Today

Ten years ago I was living in Winchester, having moved back there from London as a temporary base to get my mind clear. It's a great town. It feels like you're living in Sunday-night-8pm-on-TV land. Beautiful water meadows nudging almost right up to the cathedral in the centre of town - you can walk from its door past old pubs full of lively chatter, top beer and applewood smoke, out into watermeadows, past the school cricket pitches and into open countryside with grass under your feet almost the whole way. It feels sort of suspended from the rest of the world, not quite real. It was perfect as a haven to regroup. I'd left the consultancy I was unhappily employed at and gone out on my own, loosely collaborating with a few others. It was going well and was without the tedium that comes with any institution. Just what I needed for now.



We were spending quite a few weeks surveying the landscape of Suffolk, looking to corroborate, qualify or reject the desk work we'd already undertaken. Deriving units of landscape based on the coming together (to varying degrees) of geology, landform, land use, settlement pattern, tree cover and the like is really quite pleasureable. You start to understand how the countryside you see has come together, and how we've taken advantage of the physical opportunities and constraints. Hard rock meeting soft can usually be mapped using a fairly certain line, often corresponding with a change in land form - simply, hills are usually made of harder rock than the land that's beneath them. More often than not you'll notice a corresponding change in land use too - growing crops is usually more practical on flatter ground, with grazing or woodland left to lesser soils and the steeper slopes. Good soil and level ground usually encourage larger scale farming, and fields will often have been merged to let machinery get about unencumbered. Edges go, irregularity and intimacy dilute, and wildlife corridors are lost when two fields become one. Up the slope, hedges have a practical value - holding the animals in - allowing neighbouring fields to grow a little before the animals move into them in turn. Even steeper, and you may find woodland remains, uncleared, thanks to the impracticality of growing or grazing the land. Settlement pattern and road networks are usually less distinct from one another - it's rare to look out on a nucleated settlement pattern, turn 180 degrees and be slapped in the face by a dispersed one - such cultural changes are more frequently played out over a larger area, zones of transition rather than pencil-sharp boundaries.

Each aspect from the physical through to the cultural and their interrelationships helped us build up a map of 300+ landscape units - mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive - for the whole of the county. Surveying each - recording 100 or so pieces of information (condition of hedges, building materials, species etc) - builds up a rich resource that helps local authorities, statutory agencies (eg Natural England) and interest groups guide and measure landscape change into the future. It also gives the public a map through which they can articulate their concerns and aspirations for the landscape in a way that the planners and other decision makers understand it.




It's an approach that's based around the character of the landscape rather than quality, and there-in lies its beauty: no-ones trying to decide whether this bit of landscape is more 'valuable' than it's neighbour - that's left to designations such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty; what this is hoping to help is the retention of what makes this landscape itself, distinct from it's neighbour, and to prevent the drift towards homogeniety in the countryside. Recognising that much of what makes South Devon South Devon is the small, irregular fields of dairy grazing, bounded by species-rich hedgerows with frequent tall oaks, with a dispersed pattern of settlements, few of them large, linked by largely minor, winding roads is valuable in itself - but recognising that this has a direct impact on the economic prosperity of the area goes a long way to helping retain the essential character and the livelihoods that depend on it, while directing development and other pressures to areas within it most able to accomodate that change.

Another day in the lovely Suffolk sun, surveying some of the incredible coast around Orford, stunning seafood and other treats from the smokery very happily consumed. Friday always meant a run for the early train, heavy bag from a midweek away over your shoulder. A two-train trip into Liverpool St, followed by a bus to Waterloo, for the train out to Winchester. It was a beautiful afternoon - May in England, if the Gods get it right, is hard to beat. Hot but bearable, a little breeze, and everything green, not yet browning after too many days of summer. I love London, especially in sun, and a bus beats the tube anyday. It was perhaps 3.30 and it felt good to be heading home in time to have a proper evening.

I must phone dad, I thought. Only I hadnt thought it - I'd rationalised a weird feeling into that thought. I had a wave of something, of knowing something wasn't as it had been before. An irrational, impossible realisation that something had changed. Not wanting to take myself as mad, I thought: 'I must phone dad'.




I made the connection at Waterloo and got hungry on the train. Me and food are very close - keep us apart and crabbiness ensues. I was jittery, I needed food - I eat almost constantly - and a packet of ready-salteds and a couple of shortbreads just about took the edge off but the jitters were still there, very lightly not allowing me to ignore them.

I walked across town from the station, past Winchester Cathedral where I'd picked up my degree certificate 5 years previously, and I started to run. I pulled myself up short and walked again: run and you are admitting you believe this irrational feeling. But I wanted to run - by running and believing that feeling I felt I was somehow innoculating myself against it being real. Run and I was the idiot who ran home, phoned his dad and everything was fine.

I walked through the lanes and up to the house I shared just up near to where the water meadows began. The second half of that walk probably hadn't altered much in the last 80 years, thanks largely to Winchester School who own most of that part of the city.

I got in: the guy I shared with was out. Just past 6 and I was starving. I phoned dad, something I never did before eating. He had the solutions for everything in my life, usually involving a move to some much more favourable country. After 20 years or so of having a generally hard time being father and son our relationship had shifted. I stopped being a teenager and had the luck to meet someone who understood our relationship rather more than I did. I felt like I'd started to understand why he was so (as I saw it) impossible and controlling and why I might be headed down that road if I wasn't careful. It opened a door. I realised I was no longer the child, or at least only the child, and that with him getting older and the impact of being alone more apparent, I was, for want of a better phrase, more powerful, no longer needing to run from a huge sense of threat.

Bridges were built, we laughed a bit, we talked more. But it never made sense to call him on an empty stomach - I always had to let a few of the old annoyances go during any conversation and it was always much harder not to bite if I was hungry.

It was also his 65th birthday in 3 weeks and I still hadn't hit on the present yet. He'd always wanted to be a pilot but colour-blindness had put an end to his dream, but a flying lesson over the coast where he lived was about as good as a present could get as far as he was concerned but I'd blown that one on his 60th. I had meant to wait to call until I'd decided on a present so that I could organise coming down to see him.



It was good being able to ring him - he'd only recently allowed me to get him a phone put in. We'd had one when I was a kid for a couple of months but money was tight and it went. When he'd gone home after his first heart attack 18 months earlier I'd managed to convince him to have one, but only by making out it was for my benefit - to stop me having to worry about him walking around the block to the payphone in all weathers.

I dialled the number, glad to be able to rid the weird feeling. No answer. Ok, he'll be walking to the post box to send a few letters. I put the kettle on, sat down and rang again. I heard a strange noise: it was me, saying, aloud in an empty house "Pick up the phone dad".

It rang. I said it again. I put the phone down, threw a tea bag in a cup, poured in the water and rang again. "Pick up the phone dad." "Pick up the phone dad and don't be dead."

I kept saying it, thinking it would be funny when he picked it up and caught some part of the line. Hoping that by saying it it made the reality of it less possible. I would tell him the ridiculous story of having that feeling when crossing London on the bus.

No answer. I put the phone down, took the tea bag out, poured in a little milk, sat down and decided to ring my mum. If anything had happened she'd know, even though they'd not been together for 23 years. They lived in the same town, having not shared a word since the divorce.

Engaged. I rang again, engaged, I rang him again, no answer. I put the phone down and lifted it to ring my mum: the beeps of a message received on my phone. That'll be my mum, telling me my dad's dead I thought.

It was my mum, trying to do an 'everything's ok' voice: Hi love, can you give me a call as soon as you get back in".



The week or so between a death and the funeral is a very particular time. I don't think I've ever felt more alive - at least in the sense that for that time, for once, life had no fluff, it was tight and essential. At the same time everything was unreal; in it's truest sense, unusual.

I organised everything. I rang the few friends and relatives one by one from his phone, sitting on the third stair up, where he was found sitting. I went through his things, finding photos of a childhood growing up in Sri Lanka and from the holiday he'd taken there with the money he'd had when he retired. The darts, in the knackered blue plastic case that he (and only he) could sink barrel deep into the board. The jacket that he kept money in when I was a kid, the jacket I'd pinched the odd note out of, that made me, alone in that house, fluorescent with guilt as I took it off the hanger for the last time. The Airfix Spitfire he'd made with a little help from a nine year old me. Pinned to the curtain of the landing window, a circular card badge with 'AR' in faded felt-tip pen, for Advanced Reader, given at my primary school 23 years before.

I took his coat off the peg and inside I found a packet of cigarettes. Even with his fear of hospitals he hadn't been able to stop smoking for long after his first heart attack, but he kept it secret. I was furious with him but wanted to hug him for his weakness.

I boxed a few things up and walked out of the door of the house where I'd spent all but the first 2 weeks of the first 16 years of my life.



The funeral was hilarious. Despite dragging me and my sister to sunday school and the occasional Catholic mass he'd decided to be buried in the church with the nicest view. I stood at the front, one arm around my sister and one around his sister. My sister had chosen the song, All Things Bright and Beautiful. Like all right-mind children, I liked little better than a hymn we could improve with altered words - "When an old man came in sight, playing with his too-ooo-el" etc - and this one had always had the back row howling with it's reference to 'the purple headed mountain'. I started giggling. Luckily we were at the front, and my sister and are shorter than me and were looking downwards. They and the mourners behind took my shaking shoulders as finally having given over to the grief. My attempts to quell the laughing had set up the weird sort of standing wave that only comes with laughing in forbidden circumstances - all is fine, until you allow your mind to vaguely revisit the moment, and your under again. I regained control, focusing on a knot in the wood on the back edge of the empty pew in front.

The vicar spoke. My dad had always wanted to go back to Sri Lanka to live. Sun, peace, and 'just look at how many rupees to the pound' - the mere fact that there might be 393 ruppes to the pound implied to him riches beyond his wildest dreams, regardless of the fact that it might cost 393 rupees to buy something that cost a pound here in England. The vicar got caught between saying my father 'yearned' or 'hankered' to go back and said 'he yankered to go back to Sri Lanka'. That standing wave started oscillating again only worse than before. I looked properly upset from behind for sure. He finished and the organ started, I gathered myself together. In the leave-the-church music, a single bum note rang out, Les Dawson style - one of the things most guaranteed to leave him with tears rolling down his face. And I remembered him laughing as we left the church.

I've told hardly anyone about that weird feeling ten years ago today. I'm not sure why I've kept it almost to myself. It sounds so implausible, but that's not why - I couldn't give a toss if anyone I might tell believes it or not - but perhaps it sounds like I'm trying to claim some specialness, or something of that day for myself, when frankly my dad owns it.

Ten years has flown, and life is almost entirely different, at least in its ingredients. For all the missing him and still reaching for the phone to call him when the cricket's gone well, nothing has had a more positive effect on me than him dying. Everything before then had felt vaguely undoable, put-rightable. That day I realised, truly, for the first time, that there is only so much time, that it is all temporary. I had never even grown a lettuce when he died, now I kill olives for a pastime. I think that's a good thing. And tomorrow I'll get back to writing about it.

Half an arse

Someone pinched my wallet when I was in France a few weeks ago. I couldn't have been more susceptible - the first strawberries in the market, the first holiday for ages, the company and the place we were staying in were wonderful and the weather had shifted into warmairsville. You could smell the strawberries from a few yards away. If you'd have asked me for it, I'd probably have handed over my wallet happily.



A few punnets of strawberries and a couple of salamis in the bag, I turned to the stall behind me...some apples. I chose them, went to my pocket and no wallet. I knew immediately that it was gone but beneath this veneer of genius lies a real clump, occasionally given to losing, breaking or forgetting stuff. I checked my jacket, even went to the trouble of emptying out the strawberry/salami bag - it wasn't there. Nor on the stall I'd just been at. The people we were staying with were mortified but if you are a semi-bright pickpocket all you'd need to do to set yourself up with a reasonable living is go to a market in the south of France on a sunny day where English people are likely to be smiling and you'll clean up.

Within 15 mins the cards were blocked and I'd put it out of my brain. I'm quite good at dealing with stuff like that, the bigger the tedium the better I am at it, just don't let me near dimness - I had a good 30 minutes of ranting to Mrs D when we arrived at the place we were staying in near La Rochelle - no cafetiere, I ask you. I ask you.



A few days later, on the way home when the novelty of having no wallet had worn off, I started to miss it. The wallet that is. For 17 years it had sat in my back pocket. It was there before I got a degree, when I saw Neil Young with Booker T and the MGs as his backing band, when I watched England play at Wembley in the run up to Euro 96, when my dad died, at his funeral, when I got married, when my daughter was born, at the turn of the new millenium, when 9/11 happened, through the Rwandan genocide, Kosovo, when Clinton was in and through Bush's time, in the days before mobile phones when we used to phone up buildings in the hope that the person we wanted to speak to was in them, when email was only just beginning, before I bought my first computer, when Charles and Diana were still together, when I flew over and around London, when I met that gorgeous Italian woman, when my book was published, on the ferry to Corsica, when I ate at the Ivy, when I sat on the beach at Whitstable eating smoked eel, when I lived in Clapham Manor St, Bonnington Square, Winchester, Whitstable, Stroud, Black Dog and here. All that time gradually moulding itself to my right buttock, giving my rather bony backside the illusion of some substance, albeit lopsided. Not that it's much of an backside - a friend said I haven't an arse so much as a hole in my back. Charming. It had a few things in it (the wallet that is) that strictly speaking shouldn't have been there but I couldn't quite remove them. The ticket from the first time I saw Liverpool play, in 1997, against Wimbledon, Michael Owen's debut. The card from a restaurant, Del Buongustaio in SW London, where I used to go with someone very lovely at the lowest time in my life.



There was the ticket from when I went to see the Afro Cuban Allstars at the Royal Festival Hall in 1998. I'd accidentally caught them on the South Bank Show (I think this is a clip from it). I know your all busy, but do have a quick clicky on these links, it's a lovely noise being made. Band leader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez had helped to gather the aged band members from the heyday of interwar Cuban music together after many years of retirement. He's in the South Bank Show clip, all in red, wearing the beret. I was blown away by the magical noise, the piano of the unbelieveable octagenarian Ruben Gonzalez, the bass of Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez (here they are playing together as part of the sister band, Buena Vista Social Club). Then there's the singing of Ibrahim Ferrer (singing a duet here with Omara Portuondo and Pío Leyva, here, singing a song that I understand may not be entirely about a domestic blaze. And Omara Portuondo singing the song my wife walked into our wedding to...*sniffs*. I felt like Steve Martin in The Jerk. I was living in London, properly unhappy. I got on the tube the next day, sat down and felt sorry for myself. Someone sat down opposite me at the next stop. I looked up: it was Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. 'Aren't you...' We chatted, they were playing the Royal Festival Hall in a few months, tickets were going on sale that day. I couldn't believe it. I rang at 9.01 and booked the whole front row and took many of my closest friends. None had heard the Afro Cuban Allstars before, yet three of them burst into tears when Ruben Gonzalez shuffled on and started to play, I kid you not. He was that special.

I started remembering the wallet's stitching and where it was coming apart a little. Funny how a few bits of sown-together leather get to hold a whole lot more than a few notes and cards. I haven't replaced it yet.




The new cards came through rather quickly, in plenty of time for when I got back from holiday. A few days later I had a long overdue visit to Jekka's Herb Farm. I was picking up plenty of perennial herbs for the new herb garden at River Cottage and taking my chance to spend a day with the undisputed Queen of Herbs. I like Jekka, she's nice and direct, and very mischievous. She's also got an incredible set up there and she not only knows her herbs, she's got a good sense for what will suit you. I knew I'd buy a few, perhaps a handful for adding a little lift to the garden but I ended up with almost twice as much as I'd picked for the River Cottage. Now Jekka's not cheap but you'll not get quality and varieties that match these from many places. You'll leave with a dent in your pocket but long after that's been sanded over, filled and resprayed your garden will still be enjoying the difference these herbs make. With the handful of mints I picked, I realise I now have 11 types of mint. Ridiculous I know, but when I try to whittle them down a little I can't. That one (Eastern mint) is simply amazing as tea, as is Moroccan mint. And nothing beats Tashkent Mint with potatoes. And so it goes. And that's the beauty of what you get from Jekka's - she shows you how brilliant so many herbs are, down to the difference the varieties make. It's not just mint, it's that mint, perfect for xxx. Of course, none are essential, but then neither's ice cream, lemons or chcolate, and once you've seen the light it's hard to do without them. And as anoracky things go, it's better than wanting a flash car.

Go to Otter Farm | by Mark D