppressing textile on a grid of paths to make it easy to work on 24 separate beds without standing on working soil, erecting a shed, adding a veranda and extra bamboo supports for a hardy fertile vine, putting up a second hand wood frame greenhouse, designing a large fruit cage that stands up to gales, laying out alternating compost bays, and getting the bees back in abundance, but as Winnie observes now and then “You’re not happy, Simon!” 
I’m overwhelmed by how much I don’t know, having learned from late experience, and reading, that this little plot is as unfathomable as the universe. It’s the site of a universe. 
“Did you know” said my friend Ziggi who works an allotment in London “There are as many micro-organisms in one spoon of soil as people on earth?” 

How on earth – literally – do I gauge what plants need? What different plants need? 
I’ve arrived at a grasp of Ph values in the earth – even bought litmus paper - but I’m stumped when it comes to reckoning how plants and weather, along with chemical, physical, organic composition makes change in the soil through the seasons. Having invested in several tons of black gold two years ago, are parts of the plot too rich now? Some cultivators start again every year, investing in sacks of laboratory collected compost and top soil. I want to know how to maintain the soil’s equilibrium, to keep it working, with minimal recourse to garden centres and internet products pandering to my anxieties like cosmetics to their consumers.

“Simon! Have faith” urges Winnie
“Yes but look what the birds and slugs have done to the Brussels sprouts that I hoped to get right for Christmas this year. The cauliflowers have bolted again. 

The same’s going to happen to the cabbage. See how all the cherries on both the cherry trees have been taken by birds. The plum and the pear yet again, haven’t even blossomed.”
My friend Ziggi reminds me “Nature lacks uniformity. For three years in a row your tomatoes come in abundance. Then they don’t. It happens.”
But as if this unpredictability, this indeterminacy, weren’t a vexation there’s another challenge. Growing crops and bringing them home when they are needed;...
... when Lin’s prepared to cook them for supper. She can't be doing with gluts. 
“There’s only so much you can parboil and store in the freezer.” 
She doesn’t do chutney and jam - not right now with the time given to caring for her mum. There’s a proportion I can give away – to Amy, Richard; to Jo and John, friends and neighbours.
“You need to grow things in succession” says Lin; this. while I’m still celebrating the abundance of a particular crop.
“What do you expect me to do with this lot?” 
Potatoes and onions tilled on Plot 14 lie in the veg cupboard beside stock Lin's bought from Morrison’s or Lidl; my scruffy vegetables, shedding earth, sitting gawkily beside unflawed produce from over the till. Oliver's sunflowers have been a success. Winnie's Dennis also grew some on the plot. When, as requested, he potted up one of his sunflowers and brought it in to his school, his was so much taller than the other childrens', one small girl cried and Winnie whispered to her son not to show pride. 
In front of the 'sky-blue-white', Simon, Oscar, Oliver and Hannah beside sunflowers on Plot 14 (photo: Guy Hollier)
21st July: I was asked on FB yesterday 'do you follow much of a permaculture approach?'

I strive to understand the term permaculture on a 200 square metre plot. Its far-reaching philosophy and practice, such as I have picked up, makes plot 14 an impossible site on which to observe what approaches the new 'religion' [Google gives me 7,350,000 hits on the word in 0.41 seconds] that long ago my wise stepfather mused would one day attract the world. In permaculture terms I'm 'pre-scientific' - in the cargo cult stage, like those bewildered indigenous peoples, going slightly mad, on first encountering the technologies and unspoken values, of industrial populations. When an apple falls on my head - speaking hypothetically - I'm inclined to curse and rub my head. It takes a genius to be so rudely struck, and, amid the shock and pain, think 'gravity!'
It's true I've divorced my car. I cycle and walk - as much as possible - relying on Lin's car for emergency use. I do not use - since they are anyway forbidden on city plots - Bayer sourced herbicides or insecticides. I strive to compost and recycle amid the detritus of a consuming economy that allows me my cheap flights across Europe and beyond...I strive to understand what gardening interventions are workable in a medium of far greater complexity than I'd grasped when I first worked to prepare my plot with azada and fork, seeing the ground and what grew in it as hostile, understanding as never before the Biblical curse on Adam and Eve '“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” My family - the dearest to me in the world - are thoroughly embedded in the economic life of the present, only some of whose habits and attitudes, chime with the new life that is at the heart of a permacultural way of life. The only book that has ever worked for me - as a route into making sense of the earth - was written under war time conditions in 1945, and explains that environmentally sensible gardening is something that someone like me can do, since I'm not under the pressures placed on someone who must grow vegetables for a living - Gardener's Earth by Stanley Whitehead. I'm ever grateful for directions - further directions - but I suspect they are like the old Irish joke, where a local explains a route in great detail to a puzzled traveller only to end up saying, when sure they've grasped the directions, says "You don't go that way". I've come too far 'that way' to be very pleased about starting again 'the right way'. I'd almost rather keep banging my head against the wall - 'kicking against the pricks'. I approach my gardening almost as a penance and a therapy rather than as a seriously thoughtful steward of the land - which would perhaps make me a permaculturist. Your question is a good one. 
Digging the plot in 2012. Intended as a 'before' clip. 

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Telling the bees

Telling the bees is a traditional European custom, in which bees would be told of important events in their keeper's lives, such as births, marriages, or departures and returns ... If the custom was omitted or forgotten and the bees were not 'put into mourning' then it was believed a penalty would be paid, such as the bees might leave their hive, stop producing honey, or die. 

A message from a neighbour and friend in Greece:
Hello Simon, I see you are back home. What is going on with the referendum? Was the whole thing an accident? Though I cannot believe that the most instinctive 'school' is pulled in such uncomfortable situations. Do you see Cameron acting as Chamberlain did? In that case 1937-1939 period is being repeated? Sevastianos Metallinos (President of Ano Korakiana's Agricultural Co-operative Αγροτικού μας Συνεταιρισμού
Home? We have two 'homes'! Dear S. Lovely to hear from you. No-one can know if history is repeating itself, but its shadow seems stronger, its echoes louder, than before 23rd June. Yes! You could say that the Referendum was an 'accident'. To resolve differences within his Party, Cameron, included a promise in the Conservative Manifesto for our May 2015 General Election - a pledge to hold a Referendum on the UK staying in or leaving the EU. He did not think the Conservatives would win last year’s election. When he became PM with a clear majority his new government was committed to a promise he had not expected to have to deliver. I guess that beloved Greece is too full of its own woes to care much about what we’ve done to ourselves in Britain as a result of this vote. I agree with the recent words of Yanis Varoufakis who had wanted the UK to remain in the EU. “OUT won because the EU establishment have made it impossible, through their anti-democratic reign (not to mention the asphyxiation of weaker countries like Greece), for the people of Britain to imagine a democratic EU.” My family voted to remain, except my daughter and son-in-law. We would never let politics divide our family, and although I do not think for a second that they voted from fear, there's no question that too many did; fear and anger. Too many jumped at the opportunity to give the ‘ruling elite’ a kick in the pants, and 'get their country back'…
…δεν έχει πλοίο για σε, δεν έχει οδό.
Ετσι που τη ζωή σου ρήμαξες εδώ
στην κώχη τούτη την μικρή, σ' όλην την γή την χάλασες.*
Their vote against ‘foreigners’ carried the day for the OUT vote. Our country is full of angry frightened people. Nor will Brexit shield us against many other angry people across Europe. There lies your comparison with the 1930s. The UK vote threatens the EU project as a whole - beset by right wing nationalist movements. I’m sure you know the famous Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times”. We are back in Ano Korakiana in late August. Meantime I am growing lots of fresh fruit and vegetables on my allotment, despite very wet weather and a plethora of slugs and snails. My bees are buzzing. I have much to occupy my life.
Τοὺς Λαιστρυγόνας καὶ τοὺς Κύκλωπας, τὸν θυμωμένο Ποσειδῶνα μὴ φοβᾶσαι, τέτοια στὸν δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δὲν θὰ βρεῖς, ἂν μέν' ὴ σκέψις σου ὐψηλή, ἄν ἐκλεκτὴ συγκίνησις τὸ πνεῦμα καί το σῶμα σου ἀγγίζει*
Με αγάπη και τις καλύτερες ευχές, Σαίμον και Λίντα XX
*...there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have ruined your life here
in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world. (Constantine P. Cavafy 1910)
**...The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes, the raging Poseidon do not fear: You'll never find the likes of them on your way, if lofty be your thoughts, if rare emotion touches your spirit and your body. Cavafy 1911
From Sevastianos: Thank you. My regards to Linda
Me: I hope you do not now regard us as foreigners (:))
S: Of course you are foreigners. It is a matter of culture after all. We, proud Greeks, are fond of Sakis Rouvas, Alexis, NO and Olympiaco's morality. Kavafis, et al is for, nationwise, diversified orphans...At least lets enjoy it....THE IRISH coast guard has today issued a nationwide warning for the East Coast as hundreds of thousands of British refugees risk their lives to cross the Irish sea in an attempt to flee the impoverished and unstable nation.....

'An estimated 450,000 people have already fled the UK mainland to neighbouring EU countries.'

Owen Jones in The Guardian yesterday - an extract:
'...Many of the nearly half of the British people who voted remain now feel scared and angry, ready to lash out at their fellow citizens. But this will make things worse. Many of the leavers already felt marginalised, ignored and hated. The contempt – and sometimes snobbery – now being shown about leavers on social media was already felt by these communities, and contributed to this verdict. Millions of Britons feel that a metropolitan elite rules the roost which not only doesn’t understand their values and lives, but actively hates them. If Britain is to have a future, this escalating culture war has to be stopped. The people of Britain have spoken. That is democracy, and we now have to make the country’s verdict work.'
Comment from my friend Christopher Grossmith - living in Nepi, 50 kilometres north of Rome:
I tend to agree, we have to go for it now. The Great British Public may have put their foot in it 'Churchill with the Dardanelles' but we will now do something brilliant just to prove we were right. So far no one has spat at me in Italy..
*** ***
I've been taking part, via my membership of the 1000 Elders Group, volunteering to be guinea pigs, for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital's research into healthy ageing - on this occasion a study of 'the acute effects of sitting time on physiological and psychological function in older adults'
What is the purpose of the study? Although there is evidence supporting the longer term health problems of prolonged bouts of sedentary behaviour (sitting) in older people, we do not know very much about the effects of shorter ‘acute’ sitting bouts on our minds (mood, thinking and memory) and bodies (muscle power, mobility, joint pain). Interestingly the current UK physical activity guidelines state that “while there is sufficient evidence to support a recommendation to reduce sedentary behaviour in older adults, it is not currently possible to suggest a specific time limit”. The aims of this study therefore are to characterise sitting time in older people in terms of acute physiological and psychological effects, as well as identify the main effects that older people perceive as being important after periods of sitting....You have been chosen because you are 70 years of age or over and are able to walk either with or without the use of walking aids.
21st June. Dr. Emma Bostock, School of Sport Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences:
Dear Simon. I hope you are well. This is just a reminder for your next visit this coming Friday at 11:30am. I will meet you in the reception of the NIHR Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility at the Old Queen Elizabeth Hospital (Heritage Building). Please remember to wear comfortable clothing and sensible shoes. Also remember to bring something warm and plenty of reading material to fill your sitting time. It will be your 2 hour sit this week so we should be finished by 5pm. Any problems or questions then please just let me know. Kind Regards, Emma 
At the Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility, Birmingham University
During the first phase of three sessions - following consent and familiarisation - I did psychological, cognitive and physical tests before and after sitting still for two hours. Next week I'll sit for four hours. I'm allowed to read and use the guest WiFi but not to receive or make phone calls. My main recollection later - I cycled home along the canal as usual - was the observation of the attending nurse, who took samples of my blood and saliva and measured my blood pressure.
"Your blood pressure's a little high"
She showed me her readings; in the hypertension range.
"That's odd. That's never been a problem for me"
"Well I need to point it out. Check with your GP"
"Gosh Emma, do you think I'm stressed by the Referendum result?"
"Could be." she said "We'll see how your blood pressure looks on your next visit next week"

Talking to the bees, I recognise feelings that compare with previous personal ordeals - bereavement, and long long ago, divorce and separation. They are preambles to bracing myself for some major and, at the time, regretted change in circumstances.
Notice in the QE Hospital grounds (photo: Emma Bostock)
I'm well aware the rifts in the population of this country have long been there and worsening, but the EU referendum has given voice, expression to and significant legitimacy to stark differences. On the 16 bus into and out of the city I am often the only white man, the only old white man. In such frequent company I feel safe, at home, relaxed. I know a sample of such fellow passengers could include as much of a moral mix as on a bus in any other part of this country, but watching some of the good old boys interviewed in all white pubs and streets of another England I feel distanced, even prejudiced, god forgive me. So when, chatting to the long known and familiar owner of our local Asian corner shop, I was almost relieved to hear, from Ahmed's mouth, views about how 'immigration' had got 'out of hand' similar to those I was hearing on TV from rejoicing white Brexiteers in places where I would feel foreign in my own country.
The family came for roast lamb on Sunday. Potatoes from our allotment.
From a friend, and co-writer:
Yes lots of echoes with my thoughts
We have unleashed something repressed because we had a referendum we should never have had. The prosperity we both enjoy is not shared, inequality in the last 30 years has got worse, we have separate not integrated communities and so no wonder the dynamics of in/out groups, and the hatred of the other,  mobilised voters.  Many people left their homes to vote not knowing what they would do in the ballot box. They knew they were under-informed and were angry to have a responsibility that should have stayed in parliament. People were let down by politicians and yes I am angry with Boris and Gove but look how amazed people were when they found out how wonderful Jo Cox was - by contrast some politicians have spent a long time making fools of the electorate over expenses and politicking for personal gain. This fury and protest vote did not materialise in two months. I do worry that like the 1930s this fragility sends people right or left for certainty and our middle is lost - did the Lib Dems get any air time during this campaign? Who decided they were no longer relevant? So even the media had a role to play.  They focused on personalities as good TV.
I envy future historians - in a hundred years time this whole process will be the subject of a thousand erudite papers. For now I see the issues we are already facing and feel in despair.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Purple Majesty

Went to bed early. Lin stayed up. Saw her note on the kitchen table. Spent an hour on the allotment yesterday afternoon and pulled some Purple Majesty - not bad potatoes, these first earlies from my plot; just boiled they look like BBQ charcoal, losing their vivid colour. My neighbour Jasvinder gave me the seed potatoes to try in March. We liked them with monkfish last night. I was especially pleased that they've not been attacked by the wireworm that blighted last year's potato crop from beds 2 and 3.
I better let the cat in. Have a read of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Cup of tea. Have a shower.

Plot 14
"Good thing I bought those Euro's last night" muttered Lin as she came to bed

Back numbers