Wednesday, 31 August 2011

last chance to see

Once again I have managed to leave it until the eleventh hour before going to see various exhibitions which I've wanted to visit since learning that they were going to be on.  I put this down to lack of organisation, plus being busy doing other stuff, plus having a cold which meant that for several weeks I didn't have the energy to drag myself as far as London.  The bad news is that any of you who make it to the end of the blog and think you'd like to see any of these exhibitions doesn't have very long to do it.

First off was the Whitechapel Gallery.  I only went there for the first time last year, to my shame, because it is a lovely gallery.  It is no more than a ten to fifteen minute walk from Liverpool Street Station, down Middlesex Street and up Whitechapel High Street (which is mostly being demolished at the moment so it is quite difficult to find a street name sign to reassure you that you have got the right road).  Or for those who don't fancy a quarter of an hour walk through the East End, there is an entrance to Aldgate East tube station right next door to the gallery.

Whitechapel Gallery is based in what was originally the Passmore Edwards library, converted in 1901 to a gallery 'to bring great art to the people of the East End of London'.  It's a fair bet that my grandfather would have known it, being brought up in Whitechapel and dedicated to self-improvement through education.  It occupies an Arts and Crafts building by Charles Harrison Townsend, with some later additions, and the whole thing adds up to a nice, light, airy network of exhibition spaces plus the obligatory cafe and bookshop.

Current exhibitions I wanted to see were, firstly, selections from the Government Art Collection, subtitled At Work, which finishes on 4 September.  Seven people who have all worked with art from the government collection in one capacity or another have picked some favourites, or at least pieces they thought the rest of us should see.  This is interesting on several levels.  It means we can look at paintings and artworks that are normally tucked away inside UK embassies around the world, or Number 10 Downing Street, or other places where you and I are unlikely to encounter them.  It is interesting to discover what the government has been spending taxpayers' money on.  And it is fascinating to see who chooses what.  You get a booklet with this exhibition, and the various curators say how the artworks provided a talking point at times of stress during difficult negotiations and eased international diplomacy on its way, but we'll have to take their word for that (I always find magazine adverts rather risible that promise that the solar powered musical frog fountain or whatever it is will 'provide a talking point'.  When I used to work in offices with artworks I found the main use of the art was to provide something else to think about during really boring meetings.  Anyway).

The Government has been collecting quite a wide range of stuff on our behalf.  Some you would expect, such as paintings of crowned heads of Europe through the centuries, but in the show there is also, for example, a Bridget Riley (chosen by the Chief of the Intelligence Service) and a Lowry (chosen by Samantha Cameron).  What, if anything, does it tell us about Nick Clegg that one of his choices is an enigmatic early 1970s acrylic of a thermos flask on a rug in an ambiguous empty landscape?  Amother of his choices is a photograph of Lucien Freud painting the Queen, which left me wondering why she has her handbag with her, when Freud is only painting her head?  It can't be that she needs it to keep her keys, purse and mobile phone.  Hankie, maybe, or habit.  Lord Boateng chose, among others, a lively Edward Burra drawing of people in a New York jazz club from the late 1920s, which I really liked.  The good news is that, if you like the idea of Government Art but don't have time to get to this selection, there will be further exhibitions over the next year.

Next up was a collection of black and white photographs of people and scenes around the East End, from an exhibition originally staged in 1972.  If you are interested in London, and people, this is a fascinating slice of recent history.  Again, it shuts on 4 September.  On until 16 September is a career retrospective of a German photographer called Thomas Struth.  I had never heard of him until this show came along, despite the fact that his career to date spans over thirty years.  The first thing that strikes you about his pictures is that they are very, very large.  Apparently they are printed directly on to perspex: I have no idea how difficult that is to do.  Once you get over the shock of them being so large, you realise they are interesting irrespective of scale (or at least I thought so).  Downstairs are landscapes, pictures of people looking at art, and gigantic or complex industrial objects.  Upstairs are family groups from many parts of the world, photographed in their homes.  Struth left it to them to decide where in their house or garden to be pictured, and how to arrange themselves, with the one proviso that they must look at the camera.  He was struck by the similarities in families from different continents and cultures.  That is interesting, as is the way that in large groups people indicate extra degrees of closeness by touching certain family members, and the fact that so many of them close their bodies off with folded arms or legs, even as they look at the camera.  Then there are really giant photos of lush vegetation from around the world.  Also large coloured cityscapes, and smaller black and white city shots from the early seventies, the latter with virtually no people in them.  It is all strange, and interesting, and sticks in your mind (or at least mine).

The Struth exhibition costs £8.50 to go in, and was not very busy when I was there.  The others are free and were more crowded, though not unpleasantly so.  There is a very nice cafe, only accessible via the Struth exhibition for some reason.  It has a mirror along one side with a quite good shaggy dog story etched on it about Stephen Speilberg and Stanley Kubrick, and serves good cake (lemon polenta today, chocolate muffin the last time I was there, yummy), and has natural light and attractive bent plywood chairs.  There is a very good bookshop, assuming you are in the market for art books, which I wasn't, but it is the sort of independent bookshop that deserves to exist.  Its postcards were the cheapest of the three galleries I visited (50p).

And the other two galleries will have to wait until tomorrow, because it's getting late and I'm tired and want something to eat.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

shopping for books

I wasn't going to write again about shopping so soon.  I was going to write about how I have planted the Colchicum bulbs that arrived last week without chopping lumps out of any of the other bulbs which are planted there already, which is a minor triumph.  And how the Robinia hispida has flopped all over the lawn, and I forgot to buy any stakes when I was at the garden centre, after my trip to the dump (aka tip, aka household recycling centre), which has got a new member of staff who looks disconcertingly like Ronnie Barker (have you noticed how things are disconcerting, but concerted?).

Then I read a few pages of the Telegraph website while drinking a mug of tea and digesting my lunch, and found another wail about independent bookshop closures.  It is not a very well informed complaint, since the savings on Amazon are not a matter of saving 10p as the author says in her article, but of paying between 30 and 50% less.  And it's just silly to say that an independent bookshop is the last place where you can talk to strangers without resorting to dating websites.  I talk to lots of strangers every time I go to work (OK, that is at an independent retailer, albeit not a bookseller).  If they look as though they might appreciate it, I even recite bits of poetry to them.  Or if you want to talk to strangers you can join a club or society for something you're interested in.  I talked to several strangers at the wildlife fair last week.  One of the silliest reasons given for keeping post offices open (there are many good reasons) was that queueing in the post office was one of the only times in the week that some old people got to talk to someone.  If that is true, it is an urgent reason for making proper social provision for old people, not for forcing the Systems Administrator to go and queue in the post office to to insure the van, instead of taking the preferred option of buying a tax disc over the internet.

But the really ignorant bit of Ms. Caplan's article is when she says that Amazon can't recommend what you should read next, and for that you need a real person.  Sorry Nina, but Amazon's algorithms are incredibly powerful.  It tracks your purchasing history for ever, and it identifies what else other people with similar purchasing patterns bought, and it makes a very good job of it.  Sometimes it comes up with titles by authors I know and like, and sometimes by authors I don't know.  The great majority of the time, when I check those out in the review pages of the broadsheets or hear about them on R4, they review well, and when I get round to reading some of them I generally like them.  The Amazon readers' reviews are also very useful.  I don't necessarily accept their conclusions, but they give a strong pointer to what kind of book it is, and I can decide for myself if I think I'd like that sort of thing.

On the strength of my having bought a lot of Roger Deakin, Amazon told me that I might like Caught by the River, a series of essays about about rivers (link to Amazon here).  When my mum asked me what I would like for Christmas, I suggested that, and she kindly bought it for me.  Being a staunch supporter of her local independent bookshop (and reluctant to put her card details online), she ordered it from her friendly local bookshop.  When she collected it, she had a conversation with the friendly local bookshop owner, who said it looked interesting and she might order another copy for the bookshop.  Er, excuse me.  You are meant to be providing your customers with ideas of things they might like, not cribbing ideas for good new titles from the Great Satan Amazon.  Caught by the River is a lovely book, by the way, and I heartily recommend it.  I liked it so much I even ended up buying a print from the man who did some of the illustrations (over the internet, naturally enough).

I'm glad I've got that off my chest, and now I shall go and pull up some more weeds.

Monday, 29 August 2011

back to work

Blimey, three parties in 26 hours.  It's odd how we wait months for a party, and then three come along at once.  This morning it was back to work.  I don't generally mind working on Bank Holidays, now that I get double time, since if I hadn't been working we probably wouldn't have gone anywhere anyway, on the basis that it would be crowded.

It was a grey, cold, day, and difficult to get into the holiday mood.  I was wearing thermals under my cotton trousers, August or no August.  The manager, deceived by the weather forecast, wore shorts, and suffered all day from cold legs, but unfortunately hadn't brought any other trousers to change into.

My first job, after the watering, was to put away a half-full trolley of plants left over from Saturday.  I presume my colleagues yesterday left it where it was because they didn't know why it was there, whose it was, or whether the plants ought to be put back out for sale.  One of the last customers I served on Saturday, before leaving a quarter of an hour early, was an eyes bigger than tummy sort of chap, who had chosen more plants than he could afford to buy.  Also, some of the plants in his trolley were for his own use, and the others for a client.  At the till I had to unload the trolley, separate the contents between those for him and those for someone else, wait for him to rank each pile in order of desirability, and put each lot separately through the till up to the point where he decided he had hit his budget.  His client's limit was fifty quid, so several plants from that pile went into the discard heap.  His limit was a hundred, and he was incredulous that for that he only got seven plants.  I showed him his receipt to prove that I had really only put seven plants through, and pointed out that as a rough guide, a hundred divided by seven was around fifteen, and that as he had one shrub that was twenty-three pounds, and another that was nineteen, an average unit price of around fifteen was not impossible.  He apologised for appearing to doubt my till operating abilities, and went away grumbling, with some pretty rare shrubs, including something called Franklinia alatamaha which I think we have managed to get in stock once in the past five years.

Some customers complain that our plants are expensive.  Compared to, say, B&Q, some of the bedding is dear, but in general we don't charge above the local going rate for shrubs and herbaceous.  What the grumblers fail to appreciate is the choice we offer.  If you can get exactly what you want for £4.50 instead of £6.50 then that's great, but the chances of finding exactly what you want in a garden centre that only stocks a narrow range are low.  Is buying a day lily that you've chosen from twenty others because it was the one you liked the best equivalent to buying the same day lily because it was the only one they had?  I don't think so.  You certainly won't find Franklinia in B&Q, or any other garden centre within a hundred mile radius (OK, Beeches or Langthorns might have it, but I wouldn't bank on it).  It's not as if anybody working supplying ornamental plants is making a mint out of it.  One of our Dutch bulb suppliers has just gone under.

The owners were back from their holiday in Cornwall, and had had a nice time, including taking part in the Helston regatta, though it sounded as though they spent as much time capsizing as sailing.  Once they had checked what we'd been up to while they were away, the tills were pronounced to be spot on, which was gratifying.  They brought us a tube of Cornish ginger biscuits.  I ate one, and they'll all be gone by Wednesday night.

I found my Wellingtons in the tennis hut, and the manager gave me a small piece of a chrysanthemum which had broken off with a root already formed, to see if I wanted to try and strike it as a cutting, so I went home with more luggage than I arrived with.

Sunday, 28 August 2011


I ought to be at work today, instead of which I have booked Sunday off because we have been invited to a surprise birthday party.  After the birthday party we’re supposed to be calling in at the neighbours’ Bank Holiday get together, and after that, well frankly, I shall need a rest.

I’m not too sure what to expect of the surprise party.  It was described as ‘just a few close friends round’ which could encompass practically anything, socially and sartorially.  I expect it will be very nice.  You could not easily hold a surprise party here, as the other person would be bound to notice the amount of effort it takes to get the house clean and tidy enough.  It is in a fairly typical state of muddle this morning, which goes as follows:

The hall.  On the hall table, besides the things that ought to be there, like a bread crock full of wild bird food, a ceramic jar with Value currants for the chickens, and the telephone, are the following objects:  My best trowel.  The S.A.’s secateurs. The S.A.’s gloves.  A yellow plastic torch that broke when it got dropped on the floor plus the bit that broke off it.  A clip from a picture frame that broke when it blew off the wall.  (There used to be a set of six framed black and white photos of traditional boats, cut out of a calendar, but that is down to four due to breakages.  I have got a new, posh, limited edition copy of an Edward Bawden print to replace them, which has been professionally framed, but is still propped against the wall on the floor in the bedroom.  Before the S.A. screws it to the wall I need to remove the old hooks and paint the hall).  The glass wall and door (1970s house) need cleaning, as does the floor.  Estimated time to clean the hall to surprise party standards:  two hours, or two days if I were to do the decorating.

The inner hall.  Besides the pottery (which needs washing) on the hall dresser (which needs dusting) are the following.  A plastic tub full of fence staples.  A plastic tube containing the shotgun pellets the vet took out of the cat.  A broken bronze watering can rose.  Assorted scarves and hats.  The S.A.’s subsidiary filing including a vehicle tax disk and some Tesco vouchers.  A plastic bag of jam jars my father gave me.  A box of Colchicum bulbs that arrived last Thursday.  A wooden bowl containing stones with holes in.  A pair of binoculars.  A piece of paper with instructions for Pilates exercises.  The floor needs washing and for a party we would tidy away the cats’ beds and the Wellington boots.  Estimated time to clean the inner hall to party standards: at least two hours including washing the china.

The study.  Maybe if it were just a small surprise party we could shut the study door, and direct all the visitors to the sitting room.  Last time, when we were doing a full buffet lunch for circa 50 people, we needed it as an overflow room for them to sit down to eat.  At the moment every horizontal surface that could have stuff on it (my desk, the top of the cupboards, the window sill, the niches at the ends of the bookcases) has got stuff on it, including the following:  My laptop.  My old and almost defunct laptop that I haven’t quite finished copying data off.  My old desktop, ditto, including keyboard and mouse.  Rechargeable batteries.  Battery chargers.  Gardening magazines.  Beekeeping magazines.  Assorted bills. Books.  A broken lampshade.  Chequebooks.  My Zen desk calendar.  The boxes from the previous three calendars with old pages stuffed in them for use as shopping lists and notes.  My camera.  Railway magazines.  The S.A.’s folding umbrella.  A pinecone.  A green ceramic frog.  A wooden bowl containing half-discharged batteries.  A padded envelope containing small change.  A crème fraiche pot containing interesting stones.  A jam jar containing long thin stones.  A solitaire set (needs dusting).  A filter that might have come out of the vacuum cleaner.  A wooden artist’s dummy.  A toy wooden duck that walks down a ramp when you push it.  A boxed set of 100 penguin postcards, partly used.  At floor level there is the following:  A pile of paper for recycling that has spread to approximately one metre square.  Several plastic storage boxes (empty).  The packaging the new telly came in, which I am not allowed to throw away yet in case the telly stops working.  Some nails that were in a pallet we burned in the stove, which I felt had sculptural possibilities, if only I knew how to weld.  A wire cat basket.  A plastic storage box containing empty water bottles that the S.A. thought might come in useful on the boat.  A shoebox containing interesting stones.  A cardboard box the grey tabby likes sleeping in.  A Band of Brothers DVD box set.  A paper shredder.  For full party mode we would need to rearrange the furniture as well as clear away the clutter and clean the room, so estimated time to bring up to party readiness:  at least half a day, probably more like a full one.

The kitchen.  That isn’t too bad, as we are both quite keen on not getting food poisoning.  The Aga needs a thorough clean and polish, and the floor could do with a quick wash, and I think it’s time I cleaned the fridge out.  In terms of clutter we have:  My gardening diary.  Three gardening magazines.  A beekeeping magazine.  Some catalogues including a couple I actually want to buy things from.  Bills.  The 2004 Good Beer Guide.  A black marker pen.  A fact sheet about stag beetles.  An empty ginger powder jar that is supposed to remind us to buy more ginger.  Some marketing gumph from Fidelity addressed to the S.A., who isn’t going to bother to open it.  Estimated time to clean the kitchen, if I were to do the fridge properly and including getting the drips of glue from the flypaper off the top of the vegetable peelings recycling bin:  at least half the morning.

The cloakroom.  This is fairly clean, just needs a quick wipe and vacuum.  When the electrician came to trace the wiring fault, the Laura Ashley remnant curtain that hangs in front of the ceiling level fuse box, and coiled  power take-off cable in case we were to run a generator (it was there when we moved in) got half ripped off the ceiling.  Estimated time to sort out the cloakroom:  about an hour, including re-tacking the curtain to the ceiling.  Longer if lumps of plaster fall out of the ceiling.

The sitting room.  This doesn’t contain too much clutter, as we retain a veneer of Modernist minimalism at that end of the house by dint of shoving all the bits and pieces into the study.  The S.A. vacuumed it very thoroughly the last time we had people round, including hanging over the banisters to try and clean up the grey fluff that had stuck to the wall in the stairwell, but it would need doing again.  And we would have to move the furniture round, which always uncovers new exciting bits of dust you couldn’t see before.  For a full party I would dust the tops of the radiators, and the mantelpiece, which I am critically too short to see so it doesn’t normally bother me.  Estimated time: a couple of hours should do it.  Maybe three.

So that comes to between two and three days to get the house ready, before you even started thinking about the food and drink.  Fortunately it is not going to happen, as the S.A. and I have promised each other that we will not put on surprise parties.  I did check before the S.A.’s fiftieth, in case the S.A. was secretly hoping for one, but the response was ‘Good god, no’, and we went to Norfolk for the day instead.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

here's one I made before the programme

Another blog entry I wrote the day before.  I do try not to do that, but I’m at work today (tomorrow) and then going to a party.  Two of our friends are celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary, and as they believe that a proper party involves good grub that you sit down to eat, and the celebrations are due to be held in a gazebo in the garden, weather permitting, the party starts at 6.30pm and isn’t one you would want to amble in an hour and a half late for.

I’m afraid it will be another quiet day at work.  The weather has not been conducive to gardening, and even if it doesn’t actually rain tomorrow, I don’t suppose that lots of people have spent this last week getting their borders ready for planting.  I certainly haven’t.  The relative humidity outside today was 90%, which given that the temperature was just 17 degrees means that it would only take a 2 degree drop in temperature for fog to form.  (The 2 degrees is derived by subtracting 90 from 100 and calculating the resulting 10% of 17 degrees, which gives you 1.7 degrees, rounded to two for ease of expression.  I don’t understand it either, but that’s what the Systems Administrator says).  We have a new sensor for temperature and humidity for the weather station, which seems to be quite reliable, or at least consistent with other stations you can check on the net, and what our senses are telling us.  The old sensor gave some very peculiar readings, and on being brought into the house was found to be full of damp and earwigs.  It has worked better since we dried it off and removed the earwigs.

Last weekend the manager left a strict note for the staff to check the level in the water tank, as he did not want to come in again on Monday morning to an empty tank.  I should say it’s a 50:50 chance he has done it again.  It would be a good idea if he showed us how to switch the pump on in order to take water from the pond if needed, as nobody has ever told me, so if I discovered the tank were dangerously low the best I could do about it would be to connect the ditsy little hose from the kitchen tap, which would take all day to fill.  I’d better try and remember to ask on Monday.

I am hoping I will find my Wellingtons in the tennis hut, as they aren’t in the hall or my car.  I try to keep tabs of my stuff, and not leave things behind at work, but I seem to have slipped up.  Unless they are in the garage?  I’m rather reluctant to open the garage door to admit some light so that I can look for them given that it’s raining.  Plus it is 90% relative humidity and I don’t have the energy to start playing ‘ou sont les lunettes de papa?’ with my boots.

Friday, 26 August 2011

shopping from my sofa

The plastic fastener on the belt that came with the water repellent trousers I wear to work broke.  I'm not surprised.  It didn't look strong enough to cope with the vagaries of this world.  I had to have a belt otherwise the trousers fall down, what with the weight of my telephone and radio and secateurs all shoved into various pockets, and I didn't want to use my nice one long term.

I looked on Amazon.  You can buy practically everything on Amazon nowadays.  When the S.A. needed a new chainsaw, the cheapest place to get one of the desired brand and quality, after much shopping around, turned out to be Amazon.  It might have been different if I'd wanted an expensive belt, a lux, classic addition to my wardrobe that was going to add the finishing touch to my tidiest outfits, but I didn't.  I wanted a cheap leather belt, with a metal buckle that looked as though it had a sporting chance of lasting a few years, to be worn underneath a baggy uniform shirt.  It turned out that on Amazon I could narrow the search to 'jeans belts', and within ten minutes I'd found something that looked just the job.  Even with P&P it could be delivered to my door for under a tenner, and it arrived in about three days, before the next time I had to go to work.  It's true that when it came I found I had badly misunderstood the sizing on the website, so that the buckle came about a foot inside the nearest hole when wrapped around my waist, but the Systems Administrator has promised to drill out some new holes, and shorten the end.  If I'd been buying Mulberry's finest I'd have been crushed, there again, if I'd been buying an expensive belt I'd have gone to more trouble to understand the size chart.  It's fine.

This is partly why I think the High Street is in structural trouble, and our planners had better start getting used to the idea, and thinking laterally and creatively about allowing some changes of property use.  I could have gone into Colchester, and paid to park (about the same as the P&P on the belt), and spent an hour trailing around Debenhams and Marks and Spencer, and peering nervously into jeans shops I don't normally frequent, or investigating Primark, but I didn't have to.  I wanted a cheap, strong, functional leather belt and in ten minutes I'd found one.

At the wildlife fair on Wednesday I asked the Colchester Naturalists when the best time would be to remove some of the sedge that was taking over my pond, given it seemed rich in wildlife which I didn't want to disturb more than I had to.  They said September would be good, so I thought that this autumn I really would get on with it.  This meant that I needed a pair of thigh length waders, a purchase I've shied away from in the past.  Again I looked on Amazon.  Like I said, they sell everything nowadays.  Top of the list of thigh length waders came a pair for thirty quid, that had got unanimous five star reviews from five different customers.  Interestingly, none of them mentioned wanting the waders for actual fishing.  One was clearing out a pond, another a ditch, and a third needed them to do riverbed kick sampling for a B.Sc. dissertation.  Another said he was only going to wear them a very few times, so presumably pond clearance again.  That sounded like my sort of level in the marketplace, as I don't need super-warm neoprene lined ones to wear all day while standing in a trout stream.  They did come with steel insteps, to protect me if I stood on any sharp projections, which shouldn't be an issue in an artificial garden pond, but could come in useful.  The waders arrived today, smelling strongly of rubber.  They fit OK, and have straps with poppers to hold them to your belt, like chainsaw chaps, and altogether look as though they should do the job.

Now Colchester has a fishing tackle shop, next to the slightly upmarket department store at the top of the High Street, and they could probably have sold me some waders.  But they might only have had expensive waders, for people who wanted to spend the day standing in a salmon river, and I'd have had to make a special trip there, and contend with sales staff in what is to me an alien environment.  Much easier just to have a big, rubber smelling box arrive in a van.

It isn't going to get any better for the High Street.  I look at my parents' generation.  My father refuses to use the internet at all, and my mother is deeply suspicious about putting her credit card details on-line.  I have taken to internet shopping quite happily from the comfort of my sofa, while the youngsters will be buying things on the move on their phones.  Look at the house names in most English villages:  Forge Cottage, The Old Bakery, The Old Police House, Church House, School Cottage, The Old Post Office.  Look at the house fronts in the side streets of many small English towns, with their big front windows now covered by net curtains or blinds.  Those were shops, forty or fifty years ago.  And yet the villages and small towns are nice places to live (apart from the inconvenience of no longer having the shop-cum-post office that you spent about a fiver a week in tops when it was still open).  The old business premises aren't derelict eyesores, they're just used for something different.  Planners and councillors take note.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

bang bang

The army were firing some heavy stuff this morning.  That'll have been the ranges at Shoeburyness, causing the deep, reverberative thumps that make the house shake.  They have test ranges down there, at the tip of the peninsular beyond Rayleigh, Rochford and Southend.  It is the UK's largest firing range, used for testing and evaluating new weapons, and for training bomb disposal experts.  At low tide 22km of soft sand are exposed, allowing the MoD to conduct firing well away from land, and then collect the spent shells.  It is the only such site in Europe.  You can pick up odd snippets about it here and there in the media and on the web, but it is a strange and secretive place.  In 2002 government scientist Terry Jupp died there, and the inquest on his death finally opened in 2010.  People do live on Shoeburyness, and there are two villages and even a pub, which we once visited as part of an Old Gaffers sailing rally, but the MoD had been primed to expect us.  I don't think it is a place you just wander into.

Closer to home are the army ranges at Fingringhoe.  They were having a little blast mid morning, but nothing sustained.  We can tell when they have a big exercise on, as the crackle of automatic fire continues all day.  By a strange coincidence I grew up within earshot of the marine training barracks at Lympstone to the regular sound of machine gun fire, so I don't mind it.  In the garden, that is.  If I were in the middle of London I'd be as terrified as everybody else.

The gunfire yesterday got closer still, as the farm shoot were out for pigeons along the edge of the field bordering our wood.  On hearing them go into the wood, the Systems Administrator did nip in there, just to check who it was, though I presume on the strong assumption it was the farm shoot, otherwise you wouldn't be so keen to confront somebody with a twelve-bore on your property.  They had come in to pick up a pigeon that had dropped our side of the boundary.  The first time we met them, they were shooting in the wood and were mortified to discover that it was not part of the shoot.  We reached an agreement that pigeons were fine, but strictly nothing at ground level, given we go in there and so do the cats.  The S.A. took the opportunity to mention the pellets found in the cat, plus the pile of 410 cartridges someone had left at the far end of the wood.  I went down to offer moral support, hearing voices, and asked if the S.A. had asked about the cat.  The farm shoot were adamant that they would not have shot the cat, and that they didn't use a 410 and in any case always tried to pick up their cartridges.  We parted on terms of amiable courtesy, declining the offer of a pigeon, they went back to the field. and the slaughter of pigeons recommenced.  It is an odd thing, to be talking to somebody holding a shotgun (albeit broken across his arm) and his friend holding a dead pigeon, in a space you regard as an extension of your garden, but context is all.  We often see them about the lanes, so I am sure they have the farmer's full authorisation and blessing, and it is good that they know about the 410 cartridges.  We are not part of the country set, just transplanted townies who happened to want a large rural garden, and the best way to keep cowboys, poachers and dodgy shooters off our land must be to delegate the task to the authorised local shoot.

There have been proposals over the years to build a new airport for London on the sands of Foulness.  Boris is still keen on the idea.  Apart from the fact that the MoD might not be happy to lose its testing ground, which it has been using for 150 years, I'd be worried about how much and what unexploded stuff is still out there.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

all the fun of the wildlife fair

The Beth Chatto Gardens held a wildlife fair today.  I gather it was the first time they'd done one, and nobody knew exactly what to expect.  I can guess why they were doing it: because late August is a dead time for plant sales, and anything is to be welcomed that encourages the car park to fill up with people who will buy entry tickets and might buy at least some plants, and in the case of the Chatto Gardens refreshments (their cafe is very nice).  The beekeepers had a stand, so I said I'd go and help on that for part of the day, as I thought it would probably be entertaining and the other stands sounded interesting (plus I am a helpful person keen to Do My Bit for my Association).

The Chatto Gardens were very good to us, as helpers got free admission to the fair and gardens, and we were allowed as many volunteers as we needed, and free tea and coffee from the cafe, and borrowed bee-friendly plants from the sales area as part of our display.  Our stand wasn't as elaborate as the one we have for the Tendring Show, but we had our teaching beehive, and some basic tools, and posters, and gave out samples of cakes made with honey (recipe booklet 50p) and did candle rolling for the children (£1 a go).  Luckily I did not have to supervise any children making their own candles, as I've never done one myself, but I watched my fellow beekeepers carefully while they did it.  The candles come out tapered, and if you weren't concentrating it would be very easy to finish up with the wick protruding from the wrong end.  It was a grey and rather chilly day, and the wax foundation wasn't as flexible as it would have been given warmer weather, so I was doubly glad to escape.  Instead I talked to prospective new beekeepers about what was involved and how to progress things if they wanted to.

On the other stands, the Colchester Naturalists had got trays of pond life, a case of deceased stag beetles, and a live stag beetle grub, so I went and learnt more about how to identify stag beetle larvae, and the best time to clear out a pond (September).  The Essex and Suffolk Dormouse stand had hazel nut shells that had been nibbled by doormice versus other sorts of mice, and I think I finally began to grasp the difference in the teeth marks.  Apparently there are doormice in the Chatto Gardens, indeed they had a photograph of Mrs Chatto herself holding two, and round here is something of a doormouse hot spot, so the idea that they might be in our wood is not so ludicrous as I thought it was.  The doormouse expert offered to check nutshells for me to see what had eaten them, if I wanted to send him samples, and it turned out I knew his parents because they are beekeepers.  It's a small world.

I introduced myself to the people on the Woodland Trust stand, and got an update on anything I ought to mention in my talks, though I think I knew most of it.  While I was there I did check out the answers to a couple of questions that have been bothering me, even if none of my audiences have asked them yet.  The most pressing was, given the need for the UK and the world to increase agricultural production, and the value of some other non-farmland habitats such as heathland, what sort of land does the WT want to plant over with trees?  The answer is grade 3 agricultural.  I looked at the Tendring Tree Wardens stand and discovered that another beekeeper I know is one of my local tree wardens.  I was speaking to his mother yesterday about doing a Woodland Trust talk next year (very small world indeed).

There was a substantial element of people with an interest in nature conservation networking with each other.  The RSPB officer in charge of their new wildlife garden at Flatford Mill wanted advice on keeping bees in the garden at Flatford.  After discussing the matter we tended towards the verdict that it was a good idea to have bees on site, but not beehives in the area open to the public, especially since so many visitors bring their dogs.  Bees don't like dogs (or horses, though most people don't bring those).  In theory having nice bees in a garden open to the public should not be a problem at all, but the trouble is that the RSPB would potentially only discover that their hive had developed inappropriate guarding behaviour and become nasty after a visitor (or their dog) had got stung.

The carpark was pretty full by the time I left at about half past one.  I'll be interested in any feedback I get from our secretary about whether the Chatto Gardens found it worthwhile, but I enjoyed myself.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

rain and incipient wardrobe failure

It rained this morning, slow, steady, persistent rain, that will do the garden some good (7mm altogether) but left us stuck in the house.  The Systems Administrator spent a couple of hours trying to diagnose the problem with our broadband, which is apparently running at one fifth of its normal speed.  There was no Eureka moment so I think the Mystery of the Missing Broadband remains unsolved.

I went and did some of my ironing, since rather a lot of my clothes were lying in a rumpled pile on the spare bed.  As I ironed I was forced to confront the unhappy truth that I might need to buy some new ones.  We don't go to many evening dos or other events requiring special glamorous outfits, so most of my clothes start life as quite nice daywear, and over the next ten to twenty years descend through a hierarchy, from being kept for best to being worn for gardening.  Best Clothes occassions are generally those outside the house, visits to other people's houses, holidays, or days out with friends.  A key feature is that I probably won't spend at least half the time with a cat sitting on me, bestowing stray hairs and pulling threads.  After a few years of ranking as Best, clothes are allowed to be worn for tidy occassions at home, such as when we have guests, where a degree of sartorial effort is appropriate but the clothes will get the cat treatment.  They are now Everyday Clothes.  After a few more years the clothes are deemed too grotty to be worn to receive visitors, but will still do for wear at home, maybe not on Saturday night when the Systems Administrator has done a full roast and we are eating at the table with candles, but fine for watching the gardening programme with pizza.  They are now Shabby Clothes, and suitable for long walks likely to involve mud.  Finally they become Gardening Clothes, which is a tradition with an honourable precedent.  Sir Roy Strong claims never to buy clothes specifically for gardening, and to just wear his old ones, and as he has a much more adventurous sense of fashion than I ever did, I believe this has involved some astonishing appearances.

Unfortunately several things in the ironing pile have reached the point where they really don't count as Everyday anymore.  A couple of linen shirts have faded beyond the point of chic, one with an additional bleached patch in the middle of the front where I managed to get a drop of fountain pen ink on it.  The ink scrubbed out, but so did most of the colour.  A third shirt tore through at the elbow the last time I wore it.  I managed to patch that quite neatly using an old handkerchief that was a remarkably good colour match (the boss at work just goes for the elbows out look, but I don't think I'm sufficiently upper class to carry that off).  A pair of moleskin trousers are getting dangerously close to wearing through in an embarassing place.  As you have gathered, I don't do throwaway fashion, or at least I do, but only in the sense that things that have dropped to pieces get thrown away.  The local charity shops don't see much from my wardrobe.

Originally most of them were quite good quality.  I got briefly excited when Tesco began to offer T shirts for under a fiver, but they went saggy and faded to remarkably nasty colours terribly quickly, while pima cotton shirts I bought twenty years ago are still doing fine service, albeit that nowadays their role is generally to be layered under something else.  I was about to say that good quality fabrics wear better as well as feeling nicer and hanging better, then remembered my occassional brushes with cashmere, and had to revise that statement.  But you can't go wrong with good quality cotton.

Monday, 22 August 2011

service with a smile

Waking up when the alarm went off at six and realising that I was due to spend a day in the plant centre with a cold was not a moment of unalloyed joy.  Still, it is probably safer to be sub-par in charge of plants than if I were still having to make decisions about the ramifications of the Eurozone crisis.

We were peacefully watering when at 9.15am the phone rang.  I answered it, and it was The Lady Who Wants 16 Lavenders, which made two moments of not unalloyed joy in one morning.  She and I have a history going back about 3 weeks.  She spoke originally to a colleague of mine, who palmed her off on (sorry, passed her on to) me, on the grounds that I was going to be at work the next day and he wasn't.  He did warn me she sounded dotty.  She wanted some lavender for a hedge, but didn't know how many plants, so he told her the correct spacings and left her to measure the length of hedge, work out the number of plants and call me the next day.  I was then to call the supplier and place the order.  I never get involved in ordering, so the supplier has no idea who I am, but my colleague thought it would be fine.  The Lady rang me the next day and said she wanted 16 plants.  My colleague had already quoted her a price, which seemed to me unwise when we didn't know how large the plants would be or how much they'd cost us, but I couldn't help that.  I assured her that we would honour my colleague's quoted price, assuming we could get plants in 1L pots, and rang the supplier.

The woman I had been told to ring said she didn't know if they had the plants, and she would have to speak to somebody called Carl and check.  I asked her if she could ring me back to confirm the plants were available, and she said she would, and didn't.  The next time I saw my colleague I updated him on progress to date and gave the paperwork back to him.  The next week The Lady Who Wants 16 Lavenders rang me again, to find out about the whereabouts of the lavenders, and I had to apologise and explain that I knew no more than when I last spoke to her.  It transpired that her gardener had hurt his back, and we had a very confusing conversation at the end of which I though we'd established that she definitely wanted the plants, but wasn't sure when given the lack of a gardener, and that we would try to get the plants for her with no obligation, and if she decided she couldn't take them we would just put them into general stock.  I thought that was pretty good of us, given that lavender is a tricky thing to nurse through winter in a black plastic pot and get looking nice for sale come next spring, and we didn't especially want 16 of them for stock.

She rang again this morning to say that her gardener was now better, and she wanted to place an order for the plants, which is what I thought she did last Monday.  She wanted to know when the plants would be in, and I apologised and explained that I would have to find out and ring her back, as I only worked part time and hadn't been at work at all since the last day we spoke, so didn't know until I'd checked if we were able to get the plants.  I don't know if she had expected me to be there 24/7, working on sourcing her lavenders, but she seemed to find my ignorance quite incomprehensible.  I promised her I would find out.  As soon as the call ended I asked the manager, who seemed not to know anything about it.  Three quarters of an hour later the phone rang again, and it was The Lady Who Wants 16 Lavenders.  She had been engaged on another call, she explained, and thought I might have been trying to call her back.  I began to feel as though I were being slowly engulfed by an octopus.  I apologised that the manager had been busy with a lorry load of irises that had just arrived (which was almost true, though actually it was just two dutch trollies), and suggested that as I only worked part time and was not going to be in again until the weekend, and given that the manager did the ordering, it would be best if I were to give her the manager's name as a point of contact.

As I was finishing my mid-morning cup of tea, and the manager was just starting his, there was a phone call for him.  It was the Lady Who Wants 16 Lavenders.  I had tried to warn him.  I must speak to my colleague when I next see him, and suggest (forcefully) that he should not involve me in any more customer orders from suppliers.  I can't keep track of what's happening when I'm sometimes not in for a week at a time, and it makes us look unprofessional, and causes me more stress than I think my hourly rate warrants.  If I wanted stress I could still be paid to worry about the Eurozone crisis.

The phone rang again.  It was a sweet-sounding old (from his voice) boy who had bought a long handled brush for cleaning the cracks between paving stones, made by my least favourite tool company.  The first time he used it the handle fell off, and when he looked at it the head had only been held on to the shaft by a staple.  I looked at the ones in the shop and sure enough they were only stapled on.  He lived quite a way away, and didn't really want to have to drive over to bring it back.  I decided that he was genuine and gave him a refund over the phone.  In fact, it would have been a simple task to put a screw in to hold the head and handle together, but only if you had a drill, and a screw, and a screwdriver, and either strong hands to hold the work while you drilled or else a vice, and he may not have had any of those things, and anyway why should you have to mend something you have just paid £9.95 for that broke the first time you used it.

Then I went and potted irises, which was restful in comparison.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

history lessons

I have finally yielded to the combined forces of a lingering summer cold and the high humidity, and given up on gardening for the weekend.  Instead I am ensconced in a steamer chair on the veranda with a book and Our Ginger.  Heat and high humidity are a dreadful combination.  Goodness knows why people deliberately go on holiday to places where they can expect to encounter them.  I am fairly sure that my aching muscles and general lack of energy are due to a bug, and not the first signs of some serious illness, because the Systems Administrator has got the same thing, but with more sinus pain.  Actually the S.A. was almost relieved by the emergence of a head cold after days of lethargy, as demonstrating that it probably was a cold and not the onset of M.E..

The book is a life of Harry S. Truman, Man of the People, by Alonzo L. Hamby.  It was a present some time ago from the S.A., who was rather taken aback when we first met that anybody who was supposed to be educated could know quite so little history, and has been remedying the lack through a course of improving reading in the three decades since.  Since then I've got quite reasonable at the period from Elizabeth I to William and Mary, the industrial revolution, and the Victorian era onwards, though the dead Queen Anne is still a blank, and the four Georges an impressionistic jumble.

I like biography as a hook on which to hang a narrative.  However, I didn't really get into the Truman book the first time I tried.  I can't have been in the mood.  It is quite fat, at 640 pages excluding the index and notes, and quite hard work starting from the basis of not understanding how the American political system works.  I was inspired to give it another try after watching the TV mini-series about the Kennedys.  Second time around I'm hooked at two levels.  As a portrait of a human being doing one of the more extraordinary jobs in the world, that of US President, it is fascinating.  As a description of a slice of history at an important time in world affairs, covering the great depression, the end of WWII, the dropping of the bomb and the start of the cold war, from the viewpoint of the most powerful country in the world at that time, it is very interesting.  I won't try and summarise all 640 pages here.

Its publication predates the current upheavals by a decade and a half, as it came out in 1995, and so it is safe to draw comparisons between Hamby's analysis of the economic issues of the late 1940s and the current economic debate without any danger that the former was influenced by the latter.  I would never have guessed that the current economic and philosophical row about whether it is the role of government to manage and stimulate demand through central spending, debt financed if necessary, was already a fierce source of argument between US Democrats and Republicans over sixty years ago.  And analyses of the problems facing Obama make more sense now I've gleaned something about how the three-way power split between the President, the Senate and the House of Representatives works.

One of the silliest things ever said by any Labour minister was when Charles Clarke, while he was Secretary of State for Education, said that he didn't mind there being a few Medieval historians about, he just didn't see why the state should have to pay for them.  History is not just interesting for its own sake, or vaguely useful as an adjunct to the tourist and leisure heritage industry.  It helps us understand and put into context the things that are happening now.

In contrast we watched part one of BBC2's new three parter on The Normans last night, and were jolly disappointed.  Altogether too many arty shots of pigeons flying about and the presenter striding uncharismatically through winter trees, and virtually nothing on how Norman society operated or developed after they had arrived from Scandinavia in what is now Normandy.  And too many mismatches between the period the programme covered, largely pre 1000AD, and the pictures of luscious high Medieval architecture from two or three hundred years later.  That's why I largely end up sticking with books.  I think I must be missing all these really good series on art and history on the telly, and then when I watch one I don't like it.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

the trowel that was lost is found

My lost trowel has turned up.  I kind of assumed that it would, and so after searching for it for a while have been using my second best trowel until it did.  I found it in a flower bed where I was working a couple of weeks ago, under a bucket of weeds that the Systems Administrator had moved there to clear the lawn for mowing.

In an ideal world every tool would have its place, and be put back there after use, so that I knew where to find them and never wasted time wandering around looking for them.  If I were feeling especially retro and borderline OCD I could even paint their outlines by each hook on the wall of the shed.  In the kitchen every utensil does actually have a designated place (though without the stencilled outlines).  This is essential because both of us use the kitchen, and the system works most of the time, with minor glitches, like when I put the pyrex dish with the rim out in the front garden full of honey cappings for the bees to clear and forgot about it for a fortnight, and the time the Systems Administrator thought that maybe you could apply grout using an icing piping set.  (You can't, but I have never been any good at icing anyway so that wasn't a great loss).

With my garden tools I just depend on remembering where I last left them, and if I can't remember that I try to think where I was working recently and look there.  Normally I can find them.  Sometimes they are in the hall, which is not very tidy.  It's unfortunate that due to the eccentric design of the house the back door is at the front of the house in full line of sight, instead of being decently tucked away down a corridor that I could fill with garden clutter, and that visitors would have no reason to enter.  When visitors are expected I tidy the tools away, and sometimes I am so pleased with the result that I vow to try and keep the tools in the (integral) garage, or the shed.  Access to the garage from the house is through the laundry, down a flight of very narrow stairs and through a sliding door that sticks, so not tip-top convenient, and so keeping the tools in the garage is fine in nice weather, when I don't mind leaving the up-and-over door open, but no so good on cold, wet or windy days when it would be better to keep the outside door shut, especially since the battery in the doofer that lets you remotely open and shut the door from the garden ran flat, and neither of us have got round to getting it a new one.  Keeping them in the shed is OK, except that the shed is extremely full of other things, and it's a faff to climb in there to get tools and put them away when you are using them all the time.  Less frequently used kit does live in the shed, but it's nice to have trowel, secateurs and keeling mat to hand.

The trowel is not a thing of beauty, and I cannot imagine it featuring in photographs of covetable garden tools in the shopping pages of one of the glossy garden magazines.  It has a black plastic handle, with a hole at one end intended to hang it up by, which has got two bits of gravel permanently jammed in it.  The handle is moulded with finger grips beneath, and a depression on top that fits the thumb.  The hole with the gravel in, and the other end of the handle where the blade fits are orange, which has faded to a dodgy shade of apricot.  The blade is stainless steel, it says so in the middle of the upper surface.  It is quite broad, and looks as though it might be clumsy to use, but isn't.  It is fairly sharp.  There is no brand name anywhere on the trowel, and we got it in B&Q several years ago.  Despite its total lack of looks or cachet, it sits well in the hand, and is extremely comfortable to use.  The second best trowel is identical in all respects, including the gravel stuck in the hole in the handle, except that one of us has used it for some unsuitable purpose, probably to lever up a paving slab or other heavy object, and bent it so that the blade is virtually parallel to the handle instead of being at a more comfortable 20 degrees upwards tilt.

I did once buy a posh trowel at the Chelsea Flower Show.  It had a wooden handle, and a cute brass ring around the base of the handle where the blade fitted.  It turned out to be utterly inadequate for the actual task of gardening, or at least tending anything bigger than a Wandsworth window box.  The brass ring was too narrow, and not enough of the wooden handle was encased in it, so that in use the blade and handle began to part company.  The Systems Administrator drilled a hole in the brass ring and put a little brass screw through into the wood, but if you didn't happen to have a workshop and know how to do that sort of thing you would have been stuffed.  The blade was also made out of a rather soft steel, and after a year or two of use was a lot shorter than when I started using it.  It was abandoned in favour of the uglier, more plebiean and much more fit for purpose B&Q alternative, though it may be lurking in the shed somewhere.

The gardening world is beset with brands of tools that look pretty and aren't up to the hard labour of real gardening.  We sell one of them at work.  As I am about to rubbish their product on the net I won't name them, but they are the ones with the wooden handles and the sign on their stand that says manufacturing tool specialists since 1730 Sheffield England.  Their garden tools are mostly made in China nowadays, and I have lost count of the number we've had returned because the blade has bent, or the handle is loose, or a tine has come off.  Their salesman said that the bent tools were down to customers using them inappropriately, for levering up paving slabs and suchlike.  Now it is true that such things do happen, and if you need to raise the edge of  a slab then please use a gemmy and not a garden trowel or fork.  But I don't believe that all of those customers who had bought new, shiny and quite expensive stainless steel gardening tools decided to use them the next day to lift paving slabs, and then came straight back to us and lied about what they'd been doing.  Avoid.

Anyway, I am happy that my approach that my best trowel must be where I'd last had it, and so would turn up so there was no point in spending ages looking for it and stressing about it, has worked out.  After all, I might have tipped it into the compost heap and next seen it in six months time when I turned the compost.  Though, the handle being naff plastic and not ash, it would presumably have been fine.

Addendum  In reply to the comment. no, the offending brand of tools sold at my place of work is not Spear and Jackson.  I am delighted to hear that S&J give good customer aftercare.  Indeed, I have one of their lawn edgers and it has been working beautifully for years (though I have not used it to lever up paving slabs yet).

Friday, 19 August 2011

an evening with the humour of Bob Newhart and Tom Lehrer

We spent last night at an evening with Tom Lehrer and Bob Newhart.  Well, not actually with them, obviously, though both are still alive, Lehrer being 83 and Newhart 81, but at a touring show of Lehrer's songs and Newhart's skits that was running at the Colchester Mercury, for one night only.  As it was for just the one night you won't be able to go and see it locally in the near future, so really there's no point in my banging on about how good it was.

Tom Lehrer only wrote 37 songs, as last night's performer Peter Gill pointed out in his introduction (not the theatre director Peter Gill or the ex-drummer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood Peter Gill, but the jazz and rock-and-roll pianist from Cheltenham Peter Gill).  This sounds a small number, but only equates to running out of songs after three albums, which is as far or further as lots of bands got.  I don't think Joe Jackson made it past three albums, or at least three good ones, and the Kaiser Chiefs ran out of material and critical acclaim after two.  Lehrer wrote very good, clever, nasty, songs, and the Systems Administrator and I both like that sort of thing.  Peter Gill, as he points out on his website, has been around for a long time, starting off as a cocktail bar and wedding reception jobbing piano player, and he can play the piano, and sing so you can hear the words, with an unnerving leer and a twinkle in his eye.  His site says he is still available for private bookings if he isn't doing anything else, and if we needed a jobbing pianist and maybe lived a smidge closer to Cheltenham we wouldn't hesitate to book him.  And if you get a chance to hear his new show The Golden Age of Musical Satire I should take it.  We would.

The only Bob Newhart sketch I had heard previously, on R4, was Introducing Tobacco to Civilisation (here's a link, but why don't you read the rest of the blog first and then come back to it?  Introducing Tobacco to Civilisation).  The other routines, all presented as one half of a dialogue with an unseen partner or audience, are equally funny:  The Driving Instructor, The Retirement Party, Defusing a Bomb.  I should go and get a CD of them if you have a long drive ahead of you, or need cheering up.  The school for advanced bus drivers is clearly true.  We have been on a bus (in Eastbourne) driven by one of its alumni, and I think some of them may be working for National Express East Anglia.  Brake, accelerator, brake, accelerator.  You have to let them get right alongside the bus (train) and then slam the door in their faces (here's another link).

Digging around on the net before going out for some information on the show (like the running time) the Systems Administrator came up with a gem, the Theatre Information Pack.  This is put out by the promoters of An Evening with the Humour of Bob Newhart and Tom Lehrer.  It sets out their fee (£1000 or an 80:20 split in their favour), the optimal size of venue (50-500 seats so The Mercury is at their upper limit), minimum ticket price (£12) and the technical details for the set and lighting.  They specify that they must have one lockable dressing room with an iron, ironing board and suitable power supply, but their other requirements seem very modest.  No demands for kittens or blue smarties in the dressing room.  Instead they require access to tea and coffee making facilities, still bottled water, and light refreshements for three people (two vegetarian) no later than one hour before the performance, though sandwiches and soft drinks are perfectly adequate.  How can you not like such people?

The show was packed out, and should have made a useful surplus for the Mercury, which is handy as their public funding is being reduced in the cuts.  We are both keen to support the theatre, and this was the only remaining thing before Christmas that we wanted to see, pantomimes not being our thing and the Systems Administrator having a deep-seated aversion to Shakespeare.  I hope there are a few more similar shows out there, and that the Mercury manages to book one or two of them.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

A is for A levels

It's A level results time.  I began to suspect that A levels were getting easier some years ago when I saw the number of local sixth formers who were sitting 4 A levels, and passing them with good grades.  Actually, given that Colchester has some of the best state schools in the country, my initial thought was that they must be exceptionally bright youngsters, and I was rather in awe, then I realised that there were so many of them that grade inflation must be involved.  I went to an academically selective school in the west country.  It wasn't as good as the best public schools, but it was pushy and very exam focused, and had its pick of the offspring of the local professional classes.  Sitting 4 A levels was a big deal, and most stuck at three.  I sat 4.  I'm reasonably bright, and fairly conscientious, and I managed A,B, B, C (which still puts me ahead of Toby Young).

There is public joy and self-congratulation that more children are taking science A levels, on the grounds that more scientists and engineers are What This Country Needs.  Well yes, up to a point.  I did science at A level, because it was deemed to be more intellectually stretching, and to open more doors.  I certainly found it stretching, having an arts brain, to which story telling came as naturally as breathing, while my understanding of pure mathematics packed up completely two thirds of the way through the A level syllabus, at the point where the square root of minus one found its way into the analysis of vectors.  Once you hit the wall in maths, you've had it.  No bluff or bullshit will save you.  The fact that I got a B grade in A level physics proved only that A levels measured nothing of any validity, because I really didn't understand physics.  Still don't.  I scrambled through the exam by learning a lot of stuff off by heart, but the behaviour of even the most basic electrical circuit seemed to me entirely arbitrary.  The only time I ever got any use out of A level physics was in a job interview with an advertising agency, when comparing the jumping of electrons between energy levels to the music of J S Bach got me through to the final selection round.  And biochemistry with those circular diagrams of molecules with umpteen carbon atoms turning into other similar molecules bored me to a state of idiocy, so that I found them very difficult to remember, let alone understand why one turned into another and not something else.  You wouldn't want to take any drug or cross a bridge designed by me.  Trust me, you really wouldn't.  You can encourage people to do science A levels and degrees as much as you like, but unless they have genuine aptitude in the first place I'm afraid you won't necessarily get scientists out of the process who are going to take on the Germans and the Indians and the Chinese.

Anyway, I would never have made it into the higher echelons of science, as I would never have got a doctorate, because I couldn't do statistics.  Successive educators have tried to teach me statistics, and I have found it utterly, incomprehensibly baffling every time.  In desperation in my university finals first time round I wrote an essay about the analysis of variance, because it was a marginally less awful question than any of the other remaining questions.  Apparently I wrote a brilliant essay, as I discovered in my viva, where I also discovered I had used the wrong statistical test in my final year dissertation.  Unfortunately, once the examiners began to cross question me, they rapidly discovered that I couldn't do statistics, just write lyrically about it. 

After the A level results comes the panic over university places.  I feel deeply for those students, and their parents, who having missed out on a place this year will be hit by the fees hike next year if they go then, but I still worry that What This Country Needs, as well as the individual students, is to send fewer and more carefully selected people to university, then we could afford to pay for it and not cripple the chosen many with debt.  We saw friends recently who are both academics.  One of them has to field complaints from students about other students using laptops in lectures to update their Facebook pages, which is distracting if you are sitting behind them.  I protested that the offenders were paying loads of money for their courses.  Our friends looked at me wearily.  'They won't pay it back.  They're just deferring the moment when they go on the dole'.  Oh dear.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

august is the cruellest month

August is the least satisfactory month for gardening.  I have noticed in the past, and a gardening journalist wrote just the other day (I forget who said it, or where), that the number of gardens that open as part of the Yellow Book scheme drops right away in August.  So it is a national phenomenon, not just a peculiarity of gardening in a dry corner of the country on light soil.

Part of the problem is that the broader garden scene of trees and hedges is looking so tired.  Leaves are dark, dusty, and drooping slightly from water stress.  The optimism and abundance of spring and even high summer are gone, but the autumn tints are not yet arrived, just the odd yellow leaf to add to the jaded atmosphere.  I plant later flowering shrubs, such as the hydrangeas, and some real gems like the lovely, scented Abelia chinensis, which is now coming into flower, but whereas the early flowerers such as the Dapbne bholua shine like gems in an austere landscape, the late bloomers look more like a corsage optimistically pinned to a dress that could honestly do with a wash and a good iron.  The second flush on the repeat flowering roses is nice, but doesn't have the heady generosity of the June display.  The tender perennials like dahlias and pelargoniums provide some light relief near the house, but they can't lift the whole landscape.

Many plants that are naturally adapted to dry summer conditions don't do much at this time of year.  In spring and early summer they bloom, in autumn they grow, in late summer they are dormant.  There are exceptions, of course, like the seed heads of the giant oat grass Stipa gigantea, that flutter gracefully above head height, but many of the later flowering perennials that grace the huge herbaceous borders of some grand traditional gardens are really not happy in the north Essex coastal strip.  I have got Marina Christopher's excellent book on later flowering perennials, and I read it from time to time, but I haven't yet come away with a long list of things I could actually grow here that would improve my garden in the second half of August.  And yes, I know that foliage lasts longer than flowers, and form and structure are important, and I should concentrate on leaf colour and texture and the shapes of plants.  But they are dusty, and frankly look a bit pissed off, biding their time until September and some cooler air and rain.

Meanwhile, things I thought I could get away without staking or didn't have time to stake have flopped, like the Baptisia australis and Campanula lactiflora.  It's too late to do anything about that now, but I must try to do better next year.  Some of the rambling roses have sent out long mildewed shoots (too dry for them) across the lawns, paths and borders.  I ought to devote my days to trimming and deadheading, to try and make the garden look more kempt, but instead I've been forking weeds and winter casualties out of the island bed, with a view to applying a great deal of mushroom compost and replanting with things that I hope will be robust enough to withstand the winter, and smother the sheeps' sorrel (or rather hide it.  I expect it will still be wandering around in there but I don't care, as long as I can't see it).

It is a good policy in life to live in the present, and try to appreciate the pleasures of whatever it throws at you at the time.  When it hands you lemons, make lemonade, and all that.  But August is the least satisfactory month for gardening.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

back in the garden

Today was the first time I've done any work in the garden for nine days, apart from watering the pots.  I kicked off by deadheading the dahlias.  The ones in containers are not blooming so well as they should be, and the leaves look rather pallid, so I had better dose them more regularly with tomato food.  Then I did a run to the dump, and weeded around the compost bins.  Never let it be said that I don't know how to enjoy my days off.

The weeds have grown prodigously in the last week, shooting up like, well, like weeds, really.  Some have managed to set seed, which shouldn't have been allowed to happen, but there you go.  The rambling rose 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' has made a tremendous flush of late summer growth, and has once again managed to block the steps down to the bottom of the garden, as I discovered on Sunday when we took our friends to see the holey stone, and had to go the other way round the block.  Fortunately the wind was in the right direction recently for the Systems Administrator to have a bonfire, blowing the smoke back into our wood rather than on to our neighbour's lettuces, so there is space for me to dump a new pile of prunings.  The S.A. has embarked on cutting the eleagnus hedge, which has shot out over the drive again, to the point where it would be a squeeze for a transit van to make it to the front door, let alone an oil tanker or any other delivery involving a lorry.

The stooled Paulownia tomentosa have responded to the damper weather by throwing up stout shoots fully 3-4m high, with truly enormous leaves.  I raised the plants from seed, which I recall was fairly easy, and they also spread by suckers.  The stems are hollow, and the books tell you to cut the trunks down in the spring, if you are going to coppice them.  These ended up being cut down in the autumn, because I'd not got round to stooling them the previous spring, and they had got far too big for their position so close to the house.  They survived the experience, despite the severity of last winter.  Christopher Lloyd warns that repeated stooling can weaken them to the point of death, but these are still very much alive (so far).

Taking our visitors to see the garden statuary (at their request.  I never inflict a garden tour on people unless they ask) I discovered that since I last made it down to the lowest part, the Dicentra scandens had scrambled over the Magnolia stellata so enthusiastically that the latter was practically invisible.  The little yellow bleeding heart flowers of the Dicentra are quite sweet, and the leaves look so delicate that you could scarcely believe it would hurt anything, but I must keep an eye on the magnolia and check that it doesn't seem to mind being engulfed in late summer.  There is a wild bryony in there as well, and that is going to have to go, as its large, vaguely vine shaped leaves are too smothering.  It seeds like crazy, so there are plenty of others around the place.

The Kirengeshoma palmata was just opening its yellow bells too.  This is a tall, handsome woodlander which rather unusually flowers at this time of the year rather than spring.  I have tried and utterly failed to germinate it from seed, but the plant I bought and planted in a fairly leafy, shady, sheltered spot has grown happily with little further attention.  Grown in black plastic 2 litre pots and exposed to sunshine as when for sale in the plant centre, it is one of the most wretched, scorched, miserable looking plants you have ever seen, and sells correspondingly badly (thus compounding the problem) whereas in the garden it is a fine-looking plant.

Monday, 15 August 2011

end of an epic

Some of the predictions came true.  Watering my trousers probably doesn't count, as I always end up watering them, and I could have done it on purpose.  Three separate sets of would-be garden visitors wanted free entry because they were RHS members, and on being told that sadly the concession did not apply on Sundays one said crossly (and incorrectly)  that it didn't say so in the handbook.  Somebody wanted to buy a terracotta trough that had lost its price, and was the only one of that design.  With the customer's agreement a colleague and I invented a price, based on another planter of similar size.  We went for three quid under the marked price, on the basis that the one with no label was older stock, and the punter was content.  We didn't actually run completely out of pound coins, but were low on them, and towards close of play I had to make up six pounds in change mostly from 50p coins, after having to juggle five pound notes between tills earlier in the day.

The dog absconded, or at least we heard the owners' son shouting her name for quite a long time in the garden, before seeing him marching back towards the house with the dog firmly clasped under one arm.  After we had all gone home she disgraced herself by rolling in some fox shit.  The owner couldn't face bathing her last night, and the dog spend the night locked in a cage in the kitchen.  This morning their son was prevailed on to give her a bath, and the owner said that all her bedding would have to go through the washing machine.  It may be one of the things that distinguishes a true countrywoman from a townie, that the former considers it entirely normal to put fox crap encrusted dog blankets through the same washing machine she uses for the family's laundry.  The latter probably doesn't.

The manager returned from his holiday, which was apparently very nice.  It was a pity that after half an hour of watering we lost pressure, and that the reason turned out to be that the tank was empty.  I fear this confirmed his view that we are a rather hopeless lot requiring constant supervision.  I have no idea why the tank failed to fill overnight, as it had been working perfectly well all the time he was away.  Once he restarted the pump that takes water from the pond in the garden, and connected the top up hose from the outside tap, the tank began to fill remarkably quickly, and we were soon watering again, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been.  Psychological research does show that the beneficial effects of a holiday only last for a week or two.  I fear the manager may fall into the one week category.

The hose that was leaking and that the gardener mended before sprang another leak, and now has two jubilee clips holding the bits together.  My colleague worked out why it kept perforating (or at least formulated a good working hypothesis) which was that given something on the polytunnel door had come loose or undone, exposing a sharp piece of metal on the underside of the door, the hose could be getting caught under the door and ripped while watering in the tunnel.

Our misdemeanours in the plant centre were dwarfed by that of the younger gardener, who unfortunately let the tractor run out of oil.  An engineer arrived in a van, and spent the afternoon working on it, and  I fear that the bill for repairs is going to be a hefty one.  The gardener works very hard and is generally good at his job, and that was an unlucky way to get caught out.  Deprived of their tractor the gardeners did at least have the digger to play with, and the list of plants to be removed grew beyond just the infected stumps, as the boss began to consider which shrubs and bits of hedge might not be garden worthy.  There is something rather intoxicating about having a digger on the premises.  You can make so many changes so quickly.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

mystic meg's day in the plant centre

Since I started the blog it has always been written on the day.  Length and quality have been variable, but it has been a real-time response to my life and times in north east Essex.  Today (at the time of posting or the day after tomorrow at the time of writing) I have to be at work by 8.00am, and we have friends arriving for supper at 7.00pm, by which time I need to have scrubbed the compost out from under my fingernails (mostly).  Even with the S.A. doing the cooking, there is not going to be time to write a blog entry.

Here, then, are my predictions for Sunday:

I will water my trousers
Somebody will want to use an American Express card.
Somebody will want to use National Gardens Tokens.
Somebody will want free entry to the garden because they are an RHS member and will be sniffy when told the concession doesn’t apply on Sundays.  They may say that it doesn’t say so in the RHS handbook.  It does.
Somebody will leave their glasses/notebook/umbrella/sunhat behind.
Somebody will ring in a panic because they can’t find their wallet/purse, and we are the last place they can remember having it.  We will search for it and not find it, and advise them to look under the seat of their car.
The dog will abscond.
We will run out of pound coins.
Several people will be utterly baffled by the coffee machine and unable to see the sugar, milk and stirrers, which are right in front of them.
Somebody will want us to identify a plant from a description only, which is that it had red flowers and they don’t know whether it was evergreen or deciduous.
Somebody will manage to find an item of stock that doesn’t have a price marked on it, and want to buy it.  There will be no other similar item with a price.
My telephone, having worked perfectly well for the first part of the morning, will mysteriously stop allowing me to make outgoing calls for two hours, then start working again.
My colleague from The Other Side will come in to check the watering so that it is perfect for the manager's return, thereby confirming that she believes the rest of us are not to be trusted with plants.  (This is not a psychic prediction.  She has told us she is coming in).

Saturday, 13 August 2011

dog days of august

It was back to work after my day off.  Overnight rain and the sterling efforts of my colleagues yesterday meant that there wasn't much watering to do, which made a pleasant change.  As the rain lasted on into the morning I took advantage of the early lack of customers and the shelter of the climber tunnel to disentangle some more of the clematis, which was on my list of jobs to do.

By eleven we'd only had about two customers, and I began to think that if it carried on at this rate then even though August is generally a quiet month, we were going to be in serious trouble.  After a late morning flurry trade died again in the first part of the afternoon, before a final small burst late on.  We were all surprised (in a good way) at the final total on the tills.  It is the height of the holiday season, though, and gardens are at their blowsiest, and who is really thinking of serious planting schemes?  At this time of year we are largely selling impulse fixes of colour, Salvia, Verbena and Crocosmia in full flower.  It pays to plan ahead, though.  A pot of C. 'Emily McKenzie' or 'George Davidson' will set you back £9.50, whereas if you had planned ahead and bought corms back in the spring you could have got them for 32p each.

A regular customer, who is actually a keen and year-round gardener, bought a couple of pots of Salvia.  They were an astonishingly lovely shade of blue, and I can see why she fell for them.  Then she began to tell me about her brother aged 87, living alone in Hampstead Garden Suburb in poor health, who had been a twin as she had herself, but their twins were now dead, before explaining that she was chronically deaf and currently between hearing aids, and interupting herself to say that she didn't know why she was telling me all this.  Deafness is so isolating.  It is difficult to embark on a serious discussion of human values and family duties when you have to bellow at somebody, and I stared at her rather helplessly.  I knew why she was telling me all this, but the communication barrier was too great.

The peahen and her chick were foraging around the plant centre.  The chick appears to be thriving.  It is darkening in colour as it grows, and already has a tiny peafowl style tuft on the top of its head.

Overall I wouldn't say I was actively bored, but the time did pass a bit slowly.  But at least I had a watch to monitor its passing (Google are still firing adverts at me.  It will be interesting to see how long the penny takes to drop).

Now the neighbours are using their field to host Sian and Adam's wedding reception, which has a noisy and not awfully attractive disco.  I don't know Sian and Adam from Adam, but hope that they are friends or relatives, and that the neighbours have not taken up renting out the field as a commercial sideline.  It is almost certainly just a favour to somebody they know.  They did one last year for a cousin, and after dark released those wretched Chinese lanterns. It was during a really dry spell, and I felt a mean relief as I saw that the wind direction was not carrying them over our property.

Friday, 12 August 2011

a trip to the other side of Essex

I went to Clavering for lunch today.  This came about as I was meeting an old university friend who lives in north London, and suggested we could have a break from what had become our normal routine of meeting in the west end during her lunch hour.  It turned out that, despite being an entrenched townie, what she would like to do would be to have lunch in an English country pub.

The Systems Administrator and I don't do pub lunches very often.  In fact, we only do them when we are on holiday.  The rest of the time we are too busy to interupt the flow of the day going out to lunch.  Plus, an awful lot of pubs offer food nowadays, and a lot of the time it is considerably less good than we could make at home, for an amount of money that would keep us in ingredients for lunch for the best part of the whole week.  We try to avoid pubs that look as though they are doing bad food cheaply, though we have made some wrong calls, or found ourselves in places where that seemed to be the only option.  There are also pubs that do bad food for moderate amounts of money, OK food for middling prices, lunches that are OK but frankly expensive, and occasionally good food for quite a lot of money.  Rarely is food excellent and moderately priced, and as for good and cheap, it don't exist.

Today's pub was chosen in rather a rush, since my friend had recently returned from holiday visiting family in the States to a mountain of work, and I had staggered home from Day Three in the Plant Centre to find my laptop was doing a monster update and had a Hal-like attitude to my using the internet that evening (I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that).  The Cricketers at Clavering featured in my (2006) pub food guide and my friend's more up to date (2010) one, and it looked easy to find starting from either Colchester or London N1.  It is also famous for being run by Jamie Oliver's parents, and is where young Jamie started his career.  The name above the door is still Trevor Oliver, and the pub merits brown tourist signs from the point where you leave (or in my case cross) the M11.  On that basis, although we hadn't booked a table in advance, I took the precaution of booking one in person as soon as I arrived.  This turned out to be the correct call, as by the time my friend arrived they were fully booked.  That's good going for a Friday in August.  The S.A. and I went to a Suffolk pub with a foodie reputation last August (it was our wedding anniversary) and there were only two or three other tables occupied.

The Cricketers at Clavering has a lot of beams, most of which I think are structural, and a cheerful attitude, with large wine glasses set on the tables and purple cushions, that's more posh Essex than rural Herefordshire.  The staff were jolly and kindly, if quite keen to rush us through ordering and then clearing the plates, and the food was pretty nice and quite expensive.  I ate mackeral salad with beetroot and horseradish, since the S.A. detests mackeral so I might as well eat it when I'm out, and I'm a sucker for beetroot and horseradish (it's my Polish roots).  My friend had a large piece of sea bass she said was good.  Her daugher and daugher's friend had smoked salmon sandwiches which came with chips on the side, and I had some of those as well, as the girls said we could, and were loads of them.  The grownups had cherry pie which was a bit too sweet, and the girls refused pudding (such self control).  As half the party were driving and the other half were under-age we were on soft drinks.  This is one of the reasons why the S.A. and I tend to only bother with pubs when we are on holiday and not about to get into a car, since one of the real pleasures of a pub visit is cask ale, well kept.  Anyway, I hadn't seen my friend for a while, and it was a good lunch, and a perfectly nice pub, though I wouldn't drive fifty miles to get to it unless I were meeting somebody.

The rest of the party headed back to town after lunch.  I think they had another visit to make on the way home, and were keen to return to the more respectable parts of London N1 before any Friday evening riots kicked off.  I went to have a look at the church, on the basis that I don't visit that side of the county very often, and I wanted to make the most of it.  Clavering church doesn't get a mention in Simon Jenkins' book of churches, but sounded worth a look from my preliminary web search, and merits a brief mention in my County Guide to English Churches (Jones and Tricker, 1992, Countryside Books).

The church is tucked down a small side road with absolutely no parking whatsoever.  Goodness knows what they do for weddings.  I backed up just in time, and parked in a residential street off the main road, but there didn't seem to be a car park anywhere near the church, or even a field you could use.  The church backs on to farmland, and feels peaceful and secluded.  In these times of theft and vandalism it is rather wonderful that it remains open, since there was nobody else there throughout my visit.  There has been a church on the site since Saxon times, but the present structure was built in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the Perpendicular style.  I think the Victorians had a bit of a go at it, but it still has the original roof, and doesn't look obviously mucked about with.  It is small but charming, the outside mostly flint, with a low tower.  The interior is fine, plain, and somehow manages to look bigger than the outside.  Having read up on it in advance, and armed with my book, I knew to note the thirteenth century Purbeck marble font (octagonal, very plainly decorated with arches), the Elizabethan pulpit (wooden, carved with flowers) and the fifteenth century screen (rather worm eaten).

Neither the book nor the websites I consulted made any mention of the carved figures along the roof.  They have bare heads with shoulder length curly hair, wear tunics that are long at the back and short at the front and what look like leggings, textured to resemble either feathers or chain mail.  The light wasn't very good by then and I couldn't honestly see.  They seemed to have bare feet.  Maybe they are angels.  Perhaps they originally had wings, which have been lost or removed for safety purposes?  There is some fifteenth century stained glass along the north aisle, fragmentary now, and carefully protected from any yobbish stone throwing by panels mounted outside the windows.

There are some splendid monuments.  Margaret, wife of Haynes Barlie by whom he had issue fower sonnes and nyne daughters, six of them dyed in theire infancy the last was still borne, herself died five days after the birth and after nearly sisteen years of marriage, in 1653.  Fourteen pregnancies in sixteen years, it's scarcely surprising.  Her monument shows a round faced woman with ringlets each side of her head, below which she kneels opposite her husband, their six surviving children kneeling behind them, and behind them seven skulls, five smaller ones with the women and two larger behind the men.  All the kneeling figures have one hand clasped to their breast, except for the surviving son who is holding what looks like a large bap.  Next to Margaret's monument is one to Mary, second wife of Haynes Barley Esq. by whom he had a very plentiful fortune but no issue.  She too has a round face and ringlets, and died in 1658.  Haynes Barlee himself seems to have survived until 1696 when he died at the age of 90, having taken a third wife Mary, who produced four more sons, according to a monument erected in 1747.

There is supposed to be the remains of a pre Conquest motte and bailey castle (one of only four in England) by the church, but I must admit I didn't see it.  I did like the garden tap and three galvanised watering cans on a little stand by the entrance to the churchyard, for people to tend the flowers on the graves.