Grape Britain: red grapes grown in Malton, near York, England's northernmost vineyard. Photo: Getty
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Breaking Brent: adventures in the Napa Valley of north London

We’re aiming for 150 bottles, with “NW6” on the label and a bouquet of Bakerloo. But this is about more than wine. Could we rediscover lost skills and reconnect with each other?

In June, a bailiff found Anne Leitrim dead in her Bournemouth flat. Her body had been there for seven years. Her home was beside a communal garden and was on the ground floor, with two of the windows left open. But no one had come by. Lovely Scottish brogue she had, the neighbours remembered. I wondered how many neighbours I have who would come knocking on my door. I couldn’t think of any.

Then I bumped into a woman on the street. We struck up a conversation. “I know you,” she said. “You’re the guy on the mobile phone.” Was it just me, I wondered, or is this feeling of disconnection more common? A survey by the Office for National Statistics rated Britain the loneliness capital of Europe. Across the world, we are moving from the city of Ford, designed for cars, to the city of Facebook, in which we are connected but only virtually.

A few months ago, I did in my Achilles tendon playing cricket. Over the following weeks, I walked around the local park in Brent on crutches. I noticed apples and grapes all over the place and saw them start to ripen. One day I was overtaken by an octogenarian Italian man with gout. “Excuse me,” I asked him on impulse, “but do you know how to make wine?” He stopped. “The soles of my feet,” he replied, “are still red from making wine as a boy.” We were off. We were going to become winemakers. Forget Bordeaux. Imagine the rolling vineyards of Brent, the Napa Valley of north London.

We’re aiming for 150 bottles, with “NW6” on the label and a bouquet of Bakerloo, a hint of diesel from the Pendolino and, if we are lucky, a trace of plutonium from the late-night nuclear train. But this is about more than wine. Could we rediscover lost skills and reconnect with each other?

The old man’s name is Paulo Santini. He is 84 and lives two doors down from me with his son and wife. He had last made wine 55 years ago in his village in Emilia-Romagna. This September he made it again, leading 30 of us from the neighbourhood. There was Nicola Bruno, a former lorry driver with an eye for the ladies, who passionately disagreed with Paulo on questions of yeast. There was Luz, a Filipina great-grandmother; John Joe Moloney, an Irish engineer with a fruit press; his girlfriend, Vanessa, from Venezuela (think Sophia Loren on a ladder in Willesden); and Padre Natalino, a priest with an oak barrel that wouldn’t fit through his door. We trampled the grapes – 400 pounds from the area’s wild vines – barefoot, our legs blood red as we came out of the barrel.

In front of my house, there are now two barrels fermenting the harvest. Every six hours we stir and the smell of alcohol wafts towards Kilburn Police Station. There is a Breaking Bad dimension. We’re calling the project “Unthinkable, Drinkable Brent”. We know what we’re doing isn’t a big deal but, to me, it matters. It’s a small step from thinking of myself as a consumer to feeling like something close to a citizen. And it has made me think. Real civic power doesn’t get handed down from the top: it gets made, step by step and from the ground up.

The final step is squeezing the pulp for the premier cru. Our dream? A street party. If it doesn’t work, we’ll have a lifetime supply of vinegar.

Leo Johnson is the co-author of “Turnaround Challenge: Business and the City of the Future” (OUP, £20)

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.