An encounter with an eight-year-old diary brings Carla's past, present and future into focus.
During the first lockdown, I made more vows than a virginal novice in her noviciate. I vowed to learn at least one Goldberg Variation on the ancient Bechstein that presides in lonely silence in the drawing room. I vowed to memorise a sonnet or two, and to pick, make and fill the freezer with wild-garlic pesto. I’d write long-overdue letters and clear the linen cupboard of three generations of long white tablecloths. I promised to edit book shelves.
Well, I made the pesto. If I’m not wracked with guilt, it is because I believe that remorse rarely produces renewal and reform. Those memories returned this week as I filled my French grape-picking basket with wild garlic and remembered that those pots of pesto provided intense flavour to the grey second lockdown. I felt a similar spark of relief this morning, when I went to the shelf where three decades of my monthly ‘at-a-glance’ diaries reside. In my lockdown piety, I’d consigned them to the recycle bin, but then had second thoughts and fished them out again. I retrieved the year 2014 with ease.
When I say ‘diaries’, I don’t mean the kind of journals written by Virginia Woolf and Frances Partridge. Mine are spiral notebooks that allow me to keep track of where I’m supposed to be, appointments that most people now keep on their phones. Inky words tracking the days and months of 2014 are a record of trade fairs in January, staff meetings, tasting sessions at the winery, pruning in the vineyard, tickets for Eugene Onegin, appointments in St James’s with Mr Badger to unravel my US taxes and, in large letters, ‘CARDIAC ARREST’, a shock reminder of the February day my husband ordered a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon in his London club before silently sinking to the carpeted floor.
A kitchen porter witnessed the fall, a member of staff grabbed the defibrillator that had never been used, an ambulance arrived in six minutes and, for the next five days, the doctors in ICU at St Thomas’s warned me in soft voices to ‘prepare for the worst’. According to the diary, however, 10 days later he was back home, fitted with an ICD (implanted defibrillator) and driving around the fields in his ancient pick-up truck looking for grey partridges.
It’s a good thing to keep track of miraculous events in your life, although that wasn’t my intention as I searched through my only written record of 2014. In fact, I was looking for something else: the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I found nothing. On the farm, we keep records of rainfall and crop yields, but world events tend to go unrecorded. I noted precisely when the ram was introduced to the ewes, but the small and not insignificant European war isn’t mentioned.
“My little hunk of Berlin Wall now feels like a memento mori… Call it ‘concrete for thought’ and remember it when we are told that Putin wants a divided Ukraine ‘like Korea’. Or, closer to home, like the tragedy of East Germany and West Germany”
You may wonder why I’m looking for it now. Because, like half the people I talk to each week in the farmers’ market, I start the day with the Today programme, end with the BBC news, wake up in the middle of the night and turn on the World Service. I am living in the shadow of a war that looms large in all our lives. I now know that Ukraine is the size of Spain. I can locate Crimea, occupied and claimed by Russia in 2014, Donetsk and Lugansk, ‘self-proclaimed People’s Republics in 2014’, on the map that is as familiar as our chefs’ tattoos. I can point to Odesa and, late in the day, I know where a once-beautiful city called Mariupol is located. Most evenings, I look closely at the map with red arrows that show where the refugees are fleeing: Poland, Romania, Moldova. I’ve become attached to the voices above the maps, standing in the war-torn streets. The reporters, like the Ukrainian soldiers, are heroes of our time.
Life in the countryside can feel like a retreat from the worst that can happen, a world where the hedgerows define the fields and narrow our lives. It happens naturally.
This morning, we sold 58 tons of wheat at £303 a ton. Back in November, we sold ‘forward’ at £150 a ton. We’re not in a festive mood, however. We’re wide-eyed at the price of fuel that runs the tractors that pull the harrow. We’re trying out alternatives to fertiliser that’s doubled in price — planting white clover under the wheat to lock in the nitrogen — hoping to increase the yields that produce the crops that feed the world. No farmers I know are celebrating because in Ukraine, ‘the bread basket of the world’, farmers can’t drill their fields. The vast arable plains of Suffolk and Norfolk have no fences to protect us from the reach of war.
Something else survived my ‘cleansing’ vow and still languishes on a desktop. It’s a little block of concrete the size of a stocking stuffer, sent to me by my nephew who was stationed in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. The little hunk of the wall now feels like a memento mori that belongs in the book of lost words, words such as glasnost. Call it ‘concrete for thought’ and remember it when we are told that Putin wants a divided Ukraine ‘like Korea’. Or, closer to home, like the tragedy of East Germany and West Germany.
It won’t surprise you that a man who survives a cardiac arrest is one of Nature’s optimists. He looks at President Zelensky and sees a wise and passionate leader who is a powerful force for historic change. The farmer’s wife looks at the blue-and-yellow bunting hanging in the farmers’ market and wonders how many landmines will be removed with the £1,200 we’ve raised for the Halo Trust in Ukraine.
Ukrainian borscht is now on the menu in the restaurant with all proceeds going to the Polish Humanitarian Action fund. People are generous, but I wonder for how long? This will be a long war. Unlike the invasion in 2014, which never appeared in my diary, there is now a sense that the future of Ukraine and the future of Europe’s east and west depends on what happens. This feels like Europe’s cardiac arrest. Hope against hope.
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