Hadley Freeman is always a good read but a line in her latest column had me raising a floury fist. Her theme last Saturday in the Guardian, and it is a good one, is that “everyone needs a distraction right now”.
She defends “thinking, talking and writing about extremely stupid stuff that has nothing to do with the current hellishness”. For her that might be an obsession with Cameron’s Diaz’s baby, whether to buy a Jane Fonda-branded tracksuit and gazing at Instagram pictures of Elizabeth Hurley’s “fascinating mini-me son, Damian”.
True, it is good to wrench yourself from the gloomed grip of the headlines. But here’s where I fall out with Hadley. She says that sharing “twee photos of just-baked bread” isn’t a displacement activity as people are only doing that because of the virus: “they are coronactivities and therefore do not count”.
Well, I think you should climb down from that particular fence, Hadley – some of us have been boring the arse off the world for years with twee photos of bread hot from the oven. A weird minority sport suddenly hijacked by everyone else in a lockdown world. When I put those photos up, it’s not because of the coronavirus – it’s because I am a bread bore with strands of gluten wound through the dough of my brain.
My distraction discoveries include baking tutorial clips on Instagram or YouTube. It’s strangely comforting to watch a skilled baker at work, leaving the amateur kneader to think, oh that’s how it should be done.
After a disappointing sourdough run, I am trying again today, helped by a nice American woman from the Tartine bakery in San Francisco. She also has a lovely kitchen, which is uplifting until I go down to start baking in ours.
Here is another sort of displacement: reading nature books. Well, I’ve only read the one recently, but as a fan of Robert McFarlane I was pleased to discover John Lewis-Stempel.
Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer who contributes to Country Life sometimes. A friend has lent me two of his books. The one eagerly consumed so far is The Wood – The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood.
Lewis-Stempel traces the seasons from December to November during his last year in the wood, where he spent four years farming and managing the wood.
At a time when you can no longer visit such open spaces, Lewis-Stempel is there to remind you what a wood looks and feels like, and to point out all the sights and animals your townie eyes would likely as not have missed.
It’s a beautifully written book, sparse and poetic, occasionally surging with emotion, sometimes matter-of-fact brutal in, say, the shooting of pesky squirrels or bagging a pheasant for dinner, and resonant with gnarled knowledge.
By his own reckoning, Lewis-Stempel is not a nature writer but a countryside writer, and The Wood is very much a book about the countryside – which, unless you live there, now has a big sign at the entrance reading, “Closed… please piss off”.
Do give this book a read. It’s “a heartfelt and evocative diary of a year among the trees”, according to Hadley Freeman’s own newspaper.
As for those bread photos, if this batch of sourdough works, the pictures will be up there. But they won’t be posted just because of this virus.