By Sandra Gibson – October 2015
Photograph by Geoff Edwards (This photograph was taken at Nantwich Market. Charles Ormrod makes and sells bread baked according to nineteenth century methods and ingredients at London Road Bakehouse S-O-T)
Warning: nostalgia alert
When I was a child, churches, chapels, schools and social clubs held ceremonies called Harvest Home, in which praise was given to a benign god for the harvest being safely gathered in and stored, so that the winter could be survived. Even in the Fifties this was an archaic idea because we didn’t share our house with our cattle and pigs, wringing our hands about growing conditions; we bought imported food from the Co-op and the Home and Colonial and put it in our pantry or fridge. The celebratory harvest displays reflected this – still do – because amongst the wormy pears, the marrows too big to contemplate, the yellow-eyed Michaelmas daisies and blue-bloomed red cabbages, less earthy donations appeared. People who didn’t have an allotment or a garden, or whose link with the land had been supplanted by the I Love Lucy show, gave tins: marrowfat peas, butter beans, rhubarb chunks, pineapple rings and carnation milk. Or they gave packets: pudding rice, cornflower, blancmange, pearl barley, Atora suet, and biscuits such as Arrowroot, Nice (never pronounced the French way), Custard Creams and Blue Ribands (always pronounced “ribbons”).
Yet there lingered, still lingers, a primitive feeling of seasonal protocol: of the growing period coming to fruition and the necessity to preserve things for the darkness to come. The procedures had precision too: just as we had been careful to make our dandelion wine before St George’s Day, and collected our elderflowers on a dry day because otherwise the cordial would smell of piss, we took care to pick our blackberries always before October 1st, because after that the devil would have spat on them and ruined the jam. Fruits from the Blackthorn trees were also harvested, washed, pricked and placed in a demi-john of gin to make a Christmas tipple: sloe gin (or in our household, quick gin which my grandfather used to down with a wink the minute it was made). It was always a wonder for me that the blue-black sloes coloured the gin deep burgundy.
At the heart of any Harvest Home service I have ever attended there would be a triumphant confection of bread, fashioned into a sheaf of brown-glazed wheat. It wasn’t simply a matter of someone from the Women’s Institute or Mr Bunn the baker showing their bake-off skills; this was a profound acknowledgement of human dependence on the earth and the seasons to provide our daily bread, wherever the wheat flour is produced. And the Fifties child pulling off the warm crust from a newly baked National loaf was already complacent about the continued provision of daily bread. Yet her grandparents and parents had recently experienced the privations created by blockades in two World Wars, because our reliance on imported food made us vulnerable. We only vaguely remember – from our history lessons – that people starved in Ireland in 1845-46 and that the harshness of the Corn Laws impacted dreadfully on the lives of ordinary people, the bulk of whose wages had to be spent on bread. This, of course, took place in a previous century when children went up chimneys.
Our food complacency is being challenged; we have seen famines and starving people, but like the children up chimneys, these things have seemed remote: an aberration in the Twenty-first Century, where food production is industrialised, globalised, televised; where cake is eulogised … Yet here we are, in Britain, rather separated from our rural roots, experiencing Dickensian hardships and hunger. The soup kitchens of the sepia yesteryear have been superseded by the food bank: an institution not created by failed harvest or failure to work, so much as the cynical blockading of all types of resources through inhumane government policies. Food banks have become the shrines to populist generosity which the Harvest Home tables used to be. But the mood is different: not expansively celebratory but an anxious – though generous – response to the drudgery of shamed need. **
*Also known as Rose Bay Willow Herb, the prolific wild flower called Fireweed, five feet tall with spikes of magenta flowers, cheers the hearts of those whose cityscape has become a bomb site or whose buildings have been cleared by machine. The dormant seeds spring to life after destructive events such as forest or man-made fires, hence the name, Fireweed. This occasional column will celebrate the persistence of wildlife in urban conditions.
**I have it on the good authority of a friend who helps at a food bank that some people do feel ashamed of their plight.