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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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt