Thursday, 26 July 2012

Get up out of your comfort zone and dance...!

Relu events have often been designed to jolt academics and stakeholders out of their comfort zones, so when Claire Pencak, our choreographer/artist in residence here at CRE, announced a seminar about her work entitled "Because bees don't read the same books as we do", it seemed only right that I should risk going along.  I really wanted to find out more about the work Claire has been doing, particularly in relation to a project on beekeepers, but I was rather anxious that dancing might be involved.  I'm glad I went (even though there was indeed dancing) because it raised quite a few new ideas.  The work included video, installations and wax face masks as well as music and it prompted us all to think a bit differently about knowledge and how we share and exchange it.   Are books barriers or enablers to knowledge?  The video installation could be read either way.   We contributed our seminal thoughts on the subject by chalking them up on a graffiti wall.  Walid Oueslati, our French visiting professor showed hitherto unsuspected graphic talents, portrayed his work on rural and urban interconnections with coloured chalks.  Alan Hunt, a colleague from the US wrote about butterflies and bees as "pollinators" of knowledge which made me wonder why we view the two insects so differently.  To be "a busy bee" is generally seen as laudable, but "a butterfly" flits from flower to flower without purpose or real application.  We had an interesting discussion about the different attributes and attitudes towards insects.  Could this could be turned into an exercise at some future event where we all opt to be "crickets" or "mosquitos"?  Possibly not, but it did give us an opportunity to think about things in a different way.   The music was particularly enjoyable, performed by Jonathan Lloyd who is researching the role of folk music in rural communities.  And, yes there was the dancing, with my CRE colleague Carmen Hubbard leading everyone in a frenzied finale from the Romanian folk tradition.  This was a challenge for those of us without any sense of rhythm or balance, and I don't think I was the only person well out of my comfort zone at this particular point.  Creative activity can be a great equaliser and, I think, particularly for academics, it's not a bad thing to be put in a situation where they are no longer "the expert".

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

In praise of seasonality

When I arrived home yesterday my veggie box was waiting.  It's a pathetic sign of age, I know, that I should find this prospect so exciting on a Tuesday evening.  Every Friday I log onto the veggie box company's website to check what will be included and begin to plan the next week's meals around the contents.  The produce they deliver is organic, but for me that isn't the great attraction.  What I enjoy most about their deliveries is their seasonality and how the contents of the box change during the course of the year.  This week it brought broad beans - one of my favourite vegetables.  Their season is all too brief but I often wonder whether I would enjoy them so much if I ate them every week.  Of course if I really wanted to I could buy frozen broad beans, but it just wouldn't seem the same.  We are also eating sea trout regularly at the moment.  This is a beautiful fish which is only available during the summer months.  I look forward to its appearance at North Shields Fish Quay, usually in May or June, each one with its bright Environment Agency tag.  Mackerel is also a fish that we eat regularly at this time of year: it is both delicious and cheap.  And this morning we ate locally grown strawberries bought at the Grainger Market in Newcastle.  They are very much a seasonal treat in our house, along with raspberries and other berries.  I couldn't contemplate eating strawberries in December - it would feel quite wrong.  But when September comes I will make the effort to go out into the countryside and pick some blackberries, because that's what you do in the autumn.  I'm probably more obsessive than most people about seasonal foods.  That doesn't mean I refuse to eat imported fruit and vegetables - far from it.  But it would seem perverse to me to buy apples from New Zealand when English apples are in season, for example.  And some produce - such as berries and sea trout - do seem to belong to the British summer, even when summer is as miserable as the one we are experiencing at the moment.  Nutrionists urge us to eat a variety of foods and eating seasonally does seem to fit with this.  Besides, strawberries wouldn't feel like a treat if we ate them every day.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Escargots, anyone?

I live in an urban area, without a proper garden, but every year I attempt to grow some token food crops in my Tyneside backyard: runner beans, herbs, lettuce and, if I’m feeling really optimistic, I might risk some chilli peppers and tomatoes.  It’s an endeavour that requires hope to triumph over experience, particularly after the past few dire summers.  My crops are never lavish and each runner bean probably costs more than a pack of frozen ones from the supermarket, but they do bring a sense of achievement and a brief connection with the process of food production.  This year I begin to doubt whether I will even achieve this small harvest, while the snail population explodes.  Our neighbours can probably hear my unrepeatable comments as I pick these pests off my runner beans and crunch them underfoot each evening.  No amount of culling seems to make any difference.  For many farmers, of course, snails are the least of their problems.  The unprecedented amount of rain during the summer has ruined crops in many parts of the country.  This morning, on Radio 4, I heard a farmer from Worcestershire describing the effects on his vegetable plantings.  Pea plants have been battered to the ground and potatoes are under water.  He added, however, that consumers are unlikely to see effects in the supermarkets.  The farmer has to supply at the price agreed in the original contract, and if their own crops are washed away they must buy in from elsewhere, whatever the cost.  This seems like good news for consumers, many of whom are feeling the pinch at the moment.  But it does seem to remove us even further from food production, with its inevitable ups and downs and I do wonder whether this can really be sustainable.  It seems likely that some farmers will go out of business, but will the rest of us even notice?  Increasingly, food is something we take for granted in so many ways.  The average family no longer spends a substantial proportion of its income on food (I heard 9% quoted recently, down from around 30% fifty years ago) and yet we think food is expensive.  Advertisers sell us ready meals that “save time”, implying that time spent on preparing food is time wasted.  I think that if we all attempted to grow some of our own food we would begin to value it more.  That’s why I struggle on with my containers of runner beans and my pots of herbs, in spite of the continuous battle with the snails.  This year I have even wondered whether I shouldn’t adopt a more win-win “Mediterranean” attitude, whip up some garlic butter and serve escargots for dinner!

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

It's just a bit of rain......

It's nearly a week now since last Thursday's "Great Flood" but everywhere in Newcastle and Tyneside people are still talking about it.  Everyone has their flood story, generally about how they managed to struggle home against all the odds, often wading through knee-high water or worse, crawling along in grid-locked traffic and sometimes having to abandon their cars.  This was exactly the moment when we arrived home from a wonderful holiday in Provence (lovely, thank you: sunshine, good food and wine and even the opportunity of fame as we were asked to appear as extras in a new film - though that's another story).  After a flight delayed by "les orages a Newcastle", we landed in rain, lightning and chaos at Newcastle Airport.  Insufficient numbers of immigration officers were trying to process the backlog of increasingly angry passengers, but this was a minor problem compared with what came later.  We soon had our own flood story, as we attempted to drive home to Tynemouth, only to get stuck in often stationary traffic and then find every potential route flooded and roads closed by the police.  There were police cars, ambulances and fire engines trying to push through the queues and attempting to deal with the flooded roads and distressed families.  Desperate parents were leaving their cars and walking miles with babies and small children.   We got home safely in the end, many hours later, but it was a very stark reminder of the power of the elements and their ability to disrupt our everyday lives.  As everyone has been telling one another in the days that followed, this was an unprecedented event in our lifetimes.  Is it attributable to environmental change and will it happen again?  I'm not a climate scientist and I wouldn't attempt to speculate on that, but we do seem to be experiencing some extreme climatic events.  Scientists tell us that environmental change is happening, and whether or not we can attribute this particular heavy rainfall to a shift in our climate, or to human activity, there may be more such incidents in the future.  So it does feel like a wake-up call for many of us.  Maybe we really do need to be more prepared, both individually and as a society.   Just as many parents now will be packing their cars with baby food and warm clothing before every journey "just in case", we may need to think much more carefully about how we develop our infrastructure and how we organise our lives, "just in case".