"There she is," said my father, "Boudicca! Look at her! Formidable!" Craning our necks we looked upwards toward the statue in the darkening sky. A woman on a chariot flew into the night sky above the arch. Boudicca was sacking London, trampling invaders under her spiky wheels. We were travelling back along the red road that runs between the Palace and the Park.
For years the statue at Hyde Park Corner signalled the return to the city, after days and sometimes weeks spent in the countryside. We had, alas, come back, but Boudicca was holding the fort and pointing us in the right direction. Just in case we forgot our way.
In spite of his admiration for barbarians my father was not one of Boudicca’s men. He worked for another woman entirely, a Roman matron who stood blindfold on top of the dome of the Old Bailey. She was a hard taskmistress: the folds of her gown unyielding, her sword exacting, and for all the advocacy he performed in her service there was none of the jubilation he expressed for the warrior Queen of East Anglia. But then my father’s heart was not in the work he did for Justice, it belonged to the country we had just left behind. To a large ragged garden that lay by a marsh, a plot of earth with a wheelbarrow and a spade beside it, apple trees all around and a bare mound that signalled the presence of the greatest of British vegetables, white crowns that lay hidden in the earth: asparagus.
Asparagus is a lily and like all lilies, otherworldly, and keeps its strength in reserves underground. From these rich stores, it bolts through the earth in straight green shoots with purplish heads known as spears in Spring, when it is harvested until midsummer before it branches into its stiff and feathery form and flowers. Like all lilies it is ruled by the moon, the planet of memory, and, in spite of its overtly masculine form, unequivocally the queen of the field. The crowns take years to mature and the spears are time-consuming to pick both in the wild and domesticated state and consequently, though eaten with barbarian fingers, they are always treated with a certain reverence.
When the asparagus arrived my father would appear triumphant in the door and stride towards the kitchen, carrying the spears. The Moment had arrived. At supper we would watch for the signal that meant everyone was allowed to begin eating. He took up position at the end of the table. The napkin flicked. The glass was filled. The asparagus lay steaming on our plates. A spear was lifted dripping with creamy butter, held aloft for dramatic effect, and then, in it went.
Dear God, dear God! exclaimed our father, rolling his eyes upward. Dear god, dear god! we chorused, laughing between our own slippery green mouthfuls.
We did not question why our father always called upon the Almighty when he ate something he loved since he was a devout atheist, however it was how all great foods were addressed. Ordinary foods were quietly and effortlessly dispensed at the other end of the table by my mother, all manner of stews and pies and puddings, but the roast meats of Sunday, game fish, smoked fish, French cheese and most assuredly his own garden vegetables belonged to my father’s end. The ritual and mythology of food belonged to him, all foods that required ceremony, a careful handling of carving knife and fork, a judicious serving, came under his dispensation.
I spent a life-time excusing myself from this dining table, liberating myself from the constraints of its form and hierarchy, forgoing manners, dramatic gesture, napkins and claret, and yet when it comes to asparagus, I still exult.
To gain a true relationship with food, we have to regain a relationship with place, remember the part of ourselves that knows about seeds and earth and rain. Sometimes this memory is secreted in a place we don’t want to go, in the deep earth, down an ancestral path that leads back through time towards a battalion of asparagus marching over the East Anglia fields in the month of May. Our buried treasure.
Ru Litherland, Hackney-born, might have run along Boudicca’s chariot. He is a radical man who grows all manner of vegetables in renovated land in Walthamstow. He says that many who come to enlist in his volunteer army of seed sowers and leaf pickers, fall in with its movements and requirements easily because their old man once had an allotment and grew his own veg. When they come to the land they just know what to do. They have listened to a rhythm and it has somehow got into their bones. I have listened to that rhythm: the chink of spade as it scraped the eastern flint, the shake of grass, the rattle of bean poles in the wind. I once climbed an apple tree and watched the East wind as it ran through the blond marsh grasses of Kent, my eyes scanning the horizon for the distant sea. And below me I listened to the sounds of the garden: tack tack tack.
You could get nostalgic remembering those sounds, but I have learned not to trust nostalgia especially when it comes to fathers and gardens and going back in time. I want to go forwards, taking this sound in my ears, this feeling in my bones, this pungent taste in my mouth, a taste of blood and iron.
* * * *
I stand at the chopping board in the kitchen in the spring evening. Outside the window the apple tree is heavy with blossom. My hands hold a knife, my attention focussed on cutting the woody ends from the asparagus. My left index finger feels for the place to cut and then the right hand slices the spears sharply: tack tack tack. The hands know things the mind does not. You pick up an axe and know without knowing how to chop wood, bake bread, wrap the dead, hoist a sail. When I was 29 a gardener put an egg in my hand. It was warm and smooth. Listen! he said. Tap tap tap: a chick was pecking its way out of its shell into the unimagined vastness of the world. I had been wrapped up in myself, far away from earth and suddenly I was looking into his eyes. “I wanted to get through to you,” he said.
Something stifled in us needs to come alive, break out, remember. We need an encounter with life to do this. My old friend Carol went into the desert when she was 40 years old. Everyone had left her and she had to start again. She sat down in the middle of nowhere and cried for a long time. Then she put her hands into the earth and her hands formed bricks out of the red mud. She built a house with those adobe bricks and then she lived there. Some people put their hands back into the earth and they find themselves weeping or laughing, flooded with feelings they have no names for. Then their hands start searching out roots, pushing seeds, pulling weeds, throwing out flints. Something happens in this moment when your hands take charge of your life: something quiet, unsusceptible to the eye, that thunders inside you and breaks. You think it is your heart. But it’s not. It’s your isolation.
The root to the real world is cut quickly. The forgetting of how to be in nature happens quickly.The diseases that come with the Western diet come quickly. They come to indigenous people and to girls who live too long in cities. Everyone blows up like a balloon, gets diabetes, their hearts fail and their stomach knots. The world of factory food goes too fast for the natural systems of human beings. To survive on this food you have to eat too much and not think about what you are eating. You have to forgo your common sense and the knowledge of your ancestors and fit the requirements of industry in the same unnatural ways that food is processed and homogenised. Somewhere deep inside you shut down. You find yourself gazing up at the actors, the kings and queens at their high tables, and forgetting you are among spear carriers without whom the play is not the play.
I stand at the chopping board, green spears in my hand. Outside the blackbird begin his evening carol. I do not make Victoria sponge or marmalade like my mother. I don’t give dinner parties and sit bejewelled amongst guests, or lay down claret, or cross the Channel to eat raie au beurre noire and Camembert. I don’t dine like a king, like my father, on smoked eel and partridge, I eat like a spear carrier. I know things about food and history my parents’ generation never knew. I know that Boudicca is not Boudicca, but a boy in a war chariot overwhelmed by the angel crowned with olive leaves. A statue to peace erected in 1912 just before the bloodiest battle ever fought began. I know that what we need is not peace but life in our hands, a year filled with great moments. Dear god, dear god! holy food for unbelievers, who don’t worship or go down on their knees but declare their happiness out loud for the fruit of the season: for greengage and rhubarb, for samphire and blackberry, for purple sprouting broccoli and leek.
Can you sing praises to broad beans and spinach? To a blue kitchen table?
The Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai sings praises to cucumber and scallions:
Times are bad. I take an oath of loyalty to the table
coated with white Formica.
His fellow countryman, the Palestinian poet, Mourid Bougati, instructs us in these times to speak of real things, to hold everything dear. In a world dominated by abstract theorems, by the high-flown rhetoric of empire, by eternal war, to cherish the concrete and the real with words is the radical act of writers and chroniclers. To acknowledge time and place, to engage in the physicial breathing and growing world is radical. Cooking is radical. Tasting the fruit of the earth, knowing where it comes from and whose hands grew it, the name of the grocer and the flower. Holding the spear and walking away from the play, in the opposite direction to Rome.
* * * *
Eventually the stern taskmistress demanded my father work harder and harder, the piles of paper in the study grew higher and higher, and the vegetables in the garden slipped away; my mother got tired and started to buy readymade food. The pies and the stews slipped away. And then they both slipped away. I was alone in a world without the ritual of carving knife and fork. The garden was paved over, earmarked for development. The kitchen fell silent. The wooden spoons lay unused in the drawer. Reluctantly I came down from my apple tree hideout, where I had been observing the wild world for twenty years, keeping a log.
Now what do we do? I said.
Frankenstein has loosed his monster on the world, an industrial chain of hubs and tankers, factories and refineries that devours every living thing in its path, spews out poisons and bad air. He stands in the laboratory mixing cocktails of enzymes and chemicals, cheating time, killing the soil, outside his juggernauts ceaselessly thunder up and down the roads of everywhere, perpetually, silently, the shelves and freezers are filled with food so cheap, so convenient, that the people forget that it is the stuff of life and comes from the earth, emerges in Spring, like the asparagus with the bluebells and the nightingale.
How can anything we do make a difference? How can knowing these facts about food serve us, knowing that Frankenstein has every base covered, is busily stripping the living systems bare, stalking the countryside, spraying the barley field beyond the hedge even now so I have to close the kitchen window not to inhale its noxious drift?
Because when the tractor with its long arms has left the field there is the blackbird singing as dusk falls, because you are still standing by the chopping board and the asparagus is still in your hands. Because you remember the feel of the land in May. The greening of everything. Something went in deep those years ago in the garden and though you are living in a different time you haven’t forgotten the lily crowns that lie for years underneath the soil. Frankenstein tries to make the world forget the deep and slow things, the plants that move according to sun and moon and alchemise life in their root and stem and leaf. He runs on clock time, 24/7 time, on high-drive, in the fast lane, where one day is the same as another and everyone is interchangeable, replaceable, only worthwhile for their ability to feed his monster’s maw.
Under his tutelage whole legions of us fall asleep, lose our minds, forget our names, who we are, what we are doing. But some of us are remembering, singing hymns in praise of radishes and olive trees, not moving from where we live, on deliberate go-slow. Growing lettuces in windowboxes and barrels, on rooftops, reclaiming land, regenerating soil, in the hinterlands and back country, in the cracks of the streets of cities, behind railway stations. Meeting up in halls and backrooms, baking our own bread, stirring the pot. Speaking to each other across tables.
Some of us are returning, carrying our spears. Coming home.
Images: Organic Lea community veg bed; asparagus from local farmer's market (Creative Commons); Jack's Suffolk asparagus with Maple Farm radishes, 2013 (CDC)