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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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times