Ranch - January 2017
The wind coming down the field is bitter. A grey misty pall pervades, carrying a clinging cold. Any bucolic image of a rustic little hillside smallholding is turned right upside down. It’s a harsh environment for growing food. It would be far easier and more cost effective to do a couple of extra shifts and buy more from the supermarket. But I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. That really isn’t the point.
There are certain things essential to all living things and right at the top of is food. I can have a twatty little rant on facebook. I can sign a petition. I can go on a demonstration. Are these things of any effect? No – they’re about as much use as shoving a pipe up your arse and farting into a bottle. The point is that I can’t do any of them if I’m hungry or starving. Growing pure clean food locally is surely the most worthwhile of endeavours. In fact it’s become very trendy. Posh yuppies are writing books about it.
There’s nothing new about growing good food. That’s the way it always was until a recent pinprick blink on the time-line of human existence on this spinning rock. A technical revolution favoured the enterprising and fortunate but there was a glitch. It allowed the elitist classes to become exponentially and astronomically rich and powerful - short term gain for vast profits with no insight into the bigger picture - gargantuan greed resulting in a torn broken dying earth. If you make cupboards and furniture it’s called interior design. If you do it with the land in the most labour saving renewable way it’s called permaculture. I don’t like labels but permaculture has a subtitle – the quiet revolution. I like that. The quiet revolution.
I am in a state of angst as I witness the systematic destruction and privatisation of the NHS by millionaires who want private healthcare because they can afford it. All aspects of people being decent to each other are crumbling under the stranglehold of a tiny minority of mega rich and their global corporations. I had a nightmare the other night. I dreamt that an aged grotesque narcissistic fascist poltroon toad had become leader of the most powerful country in the world. Wake up baby. You’re just having a bad dream.
I have to ask myself at what point did we become so gutless and spineless – so blasé – so dull – so unimaginative - so intoxicated by telephone and computer screens – so fucking bourgeois .
Since food has doubled in price, I’ve doubled my output and I’ll hopefully increase it again this year. Last year didn't do very well. The garlic and onions were scratty and the three sisters method simply didn't work - the idea is that corn, squashes and beans grown together complement each other. What works in Peru doesn't necessarily work in the North of England. Dewy reckons they probably didn't get enough water and maybe there's a shortage of nutrients in the soil. He's recommended some volcanic rock dust so I've got some and sprinkled it on all the beds. I've also mulched them all with manure. This will be the third year of no digging - it will be interesting to see if things pick up. Once the greenhouse is finished, I'll be able to feed lots of water tanks off the roof and build an irrigation system. The main framework is done and I'm ready to start the roof.
Dewy has been helping me one day a week and it makes a big difference. We chopped down two big trees so there's plenty of firewood and he's planted lots of tree seedlings. I've planted loads of seeds and all the propagators are full - native plants need a cold snap to germinate. It's all local versus global - herein lies the secret. The real revolution is always within walking distance or at least a short drive away. Supermarkets, Facebook, Google and Twitter and everything to do with staring at computer screens are global.
Going to the market and small shops is local. Going to a small independent gig is local. Going to an open mic night is local. Printing your own record sleeves is local. It all has its place but the global has taken over at the expense of the local and the pendulum has to swing back. There are more and more like-minded people joining together on common ground and singing from the same hymn sheet which has to be a good thing. People are swapping their bank accounts and energy supplies from the nasties to the decent. If everyone did it, it would make a difference.
The old VW van, all newly restored, will take us to the market in spring, loaded with plants. It’s ready and waiting. Once again it’s a local van. I got the big jobs done locally and I did the rest myself under the lean-to on the ranch.
Did I mention that I bought a 1954 tractor? What a dick. What was I thinking? I bought it locally – from local people – without the internet. At what point does hippy-dippy dickwad romanticism get out of hand? For weeks, the fucker wouldn’t start and the battery was flat. One of the big tyres at the back was going down. How was I going to be able to pump it up? I’d have to bring up a generator and a compressor. I did a bit of research and found out that you can get a little compressor that fits on the power take off (PTO) on the back of the tractor so I bought one. I had to adapt it slightly and make some brackets to steady it. I didn’t think that it would work but it did – hey presto – a tractor that pumps its own tyres up – neat.
Ferguson diesel engines don’t start well in the cold. In the 1940s clever Harry Ferguson borrowed a trick from Spitfires and some of the older British cars called The Kigass System. A little pump squirts a mist of fuel onto an electrically heated glow plug. It ignites and helps start the engine. Mine was all clogged up with paint and seized up. I’ve stripped it all down and I’m rebuilding it. In the meantime, I squirt Easystart into the air inlet.
In the fading light of a clear frosty wintry afternoon last week, I pumped up the tyres and drove around the muddy field. Sweet. I recently bought a PTO concrete mixer from a farm near Bradford and picked it up in the van. Eventually I’ll get a mower and wood chipper. There’s method in my madness. The old tractor in its impeccable simplicity and durability will be a valuable labour saver. There’s even a tractor repair place in Todmorden (a local town with a market and proper shops).
Rock & Roll
The most accomplished band I played in was called Vincent (as in Gene Vincent). We were an efficient pub and club three-piece rock & Roll band with me on guitar, my brother on drums and Michael Spencer on bass on vocals. Michael was a good singer and we did well but then he emigrated to Australia twelve years ago and that was the end of that.
He came over for a five week visit over Christmas and New Year and we got back together and did a bit in the back room on New Year’s eve. We did two sets. Tyler played drums on the first set and my brother on the second and Bryn played bass. The week after, we filmed two live videos in the back room with Gary (Notsensibles) on bass and my brother on drums. They’re very rough basic videos of a bunch of old farts but nevertheless sweet – my brother back playing drums after twelve years and a some old mates playing together again without any of the bullshit from the past – here they are - Notsensibles Because I’m Mine and Willie Nelson’s Blue Eyes Cryin in The Rain.
I was never into Leonard Cohen, but I have a few friends who are. I happened to catch his last interview and I found it utterly inspiring. It gave me the faith and joyous enthusiasm to finally record those songs – just me, two microphones, my beautiful old guitar and the amplifier that I built myself. A book and a record together at the same time – that’s the idea.
Years ago, when the kids were little, times were difficult. I was doing seven 12 hour nights a week sandwiched between a three hour commute. One sunny day there was a brief moment of peace when I realised that I needed to appreciate the present. The kids were finding snails in the little bit of frontage outside the house then painting them. They were completely absorbed in painting little colourful patterns on their shells and I realised that heaven really is in the ordinary.
I wrote a book. Finalising it and knocking it into shape has been the most difficult of tasks. I don’t have any reference points. I don’t read much and I haven’t written a book before, so I’m stumbling through new territory. Boff is sort of an understated muse – he’s written two books and read mine. He gives small snippets of advice when I need them the most ‘That title’s shit’. ‘More detail, more detail’. ‘Mention the Notsensibles’. He asked me to take my letterpress set-up to Leeds Central Library one Sunday afternoon to print a little memento to accompany a concert by The Commoners Choir. The theme was the influence of the printed word. We took two presses – one for a few lines of type and the other for a woodblock of a nipping press. We used a Joseph Ames quote ‘Souls Dwell in a printer’s type’. Seeing the card come off the presses with a glistening image in shiny wet ink was quite magical and people were fascinated. I was reminded of a time when I used to do a lot of bookbinding and letterpress printing. I made sketchbooks with marbled covers and sold them.
I’ve been sending my book off to loads of agents but then I realised that I don’t know who any of these fuckers are. They could be Tories for all I know. The establishment tells you that to bring out a book, you need an agent, a publisher, a proof reader, and editor and so on.
That’s when I had an idea. I would do it ALL myself – raw and unadulterated. 100% DIY – after all, that’s what the book is all about – the DIY ethic. I suddenly realised that I had everything here under this roof to print and manufacture books – nipping press – guillotine – laser printer – it will be mighty time consuming and labour intensive but doable. I’m busy trawling through one last time before I do the final typesetting. I’m cutting little woodblock pictures for the beginning of each chapter. I’ll make a few copies and try and sell them at a local independent book shop in the hope that it will lead to wider publishing. The title? Painting Snails.
Ranch - September 2016
A balmy mid September at last gives way to Autumn and the nights become longer than the days. Once again the English and their love of weather superlatives has had a field day. The weather boys and girls and headline writers are all at it - 'The longest run of hot September days since granny Gleggthorpe's drawers were nicked off the washing line in 1911'.
I had a eureka moment on my birthday a few years ago. I would write a book from birthday to birthday using the allotment cycle as a framework and intersperse it with anecdotes about music and other stuff. I actually did it and ended up with a thick wad of paper that I threw in a drawer and forgot about. I abandoned the idea - no self-belief. The habit of rambling about allotments, music and old bangers however was firmly established. A couple of years ago, I decided to start again from scratch and finish it. I've nearly done it but I'm stuck in an impasse. I need to finish it so I'm going to sit down on my birthday and write the last chapter - rain or shine. I was going to call it 'A year in the life of an allotment owner' but Boff says that's a shit title. He says it has to be something that conveys all the aspects - maybe a classic album title. How about Rock & Roll Doctor's Ranch ?
It's been a busy summer pretending to be a farmer. The same pottering formula seems to be working well. Out in the field, I've tried the '3 sisters' method which I came across in a nerd video. It comprises planting corn in the centre, surrounded by beans, finished off with squashes on the outside. It's been used by Peruvians for centuries and now features in permaculture. The idea is that each of the three types of plant complement each other with different depths of root system pulling up different nutrients. For the squashes, I've planted courgettes, gherkins and pumpkins. The pumpkins are going crazy. I've never grown them before - they're throwing out giant vines which are spreading across the paths onto neighbouring beds and into the field. Are they Triffids?. There are tennis ball sized pumpkins appearing - I don't know whether they'll be big enough for halloween.
Potatoes have done very well - I've stuck to Desiree and King Edwards - they're stored in the stable under sawdust, hay and straw. Peas have always been difficult to grow in decent quantities so this year I built a little pea house and quadrupled the crop. I grow everything in trays now. I plant the seeds well spaced so that the plants never need transplanting again. They form a mat of roots so that they can just be lifted from the tray and placed directly on the ground - again, no digging. The edges are shored up with manure. The inner hedge that Dewy planted last winter has taken well. It's dotted with several fruit bushes which are already producing fruit. The little orchard has also produced its first fruit. Some of the nurses from work came to the field on a sunny day to do some filming for a film about sepsis. I make a reluctant (albeit anonymous) cameo appearance
One of my favourite bits of medical school was learning about the immune system. It's amazing. Vast armies of different types of cell are ready to mobilise to fight infection. Early on I began to get alarmed about the indiscriminate use of some Western medicines - particularly antibiotics. GPs literally gave them out like sweeties. Er, I think I might be getting a bit of a chesty cough and I'm going on holiday - I'll just have some antibiotics in case' Guess how long I lasted as a GP? 'There's fuck all wrong with you - fuck off. No, you don't need antibiotics and no, you can't have a sick note' Obviously I never said that, but I thought it sometimes.
I'm utterly convinced that the food chain is chronically poisoned with pesticides, fertilisers, and antibiotics that are fed to animals. I'm equally convinced that the key to health is the correct type of outdoor exercise and eating clean food. Hence the passion for the notion of growing food locally - ground to stomach. Simple.
I had the chance to put my twat ideas to the test last week when I got stung by a wasp. There's a lot of bullshit about wasps and I always go off personal experience. When I first got the ranch, it was so overgrown that the only place to sit was in front of the compost bin (on a bench seat out of a Morris Traveller). Wasps built a nest in the compost bin. "Don't worry", I said, "I won't bother you". They flew past my head all summer and I never got stung once. This year, they've nested behind a low retaining wall next to the main path. As usual, I've never given them a second thought but for some reason I've been stung three times. The third came when I was quite close to the nest weeding the bed in front of the wall - my right wrist. I did my usual and rubbed the area with Prunella Vulgaris (Self-heal.) I probably made it worse by forcing the toxins deeper under the skin. In an hour, I knew that this one was different. Redness had already tracked up my forearm and by the evening my hand was swelling like a balloon. Overnight it swelled even more - it was comical - like a blown up rubber glove. My forearm was getting very tight and the redness was now above my elbow with red tracking marks leading to the lymph nodes in my armpit which had become sore. I had cellulitis - infection under the skin. If I had seen myself in A&E, I would have prescribed IV antibiotics. I would also have admitted myself for elevation and close observation of my forearm - it had become very tense and painful. If a muscular department becomes too tense for whatever reason, there's a danger of the swelling damaging other structures - it's called compartment syndrome.
The first night was the worst. The itching and relentless dull ache kept me awake. All my conventional knowledge and training said antibiotics. My unconventional knowledge and training said otherwise. I was intensely uncomfortable and very anxious, but I didn't actually feel unwell. I wasn't hot and my pulse wasn't fast. I decided to watch and wait. On the second day, the redness had spread right up my arm, but my forearm wasn't quite as tense. Throughout the whole experience, I just carried on as normal. It got better on its own.
Herein lies a conundrum. Do antibiotics really make any difference in cases like this? I'm not convinced. It's not exactly a multi-centre randomised controlled trial but it worked for me. More to the point though, I'm suddenly very nervous about carrying on as normal and walking up and down the main path. As above, so below. Outside my cosy microcosm I also get stung badly. Once again, I'm anxious about travelling a well trod path. Is fate telling me something? Am I practising hypocrisy? Time to step sideways.
Owning an old vehicle is at best a time-consuming expensive hobby and at worst a supreme folly. I've had my 1965 VW split screen for ten years now. The idea was always to slowly restore it piecemeal whilst still getting some use out of it despite myriads of breakdowns and dramas. Last year, all the steering had become worn out and it became apparent that if I was going to keep it, I would have to replace the whole lot. Also, there was lots of rot on the front end. I decided to bite the bullet and get the entire front end rebuilt including disc brakes. It seemed apt to use the money that my dad left me otherwise I wouldn't have been able to afford it. I also decided to change the colour to a VW velvet green so the front and roof are green and the rest is rusty blue and white - a right hotch-potch. I've finally got it MOTed and I drove it home on Sunday. It's running very well.
When I got the field, it became apparent that at some point I'd need a vehicle to drive stuff round it and to mow some of the grass. I started studying the form and looking at the various options. Quad bike? definitely not - too nickable. Land Rover? Too impractical. Tractor? Possibly. I quickly found out that there are lots of small tractors available and the most popular are made by Kuboto - they were designed for small farms in Japan - they seemed ideal, but still, a bit too expensive. I started looking at English tractors and quickly found out that the most practical and usable reliable small tractor was the iconic Massey Ferguson MF35. They were built in the 60s and have been in use ever since. The trouble is that they're very collectable and so have become expensive. I noticed that one of the commonest tractors available and not too expensive was the earlier Ferguson TEF20, also known as the 'little grey Fergie'. There were lots coming up for sale on eBay. Despite being so old, the word was that they were reliable, easy to repair, with all parts still available. I decided that that was the tractor for me but I was in no rush. Oh no. Not another ancient folly.
Every year there's a classic car show at the park up the road. This year, there were two blokes on restored tractors - an MF135 and a David Brown. I got talking to them. I mentioned that I was looking for a Fergie and they told me that they knew a bloke who was selling one. They gave me his number. I phoned him. He assured me that the tractor was in good condition and in full working order. The next day Elias and I went and had a look. It's road registered and the bloke offered to deliver it so we bought it. I quite like the idea that the whole transaction was by word of mouth rather than on the internet. The same bloke and his tractor expert friend Harry sorted out a trailer, a towing hitch and a roll bar and delivered them on the back of a 1949 David Brown a week later. You can get lots of attachments that fit on the power take off such as cement mixers, saws and mowers. I'm on the look out for a grass topper. I've bought a manual and I've joined Friends of Ferguson Heritage. I get four magazines a year and a calendar. Whoohoo. There are definitely tractor shots planned for the next daft video.
Rock & Roll
Maybe it's because the ranch is so time consuming and absorbing that I've lost all interest in going out and playing music these days.... far from the madding crowd. It's ironic then that I ended up playing five times in one weekend at Jim's cafe in Colne over the Rhythm and Blues weekend. I've known Jim for years and I bumped into him at Dewy's barbecue in Barrowford. Every year at the R&B festival, he's had a mainly acoustic stage at his cafe, although I've played there several times with an electric 3-piece. We were both saying that we were tired of seeing the same acts playing the same songs every year. I ended up offering to organise the music on the Saturday and the Sunday. Rather than having acts on every hour, I decided to divide the weekend up into two hour slots and bridge the gaps between bands with DJs. It was a huge amount of effort, but it went very well and there some outstanding moments. I've had the joke idea of a band called The Jazz Bastards for years. The idea is to pose as an accomplished jazz band then get up and fuck about pretending that's it's cutting edge avant garde jazz. It finally happened at the end of Sunday night. Tyler played drums and Bryn played guitar. I played bass and did a bit of pisstake skatting. Other highlights were 3/5 of the Notsensibles (me Haggis and Kev) with Bryn on bass. The Strange headlined the Sunday night and they were great. The Spiral Room, Hot Teeth, Lee Southall and The Reaction were all great too. I also did a John Lee Hartley set again with Bryn and Tyler. I was thrilled to bits that a 17 year old and a 24 year old wanted to play with an old fart like me. The idea of the book is that there's a record to go with it. I've had the list of songs for ages and Bish and I have had numerous attempts at recording them, but I'm never happy with them. Again it's time to bite the bullet and finish it.
Ranch - June 2016
I'm standing at the top corner of a field. A promising May has given way to a wetter June but today is warm and sunny. The view is magnificent. Between the two big hills to the North-East and North-West nestles the town. The surrounding villages are visible in the distance including one with an arrow straight Roman road leading onto the moors above. If the Romans were so close by, could they have been here? Aerial photos from the 1940s show lots of smaller allotments and where I'm standing there appear to be have been three biggish buildings.
I'm on the ranch. Until a couple of years ago I'd been scrabbling about on my 1/10th acre allotment trying to grow food and native wild plants. I'd called it the ranch after I'd seen a documentary about an old bloke who had a smallholding which he called his ranch. I got the chance to buy the field when my neighbour who had kept horses on it for over 30 years sold up and moved up the hill to his other place. It's just over an acre. It's taken a while to sink in and it's far too much for me to keep on top of single-handedly but the potential to grow most of our own food and plants to sell is here and it feels good.
I'm not into all this nimby-pimby hippy green bullshit. I'm a pragmatist. Once your realise that most creatures on this planet are trying to survive and hopefully reproduce along the way, then deliberately harming anything unnecessarily becomes unthinkable. As ye sew so ye reap in the most literal sense. Newton's third law.
I was once an engineer and I prefer building and making things to gardening. I like the notion of using human ingenuity to observe and harness nature sustainably. I've recently switched over to a 'never dig again' method and it seems to be working well. I get vast amounts of horse muck from the girl next door. I build raised walls of fresh manure and fill the middle with rotted manure then lightly mulch the top with fresh manure and plant directly into it. My rationale is that the roots are into the rotted manure and well away from the acidic fresh stuff. Plants that are finished just stay where they are and rot back into the ground. I also use cover crops in winter such as clover and brassicas. It's working fairly well so far. The idea is that the undisturbed soil is colonised by fungal mycelium forming a water retaining sponge-like layer. Every few feet or so, I plant comfrey - its leaves make the best green fertiliser. It sequestrates potassium from deep under the ground. I refresh it all with more manure in winter. It turns out that what I've been doing for years comes under the banner of permaculture.
I've got a single line of hedging around the outside and this winter, my friend Dewy planted an inner hedge. The idea is that there will be a roadway around the periphery to drive around in my imaginary tractor. The inner hedge will eventually be stock fenced and I might have a couple of sheep and some poultry.
It gets a bit overwhelming at this time of year - everything is going wild and there are droves of slugs following the mild winter. Still, there's more growing than ever before. I've built a couple of extra propagators and put down a concrete foundation for a greenhouse. If I can get my old jalopy of a van back on the road, I'm hoping to do a couple of markets next year selling plants.
Rock & Roll
When I was in a punk band, I privately thought that most punk was tuneless shite - especially the Southern stuff. I was discovering records like Koko Taylor's Wang Dang Doodle and Eddie Fontaine's Nothin Shakin. I liked the raw simplicity of true R&B and rockabilly. Later, I found out that most of these records were recorded more or less live in studios like Chess, Stax and Sun on a maximum of four tracks. Often there was a pool of musicians who comprised 'the house band', giving each label its own distinct sound. This whole idea appealed to me enormously. I've been in plenty of big posh studios bit I prefer to keep it simple and have the freedom to record whenever I want. For years I've had a straightforward eight track setup in the corner of the back room. We've made quite a few records now and it's evolved into a small DIY record label - my bands, friends' bands, offspring's bands and so on. We make all our own covers and print them using letterpress and woodblock. We've also discovered video making. I've played with the same drummer (Bish) for years now and we're slowly recording an album alongside various one off projects. I'm now John Lee Hartley which makes me smile. We've made quite a few daft videos.
Our latest project has been the most successful to date. We released a 7" single for Bish's son's band The Goa Express and did a video for it. We managed to get it as a proper Record Store Day release. It's doing well.
There's a lot of psychology going on with blokes and their old bangers. I recently got a 'decent' car for the first time in my life and I love it. It's big enough to sleep in the back and it's 4 wheel drive, so it will drive round the field. It's also very luxurious. I had a perfectly good Golf estate that I'd had for yonks but when I took the van off the road, I needed something that would negotiate the rough track to the ranch.
The van is yet another of my supreme follies. Really it's one project too much. It's a 1965 VW split screen. I've always liked the idea of a vehicle that is basic and simple to maintain. The plan was always to slowly restore it a bit at a time while getting some use out of it and that's what I've been doing for the last ten years. The truth is that it's a bit of a money pit but there's a certain just-so-ness about its iconic design. I've recently had the entire front end rebuilt and now it's languishing in a garage needing a few days work to get it back on the road. We've had lots of great camping trips in it and it really is the perfect festival vehicle. It's a Microbus which quickly converts into a very efficient camper. Nothing beats those patio-like opening side doors.
Last week I went on my annual camping trip to the same campsite that I've been going to since I was six. Elias came with me and we walked up the mountain and sat at the same table at the same pub. The week before, four nurses from work came to the field to do a bit of filming for a video about sepsis. It's all go.
Two of my long-standing friends have stepped sideways into full time gardening jobs at a Michelin star hotel. We're all into permaculture and we're joking about the next revolution coming from the Gentlemen Gardeners of The North. Growing clean food in a sustainable way is an important building block - the quiet cycle of the ranch somehow transcends the bullshit of a world free-falling into alarming polarisation and xenophobia. In fact the events of the last few weeks have been rather harrowing all in all. What should a gentleman gardener do? Buy a fucking tractor of course. So I did. I'm already starting to feel better. It was serendipity. I was talking to two blokes on tractors at the annual classic car show up the park and they told me about a tractor for sale - no internet, just word of mouth. Maybe that's the way forward? Stretching sideways. Talking to people.