Urban gardening by John Fielden, Tadcaster

One Zoom meeting this week was with the Charitable Activities Committee of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society. This meets three times a year to plan and fund a very wide range of events and networks that support farmers and their wives and help children in Yorkshire to learn about the countryside and food production. We spend about £400,000 on this annually and about 18,000 children take part.

This year of course all this is greatly reduced; the society’s income generating activities (huge conference centre, smaller suites of meeting rooms and a caravan park) are not operational and the flagship event – the Great Yorkshire Show – has been cancelled. Only the farm shop continues but with a focus on food boxes for local families.

One of the summer treats for me and my wife is a visit to some very urban primary schools in Wakefield and Leeds to judge their vegetable boxes. Each year the Society gives them a large box, many bags of peat and some seeds and encourages the school to produce vegetables. The aim is to promote the Farm to Fork message and results are often amazing.

My wife’s particular thrill was when in one school little Seb aged 6 takes her firmly by the hand and insists on leading her around the garden showing what he has done and what he has learned from his Granddad’s allotment.

It is encouraging to see what some schools have done with bits of spare land; one school not only has chickens, ducks in a pond, a large greenhouse for pricking out seeds and plants and composting bins.  Another has a very topical Victory garden and is planning to erect a dry stone wall like those in the Yorkshire dales to the north.

This year all this has ground to a halt; but the work of our committee goes on.  This week we funded a farmer who wanted glass bottles to start a business of selling milk shakes, a charity for the disabled whose horses were needing feed and care since no clients could come near them, and we promised some schools basic gardening materials for when they re-opened.

Village life. John Fielden. Tadcaster

I live in a small hamlet (population 40-50) which is a cul de sac off a main road.  There are only two families aged over 80 (which includes us), lots of commuters to York and Leeds and two farms. Nothing much happens at the best of times so the lockdown changes nothing.  We have no social focus apart from the church on alternate Sundays, but this is of course closed and there is no pub.  Our big event each year is a fete on the village green outside our house; and my wife organises teas in our garden for 2-300 people who come.  This year the fete is cancelled which is very bad news for the church finances and means the loss of a key event that binds us all together.

Nearby is the River Wharfe, the source of regular threats to our houses; in December 2015 half of all the houses in the village including ours were flooded and in February this year I spent many nervous moments watching the flood waters creep up the defensive bank that we had created.  Every few hours the Environment Agency updated the readings on two telemetry gauges on the river and this gave us some warning.  At one end of the hamlet seven householders had clubbed together to raise £25,000 buying themselves a large rubber sausage or Aquadam, which they filled with water to act as a flood defence.  This action brought us our ten seconds of fame on local and national TV and means that Googling Kirkby Wharfe produces something other than property advertisements.

preparing the sausage

Our two farmers (arable and beef) have been affected more by the weather than the virus.  They both suffered greatly from the winter floods with some low lying fields under water for about three months and now they are enduring an unusual five week drought (until last night’s downpour of 1.5ml of rain).  One or two fields are not yet sown with a spring crop, which will certainly affect yields later.

Neither farmer has any visitor attraction or fund raising enterprise to attract the public, so they are not suffering from this source of income being suddenly halted.  One farm does however have a very successful livery enterprise for about 75 horses and has developed strategies to minimise contact and preserve distancing.  All the horses are now out permanently in their own paddocks and their owners have to commit to visiting the livery at pre-booked times each day which limits the number of people on site.  The noble girl grooms who work at the livery have to self isolate themselves from their families when they return home in the evenings.

The lockdown changes little in our life and merely strengthens our strong community spirit.

Death comes close, by John Fielden, Tadcaster, UK

Kirkby Wharfe church

Until this week the daily casualties from the virus did not strike home. Now however we have experienced two deaths.  One was the mother of my son in law who died in hospital in Scotland after a serious operation; the other was the brother of my son’s godmother, who caught Covid 19 (as did his wife) and died later in hospital in Guildford, mourned by many of the staff, as he was a governor of the trust.

My son in law’s experience in arranging a funeral must be common for many.  First of course a church service was impossible, so he hunted around in Scotland for a crematorium that would take family and mourners at the service.  Finally he settled on Perth which allows up to 10 people.  Near me in Yorkshire both York and Leeds councils do not allow any family at all at their crematoria and grieving relatives must go to Halifax.

This afternoon a short half hour service was streamed live from the Perth crematorium and 58 people including us tuned in to watch.  A wonderful clergyman (a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland) with a soft Scottish voice led the service, while family members read a psalm and a lesson and my son in law gave a moving tribute to his mother. Recorded music from a choir and a Royal Marines band provided the start and finish of proceedings.  The whole experience was very moving and as close to the real thing as could be done – a triumph for technology – for a change!

Kirkby Wharfe church – interior

Having finished watching the service I strolled in the lovely sunlight along our village green to our 12th century late Norman church a hundred yards away.  Sitting there inside in the cool with sunlight shafting through the stained glass windows was a fitting coda to the afternoon.  For 870 years this lovely church has given comfort to villagers at times of plague, civil war and pestilence.  Now the church authorities or Magisterium have decreed no-one can enter. How lucky I am that, as church treasurer, I have a key that allows me to break this crazy rule.


from John Fielden in Tadcaster, UK: remote everything

The thought of members of Parliament staring into a screen and trying to have a civilised debate with 50 others on one screen and at least 100 others on 100 screens does challenge the mind.  Is this really the best way we can show the democratic basis of our governance? At the least, however, it will allow her majesty’s opposition to make long overdue challenges to the Government in the Commons on its two major practical failures to date – the take up of tests and the provision of timely PPE.

There could be some interesting constitutional issues about the set up; can the Commons in this state enact or endorse anything? Or is it merely a House of Challenging Questions? While it may be possible for its Select Committees to continue to do some good work, what actions can follow – merely Statutory Instruments?

The rash of remote or virtual activities is widespread. We hear of attempts to launch a huge virtual tea party to cheer everyone up. (This brings back memories of a tea party for 2,733 people organised by one of my ancestors to celebrate the passing of the Ten Hours Bill in 1848. It was held in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester at a cost of £946 – or £93,800 in today’s money). Many grandparents are having remote lunches or tea parties with their grandchildren. My wife and I, along I am sure with others, set up a table for a neat lunch on Easter Sunday with a daughter and two grandchildren 250 miles away and they did the same.

Family remote meetings can work, but the method does not succeed when transferred to television panel shows – as we see from the limp chemistry on programmes such as Have I got News for you. It just about works on outside programmes such as Countryfile where the animals and the countryside are the stars of the show.

Remote education has hit my grandchildren. Their summer term has started at four private schools in Banbury, Calne, Thirsk and Shrewsbury.  Or it should have.  The reality is that they are sitting at home online. I really wonder how their teachers who, presumably are novices at the art, have responded in the design of the material and the pedagogy. Have they passed Step 1 which simply puts text on the screen? [I spent five years of my life in the 1970s evaluating the National Development Programme for Computer Assisted Learning –NDPCAL – which was a major national programme exploring the use of computers in teaching and learning. Hence I have an interest in the matter).

The school fees for this novel experience are far from remote. My son who is chair of the governing body of one of the schools tells me that all private schools are charging 80% of the usual fees. He argues that almost all their costs are fixed and that he can only save on cooks, cleaners and the electricity bill. On the plus side all the teachers are full employed and fully paid. If they are using the potential of online learning effectively, they will certainly be overworked.

from John F in Tadcaster, UK: the deliverers …

In my local town of Tadcaster one of the three breweries has a fine pair of white shire horses, usually used to take barrels to pubs in the town. Now they are loaded up with bottled beer orders from the beer starved locals and the horses clop around the housing estates that fringe the town. Tadcaster has form as far as beer is concerned; in 1840 there was one pub for every 70 people. Nowadays  not only has it got three breweries for a population of 6,000, but also as many as twelve pubs adorn its streets. This is despite the workers at the breweries getting free allocations of beer. Now the pubs are all closed, no wonder the shire deliveries are in high demand.

The crisis has divided us all elderly people into deliverers and deliverees. The latter are in two categories – those that do not pay for delivery, receiving food and essentials from wonderful volunteers – and those like my wife and myself who pay for a milkman, a vegetable box delivery and parcels of meat from a local farmer. My wife is now sourcing supplies of fish from the poor fishermen of Whitby and Grimsby, whose markets are closed.

The social mix of deliverers is changing; our last two parcels were delivered by well dressed people from the boot of their Mercedes or Volvo. There are still the usual courier companies working at a colossal rate. Our last delivery man gave us forewarning of his arrival via a clever tracking system which showed him working his way through the 130 deliveries for the day and snaking along little country lanes between us and York where he started. Amazon still remains a wonder that it can honour next day delivery promises when many of its Fulfilment Associates (what a horrible term) must be off  work and self isolating. This challenge has forced the company to pay them well with hourly day rates from £11.50 to £12.50 per hour.

When it is all over what will the picture be? The Volvo and Mercedes owners will have gone back to their old jobs (we hope), but there will remain a vast new infrastructure of volunteers and paid for deliverers enabling us old folks to stay at home – for an indefinite period, as seems likely.

from John F. in Tadcaster, UK: the pandemic economy in Madrid.

The pandemic economy. Gigi was a surprising name for an Iberian ham cutter –a nattily suited Romanian, and definitely a man – who was renting out my garage parking spot. But then his Oklahoman colleague at the ham cutting business was surprising too. Glen had moved from a marketing role at a blue-chip American bank to being the office manager for Emilio García Ortigosa, a colourful Spanish personality show with an appropriate acronym, EGO, which he used as his company name. Glen saw no contradiction in being a practising Jew and the purveyor of cured Iberian ham, professionally cut, served and presented, with considerable ceremony and explanations, by trained ham cutters. Happily, this was an irony we could joke about together, the first of many.

The company provided a package deal, so to speak, for restaurants and high-end hotels around Madrid and beyond. Gigi was the star cutter and trained the junior ham cutters. This is a business model that would be difficult to explain succinctly outside Spain, where ham-cutting is a respected trade, combining artistry, performance, understanding of a high-quality artisan product and long hours putting up with the public. Pretty much the gastronomic equivalent of bull-fighting.  EGO’s ham cutting business was doing perfectly well, until eating out, a staple of Spanish life, became one of Covid 19’s first casualties. All restaurants were required to close under the State of Alarm imposed in the middle of March.

A little more than a month before, Gigi, Glen and I had been out together to celebrate our new rental arrangement. A bout of flu somewhere in China in no way impinged on the important business at hand: we were virtual strangers, united by the flimsiest of bonds, but this was more than enough for three adoptive residents to enjoy Madrid, a true party city. We had a splendid evening at a smart hotel bar, gobbling down EGO’s excellent ham as it was sliced, with actorly flourish, by one of Gigi’s protégés.

With the closure of Madrid’s night life, EGO’s business went into hibernation with no forecast as to when the revenue stream would start up again. What to do with the master cutter’s snazzy motor? Leaving it on the street in Madrid’s Latin quarter was not a sensible option. The neighbourhood is popular with anarchists, and the nearby square still houses the headquarters of the obstreperous CNT trade union, still remembered from the Civil War and the focal point for anti-fascist rallies on key political anniversaries. That is not to say that Gigi’s large black BMW would be any safer elsewhere, but he was a proud and protective owner. This was our dilemma; the owner of the BMW had no cash, but the owner of the parking space needed to make a return on her investment, too.

Some currencies, however, can acquire liquidity. Which is how I ended up lurking on the third and lowest floor of an underground carpark waiting for a Romanian ham cutter. 30 vacuum-packed envelopes of Iberian ham changed hands, and the rent for this month was sorted. Next month might be a good one for sheep’s cheese.

Guest blogger: Henrietta in Madrid