The Island Goats

Part Four: Sunday 22nd June 2014 9.30 am  

In the end Pluto didn't come on the boat. Rupert, with his lifeboat team baseball hat on, said a flat no. And that was that. But of course, next to being with Rebecca, Pluto's favourite place is in the boot of her car, in amongst the soft muddle of old tartan blankets. So that's where he stayed for the duration of our swim, no doubt secretly in a state of blissful relief.

And I didn't cook breakfast over a driftwood fire on the island beach either. But I did, for the first time since swimming in the sea here in Ireland, put on a wetsuit; one of those short-sleeved, short-legged ones that make you like like an Edwardian gentleman swimmer but less elegant. If that's possible. Rebecca said I should wear one and she was right. We stood, in our wetsuits on the harbour side, looking over the wall at the sea and at the Island, waiting for Rupert to bring his boat to the harbour entrance. The sea wasn't flat or calm at all. There was a light North Easterly wind. We watched them both, the sea and the wind. They thought they would dance together for us.

I am not going to go into the detail of the swim itself except to say that the first half was strange and deeply unsettling and it was very good to have company. It turns out that Rebecca swam before she walked. If Rebecca swims like a seal, I swim like Charlie Chaplin. It was only after drinking a cup or so of seawater and after Rupert had called from the boat that we were half way there  that I really found myself understanding what being in this kind of water meant and how to not ever imagine you can do better than you are doing. Maybe that goes for most things in life. I am pretty sure that Rebecca could have swum to the Island, done a couple of circuits of it and be sitting on the steps of the jetty writing notes for next year's Ballymaloe Litfest before I had even arrived there if she had been less patient and supportive.

So a huge thanks to you, Rebecca. And to Rupert who, in a paradoxically reassuring way, scooted off to fish for mackerel at one point, his little blue boat bobbing carelessly some 100 metres away.

I would do it again. I am going to do it again. In the end it only took 45 minutes anyway. Nothing really.

So why did I do it, this Lighthouse Island swim which has so preoccupied me over the past couple of weeks? 

I think the reasons have changed. I think they always do when you set out to do something you have never done before. Of course it was about raising money. For SFF and for The RajKSoni Legacy Fund. And I'd like lots of it please. And if you want to sponsor me just go  to I was also doing it to support the marathon swims which happened at Lido on behalf of SFF and at Portishead on behalf of the RKSLF yesterday.  I salute all those swimmers and hope that their day was as wonderful and life-affirming as mine was on Friday.

So I think my real reason for swimming to the Island begins there too; with life itself. Well, three things; life, the soil & cooking.

There are two jetties on the island. The one we arrived at and the one we walked to, over the island, to be picked up again by Rupert. A little way up the steep pathway, we came across a mother goat who had just given birth to two kids. The bloody afterbirth was on the grass, glistening in the sun. I would say the birth had happened while Rebecca and I were in the sea. The mother goat was licking one of the kids which stood blinking and wobbly in the sun, against the grassy bank of the path, in this new world, knowing nothing, not yet even having suckled from its mother. The other kid lay on the pathway. Its neck was crooked sideways and although alive and trembling, its mother was paying it no attention. She knew it wasn't going to survive.

There are 6 or 7 wild goats on the island - well and now there are 8. But not 9. They survive because there is fresh water from a spring to drink and grass and flowers and seaweed to eat. A small community of wild goats getting on with the business of living.

I have put life (and death) bit out of the three things because that's the bit we all recognise. But really the soil comes first. The thing we humans, as the world's most powerful community, are destroying little by little every day. We are not thinking about the soil.

In my last posting I mentioned Craig Sams' talk at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. If you have got this far with me on this journey, then read about Bio-char and its place in sustainable farming systems. By which I mean organic. Because that's more important than Bio-char; Craig himself began his talk with a brief history of the organic movement in the UK, placing its principles at the heart of his case for Biochar.

We have spent the last ten years not talking about organics. It's gone out of fashion. Even the Soil Association is having to be circumspect about it. And for the rest of us? It's too difficult, to expensive, the arguments for it are dubious, it won't feed the world, it's a middle-class Waitrose, colour supplement thing. Most chefs don't give a damn about it. And that alone speaks volumes. And Bristol Green Capital isn't engaged with talking about it either. Not really. It remains on the margins. Now we talk vaguely about sustainability because it's less provocative.

A wilful blindness to the plight of the soil. Don't tell me all the reasons why organics is not the answer to anything or that GM crops just might have the solution, that poor people can't afford organic food and what a romantic middle-class joke the whole notion of small organic farms is. I just can't bear that anymore. What's wrong with romance anyway? We are not feeding the world anyway, we can't ever hope to. Let's talk about the science and real solutions yes, but lets talk about the science of soil itself to start with.

Well, not right now. I just want to tell you where the cooking bit fits in otherwise you will just go to the pub or to sleep with boredom.

So this is where cooking fits in and in particular the notion that we need a culture of food democracy, of good food for all.

I think if more people cook good food from scratch, the soil will become more important in the landscape of their own lives. Whether they live in a city like Bristol or in a village in the heart of Devon. And when you really think about the soil you are thinking about life itself.

And I think the movement towards real cooking, which is already happening, will lead food culture inexorably to the health of the soil and therefore to principles of organic agriculture. We will make the connection.

That's the direction of travel we are on at Square Food Foundation. While I have been away in Ireland, a garden at the back of the cookery school has been made. I imagine the courgettes are being eaten and the tomatoes almost ripe in this amazing weather. A tiny patch of soil, a gesture, you could say. But it makes the connection between what we put in our mouths and where it comes from. And that's a start.