Choosing a favourite episode is a little like choosing amongst one’s children. One doesn’t want to have favourites. However if I was pressed I think the one that is just a little more rosy cheeked than the others is ‘Companionship’.
I listen to the radio to learn things, but some of the best moments on radio are the small bursts of real feeling.
The first trip I made for ‘Our Daily Bread’ was to try to gather material for Companionship. I went to Dunbar where people had got together to raise money for a community bakery on their high street. They felt, quite simply, that their high street would lose its soul, its purpose, its anchor if it had no bakery.
They were very nice people. I went to the pub where they were holding a shareholders meeting. They had some very high powered people involved and were looking to raise something like £150,000 from community investment and grants to get the things started. I asked them if they were going to do the baking themselves. No, I was told. They were going to hire bakers.
It wasn’t long before that I’d had a good chat with Dan McTiernan of the Handmade Bakery in Slaithewaite (pron: Slough-wit) who’d started that enterprise with £500 spent on equipment and by borrowing the wood-fired oven in a local Italian restaurant. Having talked to Dan, Dunbar just seemed a bit too much head and not quite enough heart. It’s no less worthy. I just wanted to get a sense of those very human, emotional bonds that come through sharing the making and the breaking of bread.
Both Dan and Chris Young of the Real Bread Campaign sent me in the direction of Tom Baker of Loaf Online. Tom was dragging a mobile wood-fired oven around Brum and staging ‘pop-up pizza’ events while running an ad hoc bakery from his home in Stirchley.
Tom’s website is pretty handy for aspiring home bakers – this is a rather nifty video about shaping a boule. Tom teaches baking as well as making loaves – and I rather like the way he speeds up and slows down this vid…
So one Thursday evening Tom and his wife Jane found me on their doorstep looking for a bed for the night so I could be up bring and early to record Tom’s weekly Friday morning bake.
I got my first ‘radio moment’ the next evening as Tom and Jane sat on the sofa and Jane talked about the friends they’d made. Listening back to them they sounded a little like the two halves of the same brain – one left half, the other right. I knew as soon as she said how they’d found people she wanted to be their friends that I had the emotional punchline to the recording I’d done with Tom.
Some bits did go – such as the customer who said he bought bread from Tom because ‘Greggs is shit’. When you make radio you weight up the gains against the hassle. We kept the rest of what he said about not being into anything ‘hippy dippy’ but we gave Greggs a break.
I have very fond memories of that Stirchley trip. I like the way that Tom, like so many of the other artisan bakers I’ve met, seems to have found his metier, his vocation. Dan Schickentanz had been a lawyer and even an estate agent before finding his role with food – and bread in particular. Christophe Vasseur was in fashion marketing before founding his bakery in Paris. Tom, Dan, Dan McTiernan, Christophe; they’re all smart guys. None of the committed artisan bakers I’ve met has gone into baking because they can’t do anything else. It’s been a very positive life choice. They care. They want to feed people and do it well. They see the role as important. The fact that, as a society, we don’t really seem to value our bakers very much these days should prompt us to ask questions about ourselves rather than about them.
Next I headed up to Wheatley outside Oxford where three local mental health charities, Ark-T, Restore and a.n.other were training people to bake bread for their cafes in the city. Most of those there, though not all, had mental health concerns.
I wanted to explore break making in this context because I had the strong sense that the combination of the very nurturing, tactile, companionable act of making bread might be therapeutic. I’d hoped to persuade the phychologist Oliver James to come along but knowing how busy he is I decided to chase him down separately if needs be. However we did chat and he was sceptical about my hunch.
Oliver felt that pretty much anything would substitute for bread so long as it brought people together. I’m not sure. We’re all creatures of our environment and certain acts have a profound significance because they’re deeply rooted in our culture.
Take the washing of feet as an act of humility. Back in Mediaeval times English monarchs used to wash the feet of the poor as an act of Christian obeisance and penitance. These days the queen hands out Maundy Money. It’s a nice gesture but it misses the point. Indeed if you think about it it rather feels like buying one’s way out of an unpleasant duty. However, putting that aside, the act, these days practiced by some bishops, is steeped in meaning and symbolism. It’s bigger than it appears to be.
I suspect that making bread has an element of that. Moreover I found someone wonderful to articulate that for me. Louise clammed up half way through my first attempt to interview her. I’m not surprised. There’s so much stigma attached to mental health that talking about it, even with a degree of anonymity, is hard. It would be hard enough without stopping to consider what other people might think.
But Louise found the courage to pick up the interview and try again and I am so glad she did. Lot’s of people have earned a big dose of my respect during the making of this series, but none more than she. Each and every one of us sits somewhere on the continuum of mental health. It’s not a case of the bright side and the dark side of the line, of mad and sane. Our mental health varies by degrees, changes with circumstances and is no respecter of gender, wealth, intelligence or morality. Which of us is absolutely certain that we couldn’t find ourself in Louise’s position? Only someone who isn’t fully human I suspect. But every time that someone like Louise speaks about about their experience of mental health issues it reduces the stigma a fraction more and adds to our understanding. She is officially my series hero, from a series with quite a few!
The other small joy from that trip was managing to squeeze in Sam, Louise’s friend, and a Malaysian. It’s a small triumph getting a Malaysian into the series. I have close links with the place. I lived there and reported from the country for five and a half years. I have Malaysian family. To bastardise Elizabeth I; ‘I have the head and heart of an Englishman, but the stomach of a Malaysian.’ Well, mostly. Malaysians aren’t generally great at bread and I don’t like Durian…but that aside; nasi lemak, roti canai, udang sambal petai, char kuay teow, assam laksa, ikan assam pedas, black pepper crab, marmite prawn, kailan with garlic and oyster sauce, waaah, ngam ngam ho meh! I could go on. Seriously, I could, but I should move on.
The last leg of my journey was Liverpool. For anyone who has grown up listening to music Liverpool has tremendous resonance, and though it was the crucible of British pop culture in the 60s somehow the city has too often been the butt of jokes or of ignorant remarks by politicians.
I liked it. It was my first visit and my impressions were pretty superficial but going to visit Somewhere Else on Bold Street I found myself subsumed into an instant community. After all, as its guide the Revd. Ian Hu says, it’s a community made each Tuesday and Thursday by the people who turn up to bake together and the day I turned up I was just one of a score of people there; helpers, visitors, working, jobless, vulnerable, able bodied, homeless or secure who all pitched in together in a creating act of worship and companionship.
Something Else is what the Methodists in Liverpool do instead of church. I say instead. That’s not true really. As Matthew’s Gospel (18:20) says ; “for where two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them.” See, you don’t need to be freezing your socks off in a cold and cavernous place of worship, you can be around a table, in fellowship, up to your elbows in flour and you’re just as much celebrating the Christian ethos as kneeling to recieve a rather lifeless wafer – I’ve always found that wafer a little inappropriate given that it’s something that is supposed to represent the body of Christ and the promise of life eternal.
Something Else was an astonishingly non-judgemental space. Roy’s appearance on tape was just as it happened. He’s very much a part of that community. It wouldn’t have been the place it is without him there. Leighton, one of the people I interviewed there commented how strange he finds it going out onto the street after a session and leaving this very egalitarian, brotherly and sisterly world and going back into the crazyness of what we accept a little too unthinkingly as ‘real life.’
One of the people who really made an impression was one of the helpers. I won’t give her name. She was very reserved to the point of defensiveness. She had a sense about her of someone who has been through some really bad stuff, not necessarily of her own making, who survived but who bears the scars. Her boyfriend also volunteers at Somewhere Else. He told me just how much she’s come out of her shell during her time there. I can’t quite put my finger on just why but she was very cool. She’s dealing with it and taking responsibility, even if perhaps it wasn’t her choice.
And then there’s Ian Hu. Ian is another of the people I feel grateful for the chance to have met. He was in what Americans call real estate – an estate agent in our books – but trained for the ministry. I feel like teasing him and saying that if Jesus felt able to keep the company of tax collectors and prostitutes he would certainly celebrate an estate agent coming back into the fold of good and light just as heartily.
Ian is a good guy. Liverpool is lucky to have him and he’s lucky to have found Liverpool.
I’ve long been interested in faith, particularly Christianity, but choose not to call myself a Christian, not least because (aside from the fact that there are swathes of doctrine I don’t buy into) I don’t meet that many people who really strike me as Christian, however much they call themselves such.
But thinking back on my visit I’d say ‘Somewhere Else’ is probably the nearest thing to a true, functions, loving and forgiving Christian community as I’ve found, and they don’t spend time congratulating themselves for that, they just do it (even the ones who aren’t Christian). If you’re in Liverpool, visit them! They’re above the bookshop. They won’t foist their faith on you but they will make you a friend. In this cynical age that’s a miracle in itself.
And it was in Liverpool I went looking for my ending. I just loved the idea of people baking two loaves and giving away one as the Somewhere Else community does. I knew I had to go there, bake a loaf and take it out into the streets. I found Kathleen sitting listening to a band playing on Church Street looking after one of her grandchildren. I smile every time I listen to her. Kathleen, wherever you are, thank you, it was lovely to meet you (albeit briefly) and I hope you liked the bread.
Meanwhile if you’ve enjoyed the series thank you for your company over the week, and from all those who took part and from me and Mr. Luca I hope my scratching of the surface of the vast subject that is bread prompts you to discover a little more about it and helps you appreciate it a little better.