Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Wartime Farm

I was recently sent a review copy of "The Wartime Farm", a book to accompany the BBC series of the same name, by the publishers Octopus Books. Last year, wearing both my historian's and horticulturalist's hats, I spent 2 weeks living on a wartime diet. I made a series of videos about it and the local media took quite a bit of interest in what I did. It seems Octopus Publishing noticed it as well. So when they asked me if I wanted a copy of the book, I replied that I would love to receive one and review it for them. After all, I am a great fan of the previous programmes they have produced about farming in the Stuart, Victorian and Edwardian periods. The Wartime Farm itself is currently being broadcast on Thursday evenings on BBC2. After locking up my hen and duck houses and watering the greenhouse, my Thursday evenings are now spent watching the tv.

I've just finished reading the book. I loved it. The big joke in our house is that when we are watching a history programme, I will predict what is about to be said and, assuming I get it right (not always the case!) I end up saying, "I could have written it for them!" Whilst this can be applied to some of the history behind the Wartime Farm programme and book, there is plenty that is new to me. Farming and food production during the war years is something about which we as a nation have a vague collective consciousness but it is an area that is not extensively researched. There is much to be learnt and, frankly, the lessons of the war years can be applied to the modern world. Problems of poor diet, over-consumption of calories by some, under-consumption by others, waste, land use, health were all tackled successfully in the war years. Sadly, the UK as a whole has, for decades now, been forgetting much of what was learnt in the war years with terrible consequences: obesity in some, unhealthy lifestyles and lack of exercise, bad diets, to name but a few.

The book and the series covers a range of issues, not all directly to do with food. One of the most interesting was the revival of old skills that were dying out as the war began. For example, blacksmiths came out of retirement to help repair old farm machinery that had been left to rust for years in the corner of fields. Alex Langlands revived the art of making bee skeps. As a beekeeper myself, I found this fascinating. He even created the materials himself from straw available on the farm and from brambles.

"Make do and mend" is a familiar catchphrase from the war years. Its meaning is now something that is lost on modern Britain. There is a tendency now to throw something out if it is broken, rather than repair it for continued use. Indeed, some things are thrown out now that have years of life left in them. Look at the way clothes are bought and disposed of nowadays. The number of people who make their own clothes is, sadly, diminishing. I fear that we will lose those skills forever. Clothes are often thrown away because they are no longer fashionable. Such utter waste is killing the planet and would have been viewed with complete horror in the war years. Typically a person now would buy more clothes in a fashion season than someone living 70 years would have bought across the whole of the 14 years they had ration books. Then people knew how to make things last, how to reuse something, how to repair, how to get the best from something, how to make it into something else.

One of the unsung heros of the war was the Women's Institute. The book examines the tremendous voluntary work the WI put in during the war years to increase the country's food supply. Not only did they turn Britain's bounty of wild foods into the jams and preserves that are always associated with them, they also turned themselves into a mobile university and training organisation, teaching others the skills needed to preserve food and increase the food supply. In the war on the home front, they were the cavalry, charging in to do the job. Sadly, too many people now think of the WI as a small "c" conservative organisation, full of "Little Britain" ladies whose stomachs turn when confronted with people who do not follow a preconceived norm. The reality is totally different. The WI helped us get through the war. The book brings that out superbly.

Now that I have a copy of "The Wartime Farm", it is no longer on my Christmas present list. (The book has a section on making toys so if anyone wants to make me the Spitfire Alex Langlands made from tin cans, you know what to pop in my stocking this December.) The book however is a great read, even if you have no interest in history. So forget about asking for more clothes that will be unwearably unfashionable by this time next year. Get a copy of this book for Christmas (or even earlier) instead.

"The Wartime Farm" is published by Octopus Books, price £20.
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Thursday, September 20, 2012


When Gateshead Council decided to remove 100 allotments from its books nearly two years ago, the concerns about this sell-off were raised by me at the Cabinet meeting at which the decision was taken. This was a significant reduction at a time when the move should be in the other direction. In my ward there are no council owned allotments. They are all privately owned but as with other areas, there is a waiting list.

When I raised my concerns about the loss of so many allotments, the Leader of the Council. Mick Henry, did agree that a review would be carried out to look at ways of increasing the number of allotments in Gateshead. So I awaited the results of this review (whilst helping Lib Dem Councillors in the neighbouring ward to mine successfully stop the Council closing down the Horrocks allotments where around 60 plots were threatened with the axe.) After waiting nearly two years however, there has been now sign of an outcome to this review.

Today at full council, the Cabinet report referred to proposals for the greening of Gateshead. It contained a small section about allotments, specifically the improvement of their management. There is also a proposal that at some point soon, an "allotment conference" will be held. I had two issues I raised for the Leader of the Council to answer at the meeting. Firstly, what will be the aim of the conference and who will be invited? Secondly, what has happened to the review of allotments he promised?

I don't doubt Mick's commitment to the allotment cause. The conversations I have had with him in private and the debates in public lead me to believe his commitment is genuine. I was a bit disappointed that his response to my questions today was that he could have answered if I had given notice of them, without which he was unable to answer. To be fair to him, he is in charge of a large organisation so all issues are competing for his attention, though being unable to answer something about the contents of his own Cabinet report was a bit surprising. Nevertheless, he has made the commitment to write to me and I look forward to the reply. As I said earlier, I think he is genuinely committed and I see my role in this issue as someone who is pushing for the expansion but quite willing to help the Council achieve the goal of more allotments and locally produced foods.

I had a rather interesting end to the meeting. I found myself surrounded by Labour councillors wanting to discuss allotments and local food growing with me.
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Monday, September 17, 2012

General Strike!

I had to drive to Hexham last week to stock up on chicken feed and decided to listen to Radio Newcastle on the way. As I started listening, I was left with the impression I had tuned in to a comedy show. It was actually the morning show and guests were in the studio to talk about issues of topical interest. I didn't catch any of their names but one of them was a senior official from Unison and she spent much of the programme advocating the "benefits" as she saw them of a general strike. Quite which planet she lived on was not clear though I doubt she lived on Planet Earth, given the ridiculous comments she made.

The basis of her argument was that as she and her friends did not like the government, and what it is doing, a general strike should be called to get rid of them. Forget democracy, forget the rule of law, forget the fact the Coalition Government was the result of a general election. If she doesn't like the government, and if her like-minded friends don't like the government, it has to be brought down by trade unions with, presumably, union bosses choosing a new government to their own liking. She argued that the government had won all the battles so far with the unions but were all the unions to join together and take joint action, she believed the unions would win.

This nonsense clearly did not have the support of people listening to the programme. They sent in plenty of messages suggesting strikes were not the answer. It is understandable with posturing like this, why union membership is at its lowest for 60 years and is continuing to drop.

Unions can and do play a constructive role when their feet are on the ground and they behave in a responsible manner. Look at the benefits that have come to the car industry with the unions taking a responsible attitude to industrial relations. The sensible people in the union movement must cringe every time one of the extreme union fantasists starts speaking in public. For the rest of us, they provide light relief and entertainment.
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Monday, September 10, 2012

Restoration project

Fugar Bar is a historic area of my ward which was the crossroads of the Tanfield Railway, the oldest railway in the world, the turnpike road to Consett, now the A692, and a possible medieval road that connected various great houses in the area. One of those great houses was Fugar House which, alas, was demolished in the 1950s before serious consideration was given to protecting historic buildings. Fugar House's orchard is now all that remains.

I am aiming to get a restoration project off the ground. The aim is to have a community group take the lead and the Sunniside History Society has agreed to be that organisation. I am a member of it and at a recent meeting, I played the video above which I filmed one weekend in July. The orchard is in a poor state. The pear trees are over 100 years old and are probably a rare variety. I remember picking pears in the orchard with my Dad as a child but the site is so overgrown now that it is difficult to get any access. The orchard belongs to Gateshead Council and I've had meetings with officers and a site visit with them. There is interest in moving the project on.

The History Society's lead is welcomed as the site is packed with history. There is a 16th century culvet created for the waggonways of the time. The outline of an old pond can still be found - it was used to cool off the wooden waggonwheels which themselves ran on wooden rails. Fires were not uncommon at the time. The waggonway carried coal to the Tyne for export, mainly to London. So the site is important for the region's history as well. So hopefully we will be making progress with this project. The key is to put a case for funding to outside bodies as the Council itself has no money to put into it.

Tories in a spin on windfarms

wind turbines Oct 11 1

Tory Councillors in Northumberland last week attempted to get the council to adopt an anti-windfarm policy which, if implemented, would almost certainly have put the authority on the wrong side of the law and opened it up to expensive legal challenges in the courts. The Tories in the county, with ever more threadbare credentials on green policies, were however, not entirely united in their posturing. Absent from the vote was their own "leader" Councillor Peter Jackson. I wonder if this had anything to do with his previous calls for a hardline against wind turbines being built in Northumberland whilst planning permission was being sought to intall a wind turbine on, ahem, his own land!

Quite where he was at the time of the debate on the Tory motion is not clear. Maybe he had gone with the wind. It appears his lack of willingness to back his own party's calls was shared by two other Tory Councillors who are planning committee chairs. They failed to vote for their colleagues' motion.

Meanwhile, Labour broke with tradition and decided not to vote with the Tories against the Lib Dem minority run council. Labour are normally a complete shambles on the Council. Their recent call to boost the Northumberland economy by pouring cash into advertising the area as the booze-cruise destination for Scots (following the Scottish government's plans to introduce minimum pricing of alcohol) did not go down well in the North East. Perhaps a moment of sober thought by Labour made them realise that they needed to live in the real world when it comes to wind power.

Friday, September 07, 2012

2.5 million viewings

A milestone has been reached. My videos on YouTube have now been viewed 2.5 million times. There are over 700 videos on the channel, all made by me. The most viewed is "Inside a Former Secret Soviet Submarine Base", filmed in the Ukraine in 2006. The most popular over the past month is "How to dry tomatoes", with over 7,000 viewings. Total monthly viewing figures are around 60,000. Rather helpfully, I receive a monthly cheque for advertising revenue.

Most of the videos I put onto the channel are about self-sufficiency, allotments, gardening and cookery. The next largest category is travel but I also produce videos about local issues and, of course, politics. I'll be at conference with a collection of cameras filming all sorts of things.

If you feel you have nothing better to do, pay the site a visit: