Friday, October 27, 2006

“Apple Day” organised by an organic society

Recently I went to an “Apple Day” organised by an organic society at a local school hall. On tables all along one side of the hall were examples of apples displayed in rectangular wooden frames like some kind of surrealist installation. As well as the formal displays there were also lots of different kinds of apples to taste.

The place was packed with people who had brought along apples to be identified.

In front of me in the queue was an elderly couple clutching a small cardboard box filled with apples. They were wearing identical beige-coloured raincoats. The woman’s hand was on the man’s arm.

“We’ve recently moved into an old house with an overgrown garden” the man said. “We have ten apple trees in the garden. We are hoping someone can tell us what they are.”

Above: Horticulturalists were identifying the different varieties. They rely on memory and also comparing the samples to the named varieties on show, looking for similarities in shape, colour and aroma. There is a system of Apple Passport Numbers (APNs) that will compare twenty or so points of reference and give each a numerical value (the APN of the Merton Beauty apple is 26-4-13-1-345-238-19-2-2-36-78-38-258-8-56-3-28-89-34-3-3-8-3-123).

Above: There are a huge number of apple varieties – approximately seven thousand five hundred. The Guardian recently did a free wall chart on apples which was very feeble – it only showed about forty varieties, half of which were the mono-culture varieties sold by the supermarkets. At the Apple Day there were about a hundred and twenty different apples on show.

Above: The Merton Beauty apple was first grown by a Mr Crane in 1932 at the John Innes Horticultural Institute in Merton, a suburb of south London. The tree is easy to grow and gives a good crop - aromatic apples tasting slightly of aniseed. Not to be confused with a Camberwell Beauty, which is a butterfly.

Above: Nonpareil is a variety introduced from France, probably in the 17th century. They are small apples, yellow-green in colour with streaks of brown russet and a faint orange flush. French scientists claim that the typhoid bacillus will not live in the juice of the Nonpareil apple.

Nonpareil means “unmatched” - there is a bird called the Nonpareil ( as well as a type of almond and a kind of sugar confection used to decorate cakes.

In A la recherché du temps perdu Marcel Proust wrote: “To return to Combray, we need only turn down an avenue of oaks, bordered on one side by a series of orchard-closes, each one planted at regular intervals with apple-trees which cast upon the ground, when they were lighted by the setting sun, the Japanese stencil of their shadows; then, sharply, my heart would begin to beat, I would know that in half an hour we should be at home…”

Above: Claygate Pearmain is a wonderful apple, crisp and heavily scented. The taste is very nutty. It was discovered by accident growing in a hedge in Surrey about a hundred and eighty years ago. In appearance the fruit is large, with red stripes and russet polka dots. Edward Bunyard (a very opinionated writer on the topic of apples) describes it as one of the top twelve finest apples in the world. It used to be widely grown in Victorian and Edwardian gardens but has now become quite rare. There is an old county remedy for sore eyes that involves rotten Claygate Pearmain apples used in a poultice.

Above: Gascoigne’s Scarlet was first grown by W. Gascoigne of Bapchild Court in Kent. As the name implies, the colour is a deep blood red. It keeps well (picked in September, it will last until January). Apparently it is good for growing on chalky soils. It is a “duel purpose” apple which means it can be used for cooking (apple pies, apple dumplings, apple puddings etc). Shakespeare’s Henry IV mentions a dessert made from apples and caraway.

Above: Histon Favourite is a yellow apple first grown by John Chivers (from the famous jam family) around 1850. It has a sort of acid taste that the experts describe as “brisk” (Bunyard describes it as “indiscriminate and undistinguished”). It was widely grown in Cambridgeshire to supply the London market.

Above: Peasgood Nonsuch was grown by accident by a sixteen year old girl who planted five pips from an unknown cooking apple. Only one of the seeds germinated and eventually produced gargantuan apples, each apple over a pound in weight. Many families in the county used to plant an apple tree whenever a son was born (and a pear tree for a daughter).

Sir James Frazer records rituals that accompany the tasting of the first-fruits of the apple crop each year. Unless these ceremonies are performed there is a danger that the “tree spirit” may be offended. Frazer also mentions how a straw man would be placed in the boughs of the oldest tree in an orchard, representing the tree spirit that would revive when the blossom appears in the spring.

Above: Reverend Tom Putt, Rector of Trent near Sherborne, is supposed to have first grown the famous Tom Putt cider apple in the late 1700s. Orchards of Tom Putt apples can be found all over the west country. “Wassailing the orchard-trees”' on Christmas Eve is a custom that still survives in the west (it used to be widespread in all counties). Farmers go into the orchards at night accompanied by their families and drink to the health of the trees in cider before throwing the remainder of the drink onto the tree trunks. Shotguns are fired into the branches, and special songs sung. Wassailing bowls were very ornate (

Cider apple vinegar is a powerful detoxifying and purifying agent – you can buy a very pure version by mail order from Goldshield (

Above: Cider press in operation. Recently on Film4 I watched the 1998 film version of Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, directed by Phil Agland and starring Rufus Sewell. It is set in the New Forest in the nineteenth century and includes a very effective scene where woodsman Giles Winterborne holds a party in his humble home hoping to impress his promised fiancée (in a sort of arranged betrothal) Grace Melbury. The yokel neighbours also invited to the party become excessively inebriated with cider, and their drunken behaviour so disgusts Winterborne’s prospective father-in-law that the match is broken off (with tragic results). The drinking is not mentioned in the novel and is one of the few occasions where a film has improved upon a book. The Woodlanders is supposed to have been Hardy’s favourite among his novels.

Above: I usually stop at roadside stalls to see what they have on offer. In September I bought some incredible carrots – they must have just been pulled out of the ground. We had them at dinner and they were very succulent, completely unlike any carrots I have had before (I suppose most carrots get a bit dried out when being transported to the supermarket).

Above: Crab apple jelly. Crab apples are wild apples that are tiny in size and extremely sour (the final jelly is very sweet, copious amounts of sugar having been added when the apples are boiled up). Almost every farm has its own recipe for crab apple jelly, many involving alcohol.

Above: Baskets of windfalls were lined up for you to help yourself.

Apples feature prominently in mythology. The Trojan War began when Paris gave an apple to Aphrodite. The legendary Isle of Avalon is supposedly the “Island of Apples” (traditionally located at Glastonbury which is an area noted for its apple orchards). Eve tempted Adam with an apple from the Tree of Knowledge (more likely to have been a pomegranate as the Middle East is too hot for apples to grow).

In the medieval period a relic purporting to be the apple given by Eve to Adam appeared in Egypt and was venerated at a church in Alexandria (Sir John Mandeville makes an oblique reference to this). It was stolen in 1365 during the Alexandrian Crusade and conveyed to Cyprus, and then Malta. According to notes left by Canon MVG (an amateur antiquarian, therefore not entirely reliable) it later shows up as one of TWO holy relics at a Cistercian house in Wales, one relic being the apple from the Tree Of Knowledge, the other being an apple from the Tree Of Life. The credibility of these two objects doesn’t seem to have been very high, even in medieval times, and the cult following was negligible. At the Reformation both of the apples are supposed to have been put in a box and sealed in a wall of the monastery, identified by MVG as Strata Florida. However in 1998 I stayed with Alan Nixon at his home in south Wales (the MVG papers belong to his family) and we thought that Cymer Abbey might be a better candidate. We drove up there the next day (if you have ever travelled from south Wales to north Wales you will understand what a difficult journey that was) but it was a wasted trip – there were hardly any walls of the abbey left standing, and none of them seemed wide enough to contain a hidden box. Had we found a box would we have dared open it? The apple from the Tree Of Life would be a relic that even an M. R. James character would have been wary of.

Political Correctness is the New Colonel Blimp

I spoke to someone who did History with me at university. He went on to do an MA then a PhD and now has a minor academic post (doesn't pay very much). It is the sort of career I once contemplated. Anyway, he has just written an article on the historical context of Political Correctness, demonstating that it is related to the Colonel Blimp phenomenon, which I thought was quite interesting (Political Correctness is the New Colonel Blimp - not sure what journal).

Note: Colonel Blimp was a cartoon figure of the 1930s that satirised establishment opinions: pompous, contradictory, hopelessly out of touch with the real world.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

I went to see Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford on Avon. It was the matinee performance on the last day (we put off going for weeks and nearly risked not seeing it at all). We went to Stratford by train, which was a mistake as both going there and coming back there was massive disruption, breakdowns, signalling problems.

The play is one of Shakespeare’s most famous, but possibly not his best. I have seen it many times before – as a live performance and also on film (the Zeffirelli 1968 version and the Baz Luhrmann 1996 version starring Leonardo Di Caprio). This production was good apart from the tap-dancing fight scenes, which I thought looked silly. The set designs referred to 1950s Italy and seemed to be a bit skimpy. Rupert Evans played Romeo and Morven Christie played Juliet. The play was directed by Nancy Meckler.

Above: There is an aura to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon that adds an indefinable quality to the experience. You think that because it is being performed in Shakespeare’s birthplace it must be the definitive production. We wanted to see Troilus and Cressida at Stratford when it transferred from the Edinburgh Festival but we left it too late and missed it. The theatre is to close shortly for rebuilding. The plan is to make the building bigger and grander while incorporating the original features. The reopening is scheduled for 2010.

Above: Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet has inspired many other artists – writers, painters, musicians. Prokofiev used the play as the basis of his ballet Romeo and Juliet (which I’ve seen at Covent Garden). 1980s band Dire Straits had one of their most famous hits with the song Romeo and Juliet (although the original video with its waddling bespectacled hero is seldom seen now).

Above: How realistic is the characterisation in Romeo and Juliet? Obsessive first love between teenagers can seem pathetic, even when ennobled by the poetry of Shakespeare. You might think that teenagers these days are far too cynical to fall in love (this is the era of Vickey Pollard). During the summer I was sitting at a table belonging to an outdoor café. Anyway, I began to notice a teenage couple walking backwards and forwards. They didn’t just pass by once – they went up and down the street several times. They caught my attention for several reasons. First because they were dressed very similar (there is a theory that couples end up wearing similar clothes). Also they were walking with great speed, the boy with a determined look on his face, while they went into clothes shops, gadget shops, sports shops etc. But what really marked them as unusual was the way in which they were clinging to each other. The boy was striding along while the girl had to give little runs to keep up, all the time hanging onto his arm. I looked at them and thought: that’s Romeo and Juliet.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Wicker Man

I went to see The Wicker Man at the weekend. The film stars Nicholas Cage as a Californian police officer who goes to a remote island off the coast of the state of Washington to investigate a missing child. Directed by Neil LaBute it is based upon the 1973 British film The Wicker Man (supposedly one of the six best British films ever made), but so hacked about that the final result is very poor.

Had the film been a straight remake, even transposed to an American setting, it would have worked. Had it taken a completely new direction, using the screen play but reinterpreting it completely, it would also have worked. But there were so many references to the British film (directed by Robin Hardy, screenplay by Anthony Shaffer) that all that it did was remind you how inferior the current version was to the 1970s original. The 1973 film portrays a weird society where the mundane co-exists with the fantastic so that you are able to imagine such a place existing. The American version never really develops a credible world of its own. There are some good moments (perhaps worthy of an episode of the X-Files), but far too much action and breathless characters explaining things to each other.

Above: The image of “the wicker man” has been adopted as an alternative ecological symbol (I took this photograph at an event where various “new age” pseudo-hippy stalls promulgated alternative lifestyles).

Above: In the closing scenes of The Wicker Man the Nicholas Cage character was burned alive in the organic idol (a giant “Waste Man” was constructed in Kent recently and set on fire producing similar images ).

Above: the American Wicker Man lost all credibility for me when the woad-painted harpies started to appear. Are Hollywood producers so ignorant of basic history that they did not know face-painting with woad died out in the Iron Age? Or did they know the truth but chose to portray a falsehood because it looked better?

Face-painting with woad is also a feature of the film Braveheart which projects a retarded image of thirteenth century Scotland ( In a film filled with many comical anachronisms the woad-painting was the most crass. Braveheart has been a tremendously successful movie, but one that I find unpleasant and disturbing. There is a sense of history being manipulated by Director Mel Gibson in a way that is not really acceptable. 13th century western Europe was a society where personal fealty was the universal social structure, and knighthood represented an international fraternity that crossed the borders of different kingdoms (which were very fluid anyway and grew or retracted according to dynastic alliances). Nationalism based on ethnic origin was a nineteenth-century invention, and ethno-nationalist conflict a twentieth-century development.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The countryside is changing

Above: field of sunflowers with wind turbines in the distance. An example of how the countryside is changing. John Prescott describes wind turbines as "beautiful" (fat lot he knows). In isolation one or two can look striking, but large numbers amount to visual pollution of the landscape. Fields of sunflowers are increasingly common, making parts of the county look like eastern Europe. When I drove past this field this morning the crop had been harvested.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Apologies for not updating recently - with the staff shortages at work, and my car being off the road, and everything else that's happening I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment.