A Blight On All Their Houses – Spotting Potato Blight
I spotted the first signs of blight on the potatoes today. Not many leaves, so it was a matter of cutting off affected foliage and burning it. But it will be back. When a third of the leaves show the tell-tale brown splotches followed by the rapid collapse of the plant, I’ll remove all the leaves and stalks because there is nothing to be done to halt the spread once it starts and I won’t use chemical sprays. The dying leaves have done their job of growing the spuds and will serve no purpose other than to harbour the problem. Better to get rid of the foliage sooner rather than later in the hope that the tomatoes on the other side of the garden escape infection.
There are two schools of thought about harvesting potatoes from a blighted patch: dig them up immediately or leave them in the ground for at least two weeks to protect them from spores. I’m inclined to the latter – except, you might recall – we have a problem with wireworm, and leaving the tatties in the ground is asking for trouble. Still, the blight was late this year and I’m trusting the crop will have benefitted from the few extra weeks in the ground and the copious amount of rain we’ve had over the last month. Time, as they say, will tell.
Can Do Better: Why ‘Best’ Is Not Good Enough.
Do you remember being told as a child that ‘you can do better’? Do you recall how that made you feel – encouraged, perhaps? Despondant? The other day I posted an oft quoted phrase on a well-known media platform and asked for comments. What I didn’t say was WHY I was interested in the feedback. This is the reason.
Some years ago a young person experienced severe self-doubt over school-related performance, which compounded already very low self-esteem. In the course of therapy, this person was told, ‘The enemy of the best is the good enough.’ Devastated, the young person interpreted the quote to mean that only the best is good enough.
Redoubling their efforts, the young person excelled in their chosen subject at university, only to suffer a complete breakdown as a result. Despite attaining academic excellence, they never felt that they had earned the accolades they had been given, because ‘good enough’ wasn’t ‘the best’.
Subsequently, when the young person recently heard the phrase again, their reaction was one of dismay – much to the surprise of the person who quoted it. And this is why.
The Soviet T34 was fast to manufacture, easy to drive, quick to manoeuvre and reasonably well armed. In the face of such opposition, the German army reacted by producing tanks that were far superior and massively over-engineered. As a result they could not produce enough of these gold-plated versions to outgun the Soviet tanks. In this instance, it was the number of tanks that counted, not the quality. As General Zhukov said, ‘The enemy of the best is good enough.’
Hearing this, the young person thought about it for a while and then, looking up, said, “I have spent my life thinking that in order to be accepted at school and to be of value to society, I had to be the best, but no matter how hard I tried I could never be perfect.”
To this young person, the phrase meant the opposite of its intended meaning.
Throughout childhood and into adolescence, young people are exhorted to try harder, do better, never accept ‘good enough’. A quick search online of the word ‘encouragement’ came up with dozens of images of high-achieving children and advice on how to improve their educational outcomes. Few showed alternative concepts of success. Even where parents are given tips on how to raise a child to be kind, helpful, and resilient, the values placed on these virtues rarely filter into systems used to gauge results. Effective parenting – and by default, the competence of the parent – is itself judged by the success of the child. Attainment is measured in scores and grades, goals set and targets met. By the time they reach adulthood, many people are wired and primed to respond to similar phases in the way the young person did – not in terms of being encouraged, but with raised levels of anxiety at the implied criticism. How many of us recognise the anxious child within ourselves, the one who feels they don’t deserve praise, who ‘must do better’?
As a society, we want our children to strive and to make the best of the opportunities offered to them. Empty praise is just that and does nothing to encourage individual expectations. But there is also an undercurrent of cultural unease in the way children are raised that speaks of a fear of featherbedding young people and which says that praise will undermine effort and therefore performance. Raise the bar, make them work for it. But the bar is also a rod used to beat under-achievers.
Attainment is a matter of societal and individual viewpoint driven by a history of ambition and fear. We are all the victims of these pernicious attitudes and the perpetrators. Only by recognising the effect of our inherited perspective towards success and the language that surrounds it, can we modify and change the way we approach our children’s future. Our best is good enough.
Growing for Gold: the Enduring Appeal of Saffron
It’s one of those things people seem to know about the past (like Henry VIII had six wives and that spices were used to disguise rotten meat – more on that later): saffron, they say, was worth its weight in gold. It was so valuable that they even renamed a village – Saffron Walden – after it. However, two of those three statements are incorrect. In growing for gold, what is the enduring appeal of saffron from antiquity to the modern era? But first a recap on the fate of my own modest project.
Having enriched the soil first, I replanted the saffron in the original position. I’ve selected the fattest corms for this bed and will nurture the smaller ones into productivity elsewhere. It’s not a crop for the impatient: I might get a few flowers later this year, but the corms will not produce their best for at least another year after that.
Trial and error, dearth and glut is precisely what our Medieval forebears would have encountered as they attempted to establish new crops on a commercial scale. Too little rain, too much, low temperatures, mice – all affected productivity as much as they do now. With the initial outlay on corms and limited harvests in the first year, saffron was a risky business. Labour-intensive husbandry – both to keep the fields weed free and in the delicate, time-critical harvesting of the fragile stigma – raised costs even further. But the potential rewards were great.
Recorded in antiquity in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Crete, as well as in Persia and Alexander’s Greece, saffron had a global appeal. It was used variably as a dye for cloth, a pigment in art works, and for a wide range of medical conditions including a cure for headaches and heart problems and a salve for wounds. It was thought to have mood-altering qualities and indeed can produce a sense of euphoria due to its compounds (safranal and crocin might have an anti-depressant effect by maintaining the balance of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (Hosseinzadeh et al., 2004)). Studies in humans show there can be a benefit to patients with anxiety and depression, so perhaps it is then not surprising that it was also an ingredient in some forms of incense and used in both civic and religious ceremony.
In cuisine, we think of saffron as a flavouring and colourant in dishes requiring an exotic touch. English cookery books from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth-century show an extensive use of saffron despite its exorbitant cost, appearing in almost a half of the recipes in the compilation from Harleian MSS. 279 & 4016, Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (Thomas Austin) (1430 – 1450) and over a third in Forme of Cury (c1390). Demand remained high with production in England peaking in the Sixteenth-century, before a slow decline and the eventual cessation of production in England altogether.
It takes upwards of 150 flowers (roughly 450 stigma) to produce one gram of saffron. I won’t be growing enough saffron to sell, but the few delicate strands added flavour to the Medieval dishes I’ve tried (see below).
Saffron is now grown in other regions, including in Iran and Afghanistan, Greece and France and remains as valuable today as it was in the later Medieval and Early Modern periods. Its high value perhaps accounting more for its intoxicating appeal than its slightly bitter flavour and hay-like aroma, saffron nonetheless offers a link to the past and a tantalising glimpse of its potential for the future.
And the odd ones out of the three statements I mentioned at the beginning of this blog?
- Henry VIII did indeed have six wives.
- Saffron was worth far more than its weight in gold.
- Spices were not – I repeat not – used to disguise rotten meat. But more on that in a future blog
This is basically rice pudding. I tried it because it uses almond milk and is therefore suitable for those with a dairy or lactose intolerance. I added saffron, which turned the pudding a glorious golden yellow and imparted a subtle flavour.
Rys. Take a porcyoun of rys, & pyke hem clene, & sethe hem welle, & late hem kele; þen take gode mylke of almaundys & do þer-to, & seþe & stere hem wyl; & do þer-to sugre and hony, & serue forth.
Take a portion of rice, and pick it clean, and boil it well, and let it cool; then take good milk of almonds and thereto, and boil and stir it well; and do thereto sugar and honey, and serve forth.
Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (Thomas Austin, comp.)
Up For Auction: A Once-Lost Medieval Manuscript Witnesses History
While I won’t be bidding on the 6th June, I will await the outcome of the auction with interest as this remarkable witness to history begins the next stage of its long journey .
(1) Kurtis A. Bartow, “Appendix: the Library of Margaret of York and Some Related books,” in Thomas Kren, ed., Margaret of York, Simon Marmion and the Visions of Tondal (Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1992), 257–262. For the complete list of books associated with the duchess.
Details of the manuscript and its provenance (below) have been taken from the Bloomsbury Auction website.
Finding Inspiration: How A Broken Tomb Inspired a Book
‘A picture paints a thousand words’ they say, but I say, why stop at a thousand? I wrote a 5-book series off the back of one image. OK, so it wasn’t a painting, or even a picture. The inspiration for Mortal Fire came from a broken tomb.
I can’t remember where I first saw him, or even his name. I’m not even sure whether his name survived down the long centuries since his image was captured in stone. There he lay, frozen in time – a knight in full armour – his monument to be read like a book. Minute traces of pigment remained trapped in the detail of his sword belt and in the fur of the dog at his feet. His hands, steepled in prayer, spoke of his hope of redemption after death, his collar his affinity in life.
I have seen many such effigies over the years of visiting churches that have become the unintended guardians of the past. Each tells its own story. Whatever we were intended to read from such graceful piety, the dignity of his composure, the emblems of duty, this had a postscript. And it shocked me to my core.
At some point long after the man’s entombment, someone had taken a chisel to his face. It was no accident, nor an act of mindless vandalism. This was a deliberate attempt to erase the man’s identity, his story, his legacy. What struck me on that day as I lingered at his side, was a question in two parts:
- What had this man done or what did he represent to provoke such a violent response?
- Who was the umknown person who desecrated the tomb and why?
It was from considering these unknowables that the concept behind The Secret of the Journal series was created so many years later. Although the period in which my protagonist, Emma D’Eresby, was cheifly interested bracketed the English Civil War, the devastating events of that time could have happened in any era. Ignorance breeds mistrust – mistrust, fear – fear, reaction. We see it all the time throughout history; we see it now. The Secret of the Journal goes one step further in its question: what happens when the past and present collide?
I wish I could remember the name of the little medieval church in which the unknown knight lay, or even the corner of England in which I found him. It was a long time ago now. The grass grew lush around the graves in the churchyard, flowers invaded the tumbled stone. I left my knight to rest in peace as he contemplated Heaven ignorant, I hope, of the fate of his legacy, a reminder that history is as much of our present as we are to the people of the future. Those ripples of time continue indefinitely and who knows where they will reach?
Wherever I go and whatever I do, I try to take photographs as a reminder of what I have seen. Although I often fail to make a note of the place (N.B. to self: take a notebook and a pen), the resulting images form a visual reference and the starting point for further research. Sometimes they even become the inspiration for a book. So, have a look through your own photographs and at the people, the places and the things that inspired you to capture them on screen. Now look again and see them as a source of ideas for your next creation. A picture makes a thousand words.
There’s A Storm Coming: Writing Weather
Bank Holiday Monday and it’s brewing a storm. Visitors to this dramatic part of South-West England will be hunkering down on the beaches with BBQs and brollies. Others will escape into Bridport or Weymouth to explore the myriad shops and alleyways, restaurants and antiquities hidden there. Some will brave Portland Bill for a bit of wave-watching. This is where the Portland Race – a stretch of rough and treacherous water – helped the English fleet defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. Despite the range of lighthouses on the rocky promontory the seas here are no less dangerous for the unwary. Tucked into the lee of the striking red and white striped Portland lighthouse, however, those who relish the thrill can watch the roiling seas in relative safety. Wind-lashed and chilled, it’s all but a quick dash across exposed grass to the warmth and comfort of the nearby cafe.
I’m not going anywhere today. I’m back in the C15th brewing a storm for my protagonist and her family. Consciously or not, I will write the storm into my story, a character in its own right.
All my life I have been fascinated by the changing moods of the weather. It surrounds us, affecting everything from the clothes we wear to the language we speak. So, do you find the same? Does sea-mist or thunder, thick frost or deep snow inspire you? Make you want to write, paint, sing? Because I know that I could no more neglect the weather in my writing as I can the call of spring in my garden. Today, as the wind thrashes the trees outside, I’ll listen from the tranquility of my room. I’ll watch over the edge of my laptop as the tempest rages hoping, for everyone’s sake, that this one doesn’t make it into the history books. BBQ weather this isn’t.
Book Review: The Thorn of Truth by S.L. Russell
I’m delighted to be in receipt of my friend and fellow author’s latest book: S.L. Russell’s The Thorn of Truth, due for release on 21st May, 2021. It tells the story of Anna Milburn, a seasoned barrister, whose very foundations are shaken when her only daughter is caught in the violent fallout of the murder of a young policeman. I was privileged to read The Thorn of Truth before it went to press and I can tell you, it’s a cracking story.
The Thorn of Truth is the second book in a short series of related stories. The first, The Healing Knife, had me so enthralled that I read it in one sitting. If you have read and enjoyed The Healing Knife you won’t be disappointed with this new novel. I have read all of Sue Russell’s books and my back-cover endorsement for The Thorn of Truth sums up the style and substance of what makes her refreshing contemporary Christian novels stand out as authentic, realistic, sometimes gritty and always compassionate.
“S.L. Russell masters the contemporary Christian novel in this beautifully compelling story of the consequences of treading the thin line between heart and conscience.”
The Thorn of Truth by S.L. Russell is due for publication by SPCK on the 21st May, 2021.
The Last Egg
How do you react when you’ve been writing all day and Child Two presents you with The Golden Egg, single-origin 60% cocoa, from chocolatiers Cocoa & Co?
Online Conference: The Battlefields Trust & the Medieval Battlefield
The Battlefields Trust is running an online conference on the Medieval battlefield. Interested in the arms and armour of the Wars of the Roses? This one might be for you. Visit for more details. http://battlefieldstrust.com/event.asp?EventID=1142&fbclid=IwAR3E3X1ZnuLsWbN3XcLa3-oLxBPtTPFAulAz0BfqqaS0_-sPRJoZdYVR26I