Friday, July 30, 2021

A Life in a Day

N is digging out the bricks that form the border to the garden flower beds, I am swinging in my hammock chair and watching him (I had spent the afternoon at the allotment that day). We are chatting idily - by which I mean, I am chatting, he is wondering why I've chosen now to do so when I can clearly see he's busy - when it happens. 

"Alright mate?"

Chatty P, 2 doors down, has just performed his customary evening greeting to our immediate neighbours. He has returned home from work, got himself a drink, wandered out into the garden and looked over the fence to make sure they're there. And commenced conversation as above.

At that moment, Tiny Wee Mabel who, in truth, is no longer tiny but long and sleek and spiky, comes sauntering in from her explorations to enquire, loudly, where her dinner is. I remember that I haven't taken courgettes over to our other neighbours. 

Yes, its that time of year and, once again, neighbours flee from the sight of me bearing down on them, for I have planted too many courgette plants and come bearing gifts of which they are heartily sick. Although A does make a good job of looking pleased and we chat for a short while about their children (2 and 4) and how everyone's been. That usual neighbour conversation: we know how we all are because we can hear each other, but we pretend otherwise. 

And none of us mention the new neighbour who's moved in with 2 teenagers who use Alexa to communicate ("Alexa, tell Mum I want my tea!"), a lot of visitors in big cars and a good line in raucous football songs ("you can stick you twirly pasta up your...").  

Back at home, I make spicy courgette fritters for us to eat with turmeric-roasted new potatoes and a grated beetroot & onion salad. Apart from the egg, oil, turmeric and flour, this is an entirely plot-based meal.

Up at the allotments we are nervously awaiting annual inspections of the plots. Already the news from other sites around the city are that the inspectors are taking no prisoners and a record 23 non-cultivation notices have been served on one site alone. I suspect that, because waiting lists are so long, they're under pressure to shorten them. 

Had to isolate for 18 months due to a tiny thing called Covid? They aren't taking that as an excuse. We can also look forward to rent increases as councils across the country are trying to recoup losses. Sometimes with hikes as high as 50%(1), which are then broken down by invidious professionals to show that it's ony a couple of pounds a week, what's your problem?

The problem is that councils ask for the rents in one lump sum and if you're on a low income (those very people that allotments were designed for in the first place) which precludes saving, suddenly having to find over £100 is damn near impossible. 

But I try to put those thoughts to one side as I spend 3 hours planting pumpkins and chard, weeding and laying brick edging to the long bed. Breaking every 30 minutes or so to watch the crickets jump and the bees bumble. One bee got himself so drunk on pollen that he fell off a mallow plant and had to take 5 to recover his senses, like a Roman gorging at a banquet. I know because I spent 6 minutes watching him. 

"This is the time to be slow..." 

Walking back I chat to the woman whose Border Collie puppy jumps up at me. We exchange the usual about weather, the bounciness of pups, the fact there are only 4 ducklings now and not the 5 there were a couple of weeks back. A cyclist whizzes past with an imperious ding of his bell delivered too late for either of us to move. The collie barks and he pumps his legs a little faster.

Today, Friday, is a day I set aside for my own bits of writing, which is nice and explains why my posts come in time for your weekend at the moment. You lucky things. I also take some time preparing my desk for the next week: clearing out the scraps of paper, writing a priority list, writing up notes into a proper notebook (I have one for each client), filing. As I work from the room where I read in the early mornings and attempt yoga in the early evenings, this feels like a cleansing. Setting it up for the weekend. Setting myself up for the weekend. 

The sky is a welcome mizzerly and grey, rains are forecast for much of it and the poor parched ground will be grateful - we've missed most of the rain that's battered everywhere else. They break over the rocky shores of the Black Mountains, Malverns or Cotswolds. I'm working on some copy for an artist friend, some resources for my website and my occasionally tinkered with manuscript. From my window, I can see fronds of the honeysuckle waving at me. 

I need to order gifts for friends with babies that sit plumply in phone notifications, all milky contentment and relief. I'll write a postcard to the Kid, one purchased during a birthday visit to Compton Verney to see this exhibition. Instead of heading up to the plot this afternoon, I'll get the sewing machine out. I have a pile of dinosaur patterned fat squares that I want to play with. 

Or maybe I'll just sit and think. Today would have been the birthday of a friend who died earlier this year. Reflection keeps butting into my concentration. 2021 is the gift that keeps returning itself. 

Later tonight, we are Scrabbling with friends during which much talk will be had and fewer tiles will be put down on the board until, eventually, we call it a night and a draw. Honours even. Home to bed. 

(1) Lincoln Council's excutive report of 18th January 2021. Subject: Allotment Fees & Charges
     Chiswick Herald article of 27th December 2020 
     These are just 2 of the reports that came up during a quick Google. 

Friday, July 23, 2021

Foot off the Accelerator

 Disengage warp speed and slooooow. 

This week, I untangled myself from a final couple of things where the stress-to-pay, or, stress-to-benefit ratio was definitely not working in my favour and gave myself some time to, well, just sit. 

Unfortunately, it coincided with a heat wave that I dealt with in the same way I do all heatwaves. With the repeated application of cold, wet flannels around the neck, sleeping in the afternoon, working earlier in the day and the repeated wailing of "oh god, this is horrible, why is this happening, I hate this, why are my feet 3 times their usual size, do we have any ice cream, no don't put that there, it's too hot for that" and so on. 

I am a JOY in a heatwave. 

My northern soul longs for cool breezes, overcast skies and a temperature that does not register higher than 25 degrees. 

The allotment is thriving without any more intervention from me than a watering every couple of days. Abundance is still the watchword and what comes from the plot makes up most of our meals. The giant beetroot and onions become a salad, the courgettes spicy fritters and the potatoes need nothing more than a quick rinse, a quick boil and a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice. 

It is perfect.

So I am looking forward to more time on the plot this summer. I'm working enough to pay my half of the bills and to still have time to be up there. The next step is to widen one of the beds, currently occupied by peas that are straggly and seem not to recognise the pea sticks they are right next to, preferring to spread themselves over the ground, despite my best efforts with twine. I've recently been reading up on the no-dig method, so I'l be trying that for a change. 

I have things to read and things to write. I have good food to prepare and a sewing machine to get to grips with. 

I have, most importantly of all, a course to prepare for! Oh yes. I have bitten a bullet and enrolled myself on the RHS Level 2 in Practical Horticulture that starts in September. At the moment this is exciting and I'm pushing all worries to the back of my mind. 

Mainly because I have 2 whole months before it starts. 8 weeks in which to get well. Get the un-working bits of me fixed. Get rested and well. Get rooted. I feel slightly like a plant that's only ever been watered from above. My roots are shallow and easily dislodged. Time to let them go deeper. 

N, because he is capable of occasional flashes of genius, brought me a chair hammock (you sit up in it, not lie down, which I prefer) that fixes onto the Degoba System and swings gently to and fro. I now understand why people spend hours in porch swings in the southern American states. There is something very hypnotic about that gentle to and fro. Whole hours can pass with nothing more done than watching the bees upend themselves in the lilies. 

 view from my hammock

The same lilies that I sniffed a little too vigorously the other day. "Why," I wondered to myself after I'd answered the door. "Did the postman give me such a funny look?"

Answer: lily pollen. All over my nose like I'd thrown a jar of turmeric on it. 


Thursday, July 15, 2021


I finally broke free of my own 4 walls today and took a trip up to the allotment for the first time in 2 weeks. 14 days of fretting and fussing over what was going on without me. I walked along the meandering path past other people's plots, ducked under the branch of a damson weighted down by its own fruit, and navigated the squelchy bit by one of the site taps.

I was momentarily distracted by the sight of those perfectly formed pale pink sweet peas you can see above, that (calloo calay) I could actually smell. And then I looked up to see this...

All this...abundance.

It was a veritable dazzling of green, of ripening. Of colour and sunshine. Of, yes, weeds and over-long grass but also spinach, courgettes, wineberries, flowers. 

Of tiny tomatoes nestling under big green leaves. Of long french beans drooping under their own weight. Of leeks that have tripled in size and beetroot that are pushing their way out of the soil. 

Over on the wild oregano, there was a dance of bees, butterflies and other pollinators. It was joyful, spontaneously choreographed, a hum and bustle of activity. 

I don’t mind telling you that I nearly cried at the sight, sound and smell of it all. 

Yes there is much work to be done to catch up with myself but there is so much more to sit and marvel at. If you need me this summer, this is where I’ll be.  

Thursday, July 8, 2021

My Week in No-Taste

Bed linen. Beer. 

It seems rather ironic that the title of one of this week's most read posts (according to the inscrutable Blogger Stats) is My Week in Taste. Ironic because 2 days after developing Covid, I lost my sense of taste and smell. 

Sweet peas. Smoke from a bonfire.

My nose is not blocked, I am breathing freely, but an olfactory sense of what's going on around me is totally and utterly gone. Several times a day I bury my nose into what I know should smell good and then sigh when nothing registers. 

Mabel's fur. Mandarins and oranges.

I can get a sense of salt or sweet foods. The mackerel pate I whizzed up - a welcome salt tang somewhere among my taste buds but the deep delicious umami of the fish is missing. Likewise, the mango. I know it should taste sweet and my eyes know it but my nose and my brain refuse to work together. 

Nail varnish. N's neck.

The temptation is to keep breathing deeply, at the risk of hyperventilating, but I am trying not to, aiming instead for that wonderful moment when I walk past something, breathing in as normal and think "oh, there you are!"

Cheese on toast. Coffee

It's also tempting to keep eating until my taste buds are galvanised back into action but as everything tastes like cardboard, that’s not a course of action that appeals.

Grass. Geranium. 

Today, I started receiving the faintest of tingles in my nose, preceding the shy arrival of smells. Scents that glanced at me as they passed by, as if flirting. 

Candles just puffed out. Canals on hot days. 

I’m taking in careful breaths. If fragrance were a muscial score, I am currently only picking up the bass notes.

Wet soil. Whisky.

Here's to all the smells in the world. The ones we want, the ones we tolerate and the ones we try to chase out of our homes. 

Tarmac. Tobacco.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

June Reading

A little while ago, when recording a podcast epidsode, one of the regular contributors said that they had started reading The Mirror and the Light. I admitted that I couldn't face it because I knew what was coming. 

As does anyone with the merest smattering, a thin Marmite spread if you will, of Tudor history knowledge. It's not spoiling the book to say that Cromwell dies at the end of it. I'm not sentimental about what sort of man he was - but having been drawn into being invested in him for 2 massive tomes, plus Mark Rylance's performance in the BBC adaptation, I was not keen to bear witness to his fall from grace. 

And what a fall from grace it was. Merely weeks after being made an earl, he was arrested on charges of treason, facing the worst form of execution, friends melting away like butter on a hot day and enemies churning the water relentlessly. It was a life bookended by ignominious circumstances and told in exacting detail.

Anyway, after being lulled into buying it by the wonderful tones of Anton Lesser reading it out (also BBC - radio this time), I took my sweet time about reading it. A couple of pages a day, a paragraph here, a sentence there. Nibbling my way to the end. Which I finally reached a week ago. 

It really is an incredible piece of work, regardless of how you feel about the Tudors, Cromwell or Mantel. The level of detail is extraordinary and I do wish I'd had it at the time of my A Levels - the machinations of Henry's court is so much more clearly explained here than I remember it being from set texts. 

Obviously, there has to be the disclaimer that this is a work of fiction and Mantel imbues him with a sensibility we will never know if he really had or not. But it probably would have been a better source than Blackadder Series II, which at least one friend used as a reference point. 

All that said, and due reverence paid to Mantel and her diligent research, would I read this again? Probably not. 

Unlike Take Courage, which I've read twice before. Don't know much about Anne Bronte? This is a good place to start. She's been underrated for too long and this is a step to redressing that balance. She is my favourite Bronte sister and the only one who tells life like it is, with a clarity and spareness that's a shock after the overblown Gothic drama of the others. She's the cool drink of water amongst the flaming brandy glasses. 
Braiding Sweetgrass was another I'd avoided for a while, having seen it toted once too often on Instagram as the book du jour by others. I am ever one for swimming against the crowd but this time I'd denied myself a treat and shame on my inverted snobbery. Lesson learned. 
I had an almost emotional reaction to parts of her book, for reasons I haven't yet deciphered. I'm still thinking about it, about the suggestion that there could be "a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other." This is the week where the sea was turned into a literal boiling hell thanks to people. 

A week in which I contracted the cirus that's laid waste to so many, and which makes the final sentences so very relevant: 
"Gifts of mind, hands, heart, voice, and vision all offrered up on behalf of the earth. Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world. 
In return for the privilege of breath."

Friday, July 2, 2021

This is the Time

Now I've managed to get that feeling out of my system - and off my Instagram feed - I have been feeling much better (bar the potential case of Covid I've developed...waiting on proper test results for that one, not just the lateral flow versions). I've found it's very easy for me to become overwhelmed recently and things that I could have shrugged off or battled through, I can't. 

More importantly, I don't want to. And I don't see why I should have to. 

Yes! An epiphany regarding my own welfare! At the grand old age of 44 and 11 months and 2 weeks (yes, it's my birthday soon). But still, better a late epiphany rather than none at all. Needless to say, this epiphany has N quaking just a little bit as I fix him with a gimlet eye and say "Up. With. This. I. Will. Not. Put."

To be fair, the "this" usually refers to the empty, used cereal bowl sat on top of the empty, waiting-to-be-used dishwasher rather than some terrible thing he's said or done. 

But I cannot, for the life of me, work out why men and children behave this way. I suspect that's a question for psychologists. As the mother of a son, I've noticed he does the same thing but that's related to the deprived years sans dishwasher that he no doubt regales colleagues with. Truly, first world problems.

We spent last weekend with said son, who I haven't seen since Dad's funeral in March, and it was splendid to see him again. We also caught up with friends that we've been remotely quizzing with for over a year but had yet to meet in person. I managed not to cry. But I do miss my boy.

 The weather turned against us as we hit the M42 and by the time the North-East borders had been crossed, it was settled into persistant mizzle and winds that threatened to lift gazebos from their fastenings. A sea fret had arrived and refused to budge. Still, we managed to see a couple of beaches, pick up some interesting pebbles (apparently the Kid's boyfriend now refuses to walk along beaches with him because he keeps stopping to look at pebbles. I am very proud), eat at a couple of pubs and generally just enjoy ourselves away from the house. 

Chonky Thor (who we're now calling the Great Boo mainly so we can cry "Great Boo's Up!" in homage to Blackadder on a regular basis) and Wee Mabel went into a local cattery. Tucked in by a river, by a medieval bridge, surrounded by trees - it quite made me want to give up everything and open a rural cattery. They forgave us within an hour of getting home. In fact, the owner sent us pics of the Great Boo enjoying being petted. Traitor.

Speaking of giving everything up, I recently had to step back from a work contract. In most part due to the aforementioned epiphany. I hate stepping away from things like that but sometimes you've got to acknowledge when you need to rest. 

And relax. 

I'm not much of a one for poetry (just say what you mean!) but this one, pinned to the wall by my desk, is really calling to me at the moment, especially the first 3 lines. I think I need to take its advice. 

this is the time to be slow
lie low to the wall
until the bitter weather passes .
Try, as best you can, not to let
the wire brush of doubt
scrape from your heart
all sense of yourself
and your hesitant light. 
If you remain generous,
time will come good;
and you will find your feet
again on fresh pastures of promise,
where the air will be kind
and blushed with beginning.  

Weather Advisory Service

On the way home from the train the other day, I took a shortcut through the dripping allotment grounds, the grass and earth squelching under...