Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Decent Thing

Once every three weeks on a Saturday, I go down to a warehouse on an industrial estate on the edge of a small East Sussex town and spend the morning sorting out tins of soup, baked beans and other non-perishable foodstuffs. I then transport stock, for the week ahead, to the distribution centre in the middle of town. I am joined in these tasks by three other people and we are all of us volunteers for the Trussell Trust, the Christian charity that operates Foodbank, the largest network dealing with food poverty in this country.

Food is donated to Foodbanks by individuals, businesses and local organisations. Mostly, Foodbanks are being used by the working poor, the unemployed and the elderly who need to bridge the gap until the next payday, benefit or pension payment, or keep away from the clutches of payday loan companies. You cannot walk into a Foodbank off the street and get free food. You have to have been referred by an agency, such as a GP practice, health centre or Citizens Advice Bureau that has identified you as being in crisis and issued you with a voucher for three days of emergency food.

Last weekend, no doubt in response to the Trussell Trust’s recent revelation that it has provided a million food parcels to those in need in the last year, that bastion of investigative journalism, The Mail on Sunday (MoS), sent a reporter to a Citizens Advice Bureau in Nottingham to test the system. Having told a series of lies – he was unemployed, had two children, had fuel bills to pay - the intrepid reporter was given a voucher and then collected his food from the local Foodbank. The story was written up with the heading How MoS Reporter Got Three Days of Groceries…No Questions Asked, despite then detailing the questions about personal details, income and diet that the reporter was asked and dishonestly answered. The piece then put forward the specious argument that this one instance proves that Foodbanks are patronised by none but the undeserving poor. As a charity and not a statutory body, the Trussell Trust would not have the level of checks of a benefits agency; there is a clue in their name.

As well as being the sort of casuistry we expect from the DMG Media stable, it is such a low blow against good people. My fellow volunteers at Foodbank are all Christians from local churches. I am not a Christian; I volunteer because the previous pieces I have written about Foodbank have been the most read posts on this blog, and I thought I should do something practical instead of moaning about poverty from the comfort of my keyboard. All of the Foodbank volunteers I have met are kind, well-meaning people, mostly in their sixties, and small ‘c’ conservative in their views; they are doing what they would see as the decent, Christian thing – “I was hungry and you gave me food”.

Any system is open to deception but the process of obtaining help with food is not one that most people would expose themselves to lightly. There is stigma attached to accepting charity, and the admission that you are not able to feed your children is a particularly difficult one to make, even to the most sympathetic ears. However, some good has come of the Mail on Sunday’s plumbing of the depths. The social media backlash against the paper has manifested itself in increased donations to the Trussell Trust’s JustGiving campaign; since the story appeared, £50,000 has been donated in just two days.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What a Waste

I don’t know why I’m surprised that BBC2’s The Big Allotment Challenge was a big pile of stinking manure. After all, this is the broadcaster that has put competitive misery into making cakes and cooking dinner with the stressful The Great British Bake-Off and the dour MasterChef; but I thought allotments had moved on from the image of an old boy in his cycle clips gazing anxiously and admiringly at his highly polished giant onions ahead of the village show. However, halfway through Tuesday night’s programme, I stopped watching after the allotmenteers’ radishes were judged on their shape, perfection and uniformity. The judges didn’t even taste them – and this a salad vegetable that you eat raw.

I have blogged before about the forward-thinking site where I have my plot and how it is important as a source of food and community. There are annual prizes for the best-kept plots, to encourage people to keep on top of their allotments, but there are no competitions for the biggest or most pristine produce to intimidate beginners, or those who simply want to get cheap food out of the ground. Although plots are rented from the parish council, the day-to-day management of communal areas and the organising of community events are carried out by members of the allotment association.

The worst thing about The Big Allotment Challenge is that, in a contradictory age of food poverty and food waste, it perpetuates myths that growing food is difficult because it has to look perfect. Growing radishes is the simplest thing: throw some seeds on the earth, lightly cover them with soil and a few weeks later, tasty radishes. Supermarkets and growers waste tons of food every year because of their perception of the superficial demands of the customer. A programme like this should have been an opportunity to show that growing food is easy and inclusive. Sadly, that opportunity has been wasted too.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sceptred Isle, Watery Neptune

Despite last year’s Machineries of Joy being British Sea Power’s bestselling album since 2008’s Mercury-nominated Do You Like Rock Music?, they chose to build on this new success by playing only two tracks from their most recent product at their showcase London gig at Koko last night. Having opened up their tour set list to suggestions on social networking a few weeks ago, they presented a set from the rockier end of their repertoire, laced with some forgotten gems. It is this lack of music-biz cutting edge that inspires devotion to the Sussex-based band.

Opening with the ethereal instrumental Heavenly Waters, a tune only to be found on US versions of their debut album, the band quickly ‘krank’ it up with a lively quartet of tracks. Beginning with Fear of Drowning – the lyric “tonight I'll swim from my favourite island shore” reminding us of the band’s preoccupation with this sceptred isle and watery Neptune - and ending with the riotous Atom, the sequence prompts an outbreak of serious stage-front pogoing; not moshing - surely BSP are a punk band at heart…

Before lead singer Yan switches to his brother’s bass to allow Hamilton to deliver his more fragile vocals on a run of mellower songs, the band perform We Are Sound from the neglected Valhalla Dancehall. Their Britishness is set in a European context less celebrated than that of the welcome and tolerance of Waving Flags: the opening line, “oh come now, you can barely string two words together/and you think Europe's own worst spectres are coming back to haunt us all”, tilts at the insular narrowness of some who seek to define the current national view.

After a rare outing for the title track of 2010’s EP, Zeus, with its puzzling couplet, “Rick Stein, pleased to meet you, I did not mean to be so rude/ I just didn't know that you were so famous for your food”, the band’s peerless first single, Remember Me, ushers in a crowd-pleasing home straight of Waving Flags, Carrion and All In It, broken only by the epic swirl of instrumental, The Great Skua. This sequence of anthems turns the audience, in the former Edwardian variety theatre, into a sea of surging singalong. When they encore with the title track of 2004’s Japanese import, The Spirit of St. Louis EP, the buoyancy is momentarily lost; but when the “easy, easy” terrace chant of No Lucifer heralds the onstage appearance of mascots, the Bi-Polar Bear and Ursine Ultra, the triumphal mood is restored for a raucous finale.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Sunday Stroll

Coming down a steep track off the South Downs Way near Lewes early yesterday evening, I thought my kneecaps might shear off or my calves burst open. My usual idea of walking is a maximum of 8 miles with at least two pub stopovers on the way; but yesterday, as one of seven walkers helping two friends train for Herculean walking feats later in the year, we covered the 20 miles from Birling Gap to Kingston village. It was not a Sunday stroll; today, I have been mostly nursing sore feet. Hopefully my younger, fitter friends will not be feeling quite so much pain. One will be walking non-stop from London to Brighton in May for Great Ormond Street Hospital; another will be scaling the peaks of Ben Nevis, Scafell and Snowden in 24 hours in June to raise money for the Breast Cancer Campaign.

The day had forecast rain, but it was dry as we assembled at Birling Gap at 10 o’clock in the morning. The car park was busy with walkers being dropped off and, as we set off along the Seven Sisters, it was like the first day of the sales. But the walkers had thinned out as we neared Cuckmere Haven and, by the time we crossed the East Dean Road with the first 5 miles behind us, we only came across the occasional dog walker as we skirted Friston Forest on the 3 mile trip up to Alfriston for a lunch stop. Across the valley we could see the Litlington White Horse, one of only a dozen in Britain outside of Wiltshire. The current horse dates from the 1920s and superseded the first chalk horse, carved a hundred yards higher up Hindover Hill to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria. In the village of Litlington itself, we passed Clapham House, once the home of George IV’s mistress, Maria Fitzherbert. He secretly married her, in a ceremony which was later declared invalid, and she bore him children - nobody is sure exactly how many. He eventually dumped her, of course.

At the Star Inn in Alfriston, we were greeted at the door by a large carved wooden statue of a lion’s head. The dependable Kev Reynolds informed us, in his guide The South Downs Way, that it was a figurehead plundered from a Dutch ship wrecked in Cuckmere Haven in the mid-19th century. Inside, we were greeted by a live musical duo that serenaded us with a selection of hits from the 1980s as we had lunch and a restorative pint. It was all a little Phoenix Nights. Coming out of the pub and sitting in the emerging sunshine by the war memorial, as others stocked up on chocolate and energy drinks in the village shop, I could understand how Eleanor Farjeon was inspired by the beauty of the village to write the hymn, Morning Has Broken.

Having thought I might take an early footbath and stop after 8 miles, the brightening skies convinced me that carrying on for another 12 would be a good idea. However, once we were high up on the hills above Firle and Newhaven, the threatened rain looked as though it would finally close in on us. The honeycomb dome and pencil chimneys of the Newhaven incinerator seemed to be permanently on our left and, however much progress we made, we could not seem to put them behind us. The rain held off but a battering cross-wind made the going tough. Once we had crossed the River Ouse near Rodmell - where Virginia Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and fatally waded into the depths (an action some of us could sympathise with at that point) - we knew that we had less than five miles to go; but aching limbs and flagging spirits made it a long final leg. Despite this, we all of us made it, limping into The Juggs pub at 6.30pm to be revived with a feast of beer and chocolate.