Ron Finley, Frank Sidebottom & a Headless Chicken …

… are My Three Best Things About … being online this week.

The first involved a *presents positive spin learned as government press officer* happy mistake. Well, okay, a mistake: made by me.

“Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus, you get strawberries.”

Ron Finley is an awesomely-inspiring, creative man who’s brought guerrilla gardening to bring fresh, healthy food to  South Central Los Angeles. He ‘wanted a carrot without toxic ingredients I didn’t know how to spell’ in a community where the drive-through kills more than the drive-by. The authorities tried to stop his planting. Ron won.

A year ago, he gave a wonderful TED Talk. I posted this on Twitter at work at the time and spotted it again this week while looking through links for an evaluation report on the Local Food Programme project where I’ve been working. I tweeted it again, managing to get both the date AND his name wrong. Ouch.

Ron graciously pointed this out in a reply – and started following the Farm. I apologised straightaway, giving my name so none of the other folk who post would get any criticism. He sent a lovely response: @StepneyCityFarm @TEDTalks @KarenJKHart #AllGoodThings That cheered up a night of insomnia.

‘There are currently two films about Frank Sidebottom in production, one meticulously searching out the world of Frank (Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story) and the other exploring the idea of what it was to be a man in a fake head (Frank, for which Ronson was screenwriter)’

Poor Jon Ronson has had rather a challenging week, saying on Twitter that he’s ‘a man being yelled at by 8000 Guardian readers’ for Frank. The quote above explains more about the two films; it’s from this feature in The Skinny.

My husband and I met through The Archers. After a get-together of a group of like-minded people, we wandered off for an evening at the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town: a Frank Sidebottom gig.  Fantastic. Yes, ‘Guess who’s Been on Match of the Day? is Our Song.

We’ve finally got round to ordering Being Frank: there’s still time to support the documentary and get listed in the credits. My husband commented on our gig story and got back my second best thing, this lovely response from Steve Sullivan, Director of Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story:

‘Surprisingly, you’re not the first person to say they got together with their partner at a Frank gig! Surely not the romantic of atmospheres, but then there was magic in the air!’

And the Headless Chicken: best thing number three.  The Folkestone Triennial announced this year’s artists, including Yoko Ono and Andy Goldsworthy. I’m looking forward to ‘Whithervanes … a neurotic early worrying system.’ One of roofoftwo’s five sculptured birds will be on top of that Martello Tower, just around the corner from my Mum: a 21st century weathervane measuring levels of concern on the internet.

I’m sure Frank would approve.


Alex_Sophia_Amelia_Capel_Manor__2013My daughter Amelia is 17 tomorrow. This time last year, I posted 16 photos of her. She wasn’t happy. I thought I’d do something different, so I’m trying to get a snapshot of what she’s like, by looking at what she likes, aiming to shoehorn seventeen in awkwardly.

The photo of the girls, pinched from her Facebook page, was taken at the Federation of City Farms & Community Gardens annual harvest show. She’s been for the past few years with other young Stepney City Farm volunteers, The link shows a video made about the great work of the FCC&CG , featuring her being overly competitive with pride about an award-winning chicken. Show, Farm, chickens: three.

She’s just told Mum she’d like a duckling for her birthday. Same as she told me. Of course: what else for a fourth floor London flat with no outside space? And two cats. Ducklings make four.

Amelia’s on the right, with two of her four friends who’ll staying here tomorrow: wired on industrial amounts of sugar (I shall count ‘friends’ as making five in total, unless my deadline slips and I cheat to count them singly.)

She has several Pinterest boards. There’s ‘My cats :)’ featuring the love of her life: Loki.Loki_cat_newspaper I rather like her caption to this: ‘Loki is perfectly normal.’ I’m counting both cats together to make six. And ‘South Park!!!!!‘ I shall say, with no further comment, that her favourite character is Cartman: seven.

‘Inspirations (well, a mix of my role models and favourite actresses/actors ect’ (proofing isn’t up there, sadly) can help get the numbers up: there’s a couple of photos from Buffy the Vampire Slayer alongside Withnail and Marwood from Withnail & I (Hurrah. Top parenting marks to me and nine.) And, oh dear, Dakota Fanning, for ten.

Game of Thrones’ mainly features Daenerys but has this (eleven):

George_RR_Martin_Game_of-Thrones‘Penguins’ is self-explanatory (twelve.) As is ‘Merlin :D’, if you think TV pretty boy rather than Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. I don’t think a week goes by without her lamenting its absence (thirteen.)

There’s ‘No Category in Particular’, with pics from Harry Potter, Dr Who and The Big Bang Theory (sixteen.) ‘Quirky Nails!’ makes seventeen and she can barely shut her bedroom door for nail varnish.

I’m going to cheat and sneak in an eighteen, as it will be her 18th year. Here is my opportunity to ruin all her future employment chances by displaying the four-letter word cover picture on her wonderfully-named ‘Muhahahahaha! (board of truth?)’ I think it sums up her sweet, quirky nature. Yes, I’m proud of her. Happy Birthday x Alice_Dorothy_crossover




A walk to Dog-Eared Corner

The triumph of common sense from Sptialfeilds LifeMy usual walk to work is along the Triumph of Common Sense, to Stepney City Farm, opposite Dog-Eared Corner.

I’ve gone for one of this week’s optional themes from the Weekly Blog Club: a walk. With 20 minutes to this week’s posting cut-off, I was about to send my regular tweet begging for one of WBC’s popular Squidgy Deadlines. But today I’m slaying the procrastination demon.

Down the seventy stairs from the fourth floor. This usually entails an urban form of ‘It’s a Knockout’. Will I get past the mattress blocking the stairs below? Have I forgotten the major leak outside Flat 31 or will I end up on my backside again? What else is there on the iSpy checklist of a Stepney staircase: vomit, urine, phlegm (tick), cigarette butts (two), discarded Monster Munch (lots), tissues, bits of straw (down to me and mine usually).

Out the door, inhaling Eau de Rough Sleeper. Onto the street past one of the last Jewish bakeries in the East End, resisting awesome salmon bagels or tiny Danish pastries endorsed by Nigella herself.

Cross the street where Stalin lived when he was in London. Architect-enhanced wealth mingles with overcrowded immigration, literally next door to each other. Look out for urban foxes filling up on the chicken bones that litter every street of the borough with the highest concentration of fast food and serious child obesity. No longer take a minute to wonder if the two are related.

Past the care home that specialises in dementia and suffer usual guilt about my dad. slowly going under in that vile fog. Catch a glimpse of the raised bed that my work has helped put in there to envliven sight and scent for residents.

Swap a grin with a young father, pushing his baby along at Mo Farah speed while her big sister runs, school bag, bashing against her chubby legs, as the primary school reaches register time.

Debate a walk through the park, with its groups of boys in uniform swapping spliffs and gobbing. No, too many mobile thefts recently and I’m limping with a sore Achilles tendon. Being mugged five times does tend to lean one towards a pessimistic outlook. And the last instance of being groped by about eight of them inspired police to say that I should consider covering up my long blonde hair as it made me look ‘obvious’.

That rules out the Triumph of Good Sense, as depicted by the Gentle Author amidst other East End Desire Paths.

So I pass the Crossrail workings, walk along the side of Stepney City Farm with the walls from an old Baptist college and past St Dunstan’s Church and ‘the bells of Step-nee’ from the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons.

And look, just look, at what is underneath my feet now.

The picture of the Triumph of Good Sense is from Spitalfields Life by the Gentle Author

Five Senses at Stepney City Farm


I have not fully trusted my senses since watching someone put a forefinger into an empty eye socket during a fire when I was 14.

This did not ‘happen’: I was in isolation hospital for a few weeks with a high temperature brought on by severe glandular fever. I have very few memories of that time but that awful hallucination is as real a memory as any other that I have. It involved all of my senses: I won’t go into any more horrible detail.

On to the nice stuff: my sensory week, which ha’ bin mos’ly at work on the Farm.

Hearing: Nineteen goslings in grass for the first time after hatching live on Channel 4 and a week in the barn at Stepney City Farm. The sound of utter joy.

Vision: More Farm birdies: it has to be the Herding of the Runner Ducklings. They hatched on the same TV show and are the most adorable sight: big feet, tiny wings and the Platonic ideal of duckiness. 

Smell: Is this a bit of a cheat?. It is certainly the toughest to convey online, alongside taste.The most memorable smell this week was the baking of delicious bread but that wins taste as well. So I am choosing the Forge at the Farm’s Rural Arts Centre. This mixture of fire and metal and warmth is striking (no pun intended.) This wonderful Spitalfields Life feature on my colleague, blacksmith Ian Lowe, was published on Wednesday and gives a real feel of the Forge.

Taste: The best freshly-baked bread in London and beyond; the old East End family firm of Rinkoff. We’re opening a café at the Farm in the next few weeks and I had a lovely trip with manager Jassy Davis – who took the terrific videos and pictures here – to sample some of their delicious loaves.

Touch: The soft, warm, woolly coats of two new Jacob lambs, who were born on Monday. Now who is going to believe me when I say it has been a tough week at work?


‘Bugrit! Millennium hand and shrimp’

“A grisly fate, but one that he deserved.”
“Right, Batman! Let’s go for ice cream.”
“Ice cream is not good for young, healthy boys, Robin. Instead, let’s have some 100% American steaks served with vegetables from our Victory Garden.”

True randomness is difficult, I believe. This is most likely down to my own thoughts and actions; nature- and nurture-influenced as they are.

This is already not a random quest, to look at ‘random’, but Weekly Blog Club’s suggested theme. And I like being given a title to write to, rather than spend ages trying to think of my own.

This post’s title is the catchphrase of the marvellous Foul Ole Ron, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I chose it as the most random collection of words that sprang to mind.

I’ve just re-read ‘Thud!’ in which the phrase appears, so not really random, is it? Off to Google to investigate.

It is either truly random, or not random at all, if Wikipedia is correct, as it is: ‘the result of Pratchett feeding a random text generating program with a Chinese takeaway menu and the lyrics to They Might be Giants‘ song Particle Man’ (the link is to a song I prefer: the theme tune to the pleasantly-random Malcolm in the Middle.)

So with a background of journalism (i.e. nicking other people’s thoughts and words as a basis for my own), I did a Google search for ‘random’. This is already less-than-random as its algorithms are shaped by my browsing history.

This took me to the glorious black hole of time-wasting that is You have been warned.

I played with the random date-generator: proving again, to myself at least, that it’s hard to do random, by choosing a predictable date. I entered – you guessed it – my date of birth and today’s date, resulting in

‘Here are your 4 calendar dates:
Monday, 30 April 1984
Wednesday, 2 April 1986
Monday, 15 March 1999
Wednesday, 19 July 2000
They were picked randomly out of 13,280 possible dates between [redacted date in old money] and Wednesday, 13 March 2013.’

Now I am longing to find out why those dates might be significant: I want to put reason and rhythm over randomness. I don’t keep a diary so will probably never know. Do they mean anything to you? I would love to know.

I thought the comic image was wonderfully random: Batman among the quotidien cabbages. But I didn’t come to it by random. It’s on a brilliant blog of food links by Sarah Emily Duff, whom I follow on Twitter. I started following her as she was engaging with Simon Okotie, a dear friend whose book I helped to publicise. Now I think of it, his ‘down-at-heel hero’ Marguerite has elements of Foul Ole Ron…

My day job is to publicise a Local Food project and I spend a lot of time thinking about people growing their own vegetables. And the image itself was published in 1943. What could be less random than government propaganda-esque exhortations to Dig for Victory and swap the American Dream lawn for the veg to go alongside your 100% American steak?

I like to think of myself as a natural anarchist and therefore presumably drawn to the random; if I am, then it is one who likes things to be tidy and in order. My capacity for self-delusion can always be relied upon to be less than random.

Simply the Best for International Women’s Day

Metropolitan Police Service, New Scotland Yard. Mid 1990s

I am sitting in at a large table surrounded by men, both in uniform and civilian suits. We are here for a first meeting to prepare for a major football tournament. The man in charge sweeps in:

‘I am Commander Chap: May I introduce Superintendent Fellow; Chief Inspector Geezer; Deputy Assistant Commissioner Man; Acting Chief Superintendent Bloke; Sergeant Machismo; Inspector Secret-Guy (Special Branch.)

‘And Karen. Our press lady.’

No-one asked me to make the tea but I recall that I was deliberately confrontational, largely in an effort to get across how I was as expert at my part of the big picture as they were at crowd control, disaster planning etc.

It took time and a lot of professionalism but I did win over Commander Chap: we became friends and I helped him with interview skills that progressed his career. And I got to see some terrific football.

Fast forward many years: I am sitting at Stepney City Farm on Tuesday 5 March 2013, at 6.30pm after a day’s work, surrounded by and large by women: some of whom are pictured above.

They are the Farm’s Communications Committee and I want to pay brief tribute to them as my post for the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

For the record, the two men on the Committee were also there: an immaculately-suited City-regulation and online analytics’ expert and a hugely-talented young artist.

And, to lend Olympic-level masculinity to the meeting, we were joined, as a first-time observer, by the Farm’s artist blacksmith, straight from t’forge. He is from Yorkshire.

I’m not going to go into personal detail about all the bright, capable and gifted women who form the Committee. Some are Farm Trustees, who give up ridiculous amounts of time from family and friends and globe-trotting careers to help with everything from networking with potential celebrity supporters to cooking lunches for volunteers and cleaning.

There are staff members. One swapped a career as a doctor, to deal with day to day Farm life: ministering to guinea pigs with constipation, persuading banks that they should pay money they owe us for their team building days, building dementia programmes.

Interns and volunteers have written successful fund-raising proposals, not turned a hair at being asked to build a whole new website from scratch, come up with new ideas for merchandising and taken endless minutes of meetings.

Some have been around for years; others are new. They are from all over the UK and, indeed, the world. They are parents, cyclists, thrift-shop and designer dressers, clubbers, campaigners; many ages and stages of living. And they are the best women out there: doing their wonderful best for a few acres that one women set up as a City Farm, 30 years ago.

’As a young communicator in a far-away land, I came to the Farm, and subsequently the Comms Committee, for two things: experience in my field of study, and refuge from the city’s every day.

‘Little did I know that I’d receive much more. Being part of the Comms Team has surrounded me in a group of strong, intelligent women of all ages, giving me that nudge of support lacking at times when one finds themselves away from home and family

‘I spend my waking hours either thinking how wonderful the Farm is and/or telling people to come to visit to see how wonderful it is themselves.

‘Attending the Communications Committee allows me to share my ideas of how I’ve been spreading the good word as well as adopt ideas from members on how to promote the Farm. It is very encouraging when you’ve got a roomful of people who want to spread the love of the Farm as much as I do.’

’One of the reasons that I joined the Comms team was because over half of Tower Hamlets’ population are from non-white British ethnic groups, with a third of these being Bangladeshi Muslims.

‘I noticed that the fellow volunteers & visitors did not fully reflect this dynamic and I hope that as an Indian Muslim woman I can build a bridge to communicate with and engage this community especially.’

‘I wanted to be actively involved in my local community and improving the area. The Communications Committee demonstrates that the Farm really does have something for everyone: you don’t have to get your hands dirty to be an active part of this community initiative and meet some fantastic and inspiring people.

‘I love marketing and so spreading the good farming word: letting others know about where they can find a little oasis of calm and a friendly face in the big City.’

‘I come to the Comms Committee because I get an insight into a mysterious world I never see in the NHS (alas, I love the NHS) where you can be excited, professional, productive and efficient.

‘I hear words I’ve never heard of and see things happen quickly. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and making it look effortless.’

‘My own experience at the Farm has been so rewarding and fun that I really do feel the need to spread the word, from standing out on the street markets talking to people or in the online space. More people need to know.’

‘I suppose my story is that I got dragged to the Farm [by Volunteer Manager Katharine] and ended up staying because of all the wonderful things the Farm does.

‘Animals not necessarily being my thing, I try to volunteer with what skills I have – and seeing how much the Comms team has achieved in the last year has been wonderful.

‘I enjoy getting involved in the Comms Committee as it gives me a chance to use expertise I have gained in my work life (working for an advertising agency then as Creative and Communications Director for a social enterprise).

‘I love the practical and physical ways I can help on the farm (shovelling poo, planting vegetables etc) but the Comms Committee is an area I can bring my brain to as well as my body!’

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.’