Wednesday, 30 November 2011

troubled times for the church

The parish magazine arrived today, with a flier about the restoration fund for the church.  The church has been known for months to be in a bad way, since part of the ceiling fell in and the rest was judged to be unsafe, and Sunday services have been held in the village hall since the accident.  What we hadn't known, until we got the leaflet about the appeal, is that the tower needs substantial work as well, and the estimated cost of repairs has been put at £120,000.

The church serves two parishes.  The church in our parish was deconsecrated and turned into a dwelling back in the 1970s, though the churchyard is still open and kept in a rather delightful state of controlled decay by the council.  In late winter it is a sheet of snowdrops.  The building makes a stylish house.  Our village is extremely spread out (there is a theory that this is characteristic of settlements on light and easily cultivatable soil) and the former church is not at all close to about 99% of the houses in the parish, and is small with no car parking facilities whatsoever.  I presume that is one reason why it was selected for the chop when the parishes were merged.  The merged parishes, as well as sharing the remaining church, share the vicar with a third local parish, as is normal nowadays.

Now £120,000 is a substantial amount of money to find.  It equates to around £75 for every man, woman and child living in the two parishes.  If the appeal can raise some funds locally, the organisers will then be eligible to apply for grants, but there is no guarantee that they will be successful.  A couple of people organised an accordian concert a couple of months back to raise money, but you need an awful lot of concerts, and jumble sales, and sponsored walks, and quiz nights, and coffee mornings, and sponsored hair-growing or head-shaving, and all the other fund raising staples of provincial England, to make much of a dent in £120,000, or even £60,000.  The two parishes are middling sorts of places, not deprived but without many rich households, and there aren't many big local businesses to tap.  And goodness knows how much per head £120,000 equates to for those people who actually go to church.  Most don't.

The painful question is whether society needs so many churches, and can afford to keep them up, or at least is willing to find the money to do so.  What exactly are churches for, in an era of declining church attendance?  We are not practising Anglicans, and have never been to a service in our church in the 18 years we've lived in the parish, nor are we likely to do so if they ever manage to get it back in commission.  We're not originally from the area, so none of our families were married or christened there, and none of our relatives lie buried in the churchyard.  It has no resonance for us at all, except as an historic building.

Unfortunately it isn't a very distinguished church.  Much of it dates from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and it is Grade II* listed, so I shouldn't be too sniffy about it, but it doesn't make it into Simon Jenkins' Thousand Best Churches, or get a mention in my County Guide to English Churches.  The flint tower is nice, but it's not an outstanding building, and it doesn't occupy a key commanding position in the landscape, being set back from the road, outside the main body of the village, and behind some farm buildings (admittedly compared to the age of the church they should be viewed as temporary structures).

There are so many church buildings that need funds for repairs.  A couple of years ago, English Heritage estimated that six cathedrals needed a total of £60m spent on them over the next decade, which includes Canterbury, York, Lincoln, Salisbury, Winchester and Chichester.  The pot of money available from English Heritage for cathedrals is shrinking as government funding declines.  The Church of England is struggling to balance the need to maintain its historic buildings with the cost of providing clergy wages and pensions and carrying out the actual work of the church.  Which is more urgent, to conserve York and Lincoln, which are great world-class buildings that make my heart sing when I enter them, or to repair my village church?

I'm afraid our church missed a trick in not reinventing itself for more secular times.  When we arrived in the village, knowing nobody and quite keen to fit in, subject to the rigours of commuting, we did not get a welcome from the vicar, or an invitation to a monthly meal where we might have met people from our new community, or any other kind of church led social introduction and inclusion.  If we didn't want to go to church services, the church didn't want us.  Indeed, all we got was a fair amount of grief from our new neighbours who wanted us to construct a separate access road to our property, at considerable expense, so that we would not drive past their house.  They were, you guessed it, leading lights of the local church.

The fund raising letter that came with the parish magazine ends optimistically, saying that any monies left in the fund after work on the ceiling and tower will be used on other repairs needed.  In the circumstances I'm afraid it might have been more apt to say what would happen to funds raised should the appeal never reach its target, and work on the ceiling and tower not take place.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

non-stop culture

Well, that was a cultured 24 hours.  I took my dad last night to hear a folk-jazz guitarist and an Irish harper at the Colchester Arts Centre.  They are called Chris Newman and Maire ni Chathasaigh, except that there ought to be some accents over the Irish gaelic name that Blogspot's compose a post page won't do.  They are very good, and my dad likes them.  He had them as visitors to the folk club he used to run in Wales for his seventieth birthday celebration, in lieu of a party.  Chris Newman is a great fan of 1930s swing jazz, and Maire is a traditional musician from West Cork, and they play some pure Irish folk, some jazz, and a lot that is somewhere in between.  To get the accidentals on the Irish harp you have to flick a lever at the top, and whereas in a traditional folk piece the same settings would probably last you all the way through, to play jazz you have to flick the levers in mid flow.  Frequently.  As Chris Newman says, it's fun to watch.  The harp seems to take a lot of tuning mid-concert, a process that involves various giant allen keys, and leaves Chris with some time to fill in, but he is a genial chap.  He comes from Watford, he told us, one of the best towns in England to come from.

Today the Systems Administrator and I went to Cambridge to visit the exhibition Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence at the Fitzwilliam Museum.  This brings together four pictures by Vermeer of women in a domestic setting with pictures by other Netherlands artists of the same era, and has reviewed very well (Telegraph, Observer, Independent).  As I looked at one of the pictures in the first section I heard a woman standing next to me say to her companion 'Oh, I see, they're not all Vermeers'.  Well, no, they wouldn't be.  Four is pretty good going, and includes one loaned from the Louvre and on display in the UK for the first time ever.  They are wonderful paintings.  Go and see them.  You have until Sunday 15th January.  Entrance is free, though you are invited to make a donation, and if only I lived nearer to Cambridge I'd drop in often.

We had lunch first in an excellent side street pub which I'd heard get a plug recently on, of all places, The Today Programme.  It is called The Cambridge Blue, and it says something about the organisation of human memory that when I was trying to remember the name of the road I couldn't recall Gwydir Street, but knew that it was something Welsh sounding.  It is CAMRA's Cambridgeshire pub of the year for 2011, and why it came to be featured on the Today programme I really can't remember, but the beer was excellent and the food was nice.  My carrot and coriander soup had a generous amount of coriander in it, and the SA says the sausage was good.  There was no music, and the staff were cheerful.  There were two partly used sacks of coal just inside the door, and packs of tonic all over one of the tables in the other front bar, behind which a little old boy was sitting impeturbably reading, but I don't mind an amount of clutter myself (the coal and the mixers.  I don't mean the old boy was clutter).

A group of men of mature years were waiting for the last of their party to arrive, then all piled into a large taxi.  They were happy and excited, and you could tell they were going somewhere special because they'd put on their tidy trousers (mustard coloured cords etc).  The landlord told us they were going to a Michelin two starred restaurant for the £100 a head taster menu.  'They'll be drunk as lords by the time they get back' he proclaimed joyfully. 'A hundred quid a head.  They might have put ties on'.

I had made a pencil sketch from Google maps of where the pub was, not having a working printer at the time.  It had enough information on it that we would have found it (left hand turning off Mill Road).  The SA has a pocket sized Garmin electronic navigator, which I find impossible to use, since by the time you are zoomed in close enough to see the street names, you can't see more than one stretch of about one road at a time, but the SA likes it and seems to understand it.  Each to their own.

Monday, 28 November 2011

a quiet day

The car was properly iced this morning, so I left it running in the drive to defrost.  We have no passers by, being a dead end beyond the farmyard with no public footpath running past the property, so the chances of someone arriving in the garden just as I'm defrosting the car and driving it away are vanishingly low.  When I got in I was disconcerted to see a red warning light shaped like a thermometer flashing on the dashboard.  That never happened before.  I tried the Skoda equivalent of switching it off and switching it on again, and the warning light disappeared.  This little piece of extra fiddling about, plus the fact that while I'd allowed extra time for the roads being icy I hadn't allowed quite enough, made me almost but not quite late for work.

There were only two of us in, as the manager had the day off, and we didn't make much of an impact on the great jumble of plants that arrived from Italy last week.  In fact, as a delivery of trees arrived mid-morning from Norfolk we ended the day with more plants on the grass at the back of the plant centre than when we started.  I was still avoiding using my left hand for lifting, and my colleague had a bad cold, so we made a feeble pair unloading the Norfolk consignment, and as the delivery driver helped us he asked if we were short staffed.  Yes, we were.  I have no idea why someone booked the tree delivery for a day when there would only be two people in.  Some of the Norfolk trees were bare root, their nether regions swaddled in black plastic sacks.  My colleague made noises about maybe heeling some of them in later, which looking at the state of her cold I doubted was going to happen.  I was certainly not going to volunteer to dig holes, and thought that if the manager had wanted them got into the ground he could have left instructions for the gardener.  I did find some fleece, and cover the black plastic bags with that, in case tonight was another frosty one.

It was very quiet.  The weekend was apparently quite busy, but people weren't coming to buy plants on a Monday morning in late November.  My colleague said she was willing to stay late, as she likes being able to come in later, not being a morning person, so I left before she tilled up, but we won't have taken much.  A couple of people came to collect plants on behalf of other people, but they were already paid for.

And that really was that.  Back at home the boiler man came, could find no reason for the boiler to have cut out, and serviced it.  It is running at 92% efficiency, which is one per cent down from last year.  This is apparently normal.  I don't know if it loses a percentage point every year.  The Systems Administrator installed my new printer (the old one was very cheap, a false economy, and never worked very well and then didn't work at all) and spruced up my laptop with downloads and a sort-out.  A programme called Turbo Chickens had got in somehow.  I have no idea what that is.  I didn't put it there.  Further investigations on the net revealed that the new component in the upstairs loo had a flow restrictor that you are supposed to remove if you have low water pressure.  We have, so the SA (who now wishes to be known as the Cistern Administrator) removed it, and the tank now refills in less than twenty minutes.  It still makes a faint squawk when it's finished filling, like the dying exhalation of Monty Python's parrot, but the annoying low hum has stopped.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

accept no cheap imitation

The concert was very good.  It turned out that the Dvorak was his cello concerto, with Natalie Clein.  I love Dvorak's cello concerto, and I've never seen Natalie Clein before, so that was an unexpected treat to happen on a Saturday night in Ipswich.  In the second half we got Tchaikovsky's first symphony, which the conductor assured us was very rarely performed, and it was delightful.

There will not be any pick axing today, or any gardening at all.  I think the joint of my left middle knuckle is inflamed, though not infected.  At any rate, it is sore, worse today than yesterday, but before taking it to the doctor I probably should try resting it.  I can't imagine the GP would bother referring it to a specialist (I believe Chelmsford is rather good at hands) when I hadn't even tried giving it a day off to see if that improved matters.

In the meantime, let us add the salutary story of the new bedside clock to the saga of the plumbing.  The radio part of the Systems Administrator's clock-radio stopped working, so the SA went to a shop and bought a replacement, incorporating a digital DAB radio.  It was quite cheap.  After it was installed on the bedside table I noticed a bright unearthly gleam shining on the side of the pillows, when I went into the bedroom after dark with both hands full of a basket of laundry which prevented me switching on the light at once.  This turned out to be the new clock.  The old one had those red LED strips that fit together to make clunky rectangular digits.  Old fashioned and inelegant, but casting very little light.  The new one had a liquid crystal display, able to spell out much more information about what the digital radio was doing, but casting so much light in the process that you could see to match up pairs of socks by it.  The SA has cut down the amount of light by sticking tape over most of the display, so that you can just see the time in the middle.  I don't know who made the wretched thing, but it doesn't appear to have occurred to them to test it in an actual darkened room.  One advantage of buying domestic electrical goods on-line is that you can read the users' reviews first, since we won't be the first people to have noticed this design defect.

It doesn't only happen to cheap clock-radios.  The SA's brother used to work for a small British manufacturing company that made electrical components for the Eurofighter (or Typhoon, or whatever they call it nowadays).  They received an order for some LEDs to go on the cockpit control panel.  In upmarket manufacturing circles the brightness of these things is accurately measured in lumens, and they queried the technical specification because the LEDs seemed rather bright, but they were told to stop questioning the customer's requirements and get on with it, so they did.  So did lots of other suppliers, as it transpired.

Everybody shipped off their components and a demonstration control panel was built and installed in a flight simulator, and a military pilot came along to test it.  Tested it in daylight conditions, all fine and dandy.  Tested it under night conditions, great.  Then the poor test pilot put on his night vision goggles, and they switched on the test rig, and his eyeballs nearly exploded as the unbearable brightness of dozens of wrongly specified LEDs burst upon him, magnified to intolerable luminosity by the night goggles.  Told you so.

Addendum  The SA has fitted the new component to the upstairs loo and turned the water to the cistern back on.  When the tank finishes filling it now makes a small, strange wailing noise, as if a seal were giving birth in the bathroom.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

music and plumbing problems

Mitch Benn was very good.  He sang Everything sounds like Coldplay now, which is a parody of mean genius that makes me glad I spent some time watching the TV coverage of Glastonbury, so can appreciate the cruel beauty of his Chris Martin impersonation.  And he sang the heavy metal song about Ikea, though not Happy Birthday War and Size Zero, which are a couple of my favourites.  You have not truly experienced music until you have seen the three minute rock opera adaptation of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  A baroque element was added by the black helium balloons that occasionally descended from the ceiling.  Nothing to do with Mitch Benn's show, they were left over from a Goth event the previous day.

Our only gripe was that the Arts Centre printed on the tickets that the doors would open at 7.30pm and the performance start at 8.00pm, whereas the queue (which we had expected to miss by arriving ten minutes after doors open) didn't start moving until twenty to eight, and the show didn't begin until half past.  I wish they wouldn't do that.  I mean, I really, really wish they would just tell the truth about when things start, and then stick to it.  The Mercury Theatre manages it, as has every classical music venue I've ever been to (apart from The Royal Opera House about 25 years ago).  I don't want to spend five minutes standing on the pavement in the cold and then another forty minutes sitting on a not especially comfortable chair, nursing half a pint because I'm driving.

At home the plumbing is slowly disintegrating.  I had been hearing a strange, worrying, deep sort of rumbling hum for some time, and initially blamed the lettuce farm for acquiring some infernal new engine or generator and running it it at anti-social hours.  However, as the noise grew worse the source of it became apparent, and it was not from the farm at all, but emanated from above the upstairs bathroom.  The Systems Administrator thought that a slow leak from the lavatory cistern was causing it to refill equally slowly, and triggering vibrations at the resonant frequency of the pipework.  I was horribly reminded of the episode of Steptoe and Son in which Harold installs central heating.  Fortunately one can get instructions for practically anything nowadays on the net, and spare parts for lavatories, so we have a new seal in a box in the kitchen, awaiting installation.  In the meantime the water inflow to the cistern has been turned off, and in order to refill the tank after flushing you have to temporarily turn it on again, using a screwdriver kept by the loo for that purpose.  The SA was going to fix it, but first of all ran out of the right sort of plumbing tape, and then wrenched one ankle putting it down a rabbit hole and didn't fancy crawling around the bathroom.  The current method of flushing is sufficiently inconvenient that it probably will get fixed, and not join the spare bedroom door which has been held shut with a piece of bent coat hanger since 2003, when the catch broke.

Meanwhile our boiler engineer left a cheerful message on the answerphone reminding us that the boiler was due for a service.  This followed on the from message he left for us in July letting us know that it was time for the annual check.  Then the boiler failed to come on one morning, so I had to leave a message on his answerphone admitting that he was dead right that the boiler needed servicing, as it now wasn't working at all.  He is coming on Monday.  He is a very cheerful engineer, who doesn't do that demoralising thing that so many builders do of tutting about the state of your property, the dreadful job of installation and maintenance done by all previous artisans, and your own poor choice of make and model.  He was fully booked last week when I rang him, but would have squeezed us in on Friday or over the weekend if it had been cold.  We said we'd last until Monday.  We have an immersion heater, and weren't running the radiators yet anyway, though it is a nuisance losing the heated towel rails (which are effectively radiators).  I keep festooning my towel and bathmat in front of the Aga to dry, and then it gets to mealtime and the SA tidies them away.

I have worked in the garden all this week, but there is a limit to how many times you can talk about weeding and picking up leaves.  After a morning spent on the gravel in the front, I moved this afternoon to the back.  A white Rosa rugosa, which has been dying back in parts for a couple of years, is really not looking good, and I think it is time for that to come out, along with assorted seedling trees which have sprung up.  Tomorrow could be time to get out the pick axe, and tackle another big clearance job.  Though the knuckle of my left hand is still tender, so I'll have to see if it's up to pick axing.

I'm off for some more music tonight, as a friend came by some concert tickets at the last minute, from another friend who is ill.  Dvorak and Brahms (I think).  Pizza and The Sopranos has been rolled forward to Monday.

Friday, 25 November 2011

an evening with Pippa

No, not the future queen's socially upwardly mobile little sister, but the considerably more entertaining (from my point of view) Pippa Greenwood.  I think that Pippa is wonderful.  When presented with some diseased piece of vegetation on Gardeners' Question Time she always sounds so genuinely happy and excited, and she really knows her stuff.  I thought it was a great shame when she ceased to appear on Gardeners' World.  I like to feel that my TV gardening experts know a lot more than I do, and I admire Pippa's zest for life.

She was talking at one of the local garden clubs.  I've talked there myself this year, twice.  Once booked well in advance to talk about the woodland charity, and also to talk about gardening, which was booked at slightly short notice after I'd already signed up to do the other.  I think they must have had a problem with another speaker, and been keen to find someone to complete the programme, and I was local.  Fortunately both talks went well, though I can't think they'd normally choose to have the same speaker twice in one year.  When I saw that Pippa Greenwood was due to appear I asked if the meeting was open to non-members, and they said it was, and then sent me a complimentary ticket.  I'd been fully expecting to buy a ticket in the normal way, and was very touched by the gesture.

I arrived at the village hall with a quarter of an hour to spare, and found the car park was already full.  We'd thought the capacity of the hall might be greater than that of the car park, so that wasn't a total surprise.  I parked down the lane, found myself a seat towards the back but with a perfectly good view, and was sitting there happily when the committee member who books speakers told me that there was space at the front, and so I found myself with a front row ringside seat tucked between two members of the committee.

Pippa made plant diseases sound very entertaining, and told me some things I didn't know or had forgotten about diseases I'd heard of, as well as introducing me to a couple of diseases I hadn't come across at all.  Camellia gall looks exciting, producing large swellings on the shoots, the size of a human hand, which apparently feel cold, damp and unpleasantly yielding to the touch.  It doesn't harm the plant, and probably won't recur the following year, so is not the worst thing you could get in your garden.  Azalea gall is similar but slightly less revolting.

I'm not good at treating most plant diseases, disliking using chemicals and tending towards the low intervention method of trying to grow the plant well in the first place, removing the damaged bits if it succumbs, and binning the whole thing if it doesn't recover.  I sometimes feel inadequate at work when customers ask for advice on buying chemicals.  Pippa's approach turned out to be similar to mine, so naturally I felt that she was even more wonderful than I had thought.  She suggested using crushed oyster shells as a mulch to discourage slugs and snails from pots, and advised us that the cheapest place to get them was from a poultry feed supplier, not a garden centre.  That's a tip I'll bear in mind, though not for acid lovers. (I once found an identifiable piece of oyster shell in the mushroom compost, so that must be what they use to sweeten the mix).

I was interested to note that Pippa still uses acetate slides, not digital ones.  Some of the images dated from her time (eleven years and three days, as she told us) working as a plant pathologist at Wisley, and I guess they might be difficult to replace now that she isn't working there, though I'd have thought the RHS would be happy to help her out in the interests of public education.  It made me appreciate that my woodland charity digital projector running off a memory stick is still quite advanced.  Pippa's lecturing technique is to pile in a lot of information, arranged clearly, on how to identify each disease, what to do about it, and how serious it is in terms of its effect of plant health and persistence in the garden, interposed with breathing spaces in which she told some genuinely funny stories still pertaining to the subject of plant disease.  It was a skilled performance, all the more so for managing to look natural.

It was a gala evening for the garden club.  The club officer presiding over the proceedings had put on heels and a smart skirt, and there were nibbles afterwards.  What with my having done my own talks there, plus meeting people through work when they're shopping at the plant centre, plus knowing the beekeeper who introduced me to the club in the first place, I found I had lots of people to talk to, despite not being a member of the club or living in the village.  All in all it was great fun.

I don't suppose I am likely to ever meet the other Pippa, which is just as well, since I can't imagine what we'd find in common to talk about, but I remain a devoted fan of the gardening Pippa.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

working and not working

When I read the headline that David Cameron said people should take their children to work with them on the strike day, I thought what a gift for the scriptwriters of The Now Show.  Given that this morning even the Today programme was taking a poke at it, they may feel that by Friday night it will have been done to death.  We'll see (or rather, hear), though the Systems Administrator and I may not until Saturday lunchtime.  On Friday evening we're going to see a Now Show stalwart live, as Mitch Benn is appearing at The Colchester Arts Centre.  ADVANCE NOTICE  Mitch Benn and the Distractions are performing tomorrow night at The Colchester Arts Centre, and as of this moment tickets are still available.

Apparently children will be allowed into Number 10 next Wednesday.  This slightly makes me think that the government machine is not running as tight a ship as it could be.  At my place of work it would be difficult to take children in for the entire day, supposing you had any.  The staff room is honestly rather insanitary, and rather cold, and smells rather mouldy, for it to be a suitable place to park a child for the day.  They would get chilly and possibly wet wandering around outside, and it is not exactly a hazard free environment for a small child.  The owners probably believe that while they are paying their staff, we should be concentrating on doing our jobs, not on preventing our children from ingesting chemicals, drowning in the ponds, messing up the tills, or otherwise causing injury to themselves or disruption to the business.

As a customer I'd like to feel that staff I was dealing with were concentrating on the job.  I don't want to go for a haircut and find that the hairdresser's attention is mostly on what four year old Tristan has got up to now, and whether he is safe, while she absent mindedly tonsures me.  Nor do I want to have my septic hand examined by the nurse while her bored 14 year old in the corner checks out Facebook on her mobile.  Not all places of work have a spare room and a more or less free member of staff to run an impromtu creche for mixed ages.

A friend of ours was recently made redundant by one of the big banks.  The bank is cutting 20,000 worldwide, with 250 to come out of the division our friend used to work in until the week before last.  Staff set off to work for business as usual on Monday morning.  On Wednesday rumours were circulating.  On Thursday the people being laid off were told, handed in their laptops and passes and went home.  On Friday they didn't go in.  Employment finished.  Our friend was the last person in his department to get the call, and by 4.30pm he was thinking he'd missed out.  He is close to retirement age, has lots of hobbies, and was really keen to be allowed to spend more time pursuing them.  Not everybody was in the same fortunate position.  I was surprised the bank had bothered to make him redundant, given he'd have soon gone anyway, but the SA pointed out that under new age discrimination legislation he might not have chosen to leave at 60, plus getting rid of one person who wanted to go saved the job of somebody else who didn't.  Thus our lives in big organisations hang by an arbitrary thread.  A divisonal head has to get rid of 250 people.  Are you number 250 or number 251 in the queue?

Meanwhile, back in the world of unpaid work, I have finished weeding the gravel by the entrance.  It's as good as it's going to be, at any rate.  The creeping sorrel will come up again, as it is impossible to get every scrap of root out, so the improvement is transient and somewhat illusory, but then so is the effect of mowing the lawn.  I topped up thin patches in the gravel, taking some from the bag of new gravel, and some from the edges of the drive where it gets spun out by vehicle wheels.  I want to use up the bag because then I won't have a bright green bag taking centre stage just inside the entrance, but I grudge running out of the supply of clean, weed-free gravel.  The garden layout does not work well for bulky deliveries, but that's one of the things you only discover after the event.  I would know next time, but there isn't supposed to be a next time.

Gravel gardening is quite fun, and you can achieve some interesting dynamic effects with self seeding, but it is not low maintenance.  It took over two days (admittedly short ones at this time of the year) to weed the entrance gravel, which is a very small part of the whole garden.  OK, if you laid a thick layer of gravel and blasted the entire area with weedkiller a few times a year and raked the leaves off in autumn it would be low maintenance, but if you want plants growing in gravel you will spend a long time weeding,  picking leaves out from among them, and topping up the bald patches that appear.  As for plants growing through holes cut in a membrane mulched with gravel, I wouldn't touch them.  The membrane will show at the edges of the holes, and you lose the attractive elements of self seeding.  Plants you want won't be able to grow to flowering size sitting on top of the membrane, but hairy bittercress will still find a foothold.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011


The geese are flying.  That sounds as though it could be a secret password, akin to Masefield's The Wolves are Running, but it is simply a statement of fact.  Opening the front door just after dark this afternoon, we heard a wild cacophony from beyond the other side of the field hedge, then a great flock of geese, flying in V formation, appeared charging overhead, low and fast, heading south.  A couple of mini-formations straggled behind, their individual harsh honks failing to blend with the rest of the chorus.

A friend of ours is a wildfowler.  That is a demanding sport.  You have to be able to shoot, and you have to be able to identify what species you're aiming at before you pull the trigger.  You don't always have long to think about it.  There are stiff legal penalties for killing protected species.  If you are going to eat meat then wildfowl, killed cleanly with an accurate shot, and living freely until that moment, eating wild forage, has to be one of the most ethical meat sources there is.  More ethical than intensively reared animals living in crowded conditions, in groups larger than their social instincts evolved to cope with, travelling for many hours when they are sent to slaughter.

It's tough for farmers when wild forage includes their crops.  A couple of weeks ago, for a couple of days, there was a big flock of geese grazing on one of the fields just up the road, which has been sown with some sort of cereal that's now showing a few centimetres high.  I'd never seen geese there before, and on the third morning they were gone.  They had orange bills, but when I looked at a goose identification article in an old RSPB magazine, that didn't narrow it down much.

In European history, The Wild Geese were Irish soldiers fighting on the Continent.  Regiments were raised over three centuries for many countries and in many wars, driven by a complex mixture of Catholic anti-English sentiment, and commercial mercenary considerations.

The Barnacle Goose was held to be a fish during the Middle Ages, meaning that it could be eaten on Fridays without offending the tenets of the church.

Goosey Goosey Gander wandered upstairs and downstairs and in my lady's chamber, but I can't find a reliable explanation of where the rhyme comes from, and whether it was originally a reference to something else.  There is a popular idea among Internet users that it refers to the persecution of Catholic priests, but no evidence that I'd care to use in a degree level essay, even at Level One.

The small city of Goes in Zeeland in the south-western Netherlands has a goose in its coat of arms, and the gift shops sell wooden cut-outs of a white goose with a ribbon around its neck.  It is a pleasant place, with a tiny marina at the end of a long canal like a fairy grotto (or at least there used to be one) and an enormously tall TV tower.

Rome was saved from attack by the Gauls when the noise made by geese awoke the sleeping inhabitants.  According to current Internet mythology they were a flock of sacred geese.  When I was at school and first heard the story they were just geese.

And of course if you can find the right sort of goose it will lay golden eggs.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

gravel today

I spent today weeding the gravel in the front garden.  It's a gentle task that doesn't involve any very strenuous activity with the left hand (given I am right handed) or the risk of banging my knuckles into anything hard.  There is something satisfying about pulling out the roots of sheeps sorrel.  You curl your fingers under the tuft of leaves, trying to find the long running yellow root, then lift that, seeing how long a piece you can extract in one go, and trying to get it to break leaving a visible end protruding from the soil, so that you can have another bite at the same cherry.

This part of the garden is infested with a fine leaved, clump forming grass.  I don't know what species.  It isn't Poa annua, annual meadow grass, though it is an annual.  There are also patches of a perennial weed grass with a running root, but not couch grass.  The root curls more than couch grass roots.  That one dives deep as well as running near the surface, and buries itself in the bases of shrubs and hedges where it is impossible to dig all of it out, so I should be vigilant with the spot weedkiller in the spring.  I am not very good at the names of weeds, though I can recognise them.  There is another annual, a little yellow flowered member of the pea family, and an annual spurge.  Then various plants spill out of the border which suddenly count as weeds when they seed in the gravel, including Geranium sanguineum and Lychnis coronaria.  Actually, the Lychnis has proved such a smotherer that nowadays I don't want it in the border either.  This just goes to prove that a weed is indeed any plant in the wrong place.

The ivy hedge never recovered over the summer, so I've been pruning the dead branches out.  Bits are still alive, but there are many leafless branches which are now visibly dry and dead.  I was honestly expecting it to shoot again, given how indestructible ivy normally is, but there's been very little regrowth since winter.  I presume it was the winter that killed out patches of it, and that it hasn't had the strength to regrow because the soil is so poor and the rainfall overall has been low.  I'll sprinkle bone meal along the base of it for now, then give it a higher nitrogen boost next spring, and see if that kick-starts it into action.  If it fails to regenerate then maybe it is time to start taking box cuttings.  I liked that ivy hedge.  The variety has smallish, crinkly leaves in a pleasant shade of greyish green, and a graceful, branching growth habit.  I lost track of what cultivar I settled for, which is irritating, but it made a very neat hedge up until last year, and didn't run across the ground as manically as the other hedge in a different (unknown) cultivar does.  Which does suggest it is not an especially strong grower.

There is one seedling which is quite definitely Morina longifolia, so I carefully avoided weeding it out.  I was pleased when I found it, but now I've read John Hoyland's article for the Telegraph I feel a little miffed to have only got the one.  There again, conditions in north Essex are far from those he describes as ideal for Morina, and a pretty poor substitute for 9,800 feet in the Himalayas, so I should be grateful the plants consent to grow at all.

One of the surviving Gazania still has a flower and two buds on it, an incongruous sight on 22 November.  I shall definitely add some more next year, sowing seed if I get round to it, or splashing out on a garden centre pack of plugs if I don't, or if the seeds don't germinate, or damp off.

By ten past four it was too dark to see what I was doing weeding, and I had to come in.  I was listening to a Radio 4 programme about the brain, which said that the most rewarding activities, defining rewarding as producing the most dopamine, were those were the outcome was not assured and there was an element of uncertainty.  That makes gardening a very rewarding activity, I thought.  I dream and plan, plant and prune, and have an idea of what could happen.  Flowers.  A profusion of tulips.  The ivy hedge restored to health.  A glittering array of south African daisies in the gravel.  But nothing is guaranteed.  Voles.  A long cold winter.  That amount of uncertain reward should get the dopamine flowing all right.

Monday, 21 November 2011

another quiet day

The dog had an entertaining start to the day.  She was playing the rat game, rummaging around the office whimpering as if she had detected some rodent intruder, but each time the gardener lifted up the clutter at the place where she was looking nothing emerged, or scuttled away, and the dog went to whine somewhere else.  I thought she was spoofing the boss, and he agreed.

My start to the day was less entertaining.  I found some gentians that were going mouldy, which I deadheaded and cut back, as something useful to do while I was waiting for the manager to finish checking the emails and come and tell me what I should be doing.  He marched up after a while and asked who had put the shrubs into the tunnel where the magnolias used to be.  This was one of the things on his weekend list of things to do, and I had done it, so I said so.  He said that they were going the wrong way, as he had wanted the alphabet going downhill away from the central aisle and not uphill towards it, and would I like to switch them all round.  Thank you very much.  It didn't say that in his instructions, and there is no logical reason why the alphabet should go one way or the other, given that in different parts of the nursery it goes both ways.  I worked jolly hard over the weekend, labelling and moving a huge number of plants with a hand swollen to the size of a small potato that hurt every time I knocked the back of it on anything, and taking horsepill antibiotics that made me feel like crap.  I said so, emphatically.

Afterwards I felt vaguely remorseful, but only vaguely.  He is the manager.  He must be paid a lot more than I am, and gets better terms and conditions, and for that he is supposed to supervise and motivate me, not start my week by moaning that instructions that only existed in his head hadn't been followed.  Then I switched the pots around.

One of our regular customers came in, asking whether we could fit one of the trained espalier apple trees in her car.  I suggested taking the empirical approach, and measuring the tree and the car to find out if it were theoretically possible.  The tree turned out to be 48 inches wide and 67 inches tall including the pot (there's my cover blown.  I have dutifully blogged all year in metric, but I think in feet and inches.  Sorry.  I can cook in metric but under stress can imagine 8oz better than 250g).  The car turned out to be a Nissan Micra, and was 52 inches wide.  A distance of 67 inches from the inside of the tailgate would put the top of the tree somewhere above the handbrake.  I said that the tree would go in the car.  The only slight difficulty was that the door of the Micra was several inches narrower than the width inside the boot, but the tree just slid in on the diagonal, after I'd cut off a bit of one of the supporting canes.  It was protruding beyond the branch tied to it anyway, so she won't miss it.  Whether and how she will ever get the tree out again at the other end is another question.

Somebody rang up asking if we had any Parrotia persica.  After a little searching around I found some nice plants for a relatively modest price.  It turned out that he was a tree officer, organising a memorial tree that somebody wanted to donate to a local park, and between them they had decided on a Persian ironwood.  He was keen to have more exotic trees in the park, and pleased with the price because his donor was on a limited budget.  I thought how unlikely, and how delightful, that in these cash strapped times a council still had a tree officer who was willing to work with members of the public, and put the time and effort into sourcing unusual trees.  A colleague recently started a marketing initiative, sending out a list of rare woody plants we can currently supply to arboretums and large gardens, and I suggested the tree officer should add his name to it.  I guess that you become a tree officer because you like trees, but you probably spend a lot of your working life after that dealing with ones that are suspected of becoming unsafe, or undermining foundations.  Being allowed to plant new trees instead of delivering the fatal verdict on existing ones must make a nice change.

The electricians arrived to instal new lights in the central portion of the shop, which meant moving various tables of breakables so that they could get the scaffolding in.  New lights were sorely needed.  The old ones consisted of three gigantic bulbs in metal casings that always filled up with flies in summer, only intermittently all came on at the same time, and cast the same amount of depressing and insufficient light as energy saving lightbulbs do in the home.  Putting up the new lights caused us little inconvenience, apart from the scaffolding and the noise of cordless drills and screwdrivers (marvellous inventions), but unfortunately by the time they were ready to connect the new lights to the mains and disconnect the old ones, which entailed switching off the lighting circuit for obvious reasons, it was already mid afternoon.  The shop with no lights at all was extremely dark, and I think the electricians struggled to see what they were doing wiring up the new ones.  I couldn't really see the till either, but by then there were very few customers.  The shop illuminated by the new lights looked much more welcoming, and very, very bright.

The day's takings were pitifully small, though there will be some invoices to come for various deliveries.  Maybe it is the economic apocalypse.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

fog and brass

Once I drove out into the lanes this morning it turned out to be foggier than I'd realised. thick patches that swelled off the fields.  It stayed that way until mid morning, and at one point I could see moisture droplets forming, not even drizzle falling out of the sky but water condensing out of the air in front of me.  Then suddenly the sun broke through.  I came out of a meeting about the website and a tree planting promotion to tie in with the Queen's Jubilee, and it was a beautiful day, with the sort of sky the word cerulean was invented for.

The owner had the very sensible idea of taking part in the national tree planting campaign for next year's royal Jubilee.  She knows a firm that makes plaques, and we have trees, ties and stakes, so we can offer our customers a package.  It turns out that patriotically celebrating your monarch's sixty years on the throne is a far from spontaneous, joyous action, and that there is a set of official rules and guidelines running to several sheets of A4, covering what commemorative objects are deemed suitable by the Palace, and giving suitable approved phrases to use.  However, it looked as though we could use an off-the-shelf set of words for the plaques (if you want to dedicate a building or suchlike it seems you need to apply for an official permit).

A very cute guide dog puppy in training came into the plant centre, and my colleague and I politely refrained from distracting it, because we both knew you are not supposed to distract working dogs.  It turned out that the puppy had developed a dislike of going out, and we were invited to make a fuss of her as part of the puppy walkers' project to convince her that life outside the reassurance of home was fun.  She was a five and a half month old golden retriever, and they have amazingly soft hair at that age.

I had arranged to leave work half an hour early, so that I could get to the concert in the church.  It seemed a shame to miss the first half when I have a season ticket, and given that I was set to spend the interval pouring out tea and washing cups.  It took ten minutes scrubbing away in the slightly basic facilities of our staffroom to get my hands to a state where anybody sensible would want them near a teacup.  I thought as I signed off my time sheet half an hour early that I hadn't planned this properly.  I should have offered to stay late at some point so that I could take the extra time in lieu this afternoon.  Oh well, I didn't.

This afternoon's concert was by a brass quintet, whose playing was colourful and repertoire not entirely my sort of thing.  They chatted a fair amount between numbers, and the consensus from the other committee meetings was that less chat (there were some fairly weak jokes) would have been welcome.  The brass quintet do a fair bit of work in schools, and I wondered if they were slightly stuck in talking to schoolchildren mode.  The performance of the opening to Handel's Water Music on a collection of watering cans and kettles, while amusing, seemed aimed at the school market.  I did learn something, which is that the tubes in trumpets and trombones are the same diameter most of the way down (trombones logically must be, they slide), whereas in flugelhorns and French horns the tube is flared all the way down.  I never knew that.

The large thorn worked its way out of my knuckle last night, though a small one that I think had been there for ages without causing trouble is now on the move.  It's good that the potential source of infection is gone, though I suppose having started on the antibiotics I have to finish the course for the greater good.  The residual inflammation is spectacular and painful.  Tomorrow's Cardunculus may be a short one, depending on whether by then I am reduced to typing with one hand.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

nice day, not many customers

It was a very beautiful morning, with a streaky pink sky behind the lime avenue on the lettuce farm, and layers of mist laying over the fields.  I was rather surprised, on getting into the car and flicking the wipers to clear the condensation from the windscreen, to discover that it was not moisture on the inside of the car but ice on the outside, and that the wipers would not flick because they were frozen down.

The farming programme on R4 was talking about the severity of the drought, from Shopshire across to East Anglia.  It's true.  Recent rain has moistened the top few centimetres of soil, but dig down and it's still dry.  If we don't get some proper rain at some point over the winter then next year is going to be very difficult, for farmers and gardeners.  By the time I reached the Stour valley the radio had moved on to the Today programme, and a politician was explaining how within the next two weeks the European economy could go over the cliff.  I suppose it could.  The idea seemed to exist in a different world to the one in which clear morning sunlight shone on a high tide in Constable country, and beyond the river reeds and pastures stretched away.

There had been a delivery of shrubs from France since the last time I was at work.  The boss has bought plants from this French supplier for all the time I've worked there, including lilacs, some varieties of Philadelphus, and hydrangeas.  We don't take many deliveries from them each year, and it did seem as though we had a year's supply of Philadephus 'Buckley's Quill' sitting on the grass at the back of the plant centre.  There were some fine chunky Magnolia 'Elizabeth', which is a good yellow flowered variety (though maybe not the best), but alas, the customers we had waiting for them had all either found plants elsewhere in the meantime, or weren't prepared to pay the price of such large specimens.  Over sixty pounds for a magnolia is painful.

The wood turner who lives in the village, and makes wooden pepper mills and fruit that we sell in the shop, using wood from the estate, called in to see what extra stock we needed.  As we chatted I discovered one of the drawbacks of living in a conservation area with no street lights (on account of the light pollution).  The pavement in his street was dug up for work on the gas main, and going out after dark he fell over the barriers around the hole, which were not lit.  The gas company say it is not their fault there were no lights, as the council wouldn't permit them.  The wood turner is taking Warfarin and so vulnerable to internal injuries such as you get from walking straight into a metal barrier, so he's not at all happy.  He was even less happy when his doctor told him that if he developed a headache he should call an ambulance immediately, in case it was an aneurysm.  I thought that if the council had really forbidden any lights, even small ones, for an a obstruction on the pavement, then that was a pretty stupid decision.  Though I suppose if you know you are at risk from knocks and bumps and you live in a village with no street lights, you might do well to invest in a decent torch.

The wood turner's misfortune reminded me again how quickly life can turn.  One minute things are fine, the next, not.  A case in point being my hand, still swollen to a shiny potato, though the tide of red seems to have peaked at the first joint of my middle finger and half way down the back of my hand, and is now receding.  There has to be something in there, and I keep hoping it will work its way out.  I have my eye on a pair of leather pruning gloves, with suede gauntlet cuffs to protect the wrists, which I'd better get and wear when working around roses and other plants with substantial thorns.  I was wearing gloves when the accident happened, and trying to be careful, but obviously the gloves were not up to the job and I was not careful enough.  I must remember to swap them for normal gloves for fingertip weeding, since expensive leather wears through at the fingertips every bit as quickly as normal rubberised fabric.

Trade seemed quiet, but I learned on getting home that the A14 was horribly blocked due to resurfacing work following an earlier accident, with enormously long tailbacks.  If you had been thinking of paying us a visit, and then heard that the A14 was one gigantic traffic jam, you would probably have altered your plans and decided to do something else this afternoon.  But who knows?  Maybe it is the drought, or the prospect of Europe's economy going off a cliff. 

Friday, 18 November 2011

he who cooks chooses the menu

I'm coming to the end of my week as duty cook.  Generally the Systems Administrator does the cooking.  This is partly an expression of a generous and nurturing character, and partly because whoever does the cooking gets to choose what we eat, and the SA likes to eat cooked meals involving meat, and does not trust me to provide them at regular intervals.  It is true that I do believe that toast (with honey) or cheese with olives and oatcakes constitute perfectly adequate meals, especially on nice days when it seems a pity to waste good gardening weather doing stuff in the house, like cooking, but I am happy to be fed and nurtured, so generally the system works pretty well.  However, last weekend the SA did ask if I felt like cooking at all, and on Sunday evening used the phrase 'just summon the energy to go and cook', so I said I'd cook this week.  That wasn't as noble as it sounds, given that the SA was out all day on Tuesday and out again for lunch on Thursday, but I felt quite inspired, once I'd looked through some books, and it's easier to shop for ingredients across a run of meals than a single one, as you can use things up across a couple of meals, instead of being left with bits of this and that.

Unfortunately even when I cook I don't get to choose everything I would like to eat.  Compromise of course runs both ways, and I daresay that some of the SA's curries would be hotter, and Pukka Pies might feature more often on the menu, if I weren't involved.  However, there are foods I'm partial to that the SA can't eat, or really doesn't like, including fish, spinach, game, offal and capers.  The first two produce bona fide allergic reactions, the others the SA simply finds too rich, or hates the taste.

I've read the newspaper articles saying that many people clinically tested for what they belive to be food allergies and intolerances turn out to have no such thing.  My guess is that some of these alleged allergy sufferers are attributing a general malaise to a cause such as wheat intolerance, because it is human nature to want an explanation plus something to blame, and a few who say they have food intolerances simply enjoy making a nuisance of themselves.  The SA is unambiguously allergic to shellfish.  Eat shellfish, feel very ill, throw up, get the trots.  It's pretty clear cut.  Freshwater fish and mackerel have a similar effect on a smaller scale, and white fish and salmon disagree about one time in four.  This is a pity, as the SA genuinely likes fish and chips and smoked salmon, but there's always the chance that indulgence will be followed by an evening in the bathroom.  As a result of never cooking fish at home, I don't know how to cook fish, so I don't miss that, but I would really like to not have to skip over all those recipes involving anchovies.  Spinach has the same effect as fish, which is a shame from my point of view, as I like spinach, and a surprising number of recipes include it.

My solution is to choose the forbidden foods when we eat out, and broach the occasional tin of anchovies when the SA is away.  If you are wise, you will accept that there are some foodstuffs that you yourself like, but that some other people really can't eat without unpleasant after-effects.  Unfortunately, attitudes to food allergies can be very odd, and there are a few unwise people who take a refusal to eat fish, or spinach, as a slur on their cooking, or their region's culinary traditions, or irrational prejudice to be combated and overcome, rather than entirely rational aversion based on painful past experience.  When I was thirteen I went on a school exchange visit to Brittany, which being coastal had plentiful seafood.  One of the French families took their English charge to a smart seafood restaurant as a treat.  She said that she could not eat prawns, because she was allergic to them.  They persuaded or bullied her into eating them anyway, presumably believing that she was just being silly, had never tried them, would love them once she did, etc etc.  She came out in enormous red spots.  Like she said, she was allergic to prawns.  I've found the SA's fish allergy queried often enough over the years.  What, not even a nice bit of salmon?  Not even sole?  Not even when I cook it really beautifully?  I haven't yet worked out how to tell people politely that their lovingly prepared fish and the SA have sometimes parted company the moment we got home.

When I cook I can still indulge myself among all the things that the SA does eat.  Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian comes out, as during the week the SA will be in for a bean stew or a vegetable bake.  I like vegetarian food.  I usually choose a vegetarian option in ethnic restaurants for ethical and gastronomic reasons, as I don't suppose the chicken in the chicken tikka massala was free range, and Asian cuisines tend to do vegetarian food well.  When I'm cooking there will be more root vegetables on the menu, and more of them will be mashed instead of roasted.  There might be squash or pumpkin, though there wasn't this week.  There will be a lot less red meat, but it is not all lentils and healthy eating, as there will be more full fat dairy products.

Actually, this week's menu all got out of synch.  I planned ahead, made a list and stuck to it, like you are supposed to.  Then on Wednesday we didn't fancy the left over bolognese sauce with jacket potatoes that by mutual consent had been scheduled for lunch, so they became supper.  This pushed Wednesday night's planned adjuki bean stew forward to Thursday, because by then I'd already bought the shitake mushrooms and soaked the beans.  On Thursday night the SA was still full of lunchtime curry and wasn't really in the mood for bean stew.  Thursday's planned tagliatelle has got bumped forward to tonight (already bought the fresh pasta and the cream), which leaves us long of a packet of ready made puff pastry as I hand the baton back to the SA.  Luckily that keeps until December 3rd, so it can get worked in at some stage.  I never believe the figures about the hundreds of pounds worth of food that the average family is said to throw away each year.  Ours is a fraction of that, though when I was sorting out the kitchen store cupboard the other day I did chuck out some partly used packets of dried beans dating back to 2007-9.  Once they get that old, they take forever to cook, if they ever do.  It is a sign I should cook a little oftener, to use them up in time.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

planting tulips

Four large boxes arrived yesterday afternoon while I was out, which contained the pots from Whichford, so I spent a happy day unpacking them, and planting the tulip bulbs that have been sitting down in the garage for weeks.  I was relieved to see the pots arrive, given that I did want to get on with planting the tulips, and the pottery hadn't given me an ETA.  The Systems Administrator who was at home when they arrived said that they came by a commercial parcel company, not Whichford's own transport.

Terracotta flowerpots can't be the easiest things to send, though I assume the carrier they use knows not to drop the boxes if they want to keep the Whichford account.  The pots were stacked inside each other, padded with wood shavings, and bubble wrap secured snugly around the rims with parcel tape, tied into rigid bundles with plastic string, and surrounded by tightly packed straw.  None of them were broken.  In the spirit of reduce, recycle, reuse, the straw and wood shavings went into the chicken run as litter to soak up their droppings, and keep their feet dry if it ever rains.  The bubble wrap went in the plastics recycling bin and I'll take the boxes into work to use for our own mail order, so the only thing that went straight into the rubbish was the plastic string.  There was a tiny bit of newspaper involved too, which I'll use to line the vegetable peelings bin the next time I empty it, and I was amused to see that was from The Times.  I wouldn't expect the Daily Mirror, not from Whichford.  The boxes are currently dumped in the lower sitting room, where they are affording great amusement to the cats.  Let's hope none of our plant mail order customers have severe cat allergies.

I bought six pots decorated with basket weave for the tall tulips, which was fewer than I'll need but as many as I could afford at the time, and some shallow pans for the houseleeks that live on the low wall around the terrace (or patio.  Terrace sounds pretentious and patio sounds suburban so I'm not sure which it is).  Several of the current garden centre houseleek pots are disintegrating after last winter, and I would like to upgrade them all in time.  Some of last year's tulip pots haven't crumbled too badly yet, and will do for another year.  I got some reduced-to-clear peat free compost in B&Q, which I wouldn't risk for long term pot plantings of shrubs, but should do for bulbs that will be all finished come next May.  Or at least I hope it will.  The last bag I had wasn't bad, and the things I planted in it are alive and sprouting.

The peat issue is a tricky one.  While the Irish burn the stuff in power stations I feel that not using it in the garden must be a futile gesture, then I read about the beauties of peat bog vegetation, and the value of peat bogs in locking up carbon, and feel I shouldn't ethically use it, except maybe for seed compost where the volume really will be tiny, and the cost of failure (all those packets of seed and all that time spent sowing them) severe.  Just because other people do bad things isn't always an excuse to do them too.  If the tulips fail I will reconsider my high moral position.

I've gone for orange, red and purple again for the tulips, plus a few T. kaufmanniana that I've put in little clay pots for next spring, then will plant out into the border.  I considered going for soft pinks and creams as a change, but I like the strong colours. and they look well with the lime green flowers of Euphobia x characias which seeds itself around the Italian garden where the tulip pots stand.  T. kaufmanniana has cream coloured petals with a yellow base, and those bulbs will end up in the island bed in the back garden where I already have a couple of T. kaufmanniana varieties, I think 'Ancilla' which is pale lemon with a scarlet throat, and 'Heart's Delight' which is red and white.  Unlike the tall Darwin and Triumph hybrids, which mostly dwindle quickly in the ground, several of the small species tulips naturalise reasonably well, and I've had these two for years.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

the thorn beneath

I shouldn't have gloated about how nice it was to have a whole day to get on with the garden.  Today I came back from my Pilates lesson via the Colchester Walk In Centre for minor ailments, and that was the afternoon gone.  I can't complain about the time spent going to Pilates, since I choose to do it.  I like the teacher, and the exercises seem to make the difference between being a chronic back pain sufferer and living a normal active life.  At school I was unutterably hopeless at gym lessons, and throughout adulthood I have avoided most forms of organised physical exercise, but Pilates isn't too bad.  At any rate, it is preferable to the alternative.

The trip to the Walk In Centre was because yesterday as I was weeding around a rose I felt something prick me through my gloves and stab me in the left knuckles.  I thought I could see a dark speck in the centre of the (tiny) wound, suggesting that a thorn had broken off in there, but couldn't get anything to pop out when squeezed.  It isn't very easy to squeeze your knuckles (try it), especially when watched by three chickens.  During the night my hand began to hurt, but I couldn't be bothered to get up and start fiddling with it in the small hours.  I inspected the tiny wound again after my shower this morning, and still couldn't find anything there, but my knuckles had reddened and started to swell.  By lunchtime it had got visibly worse, so I thought I might as well see a member of the medical profession and start on antibiotics today, as wait for two or three days and start then after the symptoms had got really bad.  Also, the Systems Administrator said I might as well go today because otherwise I would only spend the evening worrying about it.  That was probably right, as you do hear of the very occasional unfortunate gardener who ends up losing their hand or entire arm after a tiny scratch goes septic.

The GP surgery receptionist said they were fully booked unless I was an emergency.  I thought I wasn't an emergency, but that I would like to get medical attention before I became one, so I called at the Walk In Centre on the way back from my lesson.  The parking is confusing (it's free, but that's not immediately obvious), at the point when I arrived I was the only person sitting in the waiting area, the rolling screens said that the time to be seen was running at half an hour, and I reckon that's what it took, which was no worse than a visit to the GP, who often runs half an hour late.  The nurse was pleasant and professionally reassuring and agreed with my view (so clearly I thought she was a very sensible woman) that to have worsening symptoms the day after getting a scratch was not normal and suggested there was infection.   She gave me a prescription for a week's supply of Flucloxacillin, which she said was the best antibiotic for skin.  Given that the injury was caused by a plant she didn't want to dig around to see what, if anything, was left in there, as it will dissolve in situ or find its own way out.

Reading the leaflet for the Flucloxacillin (I'm nerdy that way) the list of things it treats, besides skin, is so long that at the end of a week I doubt I'll have a bacterium left in my body.  This is not necessarily a good thing, but the main thing is that I don't want my left hand to turn into an agonising mass of infected flesh that has to be amputated, followed by the rest of my arm two days later.  The nurse warned me that the hand might look worse before it looked better, but that the sign to watch out for was if I got a red streak up the length of my arm.  That'll be A&E time.

Although I rather wish I hadn't spent the best part of 45 minutes in part of Colchester Hospital and another 20 minutes in Asda waiting for their pharmacist to put a pot of Flucloxacillin in a paper bag, the episode in no way puts me off gardening.  The girl in the pharmacy said it was a very good reason not to garden, but it's just one of those things.  Like sprains if you do sport, or sore feet if you wear fashionable shoes.  Or, I suppose, a one in four chance of death if you climb K2.  All hobbies have their hazards, and their rewards.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

a (whole) day in the garden

Today I had a whole uninterrupted day to spend gardening.  It wasn't a working day.  I didn't have to get ready for a talk, or give a talk.  No dentist's appointment, no optician, no Pilates lesson, no haircut.  No calling around for coffee, or lunch, or tea.  No art galleries or garden visits.  No trip into Colchester to pick something up, or put up posters.  I didn't even go out on garden related errands, like a trip to the dump or to collect more mushroom compost.  It stayed dry so I could stay outside until it got dark.  It was wonderful.  It's not that I want to spend seven days a week gardening, hermit-like, and never see anybody or do anything else.  I should get bored, depressed and knackered.  But once in a while it is extremely nice to be able to get stuck in and put in a full day's work on the garden, at the end of which I feel I have made some progress.

I finished planting the new box cushion by the deck outside the conservatory.  I started last week after picking up some nice little box plants at work, but hadn't done the QS beforehand, and didn't buy enough.  Obviously it isn't a cushion yet, but it will be.  I think in landscape speak it might be foundation planting, a depressing term that conjures up visions of beige coloured support hose.  I am hoping the box will look good, in a sort of modernist garden goes romantic way.  That was a job ticked off the list in good faith.  I couldn't see anything needing doing to complete the initial phase of that project.

I picked up lots of leaves for the leaf bin.  It seems almost like a waste of effort when there are plenty more left to fall, but they rake up and pick out of other plants much better when they are still crisp and solid than when they have gone soft and slimy.  The 'Taihaku' has almost finished dropping its leaves, whereas the wild gean hasn't gone any redder than the last time I mentioned it, which was days ago.  The hazels at the edge of the wood are starting to shed.  Each big bucket of leaves tipped on to the leaf pile gives me a good feeling.  With any luck the Systems Administrator will have another go with the leaf vac later in the week.  Apparently if the leaves are wet the machine sprays water over the operator's legs and is not so fun to use.  Given how heavy the dew is at this time of the year, not to mention the risk of showers, a leaf vac that only works comfortably on dry leaves seems to me to incorporate a fundamental design error.

I started cutting back the brambles at the end of the wood, which have grown up since we cut the Rhododendron ponticum down last winter, admitting light, which favours brambles.  This is preparatory to starting to pickaxe out the rhododendron roots.  Fired up by my success removing the hebes, I thought I could tackle them one at a time between other jobs, and so keep a balance between the big renovation projects that need doing, and the more genteel tidying up tasks.  One of the Writtle tutors said that garden restoration was a sign of failed maintenance in the past, which is true, but only up to a point.  Shrubs do succumb to old age or adverse weather conditions, and areas of planting that worked well for years cease to do so.  We never actually planted the rhododendrons.  We inherited some from the previous owners, and some of those must have reverted to the ponticum rootstock and then seeded themselves.  It is true that we should not have allowed them to do that, but we did have many other things to worry about as well at the time.  We will be left with one large one with deep red flowers, which I like very much, not sharing the current prejudice among chic designers against rhododendrons.  I wish I knew its name.

The other reason for wanting to clear out at least some of the rhododendron stumps is to make space to plant my Michelia doltsopa 'Silver Cloud' into the ground.  It is still in its pot, and has been much happier since being moved out of the conservatory, but I don't want it in a pot outdoors over the winter.  It may not prove winter hardy, which will be a shame, but it could be fine.  The boss says they are hardier than people give them credit.  It was going to die of red spider mite under glass, so it and  I have nothing to lose by trying.  If I manage to clear out several stumps I would have room for one of the lovely Oemleria cerasiformis we have at work at the moment.

I finished trimming the lawn around the slabs set in the grass.  That was a relatively lightweight tidying up job, but makes things look much sharper.  While I was at it I had another go at 'Paul's Himalayan Musk', which was once again trying to grow out across the steps to the lower garden, and trimmed some low branches from the birches and zelkova in the lower part of the garden, so that tall people can walk around it without ducking.  I'm short myself, so they didn't bother me, but I thought it would be nice for the SA, and any full size visitors, and actually having your entire garden designed for the convenience of people who are only 1.6m tall does give it a slightly hobbit-like air.

Monday, 14 November 2011

moving a million pots

Season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and bonfires.  The gardener at work had a bonfire, that put smudges of ash over my car.  He said it put them on his car as well, and I dare say they'll wash off when it rains.

I moved a lot of pots today.  Really a lot of pots.  I haven't even begun to work out how much they must have weighed in aggregate, but many times my own body weight in compost.  First of all I transferred the magnolias from the edge of the tunnel, where they are next to the polythene and could get too cold in a harsh winter, to the aisle down the middle of the tunnel.  That was OK.  I read some of the labels as I went along, to try and learn something, and left gaps in what I hoped were sensible places for new stock arriving over the winter.  I like the sound of 'Piroutette', which only grows to 3m and has large white flowers, according to the boss's description.

Then I moved the bamboos in from outside.  They stayed out last winter, and suffered badly, so this year they're coming in.  To save space in the tunnel in the plant centre, only three specimens maximum of each variety went in there, and any surplus was wheeled over to the Other Side.  I brushed the dead leaves off each pot, and as I stood with 10L pots of giant grasses balanced against my stomach with one hand, while dusting down the surface of the compost with the other, I began to think I should have been on that manual lifting course.  I'm not good at bamboo nomenclature, not helped by the fact that it has kept changing throughout my gardening life, and getting the bamboos in strict alphabetical order took serious concentration.  Overflow plants that wouldn't fit inside the shade structure with the rest of the bamboos during the summer had been put down around the outside of the shade tunnel in no particular order, making the exercise into a strange bamboo mail-merge.

I gather the lifting course consisted of being told to think before lifting anything heavy or awkward in case there was a better way of managing it, avoid twisting, ask for help if needed, keep your back straight etc, but not much actual supervised practice lifting, so maybe I didn't miss much.  I know the theory already.  The trick is to realise when you are twisting, using your back more than you should, and so on.  In my Pilates lessons I am forever being told I have made some movement or adopted a posture I wasn't aware of, and that's before I've got several kilos of bamboo rootball balanced on my stomach while the topgrowth tries to poke me in the eye.

Two gardeners from one of the UK's grandest stately homes (well, Chatsworth, actually) came to collect some shrubs they'd reserved, and choose some other things while they were at it.  They asked advice on the hardiness of Olearia, and mentioned a glasshouse, so I asked hopefully if they might like a 4m tall Norfolk Island Pine, but they said they had one already, that someone had given them and that had outgrown its space, and they couldn't work out what to do with their's either, as it was now too large.  The (I presume) head gardener had overwintered Norfolk Island Pine outside in Cornwall, where it had survived, while not being very happy, but he didn't hold out any hope for Derbyshire, or Essex.

The manager was disconcerted recently to be asked by a customer why we had so little stock, and whether we were closing down, so I was tasked with composing a notice explaining that a lot of shrubs had been moved into the tunnels for the winter, and why.  I came up with something suitable, which the woman who works in the office typed and laminated, and the gardener managed to find the notice boards on stakes we use for open days, and put the notices by the entrance to the plant centre.  It is because roots in a pot are more likely to freeze than if they are in the ground, which disagrees with some plants, especially evergreens that go on losing water through their leaves regardless.  Also because compost in pots can get sopping wet, causing the roots of some species to rot.  I added words of reassurance about how most of the plants would be fine outdoors in winter once they were planted in the ground, not a pot, and how customers in doubt about the hardiness of any plant could ask a member of staff.  The real mystery, which I would love to know the answer to, is why we leave Sarcocca and Skimmia outside, and they are mostly OK, when we bring in Ilex aquifolium and Viburnum tinus.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

the new tip

The protests against the closure of the local dump were to no avail.  I got a letter from the council a couple of weeks ago saying that they had noted the objections, reviewed the future of the dump, and were going to close it anyhow.  I really don't know whether consultation exercises do any good, or whether the original proposal generally goes ahead regardless.  The last place I worked in the City was shut down, because the bank that owned it had acquired another investment management business and was integrating them under the banner of the new acquisition, in Edinburgh.  There was a staff consultation exercise, as there had to be by law, but since the integration and closure of the London office were going ahead regardless, and management made it clear that redundancy terms were not on the table for discussion, I couldn't see what they were consulting about, and refused to have anything to do with it.

Anyway, the dump is going.  This morning I couldn't lay my hand on the letter that said exactly when it would shut.  The Essex council website still listed its opening hours as normal, with no mention of the planned closure, but I suspected that might just be because nobody had remembered to update the website.  I thought I might as well go and investigate the next nearest dump, since I'd be using it soon enough.

The Rush Lane dump is larger than the one that's closing, with a one way system, and parking that is more organised, once you work out what the rule is.  Cars park nose to tail in about three parallel rows, with clear lanes between them, so that when you've finished dumping your waste you pull out and drive off.  That probably produces fewer collisions than the random reversing and turning round one gets at the other dump, though I had better avoid going at busy periods, since with my complete inability to parallel park I wouldn't be able to get into a space, if it were very full.  Instead of climbing up steps and dropping your green waste into a gigantic skip, you feed it into a hopper from which it is pushed by a gigantic ram.  Having an engine running constantly seems to me less green than simply making a big pile of stuff and then compacting it occasionally, but I am not an expert on waste disposal.

The drive is 7 to 8 minutes longer than the trip to the other dump.  If I go to the dump on average once a fortnight, which is plausible averaging it out across the year, an extra quarter of an hour drive each time adds up to six and a half hours a year extra time just driving between my house and the tip.  That's a depressing thought.  I could improve matters if I managed to compost more at home, and needed to take less to the dump, which would work if the garden were less weedy.  Recycling weeds back on to the borders via the compost heap is a thankless task.  A friend who began to put her hairy bittercress and other nasties in her green waste bin instead of her own compost heap was struck by the improvement it made to the garden beds after quite a short while.  We don't get green waste collection here, so it's a choice between home compost, burning, or the council tip.

I started pulling up the nettles and brambles that have established themselves along the edge of the wood, on the way to the compost heap.  I put the stems and roots where the bonfire goes, hoping that the Systems Administrator might be able to burn them, otherwise that'll be another 35 minute round trip to the dump, if not two.  And I don't fancy trying to stuff the nettles into bags.  I got stung just pulling them up.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

the value of Friendship

Yesterday I went with my mother to see the Degas exhibition at The Royal Academy.  She likes Degas, and bought me my subscription for my birthday.  We should have been a month ago, on 11 October, but they sent tickets for the wrong day.  The exhibition was very good, and I'm still irritated with the RA.

They call having an annual season ticket being a Friend of the RA, since the term member is already reserved for the academicians.  This makes it difficult to know what to call my mother's present, since calling it a Friendship sounds ridiculous.  She first bought me an annual sub three years ago, at my suggestion when she asked what I'd like, and since then the cost has rocketed from around the sixty pound mark to ninety pounds if you pay by direct debit, and a round hundred if you pay on a one-off basis.  The ticket entitles you to take a guest in (though the UK tax system has introduced a glitch there), and with tickets to Degas costing £14, or £13 concessions, and the other show currently on costing £9 or £7, a ticket holder has to notch up around eight entries in the course of a year to recoup the cost of the season ticket, compared with buying tickets on a pay as you go basis.  The RA doesn't put on as many as eight exhibitions each year, so you have to go to each one more than once, or take a guest pretty much every time, to make it pay.

You could say that getting your exact money's worth isn't the point, and that it's good to support arts organisations.  That's true, and indeed the Systems Administrator and I have supported the RSPB for years without ever visiting one of their reserves.  We're happy to help conserve birds, but don't want to spend our spare time sitting in a bird hide.  We don't get full value out of the National Trust on an aggregate cost of entry basis either, because they don't have many properties in the Eastern region.  However, while I'm happy to pay £14 to go into an art exhibition, if it's a good one, I'm not sure I want to support the RA so much that I want my aged mother to pay £90 on my behalf for around £60 worth of entries.  And I reckon around £60 worth of entries is around what I get.  I don't live in London, so I can't pop into the RA, it's a full day's excursion.  And I do take guests, but not every time I go.  I don't know that many people who want to come with me, my principal art loving friend is also a Friend, and sometimes I prefer to go round galleries by myself.

One of the advantages of being a Friend is that you don't have to queue, or book.  Instead you can drop in whenever you want to, if you are passing, for as short a time as you want.  That's a big advantage.  Except that it doesn't apply for Degas.  For the Degas exhibition, in order to control overcrowding, you have to apply in advance, for a timed entry slot, and there is no readmission.  So I booked in advance, and they sent tickets for the wrong month.  Fortunately I noticed as I was putting them in my purse so that I wouldn't forget them, a couple of days before we were due to go, and my mother was very nice about it, but it was a nuisance.  And I don't like having to book tickets in advance anyway.  Especially when I'm going to London by myself, I'd prefer to decide at the last minute when to go, the weather playing a big part in that decision.  I'd rather not have to spend the one fine dry day in the week in London when I could use it in the garden, and be free to go to town the next day instead when it drizzles.  And with timed slots, you have to aim to arrive early in case the trains are all screwed up, and then if they do run to time you can't just go in when you reach the RA and get on with your day.

The other glitch is more theoretical than actual, but is a deeply depressing indictment of the state of our public administration.  A year or so ago the rules on Gift Aid were altered, so that if a charity claimed Gift Aid on subscriptions, benefits provided by the charity were limited to the person paying the subscription, and members of their family.  The RA responded by changing their subscription rules so that  in theory I can only take family members in as my guest.  That's what it says on their website.  My mother is clearly a member of my family, as presumably is my brother (not that he'd want to come), and I assume that children, spouses and civil partners also count, but it is not at all clear where family stops.  Cohabitees not married or in civil partnership?  Fiancees?  Anybody you've been sleeping with for at least a year and you spend most of your time round at their's even though you don't technically live together?  Grandparents?  Cousins?  Second cousins?  Step-siblings?  Of course it is an entirely academic question because the staff on the door don't ask.  As I walked up the stairs of the RA with a former colleague to see the Hungarian photographs I wondered idly what relationship we should claim, but our acting skills were not put to the test.  It is ludicrous, unenforceable and unenforced, and it exasperates me that we have politicians and civil servants wasting public money thinking up and then drafting such idiotic legislation.

I can see that it was necessary to control crowding in the Degas exhibition, given that it was expected to be very popular, but if the RA is going to withdraw most of the advantages of being a Friend for the popular exhibitions, I might as well not bother to be a Friend.  The British Museum and the Coutauld both charge a lot less to be a supporter, both are admirable institutions, and I have never been to a duff special exhibition at either.

The Degas, when you get there, is very good.  The pictures are beautiful to look at, and it is well and intelligently curated, linking Degas' interest in portraying movement with contemporary developments in photography.  We both enjoyed it very much, and then we went and looked at The National Portrait Gallery, since the earliest train we could get home was the 18.48 out of Liverpool Street, and enjoyed that as well.  The trains ran to time, service was good on all tube lines, we had a nice lunch and a nice tea and it was a successful day out.  But I'm irritated with the RA.

Addendum  My mother told me a piece of family history I never heard before.  It is quite bizarre.  In 1936 or 1937 my paternal grandfather decided that he was tired of capitalism, and would like to go and live in Russia.  He got as far as having an interview with the Russian ambassador in London, who listened to his story and explained that Russia already had enough Jewish intellectuals, and that my grandfather would be well advised to remain in England.  The mind boggles.

Friday, 11 November 2011

you wait for ages and then

I should have been on a manual handling course at work yesterday morning, but I had something else on.  The course was arranged to teach us how to load large pots and bags of compost and so on into customer's cars without injuring ourselves.  Or at least I hope it did.  The neat pictures you see in training diagrams always show people lifting regular shaped parcels vertically up from the ground (keep your back straight and lift with your knees) but most things you need to lift in real life are irregular shapes, and often with protruding lumps, or slippery.  I should have liked to go on the course, but it would have turned the day into a mad rush, and I didn't want that.  The boss has promised to tell those of us who weren't there what was said, though I don't know how much benefit you get receiving these things second hand.  I'll have to hope that the Pilates has taught me sufficient awareness of how I'm using my body to prevent me injure myself lifting.  That and my cheerful willingness to refuse to lift anything I think I can't manage.

I would have liked to go to a study day that the Suffolk Agricultural Association was running yesterday on historic gardens, but I had something else on.  There was a pile of leaflets at work, and I'd got as far as bringing one home and getting quite excited about it, before realising that I couldn't go.  One of the speakers was Kim Wilkie, a landscape designer who recently did a splendid black reflective pool for the gardens at Boughton House, which I hope to visit one of these years.  I think they had the historian Caroline Homes as well, and it promised to be a good day.  One of my colleagues was going.

However, I was already committed, to do a talk on trees in Billericay starting at 2.30pm.  That's the second talk I've done in Billericay this autumn.  They must like trees down there.  I'd been through the town as well when I went to the beekeeping conference last month, so could visualise the point where according to my instructions I had to fork left, and made it to the church hall car park without getting lost.  They were a nice group of people, and seemed to enjoy the talk, and made a generous donation to the charity, though I realised when I got home that the cheque only had one signature on it.  Either they have lax financial controls, or the bank is going to refuse the cheque, but I'll post it off to the charity and let them deal with that one.

It's a pity the way that nothing happens for days, and then three events come along at once, but there you go.  Today I'm going to the Royal Academy, which should have happened a month ago, but that's another story.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

bad shepherds

We went to hear Adrian Edmondson and The Bad Shepherds at The Colchester Arts Centre last night.  They are a folk-punk band, playing classic punk and new wave songs of the 1970s and early 1980s on folk instruments, intercut with traditional reels.  This ticks three of my boxes at once, and sounds like pretty much a dream project.  The Jam, The Stranglers, Ian Drury and the Blockheads, The Talking Heads and The Clash provided the soundtrack to my teens and university years.  My father got into folk music in the post war revival, and stayed there, so I grew up with traditional Irish music on vinyl (sadly no live gigs to speak of, in 1970s East Devon).  And I have had a soft spot for Ade Edmondson since The Young Ones.

It might have proved an odd and unsuccessful mixture.  After all, I like olives, fruitcake and baked beans, but that doesn't mean I want them together.  The Bad Shepherds, however, have made a triumph out of oddity, and last night's performance was a sell-out, an honour shared with only three other shows between now and Christmas.  Their music works because they are good musicians, and because it is actually a good idea.  There are three of them in the band, between them covering fiddle, mandolin, vocals, bouzouki, whistles and Uilleann pipes.

The fiddle player won the All-Ireland Fiddle Championship, twice, and has worked with some of the best folk musicians in the business, including American Irish fiddler Martin Hayes. ( Hayes is Irish, lives in the States, and is quite simply a genius.  Any other fiddler who dares perform with him is either very good themselves, or so terribly bad they don't realise how bad they are, otherwise they would die of shame.)  Adrian Edmondson plays what he calls thrash mandolin, which means strummed rather than fancy tunes picked out with a plectrum, in other words the rhythmn section.  He has got a good sense of rhythmn and has discovered where enough chords are, and while no Richard Thompson has learnt to play the mandolin pretty well, given that he bought his first one in a junk shop when he was drunk.  He sings lead vocals, and you can hear the words quite a lot of the time, and he is a first-class showman.  The third member of the band plays everything else, and sings.  His credits on their website include working with Lesley Garrett, Midge Ure, and Status Quo, as well as Maddy Prior and Barbara Dickson, but he plays the Uilleann pipes like a true traditional Irish (which he is) musician.  So the three of them are no novelty act, but two highly skilled musicians from the Irish tradition, plus a competent and charismatic front-man.

The fusion of punk and new wave songs with traditional tunes works because they are so similar, under the surface.  You could say that punk was a protest movement, folk tunes are the music of the common masses, ergo they go together, but the similarity runs deeper than that.  A reel consists of four lines, each with four bars, each with four beats in it, taken fairly fast.  Turns out, a lot of new wave songs have the same structure.  You can carry on from the song straight into an instrumental break without shifting tempo.  New wave and punk didn't have much of a back beat, compared to classic rock, and reels don't have a back beat either, so the rhythmns match up nicely.  (I think myself it is a better natural fit than folk-rock, when English dance tunes are put on top of a rock drummer.)  Irish reels do have a complicated and beautiful pattern of beats, which I hope one day a friendly musicologist will explain to me.  A good piper puts them in using the drone, or a fiddler with the occasional double note, but they sound like low pitched morse code, a complex underpinning.  (That is why people who try to clap along to Irish music are a menace.)

If the song and the instrumental don't go at the same speed, you can bridge the gap between them using a drone on pipes or fiddle, to give a break point where noise is still going on (so the audience knows you haven't finished this one yet) but the first tune has stopped.  The Bad Shepherds use this, as did Planxty, and everyone from time to time, but a clean shift from one to the other is more exciting.  The Uilleann pipes are always exciting anyway, but especially so when they are pumped through a very large speaker.

We even met a couple of friends in the crowd, people I know via beekeeping.  They are connected to the world of international music, in that they are the parents of Belle and Sebastian's keyboard player.  That's the nearest I get to knowing anybody in rock.  Most of the audience were nice and well behaved, and the Arts Centre couldn't have been anticipating trouble in that while pints of beer were served in plastic glasses, they were also selling bottled.  My only gripe, and it is a really major gripe, was with the quartet stood near us who talked.  Not just the odd comment, but a full running conversation.  I thought at first that the band would drown them out, but they responded by talking louder.  After the first three and a half songs I worked out that if I stayed where I was I was going to spend the evening thinking about nothing except how annoying they were and how much I hated them, so I went and found myself a corner near the front, where people were taking the music seriously.  Why do people do that?  I mean, why?  Apart from the fact that they have no manners, why shell out seventy quid on tickets if all you are going to do is talk during the act.  You might as well just go to the f**cking pub.  I managed not to say that to them, but I thought I'd better move before I did.

So that was an evening spent in tribute to the music of my youth.  Middle age comes to us all.  Adrian Edmondson had to perform most of the gig sitting down, wearing a pair of slippers.  He said he had first sprained his ankle, and then broken his toe, and then succumbed to that rock and roll disease, gout.  They did all look as though they were enjoying themselves, and I hope they were, as they've got another twelve gigs to get through between tonight and 26th November (Union Chapel, Islington).