Paul Robeson Sings

“Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”, quoth John Lennon. Summer is life, a high note singing on a breeze: the Longest Day happens quickly.

This year, we marked this midsummer moment with a Permaculture Introduction course and gathering at Dial House, an autonomous space that reappears on numerous branches of OrganicLea’s extended family tree; and the traditional solstice celebration and horticultural games. In the latter, the Fruit Team’s triumph was long-awaited and fitting, for nothing says summer like ripe soft fruits.

Queen Crimson of the fruits is the strawberry, the picking of which has been as frenzied as ever over the midsummer weeks. This year the run-in to Wimbledon has met a sweet volley of warmth, meaning more time spent plucking into punnets, rather than chucking off the rotted and the slugged, an altogether better pursuit. Still, these days the strawberry harvest seems far from a fleeting glory, almost never ending, leading me to ask whether it’s sensible to cultivate eight beds of berries: the final answer seems to be yes. People love them, they always go.

Equally loved, picked less frenziedly through a longer, glasshouse, window, are the fruits of Lycopersicon esculentum, the tomato. For the first time, we have these ripe by the solstice. Just a few, and just one cultivar – “Darby Striped Yellow/ Green” – but that’s enough to set the rest of them off, like a pack of howling wolves. This year the howls I’m most looking forward to hearing from are our new varieties, and one in particular, the black tomato “Paul Robeson”.

As a human, Paul Robeson, born in 1898, achieved international renown as a singer and actor. His outspoken support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, against racism at home in the States, and his interest in the Soviet Union, led to his blacklisting during the McCarthy era, the revoking of his passport and continued harassment by the FBI. Such persecution by the authorities contributed to the demise of his career and health. He died in Philadelphia in 1976.

Gone but not forgotten. By their fruits shall ye know them. Like so many black tomatoes, “Paul Robeson” hails from the east, bred by Soviet horticulturalists and named in his honour, a tribute to his anti-imperialist stance and his full-bodied baritone. We eat these always in remembrance. His unique relationship with Welsh coal miners, who he sang, worked and marched alongside in the 1920s, resurfaced this century in the Manic Street Preachers track “Let Paul Robeson Sing”. His signature tune “Ol’ Man River” is still known and sung across the world: “He don’ plant tater/ He don’ plant cotton/ An‘ dem dat plants ‘em/ Is soon forgotten/But Ol’ Man River/ He jes’ keeps rollin’ along”.

Most importantly, his unfashionable challenging of his home country’s apartheid sowed some of the seeds of the civil rights movement, and the rest is history: full political rights, and a level of racial equality and dignity that could only have been dreamt of in Robeson’s time.

Some of the seeds sown are producing ripe fruits, but there is still a long way to go.

Summer in this green-grey valley, the River Lea rollin’ along.


Across The Gulf of Strawberries

One of the key principles of ecology, and thus ecological food growing, is that of relationships: it’s not just what’s there, it’s how what’s there interacts with each other and their habitat, that creates an ecosystem. Unfortunately, relationships are harder than things to “show and tell” on site tours: the intricate web of microbial life in the soil, and the web of connections between the people and land that produce the food, and those that eat it, can only be gesticulated at in a dramatic but slightly vague manner.

This is one reason why reductive science – science that looks at stuff, but not how stuff connects with other stuff – has held so much sway in agriculture and other areas. The times are-a changing, though it’s not clear what into: even the Big Boys like Tesco and McDonalds are starting to respond to customers’ need to feel a sense of connection with the source of their food, and now assault us with phoney “meet our farm” images on their billboards and juggernauts.

Real relationships are not only often invisible, they’re also complex, volatile, take time and are held in trust: all things that don’t show up too well on the balance sheet, and are, it has to be said, a pretty inconvenient way of running things, though it’s hard to work out who to file that particular complaint with. In our work with London restaurants, we try to build up a partnership deeper than a mere buyer/ seller encounter, through means such as weekly conversations, reciprocal visits and direct delivery or “short supply chains”.

What we find is that our relationship “with a restaurant” can often be very personal, and rest on a relationship with a key chef. The “Camden bicycle run”, which spearheaded our external distribution strategy when we started out, has gone the way of lemonade, Coca cola and Newcastle Brown Ale: despite the name, it now has no Camden whatsoever left in it. Our cooks have slung their hooks and recipe books to other nooks and pantries, and our trade with their old kitchen hasn’t stayed. The bicycle delivery route, now performed by our friends Bike Box with our Christiania trailers, goes on strong, but Kings Cross, Euston and Islington Run doesn’t sound half as cool.

On the ground, one of the team formations we use for managing the vegetable beds is the “pincer movement” or “working towards each other”. It’s an especially useful manouvre when it comes to light weeding or ripe-pick harvesting. Strawberry season is now upon us. It always appears that way, ambushing from above. Summer still surprises. Nicely: strawberries have always never looked, smelt, tasted, so fresh.

Anyway, as a tactic the pincer is simple and elegant. The beds in the Entrance Field are mostly sixty metres, those in the Old Kitchen Garden thirty-four, subdivided by the Middle Way path, that runs either up it or down it, depending on whether you take the side of the hawthorn or the lime tree. One pair starts either side of the far end of the bed, the other from the near end. Working towards each other. When we meet, the bed is complete, prompting a greeting, sometimes a hand shake, a hugless embrace. What I call a “Channel Tunnel Moment”.

Those of my generation may remember the scene. French workers drilled a hole from Calais, British ones from the white cliffs, all the way deep under twenty-one miles of Big Blue. By some improbable feat the drillings met up, in good time, somewhere round the middle, and TV footage showed the miners shaking hands though the little joining. It was a unifying image: whilst the primary motivation for the building of the Chunnel was business, there could be no denying the haunting hope for humanity in this interracial meeting and greeting. It showed that people were capable of tearing down obstacles between them, like the Berlin Wall, and also of building – bridges and tunnels – across divides, physical and cultural.

Last week, UKIP’s xenophobic message of despair polled well in the European elections, and the spirit of that Channel Tunnel Moment may seem more distant. But pitching despair against despair will yield one certain result. Better still, in all we do, to keep working towards each other. Making the most of the strawberries along the way.