Discover more from Mark Diacono's Imperfect Umbrella
You Know I Feel Alright
I have only been to Liverpool a handful of times, yet when I step off the train, clock the big clock, and walk out on to the high, wide steps with Liverpool below me I feel like I’ve come home.
Opposite, St George’s Hall, looking as magnificent as The Acropolis to these soppy eyes.
I’ve been here to skate around the city getting to know places that had a big hand in The Beatles’ lives, I’ve been here for a particularly lively Mersey derby, I came here in search of excellent food as part of Radio 4 Food Programme’s Food Awards team, and I came for the finest match ever played.
This time - a few weeks ago - I was here to be made an Honorary Professor at the University of Liverpool.
If this wasn’t fine enough, I got there in time to walk to the hotel via Eric’s, a venue where everyone I loved as a kid played - Talking Heads, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, Blondie, Teardrop Explodes and so many more. It’s a few doors up from the Cavern, so as pilgrimages go…
If this wasn’t fine enough, I got to the hotel they were putting me up to find it was very nice indeed and opposite the Liverpool Philharmonic, another place I wanted to visit.
If this wasn’t fine enough, I stood in the foyer of the hotel filling out the form I’d been handed by the receptionist who had dashed to the loo while I filled it out, I felt the presence of someone along the counter.
I looked up and there was Kenny Dalglish.
There are very few people who sit where Kenny Dalglish does for me - a serious hero since I couldn’t tie my shoelaces. He played the game like no-one else - as if parachuted from the future, on pitches so often like sponge puddings, against defenders intent on harm - and made it look as if he could see the game and everyone in it from above. In 8 seasons as a Liverpool player, he won 20 trophies. He became Liverpool player-manager winning even more. He did as much as anyone to lead the city in the aftermath of Hillsborough, going to almost all the funerals of the 97 who were killed in that tragedy. He is by any measure, an extraordinary man.
At first I didn’t want to disturb him, but I realised future me would always regret it if I didn’t say anything. I kept the few metres between us, keen that he didn’t think I’d be interrupting his afternoon by waving a phone for a selfie.
Hello Kenny, I just want to say thank you for all the pleasure you gave me as a player and as a manager and what you did in the aftermath of Hillsborough. He smiled, nodded shyly, then stepped towards me, held out his hand: It’s me who should be thanking you for supporting me and the team.
We spoke for perhaps a minute, probably half that, in the weirdness of an otherwise entirely empty hotel foyer, where he proved he was even more of a great man than I thought. After, I sat for I don’t know how long not quite able to take in what had happened.
I recognised the feeling from another Liverpool visit: it was the impossibility of a hero being human, everyday even, made of the same ingredients as me, and the fluke of us walking this same spherical rock at the same time. He was real.
I’d had the same standing here, outside 20 Forthlin Road, Liverpool. This was Paul McCartney’s house. His teens were spent here, writing so many early songs with Lennon. It was here that McCartney was thinking of when he wrote
...the bus being the one that took him towards town, that meant a change at the top of Penny Lane, where the barber, bank(er) and even the shelter in the middle of the roundabout are still to be seen.
An ordinary lad in an ordinary house creating the most extraordinary music while he ate his ordinary breakfast.
The house the old man and I called home for the first 18 years of my life (and he for the rest of his) looks weirdly similar in a not now National Trusted kind of way, yet somehow I am not one of the great bass players, nor an astonishing songwriter. The injustice.
So an Honorary Professor of the University of Liverpool, more specifically in the Management School; more specifically still, in the Centre for Well Being.
I’ve been asked a few times - in an I-don’t-want-to-appear-rude-but kind of a way - what was behind the honour being conferred. Yesterday and most recently the person asking was James Alexander-Sinclair who - not unreasonably - thinks I spend most hours of most days pushing various marginal edibles into a bottle of vodka in search of novel intoxication.
Like talking to someone for half an hour being at a party and not wanting to ask their name having forgotten from when you were introduced, it didn’t feel right asking the University directly: oughtn’t I to sort-of…know?
In the end, the night before it became official, I asked the head of department - as we shared a very excellent Timothy Taylor or two in the Philharmonic (the pub in which the gig in the film below took place a few years ago) - and he mentioned the work I did in my previous life.
Having finally given up after a quarter of a century of idleness, I got a degree and a Masters, after which I’d stepped into environmental consultancy, co-authoring national guidance, advising government about managing the landscape, helping to direct the national and regional thinking about what we might want from our countryside moving sustainably forward, and what that might ask of us (and give us) in return.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but transforming two bare fields into a climate change farm had more than a little continuity with what I’d already been doing.
He said it would be easier to email me the words he’d said on the day of the original ceremony which I couldn’t attend. I’m not sure how much of this person I recognise but I’d like to try to live up to him at least.
I know Mark is devastated that he had to pull out of this event at such late notice, but as a director of a well-being centre I really didn’t think I could twist the arm of a man who had been confined to bed on Monday night with a temperature of 104. But while he is still waiting for a diagnosis for what we suspect is COVID, the news is good, his temperature came down over Tuesday and though still in bed today, he is at least writing emails and in communication. We will have Mark up to speak to the school on another occasion, I know you will find him a fascinating and engaging speaker who’s project in well-being will be an inspiration to all and why I sought his appointment as a visiting fellow to the school. I can assure you we will be seeing a lot more of Mark in the coming years.
I wanted to give you a little background on Mark and his work, and for those of you who are not close to the decision-making executive why he was appointed into the well-being centre. Mark’s first came to prominence during the early days of the River Cottage project which first aired as a TV show in 1999 and featuring Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall ... who you might remember left London to pursue an ambition of self-sufficiency, growing organic vegetables and raising his own animals at a gamekeeper's cottage near Netherbury in Dorset. Mark was involved in the early days of River Cottage, setting the scene for the gardening team, drawing up the sustainability strategy and wrote a few books for them. He then went on to consolidate his reputation for what we might call - in a management school - innovation and entrepreneurship, but importantly innovation and entrepreneurship in new forms of sustainable through the setting up of his own smallholding – Otter Farm - 17 acres of edible delights developing many plants that had not been grown in this country before. He established a plant and seed nursery, and employed people who (variously) are now leading horse-trekking trails through the mountains of the west coast USA/Canada, running organic cut flower business, etc. He has written 12 books and runs courses and events, spreading skills and enthusiasm for the benefits of engaging with the plant world.
Any attempt to summarise Mark’s achievements and his contribution to what I think will be an important part of the future of well-being is going to be partial and inadequate. He is a food entrepreneur, a writer, a broadcaster, a professional gardener, a cook, a herbalist, even perhaps an alchemist of sorts, and someone who is - and I think he wouldn’t mind me saying - something of a forest dweller, or a pioneer citizen of a new coming forest ‘mode of existence’ (to abuse the recent work of Bruno Latour), a ‘mode of existence’ (Latour, 2013) in which we are all going to have to learn to regrow and inhabit as a species. In this way he manages practically to integrate and transcend those divisions of knowledge I was talking about in the introduction to this talk (though he is modest and rarely draws out the societal and political, the managerial or organizational implications of what he is doing in any explicit way). More of this to follow in more extended academic elaborations ...
He is also a grand designer – at least for those of you who watch Kevin McCloud’s Channel 4 series Grand Designs that devoted one of its episodes in 2016 to Mark’s timber-framed eco-farmhouse and adjoining cookery school project. In this project the materials used to build the house were also locally sourced and sustainable, using a traditional timber frame and cob wall design. The communities he built around this project help seed new ways of relating to land, food, and living.
Mark thinks big, but he is also grounded in the microbial universe of guts, soil and bacteria and literally has his fingers in these worlds everyday attending daily to his various gardens, orchards, forest gardens, and vineyards.
He is one of the few people to have traced the question of food sustainability back to changes in our relationship to land, and linked up an extended chain of inter-dependent features of food: the need for new crops, soil repair and fertility, a new understanding of our gut and what we might call the gut biome, new tastes and diets, and importantly new ways of living and working. We can’t have sustainable well-being without all of these elements in place at the same time, they are all components that work together and recycle to make a systemic whole in which one can draw no divide between the social, the macro, or the micro, the inside or outside, the global or the local. To quote Merlin Sheldrake’s recent study of mycelial networks, the human is part of entangled life where the customary entities and boundaries in which we think we live – the container of the individual skin-bound body is in fact better thought of as the mere exo-skeletal host, or surplus, to the entangled relational life of microbial being. Indeed, our thinking springs from these relations, or gets impoverished by their neglect - in our efforts to abstract ourselves from this condition, or in Karen Dale’s felicitous phrase when we become subject to the modern masculine ‘anatomising’ gaze of what I think we would both now agree is a more-than-human multi-species collective.
Modern social theory and the modern social sciences are born out of a very impoverished view of the isolated, semi-autonomous functionally integral human body, and this has led to the empire of a grain economy (in James C Scott’s terms) that is destroying our soil, which is the very basis upon which well-being is rooted. Some experts suggest we only have 40 harvests left. And of course this is connected to climate breakdown, and explains the fall of the Roman Empire built on a similar simplistic monocultural agricultural practice. I think what one begins to learn spending time with Mark is that we are dumb bread thinking-bodies, cut off from the thinking and practices that might be related to a more biodiverse and sustainable diet.
So, Mark pushes against our existing models of diet, thinking, business and economy. I would ask you to consider his fermented drinks, the scobys, the water kefirs, rosehip vinegars, quince buttermilk, kombucha mayonnaise, rhubarb koresh, double ginger tamarind mojito.
His study and practice of forest gardening has helped popularise an approach to gardening which requires wholesale re-consideration of food justice, land ownership and use, in a practice of gardening which offers one of the most credible alternatives to industrial or any mass-scale surplus-seeking agricultural system. To think well, to experience well-being, might well entail the need to reduce our dependency on our most customary and presumed-so-English range of vegetables – the high energy needs of our carrots, cauliflowers, leeks, for example, and food grown for productive output but not calorific ‘well-being efficiency’ (if I may call it that - with a nod to economists and other modellers in the room). To experiment with new tastes, recipes, new low maintenance forms of high yield food production – perennials and wild seeders, no dig principles, the do-nothing gardening, zero waste, and the incorporation of previously thought by-products or waste - will certainly pose a challenge to our existing systems of economics, control and political economy. And we are what we eat, we think on our stomachs.
I do believe Mark is both a practitioner of new ways of growing food, but also a living-breathing example of a new way of being and thinking on food. His company is infectious (but I fear especially so today!) and exciting and I am sure we will all learn much from him over the coming years.
So, I hope I have in this brief resumé given a sense of how he puts things together in very creative, idiosyncratic and odd ways. It is perhaps the freedom of being outside the bureaucratic controls that stifle learning in the contemporary university that allows Mark to be able to think across such scales and in such an integrative and synthetic way. In doing so he offers something inspiring to us all in how we should think well-being.