The cafe that feeds Leeds with waste

The Guardian, 27th March 2014.

This story was fantastic – the most brilliant bunch of people in Leeds, making food out of waste – with so much love and heart.

The cafe feeding Leeds with waste

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Garden ecotherapy: ‘Here it’s just easier for people to open up’

The Guardian, September 18 2014.

There’s not a lot of spinach to be found – either the slugs or the birds have been feasting. But the raspberry bushes are treasure troves, studded with perfect ripe rubies right at the moment of sweetness. I eat a handful right away, and then sneakily circle back several times for more.

Others are eating as they go too. Fadi, who has been attending the woman-only sessions in the wellbeing garden for a couple of years now, is biting into one of the russet apples as she strides up to the top of the plot with a watering can. Emma Wynters, one of the volunteers, pulls tiny yellow cherry tomatoes from the plant inside the greenhouse and pops them into her mouth.

“You can eat your seven-a-day so easily here,” she says. A few feet away a stew is being cooked in the plot-shed. Lunch, a communal meal made from the prizes of the morning – onions, sunshine-yellow courgettes, runner beans and more tomatoes – and then eaten around the green plastic table at the top of the plot, is right at the heart of the Sage Greenfingers day.

From the table where we eat, you can see right down into the Don Valley, the old industrial heart of Sheffield, once a thrumming centre of the mining and steel industries. “There’s not much down there now,” says one member of staff. Up until the 1970s Sheffield’s employment levels were consistently above the national average – it was a proud and wealthy town. But as the steel and mining industries crumpled and disappeared, unemployment soared meteorically from 4% in 1978 to 15.5% in 1984.

As always in recession and decline, the effects on the mental health of the population were profoundly negative. (The situation was made worse by the closure of two large mental health institutions in the area as part of Margaret Thatcher’s Care in the Community scheme.) Even now, despite an impressive resurgence in Sheffield’s economy in the early part of the 21st century, unemployment, particularly among young people, is significantly higher than the national average, as are the levels of mental health problems and dementia.

SAGE Greenfingers horticultural therapy project, Sheffield.
Vegetables are part of a growing feeling of achievement at Sage Greenfingers. Photograph: Sam Atkins

Why green is good

It was partly in response to these problems that in 1996 the Pittsmoor Surgery, in Burngreaves, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Sheffield, decided to support an innovative communal growing project. Green therapy, or ecotherapy as it is now often known, was (and still is) a small but growing area with an increasing body of research to back it up.

Psychologist Oliver James, asking himself earlier this year why “immersion in greenery (even if only a municipal park) or huge landscapes (mountains, the sea, deserted regions)” should “reduce depression, delinquency, addiction and other problems”, concluded that “we are twice as likely to be emotionally distressed if we are urban rather than rural (and four times more likely to suffer schizophrenia). Part of the reason for this is the estrangement of night from day, caused by a lack of exposure to natural sights, sounds and smells, and dislocation from the natural rhythms of the seasons. Ecotherapies work because they reconnect us with nature; its external reality but most fundamentally, our inner natures. Mind, the mental health charity, has stated that it wants “everyone to have access to ecotherapy”, and in 2013 launched a campaign to have ecotherapy recognised as a mental health treatment in its own right.

Sage Greenfingers is a ripely mature example of ecotherapy in action. Based initially in a single plot in the Grimesthorpe allotments, over the years since it has expanded over three. Four days a week volunteers from the local community and trained health workers spend the hours gardening and chatting with a huge mixture of people who usually come to them through referral. “We deal with people with a very wide range of conditions,” explains director Diana Tottle. “They range from fairly low levels of depression and anxiety right through to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis and alcohol issues. In some cases we’ll have worked with the same person through several episodes over several years; one man, for example, has been into rehabilitation several times and then come back to us, for about six years now I think. It’s one of the things I think is most important about the garden – that we’re around for the long term. So many therapies now – CBT for example – is just short term; six weeks or 12 weeks.”

SAGE Greenfingers horticultural therapy project
Sage Greenfingers project member Carmen Reid. Photograph: Sam Atkins

There are also a number of asylum seekers who come, “who are often dealing with some very traumatic events, such as torture, or the loss of close family members”. The group work together, and try to find time to just talk gently as they weed or water or harvest runner beans, to make space for offloading and quietly listening. A social worker once told me that the best most productive chats are always in the car when there’s no eye contact and no pressure – and the same seems to be true in the gardening: “It’s just easier for people to open up,” says Tottle.

What does the garden mean to the people who come there? Diana hesitates for a moment, and then says, with faint embarrassment but determination, that she thinks for some of them, “it makes life worth living. Some people can get desperately low, feel as if they’re never going to get out of this, but coming to us, knowing that they are part of a group where their presence is appreciated, where they’ll always have a warm welcome, it gives a structure to their week.”

Julie, one of the garden regulars, has been sitting in the greenhouse, delicately assembling collages from dried flowers with volunteer Emma Wynters. She has been coming for five years now. “The first time I came was with my CPN (community psychiatric nurse) and everyone was sat around having lunch. They showed me round; everyone was really friendly. I suffer from depression. I’d been at home for a long time, I was just too tired to do anything. The garden brightens up my day up. It keeps my mind occupied.”

SAGE Greenfingers horticultural therapy project, Sheffield.
Helen Lyle, support worker at Sage Greenfingers. Photograph: Sam Atkins

Rita, another regular, has started gardening at home too: “I grow courgettes and tomatoes in my garden,” she says proudly. Before she started coming to the project, she didn’t like to go out of her house. “I cried all the time,” she says. “I was so so sad.” She still has bad days now, “but the garden helps”. Emma has only been volunteering with the project since last summer, “but even in that short time I’ve seen how people change and open up. The garden gives them more confidence within this small group. It’s like the safe little Sage family”.

Lunch is done. Full of good food, I listen to the fat buzz of bumblebees over the lilac flowers and some bolted marjoram behind me, and to the gentle talk around the table. There are a few spots of rain beginning to fall; we slowly pile up the bowls as Helen is reading through the list of jobs still to be done that afternoon. “Weeding the paths and beds, and cutting back the brambles on the bottom of the site (we’ve already done a bit of that). Water the polytunnel – anyone? Feed the tomatoes – have we already done that? I haven’t smelled anything. And there’s some more harvesting to be done too please!” Fadi is slowly wiping the table, Rita is picking up the water cups. “Also,” says Helen, “please remember to take some runner beans home with you.” There are, it seems, plenty for everyone.

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Yes, humans are destructive and stupid. But that is not the whole story.

George Monbiot has written a furious, bitter and very sad indictment of humanity in the Guardian today. He is right – and wrong.

I’ve had days, weeks, months, even a couple of years at one point, when I have also wondered if humans were just an evolutionary dead-end – a particularly vicious, nasty, brutal little species that infect, kills and punish everything else around it. I don’t think any sane, thoughtful person has not had this thought at some time or another. George focusses on species extinction. If he was going to take it solely from an environmental point of view, he might just as well have concentrated on climate change, air pollution, soil erosion, food waste – we are destructive in so many and such varied ways.

And it’s not just the contemptuous way we appear to treat our planet. When you feel gloomy about humans, the way we treat each other is just as hard to contemplate; the divisions between rich and poor, the disenfranchisement of whole sections of the population, violence within families or between cultural groups, exploitation, cruelty, endless endless stupidity. Even writing it down and thinking about it is depressing.

It is all true, every scrap of it. But it is not all of the truth. The older I get, to my surprise, the more affection I have for the human race. Yes we are clumsy, foolish, destructive. But perhaps the problem is that George expects too much of us all. If we stop thinking of ourselves as wise, higher beings, and begin to think of ourselves as animals who have miraculously been given these odd gifts of social communication, empathy and an extraordinary technological aptitude with which we are not quite equipped to keep pace, then it is all a bit less surprising.

The pre-Victorian mindset – which saw human beings as a higher level of being – was demolished by Charles Darwin’s conclusions which made us part of the primate family. But sometimes I think that members of the intelligentsia have still not really come to terms with this. There are extraordinary people among us who have created works of art, written music or plays or poems that are the apex of what humanity can do (they are a whole discussion by themselves). But the rest of us really are quite basic creatures – as any observer can see. We love our children – very devotedly in most cases. We try to love each other – and more marriages succeed than fail. We try, mostly, to look after each other, to do our jobs well, to put a roof over our family heads. We are not higher beings at all – we are just doing what all other sentient species do.

But – perhaps unfortunately – we have two super-powers which are strangely complementary. We can make incredible, extraordinary tools which do incredible extraordinary things. And we can adapt to these tools, and get into the habit of using them extremely quickly. These gifts, sadly, do not come with any ability to see into the future: this is the superpower humans would love most of all (we reward people who we think have it incredibly highly) but which we resoundingly lack. The results, in environmental terms, are a disaster. But I am no longer as sure as I was that this only springs from deliberate destructiveness. You only need to watch people gardening, tending their homes, looking after each other, to realise that a huge part of the human race has an instinct to cultivate and steward, not the other way round.

George is right to feel despair about humans. But he should also feel affection for this odd, stupid, clever species. T.H.White, author of the Once and Future King, wrote a passage about humanity in the Book of Merlyn which I have always loved. Arthur is sitting on a hillside, the night before his final battle against Mordred. He looks out over the countryside.

“England was at the old man’s feet, like a sleeping man-child. When it was awake it would stump about, grabbing things and breaking them, killing butterflies, pulling the cat’s tail, nourishing its ego with amoral and relentless mastery. But in sleep its masculine force was abdicated. The man-child sprawled undefended now, vulnerable, a baby trusting the world to let it sleep in peace.

All the beauty of his humans came upon him, instead of their horribleness… He saw suddenly all the people who had accepted sacrifice: learned men who had starved for truth, poets who had refused to compound in order to acheive success, parents who had swallowed their own love in order to help their children live, doctors and holy men who had died to help, millions of crusaders, generally stupid, who had been butchered for their stupidity – but who had meant well.

That was it, to mean well! He caught a glimpse of that extraordinary faculty in man, that strange, altruistic, rare and obstinate decency which will make writers or scientists maintain their truths at the risk of death. Eppur si muove, Galileo was to say. It moves all the same. They were to be in a position to burn him if he would go on with it, with his preposterous nonsense about the earth moving round the sun, but he was to continue with the sublime assertion because there was something that he valued more than himself. The Truth. To recognise and acknowledge What Is. That was the thing which man could do.”

Everything George has said is true. But this is true too.

 

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For Ninka van der Zee

Ninka and me in the bath

Ninka (left) and me in the bath – we were probably about 2 and 3?

This is Ninka and my father; he died in March this year, just 10 days before the 21st anniversary of her death.

This is Ninka and my father; he died in March this year, just 10 days before the 21st anniversary of her death.

I was thinking about my sister late one night – she died in April 1992 but I still think about her every day – and I absent- mindedly googled her name. It was very strange when nothing, well nothing connected with her, came up. Surely everything in the world is in Google?

I had always told myself that I never wanted to write about her death – and then all of a sudden I really really wanted to. I wanted to write about a wonderful, funny girl who died far far too young. I wanted to write about how much I missed her, how much I still miss her, and about the way that I had come to see myself and human beings as a result of her death. I pitched the piece to Psychologies magazine and the lovely editors there were insanely sweet and thoughtful throughout the whole process. But about five minutes after it was published, it suddenly dawned on me that they would not be putting it online – they don’t run their pieces online. My sister would still not exist in Google. So I thought I’d put it up here. 

 

 

For almost all of my childhood, my younger sister was the person I saw most. My parents were busy journalists, both working fulltime, so we were mostly raised by nannies. We were just 18 months apart. We shared a bedroom. We sometimes ate breakfast with our parents, and usually had dinner with the current nanny.

Forbidden to watch TV (apart from on Saturday mornings and Thursday evenings – Top of the Pops!) and with no garden to play in, we built blanket-covered hideouts under the big table in our bedroom and played long, complicated games about being orphans, princesses, time travellers. We spent hours setting up the rules and characters; “I had long black hair, I was really curious and didn’t want to be in the palace any more.” Sometimes for variety, our characters had long blond hair. I was known as the bossy one, but Ninka usually got her own way. With her skinny legs, her sticky-out tummy and her huge grin she could make everyone laugh.

We planned out our futures. Ninka was going to have loads of children and be happily married, and I would be Wicked Aunt Bibi, travelling the world and descending every so often with bags full of fantastic presents. Moved from school to school and city to city because of my father’s postings, Ninka and I held on to each other, sharing anxieties and experiences that no one else knew about. She was my absolute favourite person.

When Ninka was 16, she was diagnosed with leukaemia. It was my first week at university. I stood in a payphone by Edinburgh train station as my father told me the news. For a year and a half she had every sort of treatment, but by April 1992 they had all failed and she died. I held her hand for six hours as she slipped away.

It rained during the funeral. I went home to Edinburgh and dropped out of university, spent long hours in my room, in a winged armchair where I felt safe, smoking, not sleeping, and sometimes, when things got too much, going for long walks in the white nights.

Why, I wondered sometimes, did this feel so very very terrible? I had lost my sister, my best person, yes. But surely it should be possible to think, I’m sad, and for that to be enough? Instead, surrounded by other young people in the middle of university craziness – coming out, falling in love, breaking up – I felt as if I was in an invisible howling storm that no one else could see or hear but me. Some huge part of me had been ripped away, and no one even realised.

Years passed. I kept going, drank too much, did stupid things, but eventually finished university and got my first job. The feeling that part of my body, myself, was missing, ebbed. It felt as though I had somehow, awkwardly reconstructed myself, had stitched myself back together. The confusion and pain and anger slowly turned to pure uncomplicated sadness, as if I could finally just mourn my sister.

And now I started looking for explanations. Why had Ninka’s death felt like a bomb being detonated in my own head? This had not just been losing someone, missing someone, occasionally thinking fondly ‘ooh, they’d have loved this’. My whole world had collapsed. It had taken many many years before I had confidently been able to think again “This is Bibi. This is who I am.” Why?

I knew that the human mind was traditionally regarded as being seated in the brain; across the (long) history of philosophy and (shorter) history of neuroscience there is very little agreement about what the mind actually is, but that assumption is fairly fundamental. But increasingly I didn’t understand why. Given that there is so little agreement over what makes up our consciousness, why should we assume that it’s all within our skulls? The only way I could make sense of the way that I had felt after she died was if I had literally lost a part of my own consciousness. Why not? Why couldn’t another person become, somehow, part of your mind? Over the years I slowly evolved my own theory, that humans had ‘cloud’ minds with a consciousness built up in part from the people around us, and, in particular from those that we spent most time with.  It was hard to talk to other people about this though – it made me sound even more bonkers than I often felt. It just made me feel a little better.

And then I came across a review of a book in New Scientist which seemed to be suggesting something similar, that minds could be “smeared” over more space than we had previously thought. But I lost the magazine and could never find the reference again. It was many years later that the actual thesis fell into my hands; Andy Clark’s Extended Mind essay was about his theory of the Extended Mind, an idea which was causing a furious argument among philosophers.

Clark asked a similar question to the one I had been asking myself. Why must the mind be confined to the brain? He gave a now famous example of Otto (who has Alzheimers) and Inga, who both want to go to a museum; Inga remembers the address, but Otto consults the notebook where he has written it down.

This, argues Clark, is not just a notebook, but part of Otto’s cognitive system. Your choice of words in Scrabble, similarly, can be explained as “a cognitive process involving the rearrangement of tiles in [the] tray”. And, if you allow this, then other people too can become part of your cognitive process. “The waiter at my favorite restaurant might become a repository of my beliefs about my favorite meals…. One’s beliefs might be embodied in one’s secretary, one’s accountant, or one’s collaborator.” In the footnote, Clark quotes a newspaper article about a couple where the wife “served as [her husband’s] memory bank”.

The relief! This was what I had felt, the explanation I had groped my way towards through all those years. Clark was based in the philosophy faculty of Edinburgh University, so I dithered for a while, and then seized my courage and rang him. After a few minutes of polite chat about the thesis I asked him (as neutrally as possible – you hesitate to talk to philosophers about your private life for some reason) about the extent to which other people may become part of your cognitive processes. “Absolutely!” he said. “Take a couple that have been together for ages, for example,  and have come to rely on each other and offload certain jobs onto each other so one remembers what shopping they need and the other remembers where the keys are. This can absolutely meet all of our conditions.”

I took another step and asked him what he thought would happen if, in the case of the couple he refers to in his thesis, one died? “Well,” he said thoughtfully,”that is an interesting aspect of this. I think you could argue that in less extreme cases like losing a neuron or two, and in extreme cases it would be like getting a bit of brain damage.”

Is that how it felt? In the weeks after I talk to Clark, the conversation plays back in my mind over and over again. Clark is at pains to stress how limited the practical applications of this idea are; “How would you conduct an experiment to prove it?”  he points out. There are cognitive scientists who have begun to explore the implications of the idea for our collective memory, but this work is at the very earliest stages. Nothing has really changed. My sister is not here again.

And yet I feel a profound sense of consolation and, for a long while, can’t quite understand why. Is it because Clark’s comments somehow validate the pain I felt after my sister’s death? Well, perhaps a little. But creeping into my mind is something else, the realisation that perhaps the process went both ways.

“Brain damage” did not seem too excessive a term for the way I had felt after my sister’s death, as if I was in rehabilitation, and trying to remember how to live. I had emerged from those years a wholly different person from the headstrong restless teenager I had been before; stronger, and at times so focussed I unnerved myself, but also kinder, more forgiving.

I had not, after all, become Wicked Aunt Bibi; instead, I had married a lovely, gentle man, settled down and had children long before any of my friends, driven by something I had hardly understood. I had carried on working while the boys were tiny, typing away while they slept, catching up with reading during their bath-times, pushing myself all the time to the absolute limit of what I could manage.

Late one night, I had told a friend about the long vanished ‘wicked aunt Bibi’, and she’d raised an eyebrow at me. “No wonder you’re always so busy. You’re trying to live two lives, not just one like most of us.” It occurred to me now, thinking over Clark’s theory, that if Ninka had taken something of me with her, she had also left more of herself than I had realised in me.

It’s been twenty years now, and if part of Ninka’s consciousness is still in my mind, it is so deeply embedded that it is really me. I can feel her there though, sometimes. I catch myself talking to her still.

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Being Pregnant Is Dangerous!!!

The Guardian, June 5 2013

Another day, another list of things that pregnant women might do wrong. The latest report from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) worries about the chemicals in food, drink, barbecues, cosmetics, moisturisers, new furniture, cleaning products, air fresheners – it goes on and on. They say mothers to be should be aware of “the potential risks” posed by these chemicals so that they are able to “make informed choices regarding lifestyle changes which can be made to minimise environmental chemical exposure to their unborn child”.

To be fair to the college, it’s hard not to worry about environmental chemicals once you start to think about them. Ever since alchemists started trying to turn base metals into gold, chemists have been fiddling around with ways to make new substances, but it was in the 19th century that the whole endeavour really got going. In the 1820s the “father of fertiliser”, Justus von Liebig, identified the natural chemicals required by plants in order to thrive. He immediately marketed his own synthetic version and has been credited with founding the whole modern chemical fertiliser industry. Synthetic dyes and fabrics revolutionised the garment industry from the 1850s onwards; synthetic ingredients have turned cosmetics into a major international commercial force; and synthetic food additives and processes have utterly transformed the food on our plates.

This transformation was, until recently, fairly loosely regulated, if at all. There has been plenty of research into the different chemicals but it’s speckly, with a ton of studies done on some and just one or two on others. The industries are secretive too, and particularly reluctant to share bad news. Worst of all we have no idea what happens when these chemicals combine and mingle – they may be absolutely fine by themselves but react toxically with another ingredient.

In the 1990s, after international concerns had reached a unignorable pitch, the European Union announced an ambitious plan to catalogue and evaluate all chemicals. The resulting Reach (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) has been described as the most complex piece of regulation in the EU’s history; it’s 849 pages long and took seven years to pass. After much counting it has been estimated that the number of substances that will come under its purview is 143,000, give or take a sodium lauroamphoacetate or two.

So on that basis, you may feel that RCOG is entirely justified in flying a flag of anxiety. Babies are vulnerable, there are lots of unknowns out there, and for many years we’ve blithely avoided thinking about the impact these chemicals are having on them. This is a genuine issue.

Except what can a pregnant woman actually do about this? The RCOG may claim that it wants to raise awareness, but their report is written as if to confuse and obscure even further. On food, for example, it mentions two chemicals that can accumulate and pass along the food chain, but then reveals that they are now banned. It mentions that oily fish may contain heavy metals but says that they are healthy. It warns that fresh fruit and vegetables may have pesticide residues but worries that on the other hand, packaging can be dangerous too. Stumbling away from this segment with the impression that she should probably be fasting until birth, does the poor pregnant mum encounter a long list of constructive and sensible suggestions for dealing with these threats? No. They are given a list of just eight pointers, which does not include lie down in front of the nearest agrichemical company until they stop.

Pregnancy should be one of the few moments in your life when you are excused from worrying about climate change, carbohydrates, environmental chemicals, unidentified flying objects or international social injustice, and yet women today are bombarded by these sorts of messages before even managing to conceive. In short, leave pregnant women alone. They are very, very busy.

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Borough market back in business

The Guardian, Feb 7, 2013

A steel-and-concrete viaduct weighing more than 1,200 tonnes, to be built through an area of historical sensitivity, passing 16cm (6in) from the nearest building in places? No wonder the Borough Market railway project caused trouble.

As far back as 1987, British Rail said it would need to ease the bottleneck running into London Bridge station. The plans would involve more than two dozen buildings being knocked down or rebuilt, and the replacement of frontages on Borough High Street with a glass-and-steel construction. Borough Market, one of the oldest marketplaces in the country and only recently brought back to successful commercial life, would suffer months of disruption. Finally, in 2010, having seen off opposition from residents, local MP Simon Hughes and the market traders, Network Rail began work.

Unfortunately for the traders, this also coincided with the economic downturn and an arctic period in trader-management relations. The decisions to raise stall rents, subject stallholders to “taste tests”, and kick out some of the longest-standing traders were taken badly, and lawyers were called in on both sides. The management were said to have a terse, arm’s-length style; one trader told me of receiving a legal warning by post from a member of staff he had been talking in person to a day earlier. Paranoia and conspiracy theories were rampant; the coffee chains were coming, and Borough would end up being a glorified shopping centre.

But two years later the work is completed, and on Thursday the old market hall will see its first day of trading, with the official launch next week. The much-feared Starbucks has not materialised, and the glass frontage is not as enormous as it looked in the plans. The space behind it will be used for educational programmes, seating and demonstrations, rather than the feared shopping centre. But will the market be the same?

“It’s been tough,” says Richard Vines of Wild Beef, specialist in native breeds of cattle. “We were losing about £500 a week during all the work. But you know what? I also think it’s exciting. We’re in a time of real opportunity.”

Vines’ mood of nervy excitement and fragile optimism is echoed all round the market. Stallholders admit that the past couple of years have been traumatic, “listening to diggers and pile-drivers all day, just a few metres away,” winces one.

“I don’t want to talk about the past,” says Maria Moruzzi. Her famous cafe was at the heart of the rows when the managers subjected her bacon sandwiches and bubble and squeak to a taste test, and told her to take cooking lessons. “It’s negative to look back. What matters is the future. The new management is much more relaxed. They talk to you, instead of the dictatorship we had before. And look!” She gestures around the market hall.

The new viaduct has been painted the same green and white as the old, restored glass-and iron-roof. Yes, huge concrete pillars march across the market hall, yes, the top floor has been shorn off the Wheatsheaf pub (the viaduct runs directly above it), but the shops on either side are occupied again, the traders are back in place, and the customers are threading their way back in among the stalls. Moruzzi, whose family have been here since 1961, is misty-eyed with relief. “It’s so nice to see it coming back to life. Don’t you think it looks fantastic? They’ve still managed to keep the personality, the soul of the market. They’ve managed to keep the magic.”

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Bring back the Fava bean!

The Guardian, February 2, 2013

I interviewed the lovely Nick Saltwater for this piece; the beans really are delicious!

I used to go off foraging when I was at school; the school food was not really up to much, so I’d supplement it with whatever I found in the grounds. As I grew more adventurous, I moved from blackberries, chestnuts and nettles to sheep’s sorrel, puffballs and chickweed. Then, when I was at university, I’d work on farms during the summer. That was where I found what I was really passionate about, and I’ve been working on local food and sustainability ever since.

A couple of years ago I was researching food around Norwich and became really interested by the fact that local farmers were growing huge amounts of fava beans, but were then exporting them to the Middle East, or selling them as animal feed.

It turns out that the fava bean – also known as the broad bean – is one of the oldest cultivated crops in the UK, and we were eating it as far back as the iron age. It was a crucial part of the British diet for centuries, but in more recent times it became stigmatised as a food of the poor, and fell out of fashion.

However, they are an important part of our crop rotation system, so farmers have carried on growing them. We grow around 500,000 tonnes a year in the UK. So we bought some ourselves, tried them and really loved them. Then we bought a couple of tonnes and put them in some local shops and got really brilliant feedback. People thought they were delicious, and also really loved the story behind them. So we decided we wanted to bring back the fava bean for good.

Egyptian ful medames

This may be a national dish of Egypt, but it’s also served throughout north Africa and the Middle East. Ful medames is a delicious spicy stew that’s traditionally eaten for breakfast (and to break your fast). It’s also an ideal candidate for home freezing.

Serves 8-12

1kg whole dried fava beans
1 garlic clove 
1 red onion
45g fresh coriander
20g fresh parsley
Juice of 2 or 3 large lemons
1 small hot chilli
¼ tsp cayenne
¼ tsp cinnamon
3 heaped tsp cumin
500-700ml jar passata
2 heaped tsp tomato puree
3 heaped tsp sugar (or more to taste)
100ml sunflower oil (plus oil for frying)
Salt and black pepper

Soak the beans overnight. Drain, place in a pan, cover with plenty of water and cook for around one hour until tender.

Chop the onion and garlic until very fine (or puree in a food processor), then fry gently in a little oil. Meanwhile, chop and mix the herbs, oil, lemon juice, chilli and spices.

Add this mixture to the onions and garlic, then cook for a few minutes. Add the passata and tomato puree plus 100ml of water, which you can first use to wash the remains of the passata out of the jar or packet it came in.

Cook for a few more minutes and then add the beans. Continue to simmer and taste – adjust seasoning with sugar, salt and pepper. The beans will be ready as soon as the seasoning is balanced, although you can leave them to reduce if you would prefer a thicker sauce.

Eat straight away or allow it to cool, divide into portions and freeze. It’s delicious eaten with pitta bread, tomato salad and a fried egg.

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The Guardian, January 14 2013

Protests both for and against an offshore windfarm gathered on Swanage seafront on Sunday, in an unusual demonstration of pro-windactivism in the UK.

About 400 protesters turned out in response to plans for a 100-330 turbine project called Navitus Bay, with approximately 100 for and 300 against, all bundled up against an icy wind coming off the sea.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Luc Kerley, watching from the door of his coffee shop. “And I’ve lived here all my life.” Tempers occasionally flared, with a few heated exchanges, but there were no arrests.

Developers EDF and Dutch energy company Eneco are proposing a site which will be about nine miles from shore, over an area of more than 60 square miles, with a capacity of 0.9-1.3GW.

“Poole harbour is the second biggest natural harbour in the world, with an internationally important bird migration route through it, and the marine life and birdlife will be devastated by these plans,” said local artist Charlie Sanderson, who organised the anti-demo, Challenge Navitus. “This is one of the worst possible locations for a windfarm. We’re not all anti-wind, but this plan is a disaster.”

Another local resident against the windfarm, Pam Johnson, said: “This is a seaside resort and the local economy is really dependent on tourism. You’ll be able to see the turbines very clearly from here, and people may come once to see them, but will they want to come here for a beach holiday?”

The pro-wind group was also local, made up of a mixture of Dorset-based green groups including Friends of the Earth in East Dorset, the local Green party, Greenpeace, Wind for Dorset and the Transition Hub. “We’ve been talking for a while about the need to work together more,” explained Theresa McManus, who helped co-ordinate the pro-demo.

“We’ve done a couple of local surveys about wind power, and you always get over 50% saying they’re in favour, but the anti-groups just seem to be much more vocal. And then someone mentioned that Challenge Navitus would be demonstrating today, and we thought, okay, there’s plenty of support for the windfarms, let’s make it a bit more visible.”

Graham Horne, who was also in favour of the windfarm, added: “There are no power stations in Dorset, and we put bugger all into the national grid. We really want to challenge the nimby mentality. Dorset isn’t pulling its weight.”

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Protesters going underground for the “second battle of hastings”

The Guardian, January 7 2013

(this is the full length version by the way… it got cut a bit for the paper)

Under a blue tarpaulin at the foot of the protest camp, Simon Sitting Bull is having a brief break from tunnel digging.

“There are three different types of tunnel that you use in anti-roads protests,” he explains, kindly moving aside to let the Guardian have a peer at his work so far. “Opencast, Doored and Shored, and Tight and Nasty. This one is Tight and Nasty.” He points his head-light in the right direction and lights up about four feet of tunnel, which divides at the end to the left and to the right. “Not going to tell you how much further it goes. Sorry!”

Forty feet or so above us, Owl and George are practising making ropewalks between the trees. “I didn’t know how to do this two weeks ago,” says Owl, nonchalantly bouncing around the boughs. George, on a neighbouring tree, is rather anxiously testing the rope. “Isn’t that tree leaning over a bit too far?” he asks. And further down the road three protesters are dangling around a giant oak like christmas decorations, while beneath them the contractors rev their chain saws with pantomime-like menace and a long line of security guards in high-vis jackets chafe their hands against the January cold. It’s the first day back at work since Christmas, and progress is going to be slow.

“The Second battle of Hastings” as it has called itself, aims to halt the construction of the Bexhill-Hastings link road in East Sussex. The road will be just over three miles long, linking up two other roads, and will cost, according to most estimates, at least £86m, although the costs of security are already being estimated upwards.

There is plenty of local support for the link road. Local MP Amber Rudd (also George Osbornes parliamentary private secretary) claims it “will be an important part of the regeneration of the town, opening up a new area for employment and houses”. Denis Haffenden, a local resident watching the to-ing and fro-ing, says everyone he knows in the area really wants the road; “It will ease up the traffic through here, it gets really bad sometimes.” In one of the most deprived parts of the South East – nearly 29% of children in nearby Hastings are classed as living in poverty, according to figures by a local charity – some argue that absolutely any economic investment is a good thing.

But campaigners argue that the money – nearly half of which must come from local taxpayers – would be much better invested in public transport, housing infrastructure or other local projects. The county council is “already planning to cut £34 million from adult social care, and £14 million from children’s services,” points out protester Abby Nicol.

The Bexhill battle is, moreover, just the beginning of a national anti-roads campaign. In December George Osborne announced a £1bn national road-building push as part of his autumn statement. Meanwhile last year Campaign for Better Transport released a report highlighting 191 road schemes around the country, and held a nationwide conference to bring campaigners together and to organise resistance. The Bexhill road is among the very first to break ground, but, says CBT road campaigner Sian Berry, “it won’t be the last. We warned last year that this was ‘the most environmentally harmful and least economically justifiable road scheme currently being proposed in England’, and that there would be resistance.”

Back at the site Indiana is watching with her jaw clenched as the contractors lop branches off a vast oak. “That tree is ancient,” she says. “You need four people to get your arms around it. I can’t believe they’re just taking it down like this.” Does she think they will be able to stop the road being built? “What you have to understand is that it’s not about just one tree, however beautiful it is, or about one road. We want to stop all of Osborne’s roads. It’s about hundreds of roads and thousands of trees.”

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Interview with Caroline Flint

The Guardian and The Ecologist, December 5 2012

There is a point in her constituency from which Caroline Flint can see both the chimneys of Drax and an array of wind turbines. She mentions this when I ask whether she likes a wind turbine herself (she doesn’t find them “aesthetically terrible”).

And then she goes on to make an interesting reference to the coal mines which pock her area of South Yorkshire. “I don’t want to draw too many comparisons but 100 years ago when people came to Doncaster and said there’s coal under there, well, it’s interesting how 100 years later something which is providing clean green energy arouses such concern when there are many communities – including my own – who for the sake of the whole country took on the responsibility of powering the industrial revolution.”

The anecdote is a little incoherent because, I think, her politician’s instincts to say nothing, and to say it as often as possible, are fighting with her very passionate desire to say “Come on, get over yourselves and just get on with it!” The coal-mining history of Flint’s constituency has given her an unusual perspective on what energy can mean to a community and to a country – both the good and the bad. She knows that something that is ugly can also mean jobs. And it’s precisely this that makes Flint such an interesting recruit to the green cause.

I interview her in her office in Portcullis House, just over a year after Ed Miliband has appointed her shadow secretary on energy and climate change, the latest, as she points out, in a long cycle of cabinet and shadow cabinet positions. “I’ve been in the home office, employment, public health, and housing.” (She’s forgotten Europe.) She is talkative, focused, and as strikingly good-looking as ever.

She is also pretty clear about why Miliband chose her. “I knew he wanted someone who could raise the profile of the area, but also find a way we could move forward. Not just preaching, saying you can’t go on holiday and all of that, but asking how do we anchor this so that people can see there’s a real personal interest there, both in term of their bills, but also their jobs and their futures.”

She is, she says, “a very practical person” and adds that: “trying to give people the means to help themselves is very important to me”. Environmentalism of the ‘deep green’ variety is not her thing, and she doesn’t talk about any great moment of revelation where environmental issues became important to her.

I don’t get the sense of a deep knowledge and understanding of environmental issues but rather of a competent shadow secretary’s mastery of her latest brief. And her voting record shows a complete lack of interest in the subject until 2005 or so (she is usually absent or abstains on green votes). But when the Stern report came out and the scientific evidence was, in her words, “captured so that you couldn’t ignore it”, she began to vote fiercely in favour of action and was sometimes, after that, to be found amongst that minority urging ‘stronger, faster and more immediate’ action at that.

To a practical mind, an issue like this is, after all, fairly simple. I ask her if she personally worries about climate change, and she exclaims “of course! My own youngest child is 24, and like all parents, I want to leave the world a better place. I joined the labour party so that I could leave the world in a better place than I inherited and for me being in politics is all about that.”

And for Flint, once you’ve made up your mind, you just get on with it. She can’t understand why the government has not, for example, included a decarbonisation target in the energy bill. To her, the government should be setting the direction of travel and naming the challenge, so that industry can rise to it. “When I was in Housing and we were setting the zero-carbon targets for housing, the construction industry was saying well, okay we don’t know much about that, but we’re going to get behind this. Once you have the target you have this dynamism, this energy.”

The official Labour position is pro-nuclear, pro-community energy and wind, and pro-decarbonisation targets. Flint would like to see far tougher regulation, and she also favours an energy pool instead of the current system of vertically integrated companies where the large companies own the power stations and are invisibly selling to themselves. Her position is extremely close to the place where a number of green campaign groups and writers are gathering and she admits to finding Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth surprisingly sympathetic to her views.

She is pretty unimpressed by recent Tory shenanigans around the newly-published energy bill. “The protagonist-in-chief in all this seems to be George Osbourne… but you know the prime minister is David Cameron, he has invested a huge amount of personal capital into this, the husky photos and everything. Where’s his leadership, where’s No. 10 knocking heads together?”

Alright, she admits that there is some comedy value to it all. It was Flint who compared events to The Thick of It, and she was caught on camera laughing aloud at one Commons’ performance by the energy minister John Hayes (although she suspects that things are rather going to his head now).

She is more concerned however about the long-term impact on the green sector and on British business. “In the last month or so we’ve started to really see businesses who normally like to have these discussions behind closed doors and the fact that they’re now flexing their muscles and coming out and saying we are really worried about what’s going on, that’s really worrying.”

For Flint it’s should be all about opportunity. After the Climate Change Act in 2008, she points out, there was a huge upsurge in growth in the green sector which is now on the point of stalling again. For her the government bickering has been damaging both in its effects on business, and in the message it sends to the public. “We have to find a way to bring the public with us – and that’s why my emphasis has been on, we can do right by the planet, but we can also do fantastic things for opportunities for people in this country as well if we’re willing to be leaders rather than followers.”

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