Magic Beans and Tragic Beans

For all the exotic pungency of roses or jasmine, it’s the subtle, elusive nature of the scents of plants like gorse and peas, that make them more bewitching. And a field of beans is to the nose what a woodland floor of bluebells is to the eyes: a glowing, cumulative aroma that wafts immeasurably in the wind.

Our row of broad beans issued a mere suggestion of this when in flower, and now the plants are in pod gloriously bulbous. They conjure more besides: the humble allotment gardener’s broad bean, Vicia faba, when dried yields the Classical “fava” pulse so vital to Egyptian, Greek and Roman diets. To this day fava beans are poplar in the Middle East, in, amongst other dishes, authentic falafel, but largely confined to animal food on these shores. This winter we plan to make the kitchen garden  a small “beanfield” to change this state of affairs in a few kitchens.

In recent times, the beanfield has also become emblematic not of ancient civilisations, but of modern civilisation’ s thin facade of liberty.

On Saturday 1st June 1985, a “peace convoy” of  80 – 120 vehicles carrying “New Age” travellers, were prevented from getting to Stonehenge to prepare summer solstice celebrations, by a police blockade. Wiltshire police then went down the line of vehicles systematically smashing windows, dragging out inhabitants and battering them with truncheons.  Many of the convoy attempted to escape, within and without their vans, via the adjacent field of ripening fava beans. Police were quick to respond, and travellers’ blood fertilised the Salisbury Plain soil in an unprovoked carnage that became known as “The Battle of The Beanfield”.

The miners’ strike had just ended: a dispute in which the government granted the police new powers and carte blanche to use any repressive means at their disposal in the war against what Thatcher termed “the enemy within”. First, the trade unionists, then the travellers. Both movements may indeed have been enemies of the Thatcher project; both, in different ways, proffered a practical vision of an alternative, fairer society; neither have fully recovered from the intense campaign against them in the 1980s.

The Battle of the Beanfield, like the Battle of Orgreave, was a sad day for human beans, and the utopian whiff  of broad beans is there to remind us of it.

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