Renaissance Prisoner

Driving to Gloucester from Bristol on a trip to trim some hedges, it is time to research John Vanbrugh, the Restoration architect who was an amateur playwright and radical politician. Or was he a political enthusiast and spare time architect while writing plays as a living? Or perhaps indeed a British agent who ended up in the Bastille for a few years, possibly penning The Provoked Wife to relieve his boredom while dreaming up Blenheim Palace? Tush tush. Actually the play was deemed risque for the times, suggesting an abused wife might take a lover. Long Live La Bastille, I’d say. Hopefully we will learn more in 100 Hidden Talents!

Twain’s Inventive Hobby

Today’s Hidden Talent Writing is Huck Finn author Mark Twain, said to be inventor. On the way to my tree team’s first job I start research discovering he was an inventor with mixed success in his spare time. At best he devised an idea that is still used today. At worst he tried designing a board game, and lost a fortune attempting to sell machinery beaten too quickly by pioneering competition.

In the meantime, before I get the chance to elaborate there is a small conifer to fell as part of my travelling tree work and some pears to prune in a patio garden Making. For once I am not last in the queue, for once not the chipperman.

Then, to my surprise, we pass the rehab centre where I spent two weeks of emprisonment after my accident. I hated it. Worse than boarding school. At least I could spend some time watering plants and taking long walks through the woodlands. One day I went off too early and was put back on another Depravation of Liberty Order for being foul-mouthed at reception. I also tried to buy the woodland, which was set to be flattened for development. And I fell in love with a rotting white Porsche 924. But that’s another story. It had gone by today.

Between jobs there is more time to research Mark Twain’s inventions. He had a patent for a clasp that has become a ubiquitous fixing for bra straps, and made him plenty. An idea for self-adhesive scrapbooking pads also did him well, but his Memory Board game, designed to spark the brain, was not such a great success. Worse still was his attempt to sell a new type of printing press, which was quickly overtaken by linotype and lost him his wealth. There’ll be more in 100 Hidden Talents.

Orange is the Colour

The oddest thing happened to me a fortnight ago. I was cycling to my job at the local country park, where I work as a groundsman of sorts, when a tipper truck with wood chipper attached slows up beside me. I expect the driver to be asking for directions, but no, he says: “Do you want a job?” I am obviously puzzled. “What?” “Do you want a job?” Who doesn’t, so I suggest he parks ahead.

I ride up alongside in a layby and ask for more details. It turns out that he and his son need help with their tree and landscaping business. “But I can’t drive,” I reply. No problem, he responds. “We will pick you up at 8am every morning and bring you back by around 3pm.” It was a moment, on my saddle by the road, I could not believe and will never forget. He had only slowed to recruit me on seeing the orange handles of my Fiskar pruners sticking out of the bike basket. Orange, everyone knows, sets professionals a little aloft in the tree world.

Work at the country park has been diminishing since the season’s end and I have been needing some money. Only that morning I had wondered how I might find another job. Despite not really knowing the job spec, I found the offer too tempting to refuse. So three days later I am picked up on the dot of 8am and off we go for my first day as an assistant treeman and landscaper.

Since then I have helped erect two long fences and the chipped branches from a series of felled or topped conifers, cherry trees and silver birch. I get breakfast and lunch for free and am delivered home between 1pm and 5pm, depending on where we have been working and how many jobs we have to do. I enjoy the company and the hard work, and like being told what to do. And I have time to read and write in the truck between stops, and can do research for Hidden Talents, my book proposal about the unlikely hobbies of the great and the good. What’s not to like?

Down and Out

So inspired was I by 10 days as The Piano Plongeur in SW France that I decided to become a professional kitchen porter back home. ‘Nothing could be simpler than the life of a plongeur,’ George Orwell wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London. He added that the job offers no prospects, is intensely exhausting, and has not a trace of skill or interest. Based on his own experiences he considered the dishwasher as one of the slaves of the modern world. ‘Yet plongeurs, low as they are, have a kind of pride. It is the pride of the drudge: the man who is equal to no matter what quantity of work.’

Days after returning to England from France, just as Orwell did, I searched for a KP post, and found employment at Cote Brasserie, the largest restaurant in Cirencester and part of a nationwide chain. I wanted some buzz, some excitement, and at Cote I found it in spades. I came to be considered, I suspect, as a grandfather at the sink, befriending my colleagues who spoke a multitude of languages. The high-stress deadlines reminded me of crisis days in magazines. There was danger passing the grills, from which scalding fat was spitting all the time.

Midway through lunch is the most thrilling time, when you a’re submerged by pots and pans from the kitchen and glasses, plates and cutlery from below. Sadly, the evening shifts were too noisy and too late, and I had to retire as a plongeur, proud of my time at Cote. As Orwell noted: ‘After all, the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.’

The Piano Plongeur

In June 2016, my girlfriend Jane met her old friend Jenny Roberts. She and her husband Paul, an author and noted pianist, spend the whole of August every year in an old French farmhouse running courses and workshops for talented amateur piano players, and rely upon family and friends as voluntary staff. “How are things?” Jane asked Jenny. “Not so good. We have lost one of our cooks.” Impulsively Jane offered to help. “But my boyfriend Nick will have to come as well.” Jenny jumped at the chance: “Would he mind washing dishes?” Without so much as a text of consultation, Jane replied that of course I’d be a happy plongeur.

And it turned out that I loved the  job, and am an excellent dishwasher. For the first time in two years since my brain injury, I had a routine and purpose. Every morning at the farmhouse in Albignac, near Albi in SW France, I would wash up breakfast and then help the cooks keeping their tools and bowls and dishes clean ready for lunch, and later for supper. It was a regime I came to desire back in Blighty.

Sad Day Closure

It’s a sad day today as Freshwood Publishing has finally been desolved. We realised quite soon it might not survive, but hoped that three issues of Living Woods magazine might save FreshwoodLite.

It was not to. Saved itself by remarkable Crowdfunding, which raised £8000 for printing, three issues of Living Woods proved to be too stressful for the team. I just could not multi-task and prioritise and concentrate well enough. Like the launch issue of a magazine, the first was simple enough as we had plenty of material and no readers, advertisers and contributors to manage. For that reason all adverts were run for free, impulsively. It was the moment that issue dropped onto doormats that we were inundated with a quantity of correspondence I found impossible to read and manage. As is typical of brain injuries, my motivation dwindled. The greatest sadness is that I founded Freshwood not only as an outlet for my passions in wood and magazines, but because I saw it as a pension for my life. So be it. Onwards and forwards!

The Cactus Communist

I am currently working on a book of the unlikely hobbies and skills and interests of history’s great and good, with a working title of 100 Hidden Talents. Here, for example, is the plant collecting world of Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army and passionate advocate of world communism and Mexican cacti.

The Cactus Communist

Leon Trotsky, ever a Marxist revolutionary, spent the last few years of his life collecting cacti and caring for rabbits, before he was murdered with an ice pick in August 1940. To the end the communist born Lev Davidovich Bronstein in 1879, remained a committed advocate of world-wide socialism, forced into exile in 1929 by arch enemy Stalin, who considered Trotsky a threat. The final three-year stay inside a small, fortified community near Mexico City reflected Trotsky’s hopes as a utopian model of his dreams that Communism might thrive everywhere. Who’d have thought that the founder and head of the Russian Red Army from 1918-1923 would one day set up shop in such a smallholding.

‘Trotsky had left the Soviet Union first to Turkey, then France and finally Norway. Stalin’s 1930s show trials declared him guilty of plotting to kill the dictator, and he was sentenced to death in absentia. Trotsky described the trials as ‘one of the greatest frauds in political history’. Ultimately Norway yielded to Soviet pressure in case Trotsky proved the accusations false, and so the Scandinavian country ejected him and his family. 

Only Mexico, as members of the International Communist League, welcomed the Trotskys, and in January 1937, an oil tanker, sailing from Norway, arrived at the Mexican port of Tampico. Trotsky set up near Mexico City, in a property defended by high walls to halt any Stalinist attack. A visiting grandchild described the house as “a small community, a front line to socialism. Around my grandfather there was an atmosphere of solidarity, partnership and enthusiasm for work, as in the number of tasks, like house chores. There were no privileges nor distinctions. My grandfather irradiated great dynamism and a firm faith on socialist future in humanity.”

Trotsky lived to a routine, starting the day around six in the morning to feed chickens and rabbits. “The chore of caring for them he performed too, with methodology and precision,” his secretary Charles Cornell testified.3 “The animal feed was prepared to the most scientific formula he could come up with. The amount of food was carefully measured. He inspected the animals regularly for any signs of sickness or parasites. The chicken yards and pens were kept scrupulously clean.” 

Trotsky took trips with his coterie of supporters into the Mexican countryside. It was there that he found and dug up cacti. He would unearth them with a spade or pick to plant them later in his yard. Cacti weighing anything from 50-80lbs were collected from different places, wrapped in newspaper and taken to a large patio in his fortress, with extra soil brought back in sacks. Cacti seemed to interest Trotsky with its endurance and for being exotic. None of the younger people on a foraging trip could go faster than him, and even at his age, he was considered tireless. “Where did he get all his energy, all this physical strength? He walked with his cacti, heavy as lead, and not even the rigorous sun, nor the hard-to-climb mountains could decrease his speed,” one acquaintance said. According to Bertrand Batenaude, writing for the Hoover Digest in 2010, cactus hunting became Trotsky’s chief form of exercise. ‘It was something of an obsession,’ he wrote. Trotsky’s wife, Natalia, joked that his cacti collecting was a form of ‘penal labor’, Trotsky adding that it was the next best thing to hunting. 

The trips into the mountains were photographed and filmed by the American camera enthusiast, Alexander Buchman in 1940, six months before Trotsky’s assassination. Trotsky can be seen in the film digging out one after another cactus, wearing heavy gloves and swinging a pickaxe. The 58-year-old Communist would badger anyone who leered at the physical exhaustion of the expeditions. ‘At one point,’ wrote Batenaude, ‘he turns and accuses the cameraman of loafing.’

‘He seemed hypnotized by the goal to be reached. ‘The change in occupation was a sort of relief. He found in the work a compensation for all the hard blows that ripped him up inside and the harder the test, the more passionately did he forget it. He never did anything slowly or half-way, laziness and depression were unknown to him.’ Trotsky was described as being affable and affectionate, but very strict in discipline and work. The old Communist participated in any tasks, often the first to find a solution and use a shovel or pick.

Of course, it was with a short-handled ice pick that he was killed in August by Stalin’s Spanish agent, Ramon Mercader, who gained access by pretending to be interested in Trotskyism. Mercader wanted a document to be discussed, and while Trotsky was sitting at a desk he took the pick from his raincoat and struck from the back. Blood poured out of a wound, Trotsky screaming and then taken to the dining room table supported by his wife. Guards hit Mercader violently, but Trotsky asked them not to kill him but to force him to confess. Trotsky was taken to hospital, but having refused brain surgery, died a day later, aged 60, declaring to the end his certainty that international Communism would be victorious.