Archive for March, 2020

Some Good, Part One

Sitting here. again. The umpteenth time. Another attempt at capturing the essence of the surreally strange times we find ourselves in.

Somebody, thousands of miles away (we are told), ate a bat. Or a pangolin. And, a few short weeks later, the world is flipped.

Maybe, and this is what my nan would have said,  we needed some common thing to beat our heads against. Humanity: constantly squabbling, jealous, needing to be in opposition. To something. Anything. Brexit? Communism. The trade unions. Vegans. Each other. But come some common adversary, a thing we can all unite against … and we are diamonds.

Along, perhaps to rescue, to inspire our so-divided species, comes Covid 19.

The impact is planet-shocking. Here, middle England, we are, sensibly ensconced in social distancing and/or social isolation. Properly limited to leaving our houses-become-castles to do essential shopping, to collect medicines, to help those relatives/friends/neighbours who need it.

And for exercise.

And allotments count as exercise. I know this: a BBC Breakfast TV presenter said so.

But, my God, how eerily quiet and still the roads are as we drive the few short miles (it’s rarely been so easy) to the site. We encounter only two cars and a delivery truck, see only one person; out for a stroll with a baby in a push chair (so: two people then (editor)).

The site is, likewise, deserted.

But we lose ourselves in raking out soil. Satisfying task, especially when, looking at the finished ground it looks great: fine tilth, spread lime incorporated, edges clean and the whole ready to plant.

Potatoes. Arran Pilot (earlies) and Desiree (main crop) go in easily enough using the bulb planter (innovation and lateral thinking perhaps, but it beats the back-challenging holes with a trowel and even the dibber). Rows labelled neatly. The downstairs toilet, the space where we set the boxes of tubers to chit, can now be in use again. Perfect timing as British Summer Time dropped in a few hours earlier. Predictably with wintry showers and low temperature.

Then we pause for a richly deserved cup of tea from the trusty Thermos flask. And become aware of the sound of our own breathing. Because that is how quiet is. None of the usual playground noise from the local schools. Zero traffic on the road which skirts one side of the plot; not even a bus. That background hum from the M6? Gone! Aircraft using the local major roads to lead them to either Birmingham International or East Midlands (close to Leicester, but named for Nottingham) airports absent.

Three buzzards sparring in the cloudscape (three’s a crowd at this time of the year is the theme of the tumbling, distant aerobatics show. A robin dipping into the freshly moved soil, scooping up minibeasts snacks. And the freshening wind making its presence heard in the tops of the budded up ash trees next to the cemetery.

The kind of silence our great-grandparents took for granted?

On one hand it is spooky: the sound of a post-apocalyptic world in one of those atmospheric films (with or, preferably, without impending zombies).

On the other it is so, so, so refreshing. No traffic, surely good to cut down pollution. We no longer have to make journeys (unless essential, remember) to and from work. The once daily pressure of constantly thinking about work has been, largely, removed. I used to be thinking about work as I commuted (would I be late, what about that thingamajig I had planned? Would it work?). And, when I got to work, be knee-deep and beyond in  it (as, of course, is right and proper).

So, as I am doing, people will be free – or more free, if the fancy takes them, to observe what is in their local area. Butterflies (a long, rambling recent telephone conversation with my brother about species and food plants), tadpoles, agriculture, daisies, plastic pollution …).  Indeed that whole rich canopy that envelopes us, one and all, that – just maybe – we were oblivious to. It gets nearer. Becomes more significant. And this should inspire us to think more about what we can do … and actually do it.

Once that snowball starts to roll (n my mind anyway) involvement will bring improvement. This will bring ownership and pride and – hey presto – we are protecting the world’s nature with small, local actions.

Then some good comes out of it?

I hope.


Dental Disappointment: Troubled Times

“You’re sniffing!” she says, eyes narrowed in some kind of suspicion.

He had an appointment with the dentist. Never his favourite kind of appointment, although this dentist is very gentle and puts him as much at ease as anybody who holds a rotating electrical, whizzy-noised thing that close to his brain ever could. It came about as part of his routine hygienist check-up (“Prevention Starts here” is the watchword/ tag-line of the business). But is actually a totally different tooth to the one  he’d expected; indeed on the opposite side of his face. Wisdom teeth eh?

Image result for dentist clipart images

Routinely he parked on the local super-market car park, reminding himself  that he’s been told he has  to see if they have any frozen peas (what an admission for an allotmenteer!) and orange squash on the way back. The people striding aggressively around the cars are clinging onto bulging shopping bags, probably filled with stuff they don’t need – but clearly think they do. There are others, wandering around with vacant stares, faces registering a slightly shocked expression; presumably those that couldn’t find what they wanted.

This virus! There is a whole new-scale of panic-buying going on as government measures and people’s attempts to manage in the face of this latest coronavirus pandemic. Stockpiling toilet rolls? What is going on?

He crossed  the quieter-than-usual roads, feeling the cold of the easterly wind that bites bones despite the anorak he’s huddled inside. Once out of the wind, in shelter he is immediately  degrees warmer. Six steps away from the bright white door of the practice and his mobile phone rings. He paused, scooped it awkwardly out of the zipped-up pocket and – it’s someone from the dentist’s. Apologising for the late notification, but my appointment has, unfortunately, been postponed. At which point he is, literally, face to glass by the very door, reading a notice telling me the same thing. One of those schoolboy moments:  he is joyfully am relieved not to have to go through with it, but will still have to rearrange it –and steel all those nerves again.

Just. Not. Today.

He spins off to the chemist’s, grabs painkillers for the wife (any way you read it, that’s a music-hall joke right there!) and head towards the supermarket for the peas. And squash. Yes, yes, yes, don’t forget the squash. Peas and squash, peas and … er … it’ll come to me.

He spots another shop:  a frozen food store. Frozen peas? OK, let’s take a look. There are rows and rows of small freezers with all kinds of convenience food ready meals. It takes a while to find the two even-tinier freezers that have the fresh-but-frozen (?!) veggies. And, yes, frozen peas and plenty of ‘em.

Scoop ‘em up (only as many as we need mark you!) and juggle them from hand to hand as he speeds back to the car. Squash (you may have noted is forgotten – for the moment).

Short drive home and the circulation still hasn’t, quite, returned to the pea-frozen (!) fingers. And … the wind has caused him to sniff. He is one hundred per cent certain it is not any part of the onset of Covid 19. Nevertheless she keeps a distance, sits on a different sofa to watch TV.

The sniffs disappears (he knows, as sure as idiots are always sure that they would).  It was just the cold, after all, striking his nose, the wind, still unbelievably chilled, belying the warmth he could feel filtering through double glazed windows as he sat inside. So they decided to stroll up to the library. Half an hour’s leisurely paced walk away. While they still can. Before the day is out, government will close theatres, gyms, leisure centres, pubs, bars and restaurants. To delay the spread of the virus.

When they reach the library, they are only just in time. Volunteer staff inform them the library will close within the hour: authority ruling. “In fact, you can take as many books as you please,” they are told. They will be default stamped for return on June 27th.

Image result for library

As many books ..? Impossible, they smile. Had they known, voracious readers, they would have brought the car.

But the air feels warmer, so after a bite of lunch, he scoots up to the allotment. He has inside information that there will be a “plot inspection” in the next two weeks. And, well, you never can be too sure can you?  Few people about, a couple walking through the gates as he drives in and down the steep slope. in. At the bottom, their plots a re sheltered from the wind.  Perfect; he lights the bonfire (Friday is “burning day” (old timbers, a few pernicious weeds, raspberry canes (autumn fruiting varieties)) and various other scrappage. It lights quickly: dry and dried out material.

He lays lay some builder’s liner over part of the plot he is half-considering  considering using for a first-time-ever “no-dig” experiment. Then he tugs  rakes, the fork and a spade from the wreckage that is still piled in the shed (awaiting the long-promised sort-out … that has to wait for dry weather and his wife. He starts to  and start to level out the rough-dug ground.  He always leaves it as he digs and, in his mind it resembles parts of no-man’s land in the First World War, lumpy, chunky and randomly piled. It is heavy work but he perseveres, wishing he’d filled and brought the Thermos. Shoulders aching in a satisfying way he pulls out  the bag of gardener’s lime and scatters it across the much-smoother-now surface, warm enough to discard thick outer shirt and  beanie hat.  Enough ground dug to get the potatoes in; levelled and limed. Tidy enough to pass inspection, he slyly thinks. Nice one.

When he runs out of breath, he tends to the fire, part of the real pleasure of Friday’s burning day opportunity: the chance to mess about with a fire. It’s a primal thing for him.

But having an allotment meets the government recommendation: exercise and fresh air at a safe distance from other people (now being called “social distancing”) – and rowing your own fresh food; a good investment in the future. It does, briefly and wickedly, crosses his mind that if food is as scarce as the panic-stricken stockpilers believe, stuff may go missing from plots as it ripens.

Thirty minutes or so later and more than satisfied with what he has achieved  he begins to slowly  tidy up. Tools back into the shed, then check  the fire, load up parsnips and leeks and a few forgotten beetroot into a crate to ferry home. And he sets out. Meeting school children heading home for a long, unexpected break. Government has closed down schools for the foreseeable future here. Children whose parents are key workers or those with special needs or meeting social criteria (Free School Meals provision for example) will still attend.

“You still sniffing?” she says as I enter the house, plonking muddy work boots in the sun-warmed porch beneath pelargoniums that have over-wintered well.

Colleen: Every Committee Should Have One!

There’s a recurring them when we go – on yet another of Februarys storm driven days.

There’s only treasurer Sean and secretary Colleen there to deal with the business. Such a poor-relation, low-profile event these days; nobody promoting the shop, nobody distributing the seeds that have been ordered, no fire pit, no free bacon sandwiches and cuppa to encourage people to reconnect after the dark stay-away period of winter.

They have, for reasons best known to themselves to carry out proceedings in the latest container shed. It came, I was told, as a gift. Properly floored, walled, ventilated, insulated and ceiling-ed. But, as we step in to pay the rent, we are walking on sodden floorboards that have started to warp: water having pooled on the roof and run down the flue, rusting up the stove and flooding the floor. And there had been talk that rent collection would be warmed with a roaring fire in this very container: it’s official launch, so to speak.

“Hey!” it’s meant as a joke, “I think the boiler’s broken.” The clue is in the fact that I’m smiling. I had completely forgotten that Sean had a sense-of-humour removal operation as a teenager (if rumours are to be believed).

“”It’s a pot-bellied stove,” Sean informs me (no shit Sherlock!), “and Colleen is going to get the guy from across the road to put a top on it. He’s a welder. The guy across the road that is.”

Image result for welder comic clipart

The committee accepted the gift about eighteen months ago and nobody has had the sense to put something – a tea tray, an up-turned paint pot, a plastic bag over the chimney?

Just a stop-gap (see what I did there?), temporary fix which would have preserved the floor (now well past saving: planks sprung and curling in on themselves before our very eyes), protected the gift?

Sean coughs  into his fist. That schoolmaster thing of ending one conversation and signalling a change in subject. “So,” geography teacher voice in place, “here to pay the rents?”

As if we’d be here, on such a god-awful weather day for a social call. Not far away in Shrewsbury and Ironbridge the river Severn is at record high levels, the emergency services are at full stretch rescuing people in kayaks, businesses closed down, houses flooded. Down the slope our plots are completely waterlogged. So – er, yes, if it’s all right with you Sean, we’ll settle a couple of points, pass over a cheque and head for a warm house and a cuppa.

Image result for ironbridge floods 2020

“Of course,” Sean adds, “need to wait a few moments, Colleen is in the other container, dishing out potatoes. Some that had been ordered.”

Not sure why the treasurer can’t just crack on and deal with the business. Treasurer means the one-what-deals-with money, yes? But, as he bends to look at a spreadsheet-looking chart, it seems we have no choice.

So; I need to ask about national subscriptions anyway. Since we’re changing the rent-due date to October, are we only paying a fraction of the subs?”

“Hmmm,” the hum sounds nervous, “just hang on a few moments for Colleen, she’s dealing with that. OK?”

“Oh, sorry,” my irritation may be beginning to appear now. In my tone. In my body shape. “My mistake, I thought you were the treasurer. That you’d know about finance odds and sods.”

I don’t add that it is the whole committee that has been behind this and each and every one of them should be able to answer such queries. It’s not rocket science after all.

“Yes. Well. Colleen’s got a little system, see. And I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes.”

My next question is, by now, a perennial one. It concerns the long running (at least five years and counting) boundary dispute where the householder next to one of our plots is claiming some of the land belongs to him. He’s actually taken down fences, removed a hundred and something year old hedge and planted Leylandii. Which are still less than a metre tall. Which means the site is far from secure.

“Any news on the boundary?”

”What can I tell you: Colleen says the parish council are thinking about considering discussing  taking the matter to court.”

Colleen says? Really?

Has nobody actually thought this through? After five years, umpteen solicitor switches, consultations and baloney. And why is everything I ask (plot inspections, size of shed allowed, when is the shop open, how many regenerations do Time Lords really have?*) referred to Colleen? It’s a committee; so anything discussed should be known to all and equally – unless something confidential – any one of ‘em should be able to pass on general information. Shouldn’t they?

“Rents is it folks?” Balance almost recovered even if the voice wobbles a bit.

We nod.

“So, you’ll need to fill out a tenancy agreement. There on the table behind you. Names, plot numbers, date, that kind of thing, yeah?”

To cover my growing rage at this incompetence (Sean could have asked us to do that) I make the mistake of reading it before I sign (always a good move). It is supposed to contain amendments from the AGM. But, either deliberately or accidentally, one is miswording. In a rush of eco-friendly awareness we voted that all sheds and greenhouses should have water collection measures in place by the next AGM. On the tenancy agreement it says this is needed for “new sheds only”.

I doubt anyone else will notice and, without the people from the AGM backing me, there really is no point raising it.

Unless it’s Colleen that is.

*Not this last one obviously: there are some things beyond even Colleen, one suspects.

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