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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SRSLY #99: GLOW / FANtasies / Search Party

On the pop culture podcast this week: the Netflix wrestling comedy GLOW, a new fanfiction-based web series called FANtasies and the millennial crime drama Search Party.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen using the player below. . .

. . .or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on StitcherRSS and SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s assistant editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links


The show on Netflix.

Two interesting reviews: New York Times and Little White Lies.

Screen Rant on the real life wrestling connections.


The show on Fullscreen.

Amanda Hess’s NYT column about it.

Search Party

The show on All4.

For next time:

We are watching Happy Valley.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we’d love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we’ve discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.

Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!

PS If you missed #98, check it out here.

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