A Study in Mustard


I met my husband on The Archers Messageboard, which was shut down on Monday by the BBC.

‘Mustardland’ was named for the colour that the board turned some seven years ago. A few years later, I spotted someone with insight and a wicked sense of humour writing about one of my favourite books. I thought he was a woman, owing to a board name based on a favourite band.

We swapped brief greetings in person at the first annual meet of board members I went to, at Tate Modern, delighted to put faces to names I knew so well: Basia the New York stylist who’d dressed Joss Stone for a Super Bowl, Greenjewel the Irish horticulturalist and musician, Grwg the Welsh medieval academic and triathelete, RUS the London bus driver and many others.

Months later we met at an anti-BNP demonstraton. My daughter, initially charmed by carrying a placard and yelling ‘The BNP is a nasty [Nazi] party,’ soon grew bored and he cheered her up with cake. They did a Nick Cave/Kylie duet and I was smitten.

We carried on swapping Messageboard comments, went to a Frank Sidebottom gig after a British Museum meet and married three years ago. As well as the usual wedding guests – friends from first schooldays, family and colleagues – there were our Messageboard friends.

Basia flew from the US to dress me (i.e. take my running gear off half an hour before leaving) for the wedding and we paid tribute in the ceremony to Greenjewel, who’d died suddenly, far too young, a few weeks before.

Archers Scriptwriter Keri Davies was at the evening reception with a few other Mustardland folk: he’d flown with my husband and Greenjewel to see Nick Cave with Basia in New York and feed the feral cats in colonies that board members helped support.

Basia openly helped countless other board members on a thread about alcohol issues, saving at least one life that I know of. She also found online help with a group supporting people and carers for those with cancer, sticking two fingers up to leukemia by starting to run marathons and raise funds through our online community.

I lurked there more than I posted over the past couple of years: one of 10,000 compared to the active 1,000 that helped make the Messageboard no longer viable, according to the BBC’s Head of Interactivity. He went on Radio 4’s Feedback programme to defend the decision and admitted he did not come out well, unable to provide any figures in support of the claim.

I wrote at length once only: sitting at home literally waiting to hear from the mother who had given me up for adoption at six weeks old. In no time I had kind and thoughtful messages from people who were adopted, had been or knew of those in in my birth mother’s and adoptive parents’ positions or just wanted to offer a word of support, calm, excitement or caution. All human life was there, as the cliche goes.

One person’s comments in particular stayed with me: someone else who died suddenly and young. His sister found his log-in details and came to the Messageboard for the first time to tell his friends. They became her friends and she was there, years later, in tears, at the weekend saying what it had meant to her.

There were some snarky words on Twitter after the Feedback broadcast, about ‘crazy’ people who wanted to keep the Archers Messageboard. It is ironic that it housed a thriving community who wrote on mental health issues, many isolated through illness, disability or geographical location and heartbroken at the loss of contact and community.

I understand that it is not in the BBC’s remit to provide me with husbands, stylists, running partners or crisis support. Licence fee payers should not cough up for people wanting to find the perfect scent, endlessly debate which way round to hang their loo paper, post word games, parodies and poetry or debate politics, religion, the meaning of life or cake. By the way, some did discuss The Archers.

Lots of intelligent and sustainable suggestions were made about how and why the Messageboard could continue. I am sorry that none was taken up. As a professional communicator, I fail to understand why an organisation would silence countless comments and opinions to which it had free access.

I think that this was a bad decision and poorly executed, Auntie.

There have been many articulate, passionate, angry and hilarious words written in the defence of Mustardland. I am going to quote (in full: his unaltered words) a somewhat unusual one, just to show the lovely random nature of the people that the Messageboard reached:

‘A love letter from a notorios lurker.

‘I have been lurking for about six years, and only recently posted the odd comment.
I am not a native speaker, so I always felt a bit unable to be in any way as brillant as a lot of posters here are. I actually laugh in front of the [thing that you look on when using the PC]. I think about politics, radiodrama and ways to view life and have found the board utterly inspiring.

‘I have relationships with quite a few of you (yeah, creepy), in that I almost expect certain comments, regard views of some of you in surprise, I might even be disappointed with someone for reacting one way and not the other…

For being my invisible friends, I want to thank those of you, who knew for a long time to snide and congratulate, love or hate The Archers. Those who took such painstake in annoying me or finding such articulate reasons for what I also vaguely might have thought.

‘Thank you all!

‘I cannot believe the decision to close the board down. As I work in German radiodrama, I know about the efforts there to promote radiodrama (sorry for using this word again) and involve the audience in a forum just like this. To have an ongoing story with numbers of listerners like TA, to have a board like this where intellect meets interest, where people are actually guarding what they cherish would be the wet dream of many a German radio dramaturgue/editor.

‘I will now, that nothing seems to be at stake anymore admit to being a author for radiodrama. As such I have always especially valued the unforgivingness with which the quality of scripts, storylining, wording and continuity are discussed here.
I wonder if, had I ever been a TA writer, I would have had the guts to read your posts on contributions that I wrote, but I am sure that it would be wonderful to know that someone takes as much notice of what they have heard as is being taken here.
Radio authors have normally no way to know what the audience thinks, and the odd letter to the editor will never substitute the (more often than sometimes) profound discussions that are being led here.

‘I loved the message board also for the attitude that the Mustardlanders have towards TA: it is owned by them like a national treasure, all the editors, scriptwriters, experiments with the formats are something to enjoy or endure, but they are but a fleeting phenomenon. Maybe a bit like the way technicians in theaters view directors and performers, they all come and go, but the light will still shine for the next performance in twenty years time, and it will still be them using the switch. Or like an oak watches a person scratching their name into it. Or some other romantic metaphor involving the eternal stream of somethingsomething.

‘I loved you watchdogs, it made me hopeful for the medium.
Again, thank you.’

That is a terrific idea. I’m going to suggest that our Comms Committee (staff, volunteers, trustees) all do likewise. Thanks for posting.

What's the PONT

20130221-115930.jpgI wish I’d thought of that.

It was actually said by Jon Beech (@_jonb) on twitter and sparked a conversation about how senior officials could test the ‘lived experience’ of service users by trying to access their organisation’s website using a mobile phone. It’s been rattling around inside my head for a while and found its way out in the surroundings of a WordPress Users Wales meeting this week on responsive design.

I knew this was an important point when I first read it, and this is how it makes sense to me after the meeting. A few factual statements first:

  • People use websites to find out what services are delivered by organisations;
  • For large parts of society the Internet is the primary route they use;
  • Many people are using mobile devices (mobile phones, tablets etc) to access the Internet;
  • The percentage of people using mobile devices to do this…

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Stepney City Farm ‘can change the world’

I love my job at Stepney City Farm. I love the Farm, the staff, volunteers and trustees and (most of) the animals: from Dunstan the Drain Avoiding Donkey and all the teeny-tiny guinea pigs that appear at regular intervals to the recently dear-departed Rodney the Kune-kune pig and Henry Ferret.baby_guinea

As I’m still unwell and my brain has turned to slush, I am going to take advantage and include this wonderful guest post written recently for us by the Guardian’s acting comment editor Libby Brooks.

Libby spent a month with us and now comes in most Fridays. We are lucky to have her and the other 90 or so volunteers who make such a difference. Her words, not mine, deserve the widest audience possible:

Libby Brooks, Guardian, and Farmer Tom Forster, Stepney City Farm, East London

‘As my month at Stepney City Farm draws to an end, I am left reflecting on all the weird and wonderful things that I’ve done over the past four weeks. I chose to spend this sabbatical from my day job as a comment editor and columnist at the Guardian because, having spent the past few years commissioning and writing articles about how this country is – for reasons various, economic and political – going to hell in a handcart, I wanted to spend some time with people who are walking the talk.

Clipping the ferrets’ toenails or filling up the leaf mulcher may not appear to have anything to do with the global recession or benefits cuts, but the ethos at Stepney City Farm – self-sufficiency, education, community outreach – is exactly what a lot of folk are groping for at present, be that through the Occupy movement or even David Cameron’s much-derided Big Society.

Essentially, having spent a month here, I firmly believe that Stepney City Farm can change the world, and I’d challenge anyone to do likewise and not come to a similar conclusion.

I’ve done a load of things here that have made me think about much more than just the task in front of me. Planting broad beans to store in the polytunnel over the winter makes me realise what a different rhythm there is to working life when the seasons are in charge, and light and temperature cannot be fixed at the touch of a button.

Working in the media, there is an unappealing tendency to get sucked in by the notion that WE are the insiders, and WE know all the secrets of the universe. It’s been really good for me – humbling in fact – to be reminded that there are whole worlds of skills and knowledge for me to get learn from.

Stepney farmers like Tom have forgotten more about gardening than I will ever know. Feeding the goats one afternoon in the field by Stepney Way, and watching the cars speeding past, I was struck by the fact that – though I have a tendency to romanticise the countryside at something ‘other’ – all of the urban environment was once fields, and can be fields again, while fields themselves are human inventions of course.

Not that the majority of my time here has been spent standing around thinking deep thoughts while the goats go hungry. The great thing about volunteering here is that there is always something that needs done, and if there’s not then you can pass a pleasant half hour playing with the ferrets (my favourite farm animal by a country mile and no arguments).

I’ve helped to build vegetable beds, groomed the donkeys, landscaped the pond, swept up a lot of leaves and shifted a lot of hay and mud and general detritus around in wheelbarrows.
New ex-battery and one year resident ex-battery hens, Stepney City Farm, London
Zanier moments included chasing our rescued battery hens around as I attempted to spray their poor bare arses with anti-peck lotion. (These hens arrived with us in a terrible state, and were so traumatised that they were pecking at each others’ bald patches. Think on that when you’re choosing your supermarket eggs.)

And I shall never forget Goose Thursday. I arrived in the morning to the news that the local fox had attacked one of the geese in the night. The poor bird was barely breathing,and had to be humanely killed by one of the farmers. Then – and I genuinely think that this was what it would have wanted – we strung it up by the feet and plucked its feathers for down. Expertly gutted by our resident medic Katharine, the bird began to look a little less like a corpse and more like dinner, and I took on the task of roasting it with potatoes and fresh kale from the edible garden.

We made our own approximation of foie gras too, and saved the fat for another day. By 5 o’clock that evening – yes, I am going to say it, I can’t help myself – our goose was truly cooked and we sat down to a delicious roast dinner. Where else can you go from field to plate in under 12 hours? Or see every element of a bird, feather and feet inclusive, utilised?

It’s been a wonderful month, and I’m hoping that I can carve out some space in my working schedule to maintain my connection with the the greenest, greatest place in Stepney. And the ferrets would miss me.’


Warnings: Why I love the Warren

The Warren, Folkestone
I’m signed off work and feel too rough to be more than brief, which is probably a Good Thing as I could write all day about the place that I most love. And then write some more. I first saw the Warren when my parents brought me, six weeks old, from a London children’s home, to their house around the corner. They still live there and I go back often.

It’s a vast, ancient, unique place: impossible to catch in photographs. It can be terrifying: people die in chalk falls or are washed away by stormy tides from the sea edge and foolhardy divers misjudge the depths to hit the rocks below. It is more often the most beautiful place on earth; wide blue skies, fresh salt air, thousands of chalk grassland, woodland and seaside wild flowers in spring and not a soul in sight or any sound apart from the crash of the waves or the yawping of gulls.

I’ve gone there for ever to pick blackberries and, more recently, sloes for homemade gin. On a clear day you can see buildings on the cliffs of France, just twenty miles away. High above you on the edge of the chalk and clay English cliffs, a Roman villa is sliding, inch by inch, into the sea. Martello Towers keep us safe from Napoleonic invasion and a young Second World War pilot looks for ever out on to the horizon.

There are fossils by the bucketload and rockpools full of crabs, anemones and mussels. Grasses rustle with newts and the occasional adder. Somewhere there is a buried rabbit, a toy lost by my brother more than 40 years ago. He comes here too, sometimes, to sleep, on the not infrequent times that he falls between the gaps in the welfare state.

It is a never-ending delight that my favourite novel, Riddley Walker by the sainted Russell Hoban, is set here and in the countryside around. The Warren becomes The Warnings as Riddley seeks to find out about his world. A book of strange and unsettling beauty, just like the Warren.

Every so often there are attempts to carve out safer steps, put up handrails and tame the place. Even when I’m too old to climb down safely over the rocks and would be glad of a more accessible path, I selfishly hope that never happens.