Sitopia was published on the 5th March 2020, the week that the Covid-19 pandemic was declared. Although I can’t recommend bringing out a book in the midst of a global pandemic, I must say that events since have only served to throw many of the themes in the book into even sharper relief. Global crises were hardly thin on the ground before the virus struck; what C-19 has done is to make the fragility of our place on earth unignorable.
Thinking back to the launch party now feels completely surreal: it was only a month ago, yet it feels like another age. I am, however, hugely grateful to have had the chance to celebrate a book that was eight years in the making with so many of those who helped, inspired and supported me through the writing of it.
The launch was held in the beautiful Omved Gardens, some greenhouses on a sloping garden site in Highgate that have been converted by Karen and Lekhu Leason into an inspiring new centre for ecology. The chef in residence is Arthur Potts-Dawson, whose team made us delicious ribollito soup with croutons – perfect food for a spring launch held in an unheated greenhouse!
My dear friends Sarah Bilney and Patricia Michelson from La Fromagerie provided a fabulous cheese spread to make even the most obsessive cheeseaholic happy, including plates of my favourite Comte sable biscuits. As I gave my speech from the central podium, I realised that, instead of footlights, there were hundreds of portions of cheese lining the front of the stage. It was a beautiful sight.
My wonderful editor Poppy Hampson, who hates public speaking (which is probably why she is such a brilliant editor) spoke first, and I then followed up by trying to describe what it was like to write Sitopia – a project that became necessary when I realised, sometime in 2010, that my thinking had moved on from Hungry City. That’s the thing about writing a book: you spend years trying to perfect it, and then the day it goes off to the printers, you have another thought that you wish you could have included. A book, in a sense, is like thought frozen in time: it is cleverer than you are (because it can remember things that you can’t), but it is also inflexible – it can’t develop.
Anyway, Sitopia took eight years to write, as I mentioned: the same amount of time, it turns out, as it took Hilary Mantel to write the third part of her Wolf Hall trilogy The Mirror and the Light, which by coincidence was published on the same day. If I can mirror her sales, I shan’t complain!
It was a wonderful party; but little did we know that just a week later, we would be in the midst of a global pandemic, under lockdown with food companies like La Fromagerie struggling to save their business. We live in perilous and uncharted times – yet ones that provide us with an unparalleled opportunity to reflect. When we emerge from lockdown months from now, we will be entering a brave new world – let’s do everything that we can to make it a better one than the one we left!