Celebrating Plastic Free July

You know how sometimes things seem to come together and fall into place just perfectly? Over the past few weeks I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable about all the plastic our family seems to be getting through. Then my brother told me about a packaging free shop in the town where he lives. And Seb read, on the back of a Morrisons receipt, that the supermarket is inviting customers to bring their own containers to take home fresh meat and fish. And yet somehow we are putting the bin out more often than we used to. So I went online to look up plastic free options and inspiration and stumbled upon Plastic Free July.

Originating in Australia in 2011, this year looks set to have millions of participants in over 150 countries worldwide – including me. I’ve pledged to give up single-use plastics… forever. It goes without saying that I won’t succeed and I like the way that they acknowledge that directly. It doesn’t bother me at all, setting myself up to fail in this way, because I won’t view it as failure. Instead, I’m going to celebrate each and every piece of single use plastic that we don’t use. There are bound to be all sorts that slip the net: medical blister packs, butter ‘paper’, single-use plastics that we already own. But there are bound to be plastic items that we refuse, and that’s why this can only be a win-win scenario.

So much has changed since the first time I made a concerted effort to reduce the single-use plastic in our lives – about ten years ago. Back then, it felt a bit niche, to be honest. Nowadays it feels positively mainstream. I told my car-share buddy about it on the way to work and she enthusiastically told me that she’d like to give it a go, then sat down with me to create a resource to share the opportunity with the rest of our organisation. Beth Terry‘s blog was the only one I could find on the topic, way back when. Now there are several excellent blogs which look at everything from plastic-free living to zero-waste lifestyles in a realistic and encouraging way. Best of all, a quick internet search turned up all sorts of options in and around York, from the market to Whittards to a farm shop that is literally on my way to work and sells both fresh and frozen food sans plastic, as far as I can tell. (The aforementioned car-share buddy and I have a stop planned for later in the week.) Then there are all the online shops specialising in plastic-free living: I ordered my first tin of non-nano suncream along with a few other consumables that we are about to run out of. I couldn’t find those sorts of products the last time I looked.

If I am honest with myself, I had become complacent about certain plastics. Things that I never used to buy: punnets of grapes, tubs of hummus and yoghurt, rigid packs of organic mince – had become regular features in my online trolley. Thanks to the powers of habit and the efforts of my husband, we had stuck to several ingrained behaviours, such as using the market for fruit, veg and most meat, and getting our milk delivered in glass bottles. However, I knew that the teabags thrown onto the compost heap contained plastic; I was just tired of swilling out the teapot. I knew I needed a wake-up call and some inspiration. What I hadn’t appreciated was how much I needed to feel that lots of other people were trying to do this too. Thanks to co-workers and my  children and my lovely husband who took our own containers to the butcher to see what they would say, this doesn’t feel like such an uphill battle any more.

Sure, there are lots of horrifying statistics and videos out there, and they deserve our attention. But when searching, with Ilse, for some child-appropriate information (good old Newsround) we discovered that a company is developing a product designed to clean up the big bits of plastic in the oceans. I simply cannot believe that future generations are never going to dig up our landfill and develop the technology to recycle it. And pressure is mounting to ban or tax more forms of single-use plastic than just the bag.

I’m not anti-plastic. In fact, Cecily is going to make a very excited appearance on the blog next week, writing all about the wonder material that has so much potential to improve the world. When I was a kid in Tanzania, plastic was a pretty rare and precious thing. My mother kept her UK-shopping plastic bags neatly folded, and used them over and over again. Ice-cream tubs would live on for years alongside the tupperware. In the run up to Plastic Free July, I keep rescuing plastic from the recycling. There won’t be many more squeezy bottles or freezer bags coming into our home. Plastic plays a significant role in our lives, and a shift in mindset makes it suddenly invaluable.

I’m not planning on writing about the issues surrounding plastic or offering comprehensive lists of tips – other people have already done that extremely well. What I would like to do is share this journey with you once in a while – because I’m sure it will be a very long and bumpy journey – and invite you along for the ride. Like every adventure, it’ll be more fun with company.

Madeleine

Are you already a plastic-free pro, or just interested in finding out more? I’m really curious about what you think. And I’d love to know if you do sign up to Plastic Free July. You could leave a comment, or drop me a private email. Whatever you do, big or small, alone or as part of a community, I hope we can celebrate every small refusal of another bit of unnecessary plastic – and cheer each other along.

Notes from the garden (and beyond): June

Last year (and the year before, I think) I ran a weekly Garden Notes series, documenting the changes in our garden over the coming year. Reading about other people’s gardens is one of my favourite things: garden posts are the ones I simply can’t resist and I go back to them in the depths of winter when I am missing the green and can’t quite believe that it’ll ever be warm enough for anything to grow out there. With that in mind, and the simply beautiful weekend we’ve just enjoyed, I thought some garden notes would be in order for today. Only this year I’ve amended the titleto include some of the natural world around us. We are holidaying in the British Isles this summer – England and Eire, to be precise, and probably Scotland – and I want to track the course of this summer as it melts into autumn.

Saturday evening saw us make a foray into the countryside just outside York, at the home of some dear friends of ours. It was so balmy that we sat outside long after the barbecue and deserts had been enjoyed, catching up with each others’ news and watching our children play on the hay bales in the field just over the fence. Later still, when the moon hung in the still-light sky, we took a stroll down the track which leads away from the road and towards the farmer’s house, between fields of luminous, shifting wheat and broad beans in full bloom. In the quiet of the night the animals were out, hunting and hiding as they must. A pair of buzzards started from a bale and flew away to the camouflage of a tree grown tall in the hedge. Time and again the barn owls flew, soft and silent, over the stubbled fields. And Ilse told me that she and my friends’ daughter had been the last in from the bales and looked round one last time to spy a doe on the edge of the woods, watching and waiting for them to leave.

At home, even my suburban garden is bursting with life. There are insects everywhere, and the little garden birds swoop low across the lawn to catch them. We have been careful to keep the bird bath full, and it has become a regular watering and bathing spot in the rounds of the neighbourhood flocks. Our makeshift pond, which I am still hoping will entice some frogs or toads, has long been wriggling with various larvae and in the heat of Sunday I noticed various long-bodied insects hovering above it. I have yet to identify them: that will be a project for Seb and I to enjoy together. For the first year in many we haven’t seen a hedgehog or a vole cross the patio in the evenings, which is a little worrying, but the piles of rotting wood and undisturbed weeds are a standing invitation to all and sundry. We’ve gardened organically since before we moved here, and year on year the volume of life in the garden swells as we create new habitats.

It was with all this life that I shared our space, pottering around on Sunday, watering and weeding and feeding this and that. I had to wait for a bee, drunk on nectar and overheating in his wooly coat, to bumble his way off the brick path so that I could see to my burgeoning tomatoes. The fruit patch was genuinely loud with little beasts enjoying the autumn raspberry blossoms as I checked the progress of the summer canes. Ben and I had an exploratory nibble here and there on our rounds: fat blackcurrants and the first of the sweet mange tout. Further along the same bed, the broad beans have set sail with more blooms than I can ever remember, and I am looking forward to that first crop with such anticipation. Even the new potatoes are in bloom, and the time is fast approaching when they’ll be placed on the table, their burst skins fat with butter, speckled with pepper and mint.

When I think of my garden at the moment, the word that occurs to me is cusp. We are on the cusp of so much goodness that it is easy for me, impatient as I am, to spend too much time dreaming about what is coming next and fail to focus on what we are enjoying just now. Each morning begins with fresh baskets of lettuce, rocket and spinach. There are flowers at my bedside – sweet peas and English marigolds – to wake me as they flow with scent each morning. And on Saturday I took my favourite of all gifts to our hostess: a bunch of home grown stems wrapped in newspaper, which is only possible in these warmer months. There is so much happening now to be connected to, to savour and relish and store up against the coming cold.

On the way home, far, far past her bedtime, Ilse was wide awake and talking about all she’d seen and done. Playing on the hay bales was so much fun, she told us. Do you remember, Mummy, how Laura’s Pa told them not to play on the haystack but they did anyway? Now I know why they did – it’s the best fun there is. It makes me happy, that my twenty-first century daughter finds as much fun in a hay field as her heroine did in pioneer America. It makes me happy that Ben wants to walk the garden with me, and taste and wonder over all that grows there. Or that Seb will sit and sketch and look up bugs and birds, or Fliss give up her Sunday morning to carry cans of water to thirsty plants. I want my children to feel connected to the natural world around them, to know its beauty and its unstoppable power. And to cherish and care for it, as a matter of course. As for myself, I felt unspeakably connected as we drove home through the darkening night on Saturday: to the earth, to the creatures that we share it with, and to our friends, with whom those connections had just grown deeper.

Madeleine

PS – What’s June like in your part of the world? And, if you have a garden, what stage is everything at? Has your harvest well and truly begun?

Desert Island Discs: Everything I do, I do it for you

On my thirteenth birthday, one of my friends invited me round to her house for a sleepover, or so I thought. When I opened the living room door there was everyone, as only a teen would say, jumping out from behind the sofas, shouting ‘Surprise!’, putting presents in my hands. We stayed up very late that night, as thirteen year olds are wont to do, watching the film of the moment: Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and my favourite present was a tape with the theme song on repeat on both sides.

Cut off as I was in a bit of a Middle Eastern bubble, I didn’t know that Bryan Adams’ Everything I do, I do it for you was number one in the UK charts for 16 weeks, and it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. It was a song which summed up a lot of the kids’ films of the age, with their reckless yet intelligent heroes fighting their way through history. When we lived in Tanzania, a socialist state, privately owned televisions and video players were illegal, so we didn’t have one. Our neighbours did, though, and every Saturday they would invite all the kids on the campus round to watch a film. There were three for us to choose from: Crocodile DundeeChitty Chitty Bang Bang and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The last was my favourite by far, and sparked hours of daydreaming in which I was, of course, Dr Jones and not his yet-to-be-empancipated female companion.

Once we moved to Jordan I spent a lot of time in my head, unhappy at school and struggling to make friends. I found myself in a bilingual school, scrambling to catch up with the native Arabic speakers around me, moved up a year halfway through the term (which never makes you popular), and because of my late move, separated from the small group of other non-native speakers. To cap things off, Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait the following summer and so I found myself held responsible for the actions of the British and American governments by some of my less-than-reasonable fellow students. So I daydreamed a lot, sitting on the back seat of the school bus with the posse of 18 year old boys who had taken it upon themselves to keep an eye on me and always saved me a seat.

Of course, the impact that the first Gulf War had on my life was insignificant compared to that which it had on others, and it did have some positive outcomes. Several families – presumably those who could – left their lives in Kuwait City and came to live in Amman instead. Classes were reshuffled and gradually I made some really good friends. By the time I hit thirteen, life at school was pretty good again.

There was one thing, though, that I loved about that school from the start. In Jordan, as in many Islamic countries, the working week runs from Saturday to Wednesday. On Thursday morning we had what was known as Thursday School – an optional set of activities to choose from – and one of them was riding. I had wanted to learn to ride for years, but it wasn’t really an option in Dar. In Jordan, though, there are horses everywhere. Heads bent, dull from the dust and heat, pulling carts of watermelons for sale. Decked out in their finest, waiting next to a row of camels for tourists to mount and have a photo taken. Best of all, in the studs, where the stallions twitched and shuffled, impatient to be off. In Amman, riding is largely a male sport, and so as the only girl in the group I was always given the same horse to ride: a beautiful bay named Adham, which means Polite. I adored him, and was always slightly afraid of his power and will. I will probably never ride a horse like him again – he must have been worth a small fortune – but what an animal to learn on. So different from the horses that my grandad would take me to ride during summers in Ireland: great heavy mounts that you had to really tell what to do. In Jordan, we rode with precision and grace – or at least, I tried to. In Derry, though we practiced jumps and so forth, we would more often head out for a hack through tree-lined lanes, or leave the saddles behind and canter, bareback, through soft green fields. I loved both.

We had wonderful holidays both in and out of Jordan: to the UK to visit family but also to Aqaba, the Dead Sea, Jerash, Petra, the lush and vibrant Jordan Valley and camping, like Lawrence of Arabia, in Wadi Rum. We saw mirages in the desert and drank tea with bedouin, and were there the year the snow fell so deep that the army had to airlift them out of the desert. We also visited Jerusalem, crossing the border in a little bus and staying in a convent in the heart of the city. The region was awash with tourists, that first year. Then the war began, and all that changed.

Suddenly, we were the only visitors, everywhere we went. It must have been devastating for an economy which relied so heavily upon tourism. Jordan is a beautiful country and its people amongst the most hospitable I’ve met and, overnight, there were no guests. We’d be the only residents in hotels, the only people picking our way around an abandoned Roman town, the only group out picnicking and wadi-wading for the day. In the photograph above, I am standing in the doorway of the Monastery in Petra, and there was no-one but us in the place. It was one of our favourite destinations, and there is so much to see and learn that we could have gone back indefinitely. Empty of visitors, it was so quiet and eerie that we could have been Johann Ludwig Burckhardt ‘discovering’ it in 1812, or David Roberts sitting on a rock to paint his lithographs in 1832.

Imagine my delight, then, when Steven Spielberg chose Petra as the site of the third Indiana Jones film – The Last Crusade. Not only had I been to many of the locations that they used, but here I was, in Petra, with the place virtually empty and several horses available for hire. The happy afternoons I spent riding up and down the gorge were quite literally the stuff of my dreams. Which is why, although I wouldn’t listen to it now, Everything I do, I do it for you has got to be my song for this part of my life. Pure fantasy with a hefty dose of history thrown in, a dash of heroism and… horses. What more could a girl want?

Madeleine

PS – Do you have a song which sums up your pre-teen years? I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who daydreamed endlessly at that age – who did you want to be?

But first, the hens

Now that summer is in full swing, my days at home have taken on a new routine. I find that, if I get up early enough, I can have breakfast with everyone and still be ready to settle down to work on this blog and the pattern book by nine o’clock. Come three, it’s time to hop on my bike and cycle the six miles to Ilse’s school and back, along the edge of the Knavesmire and across Hob Moor, with its current herd of young cattle grazing on the daffodils.

It is a beautiful ride, and we often stop for a quick picnic on the way home – just a couple of biscuits and a flask of tea, under the hawthorn trees, watching the other cyclists and dog walkers and pram-pushing parents go past. It clears my head after a day of writing and measuring and drawing all those lines, and brings me back down to earth in the most delightful way.

Before any of that, though, before the bike ride or the writing, there are things to be done in the garden. Flowers to be picked, the day’s greens to be brought in and washed, pots to be watered and eggs to be gathered. All it takes is for one of us to open the kitchen door and there they are, pacing indignantly at the wire of their run, waiting for me to open the door to their house and let them loose on the garden.

They have the run of the place, with established dustbaths and scratching spots and the whole lawn to chase insects across. Instead of fencing them into one area, we have fenced them out: out of the veg patch, out of the cutting garden, out of the patio with its table and pots of flowers. Apart from when we are all out, or at night, they are free to enjoy it as they wish, and the rest of the time they have a large and shady run attached to the side of their house.

So large, in fact, is their house that it’s been a bit underpopulated of late. We bought another six rescue hens home last summer and, while they were still in a separate tractor, a fox got in and killed the lot. I found four in the coop, and a trail of feathers all the way up to the gate by the side of our house. One by one the others have been getting older and, quite literally, dropping off the perch. So Father, Ilse and I went on an expedition at half term to bring a couple of new pullets home. Hedwig and Fawkes have settled in quite nicely now, and are keeping Eggletina Harpsichord company in a little flock of three.

Come next winter, though, they could do with a few more bodies to keep their house warm through the night, and to that end we ordered a dozen hatching eggs by post. They arrived on Friday and, once rested, have been sitting, warm and cosy, in a little incubator in the kitchen. We are expecting chicks two weeks on Saturday, and I’m not sure whether Ben or I is the most excited person in the house. The eggs are numbered according to which breed they are – we ordered a mixed batch – and Seb has been poring over the guide, coming up with names for each type of bird. So far he’s come up with Cotton for the Silkie, which I so hope will hatch, and Champion for the Gold Top. In the meantime, I am turning the eggs several times a day, and making sure that the water reservoir is topped up, and dreaming of electric hens. Fliss and Ben have promised to fix up the tractor, which will be perfect to house them once they are big enough to go outside, and we have chick sitters arranged for when we go on holiday.

It seems such a long time – eight years! – since we bought this house and hens became a very real possibility. I can’t imagine not having them now. They make the garden feel alive, somehow, with all their pecking and scratching and lounging, spread-eagled, in the sun. They give us the richest, most orange-yolked eggs with whites that sit up firmly in the pan. Best of all, though, is the way they demand my presence in the garden each morning, by pacing at that wire. I might be able to ignore the lettuce, out of sight in the veg patch. I might pretend not to see the spinach bolting. I could even choose to leave the sweet peas for another day. But I can’t ignore our girls and then, once out there, I may as well do the watering and the picking and the trip right down to the compost. Whatever else a day at home might hold, the hens always seem to come first, and for that I am very grateful.

Madeleine

PS – What gets you outside every day? Or are you one of those people who doesn’t need any prompting? I find that, on holiday in Italy or Greece, I can’t wait to greet the sun, but in England I often need a little more persuasion. Of course, once out, it’s hard to drag myself back in again…

Rhubarb and roses

19 June 1933

It was only after the last cap was tightened last night that I realised that there’s been a bit of a theme to our recent preserving: fruit and flowers. Gooseberry and elderflower, lemon and elderflower and, last of all, rhubarb and roses.

Normally, I make rhubarb jam earlier in the season, adding crystallised ginger to the pot to give it the sort of sweet heat I crave in the dark days of March. The first, forced rhubarb is slender and pale and, when bottled, shines pinkly from the larder shelves. But this year the rhubarb has been so abundant and lush that we took it for granted, almost forgetting that it would soon come to an end. Which is how I ended up making a batch when the roses were in bloom.

At first I thought I’d use the roses from the bush which towers, two or three meters high, above the hen house, but although they have a lovely scent, it’s not sweet enough to eat. So I turned to my little rambler, still in its early years but laden with its open, cut and come again heads of loose and sweet-smelling petals.

Taking a handful indoors made me think of the little bottles of rosewater perfume that we’d make with our grannie in Ireland, when we visited each summer. She’d save a variety of small containers for just this purpose, and send us out to pick the blooms, pluck the petals from each one and leave the mixture to brew overnight. Then she’d tell us to use it up, but I never did. It was too pretty: the dark pink curls suspended in what was no longer simply water. So I’d keep it, jealously, until the pink turned to brown and the high summer fragrance became something sour and earthy.

I did wonder whether the scent would survive the rigours of the jam-making process. At first, the panful looked akin to an Arabian delicacy: a mound of rose and pistachio Turkish Delight, strewn with petals to serve. Before long, though, the sugar drew the juices from the fruit and the whole lot came to a raging boil, setting quickly in the jars with whole chunks of the softened stems suspended in the jelly. I have to admit, I licked the spoon myself. And the pan. Goodness knows what the children were doing to resist that scent, but whatever it was, I was quite happy not to have any offers of help with the washing up. The rhubarb was softened, somehow, its flavour mellowed but still true, and above it sang the rose, confident and clear.

We are so enjoying bottling this lovely June that it didn’t take Ilse long to persuade me to get on with the elderflower cordial, before the last blooms turned brown and brittle on the trees. We were just in time, bringing in a basketful on Saturday afternoon a mere half hour before the heavens opened. All we had to do, cosy in the kitchen, was boil the kettle for a cup of tea and pour a share of the hot water over the blooms, as well as the zested rind of some citrus fruit. The following day we strained the brew, added sugar and the juice from the same bright fruit and brought it to a simmer. Then it was bottled and put away on the larder shelves. Apart, that is, from the one vessel which made its way to the soda syphon, for tasting purposes.

So much older now than when I made that rosewater – and hopefully a little wiser – I’ve been resisting the urge to save all our preserves against a rainy day. I don’t want to find chutney from two years ago at the back of a shelf, and wonder if it is still good to eat. Of course, it almost always is, but that’s not the point. We don’t make these things to sit in jars for posterity, as evidence that summer was here and that we made the most of it. I’d rather have that proof in the form of good tastes on my tongue. Invariably, I wonder whether I have put aside enough – enough jam, enough chutney, enough bottled fruit – to last the cold months through, and invariably we are still eating it up when the following summer’s bounty flows into the kitchen once more. In this spirit, Fliss made a crumble for our Sunday roast, with the last of the blackcurrants and pears, and it was a delicious precursor of the harvests still to come. This year, for the first time, I have almost got it right. The shelves are nearly empty, bar the bottles and and jars I’ve added over the last couple of weeks. There’s one lot of plums still on hand, which I’ll use to crown a pavlova, and some bottled raspberries which will disappear the moment they grace the table. The only stumbling block is the gooseberries: we are drowning in gooseberries. Not only are we nowhere near polishing off last year’s crop; the two pounds for last week’s jam barely made a dent and the rest are swelling to enormous proportions with all this sunshine and rain. Now that the rhubarb is just about done, I’ll have to turn my culinary attentions to those lovely, prickly-sour little fruits. Perhaps John can find a recipe for gooseberry wine or spirits. After all, that’s what he did with the last lingering sticks of rhubarb. And, somehow, I don’t think that his rhubarb gin will still be hanging around in a year.

Cecily

PS – How about you – are you busy making preserves yet? What do you have an abundance of, in your part of the world? Are you still eating up any stock from previous years?

PPS – If anyone has any suggestions for what to do with all those gooseberries, please let me know. I’m particularly keen on the idea of a gooseberry chutney or relish – something to add a bit of zing to a plain cheese sandwich, or to have with cold meats or fish. Or ways of eating them fresh as part of a savoury dish. We’ll have enough sweet fools and crumbles over the next few weeks as it is!

Desert Island Discs: Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me

Apparently, green mambas have three scales between the eyes, whereas the harmless grass snake has four. This is one of the first things I remember learning when we moved to Dar, probably from one of the bigger boys. It was only later, once I’d carried a young cobra to the biology teacher’s house for identification, that someone thought to tell me that I should never get close enough to count.

For all the things that I loved about life in West Sussex, life as a child in Tanzania was bigger, wilder and more free. School ended at half twelve and then we were free to roam until the sun set at six. We lived on the secondary school campus and nowhere was off limits to us: not the askaris’ huts with their poisoned spears and arrows, not the diving pool with a leak but plenty of tadpoles if you could reach the bottom. Not the low roofs of the classrooms, on which we would play and ride our bikes, nor the flame trees into whose branches we hammered planks and made dens. I know, now, that we were safe, watched over by all the adults in the place, but back then we didn’t care. We were just kids, immortal and invincible, teasing scorpions behind the art room.

So many of my memories of that time are about animals – the baboon that stole the potatoes from my plate, the one-tusked elephant that hung around Mikumi Lodge, the rats that swam up through the toilets and ate our candles and plastic tupperware. Bright birds, in cages or tethered by one leg to a stick. Bush babies and monkeys for sale. Monitor lizards, appearing suddenly out of storm drains.

And driving to see more: lions and cheetahs, impalas and hyenas and giraffe. Tanzania is a huge country, and we thought nothing of driving for a day or two to get somewhere, see something. We saw black rhinos in Ngorogoro Crater, and swathes of flamingos shimmering on Lake Manyara. Wildebeest stirring up the landscape of the Serengeti, and hundreds upon hundreds of crocodiles in the Selous. We also drove out of the country, to Kenya, Malawi, and Zimbabwe and, when my parents wanted a little luxury, we travelled to the Old Town of Zanzibar, or to Swaziland, or to a tiny private island where we and the members of A-ha were the only residents for the week.

I’m not sure whether our Datsun pickup, shipped in second hand from China, had a tape player, but if it did I don’t think it worked. I can’t remember ever listening to taped music in that truck. What I do remember is my dad singing. He would sing Green Finger, and Wimoweh, and other songs from the sixties. Most of all, though, he would sing Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, and at the vital moment it was our role to come in with the much-anticipated uh-huh? I’m sure we must have squabbled over space in the back seat. I’m sure it was a little stressful driving with several jerry cans of fuel in the back, and hundreds of kilometres between mechanics. We broke down a lot, with one immortal repair in the form of our exhaust being stuck back on with chewing gum, but what I really remember is the singing, and the wildlife, and the possibility of it all.

In 1984, Tanzania was to all intents and purposes unchanged from the accounts I read about in Roald Dahl’s Going Solo. The minibus would drive us past his house on the way to the lower school site, and I’d look at the huge baobab in his front garden and not be the least surprised that nothing had changed. I haven’t been to Tanzania since 1999, when already the country I knew and loved was beginning to morph into something else. Every so often someone asks me whether I’d like to go back. The truth is that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. The Tanzania of my childhood simply doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been engulfed by our new, globalised world. It’s a place where you are always connected. It’s not that I think progress is a bad thing. It’s just that I’d rather hold onto my memories as they are, wild and free and undoubtedly rose-tinted. Those first five years there were a time when anything could happen, and when I learned that that in itself is a wonderful thing.

Madeleine

PS – What about you? What form do your early years take, once they are distilled? And what song would you choose to summon them up? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear.

Craeft

I went to see Alex Langlands speak about his new book, Craeft, as part of York’s Festival of Ideas. John booked my free ticket as a surprise, knowing my abiding love for Tales from the Green Valley, the predecessor of the BBC Victorian Farm series. (Actually, John appeared as an expert in one episode of Wartime Farm, which is a source of much pleasure and not a little envy to me…)

The talk began with an investigation of the word craeft, which Alex explained is more to do with power than skill. In a pre-industrial, pre-consumer age, this makes sense. To engage in craeft is to exert power: over the landscape, raw materials, the very climate itself. Craeft is a transformative power in its own right, but also requires our physicality, our vitality, to drive the process. In turn, both the skills of the craftsperson and the products that ensue result in yet more power, further shaping the landscape, both agricultural and political.

Having listened to Alex speak about making use of the world around him, sourcing free materials from the landscape and squeezing his passion for craeft into his spare time, I was surprised by some of the questions people asked. Don’t you think, asked one member of the audience, that to engage in craeft presupposes a certain level of privilege, in terms of time and money? And although Alex dealt with this well, it was a recurring theme.

Once home, I raised this with John. For me, craeft is the opposite of consumption. I keep a list of the things I buy for projects, and it is ludicrously short. The odd ball of wool, when I know I can’t spin to that specification. Two or three lengths of Liberty lawn, a much savoured part of a trip to London. Thread. Always thread. The odd packet of seeds, although I save and swap as many as I can. The vast majority of what I make with comes completely free, either as a gift, salvaged from other people’s cast offs, or gathered from the natural world. Once people know that you make things, they send all sorts your way. I have my entire family saving old shirts and keeping their avocado pits in the freezer. Last week my aunt texted me to say that she had two freshly shorn fleeces ready and waiting. Another aunt, Fiona, taught me to make baskets one rainy afternoon in Derry. But it comes from further afield than family. There are guilds of craftspeople desperate to share their expertise. My spinning wheel, which I think must date from the 1960s, was a gift from a woman I’d never met, who wanted to pass it on to someone who would use it. Craeft in public and people will stop to share tips with you. And when I do spend money, I spend it on high quality materials and tools that will last and last. All my patchwork is done on a 1916 Singer, bought from the charity shop down the road for £20. Not only does it sew smooth and straight, but it is quiet and beautiful and easily repaired. To see craeft as consumption is, I think, to miss the point.

It is the difference between spinning from prepared, dyed top, and being given a slightly stinky fleece in a old feed sack, dags and all. In the first case, you can choose your method of spinning. With a raw fleece, though, you get to make all the choices. How aggressively are you prepared to skirt it? Are you going to scour it, cold soak it or spin it in the grease? Will you blend the fibres from across the fleece or spin each section separately, to preserve their distinct qualities? Should you card it or comb it? Spin woolen or worsted? How and when might you dye it? Both are examples of spinning, yet one clearly involves more power, more control.

The other issue is that of time. It wasn’t until we had two children and a third on the way that I began to make making a part of my everyday life. At the very point when I had the least time, the act of making became more important than ever. It keeps me sane, having something in my hands. Craeft isn’t something special, kept for days when John takes all the kids out of the way. It is a part of our everyday lives, undertaken while I’m waiting at the dentist, or for the potatoes to come to the boil. And rather than children being a barrier to craeft, they are a reason to engage in it more often. So much of our making is done alongside one another: one project inspires another and another until, in little pockets all over the house and garden, things are being made, and everyone is at peace.

Having said all that, I think that our different attitudes to craeft run deeper that our perspectives on time and money. There was much discussion of lost crafts – of the fear that we are not training people in certain skills so that, in ten years’ time, we may no longer be able to mend clocks or engineer a cricket ball. Yet I think that we are in danger of losing something far more fundamental. It is an issue of phenomenology as much as skill. To be a person who engages in craeft, in the true meaning of the word, is to adopt a certain schema. It is to look at the world in a very particular way, one which sees it as something malleable, something both transformative and to be transformed. It is, in short, to have a different sort of relationship with the world. To see the potential in every thing, not just in classes and courses and kits, but in weeds and animals and hedgerows. It is to go for a ramble and bring back not just lungfuls of fresh air, but pockets full of fallen lichen for dye, bits of fluff for lighting fires, a bit of wood to be carved, dogwood to add colour to a basket. To walk not through a picture postcard of a landscape, but a living, creative world.

This is what we are in danger of losing: the zeitgeist that craft is for everyone, by everyone, for the good of everyone. That it is ordinary and everyday. That there is beauty in the simplest of things, well-made and well-loved. And that all you need to get started is the willingness to try.

Madeleine

PS What do you think about craeft? How important is it in your life? How do you think we can best encourage others to participate in its resurgence?

Garden notes: On a June evening, after work

It took me a while to drop off last night (longer than a minute) and so I passed the time quite pleasantly compiling an A-Z of plants in our garden. I think I got as far as P, and then John was bringing me my cup of tea and it was time to get up.

Later, while I was watering the pots and enjoying a little post-work deadheading, I remembered my list, and wondered whether it could actually be done.  I started looking around in the beds, consciously naming as well as seeing. So much of my restorative time in the garden is spent in a purely sensual world – all those smells, the unexpected nettle stings, that green. I don’t often see a lily and think, lily. I’m not entirely sure what I do think, but it isn’t that. Probably, pesky lily beetles.

A short while later, while eating our tea, I laid the challenge at the children’s door. Some letters were easy, and had everyone promoting their own top choice – all those Cs, for instance. Others were a little more challenging, but this is what we came up with:

apple and ash trees (it’s going to be a good year for the Cox’s Orange Pippins) :: borage (for the bees, and tomato salads) :: courgettes (or cucumbers, or cosmos, or…) :: daffodils (no, damsons, said Seb) :: e… e…? (Japanese anemones! cried Ilse. No, I told her, that begins with an a. Oh, she said, just spell it with an e. If you do it confidently, no-one will notice) enemones* :: freesias (my current love) :: garlic (geraniums, too – lots of geraniums) :: hellebores, and hostas, and a rather lovely climbing hydrangea that hides a corner of the garage :: irises (Ilse’s, in her little garden under the lilac, and a rogue one that recently popped up where I’m sure I planted tulips) :: jasmine! cried Seb. No, we don’t have any jasmine, I said. Japanese enemones, then, said Ilse. Or Jerusalem fartichokes but, thinking about it, we do have some winter jasmine on one fence :: kale (hard to grow it without the slugs getting there first, though. Remarkably frustrating for such an easy plant) :: lilac, and lilies, and leeks. Loads of lovely lettuces, too :: marigolds (the English sort, good for adding to nasturtium pesto amongst other things) :: nasturtiums (which have self-seeded everywhere, and which I keep pulling up in an attempt avoid being the birthplace of every single cabbage white in Yorkshire. Things got out of hand last year), and nettles, which I allow to grow in a patch at the very back, behind the tower, for the butterflies and other little beasts to feast upon. It repays me by trying to grow everywhere else, too) :: onions (red and white, and of the spring variety) :: parsnips, and peas (mange tout and sweet) :: queen anne’s lace (or something very similar. It’s appeared next to my rambling rose, appropriately enough, because next up is…) :: rambling roses (and rhubarb, which will be united with said roses in a jam jar next weekend) :: spinach (with home laid eggs for breakfast, anyone? a current favourite) :: tulips (which were magnificent this year, lasting for ages in a pot on the patio) :: umbellifers (thank goodness for weeds) :: violas (I’ve just realised that I’ve planted pots and pots of violas in suffragette purple, green and white, which is a happy coincidence on this centenary) :: wisteria (oh my goodness, the wisteria. On a pergola, no less. If you squint it’s a bit like Enchanted April, only in May :: x… (look up a latin name, suggested Ben. So I did.) xanthoceras. And no, we don’t have any of that in the garden :: yorkist roses (an historical contribution from Fliss) :: zinnias. Oh, okay, they’re dahlias, really. But let’s pretend.

And even then, driving the middle two to scouts, we were still coming  up with more. Like nigella, and aquilegia, snowdrops and hawthorn and beans. We could probably do it all over again, if it wasn’t for the xyz.

Madeleine

* Elderflowers! shouted Ilse, from bed, quite a while after her light was turned out. Oh good, now we can all stop puzzling, and she can go to sleep.

PS How does your garden grow? Could you do an A-Z? Any suggestions for a better xyz for us? We thought about yew, but we don’t have one. (Nobody will know, said Ilse. Except Bapan. And he’s hardly going to leave a comment correcting you.)

PPS Should I be worried about Ilse?

June in a jar

12 June 1933

I don’t eat an awful lot of jam, and there are certain batches that I make purely to appease the children: blackcurrant, for example. Or a rare jar made of the tiny bilberries that stain fingers purple and teeth a pleasingly gruesome shade of grey. Mostly, though, jam is too sweet for me, and I reach past it for the marmite.

There are, however, a handful of jams that I make year in, year out, and green gooseberry and elderflower is one of them. At this time of year, when the pollen is so high that a casual passing sniff leaves yellow smears on the tip of your nose, there’s nothing for it but to give in to the heat of the kitchen on a sunny Sunday and boil up a batch of this sugary elixir. I only made a small batch – six jars, plus the inevitable part-filled jar to be eaten the next day at tea – but that’s enough. I just need to know that, tucked away on the larder shelves, is an olfactory snapshot of early June in the garden. The sort of June that 1933 is throwing our way: sunny and warm and high with promise and scent. Then, one grey and sulky January morning, I’ll open up the first. Cold from the stone shelves, it’ll barely smell at all, but smeared on a buttery crumpet the sun will begin to rise again. One bite of the sweet-tart gooseberries, the elderflower hanging mysteriously around it, will be enough. I’ll be able to shut my eyes and imagine that it’s June.

There are two other ardent fans in this house. Fliss and Ilse both love this jam almost as much as I, and surely eat far more of it. By way of encouragement, they rashly offered to pick the gooseberries for me. The recipe only calls for a couple of pounds, but these first green gooseberries are so tiny, and my request that they thin the crop so specific, that they quickly came to me with their regrets. Fliss weighed their first scant attempt to both their great dismay, but off they traipsed for more. Really, that’s how good this jam is. In the end, they spent so much time walking up from the fruit plot at the far end of the garden that I took the scales to them, and, eventually, they reappeared, triumphant. A trip out for ices was in order, and Fliss sat quite happily under the apple tree, snipping the tops and tails off with a pair of scissors, while Ilse ran around gathering the frothiest, most exuberant blooms.

Their help made this one of the quickest batches of jam I’ve ever made: so much so that I’m tempted to make another lot next Sunday. But I don’t think I’ll find anyone to thin the gooseberries again. That is, not until another winter has reminded them of what a treat this is. I couldn’t help but notice, though, on my watering-can rounds of the garden, that the scented roses are about to bloom. Paired with the end of the rhubarb, we might soon have another taste of June stored away in the larder. A little posher, perhaps, as all things rose-scented tend to be, but it’ll all still just come from our garden.

Cecily

Desert Island Discs: All Things Bright and Beautiful

Perhaps I’d better begin with an explanation; after all, not everyone lives their life with Radio 4 murmuring companionably in the background. Desert Island Discs is one of those programmes which has become an institution, a jewel in the crown of British broadcasting, a regular feature of Sunday mornings across the UK. Aired for the first time in 1942, the format is simple: a guest is invited onto the programme to talk about their life. The interview centres around a conceit – if you were going to be abandoned on a desert island, what music would you take with you? The guest has eight choices, and they usually dictate the structure of the interview, taking the audience through their early years, significant highs and lows, and important relationships. Finally, the guest is asked to select their favourite disc, choose a single book to take with them, and given the luxury item of their choice.

Now, call me a fantasist (though I prefer ‘imaginative’…) but I can’t be the only one who’s wiled away a sunny afternoon working out her own playlist. Sadly, I doubt that I’ll ever get to do the show for real, but it did occur to me that it would be the ideal way to tell you all a little bit more about myself, now that I am appearing on the blog alongside Cecily. So without further ado, can I ask you to make yourselves a cup of tea and get comfy, as I present my first disc to you.

I don’t remember very much about my early years. We lived in West Sussex, on the south coast of England, until I was five, at which point we moved to Dar es Salaam. I started school at around the time my younger sister was born, and remember little of it except two things.

One was the local nature walks, which I adored. Once a week we would put on our coats and form a crocodile, holding hands with our nature walk partner. I remember the hand holding very clearly (it must have been impressed upon us), and the leaves crunching underfoot in the autumn. I remember stopping to pick up flowers or insects, or admire the patterns on the bark of a tree. I could have sworn we walked through great woods every time, although it might only have been a spinney, grown large through childish eyes.

The other memory is of assemblies. As for countless schoolchildren before us, the day started cross-legged on a scuffed wooden floor, with some teacher or other banging out hymns on the piano. I liked this habit of starting the day with a song, but only one sticks in my mind. Once we moved, and went to a different sort of school, we didn’t sing hymns any more. We sang other songs instead: We are the World, and Mungu Ibariki Afrika. It was years before I heard All Things Bright and Beautiful again, but when I did, having been dragged to a teenage church service by a missionary friend, I was four years old again, and sitting on that primary school floor.

Now, let me be clear: All Things Bright and Beautiful is not one of my favourite songs. It isn’t even my favourite hymn. But it is so evocative of childish peace and wonder, so filled with anticipation about what I might bring back for the nature table, that I can’t think of anything I’d rather listen to as I make my first lonely forays around the desert island. So there you have it: the first of my eight discs. Not the finest music in the world, but the gateway to some of my earliest, most fleeting memories.

Madeleine

What about you? What piece of music would you choose to evoke your early years? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear!