Half life: The old Box Brownie and the phantom plastic bag

Photos of Easter Fair in Huddersfield 1949 and opening of Cr8 Barn 2013

Left: Easter Fair in Huddersfield, 1949 – detail of photo reprinted on 21st April 2014 [Huddersfield Examiner].
Right: Opening of the Cr8 Barn at Stirley Farm, September 2013 [Yorkshire Wildlife Trust].

“Do you think that could be me?” asked my mother, handing me a copy of Monday night’s paper, folded open at a black and white photograph, the page slightly crumpled and already decorated with more than one muddy pawprint around the edges.

My first thought was that the nose was too long, then peering closer I realised that the figure in the photo had a hand across part of her face at that moment, captured as she reached up to take a bite from the fairground snack that she was holding as she strode across the field. I squinted. I held up a finger to obscure the hand of the figure in the photo. And there was my mother at the fair, aged fourteen and a half.

She’s good at recognising people from photographs, however small or obscure. Often it’s the way people are standing that she notices, but she’s good at the detective work too. She was already thinking of another photo in which she might be wearing the same coat. “We didn’t take many photos in those days…” The picture of her trip to Norway (which has also been in the paper) is a contender, and another image too. “What I’m not sure about is what I’m holding. It’s not a purse… I think it might be my dad’s old Box Brownie.”

There was a little black and white photocopied image in the Hall Bower newsletter recently which caught my mother’s eye. She picked me out straight away, unclear though the image was. But the detective was baffled by something. “I’m sure that’s you,” she said, “but why would you be carrying a plastic bag?” This apparent evidence of such out-of-character behaviour cast a cloud of suspicion on a mother’s certainty, causing us both to wonder whether I might have a doppelganger. I knew I was there, but even so…

It was only on seeing the original colour image that I recognised the small off-white canvas bag with a bit of an orange pattern on it, then all became clear. It’s the bag that I was carrying my cameras in, my Panasonic Lumix and a Zoom Q4 digital video recorder. The technology may well have moved on a bit, but there’s something strikingly familiar in these two chance images – 64 years apart yet inseparable. Even the coats are almost the same. But I guess that’s no wonder. My green corduroy coat is an echo of the green mac that I used to wear at school and college, which has long since ceased to fit me, and which used to belong to my mother.

I wonder if the magic of chance images will be lost forever when the last analogue generation has grown old. And I wonder what that fourteen year old girl hoped for the future. She can’t have known anything that her life would hold. Can’t have known that we’d both be here looking at that photograph, a few days before my birthday in the year when one of us will become half the other’s age.

These two pictures are two sides of the same coin, flipped. I was born in April, her in September. And it’s me who is looking to the past.

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What did they do with all those radishes?

Radishes and other vegetables on a table

Sue Stanwell’s winning entry in the West Yorkshire Organic Group Show, 2013. ‘Organically yours’ a photo celebrating organic growing or eating in West Yorkshire.

I had my reservations about whether to watch The Big Allotment Challenge, the latest programme on the BBC’s list of attempts to recycle the Great British Bake Off format. The muddy patches and aching limbs that I come home with every weekend (and the couch grass roots stuck to the soles of my boots) bear testament to just how much of a challenge allotment growing can be. But there’s something very perturbing about food growers challenging each other. I don’t like the idea of being in competition with your neighbours, rather than supporting each other in your common battles against docks, clay soil, slugs, pouring rain, gales that distribute flying shed components, mice who eat your broad bean seeds and (of course) the aforementioned couch grass.

All that this programme encouraged me to grow was a stronger sense of unease.

It left me with three questions…

1. Who is looking after the contestants’ own allotments whilst they’re busy gadding about on the telly?

I wondered about the practicalities of filming nine pairs of allotment gardeners from around the country. The TV solution seems to be to set up temporary plots in a picturesque walled garden – as artificial as the Bake Off’s kitchen in a tent. Flash back 15 weeks to when the growers arrived on their new plots. “It’s really important to get the soil clean”, says one contestant, lightly turning over a patch of already immaculately weed-free topsoil, in a perfectly defined plot, next to their own well-equipped greenhouse, between the neatly clipped lawns. I imagine any novice grower watching this will have a rude awakening when confronted with a real allotment plot for the first time.

2. What did they do with the other 496 radishes?

Challenge number one was where things really started to go downhill for me (you will note that it didn’t take long). The contestants were asked to pick three matching radishes from the crops that they’d grown, to present to the curiously named Jim Buttress (former Royal Parks manager), who is possibly the only sane person on the programme but has an unhealthy obsession with conformity. Whilst inspecting the row of radish trios, he seemed a bit like a drill sergeant at morning roll call, albeit much more polite. Along the row he went, commenting on size, whether the roots had been trimmed, whether there were any blemishes and (most serious of all) whether the radishes matched each other.

At this point, one of the contestants proudly said that they had grown in succession so had the benefit of 500 radishes to choose from, from which they found a total of four that were evenly matched. Three went on the bench, one was presumably held in reserve in case of a last minute radish disaster. Did the rest go straight on the compost heap? I mean, what do you do with 496 radishes? There was certainly no suggestion that anyone might actually want to find out what they tasted like. There can be no clearer demonstration of why I’ve never been to a ‘Show Day’ than this – and when I do, it will be the West Yorkshire Organic Group’s show that I visit, because it is judged on taste, as you’d think food should be. I love growing my own tomatoes because they taste so much better, but also because I enjoy having all the different sizes, colours and shapes to choose from.

3. Which came first, The Big Allotment Challenge or Britain’s Tastiest Village?

If you’ve been watching W1A, the BBC’s self-mocking spoof which follows the misadventures of their new Head of Values, Ian Fletcher, you’ll be familiar with the tribulations of Britain’s Tastiest Village. This planned new show, which seems to be a rehash of several other TV programmes, is one of the running jokes of the series, having lost several high profile presenters before even getting off the (very wobbly) drawing board. And the longer the Big Allotment Challenge went on, the shadow of Britain’s Tastiest Village somehow began to creep over the screen. I clearly wasn’t the only person who noticed. I began to think… is this life imitating art, or art imitating art, or life accidentally (or deliberately) recreating art? Is it all some really elaborate cross-promotional marketing scheme by the Beeb, or at this very minute is a deranged PR person waving her arms about violently and using the words ‘cock up’ and ‘I’m not being funny or anything but..’ The whole thing made my head hurt. And not in the challenging way that good TV sometimes makes your head hurt.

Maybe the BBC could be so kind as to run this programme on a Sunday morning, when I’ll have no danger of seeing it because I’ll be busy digging down at the allotment.

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A tale of two trouser legs

planting brassica seeds

Planting (random) brassicas

Any food grower knows that April is frantic sowing season. It was all hands (and knees) on deck in the polytunnel on Sunday morning as we sowed our brassica seeds – five kinds of kale, four kinds of cabbages, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, calabrese and something that can’t make its mind up whether it’s sprouts or kale (which apparently tastes a bit like cabbage). I was particularly careful with the labels, in what will undoubtedly turn out to be another failed attempt to avoid random brassicas.

Here are ten other things that I’ve done this week whilst wearing jeans (muddy or clean):

I stood with Cherry on the footpath to Hall Bower for a couple of minutes, watching a Kestrel hovering intently next to a tree. She’d pointed it out to me. A stunning act of levitation that I might have overlooked without her attentiveness. She walks every day and has a richer life because of her connection with our local environment. The hip problems she’s developed this year must be frightening in all kinds of ways. When we eventually set off again, I still struggled to keep up with her pace. It amused us.

I made a valiant defence of the Agile development process, got shouted at for my efforts, did my product owner and peacemaker duties to the best of my understanding then trotted around Sainsbury’s listening to a spot of essential venting, punctuated by some bonus cheese protein comparisons.

I put curlers in my mother’s hair, with the bottle of setting lotion being watched suspiciously by the cat.

I offered sound advice about web usability, content development and digital engagement.

I listened carefully to some difficult messages that we need to share with local residents soon, and thought about how I can help people to keep informed and prepared.

box of herb plantsI gave a talk to Thurstonland Village Association about Growing Newsome’s work over the past five years and heard some of their own ideas and challenges. Rena and her husband Colin kindly picked me up so that I could get there straight after work, and brought me back home again afterwards. Not only that, but I was given four lovely herbs for our allotment as a thank you for the talk. Rena told me about her experiments with planting by moonlight, which turns out to be a bit problematic with the British weather – if it rains, that’s another four weeks of waiting for the right night.

paper cranesI reminded colleagues about the importance of making connections between people – not quick ways of getting something done for nothing by finding a willing volunteer, but growing long term, trusting relationships between people so that we can all find new ways of supporting each other.

I made three more batches of paper cranes: 12 x classic colour collection, 13 x patterned papers, 14 x contemporary colour collection – 39 in total, carried carefully into the office in a paper bag. Our running total (according to the crane master) is 409, so we are nearing the half way mark of our 1,000 cranes.

I potted up 97 tomato seedlings, of over twenty different varieties. They include some of my favourites, such as Yellow Pear (a heritage tomato with small, tasty, pear-shaped fruits) and some varieties that are new to me which promise to do well in a cold climate, such as Glacier, Latah and Alaskan Fancy. We shall see. 97 might sound a lot, but I’m growing most of them to give away. And I’ve already planted another batch, even though every windowsill in the house is full. You can never have too many tomatoes.

I continued to be a human being, despite being looked down at on the way into a lift on Monday morning (and on the way out of the same lift) for wearing jeans to work.

muddy jeans, clean jeans

Muddy jeans, clean jeans –
one careful lady owner

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Two treats

doodleThe highlight of my week was watching Mr @StevenTuck contentedly colouring in this doodle, using the small packet of crayons that I had brought with me especially, just to get him through our sprint planning meeting in one piece.

It looks like a fancy pillow to me, but maybe that’s just because I’m tired.


paper cranes on a tableI also brought some square paper for making a few more of his 1,000 cranes.

I ended up using the paper to keep me entertained too. I think that’s allowed though 🙂

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barometer dial

32 Antique Ships Barometer by Jason Short
[Flickr, Creative Commons]

“Cold, isn’t it?” said a lady from up the street as she walked past me shivering at the bus stop this morning.

At lunchtime, I trudged miserably across town with an allegedly broken laptop, grudgingly returning it to the mothership (the only way, it seems, to get it to connect with said mothership today), and to make matters worse it began to hail.

As I walked back slowly to the office, feeling drained and carrying the lunch that I no longer had time to eat, it rained. Teetering on the brink of a migraine, I had to keep my soggy hat on indoors to fend off the glaring lights.

I sat awkwardly in a meeting trying to discreetly eat my cold and surprisingly spicy pumpkin soup, and ended up debating the difficulties of encouraging new volunteers to come and garden on top of a hill in the howling wind.

All things considered, I was glad to get home to a hot bath. It was accompanied by the sound of distant thunder which suddenly became bright blue lightning flashes, loud thunderclaps and yet more hail beating on the windowpane.

I sat quietly and listened, and the day’s aches and pains went away.

Tomorrow I guess everything will be different again.

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Is it Spring yet?

gnome surrounded by melting snowSpring is…

A). The day your first tomato seedling pokes its head gently through the surface of the compost in a little corner of a propagator on your bathroom floor – but is it really Spring, or just the underfloor heating?

B). Today, the Spring equinox, three weeks too late for the meteorologists perhaps – but the driving rain and 60mph gusts of wind that made at least two news presenters cry on their way up Holme Moss on a bicycle this afternoon was perhaps the weatherman’s way of getting his own back.

C). When the kippers begin to get giddy – something to do with the rising of sap (and the mixing of metaphors).

D). When the soil feels co-operative, a bit warm to the touch, not too boggy for digging – but is Winter really over today, or will we be digging through the snow in search of our onions again by the end of March, like last year.

E). When the Universe tells you that things are about to get better – and you try your best to believe it.

Take your pick.

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Not putting away childish things

Butterfly Ball Swallowtail

‘Swallowtail, the real Me
Behind the painted mask you see
(Truthfully I must reply)
Is someone most extremely shy.’
Illustration: Alan Aldridge

When I arrived at Junior school, my first question as I peered around the crowd to get a glimpse of the new classroom was “Where are the toys?” There was a little carpeted area at the back of the classroom that looked like the obvious place for keeping toys – but no toys. There were other things though.

My first memory of looking at a book in a schoolroom is of sitting in that same part of the room drawing pictures of mushrooms and little creatures from illustrations in books. Thinking about it now, I guess that words and pictures have always been entwined for me, each as important as the other.

butterfly drawingWhen I was poorly and had to stay home, I was given a beautifully illustrated book to draw from. This was “The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast” by Alan Aldridge (illustrator) and William Plomer. I still have this book on a shelf at my family’s home, and there are some of my childhood scribbles held between the pages. I always think of this book as being a special treat, something to take a child’s mind away from feeling sad. I’m glad that I still have it.

The Strange Adventures of Emma book coverAbove the shelf where the Butterfly Ball sits ought to be a copy of “The Strange Adventures of Emma” by Dorothy Ann Lovell and Irene Hawkins (illustrator), but this is a childhood favourite that I can no longer find. I keep hoping that it will turn up somewhere. It’s the story of a doll called Emma who lived in a museum in London and went off on her adventures.

We used to visit London a fair bit when I was a child. We spent many an hour searching museums for Emma, because I was convinced that the story must be about a real doll. I remember the unfathomable expanse of the V&A, where my mum patiently went off to ask someone where we might find the dolls. We never found her of course, but along the way I saw and learned about lots of things. Looking back, I suspect that indulging this childhood obsession was a smart manoeuvre on my mother’s part.

Emma doll on bookshelfThe Christmas morning following our trip to the V&A, I came downstairs to find Emma sitting in our living room. She was an Emma made by my mother, complete with the dress and bonnet and cape and everything else described in the book, right down to her tiny bag containing a jewel and a handkerchief with a monogrammed letter ‘E’.

page from A House for a Mouse bookAnother favourite is ‘A House for a Mouse’ by June Hurst and Wendy Man. It’s a little spiral bound story about a mouse looking for a home, complete with a little finger puppet mousey. It’s a bit battered around the edges now but still makes me smile. It even has a page for you to draw a picture of your own house. Looking at the faded price ticket on the back page, I’d say it was 95p very much well spent.

Perhaps sometimes we go out on adventures looking for something that we can find at home all along – but we still need to go.

Page from A House for a MouseHow many of our childhood adventures help to define the person who we grow up to be? I think about my childhood of words and images, of rockpools and forests, and I realise how much of my childhood curiosity I still have today. I wouldn’t be without it. I think there’s plenty to be said for not putting away childish things.


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