Monday, 1 March 2021

Grocery shopping list for February 2021

This post is the twenty-sixth in a series and the fifth to chronicle diets. This month a friend moved in, so shopping involved more than one person.

2 February

Morning weigh-in had me at 98.5kg. Later, went to the IGA and bought (see receipt below) canola oil, mayonnaise, thousand island dressing, a piece of steak, mushrooms, a lettuce, a block of Bega cheese, taramosalata, and some mozzarella.

3 February

Had to pick up mail so went to Broadway Shopping Centre and at Coles bought (see receipt below) lamb chops, eye fillet steak, barramundi fillets, salmon fillets, a blue grenadier fillet, two smoked cod fillets, marinaded goat’s cheese, tomatoes, strawberries, an avocado, some comte cheese, and low-carb snacks.

5 February

Morning weigh-in had me at 98.4kg. In the evening went to the Campos Coffee website and bought the following:

6 February

Morning weigh-in had me at 97.6kg. Went back to the Campos website and changed my delivery address to be my post office box, instead of my home. I did this before 10am so hoped – the order “processing” at the time I logged in – my change’d take effect by the time they parcelled up the bags.

8 February

Got an email from Australia Post regarding delivery of the coffee and it had a destination post code for my home area so I phoned Campos and got onto an operator who said she was just finishing up for the day. She asked for my order number but I said I’d received no confirmation email from the company.

She used my surname to search, told me to give her my post office box address and that she’d see if the package had been sent yet, promising to call me the following day.

My week's calorie count was, as follows:

The activity chart was:

The macronutrient chart was:

This week I ate an average of 31.1g of carbs per day.

9 February

The operator didn’t call from Campos this morning but in the afternoon I received an email from Australia Post about the parcel (see below). This email showed – by the post code used in its body – that the company had actuated the change requested in the previous day’s telephone call.

I also went to Coles and bought (see receipt below) sliced ham, sliced mortadella, strawberries, mushrooms, a capsicum, an avocado, low-carb bread, and low-carb snacks.

10 February

Morning weigh-in had me at 97.4kg. Later, went to IGA and bought (see receipt below) mini chicken drumsticks, chicken wings, a lettuce, apples, and milk.

13 February

Morning weigh-in had me at 96.8kg. Later, went to IGA and bought (see receipt below) a melon, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, eggs, fillet steak, nori, an iceberg lettuce, peaches, oranges, and chargrilled capsicums.

14 February

Morning weigh-in had me at 97.4kg. Later, went to IGA and bought hummus, taramosalata, and milk.
Here’s the weekly calorie count:

The week’s activity chart:

And the week’s macronutrient chart:

In the week just past I consumed an average of 40.5g of carbs per day.

18 February

Morning weigh-in had me at 96.5kg. Later, went to IGA and bought lamb chops, lamb cutlets, lettuce, sliced pastrami, turkey breast slices, capsicums, mushrooms, gouda cheese, blue cheese, Jarlsberg cheese, bread, and carrot cake. Popped in at Chemist Warehouse to get mouthwash. Receipts below.

19 February

Morning weigh-in had me at 96.6kg. Later, went to Broadway Shopping Centre and at Coles bought (see receipt below) lamb chops, tuna steaks, barramundi fillets, an avocado, strawberries, blueberries, marinaded goat’s cheese, milk, low-carb bread, and low-carb snacks.

21 February

Morning weigh-in had me at 96.2kg. Later, went to IGA and bought laundry detergent, soap, kitchen wipes, garbage bags, a lettuce, nectarines, apples, tomatoes, tea, mushrooms, and low-carb snacks. My friend went to Woolworths at the same time and bought prawns, garlic, broccoli, a lettuce, chillies, oranges, watermelon, ginger, grapes, blackberries, and a cake. See receipts below.

The week’s calorie count was, as follows:

The activity chart was, as follows:

And the macronutrient chart was like this:

The past week I ate an average of 37.7g of carbs per day.

22 February

Morning weigh-in had me at 95.9kg. Later, went to Mascot and at the butcher’s bought lamb chops, pork chops, eye fillet steak, and pork ribs. Also, at the IGA, bought kitchen paper towels, tofu, crackers, a piece of chocolate cake, taramosalata, and egg noodles. See receipts below.

23 February

Morning weigh-in had me at 96.2kg. Later, went to the IGA and bought an avocado, toilet cleaner, and eggs.

25 February

Went to Woollies at Wolli Creek and bought (see receipt below) chicken wings, snapper fillets, prawns, onions, grapes, chillies, tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, mushrooms, soy sauce, truffle cheddar cheese, Margaret River cheddar cheese, and carrots.

28 February

Morning weigh-in had me at 95.8kg. Later, my friend went to the Chemist Warehouse and bought some laundry liquid.

Week’s calorie count looked like this:

Activity chart was, as follows:

Macronutrient chart was, as follows:

This week I ate an average of 45.7g of carbs per day.

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Exhibition review: Art Xpress, 2021, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Every year the Higher School Certificate students – young people matriculating from secondary school – exhibit work at this gallery. It’s not a ticketed show, so the value is doubly good, but it’s not on that account that I decided to make this post. In fact, the quality of work on show was excellent though most of the works I’ve chosen to feature here are by girls.

The sole boy whose work I found was Jaeyoon Kim, who had studied at Epping Boy’s High School. This is an area that Asian residents of the city of Sydney favour, and it’s near to where my mother’s old nursing home is located. It’s a leafy, green suburb that has a major train station – serving two lines – straddling the M2 motorway that threads along through the north of the metropolis. The school is public.

Kim has chosen to show what he thinks are the dark lives of people with money, evidently something that factors large amid his peer group. He’s selected three views – I’ve only chosen one to show here – and has used sombre hues to demonstrate the loneliness of the elites, cut off, as he sees them, from the rest of humanity by their privilege.

I love the glossy, wet streets of Kim’s city (see above) in the series ‘Dark World of the Wealthy’. Kim’s chosen a country where they drive on the left but he’s put the steering wheel on the left-hand side of the car, too. I’m not sure why he’s chosen this configuration of elements through which to express his poetic vision. The auto maker’s badge is distinctly visible, the traffic light is green, and the roads are almost deserted. As in a comic book drawing, the buildings totter and threaten to fall over. But the feature in this oil painting is the satiny, glowing macadam of the roadway that stretches away, to the top of a hill – which forms a boundary – and captures the reflections of the car headlights, tail lights, and the traffic lights.

Next is the work of Sariah Cummings from Northern Beaches Secondary College, whose acrylic paintings feature fire. Inspired by the bushfires of the summer we had at the beginning of 2020, Cummings has created disturbing images that draw on the figurative tradition. Like a painting by Turner, Cummings’ pieces entice the viewer then throw their regard back in their faces as they come to grips with her poetic vision – a kind of dreamscape that resembles a Medieval conception of Hell.

Cummings' provenance in the Northern Beaches of Sydney – a pleasant part of the world that votes mostly conservative – also indicates a concern for the environment. Her work is strongly informed by narratives surrounding climate change.

The environment also features in Bronte Gooch’s drawings (see below). Here, in works titled ‘Detritus’, the meaning is clear but the method is anarchic and strange. I love the ephemeral, almost random series of marks Gooch uses to create signification in her work.

St Vincent’s College is a single-sex Catholic boarding school in Potts Point, an inner suburb of Sydney.

In Elizabeth Hayman’s ‘Scorched: Black Country’ the fires of last year feature again but here in delicate charcoal on paper (see below). These works are situated right at the end of the exhibition, near the exit.

Phoebe Turner of Ascham School – a single-sex girl’s school in tony Edgecliffe – has taken a different take on the environment, one that chimes with Gooch’s.

The label on the bottle of milk that the girl in the photo is drinking from features the design of one of Turner’s photomontages (see above), which are titled ‘States of Flux’. 

Plastic in the ocean is a major problem around the world, and Turner is not alone in seeking to embody a tonic political concept in her expressive work. Paige Colgate of Caroline Chisholm College has also borrowed her theme from the natural world (see below).

Colgate’s ambitious etchings are titled ‘Suburban Wilderness’. They augur well for the future and if she can stick with the medium over the coming years it’ll be – I have no doubt – a surprise to see where her talent (which is significant) takes her. Caroline Chisholm College is a Catholic school located on the western outskirts of the city, near the Blue Mountains.

More ephemeral are the messages in Nissa Violet Jenkin Brennan’s ‘Ephemeral’, (see below). St Columba’s Catholic College – where Brennan went to school – is located in Springwood, right on the western border of the city, in amongst the mountains and the retreats of lyrebirds. These works of hers were made with graphite and watercolour.

A completely different tack is evident in ‘Feast of the First Morning of the First Day’ (see below) by Jennifer Nguyen. This is a series of metallic prints made on a computer with the Procreate graphics program. Nguyen went to Canterbury Girls' High School, a public school in the inner west of Sydney that has seen significant development in recent years as industrial sites have been turned into blocks of residential dwellings for the expanding middle class.

Using just three colours – red, white, and blue (the colours of the Australian flag) – Nguyen has rendered a range of scenes that you might see played out in Cabramatta during the moon festival

It’s instructive to see what subjects these young people engage with in their search for meaning. The predominance of private schools is not a surprise, and where you’ve got public schools you’ve also got people whose heritage is Asian. For the Anglos – for example Turner, Hayman, Cummings, and Gooch – the environment is the main focus of the artist in the world trying to come to grips with modernity and the onward press of time. Each of them excels in her chosen form, and while the method of rendering the world in each case is different, you feel a common urge to change the status quo.

Sometimes this emerges in an overly dogmatic and determined fashion and this indicates that today young people’s identities are forged within the collective in a way that is different from how the dynamic functioned when I was young. 

In Brennan’s work in addition to ideas of ecology you also find traces of a search for other types of meaning, but these are equally associated with identity. Here, and also in Turner’s work, feminism is clearly a construct to grapple with, adding another layer of complexity to the difficulty of being young in a post-postmodern world where the challenges are so evident but the way to their solution seems more fraught than ever. Artists of this generation therefore have not only to deal with the broader consensus of society, but also with a less liberating consensus – that of the coterie wherein they reside. 

Breaking free of the embrace of the one is just as difficult as breaking free of the embrace of the other, and here is where style can play a role. The states these works render in visual form are not in flux however. What I feel walking through my memories of this exhibition is a desire to find something fluid and ephemeral, a state of flux rather than a prison of ideas.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Take two: ‘The Sandcastle,' Iris Murdoch

For full review, see my Patreon

Despite the stuffy cover, this electric novel does two different things. One is to describe, in terms conducive to creating in the reader’s mind a picture, a community rooted in the period before the postwar counterculture arrived on the scene. To read this book is almost to practice archaeology. The other thing the book does is to outline the profile of human desire. A wonderful experience which has made me keen to read more books by this forgotten author.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Podcast review: Hot Mess, Radio National, ABC (2020)

I found this program on the Apple Podcast app while searching randomly for something to listen to while driving. I didn’t specifically go out of my way to find a program about the environment.

It goes a bit fast at times but is otherwise adequately researched. It’s just that because of the faulty editing – you struggle to keep up with the narrative as your concentration wanders due to a sudden, urgent events happening on the road while you’re driving – some important things get lost in the transmission.

Especially at the beginning, before the basic premise – which is, on the face of it, sound – is cemented in your imagination. We do need to have more informed viewpoints on the subject of climate change so that we can – hopefully, with patience exercised on both sides – get away from the trolling and the flame wars. By focusing on why it’s so hard to get through to people this podcast tries to list the reasons why we seem to keep on having the same debates?

‘Hot Mess’ is a suitable place to start to find the answers to this question but it doesn’t go very deep until the final episode, and it also wears its heart on its sleeve. The bit about psychology that opens the show should’ve been placed closer to the end, because the filler – all the stuff about the IPA and the Minerals Council – is so well known as hardly to warrant inclusion. 

In fact, there’s not much in this program that is new until episode four. Most of the show is a slightly reheated dollop of quickly assembled interviews but, then again, you get what you pay for. 

There is plenty of stuff happening in the environment space, especially in research institutions such as universities and in the private sector, and that’s where the makers of this show head in the final ep. But Richard Aedy – who made this program – doesn’t know much about such initiatives, products, systems, or software. Lots of advances are being made all that time, and implemented quietly by people who want to improve the operation and efficiency of the properties they run, but the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is not privy to most of such activity because it routinely only concerns itself with politics. So it thinks that the shitshow that flourishes on Twitter every week when ‘Q and A’ airs is the whole story. It’s not and ‘Hot Mess’ ignores much fascinating detail.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Take two: ‘Hybrids: Stories of Greek Australia,’ Nikos Athanasou

For full review, please see my Patreon

This collection of short stories helps the reader of the 21st century to understand the not-so-distant past. Reaching back to the time just after WWII, and encompassing other years as well, this book has a strikingly modern title. Who’d have thought a medical specialist with a penchant for writing would, in 1995, come up with a title so modern? Thoroughly enjoyable read and well worth the effort to dig it up on AbeBooks. Must be out of print.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Take two: ‘Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford,’ Laura Thompson

The original book review is found on my Patreon site. I’m posting this sequel to that article for friends who won’t subscribe or for those who cannot. 

In the main review I talk about what kind of book this biography is, and how it fits in with many other, similar works. The Mitfords never seem to get old. And there’s something nice about reading the lives of the dead when you’re – like me – past your prime. It is like Nancy Mitford – the subject of this book – and her decision, following the release of the two novels for which she is most famous, to gravitate to biography as a form of expression. As she wrote to one of her correspondents, one of the most difficult things about writing novels is inventing plots. With biography she could still express herself but the story was already laid out by time and circumstance. As for this book, the autumnal triumphalism of the ending will warm many cockles.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

TV review: Death in Paradise, series 9 ep 2 (‘A Murder in Portrait’), BBC (2020)

Isn’t is odd that the only other episode of this show I’ve reviewed also had an artwork as a plot device? I think it’s awfully funny. More than a coincidence, it’s a sign.

In that earlier episode the detective inspector (Kris Marshall) drove badly while the detective sergeant (Sara Martins) suffered in silence. In ‘A Murder in Portrait’ the detective inspector (Ardal O'Hanlon) gins up his confidence to go on a date and the detective sergeant (Aude Legastelois) indulgently encourages him. The dynamics operating between these two dramatic personae have improved, and no longer is there the temptation for the viewer to see creepy romantic possibilities.

Which is a relief. What hasn’t changed is the quality of the art. In both cases the paintings are pretty dreadful. In ‘A Murder in Portrait’ the artist – Donna Harman (Louise Brealey) – is a hopped up professional who invites criticism due to her threatening to ditch her gallerist (Barbara Flynn). Harman’s liking of energy drinks – the can of Boom Ting she uses becomes a point of fascination for Jack Mooney and Madeleine Dumas as they go about their work assisted by Ruby Patterson (Shyko Amos) and Officer Hooper (Tobi Bakare) – serves to muddy the waters as the police try to link it to the murder, but the fact that it hadn’t been tampered with prior to Harman’s collapse make their job a lot harder than it might’ve been.

As usual Amos adds piquancy and lustre to a rather plodding plot and despite Mooney’s interest in Anna (Nina Wadia, pictured) the sparks didn’t fly for me when the two go on a date-cruise around the island. In addition, Mooney’s propensity to talk to a photograph of his dead wife felt flattish rather than pathetic, so the point of this device was lost on me.

More credible was P.J.’s childhood attachment to mice, Harman’s pet mouse Rothko (named after a famous American painter – who doesn’t like the luminous colour-scapes of Mark Rothko?) giving Patterson a chance to rib her colleague insistently and for the episode to suffer a comfortable conclusion as the gang get together around a table in Catherine Bordey's (Elizabeth Bourgine) bar, a resort for the ensemble – for this, after all, is an ensemble production – to resolve any slight differences or to celebrate any small victories.

The show’s ability to prioritise the ephemeral highs and lows of ordinary life being its major attraction for me, at least. I appreciate the gentle humour it retails in, its whimsical nature, and its overall kindness. I think this is the secret to its enduring popularity.

Not many shows go for so long. I just wish they’d find a proper artist to make the props.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

In The Field, number 05: Drone mapping

Recently we met Emma Ayliffe. She is the farmer who is using strategic tillage to enhance soil health, reduce evaporation, and remediate compaction on her farm. You can read that story here.

Emma and partner Craig have been making decisions around what they can do to improve the health of their soils. In their low rainfall environment ensuring that they have the soil structure to store moisture and support plant growth in the driest of times is critically important.

Everything they do is about trying new techniques and tools – based on research – in their environment so that they can ever improve, be better stewards for their land, and ensure they can feed and clothe the world well into the future. 

Today we’ll take a look at Emma’s use of advanced technology – specifically, drones.

The challenge

Actually, there are several challenges Emma has overcome. 

Weeds use moisture that might otherwise be used by crops, and they also harbour insects and disease, so it is important to minimise their occurrence. To maintain the best ground cover and to control weeds chemicals are needed for application. But chemicals cost money and reduce soil health. There is also the danger of chemical resistance if you use them too often on the same piece of land – the paddock.

The solution

A drone is sent up over paddocks to find green areas indicating that weeds have started to grow. This is a photo taken in the field showing Tristan Stevenson from StevTech launching the surveillance drone.

Sending a drone out with a camera attached that transmits a video of the fields lets Emma pinpoint the areas that need spraying. The resulting data maps the weed population and allows her to turn it into a green area map. 

The following photo shows the StevTech ute with the drone on the ground in front of it.

Chemical costs are kept down as they are spraying only a proportion of the total paddock. Emma can also often look at using higher value chemistries that may be cost prohibitive if she and partner Craig had to spray it all. 

The following two images shows weed cover of paddocks. In the first image, drone mapping produces a 95 percent saving of chemicals.

In the second image, drone mapping produces an 83 percent saving of chemicals.

Data from the mapping that the drone completes is then sent to a computer in the spray rig allowing the rig operator to target chemicals to conform precisely to hotspots where weeds are concentrated. In the following image, which shows what is displayed in the spray rig during application of chemicals, the olive green circles on the screen are the weeds being sprayed. 

“The great thing about this technology is that we can utilise the machinery and systems that we already have, so don’t have to spend a lot of money on new equipment,” said Emma in an email.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Light at the end of the tunnel

I’m writing this in the dark – not the dark inside a long tunnel (such as you might find in the place I’m leaving) – but in the dark before dawn. It’s a clean dark (as Robert Adamson proposed long ago) with the silence of the morning and the hope of a new day arriving.

Sometimes the dark has to become so complete that you cannot see the hands in front of your face before you change. 

Yesterday my brother wrote, upon looking at an image of me posted on Facebook wearing a colourful shirt – a shirt so outrageous only my mother could’ve bought it – “Holy cow, Matt, it makes you look like dad.” He was referring to the comment from a friend – two friends, in fact – about my weight. 

It was true. I’d lost 25kg in four months and I looked different. So different that my brother – bless his soul – compared me to a man both of us had feared. For his sharp words and for his dark eyes.


My eyes are hazel.

After mum died I wasn't smoking – not by that time – but I was drinking about one-and-a-half bottles of white wine per day. I weighed over 120kg. 

It was a dark time. I almost drank myself to death. I survived pulmonary arrhythmia due to ventricular tachycardia (in 2019) but then started to have panic attacks – this was what led me to quitting the booze. Then, last October, fed up with it all and encouraged by a change of regime, I started losing weight. I'm now weaning myself off antidepressants for the panic attacks and it's working; they're not returning.

This is a relief. It’s another thing I don’t have to worry about. 


I have to worry about so many things, and as I get older – my psychiatrist told me that stress accumulates over time, as you age, so that old people experience its effects more sharply than young people – there are more of them every year. Perhaps, I suggested to him, this is why old people are more conservative. “Yes, maybe,” he said.

The light is glimmering like a CGI effect at the end of a virtual tunnel. I see hands but they’re not my hands: they’re someone else’s hands. Someone I might become. 

A robot, perhaps.

Not a robot like we used to have in the old days before all the computing power in the world changed the cinematic experience. But something almost-lifelike, new, and real. Something pink and orange and navy blur and hazel.

Like my eyes They shoot out sparks when I turn to people. People look and turn away, ashamed at things they’ve done. I remind people, now in my slimmed-down state, of wrongs they’ve done and of small victories won in the face of adversity. I can see how this happens when I walk down the street. Before, I used to be the fat guy in unprepossessing clothes. People would wonder if I was homeless or mad or just needy. 

Not anymore. 

Now, they make space for me – I almost wrote “form” – and treat me as though I’m visible. They can actually see a person where before they’d seen something shameful. 

Now, it is they who are filled with shame.


My father’s ashes disappeared after mum and I moved back to Sydney from the little town she’d been living in since 1999, and to which, in 2009, I also moved so that I could look after her. I discovered the ashes had gone in 2015 and grieved again – but not as much as when, the next year, mum died. 

When she died I grieved hard. I hadn’t wanted to move to Maroochydore. I’d offered, in 2009, to move her to Sydney so that I could live something like a normal life, but she’d declined. “No,” she said, "I want to stay here." In a way it was a good thing. If I’d moved to Sydney I would’ve gotten some dead-end job – the kind of role in an organisation I’d been filling since I left uni for the first time in 1985 – but, as it turned out, I gave myself to writing. Mum celebrated each story with me as it was accepted by one magazine or another and slowly I became more proficient, earning my stripes, as it were, upon the treadmill of low rates and long hours spent transcribing routine interviews – the device driving the software on the floor under my desk and my feet tapping now this peddle, now that – as I made the material I needed to communicate the subject I’d been commissioned to live with for a time.

Eventually, after a few years, I stopped.

I didn’t stop writing. Now, it was poetry. Sonnet after sonnet, line after rhyming line. Words tumbling in bright cascades down the cliff of my dissatisfaction that stood at the edge of the glacier of perfection within which my body was immured like the Ice Man. 


Alcohol freezes at a lower temperature than life-giving water, and I bathed the frozen cascade in litres of chardonnay, the yellow liquid running in rivulets over the place where no earth could nurture a seed.

I was the seed. I was looking for earth, for a patch of ground, for a space. I got the suggestion to move house last year in winter – the time of frozen cascades, the time of hallucinations and paranoia, the time of death (mum died one July) – and the friend who gave it to me will move into the new house. She will paint. I will paint – or, no, I won’t paint; I’ll use knives to fashion images and then bend paper to the prepared surface as though I were making an imprint of my soul. 

This is the thing that has happened. It happened to me and though I still don't know what a soul is I know that so many things have happened and I don’t have the words to describe them. Do I even need the words, now? Perhaps the message will come out of the frozen cliff in a bottle launched a hundreds years since, like a blessing for the future by an unnamed relative whose face I can never see. I care about this person, but I’m leaving.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

In The Field, number 04: Strategic tillage

‘In The Field’ began as a post about the use of herbicides for weed control. That was back in November 2018. Today I’m introducing a different farmer – her name is Emma Ayliffe – and she has a slightly different approach to the puzzle of productivity. This farmer will be featured in two posts, and you’re reading the first.

With partner Craig and his family, Emma operates a 1700-acre (688-hectare) farm at Burgooney, Lake Cargelligo (roughly northwest of Wagga Wagga, in the central west of New South Wales, about 550km from Sydney). The land is rolling hills with red loam which gets a relatively modest 360mm of rain per year. 

Primary outputs are wool, first cross lambs, and grains (mainly wheat but also some oats, barley and canola). Here’s a moment during the 2020 harvest.

Secondary outputs: If above average rainfall, may plant canola, chickpeas, mungbeans. Opportunity cropping depends on amount of moisture in the field, the market (some crops might have a higher price at any given time) as well as the time of year.

The challenge

Three challenges are addressed in this report. One is ground cover, which must be maintained in order to prevent erosion and evaporation of water. In Emma’s environment ground cover is critical as she and Craig can never be sure if and when the next rain event is going to occur.

It is a low rainfall production area with a tendency to have a “sharp” (ie hot and dry) finish to the year. Growing season rainfall is only around 180mm, and to put that in perspective the average annual rainfall for NSW is 555mm/year and the high production areas of new like the eastern area like Temora sit closer to 600mm/year.

Another challenge is maintaining soil health. As a seed, a plant requires water, air, nutrients and heat for germination. Then to be able to maximise growth the plant needs a biologically active soil biota. This includes soil fungi and bacteria, which enables good soil structure and nutrient cycling, leading to optimum plant health. It is the interaction between all of these factors that determines how well plants and crops grow.

The third challenge is compaction, which happens when livestock are let into fields after harvest to eat the lost grain and the stubble that remain after a combine harvester has gone through the paddock. Compaction also happens due to farming equipment. And the soils are naturally hard setting.

The solution

Emma’s vision involves capitalising on the resources she and partner Craig have in a marginal environment and finding the systems that best suit their landscape to ensure the farm is able to be productive and profitable well into the future. 

They are moving to a minimum till/strategic tillage system that means using knife-point press wheels. Minimum tillage means avoiding anything that causes major soil disturbance, hence the knife-point press wheel system. Strategic tillage is similar but allows for one significant soil disturbance pass no more than one year in eight. This strategy reduces erosion, conserves moisture, and maintains soil structure.

A knife-point (see photo below) is narrower than a coulter but does the same job, only without disturbing the soil as much. The press wheel comes in behind the knife point and closes the furrow. 

Research tells that working the soil one year in eight is fine. It ensures that Emma and Craig are managing issues like compaction while maximising productivity and soil health. 

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Book review: A Backward Place, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1965)

God know how long this old thing has been in my collection, but since moving house my books have been shifted around so new ones have come into my sightlines. I pulled this one of the shelf recently and found it completely engrossing.

It outlines in Austenish fashion a community of expatriates in Delhi who revolve around each other like satellites. Among them are Indians of different kinds who also go about their lives in peace, though this is relative due to the friction that ensues when Judy’s husband Bal comes up with an idea to set up a theatre company.

You mightn’t think that such a premise would furnish adequate drama for an entire novel, but here you have the proof that it’s possible to make such a story entertaining. The wit is rapacious, gobbling up characters and spitting them out when it’s finished with them, as though they were cough drops and itself a child of nine. Never satisfied with one – for example Etta (turning 40 and past her prime, a woman with no visible means of support) – it turns on another – for example Clarissa (Etta’s bosom buddy, a woman having problems with her landlord, and who is in need of a place to live).

The title is ambiguous in its intent, but having read the book it’s meant tongue-in-cheek. Then again, the arrow has an oblique trajectory, and Bal, in particular, comes in for some criticism. Given Jhabvala’s ability to grasp the subtleties of cultural references from both sides – the European and the Indian – her intent must be understood as primarily empathetic. But not completely so. There is still enough fuel in the tank once the vessel has been emptied of spite and shallow posturing to find reason to think that Indians stood in need – at the time the book is set (and it’s evidently a contemporary setting; see publication date above) – of some honest brokerage vis-a-vis the past and the future. 

India has, it appears, a long way to go to before it can successfully reconcile itself to history, and while it’d be too much of a stretch to say that Jhabvala is reactionary – a near concept while reading certain parts of the book, notably the picnic near its end – her expressed personal acumen should perhaps be taken as a corrective to some unattractive personality traits. Bal evinces an emphasis on face, a sense of victimisation that can be used to justify poor conduct, male privilege, and an inability to easily forgive – such characteristics, that might be taken to address questions about the Indian psyche, are offset against positives: ambition, dreaminess, inclusiveness where it comes into contact with identity, and a Romantic urge to attain perfection. Bal is finely drawn, as is Judy, his English wife, and the contrast between them is a source of intrigue as the matter of how to support the family gradually resolves itself in the plot.

Judy is timid but decent and loves Bal very much. On the other hand you have the scatterbrained Clarissa’s misguided ideas about Indian spirituality. She is a salutary figure as well, summing up attitudes belonging to an entire generation of Westerners who harboured – and many still must do so – consuming fantasies about the subcontinent that seem, on account of their force and frequency, to be a reaction against earlier attitudes, ones that had allowed for the relegation of India to second-class status, and that dated from the early 19th century.

Beyond such ideas Jhabvala is concerned with social mobility and how it relates to people’s identities. When Bal’s actor friend talks about setting up a production company, Bal asks Judy for cash so he (Bal) can travel to Bombay to enter into discussions with Kumar. But Judy, the family breadwinner, is sceptical and thinks of all the times Bal has had big dreams that never got off the ground. She won’t easily part with 200 rupees for train fare and meals – and you ask yourself: why doesn’t Kumar pony up the necessary to enable Bal to comply with his wishes? Kumar is not short of the ready.

Cartoonish and sketchy as some of the characterisation is the overall effect is profound. Even the secondary characters – such as the Hochstadts – spring to life at unexpected moments to deliver a rich stream of meaning to the reader. 

At once satirical and elegiac, Jhabvala’s novel is delicious and can’t see how it’s possible that she didn’t win the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is classy realism of a popular kind but it is unassailably competent and hilariously funny. There are no postmodern tricks here and, with money a foundational plot device, the story is rooted firmly in the world of affairs. Its cultural angle is all show. At heart what these people worry about is how to pay for a taxi or whence will derive money for the theatre company. Within the budding grove of ‘A Backward Place’ a universe abounds with delight.