Waiting Room

Six TV production companies have called in ten days. I'm meeting two of them next week, and filming a taster tape. I should be getting an offer next week to write an Otter Farm book. The possibilities are many. There's much promise of interesting things to come. Writing and communicating about growing and eating is exactly how I want to spend my time. I'm entirely unexcited. I'm entirely unexcited because if you write abit and do something a little different (and you're lucky) this flurry of activity happens once in a while and then quietens off. In TV and book land the definites are maybes, the maybes don't happen. I've learnt to smile at the sight of the carrot, enjoy it's presence in my view and carry on undistracted. And wait until I can at least smell the carrot before I entertain the possibility of actually tasting it.



I used to be petrified of flying. A juddery flight back from grape picking on the shores of Lake Geneva years ago left me entirely certain that I was never in enough of a hurry to have to take to the air again. A decade later I decided to take a fear of flying course. I recommend everyone takes a fear of flying course - it's a year of events, emotions and interactions condensed into a day. It's very similar to that feeling when someone close has died. Like the rest of the year either side of it just happens, but that day or two is crisp, clean and awake, that you've momentarily emerged from the water. Everything is heightened on the course and exaggerated, but it reveals itself very gradually.

The day is split very much between theory and practice. In the morning you learn how many tons of metal manages to stay above many metres of fresh air. How the cabin remains uncrushed by the pressures of being high in the atmosphere. How we should have faith in a few people to control these many fast moving tons. Then there are the stats. It is, we are assured, entirely illogical to fear flying when we cross the road absent mindedly every day. When we get into cars to drive. When we relax on trains, and don't even notice the changing tones of the engines, when every clack over points and track isn't met with a stiffening back and wondering what that noise was, what it meant.

Coffee.

Everyone chats. Everyone chats because this was the year that mobile phones were just starting to emerge. The last year that it was odd to have one. The last year that most of us called up a building in the hope that the person we wanted to speak to might be in it. Everyone is entirely normal and everyone wants to demonstrate it over a Digestive. We are all saying the same thing, whatever the words: I'm not mad, I'm not psychologically unhinged, I just afraid of flying. No, it's not that I'm afraid; I am wise - I know it's a special kind of madness not to be petrified. We're all doing it for the family, so they can enjoy holidays in the sun. Or, like me, we're doing it because we don't want to have the fear of something that everybody else does smilingly.

The rest of the morning is mostly about buttocks. When I was a kid there was a shoe shop in town called Butteaux. It was, of course, known by as all below the age of 20 as 'Buttocks'. A neighbourhood in the 13th arrondisement of Paris it maybe - to us this shopfront was a pair of shiny cheeks. This was made unbelievably more amusing by my best friend's mum being good friends with the man who owned the shop. If the level of boredom reached a certain level the status quo could always be reinstated with a simple 'Your mum's shagging Mr Buttocks'. I still finish the odd phone call to him with those eight syllables, putting the phone down before he has time to respond. I digress.

Buttocks, it seems are the key to anxiety management. Tense them up and focus on their tightness, keep them tense, keep them tense, keep them tense....and release. This wasn't easy for me. I was a skinny chap not overly blessed with buttocks. I had to run round in the shower to get wet. But whatever slim covering afforded my lower back I tensed and released. This, we were told, centred your anxiety. It was also a device, a device to illustrate that tension had to be released. It wasn't possible to retain tension without stimulus. Your brain was yours, we were reminded, not entirely without instinctive reactions nor compulsive behaviours, but many of these could me managed, engaged with, befriended. Fear was sensible. We were after all, contemplating getting into a metal tube, and letting someone else who like us once in a while accidentally drank too much, was inexplicably grabby, was distracted by some or all of hunger/breasts/pecks/crisps/daydreams/fantasies drive this at great heights, and great speeds. It was sensible to be afraid, but now we had to get a hold of ourselves. Planes hardly ever crashed.

More stats. Survival rates were increasing year on year. Stats don't work - you are always outside the stat: the only thing that would make you survive a crash is your fear, for you alone would've researched what it takes to survive. Which precise seat is best to sit in to maximise your chances, the best technique for scrambling across headrests to get to the doors. Don't get me wrong, you wouldn't actually practice your technique on the sofa (your not mad after all) but mentally you'd perfect it.



Back to buttocks. They were the key. Keep them tense as long as it's comfortable, longer. In the end you have to let it go. Whenever you feel tense, we were told, do the buttocks thing. It educates your mind: tension cannot be maintained. Getting into a plane you'll be petrified. Accept it, don't fight it, and do the buttocks thing. At the peak of your fear watch what happens - it dips off. And at precisely this point you try to pump it back up because it makes sense to be afraid.

Your brain cannot maintain a baseless fear, we are told - you are afraid but nothing bad is actually happening, you are scared but we are not actually crashing, your brain instinctively wants to let go the fear - it isn't needed because there is no danger, and every minute that passes tells your brain 'I am still here, I am still alive, therefore this heightened state is not required'. It is at precisely this moment that we try and reinstate anxiety. It is at precisely this moment we should employ our buttocks.

We should also let go of the greatest conceit: that by worrying we are somehow immunising ourselves against disaster - that by simply imagining the full range of catastrophes that might occur we are protecting ourselves from them. This one cleaned me out - I thought it was only me that did that, I thought it was mine, I thought I was uniquely wise, that it was only me who could allay these possibilities by knowing them so well before they might surprise me. It was the moment that the room turned a little. We all felt a little dippy, a step or two back down the evolutionary chain, part of the collective drones rather than the all-seeing queen.

Lunch was a lot quieter than coffee for half an hour or so, while the morning sank in. Through pudding, the odd head on the other side of the table lifted an inch or two as pairs of buttocks randomly clenched.

The afternoon was exactly as if we were heading to the sun. Departures at Heathrow, the process of registering, waiting and information followed entirely as it might be for everyone else at the airport. On to the plane. All sat down. More heads bobbed up and back down again.

A man three seats up broke ranks to speak to one of the ladies on the crew. What were the doors made of? And the seals around the door? How often do they get replaced? When were these replaced last? Whatever her answers, he had another question. He was searching for the unanswerable question that would allow him to leave the plane with his wisdom and dignity intact. He couldn't find it, so he left anyway. As he dashed towards the open door I noticed he had very small buttocks.

There were three seats together in each section of row. I was on the inside. I had been on the outside, but a sweating man asked if I'd mind. I noticed he had very large buttocks.



The pilot was going to talk us through everything, every noise, every movement. The engines started. I'd forgotten the enormity of the noise. It sounds like something is spinning so fast, but the clutch is down. It sounds like it's spinning so fast but not catching the air. It sounds like the noise it'd make if it was going to crash. 'I'm just warming the engines up, we like to give them a little exercise before we start taxiing. Checking the gauges'. I saw him in my mind with a personal stereo on, listening to an opera with his back to the sea and the incoming tidal wave. 'Out of the window to the left you can see the flaps doing up....and going down. And now the right'.

The engines shut off. He didn't tell us they were going to shut off. Heads bobbed up a few inches. Then down again.

Throat clearing over the intercom. 'We're sorry ladies and gentlemen, we're going to have to change planes.' The entire plane looked like it was bobbing in the ocean. Doors opened, and (I guess because the engines were off) everyone left the plane in orderly, British fashion. A lack of oil pressure apparently. I've no idea how important that is in the scheme of things that can go wrong, but obviously the ramifications in many heads included 'plummeting fireball, while we all live for the *insert how many minutes your research told you you'd be completely aware of being in a plummeting fireball before you make contact with the ocean (for it was always an acean in your premonition)* fully aware of your fate.

Some shook hands with their immediate neighbours and left. Some stuck it out for part of the hour or so before the replacement plane arrived, until the waiting got the better of them. Too many disaster reruns, buttocks too tired, but I suspect more to do with averting those imaginary postumous gatherings where over a drink or two couples talked hushedly: 'How can he not have seen the signs, I mean what kind of fool gets on to another plane when the one they're supposed to be in on a fear of flying course has a fault?'



Maybe half of us made it on to the replacement plane. I had the feeling the crew were on an shift rate; they certainly got through the reassuring-run-through bit a little more swiftly. Mr Big Buttocks was still there two to my right, with a woman I guess was in her late 60s between us: a for-my-family-flier.

The take off noise was immense. Mr Big Buttocks was losing it. Turned in from the window, he was sweating unbelievably. Making his own gravy. Mrs Family Flier and I set about talking him down. Clench Mr Big Buttocks, clench. Hold...and release. I lean over Mrs Family Flier and tell him about the view. He gravies on me a little, but I allow myself a little suffering in the cause of public service. The noise levels right out. Cue wave of panic. We've all got used to the life threateningly loud, screamingly high noise. Don't turn it off now. It's calm; disaster must be upon us.

Except I'm fine. I'm smiling. I'm looking out of the window. we're heading up the Thames, it's beautiful. It's autumn, it's evening, sunset. London was made to be seen from above. I'm out of my seat, accepting the invitation to nose around the cockpit. Mr Big Buttocks is even on his feet. He's huge, and in the gangway he's looking like a pint in a half pint pot. I manage to depress a hot flush of claustrophobia. This is fun. And I don't need my buttocks anymore.

Except when the production companies ring, when the signs from the publishers are good, when the agent calls. I tense those now-more-substantial cheeks together and talk down the excitement.

Your brain cannot maintain a baseless fear excitement - you are afraid excited but nothing bad good is actually happening, you are scared excited but we are not actually crashing filming or publishing, your brain, instinctively wants to let go the fear excitement - it isn't needed because there is no danger reality yet, and every minute that passes tells your brain 'I am still here not filming, I am still alive not writing, therefore this heightened state is not required'. It is at precisely this moment that we try and reinstate anxiety excitement. It is at precisely this moment we should employ our buttocks.

Wet paper

I've been walking around the place looking for space. I'm trying to exercise a little sense and get in early with my planning, before too much sells out from the various nurseries and suppliers.

Already I'm snookered on one - American Elder (Sambucus canadensis for all you plant people). Flowering after our native elder and not self fertile, it doesn't get to produce fruit - instead you get 5 months of huge flower heads starting in July. Sold out. There goes my 100m line of them at least for this year.



Chaenomeles are definitely on my maybe list. Like a shorter version of the quince tree, these lovelies make a metre or two high hedge if you plant them closely, with fruit similar to quince (below) - and used the same way. I've never eaten one. Perhaps I should go scrumping at Knightshayes where they've got a few...but by the time they're ripe they'll probably have sold out too.



To paraphrase Julian Cope I'm trying to find a plan of action but I can't get it right.

Anyway, it's stopped raining, so I'm off out with pencil and paper again.

Perfect peaches

The last of the polytunnel peaches, almost ready. Always got to remember to leave them a day longer than you think, wait for the smell, leave them another day, then a gentle twist in the palm of your hand - if they fall into it then you're in, if not, another day it is.

Half way down the stairs

The Dittisham plums picked two nights ago made it to a bowl which somehow was left on the stairs. Regular readers fear not, this isn't the prelude to the latest in a long line of unlikely comedic happenings. It was perfectly happy accident. Everytime one of us walked past it we had to mention the smell. It was like cognac warming gently on the oven. Heady, heavy, alcoholic as well as fruity. It slowed you down to enjoy it.



I can hardly being myself to eat them. Fortunately my stomach is stronger than my mind. They're delicious.

The powder white bloom that coats them so satisfyingly is even more beautiful close up - a little history of the rubbing against its neighbour as it ripens, the picker's hands, the basket it's dropped into, and being moved into the bowl it sits in on the stairs.



I'll often sit with a single malt for half an hour before I start to drink it, the smell is enough. Last night it's this apple, the Beauty of Bath, I'm smelling instead. I tried a windfall a few weeks ago, and if I'd have finished it I'd have ended up with teeth like a witchdoctor's necklace. Three weeks later and the rest are ripe. They fall into your hand from the tree. It smells and tastes like no other apple I've had.

Now then, now then

I'm writing, so it must be raining. Luckily last Friday was much better, glorious in fact - a classic English summers day. As Jimmy Saville used to say on his Old Record Club of a Sunday lunchtime back in the 70s, 'as befits', I had the English Garden here for the day. Tamsin the Editor, Cinead the Deputy Editor, and Jason Ingram.



Jason I met last year at River Cottage - he was taking pictures for a Gardeners World magazine feature and impressed most of us with his enthusiasm for getting rather muddy in the course of getting the shot. He's a particularly marvellous photographer and an equally nice chap.

He's also got a brilliant way of setting you at ease, getting the best out of you. Perhaps he clocked that all I need is the mildest of ego-stroking to do pretty much anything. 'Love your book....mind lying down in that cow pat for me, cheers'. He's so reassuring (yet quietly direct) that you can feel yourself almost as a fashion model. 'Brilliant, perfect...face just a little to the left...and back, towards me'. I was almost expecting 'I'm getting a little reflection here...it's the bra, it's going to have to go'. Still, if he can make me look even vaguely less like Stephen Merchant than the good Lord has seen fit I'll be thankful to him.



Almost interestingly, I'd been limewashing the dining room walls the day before. Living in a house that's partly made from cob you have to render and paint the walls in a breathable material - allowing any moisture to move out from the walls themselves. The limewash is slaked lime in water, and isn't what might be regarded as the ideal hand treatment if you consider yourself 'worth it'. I was, rather sadly, pondering the names of my favourite tribute bands (By Jovi, if you're interested) when preparing to limewash. This stretched into favourite all-girl tribute bands (Judith Priest), favourite made up not-very-good tribute bands (Shoddywaddy) and favourite made up right-wing tribute bands (SSClub7, Klu Klux Clannad). This is something I do all too often, especially when undertaking a manual task that uses just enough of my brain to make it vaguely interesting, but leaving just enough free to ponder topics not necessarily worthy of ponderment. Undercoating the stair rail I managed to mentally name 13 Derby County defenders from the 1970s. I digress.



The limewash is a tad caustic, and my mind wasn't on the job. I may also have been slightly bullish on account of the brilliant builder who was around the day before not using gloves when using bleach to wipe off a few marks in the lime rendered wall. He still had hands, my subconscuous mind must've thought, what's a little lime? Quite a lot, it turns out, especially when you start off with the hands of an 80 year old. Come photoshoot day they were drier than a dead dingos dipstick. I wouldn't count myself as overly troubled by vanity - I'm not sure I'd have lived this long with my rather ramshackle collection of physical attributes if I had have been - but I have to admit to a few moments of shame at the thought of the unsuspecting gardening folk of these islands being confronted by delightful shots from Otter Farm being somewhat compromised by my emu-like fingers clutched around a grapevine, or plucking some edible loveliness from the veg patch.

Perhaps Jason had a 'monkey's paw' filter attached to his lens. I'll find out next month when the first Otter Farm article in English Garden comes out. I can but hope.

Until then, I'll keep picking Dittisham plums, eating the finest early apples you can grow (Beauty of Bath - smelling of peardrops, incredible to look at, even better to eat and the colour of a lipstick that always got me going in my teens), and watching the walnuts develop.

Go to Otter Farm | by Mark D