(james benedict brown) on the road

On my hands and knees in the mud

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 24 January, 2009

We are moving up in the world, so to speak. I don’t need to borrow a patch of mud to crawl around in, we have our own.

As you can see, it’s not bad mud to be crawling around in, although this photograph was taken after many hours of said crawling (and weeding). It has been a not unreasonably damp January in Glasgow, and taking on an half-size allotment garden that has not been tended to since before Christmas has given us plenty to do. The soil is generally in good condition, although it decidedly damper at one end than the other. We have yet to establish soil pH, and have been warned about many known instances of Horsetail on this plot. Some of the (many) people who have taken the time to lean over our fence and share a suggestion or two have advised us to do everything we can to get rid of it. Others, more prosaically, have just told us to keep bashing at it, since it doesn’t really interfere with anything else we might be growing. That said, the root system is likely to be draining the soil of nutrients that could be used elsewhere, so we’re on guard, although I’m not entirely sure what to be looking for in this largely dormant soggy soil.

A handy delivery of some old palettes from Glasgow Wood Recycling has allowed us to whip up a compost bin. Somewhat oversized, it has made a modest pile of rotting vegetables look even more modest, but my competitive spirit has been piqued, and I intend to consume many more vegetables this year so as to help the pile get on its way.


The advantage of my employment (sic) is that I have plenty of time to spend up here. I say ‘up here’ because Queen’s Park is on a large hill, and our second floor apartment is at least five or six floors lower in altitude than our plot. While much of Queen’s Park is pretty drab right now, today the first hint of winter relenting was felt in the air. Perhaps that was premature, but there is usually a spring in my step when I climb the hill to dump some compost and crawl through the dirty looking for roots that could come back to life when it warms up.


Christmas Day 2008

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 25 December, 2008

From the depths of darkest Norfolk, wishing you all a peaceful and happy Christmas, and a healthy 2009.

Red cabbage

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 9 December, 2008

Perhaps one of the best value vegetables I’ve discovered in the strangely alluring fruit and vegetable shops on Allison Street here in Govanhill. Less than a pound for a massive (i.e. large mass) red cabbage. So far it’s been oven roasted with apples and red onion for a kind of… well, skiddleymathingamijig, and sliced up with a red onion, potato, butter and stock for the strangest soup I have ever made. It was delicious, but by God it was purpler than any food has cause to be.

Thermostat jockey

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 9 December, 2008

Advent is a sensual time. I am reminded of the approaching pagan / Christian / capitalist (delete as appropriate) festival through a series of haptic triggers. The scent of freshly chopped Christmas trees assailed me outside a wholefoods shop on the Pollokshaws Road earlier this week, and juicy little clementines and tangerines are now appearin as inexpensive mountains of vitamin C in the shops along Alison Street.

There is some debate in the household about Christmas decorations in the apartment. I might be in the minority when I take the “bah humbug” line and refuse to allow paper chains in the house, but then again it’s my name on the lease.

Glasgow is now delightfully cold. Every day in the last week has been crisp and cold, with only occasional rain, sleet or snow showers interrupting the solidly blue sky that hangs over us from about nine in the morning until almost four in the afternoon. The days are short, but the long evenings are getting cosier and more enjoyable. The first gas bill has been and gone, and now that I’m on a cheaper tariff with a non-profit utility company, I’m no longer afraid to fire up the heating as we need it. I have yet to establish whether the chimney in the small study is still capable of conveying smoke out of the fireplace; until then a couple of candles in the apparently original cast iron grate create the semblance of a warm hearth, if not the actual heat. It was only yesternight that I noticed the delicately painted tiles on either side of the grate were constructed in the wrong sequence on one side. The imbalance of pattern perhaps matches the slightly kinked exterior wall of the apartment.

In a discount frozen food shop on Victoria Road today I chatted briefly with a shivering check-out clerk. The double doors of the unheated shop were open to the pavement, allowing a near constant ebb and flow of mothers, prams, mothers and more prams into the temple of the deep freeze. I joked that it was warmer there in at home.

“You must live in a tenement then.” she replied.

The Glasgow tenement is a magnificent building type. Even here in the scummier and more neglected slum streets of Govanhill, the tall stone apartment buildings retain a grandeur and generosity of space. That said, it is there generous proportions that have recently allowed slum landlords to squeeze multiple migrant families into apartments smaller than mine for deeply exploitative rents.

The British and Scottish Government have both postulated at length about helping homeowners to insulate their homes and to save money and energy on their heating bills. These plans (including grants for home insulation upgrades) are not to be snuffed at, but they aren’t much use for the tenants of rented apartments in Glasgow. Not only can the solid stone and brick walls not be retro-fitted with cavity insulation, only the top floor apartments really benefit from lagging the roofspaces.

The only weak spot of the apartment is the original Victorian single glazing. I am deeply in love with the tall sash windows that flood every room with light (the ceilings are about 3 metres high, and the windows occupy about 2/3 of that height right up to the cornicing). But there are almost drafty when closed as when they are opened. In this winter of tightening means, I’m learning the simple (and free) tricks that help cut energy wastage in this home. The sashes can be sealed with plastic strips, but I prefer to leave them open-able throughout the winter to diffuse condensation from damp clothes that have to be dried indoors. The two leaves of the window have to be screwed as tightly closed as possible when not in use, to minimise the gap between the bottom of the upper leaf and the top of the moveable lower leaf.

Closing internal doors also cuts down on drafts through the apartment. Air only seeps in or out of a drafty window if the air has cause to leave or enter the room somewhere else. The curtains that came with the apartment aren’t too thick, but my calculations for replacing them with thicker ones (or doubled up Ikea readymades) means I have to make do with the ones we’ve got.

Finally, I’m becoming a master of the central heating thermostat. In at least one of my student digs I cohabited with friends who had no concept of sensible heating use. Turning the thermostat up and on to continuous heat costs a fortune (and is quite unnecessary at night when you’re tucked up under your own personal insulation, aka a duvet). So I’m tweaking the clock on the thermostat to provide bursts of heat for one hour at a time in the early morning and evening.

As a friendly father-to-be reminded me the other day, Glasgow’s larger tenements like mine are ultimately pretty sound in terms of insulation. The walls are deep and solid, providing a thick layer of heavy mass around us. The weak spots are the windows. A home-owner would see a definite incentive to replace them with double glazing, but the costs for a three bedroom 100 square metre apartment such as this would be huge. A landlord has no incentive to make this investment when it’s his tenants who have to foot the heating bill.

Most problematically, the cheapest form of replacement windows are UPVC, produced by a horrendously polluting and petro-chemical dependent process. They’re also hideously ugly, requiring much larger window frame widths, and ageing visually as their plastic inevitably discolours. Every apartment in Glasgow and every home in Britain will have to be prepared for the inevitable exhaustion of all natural gas sources. Within my lifetime I expect every gas powered central heating and hot water system to be obsolete. A plastic window frames will be unaffordable, as the petro-chemicals needed to produce them are used up.

My honest expectation is that I will see out my days in a super-insulated home that requires no dedicated heating. I could design one today and move in; that technology for new-build structures is proven and exists. But it’s irrelevant for the vast majority of British people who live, like me, in homes that were built before energy consumption was even a concern.

I blog therefore I dig.

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 30 October, 2008

October and November are not the most obvious months to be out on an allotment garden. The air is heavy with moisture, the skies are changeable shades of grey and the only colours to be seen are jaundiced yellow leaves that catch the frequent gusts and stick moistly to my overcoat. Everything living is receding for the winter (including myself, as I re-discover the concealed efficacy of silk long-johns on cold winter days) and vegetation is dying back. But, we have been given the opportunity to work on a slice of a community plot (and thereby keep ourselves busy while we join the end of a very long waiting list for a full sized plot of our own) and the ever shortening days are potentially a very sensible time to start working.

The allotments we’ve joined are heavily oversubscribed for a reason. Surrounded by a beautiful city park, they sit on top of a hill from which Mary Queen of Scots observed her army’s defeat at the Battle of Langside in 1568. It is an idyllic urban location, with good sunlight, plentiful shelter from the trees that surround the site and only modest incursions from the rabbits that gambol about in the park. Slugs are apparently a problem, but with the naïevity of someone who has never lunged a pitchfork into wet soil, I am prepared to give it a go.

There are a handful of plots in Queens Park that are shared – beginners like myself have every reason to be daunted by starting out on a large plot, so I’m hopeful that from small seeds modest crops will grow in a small bed. Although I must admit it’s a fairly depressing prospect being out of doors trying to clear leaves and turn soil right now, it is arguably the best time of the year to be starting a new plot.

The last week or two have not been well spent, although I make regular trips to the allotment to dump organic waste on the promising compost heap. Plodding around the makeshift paths that intertwine the various plots, I’ve been trying to find inspiration in our new neighbours’ projects. Different plots demonstrate different levels of activity and different aspirations.

Will my modest aspirations succeed or amount to anything tangible? I blog, therefore I am. So now that I’ve told you about it, I have no way of avoiding the hard work this is going to need.