writing

Launched

view of Tod

Did ever a book launch have a lovelier view? This is Todmorden, as seen from outside the Unitarian church, where we had a beautiful afternoon of celebrations for Incredible! on Saturday.

It’s one of only three photos I managed to take but I appointed our daughter Finn as Unofficial Launch Photographer, so here’s a little insight into the day, courtesy of her excellent pictures.

The first part of the launch was one of the ‘rewards’ for some of our top Kickstarter backers, although sadly not all of them were able to come. My co-author Pam Warhurst welcomed them in her usual dynamic and inspiring way.

pam welcome

Then Estelle Brown, Incredible Edible’s full time, unpaid webmaster and tour guide, took everyone off to look at the town. Here she is outside Mary Clear’s front garden, where everything is edible and anyone can help themselves.

Estelle

Thanks to Estelle, our guests saw all the sharing beds around town, from the police station to the pre-school, and also enjoyed the edible walking route that features not just food for humans but lots of plants that are good for bees too. To avoid overkill on the pictures I haven’t put many of the town on here – if you want to see more of the wonder that is Todmorden, take a look at Incredible Edible’s website.

children's bed
blackcurrants
pollination street

Meanwhile, back at the church, it was all hands on deck to get the lunch ready. Here’s Pam in a pinny with lovely helper Alison.

food setting up

The food! What can I say about the food? It was stupendous.

food marigold

dip

food and lavender

stuffed tomatoes

sprouts

 

sushi cropped

And lots of the ingredients came from around the town.

IMG_9323

If you didn’t know, you’d never guess it was completely free of meat, dairy and other animal products. Volunteer Hilary Wilson, who is a passionate vegan and outstanding cook, had spent the whole week planning and prepping. I managed to snap this picture of her during a rare moment away from the kitchen.

hilary

It stayed dry all day (never a given in Todmorden) so we ate outside. Don’t worry about the policemen – they weren’t there to keep order but to represent the local force, whose station plot is one of the most photographed in the town.

lunch

Lunch over, it was off to Incredible Farm, the project that never stops evolving. It’s almost impossible to believe this was once a piece of waterlogged, rubbish-filled scrubland.

polytunnels

Some of the new developments this year are a solar powered pumping system …

solar pump

… and Rufus the cow, seen here with François Rouillay, founder of Incroyables Comestibles, the French manifestation of Incredible Edible.

Francois and Rufus

Back at the church, lots more people were arriving for afternoon tea. All the cakes were vegan too, and they tasted even better than they looked.

cakestand

cake

chocolate buns

And what about these for some Incredible tea cosies? Somehow, town centre grower Jenny Coleman manages to find time to knit them.

carrot cosy

tea

Over the time I’ve been writing about Todmorden I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. This time it was a magnificent peal of bells that rang out just as we were coming to the end of our tea, part of the celebrations to mark the volunteer-funded restoration of the belfry.

Some of the hardy Incredibles were staying on for the second party but for us it was time for one last photograph and then to set off back to Sheffield through the beautiful Calder valley.

pam and jo1

Thank you, Incredible Edible Todmorden, for an unforgettable afternoon.

Advertisements

Fledged


lorry

This is the moment the Incredible Book arrived at our house – and I wasn’t there!

pallet

I had carefully squeezed in a visit to my parents between the last of my uni hand-ins and the arrival of the book, or so I thought. But then the book came early!

pack

Julian came to the rescue (as usual) and sent a copy recorded delivery to my parents’ house and actually I am so glad it worked out that way. My mum and dad have both been battling poor health lately, so it was lovely to share such a special moment with them. And I have written before about how important my mother’s deep care for the earth has been to me.

Now I’m back home and it’s all systems go to get the books out to the wonderful people who backed our Kickstarter campaign.

stacked

mailbags

The first two sacks went to our local post office this morning and it feels a little daunting, letting this book go out into the wide, wide world.

But I’m also feeling so thankful: to the people in Todmorden who shared their stories and were so endlessly helpful; to Pam for her willingness to work with me; to everyone who believed in the book enough to back our Kickstarter; to Julian, whose business made it possible for me to take the time to write it; to our three young adult offspring who cheered me on whenever I was flagging – the list goes on!

Like the Incredible Edible project itself, the book is the result of very many people giving their time and energy with great kindness.

It’s been such a huge privilege to help tell this story and I really hope it will inspire. I hope it will spread the magic of Incredible Edible Todmorden, which demonstrates so clearly that, as Pam says, it doesn’t take complicated strategies and important people to bring about change. It takes you, me and everyone else believing that small actions have great power and then getting on and doing something.

Our main job for now is to get the books out to our Kickstarter backers, but I’m excited to say that from 2 June, the book will be available to buy online.

Watch this space – or pre-order a copy here!  Meanwhile, I’ve got some envelopes to stuff.

Blackened Word

I once had a student – I’ll call her Amina – and she hated everything she wrote. Everyone in that women’s literacy class struggled to write, but none of them showed as much anger about their work as Amina did.

Like the others, she worked with pencil, pressing down on the lead until it almost tore the paper. Every time she made a mistake, she would scour it with an eraser and a fine dust of disintegrating rubber would scatter all over the page, making it even harder for her to move the pencil where she wanted it to go.

As I moved around the classroom I would praise her and it is excruciating now to think how patronising I must have sounded. ‘That’s lovely, Amina,’ I would say when she achieved some milestone like writing her name and address. She would look me straight in the eye and reply: ‘It’s horrible, horrible.’

The world-renowned sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard once found some writing by a woman who, like Amina, struggled with literacy. Von Rydingsvard, who carves monumental objects out of blocks of cedar wood, was intrigued to see writing that looked ‘laboured and concrete’. She lifted it from a letter, had it magnified over and over and transcribed the words onto the floor of her studio. Then she built on it, bit by bit, and the result was ‘Blackened Word’, which currently forms part of an exhibition of von Rydingsvard’s work at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.


blackened word cropped

(Excuse the poor quality mobile phone picture; there’s a better image here)

As a former literacy teacher I found this work troubling. I understand how von Rydingsvard could see the writing as ‘laboured’. That word ‘labour’, with its connotations of hard work, even the prolonged effort of childbirth, is a good description for the way Amina and her classmates struggled to produce words on paper.

The sculpture sparked many memories of watching these women learn to write. Part of von Rydingsvard’s method is to score the wood with knives. This can result in deep cross-hatching that reminded me of the intensity with which Amina would dig her pencil into the paper.


scorings

bw from side

The work has a fragility that is at odds with its size and the durability of the wood. If you stand at the edge of the gallery, you can imagine a giant hand scrunching the concertina-like structure in the way someone might scrumple paper out of frustration with what was written or drawn there.

In a video that forms part of the exhibition, von Rydingsvard talks about her ‘struggle’ with the cedar. She uses words like ‘agony’ and talks about ‘agitated surfaces’. There are shots of her planing the wood, her face protected by a huge, solid mask from the shower of splinters that fly up from the cedar block.

I think of Amina with her eraser, flurries of rubber and paper flying up as she agitated the page, and I wish she could have had some protection from the shame of not being able to write in a society that values literacy so highly. 

I wonder about the woman who produced the writing that inspired von Rydingsvard. Did she, like the sculptor, also experience agony in trying to express what was in her mind?

I wanted to like ‘Blackened Word’ but I found myself getting increasingly disturbed by it. Why do we not know the name of the woman? Why is she described in the exhibition notes as ‘almost illiterate’: you don’t have to describe beginner writers with an adjective that is so often used pejoratively.

And why do we not know what the woman wrote? Her words were magnified onto the studio floor and then concealed. Von Rydingsvard has made some kind of monumental statement with her sculpture and in doing so has erased the original work that inspired it.

Perhaps von Rydingsvard did ask the woman for permission to use her name and reproduce her words alongside the sculpture and maybe the woman said no. But in that case we should have been told about her decision.

The exhibition notes for Blackened Word conclude: ‘A personal story is used as a whisper, a quiet suggestion, or shadow that remains only as an echo in the title.’

That doesn’t sit comfortably with me. I can’t deny the impact of von Rydingsvard’s stunning sculpture, but I’m also troubled by how often powerful, successful people reduce the stories of others to shadows and whispers.

I wonder if I am doing the same now, using Amina as a stepping stone for me to articulate my own thoughts, even though I am no longer in touch with her and cannot even ask permission to use her real name.

I’m mulling over a new writing project, one that involves engaging with how we behave towards the most marginalised people in our society. And I’m wondering how you do that without making your own work the focus of attention, concealing the stories that made it possible in the first place.

we all did it!

Screen shot 2013-12-12 at 07.34.59

I may have screamed.

All through Monday, Julian and I watched the counter on our Kickstarter page inch towards its £10,000 target.

If we didn’t make our target, then we wouldn’t receive any of the money pledged towards an initial print run of the book about Incredible Edible Todmorden.

By teatime it stood at a little over £9,600. All rules about ‘no screens at mealtimes’ went out of the window.

After tea we had to go to a meeting. To my amazement, I managed to turn off my phone off for almost two hours, but I was switching it on again even as we pulled on our coats to leave.

£9,828.

Back home, I rushed upstairs to put my boots away. When I came down, our son was holding out his phone and grinning.

£10,002!

(That’s when I screamed. It wasn’t a time for worrying about what the neighbours would think.)

Pledges continued to come in, right up to the project deadline this morning – you can see our final total at the top of this post:

£10,774

This month of campaigning to crowdfund enough money for an initial print run of my book about Incredible Edible Todmorden has been one of the most intense of my life, second only to the weeks after bringing our first baby home. It’s been exciting, exhausting and at times almost unbearably tense.

Screen shot 2013-12-12 at 07.42.36

But we did it – and we did it by riding a wave of overwhelming generosity, enthusiasm and kindness, all qualities that are at the heart of the Incredible Edible movement.

I am so grateful to all the people who supported us, whether that was by pledging money, endlessly pestering their Facebook friends, allowing us to guest post on their blogs, arranging media coverage, or sending us cheery emails just when we needed them the most.

So to any of you who are reading and who backed us in any way  – a huge THANK YOU!

There WILL be a book in the spring and it will be in no small measure down to you!

I had stupidly assumed I would be able to finish editing the manuscript of Incredible! while the Kickstarter was gently ticking away in the background. (Cue hollow laughter.)

I am often wrong about my capabilities but rarely have I been wronger than this. Most of the campaign was conducted over Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere, and at times I felt as though entire sections of my brain were being colonised by social media.

Twitter in particular is like hanging out in a vast emporium of delights with hundreds of smart, witty and sometimes slightly bonkers magpies who keep attracting your attention with shiny little hyperlinks.

Exciting social action - Jack Monroe's campaign to get food poverty debated in Parliament - AND a cat picture. No wonder Twitter is addictive.
A cat picture AND exciting news about Jack Monroe’s campaign to get food poverty debated in Parliament . No wonder Twitter is addictive.

So I’m about to retreat to a silent library where I cannot access the internet. I’ll spend my days holed up there while I polish the story to be the best it can possibly be. 

It’s always felt a bit daunting, doing justice to the Incredible Edible story, and it seems even more so now that I know how many people have put their faith in the project by backing the book.

But I’ll be giving it my absolute best, incorporating advice from some very insightful beta readers and an excellent professional editor. With that and a sprinkling of the Incredible Edible magic I’m trusting the end result will be something that justifies the brilliant support we have had in raising this money for a print run.

THANK YOU EVERYONE!

Incredible!

AAprojectpicture

Growing food can change the way you respond to everything around you.

That’s what Incredible Edible Todmorden co-founder Pam Warhurst told me recently during one of our long chats about the story of the Incredible Edible movement.

And why have I been having long chats with Pam?

Because (drum roll)

we have written (another drum roll)

a book about Incredible Edible Todmorden!

 Yes, a whole book!

Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution (by Pam Warhurst, with Joanna Dobson, as it will say on the cover) tells the story of the Incredible Edible movement, starting from the day when another co-founder, Mary Clear, ripped out the roses in her front garden and replaced them with vegetables and a sign saying ‘Help Yourself’.

It charts the progress of the project over the six years since it was founded to today, when people come from all over the world to see what is happening in this once overlooked little market town in west Yorkshire.

I’ve been researching and writing the book for the best part of two years. I’ve done hours and hours of interviews with a whole range of people whose lives have been affected by the Incredible Edible movement – from the high school chef who started planting his own school dinner ingredients to the self-confessed city girl who had never even had a pot plant before she moved to Todmorden but now feeds herself and her son fresh, home-grown vegetables for nine months of the year.

Incredible Edible isn’t just about growing food though. It’s about a way of building community, recovering lost skills and boosting local businesses so that we can all look forward to a kinder, greener, more resilient future.

From planting vegetables on unloved patches of ground to launching a market garden training centre to encouraging local farmers to increase their range of products, Incredible Edible demonstrates how small actions have power to bring about big changes.

The book I have written with Pam doesn’t just tell a story, either: it also includes hints and tips for anyone who wants to start an Incredible Edible project where they are, and gives a few simple recipes from some of Todmorden’s many accomplished cooks.

In true Incredible Edible style, we’ve decided to publish the book ourselves. Today I launched a campaign on Kickstarter, the website that enables ordinary people to back creative projects.

Going the Kickstarter route is forcing me to do two things that are right outside my comfort zone: fundraise and (horrors) appear in a video.

I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be doing either of them if it weren’t for the fact that I really believe the Incredible Edible movement has the potential to inspire people to bring about real and lasting change.

My biggest hope for the book is that it will inspire more and more people to see that it is possible to live by a different story, one that is not the worn out, disempowering narrative of global consumerism.

Our Kickstarter page is here. It gives more details about the book and explains how, if you want to, you can get involved with it and what you would get in return – everything from an e-book to a hard copy of the book to a fruit tree grafted in Todmorden!

However, this blog is not about to turn into one long advert for the campaign. That’s not what I’m here for and although I have got to plenty to say about the way the Incredible Edible approach can help us build a better future, please be assured that I won’t be making endless pleas for cash.

What I’m concerned about is how people can connect with the land, their food and their communities in what somebody in Todmorden described yesterday as ‘a joined-up circle of scrumptiousness’.

 

 

 

 

 

season of change

My lovely daughters have made it possible for me to get my hands on a digital SLR. Miriam handed it down to Susanna when she upgraded, and Susie has lent it to me because of a forthcoming Very Exciting Trip.

I’m still just practising and haven’t really got the hang of all the knobs and twiddly bits, but I’ve been having a great time capturing the shift from summer to autumn round here.

I’ve always loved September and seen it as a time of new beginnings. I’ve worked in education, and of course my children’s big milestones – nursery, primary school, big school and (gulp) university – have always come at this time of year.

Now that I work similar hours all year round and my children actively discourage me from accompanying them to their places of study, I was afraid the excitement might dim a bit.

That was before the aforementioned trip came up! I’m very excited to say that I shall be travelling to Bulgaria tomorrow to stay with some dear friends for a week, see some amazing work they’ve been doing and even talk about a possible shared writing project.

What with passing a big birthday recently, along with watching the ‘children’ become ever more independent, I’ve been really aware of the seasons of life changing as well as the seasons of this particular year.

In many ways it seems like a time of loss. Of course we are glad to see our teenagers growing in independence and making their own decisions. But there is still the wrench and a sense of disorientation as they move further and further away from home.

This trip’s been good for reminding me that I can be more independent now too! As the season changes outside the window, I’m getting quite excited about the new horizons that might open up.

Lessons from Wolf Hall

Every aspiring writer knows that the first thing you have to do to improve is to read voraciously. Not a problem for me – most of the time reading is what I’d rather be doing anyway.

No, the problem comes when you read something so darned brilliant that you wonder what on earth is the point of carrying on writing, since in order to produce something even halfway as good you would probably have to live to be 193.

Fortunately, I have learned the hard way (and so has my family, unfortunately) that if I don’t write I become a grumpy old cow who is not worth living with. So after I read Wolf Hall I resisted the temptation to throw all my notebooks on a bonfire and instead decided to list, calmly, some of the things that a beginner writer like me could learn from a master like Hilary Mantel.

Make historical detail work hard

Thomas Cromwell, portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger

Obviously a novel set in the past needs to be full of historical detail but there is always a danger that the writer’s research will come over as just that – dry facts rather than part of an engrossing story. Mantel never falls into this trap. She weaves all the elements of her novel into a seamless whole, and makes the historical facts really work for their place in the story.

There’s an incident near the start, for example, where Thomas Cromwell is trying to run away to sea. He meets ‘three elderly Lowlanders struggling with their bundles and moves to help them. The packages are soft and bulky, samples of woollen cloth.’ As the elderly trio struggle with an obnoxious official, Cromwell fools around, ‘pretending to be a Lowland oaf’, and wins the official over with a bribe. Delighted, the Lowlanders claim Cromwell as their own and get him aboard. So in this one little incident, Mantel has developed her novel in various ways. She has added detail and colour to the historical world she is creating – the wool trade was vital to Scotland back then but the official’s behaviour is a sign of how unpopular the Scots could be in England. She has also built up Cromwell’s character: this quick thinking and ability to win the trust of people across the social spectrum will prove crucial to his success. Finally, she has progressed the plot by using the incident as a way of getting him on board a ship and off on the travels that will inform much of what he does in the rest of the book.

Metaphor

Even a beginner like me can see that if your story is told from the point of view of someone who lived in the past you have to use metaphors that are historically appropriate. You can’t have your medieval hero calling his love rival a potato-head. Mantel does metaphor with brilliance, again making her sentences achieve more than one thing at a time. Take this description of the Duke of Norfolk, for example, where the metaphors not only call forth his appearance but also place him firmly in his historical context: ‘Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an axe head; his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links …’.

Remember that some things about people never change

The historical novelist has to have characters that belong in their period while still being people that the reader can relate to. One of the ways Mantel does this is by describing little quirks and gestures that we can recognise from people we know today. When she combines this kind of universal gesture with more period detail, then the characters become believable both in their timelessness and in their specific situation. Well-dressed young men have always fiddled with their clothes, for example, and George, Lord Rochford is no exception: ‘Today what fascinates him is the flame-coloured satin that is pulled through his slashed velvet over-sleeve. He keeps coaxing the little puffs of fabric with a fingertip, pleating and nudging them and encouraging them to grow bigger, so that he looks like one of those jugglers who run balls down their arms.’

Play with the readers’ knowledge of what happened next

Elizabeth I, c. 1575, unknown artist

The fact that readers already know what happened in the past obviously has to be borne in mind. Nobody today is going to be shocked if Anne Boleyn loses her head. Mantel shows how it is possible to have a little fun with this. For example, she has Cranmer say of the ‘poor little scrap’, the red-headed baby who is the future Elizabeth I, that ‘perhaps God intends some peculiar blessing by this princess’. As a reader you like that, you like being in the know, being actually superior to Henry VIII, who ‘sounds dubious’ when he replies: ‘My dear friend I am sure you are right.’

Wolf Hall: it’s a writer’s masterclass, as well as a brilliant read. Though perhaps the two always go together.