Old vinyl

The other night an old friend was Facebooking, playing some of her old vinyl. She uploaded a few Youtubes of some tracks I hadn't heard in years. I hear them with two sets of ears - most of them sound dreadfully dated but I can still hear them with the buzz of how it felt back then, 25 and more years ago. It has a unique effect on me - if I see Elizabeth Fraser singing or if I hear this I get a weird rush and I start crying.



As a just-teenager I would sit in bed listening to John Peel, recording each song...it had half a minute to grab me, if not I'd rewind and set the tape up from the next song. It opened the door to allsorts of old music - who was Robert Wyatt?..are the Monochrome Set still going?...who the hell are Misty In Roots? And with Peel there was a constant stream of new stuff, much of it truly abysmal but what you got was interesting, even if you didn't like it. You'd have to wade through an awful lot of Crispy Ambulance, Bogshed and Xmal Deutschland to uncover a total gem, but uncover them you would. Listening to the first Cocteau Twins session was like having the curtains drawn. It felt like the world had been evolving simply to get to the point when This Charming Man and Transmission might be created. When I heard them for the first time the world made a little more sense. Life was instantly better.

At school, what you listened to defined you - it cut you out of the clay. It was a kind of passport to other people, a language that allowed you to connect, a sort of permission to hang out together. Without it I have no idea how I might have made those initial connections. Maybe by being slightly better at shoplifting jazz mags and sweets than I was* and sharing them around.

In hindsight, these seemingly small things were the ropes I threw to the side, that stopped me bashing around unhinged in the harbour or floating out into the sea. I have kept many of my closest friends from those days - and thankfully we now have far better things to do than listen to Unknown Pleasures and drink Special Brew.

I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this but it has something to do with what happened last week. Someone I work with took her life. If I told you she was bright, lively, gentle, creative and kind you might think she was boring but far from it. She had a weird light that somehow allowed her to make things happen, to charm others and to bring things together that usually comes with those who have masses of noisy over-confidence and old school connections. I don't know the detailed in and outs of it but I know she had been suffering with depression. I have little idea about what or why she reached the point when living seemed less appealing than not.

I saw her the night before in the pub. The day had started early, getting up at the sort of time you'd rather go to bed at to catch the early train to London. A morning at a client's garden (more on this soon) before lunch with not one but two lovely friends. How can I say 'lunch' without mentioning where - Brawn, on Columbia Road. It was very special indeed. Mine mostly involved the less widely favoured bits of a pig, duck confit and some forced rhubarb. I did a cheeky detour on the way to walk past the flat just off Columbia Road where my wife used to live when we got together a decade almost to the week ago. The lucky lady.



A late afternoon train back and a drive to the pub to say goodbye to a couple who were leaving the country and couple who were about to leave somewhere I work to start running their own pub. Always worth keeping on good terms with those about to run their own pub I've found. A lovely few hours, but by 10 and my 18th hour awake I was fading and I started to say my goodbyes. Sit down, share my dinner and tell me what's going on she said. I couldn't, I was flat tired after a long day on the back of a fortnight of 18 hour days on the shop website and a little spooked by the car crash that had happened outside the pub earlier in the evening - I'd better get back before I run the risk of falling asleep at the wheel. No really, sit down for a minute, share my dinner. I almost did but because I was standing the thought of trying to get up again once I'd sat down beat me. A kiss, some goodbyes and I was off.

36 hours later the friend who is off to run the pub rang to tell me the news: she was dead. It was inexplicable. She had so much about her that people would want for themselves, life seemed to be so full and she was too gentle to do something like that. I didn't seem possible.

Getting together with people who knew her a couple of days later, almost everyone had some of the same feelings I did. How didn't we see it coming, how could we have allowed this to happen, why didn't I make that call/email/night out/sitdowntoeat with her? Somehow each of us, together and individually had let someone through the net. Maybe there weren't enough ropes thrown to or from the side.

I don't know much about depression. I think I'm not alone. It's the great unspoken. Without going so far to do the counting, I guess I have as many friends who have experienced it as haven't. Unless I am a pretty powerful causal factor (which given my galloping dullness is always a possibility) I suppose that this is pretty representative. If I've suffered in any way from something depression-related I think it's been a kind of long, slow, moderately shallow, treacly kind, with a bit of anxiety, creeping OCD and the fear of entering public spaces thrown in but not the spiralling catastrophic version. I may be describing the 'depression' equivalent of the difference between a cold and flu, but it made me feel detached and isolated.

Some of it was already there but one of the things that made it manifest itself slightly more obviously was when I was in the record shop buying this album - still, easily the finest £1.15 I've ever spent or ever will.



It was under my arm and I was nosing through a line of records on the floor when I got what I thought was a spec of dust in my eye. I rubbed but it wouldn't go. Whatever I did it wouldn't go. I got a bit panicky. I left the shop and realised I couldn't see properly. My friend came out, thinking I was being crabby because he was taking too long over buying something meaningful by China Crisis. I told him I was going blind. Every part of me was shaking. He seemed very calm, reaching into his pocket for some pills - you're having a migraine, take these. He got them exactly the same as I did. I'd lucked out, there was someone who understood. We walked the few miles back to his house, me calming down slowly as my sight returned, he making sure I didn't walk into too many dustbins or dogshits. I'm not sure he did his job particularly well, given the rather long footslide I made just outside his house.

It made me nervous of going out: I didn't want to get 'that' again when I was outside. And I was convinced it was a brain tumour. I'd get times when I felt like I couldn't breathe. The first was so extreme I was taken to A&E and given valium - an injection in the leg. It was like being filled up with warm water. Everything was fine. I became only 'mind'. I understood the appeal of heroin.

I got the panics under control - I wasn't suffocating, I just felt like I was - but it's a little like standing on a sausage balloon: you can squeeze it there and make that bit go away but it puffs up somewhere else. The extremes of panic gave way to a lowlying inertia, an inability to do much beyond the same old. Like the treble had been taken off the music or the flavour out of the food.

If I'm to keep enough underwraps to be able to sell my life's story as a three-part best seller at some point when I'm rich and famous I'd better stop soon, but suffice it to say that thanks to some expensive conversations and a slightly more cautious relationship with one or two things life is less inert, happier and I feel more a part of it rather than apart from it. I'm also grateful to have had the cold rather than the flu, but I think I understand a little of the isolation it can bring.



I'm not sure what I'm trying to say. I'm not trying to say there's a cure for all unhappiness, anxiety and depression: I have no idea about that. And that's part of what I'm trying to say - I'm embarrassed to understand depression as little as I do - to be so ignorant of something that has troubled so many people I know. It means they are isolated and we are less able to throw the rope to each other - and playing the Japanese import of 10:15 Saturday Night really isn't enough to make that connection.

The friend who died is 15 years younger than me and may well have fitted more into those years than I do if I live to be 100. Her family and those of us who knew her are determined to celebrate what was by any measure other than length a full and wonderful life. I'm not sure if more ropes thrown to or from the side would've helped - she was certainly well and widely loved. And like I say, I can't pretend to understand depression but I intend to make sure I do, partly as an apology to friends that have had it and should've had a better friend to turn to but also so that I am better able to throw or catch the rope should one be needed in the future.

Big events can bring a kind of clarity when what is really important comes rushing in, making what otherwise seems trite or cliche just the truth. It usually makes me want to live a little better. When my dad died I resolved to say 'yes' rather than 'no' as my default setting, to get off my own railtracks and allow life to be more interesting. It worked very nicely. I'm not sure what this moment of clarity brings with it (if that's not an oxymoron) but I suspect it involves taking the time to spend a few minutes when I don't feel I have it to spare, making that call I keep putting off and generally getting the fuck on with life as if the seemingly impossible were true - that it will, one day, run out.

I mentioned this to a fairly new yet very fine friend when it had happened, and I think I've taken rather too many paragraphs to say essentially what he said: Life can be a bastard quite often, we should spend more time being grateful.



* Getting caught in the town centre newsagents with a Razzle in your hood brought an unpromising new pastime to a quick end. I managed to persuade the owner out of calling the police or my parents by telling him 'the big boys made me do it'. I was sure he wouldn't recognise me when I went in a few years later with a mohican but he feigned surprise when I gave him the money for 20 Marlboro, the bastard.

Open For Business

Contrary to popular rumour, I haven't been out of contact for a fortnight celebrating the return of this man to his rightful place, I have, as Robert Wyatt almost sang, been shopbuilding.

Two weeks of working into the small hours and almost through the night more than once, the Otter Farm Shop is now open.



Turning the sign over to OPEN is a little scary: I'm sure I've left something obvious like 'Apples' out.

It's not finished, nor will it be - we are adding new plants and seeds all the time, recipes will come, more collections, tools and some more unexpected and delicious foods as the year passes.

We've tried to keep everything simple: prices are round numbers, none will end annoyingly in .99; delivery is £2 for seed-only orders however many you buy, and for any orders that include anything other than seeds it's £5.

Much is certified organic, the rest is grown without chemicals and the seeds that aren't organic are untreated.

Most importantly almost all of the varieties available are or have been grown here at Otter Farm, so I know they are the most delicious. New varieties come up all the time and I want to be sure we add the best of them to what we make available - so there are some I'm growing this year for the first time. Any that I think are less than excellent will not make it to the list next year.

I need to thank an old friend for working every hour that I did over those two weeks and to a few fools (Karen, Lia and James) who were kind enough to road test it and give their thoughts. So it's their fault too if it's crap.


So, go on: shop. Make me rich with your plant and seed lust. And if you buy before next Wednesday you can get 10% off by entering the discount code: IntroOffer when you get to the checkout.

Happy shopping

The Otter Farm Shop

And so this is Christmas and what have I done, as John Lennon almost said*.

Here I am, Day 14 into a heavy cold and I still managed to put on 7 pounds in the first 8 days of it. Considering it took me most of 20 years to put on the previous 7 pounds this is some feat. Quite how it stopped at 7 pounds I'm unsure, given that a very good friend brought his latest attempt at a homemade pork pie over when he and his family came for New Year and I've been eating it like cake ever since. The problem is I've also been eating cake like it was cake ever since too. I'm of slender frame (unkind people might say 'gangly') so this additional weight, unevenly distributed as it is, is not properly fetching. I look like a snake that's swallowed a wheelbarrow.



I did take most of the break off though. Off work that is, rather than eating, except for a few evenings and the odd hour here and there. This constitutes 'taking time off' when you're freelance and I have to say it's about as good as I get at it. I like what I do so I'm happy doing it, but if I have a resolution (other than losing 7 pounds sharpish) it's to get better at taking time off.

Those evenings and odd hours have been well spent though - there will soon be an Otter Farm Shop. I would say 'Nursery' except nurseries tend not to sell books, or (in the fullness of time) their own wine. It will be selling the best varieties of veg, spices, herbs, edible flowers, green manures, fruit, companion plants and I'm sure I've missed a few out but it's early. 4.14AM when I started thinking about this blog to be precise.

It's all very exciting - hence being up at 4.14AM - and having sat in my mind for some time the shop is being put together at great speed by myself and a couple of others working like the clappers on the technical comedy and practicalities that go with putting an online shop together. Even when I wrote the last post I wasn't sure if it would be something for 2011 or 2012. I certainly wasn't thinking within the month, but a lot can happen in a short time when a few enthusiastic people get together.

It's looking lovely already and it will go live the week after next, maybe even next week. So if you're thinking of buying any seeds or plants hold fire: give it a look before you do. I promise you wonderful, chemical-free plants and seeds and varieties that taste better than the rest. Honest.


I only had time to listen to this before remembering Test Match Special was on the radio while writing this.




* One of my favourite moments of 2010 was reading about the sign at John Lennon Airport in Liverpool, which has the strap line 'Above Us Only Sky'. A man I'd like to buy a beer had added 'And below us only Wolves and West Ham'.

Go to Otter Farm | by Mark D