history

lost arts

There’s a lovely corner of the  Incredible Edible Todmorden website that’s given over to interviews with older residents of the town. In it they reminisce about the role of food and growing in their lives. There are memories of being in the Land Army, of brewing wine from potatoes, and even of keeping fish in huge printers’ ink tins in the cellar.

WW1 Land Girl with a pig. Picture from The National Archives UK

Barbara Diggle’s interview contains an astonishing account of how her granny used to buy a sheep’s head from the butcher every week and use every single part of it to feed the family. To me it almost sounds that something that took place on another planet.

If there was an invalid in the family or anybody just weak, we used to poach the brains … in milk and butter and they were served on toast and that was a delicacy. Now the tongue was cooked slowly in the side oven over the coal fire, no gas used, and it would be cooked slow over night and if it took a bit longer it didn’t matter, it was in another half day until it was cooked and then we would skin it whilst it was still warm because you can’t skin a tongue when it has gone cold; it sticks like glue. Then of course we would round it and put its head to a saucer with a plate on the top and a flat iron on top of that and that would shape it and it would press it overnight. Then if anybody came to tea we could slice it off and put it between thin bread and butter. The meat dropped off the bones then and there was plenty of tender meat on the face. She put the bones into another big pan that sat on the fire and she put onions, carrots, that she had grown in the garden, swede or something like that, turnip if we had it but she always had plenty of pulses. The fat that she had rendered off the joint as well or off the heads or anything, feet, you know would be clarified and that was used to seal the pots of the fruit.

I was stunned by the image of this woman labouring to make the most of every scrap of the sheep’s head, a part of the animal that I think most of us would struggle to have in our kitchens at all today. It seems this granny never wasted a single thing. She could make puddings from dock leaves, and her delicious Christmas lunch appears to have been conjured from little more than some breadcrumbs, dripping and root vegetables.

It would be silly to romanticise the kind of poverty that gave rise to such frugality but it isn’t just this woman’s economies that are striking, it’s also her consummate skill as a cook and a grower. I found myself asking what had happened to the arts that Barbara’s granny knew, arts of pickling, preserving and being able to create a meal out of whatever foodstuffs were to hand.

The history section of Todmorden’s website paints a picture of interaction across the generations that ensured skills were handed down almost unconsciously. There are memories of helping dad on the allotment, gathering watercress from the streams for mum, and of whole families working together to slaughter a pig and preserve the meat.

It’s all such a contrast with today. If you talk to people involved in Incredible Edible Todmorden now, they will often comment on how people simply don’t have the skills their recent forbears took for granted. Obviously this is not a problem that’s confined to Todmorden. Activities that were once second nature, such as making jams and pickles, are now shrouded in mystery everywhere. It’s common to talk of a ‘lost generation’, a group who somehow never acquired the skills of feeding themselves by growing veg or cooking from scratch.

Nobody seems able to explain quite how we got to this position. Just how and why were these essential skills lost? When did we decide to place some of the most important decisions we ever make – what to put on our plates – in the hands of a few multinational corporations?

I’ve had various suggestions made to me. It was the supermarkets – they  brainwashed us into thinking that everything can be available all the time for everyone. It was US television suggesting fridge grazing is better than shared mealtimes. It was the convenience foods of the seventies, when nobody understood the dangers of additives. Each of these might be a contributing factor, but none really seems to explain the whole of it.

I’d love to hear what others think. Do you also notice a loss of cooking and growing skills? And if so, how do you explain it? Did your parents teach you about food and gardening? Did your grandparents? Do leave your thoughts in the comments.

landscape and story

When we went to Skye I had a vague expectation of finding somewhere wild and beautiful. And there was certainly plenty of beauty, especially in the water, the way the lochs are constantly changing their colour and texture, from pearl grey one minute to granite the next and then to millions of diamonds as the sun breaks through.

About the wildness, though, I was wrong. I am sure it exists in the magnificent Cuillin mountains, but the north-west peninsula where we were staying has a different nature altogether. When I went for my first walk around our cottage, the word that kept coming to mind was inhospitable. The grass is short and tough, ranging from ochre to a yellowy green in colour, and almost entirely devoid of trees. Houses are sprinkled across it, rather than gathered round obvious centres.It did not take me long to discover why. And when I found out, I began to see how important it is to learn to read a landscape in order to understand something of the past stories that have shaped it.

From James Hunter’s book Skye: The Island, I discovered that this bleak outlook is the direct result of one of the most appalling and shameful episodes in British history: the Highland clearances. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thousands of people were forcibly evicted from their homes in order that the land might be turned over to the increasingly profitable business of sheep farming.

A blog post is not the place to tell this story. Hunter’s book, and John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances, both provide a clear account. What I learnt though, was how a story can come to permeate the landscape.

Once I knew about the clearances, there was evidence everywhere. Take this view from our cottage, for example. Those ripples of green in the background are in fact evidence of ‘lazybeds’. 

Picture by Julian Dobson

Hunter describes how the inaptly named lazybeds were painstakingly dug out by crofters who heaped up earth in a bid to improve drainage and grow food on land that would otherwise have been barren. As the landlords cleared more and more villages, they forced the crofters into smaller and smaller spaces and it is probable that these little flattened ridges kept many families alive.

Then there are the sheep, which are everywhere. Personally I am rather fond of them – I am a knitter after all – but they are the reason for the lack of trees. Once, Skye was densely wooded but since the clearances any tree shoot has been devoured by the endless munching of innumerable ovine teeth.

On one glorious day towards the end of our stay I walked around Waterstein Head.

It was the kind of walk that makes your heart sing, with stunning views across the island and out to sea. It finished, however, in Ramasaig, once a thriving settlement but cleared in the nineteenth century. For miles around there is the  bleak, treeless landscape broken only by heaps of stones that were once the homes and farms of people who kept cattle and horses as well as sheep, and grew enough produce to enable them to live off the land. Like thousands of others they were forced from their homes, and a way of life that had endured for centuries was abruptly ended in the name of profit and progress.

I had hoped to find wildness in Skye but this was not it. Without a knowledge of the story behind this landscape, I might have imagined it was. But wildness seems to me to carry the idea of somewhere being unspoiled, and this is far from the case in Ramasaig. Robert Macfarlane sums it up in his fascinating book The Wild Places – it is not an empty landscape but an emptied one.

the power and the story

This picture is one of my favourite from the Storying Sheffield exhibition that I wrote about here. It turns out it’s also an apt illustration for the book I finished just a day later – The Long Song by Andrea Levy.

The Long Song  is a powerful novel about a black woman living through slavery in Jamaica. No obvious link with Storying Sheffield there, but in fact both have similar issues at their heart: how do we tell stories and what happens when we do?

In particular – how can people who lack power tell stories? In The Long Song, the people with power can paint over the bits of a story that they don’t like. So the white painter refuses to include ‘the disgusting negro hovels’ in his depiction of the plantation. And the plantation owner’s sister retells a suicide event as a story of murder, framing an innocent black man in the process. But even when the black, female narrator is in court and being harangued about the importance of telling the truth, she is not given a proper chance to speak.

In an interview at the end of the book, Levy describes how her research into the history of slavery revealed very few surviving documents where black slaves speak of and for themselves. ‘Little writing or testimony has emerged that was not filtered at the time through a white understanding or serving a white narrative – whether it be the apologists for slavery and the West Indian planter classes, or their opponents, the abolitionists,’ she writes.

For Levy, fiction can provide an answer. ‘Writing fiction is a way of putting back the voices that were left out,’ she says. ‘I wanted to put back in the voices of everyday life for black Jamaicans that are so silent in the record.’

This is an interesting angle on the historical novel, that strange and fascinating blend of the recorded and the imagined. For Levy, the combination of historical research and her own imagination meant she could ‘breathe back the life of ordinary people into the skeleton of recorded events’. Her central character, a black house slave called July, leaps from the pages as a passionate, charming and often cunning woman. Dramatic events like the Baptist War happen around her, but they are not as prominent as her strong and captivating telling of the details of her life.

By giving a voice to one, fictional woman and the people she has contact with, the novel explodes the conventional narrative, summarised by Levy as ‘almost … a morality play with the planters as the villains, Wilberforce as the white knight and the slaves as simply a mass of wretched voiceless victims’. Instead the reader enters a complex, unique society full of strong and vibrant characters getting on with their individual lives, even in circumstances where their very humanity is denied.

For Levy this creative act gave her a new perspective on her ancestors. Her determination to trawl through mountains of racist documents for her research is frankly amazing, but at the end of her afterword she describes how the experience of writing the book left her with a sense not of horror but of awe.

‘Our slave ancestors were much more than a mute and wretched mass of victims and we do them a great disservice if we think of them as such,’ she writes. ‘If history has kept them silent then we must conjure their voices ourselves and listen to their stories. Stories through which we can rememember them, marvel at what they endured, what they achieved, and what they have bequeathed to us all.’

Levy’s tone is upbeat. Nevertheless, there is something heartbreaking about people having to have their stories imagined for them because they were never allowed to tell them when they were alive.

That’s one of the reasons why Storying Sheffield is so important. People who have previously been unheard get a voice, and because the university is supporting them, the whole profile of storytelling is raised. There’s an enormously positive vibe around the project. For me, this is at least partly because it connects with something deep within the psyche, something that recognises that to tell our own stories is both a right and a necessity. The best stories are the ones that belong to you.