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.

Photo: Getty
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That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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