Two important apologies – for our failure to respond to everyone who has emailed us via our website this summer (the system blocked all website mail for some reason), and for the long gap since the last blog.
The season has overflowed on all fronts, and we have been toiling to keep track of everything as family matters, farm and other work (writing, olive oil and holiday cottage) all demand more attention. Family comes first, of course.
This blog is short, but I will post another within the next couple of days to sketch some word pictures of how summer has been here at Mother’s Garden; big changes and ongoing ponderings about what is around the next corner.
Meanwhile, the olive oil flows on, with stock just shipped to England for late summer feasts. Get in touch if you would like some, or order via the online shop. And to be sure of getting hold of us, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have a faint heart. That much is obvious. Behold, they urged, but I had to turn away and am profoundly glad that I did. I will never watch again.
The Catalans love their human castles, for good reasons that I will explain anon, although it would never work as an English spectacle. Can you imagine? Health and safety officials passing out left right and centre.
But before I tell you what transpired when a “castle” team mustered in the middle of the town during the local wine fair, there is something considerably more significant on my mind that I need to tell you.
Since my last chronicle there has been a chapter of great loss and reflection; of the need to seek the sanctuary of nature.
The scent of cut fennel billows around me, like the daring, darting swallows. These most agile of birds twist past within inches of my face as the tractor and mower plod back and forth, stirring all manner of insect treats from the vineyard grasses.
We have left it late and there remains much to do, but the regular rains and softer spring temperatures have prolonged the flowering. The Iberian wildlife has been drinking in the diversity. As have we. Even now, we am just cutting paths to leave swathes of growth for the eye and creatures to feast upon. It is good for the soul. Nature, by a country mile, is the safest of all anchorages in times of storm.
A friend has passed away.
Frank Prendergast was a film director, writer and inspiration, a gentle, wise and innovative flame, a family man first and foremost, a blues singer, a vital, generous friend to many: How long the list of his achievements in film and television, more so in life.
He and I have been on a great adventure for nearly six years, writing and polishing a screenplay and planning a film that will be based on my Norfolk novel Moon Daisy. He taught me so much and came to Mother’s Garden several times to write with me; wonderful, rare moments of creative harmony. His companionship was very special, as many will testify. I will finish his work on Moon Daisy, and the film will be another of his many vital legacies.
Frank came to harvest olives with his family, walking through the groves hand-in-hand with his grandchildren, feasting on paella cooked on an open fire and enjoyed at a long table under the fig tree; amongst the finest of days for all of us. As his daughter Rosie summed up so well, her Dad was at his happiest when the family was together, sharing food, sharing stories, sharing the loves.
What is it about unremitting gales? They get under the tail and knot the mind. June has been more settled and strangely less fierce, while in May winds whipped through the Priorat mountains as keenly as a North Sea blast that stirs the sand to sting your ankles. The half-clear skies were little consolation given the relentless ferocity.
They were so strong that a vast poplar tree on our neighbour’s land, roots loosened by squalls, toppled on to our power and telephone lines.
Crash, bang, fizz and wallop.
The power surge along the three-phase cable burned out the motors on our well pump, house water pump, washing machine, CD player, internet modem and telephone. Light bulbs popped and we wondered what was coming next.
A trek across the valley revealed the drama, and there was neighbour Pere looking stunned. The noise of the tree coming down just outside his back door followed by the sparks and the cable being ripped out of the side of his house was, he didn’t need to tell me, hair-raising.
A week earlier and I might have blown several fuses too, but perspective is always worth seeking and sometimes not so hard to find.
Excuse me while I step outside again, to reflect, but also to check on the pipes I have rigged up to run from the spring to the tanks in the farmhouse and the holiday cottage. In the past week I have had a stark reminder of the value of water, and how much we get through on an hourly, let alone daily, basis.
Next we must lock horns with not one but two insurance companies (home and holiday cottage business have different policies) to try and redeem the considerable funds it will take to replace everything. We are talking €1500, minimum.
And up she rises. Meaning little Sarai, complete with crash helmet, age unknown because I didn’t get the chance to ask before she left her father’s shoulders and scrambled barefoot to the top of the male and female human castle that grew skyward from the throng at the wine fair. Age guess – six or seven at the most.
Sarai made it, I was told (having turned my back), but she didn’t have time to raise her hand in the air on the seventh tier because ….yes, the tower collapsed amid gasps and cries.
I span round to see several people lying prostrate. One woman in particular seemed a stretcher case. There was no sign of Sarai. That’s it. I thought. Never again, for me or the team for that matter.
I left. The team did not. Nobody went to hospital. And for good measure they tried again….successfully…….six more times.
Tthe building of human towers, a centuries-old practice that started just down the mountain from where we live, is a fundamental statement by the Catalans. It is ingrained in their culture and signifies so much – togetherness identity, strength, balance, finesse and fearlessness. One can’t argue with any of that.
A team consists of all ages and both sexes. It brings together doctors, farm workers, housewives, the unemployed, police officers, you name them, and, hard as it may be for any parent to grasp, young children who want to climb.
Every team members wears a matching shirt, white trousers and a faixa, a wide, black sash of thick cloth wound tightly around the waist. This has two purposes – to support the lumbar region and also to provide a finger and toe hold for the climbers.
The putting on of the long faixa, impossible without the help of another team member, marks a change in the festival atmosphere. The energy and tension suddenly builds as the team ceases to socialise but comes together slowly but surely to begin the castle. This faixa time can last awhile, as everyone senses the effort, skill, teamwork and risk is about to begin. Then up it rises, frighteningly fast.
I am reliably informed that seven tiers high was the maximum, but now a few of the larger well-drilled teams have pushed this to nine. NINE. Someone even mentioned ten had been achieved and which point I walked away again.
Before I sign off, some news that would please Frank. Ella has passed all her baccalaureate exams, including five languages, and so will definitely begin her film studies at the University of the Arts, London, in September. How proud we are. Go girl.
The storms have abated. The enraged river has lowered its voice.
Tiny insects, winged flecks of gold dust, sail through evening sunbeams. The shafts of light fan between the budding pear trees while the scent of freshly cut grass swells to meet them. Wild flowers, spring’s courtiers, bustle for attention fussed over by bees, and the call of the returning oriol and the drumming of the woodpecker proclaim abundance.
So strong is the beak of the bird that the rhythm rebounds off the mountain ridge, now snow free and sweetened by new growth on the pines. I sit by the talkative water pouring from our Roman aquifer at 1000 litres an hour, faster than it ever has in our 12 years at Mother’s Garden.
All is beginning and yet, perhaps, something is about to end.
Why would anyone think of leaving this? Yes, we are. Let me tell you why.
Some of you discerned in my last blob from the Garden that, after spending nearly a quarter of our lives here (and much of those of our children), Maggie and I seemed a little unsettled.
Indeed. We have been facing facts and agree it is time to take another deep breath, another positive stride.
Ella will be at university in England from September. Joe is ready for new challenges too.
And we know that our growing fresh olive oil business in England can flow even faster if we give it more oxygen and cease gasping to fit it in between the increasingly demanding challenges of tending a multi-fruiting organic farm and running a holiday cottage.
How great the fulfilment of bending to the challenge of an ecological existence at an age when we still could bend. How much we have gleaned and stored. But the sheer physical endeavours are unsustainable, naturally, and like all we need to balance truths.
The creep of age is punctuated with stark waypoints, like the dismantling of the long-unsafe tree-house, the suddenly impossible flexibility of seeing the soles of my shoes without taking them off.
And there is another reason to recalibrate. I crave time to write daily, to unburden my cerebral filing cabinet of tales. There is the Norfolk film script Moon Daisy now looking for funding (more next month), with another script and two books in the wings. Maggie, my editor, could not be more supportive.
Plan A: To relinquish this treasure trove of 10 acres and to base ourselves in South Norfolk, buying a smaller olive grove here and returning regularly to tend olives and beehives: to remain members of the cooperative and build on all we have learned and shared.
Plan B: To sell the cottage and half the farm, and keeping the old farmhouse and olive grove as our business base while spending the majority of our time in England, closer to family, renting somewhere, and bandwaggoning the Mother’s Garden olive oil message hither and thither.
We shall see what plan comes to fruition. If anyone would like to discuss one or other we would be happy to chat.
It seems now like we are in the eye of the storm, with the troubled waters of decision behind us and the unchartered upheaval ahead. We wait as news spreads, hoping that the right person will appear, appreciative of the magic and wisdom to be found here; someone who will love it.
And now that we are decided there is great optimism and certainty.
Without sadness but with immense gratitude to my family and with brimful fulfilment I see the momentous years everywhere I turn, and feel them; the shadows of tiny children running bare-footed after puppies; splashes of freedom and glee; shouts of adventure from the woodland; harvests of the garden, grove, vineyard and the wild; Maggie planting, pruning and choosing roses for the table, out there until dusk, then standing with me by the back door to feast upon the stars; the weight of my son on my forearm, his fist full of asparagus: And louder than all, the music of innumerable treasured evenings when our kitchen became a dance theatre and forever more the heart of everything that really matters in the precious feeling of this family, this life.
There – my heart thumps at the thought of leaving our kitchen. The head needs to prevail in the ubiquitous human wrestling of standstill wishes with relentless realities.
The immeasurable worth of nature is the most important thing we have learned above all. Seeded in it is sustenance, realistic values and fulfilments, the core roots of family. I make no apology for raising my voice now and in the future about the abject failure and greedy resistance of society’s single-minded economic dictators to change course.
Common sense and conscience: we all know what feels wrong, what is unfair, unsustainable, illogical, damaging, hollow and abhorrent. Heaven knows what our children and grandchildren will make of this woeful generation of leaders for not deal with the glaringly obvious home truths.
What will the legacy be?
In rambling to photograph the raging river I paused twice, once to ponder on the significance of the long-deceased Seat 500 on our neighbour’s farm, and then again to stare at another mountain we have just climbed.
Ella and Joe have been planning a fund-raising ascent of La Mola, the Snowdonia-sized limestone monolith that watches over us. If that wasn’t a great enough endeavour theypledged to their generous £800 Comic Relief sponsors that they would spend the night up there. Mmm.
We have done it now. A rare and unforgettable experience that I will tell you about soon.
Theirs have been relatively wild childhoods, freer than most if you dare to dwell upon the unbelievable pressure applied to the young these days in ways that families cannot hope to protect them from. Bean-counting pedlars who think it is fine to rob them of their innocence and herd them into anxiety-driven consumerism make me so very angry, but not as much as does the system that encourages them.
Sorry. I do this a lot don’t I?
On a positive note, I do sense an awakening of public conscience to the destructive, materialistic, blind path along which we have all be led.
Can I leave you with others’ wise words? I have just read the allegorical tale The Man Who Planted Trees, by Frenchman Jean Giono (1895-1971). If you don’t know it, let me tell you it is of the greatest beauty, something that simply gifts the notion, the hope, that we can renew the whole earth: That in the living force of nature humanity can rediscover the depth and harmony lost in urban life. The edition I hold, one of more than a dozen issued since Vogue first published it in 1953, has the added delicacy of woodcut illustrations by Michael McCurdy.
And then to Adrian Bell. All his books rise in a Pisa pile beside our bed. So much wisdom.
“We clutter the minds and call it knowledge. Why, if a man knew intimately the story of what lies between the soil in his right hand and the flour in his left, he would be splendidly, superbly, educated. In our so-called education we substitute written notes for memory. Notes are dissected bones, memory is alive, imaginative. We cram the youth with facts and figures and take away from the man the one thing needful for his manhood, the power to be alone with himself in nature.
“Britain has many places of wild beauty, and many gentle places of seclusion. He may stand on a height surveying six counties or in a corner of an orchard watching a bird building its nest. It is all one. If that power of vision were held intact through the difficult years from his childhood, he would need but few of those facts as a foundation on which to build a complete life. Multiplicity of materials does not build beauty but babel.”
Red in the morning, shepherds’ ….TAKE COVER! Clearly something dreadful is brewing. Yet again Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, has set the heavens alight.
Winter’s Catalan cocktail can always be relied upon to have a kick to it, with lashings of angostura, but as all seven billion of us know, the weather is going increasingly haywire.
From long before Christmas through to January 6, Dean Martin blared out of the village public address system. “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let it Snow!” I stood and listened next to the ludicrously early flowering pear tree, hat on to protect me from the beating sun, watching our happy host of sparrows hop through the burgeoning grass and boldly steal the chickens’ corn from under their beaks.
You don’t necessarily want to know this, but day after day – November, December and now into January – the peace, clarity and daytime warmth (circa 12 degrees) of the Priorat mountains continued to beguile like sirens. Is the mantic truth that this is the future? That between the rains in autumn and spring all will be serene?
No. The bite will surely come, late on and deep. Or the goaded planet will store its anger for another season.
Meanwhile we try not to worry about what is brewing. We try to appreciate the moment, these glorious days, the chance to hang winter washing on the line. After all, “Let It Snow” was written in Hollywood in July 1945, when I bet my bottom dollar flakes were few and far between.
Most evenings the black, random line of distant ink-black mountains is backed by the warm glow of sunset. But on January 5 it was an exceptional panorama, as the enchantment flared with celebration. From the far-flung clusters of lights marking the villages there rose fireworks – tiny, colourful flares above a beguiling community in miniature, heralding the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts for the Son of God and all the Catalan children.
There is one particular place, on the return journey from town, where this little world is laid out before me. I stopped the car and stared, waiting for another distant burst of happiness. I’d been on a fruitless shopping trip to town where most doors were locked, people were rushing to get ready and the main square was roped off with a 50 metre red carpet befitting the Oscars.
At New Year the children decided we should trek up the land in the dark, to turn off the torches and sit on the brow of the hill and listen to the distant village clock strike midnight. As we waited our eyes adjusted to the gloom and we wondered nervously what the plentiful wild boar were making of our unnatural presence in their nocturnal kingdom. None appeared and neither were there New Year explosions, just the tolling of the bell. Given the general tightening of belts, the villagers were obviously keeping their powder dry for January 5.
On the first day of the year we celebrated with a feast among friends at the always warm and welcoming home of Conchita and Mac.
So what will the new year hold? The fresh olive oil business bounds on – another website, run writer Judy Ridgway, has just posted our nut roast recipe – and the new year challenge is get the farm up and running, including pruning vines, as well as almond, fruit and olive trees.
Ella is working so very hard, juggling her five-languages baccalaureate (Spanish, Catalan, English, Greek, Latin, philosophy, geography, history, history of art and a thesis on fashion) while pulling together a portfolio to support art college applications. Regrettably an arts baccalaureate is not a sixth-form option in her small high school here in the mountains, so all her studies have been ex-curricular, something many arts-minded children may face in the UK if the mindless axing of arts education rolls on.
While I am on the subject, let me get this off my chest.
British art, music, theatre, film, books, radio and television are national treasures of invaluable worth that shine in the world and, for those in the corridors of power, bring vast returns to the Exchequer. Both Maggie and I despair that any Government should devalue this, or, indeed, deny that path of fulfilment to children. The planet needs far more arts, not less, for people to be more creative (and we don’t mean in the accounts departments of tax-dodging major corporations).
Meanwhile Joe is getting into his stride in his first year at high school, and growing an inch taller every week.
Ella and Joe will be 18 and 13 come June, an emotional thought deepened by the arrival of a gift, a large grass-weave basket, just like the one Joe slept in aged 4 weeks when we first came to Catalonia and saw Mother’s Garden.
Ella’s final exams will begin on her birthday, but she plans on celebrating in May when she and four friends and her brother will see One Direction in concert in Barcelona.
We will be there too, parked outside the Olympic basketball stadium in one enormous parental taxi rank, me nodding my head to the Rolling Stones on the car stereo, turning up the volume to drown out the screams while counting my blessings that somehow I managed to get the tickets.
How, heaven knows. I just kept frantically clicking the BUY button on the event website like a Wild West telegraph operator in a tumbleweed railway station who has a gun pointed at him by Clint Eastwood, until – Hallelujah – it worked. Life would not have been worth living had I failed.
As countless households all over the world know, bleakly or joyfully, One Direction concerts have been selling out in a blink, with online and shop vendors besieged by frantic teenagers and panicking parents. Now I notice some seats for the Barcelona gig are being offered for re-sale for a small fortune, as much as, well, tickets to see ageless (alright, he’s 69) living legend Mick Jagger strut his stuff while the indefinably cool guitarist Keith Richards sways precariously behind him. Heroes.
One Direction can’t be that good, surely?
Once upon a time, like many parents of older teenagers, I have been an expert on four colourful, fat friends with aerials on their heads and televisions in the tummies. Their incomprehensive but somehow catchy gibberish were then wallpapered over by the likes of “doggydoo” Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers greatest hits until I now find myself unwittingly humming 1D’s “Little Things” while walking the dogs. Not that I mind. Suffolk singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, who penned it, is class.
It is, give or take a sunrise or two, a dozen years since we rolled up here with our Norfolk bandwagon, chattels, dogs and dreams. We staked out this Latin soil as an outpost of the good county, promising to keep close and tell all; to share it.
Incredulity at the rush of time is answered by the grey-gilled man in the mirror, now 54 years of age. I have spent nearly a quarter of my life here and have tentatively begun the process of growing old. I need to accept that. Just beginning, I rush to add, but I – we – also need to recognise that the time has arrived to ease off the throttle; somehow.
Running the holiday cottage and, hence, having people on the farm for nine months of the year while also farming, writing and trying to grow the olive oil business is now too much.
So we are talking to villagers and friends to see who might like to share the land. There is talk of food cooperative members growing crops here. We want to focus more on the olive oil and the writing, so this may be our last season with the cottage. We shall see.
In truth, I don’t really know how old I am. My head says go for it until my body argues back two days later. Then I read in London Sunday supplements left by visitors and penned by deluded writers of roughly my age that where forty was once the new thirty, fifty is now the new forty. ER…no. Admit it.
PS: Cancel your flights. I wrote the above a few days ago. This morning it is tipping it down, blowing a gale and there is now on top of the mountain. Never take a god’s name in vain….
It is the month of green and red, of course, although our shades may be a little different: the bounty of delicious new harvest olive oil and the miracle that is the red winter fruit of the strawberry tree.
We have been rushing hither and thither, completing our annual Christmas shipment of fresh olive juice to our key customers, preparing the farm for winter, planning the year ahead as sales of our award-winning cooperative olive oil in the UK, Canada and America climb at an ever increasing rate.
The word is spreading.
Just get in touch.
It is so necessary too, though, to find moments to stand and stare.
I see things differently come December.
Mistletoe appears from nowhwere, like the robin, holly berry and rosehip, and a friend’s garden in the lee of a great mountain is decorated with that indefinable delicacy of arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree. It fruits a year after flowering.
And just yesterday – hallelujah – there was the flash of the kingfisher.
As the Iberian winter bites the tetchy cat has hijacked the little chair I salvaged from the rubbish tip. My plan was to perch on it while feeding the wood-burner, hence saving my creaking knees; but no.
So, just three days and counting….The Mayans ran out of chisels or stone when they got to December 21, 2012, and (as you are undoubtedly aware) the conclusion has been drawn that this signifies all of us have run out of time. KABOOOM.
I prefer to prescribe the ancient Greek definition of apocalypse – not a cataclysm but an unveiling, or revealing, in reference to a meaning of some kind previously hidden in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception.
Let’s hope so.
The sense of change is heightened, though, isn’t it? Maybe humanity is unsettled by the compacted burdens of so-called advancements that weigh so much and have forsaken so much, from braking the core of being, the atom, to robbing family and community and the individuals of priceless time.
Or do I sense a longing for change more here, in Catalonia, an angry “state” within sick Spain now far larger in the world conscience after linking arms with Scotland and striding towards independence?
Catalan president Artur Mas risks having a ragged Christmas, because a month after the election his Moses-like posters are still hanging from ever lamppost and the wind is getting up.
He called an early vote in the region to pump independence air into the tyres of his middle-to-right of the road bandwagon, but it backfired. He lost some ground if not his crown, while left-wing separatists found a new gear.
The majority of Catalans voted for one of the pro-independence parties, though, and it is such a single-minded place to be right now that there is a real chance of left and right forgetting their differences, forming a coalition and defying Madrid by calling a referendum.
The right-wing Spanish government of starch-rigid President Rajoy has declared any such vote unconstitutional, which has had people openly pondering on the likelihood of tanks rumbling through these villages.
I can’t see Europe letting it come to that, but why the clamour in the first place? The Catalans cite their ancient and unyielding claim of sovereignty, for reasons of language, culture and brutal history, and now even moderates have added their voices and votes, spurred by the economic mess.
Our village has already voted and declared it is not part of Spain.
Many Catalans think they would be better off going it alone because they pay far more in tax than they get back from Madrid, with this north east corner, the cornerstone of the “national” economy, constantly getting what they see as a raw and offensively dismissive deal from central government.
Certainly the mandate is clear enough for Artur and those seated at his round table, with nigh on a quarter of all Catalans flocking to a September rally to wave independence flags.
Fundamental issues of massive bureaucratic costs, EU membership, currency and the subsequent stability not only of a Catalan nation but what would be left of Spain form the meat course in this debate and we are just coming to it.
Spanish austerity was one of the topics discussed in my Norfolk home town of a couple of weeks ago.
A Spanish friend, a teacher, went to define to a gathering of anti-austerity UK residents the gravity of the situation here. She added her voice to a multi-party counter argument to the UK Government’s stringent economic policies.
How strange to see a photograph of a face from the heart of here standing in the high street of my youth.
For weeks now the day and night skies have been clear and calm, down to minus 5 beneath starlight. Every morning sunlight bounces from dew drops and jet specks in the sky.
On a 40-minute afternoon drive into the mountains to fetch Ella from a friend’s home the three griffon vultures circling overhead outnumbered the cars we passed along the winding lane of timeless charms.
The rains of late autumn have filled the reservoirs and brought our spring to life again. There is ample grazing for the horses. The chicken run has been reinforced and although a grey male goshawk has been sighted we have stopped the slaughter I recounted last month..
And as I walk the land and think of what the future may hold I reflect on how Adrian Bell felt on his Suffolk farm. How we appreciate him. I quote -
“I thought, today, how the family and one small farm fill our thoughts from waking to sleeping. Yet the farm occupies merely a moment of a traveller’s time. What a concentration of concern there is all over the lands and cities of this island, and what an anomalously impersonal thing ‘government’ is by contrast. It will be superseded, surely, by something more personal, an intensification of the personal concern, not a denaturing of ourselves from it, which is present politics. It should be as personal an affair as the old heraldic rule of kings was; but adult in conception, a fusion and a sharing, not egotism splendidly strutting.”
That was his hope in 1946.
What do I hope for everyone in 2013? An open-hearted, hopeful discussion on how to counter the sense of overload. Now is the time.
Have a wonderful Christmas. Peace in abundance. Ready smiles and steady hearts. Keep warm. Keep well.
Oh – and remember, whether you are in the United Kingdom or North America, you can get a taste of this life. We would love to hear from you.
Well, that’s done. A dangerous month, October; scary too.
The gilded gods awoke from summer slumbers in capricious temper, moving their furniture and throwing bolts between sunbeams. Walnuts rained down from the shaken trees and I popped some in my back pocket on damp dog walks, forgetting about them until I sat down.
Between torrents we took a nightfall stroll to the recently silent ravine and bone-dry swimming hole to hear the roar of the river and peer through the gloom at three delirious ducks. The summits of pink meringue storm clouds loomed once more from the east, the lightning flashed again and so we turned for home, hearing wild boar in the hazel shadows beside the puddled track.
I did the rounds of the animals, and in the quagmire of the chicken-run a rock had appeared. I skidded to avoid it and it lumbered away; a juggernaut toad.
Warmth and water – the first moisture since May – have transformed the parchment map of Iberia. Grass has grown several inches and the swelling olives weigh the boughs towards the sward a little more each day.
I have been flitting between farm and mill, my head clogged with the challenges or looming olive harvest, wine making and the battening down of hatches, but more so with family revelations from the past.
First, though, I promised last month to tell of our commitment to that vital creation, the “modern” cooperative and its inherent principle of pulling together and sharing, adopted in villages across these mountains a century ago where communities are now fighting to survive through the chaos of the pan-European recession. The village cooperative we belong to consists of about 40 families.
Cooperative is a word – an ethos, a way of life – rising rapidly in the public conscience even in the hot-house capitalist nations like my native United Kingdom, now the dusty, dated throne room of Thatcherism. Thank goodness.
Before this turns into an essay of angst about gross greed and excess, and the betrayal of core values not least the family, fundamental reasons for the current crisis both economic and social, I should look to the positive.
Cooperatives and the growth of social enterprises are showing they can help bring the vital reform of economics, globalization, and social justice. As John Restakis states in his book Humanizing The Economy – Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, the co-operatives form the most powerful grassroots movement in the world.
The cooperative is as vital here in the Priorat mountains, as anywhere in the world, historically so.
Curious, too, how it now swells with importance in Britain where there are housing initiatives and an increasing number of social enterprise endeavours, while on the high street The Cooperative, now a burgeoning bank too, grows in significance, alongside the largest employee-owned company in the UK, the John Lewis Partnership.
Maybe in this age of social re-evaluation the principals set out in 1844 by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society will come to the fore a host of community ways, encapsulating as we have experienced here first hand a wonderful foundation for bringing people together.
I fear, though, that this UN International Year of Cooperatives, the championing of a society-saving idea, may have been lost amid the crush of bleak news. Did you know, for example, that there are more than 800 million members of cooperatives worldwide, providing more than 100 million jobs (20 per cent more than multinational “big” business)?
Asha-Rose Migiro, the Deputy Secretary-General, made the point. As the world witnesses growing public discontent as a result of the financial and economic crises, she made plain how the international community could learn from the cooperative movement, which balanced both economic viability and social responsibility, “offering a model for harnessing the energies and passions of all.”
“As self-help organisations, cooperatives are inherently people-centred. They not only meet material needs, but also the human need to participate proactively in improving one’s life.”
With the olive harvest just a few weeks away we are trying to tidy our lives. The great sunflower heads and crate-loads of nuts had been gathered and the wood store was half-filled before the deluge. In the farmhouse there has been a significant culinary development. Quico (Keeko) has finally left the building, replaced by Italian Guido.
For many a moon we have aspired to a new cooker. Maggie produced feasts on 45-year-old Quico, but both he and we knew his time was up. Getting him to light required me to kneel and beg with my head in the oven, the door to which (when he decided to play ball) never closed properly so had to be propped with something heavy. Now we are able to check our appearance in the reflection from the spotless stainless steel of a Smeg semi-industrial range. Blimey.
Notice I didn’t say Quico had gone completely. I was for a swift end, but compassionate Maggie thought he might be useful (the gas rings at least) for farm helpers residing in the old caravan, besides which he now stands. I am glad.
So to my abiding thoughts of East Anglia.
Beside me there is a box that we carried with us from Aldborough in Norfolk 12 years ago. Inside there is a small oil painting of a Suffolk glade with shepherds sitting on a log. I blew the dust off it to show two artists who were staying in our cottage and I have since been unearthing a little more of its story and, to my surprise, more of my family’s history.
But the fundamental mystery remains – who painted it?
It was gifted to my great-grandmother, Sarah Baker, in the 1880s when, as a young girl, she allowed an unknown artist to paint her portrait. She had been raised on a farm somewhere between Rushmere St Andrew and Woodbridge in Suffolk.
Sarah probably took it to London when she married a Devon shoemaker called Huxtable who ran a little shop in Peckham. They had a son and two daughters, but at the beginning of the twentieth century both father and son died of consumption in the same year, so Sarah and her daughters returned to Suffolk.
One of the daughters, Ellen, married a Tom Kirby in Woodbridge, where they settled and had a baby, my father. So what is the Norfolk connection?
Sarah had remarried and had another daughter. The marriage was, to put it bluntly, a disaster, so much so that my grandfather Tom deemed it necessary to give up everything and whisk his wife and newborn son, his mother-in-law and her daughter away in secret to distant Holt in north Norfolk, to start again, renting a council house, 4 The Fairstead, for £1 10s a fortnight.
There were further great ructions and estrangements that I will not bore you with, but in searching for any records about the painting I have unearthed from the bottom of one of the old leather cases of family records some faded postcards that have enabled me to chart the subsequent life of my great-grandmother Sarah and, possibly, the painting.
Her daughter from the failed married, Winnie, later ran the restaurant on Wymondham railway station. She and Sarah lived nearby, then moved to Norwich, and during the second world war and until Sarah’s death were at 60 Heigham Street, a stone’s throw from the first house I bought. Countless times had I sat in a traffic queue waiting for the Dereham Road lights to change, staring at that terrace, and I never knew. How much more do I still not know?
Next month – One of Ella and Joe’s teachers is to speak at a meeting in England.
What a Mother’s Garden month – scorpions, Royal yachts, hoopoes at the door, underwater wonder-world, and Alaska stories of a boyhood adventure that would grace a great novel.
The domes of the fig trees framed by our bedroom window and cast with the first blush of morning, stir in the stillness. Long-tailed tits, collared doves, sparrows and a raucous magpie feed on the fruit, while on the ground a bold pair of hoopoes strut about pecking at the debris.
These weeks of ripening teem with life and colour and more subtle hints of the seasonal cycle. The wheelbarrow handles are still too hot to touch if left out in the sun yet pony Petita’s winter coat is already half-grown. The soft nights persist and we continue to sleep with windows wide, but on daybreak-dog-walks Kirby diligently forages for logs, kindling and cones.
Stuart Dallas and James Proctor, now at Aberystwyth and Canterbury universities respectively, have been for their fourth summer sojourn on the farm, flailing axes at stubborn logs, chugging about on the tractor, stacking old bricks and catching up with all the news.
We gave them a day off and set off for the sea, to a secret cove, and the youngsters immediately went in search of sea cucumbers and other aquatic wonders. Stuart, with his mop of black hair like a young adventurer in an Enid Blyton novel, took underwater photographs of Ella and Joe in the deep blue, then we picnicked and talked of the Famous Five and W E Johns’ Biggles until ants invaded the food basket. I told them how in May we welcomed to the farm the grandson of the pilot on whom the Biggles’ character was based.
When we took our Norfolk helpers to the airport there was time for a detour, so I headed for the old docks of Tarragona on the off-chance of seeing a classic yacht or two. Goodness me. Nestling against the quay was Nahlin, the Clyde-built, 1930 blend of luxury (six guest staterooms with en-suite bathrooms, a special ladies’ sitting room, a gym and a library) and notoriety, now restored to the beauty of the days she sailed the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean with King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson aboard.
Just a month into his reign in 1936 the new monarch announced he was going to set sail for the summer on the Nahlin with Mrs Simpson – a voyage that abandoned protocol and on which Edward most certainly weighed the abandonment of the crown to marry his American mistress. That December he abdicated.
James and Stuart missed the scorpions, though. After 11 years without a sighting on the farm, two have appeared in a matter of days.
The first was seen crossing the lane on to our parched meadow. The second, dead as a Monty Python parrot, was floating in the spring water when I descended the shaft to check on the level. As far as I can tell it is a Buthus occitanus or common yellow scorpion. What next I wonder.
Now for tales stranger than fiction.
I told last month of Maria Soler Benages and Joan Barceló Castellvi who lived and farmed here for 40 years, and of the joy of gleaning seeds of the past. It is hard to believe what we have since learned of the man who built the end tower of this house, who blasted with dynamite to create the great water reservoir and who had a devoted pet pig called Chucha he’d fattened but couldn’t bear to slaughter.
He was, I fairly assumed, a village-born lad (correct) who had followed the typical rural path into agriculture, happy with the horizons of the sierras and with little knowledge of what lay beyond. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Before I tell you, can I say that the revelations, told to us by his grandson, have rekindled an aspiration. Both back home in Norfolk and equally here in this Latin backwater I harbour a hope. Maybe one or more of you share it and, somehow, a lasting and inspiring solution can be found.
Throughout life we encounter people but we rarely have the time to understand them or to appreciate their lives. Is it not so? The light in their eyes shines all the brighter in their frailty, in the Indian summer of reflections, yet frequently we don’t delve and all too soon they leave us. How I wish I had asked.
New generations surge, riding vast waves of technology that seem, with all the focus on communication, to curtail conversation, social contact, recognition and respect between young and old. The immediate and transient is drowning out enduring wisdoms and fascinations. Life journeys and the hearing of them have little value until it is too late.
Gentle, rosy-cheeked broad-Norfolk Reggie would wander into our former village garden and we would pass the time of day across the teapot. As we sat Geoffrey might shuffle determinedly past en route to the community centre, a man dedicated to public service and deemed a tad too officious because of it. They were anchored in that community and the simple assumptions of their character and accomplishments stemmed from what was obvious. They had lived rooted, rural lives and were notes in the vital rhythm of quiet Norfolk.
How humbling to hear, subsequently, of Reg’s time as the master builder entrusted with the care and endless upkeep of Norwich Cathedral, and of Geoffrey’s bravery and endurance as a Chindit, fighting behind Japanese lines in the unforgiving jungles of Burma.
My idea is simple. I call it The Life Chronicles, and it is something we can entrust to the young people across the United Kingdom and these valleys. For a small sum we can give young people in the last years of schooling, in those days and weeks after exams and before summer holidays, the guidance and the fulfilment of asking, listening to and recording life stories.
For example; one school, one camera, ten lives recorded annually, 15 minutes each; a digital almanac to be held by the library service; hundreds of lives each year, thousands in a decade; a simple, fascinating communication between generations; an invaluable record.
Back to Joan Barceló Castellvi. He was a fiery boy, by all accounts, and his conflict with the village teacher came to a head when he was nine, circa 1895. He ambushed the schoolmaster and pelted him with eggs.
His parents sent him to Barcelona to work in a bakery. He stuck to the task for a year and then vanished. Nothing was heard of him for 15 years. Joan had headed north on foot and, working here and there to earn scraps, he walked for two years until he reached Marseilles. He joined a ship and sailed the world, and within a few years was a seaman on the US Coast Guard Cutter The Rush, patrolling the Bering Sea off Alaska.
He visited his family here, told of his adventurers, brought them gifts, then returned to Barcelona, set on continuing his life in America. As we waited for the ship, he met and fell in love with Maria. The ship sailed without him.
So, how can we begin the English and Catalan – global even – life chronicles? Think on, where ever in the world you may be.
Oh – a thought. Do you know anyone who might be interested in my blog? Send them the link – http://mothersgarden.org/blog-2.
I’m not easily stunned these days, by fiesta firecrackers at my feet, by a snake curled in the flower tub beside the front door, by the blunderbuss volleys of mountain thunderstorms.
But Josep Sancho Barceló and his cousin Dolors have brought an enduring bewilderment to our home in the echoing valleys of The Priorat.
We, like you perhaps, grow increasingly sensitive to history: maybe because we will be history too, one day. Whatever the workings of the mind, living somewhere with mysteries (which means everywhere, naturally, but especially in antiquated abodes), makes me wonder at length about context, legacy and if life ever really ends if we try to remember.
Who laid those dry-stone walls? Who lived here? Who washed their clothes in the pool and scrubbed them on the angled stones outside my office window? The pieces of the impossible puzzle that is Mother’s Garden, a vast jigsaw of timelines and souls, lies scattered in the conscience.
Like all ancient houses that have no wealth of records, all you possess are local histories handed down, worn stairs, old keys and your imaginings. It is not much to go on. Now, as I write and stare, I know that the swathe of limestone skyline that fills the window beyond my computer had once held the eye of Maria Soler Benages as she washed dishes in the old stone sink. And I can see her face.
First, though, let me take you back to our first fleeting understandings of how life must have been for the last people for whom this gorgeous space was home before it was abandoned in the Sixties. We acquired the farmhouse and overgrown acres in 2000 from a family who had made the building weatherproof but had never lived in it. They had bought the derelict farm in the late 1980s as a place to spend a day or a weekend away from their bustling lives in Tarragona, capital of the Costa Daurada.
They did enough, thank goodness, to arrest the decay, re-roofing the house and barn, restoring a basic water supply and septic, and re-establising a kitchen of sorts. And along with the vast front door key they passed on to us photographs of how it had been when they had first encountered it – long forsaken with ceilings open to the skies and yawning, rotten doors that led to evidence of spirits, entombed in cobwebs.
Everywhere across these valleys there are the sorrowful faces of vast stone farmhouses where, through broken windows, you can see how time and weather have torn the heart out of them. Some have not been inhabited since the bloodletting during the 1936-39 civil war. Like the great wherries sailed by the Broads water folk, they are the vestiges of a lost existence, the guardians and vessels of life stories and experiences that we race away from with ever increasing velocity. If only dwellings could speak to us.
That would have been Mother’s Garden fate, but for Enric and Nuria from Tarragona. They gave the farmhouse new life and then gifted us the chance to live somewhere exceptional and habitable, with the golden opportunity to leave our mark with further restorations. As for the echoes, we have gleaned stories but nothing so certain and so moving as what we have learned in recent days. Josep from Barcelona and Dolors from Andorra, now in the seventies, arrived arm-in-arm in 95 degrees of Saturday morning haze, their smiling eyes blinking with emotion and, perhaps, apprehension as to how the foreign owners of a key landmark in their lives would welcome them.
We were racing to get the cottage ready for new guests and it took a moment for the significance of their visit to dawn. Within the hour an astonishing chapter in the story of our home was unfolding, and after a flurry of Facebook and email exchanges we now have precious photographs of Josep and Dolors’ grandparents who farmed here for 40 years from the 1920s – Maria Soler Benages and Joan Barceló Castellvi, pictured with their dog in front of the barn. The quiet emotion we feel as a consequence of this very personal insight can be measured by the degree to which this place has drawn the smiles, tears, blood and sweat from us, how it enraptures still.
The gleaning goes on, but we know now that Joan, born in the village, married Maria from Badalona, near Barcelona, and they settled on the farm and raised two daughters, Maria and Juanita. One of their first endeavours was to build the bassa, the vast circular reservoir behind the house, where so many of the villager’s pensioners recall swimming when they were young. During the collapse of the republic and Franco’s Fascist retributions the family took refuge in the village convent and stayed there for six years, Joan labouring on farms to earn just enough to keep that other wolf, hunger, from the door.
Eventually they were able to return to their own land and in the subsequent decades an assortment of snaps of family gatherings were taken here, featuring Josep and Dolors as toddlers gathering armfuls of wonderful memories that they have clearly treasured all their lives.
Maria and Joan are pictured above, sitting outside the barn, next to a painting of the farmhouse from all those years ago, painted by their son- in- law we understand, with the vast pergola that was destroyed during a violent storm. How good to have this image of them.
As I write, I keep flitting to my email to see if either of the cousins can tell us what happened at the end of their grandparents’ time here, how the house fell into ruin, and to ask where they are buried so we may go and pay our respects. For sure I will have more to impart in September.
Meanwhile we pant. The final weeks of August, among the busiest of the year for us, have been the hottest and toughest we have know in 11 summers, with daily temperatures in the high 90 degrees Fahrenheit, night discomfort at circa 75 degrees and wildfire fears off the scale. A week ago it was still 93 degrees at 9.30pm.
Thank goodness it is never knee-bucklingly humid here. The regular stillness, locked with heat, drowns out the world as loudly as the whisper of an occasional airing-cupboard breeze through fig and iris leaves. Like the hour hand of a clock, this unremitting Mediterranean summer advances imperceptibly towards September and the easing of the baking bonds, as the sunflowers symbolically hang their heads, glory finally gone.
Do you recall the many close scrapes of our Norfolk springers Charlie and Megan? Well, their equally mad pocket-rocket replacements Tilly and Ted also keep hauling me out into the midday sun to search for them through hazel groves, vineyards and woodland. You would think, given the temperatures, they would have more sense. You would think I would too, but like the hapless owner of Fenton, the Richmond Park deer chasing Labrador whose disgrace has been witnessed by millions on YouTube, I can never stand idly by. He has my deepest sympathy.
Time to go. One last, important footnote. We are members of a 95-year-old farming cooperative, and have been working with the little village mill for seven years. As the world marks the Year of Cooperatives I will tell you next month why we think this movement of cooperation is so important – here, in Norfolk, across the globe. And we are very happy and proud to say that our olive oil has just won another gold star in the UK Great Taste Awards. Keep well.
June, like the continent of Europe, huffs and puffs, blowing buckets and bags like tumble weed across red earth patterned with the dancing shadows of fig leaves. Temperatures nudge towards 34 degrees Centigrade (93 in real money, if you deal in Fahrenheit like me, like the older Spaniards who still value things in Pesetas) and the dogs and frogs wake us up every night.
It is as if nature is shaking Spain and other economies, the UK included, from the daydream of blind excess, of living far beyond means.
The question often comes – how bad is it, living in (as the UK media paints it) such a desperate nation? Spain is, after all, the test tube of the moment in an explosive Europe.
I will tell you, from the perspective of our privileged remoteness.
You know, of course, that Mother’s Garden is in tiny, relatively closed, mountain county of one small town and 22 villages. So you will appreciate, too, that roots here are deep, like those of the vines, and there is a simple rhythm to all things, centred on family and the great outdoors, that resists the prods to race with the winds of innovation and accumulation. That is true of great swathes of this spacious nation, more than twice the size of the UK with only three quarters of the population.
With that caveat I say this: Despite the depression and the camps and protests in major cities, I truly sense the Catalans and the Spanish in general are living with a level of pain and dire long term economic prognosis that might tip the scales in other nations. There is deep anger. There is a movement for change – the youth-powered “los indignados” (the indignant) – that has yet to galvanise a critical mass but still might. But there isn’t a sense of widespread desperation that shortens fuses to a perilous degree. There isn’t within the scope of my radar that anxiety, even fear, about social fracture, that brittleness I feel sometimes in Britain.
That may come. In the bank there is a booklet of properties for sale – all repossessions. Fuel and electricity prices are climbing, education and health budgets have been slashed, and the unemployment rate among young people is now 50 per cent. As in every community across the continent, there is bafflement over the financial detail of the fiasco, but a shrewd idea of the root cause, and disillusionment with the career politicians and their Wallace and Gromit grins while they try to wallpaper over the word written large – GREED.
In the bread shop the baker smiles, as always, and lists to the assembled the vital things in life that do not have a price. It is the general philosophy here in the Latin mountains, where far greater hardships are within living memory and where the rock-bed of family is the foundation of all. The older generation has to a great extent resisted the pandemic of consumerism and they continue to bumble about in the old Renault 4s, between the wealth of their vegetable gardens, chicken nesting boxes and their simple homes.
For their children, with families of their own now, smarter cars, flat screen televisions and mortgages, the worries are there for sure, but they still live close to home and they have the security of community, finding invaluable comfort in it. The talk in the bar is not so much whether the Euro will survive – it has to – or how deep the austerity will be, but humour and the common conversations of friendship and family (and football).
Push the economic topic and they will shrug with resignation rather than revolution. The facts are as obvious here as anywhere. The obscene feasting at the top table of the world economy had blinded the gross bürgermeisters as to how far they could push consumerism and load many people in the “wealthier” nations with debt and, inevitably, gross stress and anxiety.
The comment has been made that while a few have lived like kings the majority have been made to feel like idiots.
Another friend, who is helping us replace the kilometre long phone line to the farmhouse, shouts with a wicked laugh from the top of a ladder that the Spanish are bandits who will never conform.
“We are different,” he says. “They have to remember that. We live our lives how we choose not how they tell us.”
His childhood puts the current so called crisis in perspective. In 1970, when he was 14, Fascist dictator Franco was still in power and the Catalan language had been banned and culture stamped on for more than three decades. The economy was feebly trying to find its feet. That year there was a knock on the door and his father, a critic of the regime, was taken away and never seen again. For years his mother went on a fruitless nationwide search for his body.
So while Rajoy, Merkel and others stumble about in the rising heat trying to save the Euro and their skins before going home to their well-watered gardens, the proletariat are hung out to dry. If it wasn’t so painful it could all the makings of a cheesy television drama. Maybe it will one day.
Someone we know in England has lost her job. She went home, locked the door and ploughed through several bars of chocolate while watching countless episodes of The Waltons.
Where is there comfort in witnessing an American family living through the Great Depression in the 1930s? You would be surprised.
We have just bought the first 50 episodes on two DVDs. The benefits are threefold. First, both Maggie and I happily remember being addicted as children to The Waltons when it first ran in the early 1970s. It was a Sunday evening treat in our separate households and millions of others no doubt. Second, it has triggered the same rhythm with our family now, with us all curling up together on the sofa to be transported to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Third, it may be syrup-ly sentimental, but there is something uplifting about the gentle glow of a strong family living simply and happily through meagre times rather than the incessant radiation from the modern furnace of materialism.
You probably know this already, but for the record the Waltons, about a couple with their seven barefoot children and the two glorious grandparents, ran for nine seasons – totally 221 episodes.
John Boy, the eldest child, tells of the challenges and traumas of that time, all overcome through the fortitude of unity, and there is much truth in it. The creator of The Waltons, writer Earl Hammer, drew from his upbringing in Virginia during those dark days, and it is his voice you hear in reflection at the end of each episode.
The worth is in the sentiment. Drawing water from the deep well of our elders who have known of worst times and know in equal measure how to live through them is what counts now. Here at least.
Let’s move on, up the track to the top of the farm to near the power line where the whistling bee eaters gather en masse as sunset; yes, bee eaters like the one that created a stir last month when it was spotted in Norfolk close to where I grew up.
The stone plopped with baritone depth. An echo of water-wealth barrelled up to our faces peering down into new opening to our spring. A life force has returned to Mother’s Garden.
We are not brimming with glee quite yet, but after weeks of hard labour and wonder at old wisdom we are flowing again, at the rate of about 500 litres an hour. When we have replaced the ages-old clay pipe that runs across the farm, part clogged with silt and roots, we expect this will rise to 1000 litres and the bill to nudge far beyond €5000. Ouch. But what choice? Water is life, and we have done enough, we hope, for the benefit to run through many generations.
In May I told of our hair-pulling anxiety after the spring ran dry, of a narrow shaft, tiny tunnel and blocked cave, of what looked like an insurmountable problem beneath this land. I went down there about ten times in total, on the last occasion curtailing a meeting in the cave when a very brave local expert was trying to explain to me how he would clear by hand the great mound of debris stemming the flow.
No way, I said, reversing out. The roof had collapsed once and could do so again. There was no option but to get a digger and excavate the whole area.
So we did, in dramatic style, with a JCB digger clawing away earth and rock, to a depth of 5 metres. First the cave appeared, then the tunnel. It dried my throat to see what little force it took to break the earth’s resistance.
My Dad, who died in March, knew well enough the value of water and would be content to know his legacy paid for the work. For two years he drove a water truck across the parched landscape of North Africa, being shelled and strafed as he searched alone for clean wells on his relentless mission to help quench an Army’s thirst. His part in Hitler’s downfall concerned the thing that some say future wars will be fought over.
There has been one disappointment, however. I said last month that at the back of the cave there appeared to be a man-made arch of rocks. No so. It was the edge of a great seam of sandstone patterned with surprisingly regular faults. There was no hoped for revelation. But what remains amazing is how, an age ago, someone had burrowed their way to the exact source of our spring.
Once the digger had done the heavy work we laboured with spades until water bubbled up from the ground beneath us. We were spot on. Our friend Antonio said we were most fortunate. How wise and kind our guide, the spirit of the tunneller.
The happiness is not ours alone. The well-watered vegetable garden shines with growth. In the old wash pool outside my office window the resident male Iberian green frog proclaims his contentment day and night. What a racket. There is at least one female in there too, but any tadpoles are going to find it tough given the appetite of any fish that survive the visits of the kingfisher. Oh the circle of life.
The frog, meanwhile, takes rides on the floating polystyrene seed tray, nudged along by one or two goldfish. Hand on heart, I have seen this several times now.
Must go – but two important oil footnotes. Sales of our fresh olive oil are climbing and we have just shipped another 500 litres to the UK, so if anyone would like some get in touch via our contact page. Second, our online shop has had a wobble which we are trying to fix. Sincere apologies to anyone frustrated by this.
Do you sense that walls are a store of echoes? Moments arrive and never really leave. Places seem to absorb the good and the grim and then hold them, emitting the essence of happenings.
I am acutely aware of this on entering an old building. Maybe you are too. Perhaps it is simply imaginings, but that first feeling rarely passes. The Mother’s Garden farmhouse enveloped us with welcome the first time we brushed aside cobwebs and opened the shutters to let in the light, and the happiness and goodness are still as warming and rich today as that first illumination.
Down the track, next to the wild flower meadow, people have carried laughter and contentment into our holiday cottage, and now there is song too. The abandoned water reservoir beside the pool, reconstituted with stout roof and glass doors as a dry space for good things, is flooded with tuneful voices forever more.
Fourteen people had come to Sing Away with teacher Teresa Verney, in a week jewelled with fulfilment and fellowship, swallowtail butterflies and glorious surprises.
Towards the end of last year I told of our and Teresa’s plans – inspired by our mutual friend the Jane Stevenson of Creature Comforters for whom Maggie makes some Bach flower remedies – to somehow combine Teresa’s great accomplishments with her Sing For Joy groups in Norfolk, England, with the happiness of here, and so it came to pass. Within days of the activity holiday idea being aired it was fully booked and our handwringing began. Would it work?
At the end of the seven days the assembled had gifted their echo and also sung spontaneously upon mountain tops, in a wine cellar, a church, a Syrian restaurant and in the former home and garden of a famous sculptor that’s now a sanctuary for the rare Mediterranean tortoise. Proof positive of the joy that can come of finding your voice, sharing, learning, eating, talking, drinking and laughing long and loud: Add to that taking long works, bird watching, standing and staring and scenting your hands by running them through herbs.
As for those glorious surprises, well, what can I say? Jim and Sarah Woodhouse, who live within the scent of the North Sea close to where I free-ranged as a child, are close friends of my godfather John Bell, the link being Lancing College, West Sussex, where Jim was headmaster and John was a master for 32 years. John had lodged with my parents at the start of his teaching career at 53 years ago. Then we discovered that Sarah is the founder of a charity we wholeheartedly endorse – it is called Right From The Start – which is committed to underlining the need for a loving and secure environment for children at the earliest stages of their lives and so create a similar core benefit within families and communities. How fundamental is that? Please have a look at the Right From The Start website.
I was just absorbing all of that when it emerged in coffee-break conversation that violinist Sarah Chadwick, who both sang and played at Mother’s Garden, is connected to two people I have the highest regard for.
Sarah is the niece of the late Roy Clark, author of the definitive Black Sailed Traders (1961) and one of the small group of leading local figures including Lady Mayhew and Humphrey Boardman who worked tirelessly to the save Albion and hence keep the story of the Broadland wherries alive. I wrote a small book about Albion in 1998 for the Norfolk Wherry Trust and the first words within it are, fittingly, not my own but Roy’s.
I talked to Sarah of my appreciation of him, and how his work was among the inspirations for my novel Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy. I explained that the book is about a violinist and that another touchstone for it had been the pastoral music of English composer Herbert Howells. Oh, she said. She had studied at the Royal College of Music and knew him. This is when I had to sit down. How I wish I had met him. He died in 1983 leaving a legacy of glorious works. When we make the film of Moon Daisy – yes, we are getting closer – the entire score will be drawn from his compositions.
So you see, I found the voices all the more enchanting, in song and word.
The singers went home and I wandered in the company of a nightingale. Diversity and pace; perhaps these are the keys to logging experiences, so long as we stand and just be once in a while to properly gauge circumstance and detail, to register our place in time and to remind ourselves to use that time better; to acknowledge the obvious that, somehow, some days, we do not see; to break our gaze from the mollifying collectives of some surreal diversions headed by the dire and (I pessimistically believe) encouraged anxieties of image, possession, economics and, ironically, time.
I am sometimes blown over by the rush of the human race, with people all but busting blood vessels to keep up with whatever they will dream up next to keep everyone paying. Is life truly satisfying when it amounts to a line of expensive and “awesome” funfair rides where you sweat to buy the ticket then just sit like a plum pudding?
Sorry. I just think everyone craves less of more, with time to live and give.
Now for news of a tight squeeze. What is adventure without a little terror?
I’m in a hole….well I was a few hours ago; more than four metres down an ancient chest-wide shaft cut into the red rock, to be precise, trying to fathom out why our spring has stopped.
I already knew from a “never again!” descent a couple of years back – remember? – that at the bottom of the shaft a tunnel barely big enough for a toddler had been painstakingly chiselled into the hillside. So I crouched, took an enormous breath, muttered a few foul oaths and paddled along it.
Five metres from the shaft there had been a great collapse. A pile of rocks and mud was blocking not only my way forward but also the flow of spring water. Roots dangled from the dark void above, and my feeble torch could just pick out a great space beyond the fall.
I backed out at a rate of knots and climbed into the sunshine to tell a visiting friend how scary it was. He immediately volunteered to go down with a camera. Mad as a box of frogs. Sure enough, the photographs showed what looked like a man-made stone arch beyond the rock fall. Who? How? When?
The dilemma is what we can do without disturbing what could be an important site. We figure there can only be about three metres of rock and earth above the cavern, making it highly dangerous to drive a tractor or even walk above there. And, as I said, the water to our bassa (water store) has ceased. Doing nothing is definitely not an option.
So I have just taken expert advice and within the next few days we expect to be carefully clearing above the rock fall, opening and unblocking the spring and taking a clearer, safer look at the arch and what lays beyond it.
Close to that point we have a most unusual terrace wall just before the summit of the farm, comprising of right angle lumps of rock bearing the remnants of lime render, as if they had been taken from a ruin. You know what I am thinking…….
This fertile valley has been peopled since Palaeolithic times, and the evidence is scattered everywhere. To site a dwelling on this gentle rise, close to water, would have been an obvious choice. Oh for the gift of time travel.
Just a few days before I descended into the blackness I and the family climbed the valley wall into the light to look over the timeless pattern of life.
We passed a pink man in a white vest and weathered jeans carved the loamy red earth with a mattock. His narrow terrace and the rhythm of his labour snaked towards us between the babble of the river and the silence of the forest. We were rising into the peace.
After downpours, double rainbows and thunderbolts the clear air overflowed with colour and life. We slowly zigzagged up the face of the limestone ridge, absorbed by the dappled-shade-delicacy of the moss and the fern amid the host of nature and its perfume, contentedly lost for words, lost in time. With late shoots of wild asparagus sprouting from our fists we walked along the top of the ridge as man and woman have always done, until we found a suitable ledge on which to contemplate and picnic. Bliss.
I will relay news of the spring works next month with tales of Nartists in residence too, but meanwhile leave you with another treat, for entomologists and all lovers of wonder.
As you stand in the horse corral, dusty as the High Chaparral, four to five staggeringly large hymenopterans fly figure eights around your ankles. They are 4cm long scolia flavifrons, black with two yellow bands, known to some as mammoth wasps. Nectar gathers who are as large as the carpenter bees that are working the wisteria outside the back door right now, and seemingly just as unaggressive, they are parasites of the rhinoceros beetle which perhaps explains their unceasing dance close to the horses.
Since Spook the Anglo-Arab steed arrived we have the best roses in the valley and have been able to gift sacks of hhuu, as my mum would call it, to neighbours. The juggernaut beetles have been lured by the dung fragrance too, so the circle of life spins on.
PS: I now write a small weekly blog for the small business blog http://sme-blog.com/ should our fiscal trials, tribulations and the merry dance of earning a living at Mother’s Garden be of interest. Anyone who is doing their own thing or is thinking about it might find the site helpful.