Berrying

It is nice work for me in amongst the canes. A familiar routine, working at waist height with eye, hand and sense of touch -working with speed and rhythm, it reminds me of cycling, on the few occasions when  I find a cadence.

Today we are pick-your-owning to make jam. There is no need for clean picking, back glancing or speed. My daughter flits in and out and I try to teach her the techniques of the trade- who knows when piece-rate fruit harvesting might be of use in her future. She soon seeks permission to head off to the strawberry beds where she can check her phone without interference..

I am conscious that I am harvesting – I already have too many berries for jam, but am finding it hard to stop.. There is an abundant crop – breeding and pesticides have done for the thorns and berry bugs of my youth. They have called this variety ‘GlenClover’  in pastiche of one of the valleys of Angus where I used to pick.

Back home later I frantically boil jam and find things to put it in. Raspberry syrup has a bloody appearance and by the end of the night tastes of a sour nosebleed. I remember that rite of passage too.

I am told that a rasp bush in your garden is a gift that keeps giving. A few berries each day for a handful of summers. This is not my way – I am drawn to the binge harvest. I think I began in the back garden for the incentive of extra pocket money.

But the zeal I inherited from my father. He gleaned with a vengeance. We summer eveninged in fields – at his hives, measuring land drains , picking up the wastes of the bean harvests , collecting roadkill game or fungi (quickly destroyed by my mother as potentially fatal). Everything else disappeared into a second hand ice cream shop freezer in the garage. Some of it was bequeathed to me after his death two decades later.

‘Plenty  ‘confused my father as it confuses the Doric language. Doric ‘plenty’ translates as ‘enough’ – the standard English definition of ‘surfeit ‘reached my father at the same time as consumerism . A child of austerity Britain and poor urban parents he was to lose his edge in the splurge of the share owning democracy . He bought Food For Free , but saw it as something for nothing.. I feel I am being harsh – but the differences between us were real and for a long time cold. In the eighties he gleaned for surfeit and I harvested piece-rate to supplement my dole money between protest campaigns.

By my twenties I was a top picker . This is not a boast – by the time you get good at an agricultural job you are usually given a better one. Casual harvesters between the eras of school holiday berry buses, travelling folk and cheap Baltic migrant labour were anomalous. But the fruit needed picked – this is the logic of agriculture, do it now, howsoever, the imperative to activity seems to spring from the land- so I fitted fine.

I liked the sense of connection, both with the land, with the farmers and -as a greener lad – with the other top pickers. There were different priorities – husks off for the farmers gave a better crop,  and,  for the top pickers the reward of promotion to the higher tariff,  and cachet world of table berries. Husks on, as the top pickers would murmur, meant your yield was heavier, but only do it in the bottom of the punnet.

Which group -overseers or pickers – taught me little habits I remember not, but I approached the berry field as an arena of labour. I picked two -handed , freeing these up by tying on my punnets to a belt of twine. I picked by touch – sensing ripeness, and backhanding the berries into clumps in my palms, I picked by instinct – seeking the berries from the shape of the leaf’s overhang, and I picked clean – evading the dent in my wages and pride of being sent back by the overseer to repick the row.

A seven hour day of this would leave a pattern of light and shadow on my retina in the shape of a raspberry bush , a mass of small grazes on forearms and wrists, and a sense of genealogical satisfaction , as I lay  later on my parents sofa, working my way through a Scots Quair and The Making of the English Working Classes , while my dad snoozed in front of The Darling Buds of May.

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And , Oh Its Not the Same Any More.. My prolixity is applauded by the smallholder , but I pay him, and his field hums with the burble of TMS ,while Cerys spins world music on the radio in the shed cafe they’ve put up for the punters – many of whom have only come out for the (reasonably priced and berry themed) cakes.. My daughter is enthused by her sponge and there is a copy of First Summer in the Sierras tastefully displayed on the window ledge for casual browsing. Agriculture enters into our world now rather than the other way – it has become another service industry . I know that the Berry family are sustained more from pick-your-owning than the sales of their seasonal crop.

Still I used to be a contender (don’t suppose anyone will remember that reference either) .. and it is the return to the embodied activity which delights me . I can still cut it .. the fruit flies off the husk and plops gently into the punnet. The words and actions return , the smell of the fields (never lasts),

Set sail in those turquoise days..

Footnote , October –

Those of you in receipt of commemorative jam might be best advised to keep it in fridge , or not be squeamish about scraping mould off.. Sugar acts as a preservative, but I aint that sweet and neither is the jam. Dont want to poison my audience though..