Monday, 24 March 2008

The dangers of Gardening in Middle England

Today it was not raining. There was a little hail, but no inclemency of significance.
That being the case, i decided it would be a good day to go up the allotment and do all those jobs I have been thinking about.
On the sideboard was a bag of neglected potatoes ready to go in, so my second and third beds of first earlies were were my main task.

After digging several beds, in preparation, I became completely absorbed in the task, except...
What passes for completely absorbed with most people? I really have no idea as i only know me. Inside my head, when I do a manual task that requires no intellectual input, whatever small idea or notion was in there to start with starts to bounce around and gain detritus. It might be a line from a television program or a comment made to me. And it gets bigger and bigger and more annoying.
I have heard people say that digging or some such task, clears the mind. Swimming also: "Oh, after a while I go into a kind of trance state".
This seems quite nice, but i have never experienced it. My head gets noisier and noisier.
So, does this mean that some people find tranquility whereas others just end up with a menagerie of irritating notions pestering them inside their heads?

For instance, i went for a run and earlier that week, a friend had made a comment about me being irritating due to my lack of focus and tendency to get distracted easily by my surroundings.
After 40 minutes of running this comment had acquired, in my own mnd, all the force of a damning personal attack. I was so angry with this person and was thinking of all kinds of hurtful ripostes! Now this is never right, is it!

So, there I am digging, to the extent that when I close my eyes, I now see couch grass roots, and after doing lots of productive stuff, planting spuds and onions, turning compost, making my mini greenhouse (£15 from Lidl. Outstanding value!) i feel somehow deeply satisfied.
It is a good sense of satisfaction and one of those feelings of "simple stuff is good for the soul" that is oft trumpeted by harkers-back-to-past times, zen Buddhists and spade-callers.
And yes, somehow, a mellowness has descended.
Except.... I find my world somehow smaller, my horizons not so interesting. I am sure that were I to read the daily Mail right now, i might even find myself nodding (horror of horrors!!!) in some semblance of self-righteous indignation. I find that agility of thought is degraded and for want of a better term, my "spark" somehow dimmed.

And so, my feeling is that whilst doing good toil with the soil is a wholesome endeavour bringing the solid feeling of having done a Good Day's Work, I am actually in some ways the worse for it!

And so here i am, attempting to renew my global perspective; Taking my mind beyond the parish boundary and opening my brain back up in an attempt to make it the fun, capricious plaything I know it to be most of the time.

And frankly, i am a little bit confused now. The plight of Darfur and Iraq seems suddenly a lot less important than the fight against the impending Waitrose and accompanying 350 houses. The chavs zooming down the street in tiny cars with huge exhausts seem far more heinous than some distant vague concept of suicide bombers and terrorists.
I must get back to the World! Is this what Middle England and gardening does for you?
Ye gods! No wonder the RHS members are always falling out with each other! How can I prevent this insularity?

Cripes! I am off to watch the news!

Tuesday, 18 March 2008


Well, not JUST taters. More: Vegetables in general. It is that time of year when my thoughts turn to my allotment. Oh, how it gives me balance when I look down from an aeroplane at 37000 feet, in that artificial world of plastic, aluminium and superficiality, to think of the soil in my garden.
I am a believer that many of the world's problems could be helped with compost. So much is thrown away that could rot down to something lovely and useful. Compost fascinates me.
And sub saharan soils could so benefit from this, instead of goats eating everything and the dung being dried and burned as fuel. No wonder the topsoil blows away! I saw this program where they went to an African village and the whole village dug a series of beds 10 by 4 feet (as all mne are) and taking out all the soil, they put in leaves and paper and any dung they could find, anything that would rot or hold mositure. And growing beans the first year (for crop rotation really is essential. I remembered that from history and Turnip Townsend) to cope with the reduction in nitrogen than carbon breakdown initially brings, they grew wondrous crops for ever more, as long as they put good stuff back in the soil.

And here too, ploughing will change, i think, as people realise it isnt the best way to maintain good soil structure.

I am not organic. I use glyphosphate and slug pellets, as 20 years of gardening has shown me that the methods espoused by more idealistic gardeners just plain don't work. You can't dig up bindweed or marestails (which have after all been around since the jurassic so they are survivors). Slugs sneer at beer traps, hedgehogs and toads do no have sufficient work ethic and so, yes, I use some chemicals.
Organic farming, anyway, is not the same as sustainable agriculture. The two are very different.

That said, i do get marvellous crops on which I never use sprays, just mesh to keep the pests off. Even so, leek moth has been doing for my alliums and I have had decimated onion beds for four years in a row now, despite my best efforts. It is very disheartening sometimes.

But taters: Now that must surely be the nearest thing to magic! You dig a hole take a tuber and, as I made my wife laugh with in my earliest gardening attempts by saying "you bury it in some mud", or rather plant it in the soil. Then you come back a few weeks later and dig it up and lo! A small clump of the most beautiful white egg-sized potatoes. All from soil and air!!! From ground to plate in 20 mins and no food could be finer.

And how much pleasure is that? How much did it cost? Evaluating pleasure, I think this is a disproportionate return on investment. You can keep your xboxes and your plasma tellies and all the other detritus of modern life that we are told we really, really need in order to be valuable and happy human members of society.

As me old grandad said (and he was admittedly not given to feats of intelligence so this nugget was retained): A rich man has the same pleasure sensors as you in his brain. It just costs him more to tickle them.

Yes. Indeed.

Friday, 14 March 2008

The NHS: God bless her and all who sail in her!

Hi Peeps, I just got back from the hospital where yesterday, Huge Son had three hours surgery to remove bits of homemade explosive device from his face and corneas. Two boxes worth of match heads and a small length of steel tubing, soldered up, went very bang in his face. It was well researched and extremely effective.
Seems fun when you are 15.

I have to say, I cannot express (nope! Not even with the HUGE eloquence available to me) my admiration and gratitude for all the medical staff of the Bristol Healthcare Trust. What fine folks and what excellent service. I cannot heap enough praise upon them all.

Sons are such a worry. That Y chromosome seems to code for the fascination with things that go bang. I think he is chastened.
But it was a constant source of fascination to me that there was such a gender divide: "So, tell me how this happened"
And I explain and all the female recipients of the story shudder before looking vaguely confused, whereas all the male recipients' eyes gleam with a "Oh! Yeah, well, we've all done it, havent we!"
I am not usually one to stereotype. This was just an observation.

Anyway, a not too unhappy ending to a shocking and dramatic week. anyway, back to the hospital with clean underwear and talking books.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

All seen in just one week's commute by bike

"Child on board" - Toyota avensis "I am texting at the wheel"
"Child on board" - BMW 5 series "I am on the phone at a roundabout, steering with my knee whilst changing gear"
"Child on board" - mazda6, "I cut up cyclist because they are i my way"
"Child on board" - Jeep Cherokee "I am reading my post as I drive"
"Child on board" - Peugot 106 "I am perusing a Freemans catalog on the steering wheel of my car"
"Child on board" - "I want you to take note of those I care about and afford them consideration even though I actually don't gie a shit about you or your safety.

"Child on board" - "I drive like an idiot"

Friday, 7 March 2008

Another aeroplane scribble

Written a couple of months ago on one of the far-too-many aeroplanes I travel on. I seem to be much vexed by the notion of civilisation of late. Hobbyhorses arrive in my head half formed, demanding analysis and completion. I think I am not quite there with how I want to express this to myself. Soon, I hope it will be coherent.


My plane is unusually empty, presumeably because this is a Tuesday and nobody wants to go to Stuttgart much on Tuesdays. Two portly lasses with a slightly irritated air are wheeling a trolley up and down the aisle, dispensing what seem like expensive sandwiches and ghastly coffee. I don't have to pay because for some reason I was given a voucher at check-in entitling me to a free feed in the "Sky-Deli". A grandiose name for two aluminium trolleys stocked with ready made sandwiches and instant brown stuff masquerading as coffee. Had I paid I would have felt somewhat swindled.

My sandwich is handed to me along with a cardboard cup of Gold Blend. Presumeably, silver or bronze blend would be even less appetising, probably suitable for removing rusted wheel nuts on trucks.
My sandwhich is apparently made by a man called "Brian Turner" who is some kind of TV chef, so I am told. (Presumeably) his picture beams at me from the wrapper: A man in his fifties, honest-looking enough to make one feel this is a wholesome morsel, produced personally by this man of solid integrity, using reliable, good quality ingredients. His twinkly-eyes engaging smile also present, informs us that he also has a sense of humour in his sandwich making. The label informs me it was "made specailly for you!". I doubt it. Brian certainly has no idea of my existence and even if he did, I am sure he is far too busy to make his own sandwiches. More accurately it would read "Made cheerfully but indifferently by Vaclav Podolski, for minimum wage in Birmingham, who is an amiable, hard-working music graduate from Gdansk." Truth rarely sells, although, in this case, had I actually bought, it might have swayed me more than Brian's stolid charm.
It tastes of cotton wool and something vaguely tangy and I struggle to find enough saliva to assist the descent of the bread.

The clouds are not a solid floor to us today, but tiny blobs of brilliant white, irregular in shape and distribution but somehow still regular in their irregularity, as chaos tends to produce. Like a lot of huge white sea-horses, they scud across the sky in their ad-hoc shoals, calm and stately in their passage.

Below now, is a huge city. I guess it must be London. Housing estates spread unfeasably far across the landscape. In patterns designed to maximise density, thousands upon thousands of houses snake around curly closes, like fingerprints on a grand scale. The red brick monster eats the countryside for as far as I can see. Such an enormous concentration of humanity, with its trappings of cars and consumer items, its voracious appetite for food, water, electricity, dwarfs the limited comprehension my finite mind can bring to bear.
The scale of requirement for these essential nutrients of civilisation dawns on me only vaguely.
The delivery of these vital commodities must be such a huge and constant undertaking, each consumer unaware of the scale of the infrastructure bringing them clean water, heat, light, ginger, tea-bags and macdonalds.
Just imagine the precariousness: A fuel protest for a couple of days saw the beginnings of the breakdown of the machine. Buffers depleted, larders grew empty. Imagine a sustained cessation of the turning of all the cogs of the machine, or even a few critical ones.
And how few acknowledge the precariousness of existence. To grow food is hard. Few know how to do it on even a personal level. To grow enough to grace the Sunday dinner tables of Surrey with roast potatoes, chicken, beef.

A few years ago, a pulse of charged particles from the SUn caused the electrical infrastructure of Canada to completely fail. Canada is on a large block of granite, a superb insulator. Currents induced in the overhead cables tripped out their grid and the electricity stopped.
Similarly stricken, most cities are only a day away from anarchy.

And from up here, it all seems so precarious and the universe so indifferent.
The gentle curve of the horizon is just discernable. The layer of gas separating earth from sky, is miraculously held here by gravity, an oasis in a universe of rocks and hydrogen clouds.

And some of the atmosphere conspires now to roughen our passage. Seatbelt signs illuminate as soft and fluffy turn hard and bumpy
And alas, I must end for now.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Your Pliocene legacy translated.

At 30000 feet, it all looks very half-hearted, like a childs attempt at a town with wooden blocks on a huge landscape, humouring the caprice of mankind to control his world.
Whiteness has now engulfed the plane with a brilliance that causes me to squint.
Contravening thermodynamics, in a universe of clouds of dust and gas, accreted rocks, here there is a kind of order. Water vapour coalesces into clouds, decreasing in disorder.
Rocks once crushed together to make our Earth until the hot, heavy stuff mostly sank to the middle. But it's home. Solid ground. Against all the odds, we walk on it, or fly above it.

What would the painters of Lascaux make of this. A body and brain of the same pattern as theirs, sat in an aluminium tube so high up that the craft is a mere silver splinter in the sky, powered by inconceivable and invisible forces.
I sit and type on a tablet of solidified oil residues, formed from 200 million year old equisetums and melted and solidified sand.

And yet, i do what they did: I express, I define my concepts in a form to pass on to others who may see them and similarly understand.

A body honed by the need to gather berries, kill the occasional animal, fight, mate, survive in the wilderness, finds itself easily suited to "civilisation". This is no surprise, I suppose, since we designed it around ourselves.
And yet... it is so very different from the environment in which our form was developed. How do we operate here? In clothes, in boxes made of stone, on highways of unfathomable speed.
All with minds and bodies made to hide in bushes, chase antelope, run away from lions.
So suitable yet so different.
And how did civilisation change us? I mean, on the inside, in our brains?

Generations of men no longer needing to be big to provide, aggressive to survive. generations of women no longer needing to carry enough resources on hips and bellies to produce and feed babies.
And yet..
We prize muscles even now. We seek fertility without realising. The drivers are still there.
But what of our mental life? Are we changed? Was a set of characteristics bred that differed from those required to live in African bush 100,000 years ago? Has civilisation changed what we seek in a mate on a psycological level?
"Oh, i like a nice sense of humour" she says, looking at a pert male bottom.
Was a funny man so attractive when he was required to catch and butcher a buffalo? Or was Ug the chest beater more appealing when such tasks were necessary?

About to land now. I have to end here.