Planet organic

The Kilter theatre company puts down roots on an allotment in Bear Flats, Bath.

The Bloomfield allotments in Bear Flats, Bath are the site of Kilter theatre company's latest outdoor "tale of love and vegetables", an examination of our relationship with food as we move towards post-oil times. I wondered what sort of a place it was. "Nappy Valley," answered my companion crisply.

Perhaps, then, Kilter was preaching to the card-carrying converted -- the yummy mummies on-message with organics who try to avoid air-freighting baby's beans. After all, an allotment is the ultimate suburban fantasy of zero-food-miles self-sufficiency -- as long as you can top it up with an Ocado shop.

It did look a little like a Boden photo shoot as the audience of mainly women gathered. (Horses or dogs? "Both!") This was fertile ground indeed for Kilter's seeds of polemic. But the show, Roots Replanted, was a revelation in this setting. It's the only performance I can think of where actors were in danger of being upstaged by fruit and veg.

It was a far cry from my patch at home: the killing fields for all but the toughest of brassicas. Gourds were positively bursting out of the soil around us and apples pendulous in the trees above. My companion, a chef and an allotment holder to boot, was at times more seduced by the produce than the production ("divine kohlrabi!").

This charming promenade embeds itself in the locale, so characters' names are taken from nearby streets, and ideas grown from local workshops, or "tea parties" in the pre-Palin sense of the word. The set, such as it is, is put together from bits of old tat found on-site, and locals have contributed an audio record of food-memories, and written notes on childhood cooking: cockle soup on holiday in France; damper bread made by Scouts in the 1950s; a disastrous "mirenge" (sic).

Local history is carefully woven into the experience, and at one point we stood in the crater made by the "Baedeker" raids -- the Luftwaffe's attempt to pulverise Bath's Georgian heritage. This, we learn, was apparently part of the master plan to blow up all the English cities given three stars by the German guidebook. Just as poignant were the huge horse chestnut trees framing another scene, which were victims of the Greek leaf-miner moth carrying out its own Blitzkrieg along the M4 corridor: living, or perhaps dying, proof of some of Kilter's eco-themes.

The actors Caroline Garland and Claire Wyatt plait together a tale from Fifties Austerity Britain with a 2060s story of re-engagement with the land, post "Food Riots" and "Protein Poisoning". They are assisted by a multi-tasking Olly Langdon, horribly irritating as the schlock jock Peter Local, marvellously slack-jawed as the future's Adam, who slyly scrumps apples, of course.

Audience members are both the children of Beatrice in the Fifties (and as such liable to cleanliness spot-checks) and the elders of Robin, born in 2031 and product of the Wal-Mart education system. Whereas Bea, with her fantastically vivid lipstick and floral pinny, is sick of the "make do and mend" philosophy, and inclines towards the shiny new toys and fast food from across the Atlantic, her Estuarine descendant, from the age of solar cinema and community ovens, reconnects with the land and discovers her roots -- and not just her genealogical ones.

Kilter's entire project is to be carbon-audited. Estimates put the carbon emissions of London's theatres alone at 50,000 tonnes a year, though in recent times there have been concerted efforts in some quarters to limit this: the Arcola theatre, in particular, has been pioneering hydrogen-fuel-cell lighting, Southwark's temporary Jellyfish is an entirely recycled theatre, and many others are inhabiting recycled spaces.

Few, however, could compete with the model of sustainability offered by Kilter. The windpower used for its limited light and sound is generated on-site, the set and props are salvaged, and the thinking behind the small tour is to minimise the travelling done by the audience.

There were, perhaps, issues left unaddressed, not least of which is what happens to the Kenyan bean farmer when we buy local or grow our own. And the backbreaking work familiar to anyone who's ever grubbed around in a kitchen garden is glossed over.

But Kilter is really about the seeding of ideas; we each took home a potted-up damson stone, a tiny metaphor for this hopeful planting. Perhaps, if I keep it away from my own deadly vegetable patch, it might even bear fruit.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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