Saturday, 31 December 2011

happy New Year

The plant centre was open today, though we weren't very busy.  New Year's Eve isn't a day you'd expect lots of people to be out buying plants.  I did get myself an Oemleria as planned, and some galvanised lawn edging to try and keep the running bamboo in check, once I've dug the excess out (another pick axe job).  I hope the lawn edging will slow the bamboo's progress down, if not stop it, and at least it will give me a demarcation line to patrol and cut back to.

This is my last post of 2011.  I have done what I set out to do, to post something every day.  Most were written on the day, some in rather a hurry if I had things on.  A couple of posts were written the day before and copied in on the day because I knew there'd be no time at all to write anything, but no more than two.  I've enjoyed it, most of the time.  Why not give it a go?  Blogspot is free, and you will sharpen up your skills with the written word while you reflect on your life.  I'll read yours if you read mine.

You could say it was a record of a year in a dull life.  I haven't been the chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, or even a divisional managing director, or founded my own business.  I haven't published any learned academic papers, let alone run my own highly acclaimed research laboratory.  I haven't signed a book deal or got my own byline in a national newspaper.  I haven't become even remotely famous or achieved the faintest whiff of celebrity.  I haven't earned much, and so I haven't spent much.  I haven't bought an iPod, or an iPad, or an iPhone, or an It bag.  I haven't eaten in a restaurant reviewed by Giles Coren.  I haven't been on an exotic holiday or even a series of weekend breaks, apart from one night in Hitchin.  Clever people who are paid to write columns about their lives, instead of doing it as a hobby, would probably consider it a life so dull and obscure they would rather eat their own faces than live like that.

There again, I have spent a great deal of time working with plants and in the open air, which I like, and the conclusion at the end of Candide is that we must learn to cultivate our gardens.  I have been able to spend time with friends and family, and am still married to the same person as at the start of the year.  I've had the mental energy to read some books other than blockbuster thrillers, looked at some good pictures and listened to some first class live music.  I have (mostly) eaten proper food, and not suffered from any eating disorder, or felt the need to have my body surgically enhanced for cosmetic purposes.  I have slept well, most of the time, and not felt that my self-worth was threatened by driving a five year old Skoda Fabia.  I have managed to extract a honey crop from my bees, and enjoyed the company of my cats, and seen a robin sitting on her nest and a newt swimming.  I've done some work for charity.  That's not too bad, all in all.

The Systems Administrator and I aren't going to a party tonight.  Actually, we weren't invited to one, but I don't think that means that our friends are deliberately excluding us from the fun, more that none of them are holding one, or at least not within driving distance.  When I've been to New Year's Eve parties in the past I've mostly found them rather depressing, since I don't like forced jollity, or being socially obliged to stay up until midnight in order to see the New Year in after I'm tired and just want to go to sleep, or singing Auld Lang Syne while holding hands with strangers, or being kissed by anybody I don't already know and like a great deal.  The SA has made a posh beef stew, which we will eat, and then see how we go.  We might last until midnight, we might not.  My favourite way to spend New Year's Day is always, always to be able to get out and do some work in the garden, and not to start the year with a crashing hangover.

Happy New Year, everybody.

Friday, 30 December 2011

bees, black currants and beetroot

My January 2012 Essex Beekeeper magazine arrived this morning.  I looked to see what amusements were in store over the next couple of months, and saw that in January we get a talk by Norman Carreck BSc CBiol FSB FRES NDB on the subject of recent research.  I don't even know what some of those initials stand for.  Later in the month there's the Colchester divisional AGM, but if I go to that it will be a first.  Saffron Walden division are following their AGM with a curry night at the India Villa.  They know how to live over in Saffron Walden.

My sub is due by 1st January.  The Systems Administrator asked how the local division related to the national association, and I had to confess that I didn't precisely know.  The SA looked at the subscription form, and said that it was all set out there, adding cryptically that I was a member of the Soviet.  Since the Arab spring began the SA has been reading about the history of the Russian revolution, which turns out to have many parallels with recent events in the Middle East, and now, apparently, the organisational structure of British beekeeping.  I am a member of my local Division, the Soviet, while the Essex Beekeepers Association sits above it as the Party.  The SA says that the Party has to prevent the Soviets from breaking away.  Thurrock division did actually secede from Essex some years ago, so the model holds up quite well, though I don't know how the SA would account for the third layer of the British Beekeepers' Association presiding over the counties.  The subscription splits between them with £7.50 going to the Division, a £7.00 capitation fee payable to the County and a £15 capitation charge going to the national association.

On the back page of the magazine were colour photographs of the Gilbert Louvre, a type of hive entrance designed by a local beekeeper called Mr Gilbert.  It was in commercial production at one time, and looks quite ingenious.  The SA asked whether it was fitted to the hive using the Gilbert Louvre Manoeuvre.  Sometimes I think my other half does not take beekeeping entirely seriously.

We are on to the final phase of Christmas entertaining this evening, as my parents are coming to supper.  I have made a black currant fool, since by this stage everyone has probably eaten quite a lot of cake and pastry-like things, fruit fool is a pudding that can be made in advance, we all like black currants, and I have some home grown ones in the freezer.  My mother does not eat pips, and the first pressing of the cooked currants through a plastic sieve looked distinctly pippy.  Here is how you get the last pips out.  Wash the sieve, tip the fruit pulp into it, and shake the sieve (over a clean bowl).  Juice will start to drip through.  As you get down to the last thick bits of pulp, if you press with a spoon you will be back to square one.  Instead vibrate the sieve, shaking it as hard as you can (while keeping it over the bowl).  Most of the juice does shake through leaving a remarkably dry residue of pips.

Black currants are potentially one of the messiest ingredients I've cooked with, but not as dangerous as beetroot.  I was once making borscht, and put too much cooked beet in the liquidiser at once, and did not hold the lid down hard enough.  It takes a long time to clean a fountain of beetroot juice off the fronts of cream coloured kitchen wall cupboards.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

bookish pleasures

Last night I managed to do something I've never done before, and delete the task bar from my laptop.  This mystified the Systems Administrator, who asked what on earth I'd been doing, and I said nothing except try to open Windows Explorer.  The SA had to resort to the nuclear option of temporarily removing the battery.  The SA is not a fan of Windows 7.  One friend who is a Mac user says we should convert, but I couldn't face the hassle, unless I had to.

What I was trying to do was get into Amazon to buy something for my Kindle.  I was given the Kindle in the autumn for my birthday, and was thrilled with it (when the bewildered eastern European delivery driver finally managed to find our house), but the other books I was given at the same time kept me going until December, and the SA and I have a pact not to buy ourselves books in the run up to birthdays and Christmas, so once I'd finished Andrew Rawnsley's history of the last years of the Labour government on the Kindle I didn't like to get anything else.

I did download some poetry, some free and some very cheap.  Cheap poetry on Kindle turned out not to be a good idea, as the budget edition of the poems and prose of Ernest Dowson dispensed with the lines in the poetry and ran each verse together into a single paragraph.  I think that is down to inappropriate use of text recognition software, as distinct from scanning images into electronic book form.

Amazon are missing a trick when it comes to sales for Kindles, though I dare say they are working on it, because it still doesn't seem to be possible to buy a download as a present for somebody else.  A download purchased on my Amazon account is directed to my Kindle, and I can't find any option to present it to another person instead.  Amazon will let you print or e-mail gift certificates, and being able to do the same thing for an electronic book should be the next logical step.  True, you rob the recipient of the pleasure of choice compared to a gift certificate, but that's the case when you give a physical book, and part of the fun of giving and receiving books is hitting the right note, thus demonstrating how carefully you have observed and understood your loved one's tastes.

I decided to follow up the Andrew Rawnsley with Alistair Darling's memoirs.  Poor Alistair Darling, I don't think he has made it big time in the political biography stakes, as Back from the Brink is already down to £2.09 as an e-book.  The SA would like to read that as well at some point, and another area where Amazon ought to up their game with Kindles is that there needs to be a way of lending e-books other than by lending the reading device.  The SA and I share quite a few of our books, or at least we do in some subjects.  History, politics, food and some aspects of urban design are joint enthusiasms, though I won't be clamouring to borrow The Kronstadt Revolution when the SA's finished it, and the SA's familiarity with my gardening books stops at checking the covers very carefully to see which ones I've already got.  There was a new history of East London that we both eyed up and neither bought, in case the other did, and a book about skyscrapers that the SA thought about buying for me but felt embarrassed that it might really be a present to self.  The covering phrase when presenting a parcel of probable mutual interest is 'this is a bit of a present for both of us'.

Addendum  A late straggling Christmas card arrived this morning.  From the annotations on the envelope we gathered it had reached us via another house, whose occupants had kindly bothered to stick it back in the post with a note saying it wasn't theirs.  Our predecessors  probably thought the name they chose for this house was very appropriate and charming.  It is appropriate, though a bit naff, and it is unfortunate that there are at least two other houses with the same name in nearby villages.  Add in the English tendency to name a road after the place it goes to, and there's ample scope for confusion.  I was slightly indignant the card went astray as it had our full postcode on the envelope, but looking at that carefully I though the sender had probably written H as U.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

all dressed up and no place to go

We went to our local pub yesterday evening.  When I say 'local' I mean one of the closest pubs to our house, about two miles away.  I'd heard that the bar was decorated with an amazing quantity of lights and decorations, so we thought we'd go up there in the early evening and have a drink, just the one round before supper, and admire the glitz.  We checked the opening times on their website and got in the car and drove over (a round trip of four miles is a long way to walk in the dark to see some Christmas lights), and it was dark and shut.  Whatever the website said about opening at 6.00pm on Tuesdays turned out not to apply to Christmas bank holiday Tuesday.  We drove home again.

Pubs have a lot to contend with, quite apart from the issue of drink-driving.  If the Systems Administrator and I want to have a quiet drink we know a splendid venue.  There is a log fire for winter evenings, and a secluded garden for summer.  We always get seats, and the chairs are comfortable.  There is free wi-fi, the music, if any, is to our taste, and there is no giant television screen on the wall showing football.  A friendly cat is likely to come and see us.  The drinks are relatively cheap, the food is genuinely home cooked, not out of a food service company van, and nobody will try and charge us £7.95 for sausage and mash.  You can see the punchline coming.  It's our house.  Our friends have equally pleasant and congenial houses, so when we meet up it's generally for a meal in somebody's home.

I do actually like pubs, or at least I like pubs in attractive buildings with quirky characterful decor that doesn't smack of the pub designer's formula, that keep their beer well, don't play loud music, and don't make me feel as though I'm intruding into somebody else's boozer.  That rules out a lot of pubs, but still leaves quite a few.  When the SA and I are on holiday we go to pubs for lunch or for a pre-supper outing to see some fresh faces before retreating to the self-catering cottage.  A not too long country walk with relatives or friends ending at a pub can be very nice as part of a weekend visit.  The rest of the time I rarely go to a pub at all.  Several of my friends don't like beer, and by extension don't like pubs.  When we meet we are more likely to go to an art gallery or garden and a cafe than a pub.

Pubs are supposed to be at the heart of the community, bringing people together.  The trouble is, when I consider the people I know and would like to share my spare time with, they are scattered in an arc across Essex and London, and dotted across the rest of the UK.  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, compared to the golden days of pubs when everybody lived two streets from where they were born, we can keep in touch by phone and e-mail and text.  If we want to see each other it's easy to arrange.  We don't have to go and hang about the local pub in the hope of bumping into each other.  I'm actually quite keen on community.  I take part in beekeepers' events, and the music society, and do talks for the woodland charity and sometimes about gardening or beekeeping, and so meet people living in my area, if not my village.  Some are good friends, some people I don't know well but see on a regular basis, others I probably won't see again.  Just the same social impulse that would have been filled in the past by going to the pub.

So I fear there are more pub closures to come.  I hope the industry will eventually reach an equilibrium, whereby those that are left are the best ones, with good beer and proper food and a nice ambience, which will be able to survive on the trade generated by people celebrating high days and holidays, boosted by extra events like live music and quizzes.  If, when the SA and I go out for the day, we can no longer find a pleasant pub to have lunch in, then my life will be diminished and it will serve me right for not having supported my local one, since every pub is somebody's local.  But it might make it easier for me by at least posting when it is closed on its website.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

nice cheese, shame about the biscuits

We watched Silent Running with our cheese fest.  This is a 1972 sci-fi minor classic, or at least Dr Mark Kermode keeps recommending it on the R5 Live film programme, and the Systems Administrator was very keen for us to see it.  It is about an astronaut working in a fleet of space ships carrying biospheres containing all that is left of plant and animal life, after a catastrophe on earth has sent the surface temperature to 75 degrees C.  As a chronic biophile and pet lover I found the whole thing very upsetting, especially what happened to the plants and the robots.

The robots were waddling boxes about the size of an old fashioned TV, and according to IMDb they were played by actors without legs, walking on their hands in lightweight costumes.  These were remarkable performances, deserving more credit than they got.  I was reminded of an interview I'd heard on R4 with David Hockney earlier in the day, who recounted how he took his mother to an exhibition that included a work by Barry Flanagan, a rope snaked and coiled across the floor.  Mrs Hockney looked at this and asked 'Did he make the rope?'

The Carr's water biscuits bought to go with the cheese fest had a strong and insistent peppery taste that competed with and detracted from the flavour of the cheese.  On close inspection they had little black bits in, and the box said, in mauve letters 3mm high*, with roasted garlic and herbs.  I think manufacturers should put a large yellow exclamation mark on the packaging when they have introduced a fresh twist to an established brand, so that we could check we really do want the new version with added whatever, instead of the normal flavour we were expecting.  I suppose they're hoping that I'll like water biscuits with roasted garlic and herbs and buy lots more biscuits, but I don't, so the only effect is to devalue the Carr's brand slightly in my eyes as being unreliable.

If you want to sleep well and soundly then I don't think watching a disturbing film before bed while eating too much cheese is probably the best way to go about it, and I was rather slow to get going this morning.  Tidying the daffodil lawn, that was supposed to be a quick job just finishing it off, seems to be taking forever.  I badly underestimated how much there was still to do.  There are endless straggly bits of hedge to trim, and creeping tufts of grass that ducked under the power scythe in the autumn cut, and have now gone yellow and look unsightly.  The old dead leaves from the eleagnus take a small eternity to rot down, and in the meantime have worked their way down among the straggly grass and embedded themselves in the surface of the lawn.  The oak leaves would be very useful on the leaf compost pile, if I could get them out without carrying away half a bin load of weedy grass and rot resistant eleagnus leaves at the same time.  I was reduced to using the leaf vacuum machine.

There were honey bees foraging on the Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun'.  I don't know if this is a good or a bad thing.  Honey bees don't hibernate, but they undergo metabolic changes for the winter, laying down extra fat stores, and ceasing to produce the bee milk they feed to their young, while the queen stops laying eggs.  In this winter state they can live for six months, instead of the six weeks which is all that workers manage in the height of summer.  If the weather is unseasonably warm does the colony remain in its winter state, or will the workers change metabolically to short lived summer bees too early, before the queen starts laying and it is warm enough for them to raise young?  And are they eating their stored food too quickly, if they are active when they should be resting?  I really don't know.

*Literally.  I retrieved the packaging from the recycling and measured the typeface with a ruler.  I find that vaguely disturbing.

Monday, 26 December 2011

working off the pudding

So, the presents were exchanged, and we are both the happy possessors of some books that we were hoping for, and some that we didn't know existed but like them now we've seen them.  I think the Systems Administrator was genuinely amazed to receive a copy of Revolution and counterrevolution: Class struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory, but in a good way, and I am looking forward to reading The Prince of the Marshes and other occupational hazards of a year in Iraq, though I did start yesterday with Gardens of the World.  It looked a less demanding read, after all that lunch, and it has nice pictures.  The big tabby tried to eat the string from the gammon, and apart from that all passed off peacefully.

It feels slightly odd not being at work today, it being a Monday, but the plant centre is closed.  Not for us the frenzy of the Boxing Day sales.  Since it was warm, dry and fairly calm, I got on with raking up leaves from the young oak tree in the back garden.  It was planted by our predecessors, not long before we moved in, and we always call it 'the little oak tree', although 18 years on it is not very little.  The leaves hung on until not long before Christmas, then the strong winds took them off and blew a lot of them into the borders, which is slightly irritating as I want them to make leaf mould, and it is far quicker raking them off the lawn than picking them out from among the plants in the beds.

Raking is good post Christmas lunch exercise.  I have a plastic lawn rake with broad tines, that can't spear leaves on their tips.  The secret is to grasp the handle with your palms and the flat, palm side of your fingers, all those bits of the hand that naturally and easily form callous in response to manual work.  Avoid running it over the soft flap between thumb and index finger.  It's easily done without thinking, and at the end of the session you will have removed a disc of skin from your hand, which will sting like hell.  The same thing holds true for holding brushes if you are painting a wall or fence.

I also went on cutting the remains of the long grass at the edges of the daffodil lawn.  That's a job that I started and half finished about two months ago, then got sidetracked into doing other things.  Some of the clippings are green, but I'm hoping that they'll burn OK on the bonfire, mixed in with the brambles I've been cutting out of the wood, and other woody debris.  They look too weedy to put on the compost heap.  The eleagnus hedge has ballooned out over the lawn, and I'm taking that back as well.  I can't believe that one is supposed to cut Eleagnus x ebbingei in late December, and if we have a sudden cold spell (not unlikely in January and February) the hedge may suffer and I shall wish I'd done things more by the book.  With the mild autumn the hedge has just kept growing, and if I leave cutting it until the spring I'll trample on the daffodils.  I haven't seen any emerging daffodil leaves yet, but I expect they'll be through pretty soon, if the weather continues like this.

Blackbirds and robins were singing all around the garden.  It's easy to forget that the worst of the winter is probably still to come.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

merry christmas, everyone

Merry Christmas, everybody.  I took the picture of the tree yesterday, as I needed the System's Administrator's help changing the image to a size that would fit on the blog.  It looks sparklier than that in real life, with the lights on, but the camera insisted I use the flash.  Formatting a page with a photo in it is a skill that will have to wait for another day.  I can't persuade any text to sit in that blank space up there.

Presently the SA will get up and Christmas Day will commence, but in the meantime, having woken first as I usually do I have given the cats and the chickens their breakfasts, as per usual, and am now frying a leftover portobello mushroom I found in the fridge.  It seemed a pity to waste it.  Newspaper columnists with space to fill have asked What to wear on Christmas Day, to which my answer is, given that I'll spend most of the day with cats sitting on me, something that I don't mind getting covered in cat hair seems a good idea.  Same jeans and cardigan as last week, then.

The mystery Christmas CD turns out to be an acoustic cover version of Slade's Merry Christmas, I think by Karine Polwart, but I didn't write that anywhere on the disc or the box.  We listened to Thea Gilmore's album Strange Communion a couple of times yesterday, and it is very good.  I bought it for Christmas last year, and since it is a Christmas album we haven't played it in the meantime.  One track is an extract from Louis Macneice's long poem Autumn Journal.  I didn't know that when I bought the CD, as the only track I'd heard was That'll be Christmas (a bitter-sweet number).  One of the books I suggested to my mother last year when she was asking what I'd like for Christmas was Louis Macneice's Autumn Journal.  What are the chances of that?

Have a very nice day, everybody.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

final preparations

With the rain last night came the wind.  We went for supper with my parents, and the sound of it gusting around the end of the house and over the conservatory took me back to childhood.  Except that then we lived in a stone built Victorian house on top of a hill, exposed to the full blast of the Devon south-westerlies, and when it blew hard the wind didn't just shriek, the whole house thrummed, like a sailing boat pushed hard in a stiff blow.  Driving home, as we turned into the road leading to our lane we saw blue flashing lights ahead of us.  This did not bode well, and I was afraid that there must have been a collision on the blind corner where our farm lane turns off.  Instead it turned out that there was a tree down across the road, and the police were on the scene.  We had to turn round and go the other way round the block, a detour of about three miles to cover about 500 yards.

This morning, going down to the village for emergency supplies of butter (one packet in the fridge turned out to be best before a date in late November, and did taste as though it had better be used to make bird food and not mince pies), the lane was already clear, with great piles of sawdust on each side of the road to show where the fallen tree had been, and some impressive lumps of timber in the ditch.  Our neighbour has lost a holm oak from his garden.  It was a fine looking tree, and the foliage didn't look sparse or diseased, at least to the casual eye passing by.  Lucky it didn't fall on anybody.

I have laid out the red cloth, and the white lace one, and the large lantern, and made a wreath to go round the base of the lantern using a loop of ivy strands tied together with red raffia, decorated with holly, fruiting ivy, the great coral coloured fruits of the rose 'Meg', and sprays of little apples from the crab apple 'Red Sentinel'.  The Systems Administrator has twiddled white flashing lights up the banisters, and woven holly and ivy through them, and piled greenery and rose hips on the mantelpiece.  The SA's mother was Welsh, and the SA, normally a highly rational and definitely non-superstitious being, is adamant that the greenery must not be brought into the house until Christmas Eve.  Otherwise something bad happens, though I'm not sure what.

I have made mince pies.  It is a very long time since I made them, since last year I made a stollen (which was unexpectedly successful) and that looked so large that mince pies as well seemed de trop.  This year's pies are made with a jar of mincemeat bought last Christmas and never opened.  The year before that I made a fruit cake, finally discovering at about the third attempt how to cook a fruit cake all the way through in an Aga without burning the outside (there are several ovens, but their temperatures are not adjustable, so it is impossible to bake anything at a temperature between about 100 degrees C and approximately 180 degrees).  The answer turns out to be that you cook it for a very, very long time at a cooler temperature than I would ever have believed you could cook a cake at.  By the time it was iced it looked like a lot of cake, and the SA doesn't eat Christmas cake, so mince pies seemed excessive then as well.  So it is about three years since I made them, and I couldn't remember what depth tins I used, or what sized cutters for either the bases or the lids.  The filling hasn't run over the lids, so that is all right, though they are a rather odd shape.  Then I made cheese straws, and cut them out using a star shaped pastry cutter, as it's Christmas, instead of just cutting the pastry into rectangles with a sharp knife like I do for the music society nibbles.

At 3.00 it will be time for the festival of nine lessons and carols, and soon after that it will be time for a glass of sherry and a cheese star.  Merry Christmas, everybody.

Friday, 23 December 2011

stumps (day two)

The forecast rain didn't arrive until after dark.  We do need rain.  Down in Sussex they have a drought order, but when  I read the tips on how to save water they were all the things that we do as a matter of course anyway.  Don't run the tap while you brush your teeth.  I haven't done that for about thirty years.  Take a shower instead of a bath.  Always do, and I turn off the shower after the initial wetting while I soap myself.  Don't wash your car with a hosepipe.  I go one up on that, which is not to wash my car.  Well, maybe once a year, at winter's end to get the salt off.

As it wasn't raining I returned to the stumps.  One big rhododendron finally came out, when I managed to find the last buried root that was holding it and saw through it.  It is a satisfying moment, when you work out why a stump won't shift, and conquer the last point of resistance.  A lesser stump came out fairly easily, but a large elder root is proving intractable.  I could leave that where it is, except that there is a great deal of elder in the wood in toto, and I want the space close to the house for exotics.  Don't tell the Essex Wildlife Trust.  One of the things I want to plant is a couple of pots of Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill', which are rooted suckers from my original plant.  Bees love it, and it flowers very early on in the season, so it has some benefits for wildlife even though it does come from the Himalayas.

I planted out the Michelia doltsopa 'Silver Cloud' that has been sitting in its pot by the entrance to the wood all summer since being evicted from the conservatory.  It was looking rather sorry for itself, and on tipping it carefully out of the pot the rootball was far from solid.  It ought to find the soil in the wood to its liking, and I hope it manages to get going.  I have no idea how the gardeners at The Savill Garden keep their plant under glass looking so healthy, as mine was a constant martyr to red spider mite no matter what I did.

There will be space for an Oemleria cerasiformis, a large suckering shrub from North America with scented white flowers in late winter, which I have long coveted but lacked anywhere suitable to put one.  I think I am far enough along with clearing the ground to be safe buying one the next time I'm at work.  I try nowadays not to buy things unless the site is ready, as it's so easy to believe that it will soon be clear, and then it isn't for one reason or another, and the plant sits around in its pot for months or even years, degenerating.  Burncoose rates Oemleria as hardy down to minus fifteen degrees celsius, so I'd probably be OK planting it now.  Its common names include Oso berry, Oregon plum and Indian plum, but to get the fruits you need male and female plants, and I don't have room for more than one, and plants offered for sale don't seem to be sexed anyway.  I don't mind about the fruit, it's the flowers that do it for me.

As the Oemleria, the Daphne and the Michelia will all be close under our bedroom window, I hope that their scents will drift in.  Behind them, eventually, we should see the gigantic pink flowers of  Magnolia campbellii 'Charles Rafill', but that is one of those magnolias that doesn't flower at a young age, and although mine was planted in November 2003 and must now be a good 4-5m tall, it is quite devoid of flower buds again this winter.  There is a story in the garden guide for Caerhayes (one of the very great Cornish gardens) that they bought a magnolia from the Hilliers nursery, waited many years for it to flower, and when it finally did it was the wrong variety.  Hilliers refunded the original purchase price.  I hope mine will not turn out to be the wrong thing.  If it is straight M. campbellii then it might not flower at all until about the time that we're ready to move to the retirement bungalow.  The ground drops away from the house to the wood, and if all goes according to plan then the huge pink flowers should be at the same height as the bedroom window.  There is a plant of flowering age at the Blakenham Woodland Gardens, and it is a beautiful thing, very exciting.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

the shortest day

I'd assumed that yesterday, 21st December, would be the Solstice, but it turns out that 2011 is one of those years when it slips forward a day, due to the earth's orbit of the sun taking slightly more than 365 days.  Next year the leap year will get it back where it belongs.  Although it was the shortest day it was splendid for gardening, warm, dry, and sunny, and it was a pity that I had to spend the morning shopping for food.  We have steak and chips and a giant portobello mushroom (each) for supper on Christmas Eve, always.  I think this tradition arose when we were still commuting, and wanted something luxurious and celebratory that was easy to cook, and not pork or poultry given the feast to come.  On Christmas Day we have a free range chicken with all the trimmings (except bread sauce.  Can't see the point of the stuff).  We used to dutifully roast a turkey, until deciding that a whole turkey was far too big for two people, and that neither of us particularly liked it anyway.  On Boxing Day evening we have cheese and watch a film.  The list of required foodstuffs is thus very precise, never changes, and we are terribly particular about finding everything on it.

I got the gammon to go with the chicken in Waitrose, because they do nice gammons while the Tesco ones are generally rubbish.  Then I went to Tesco because I know where things are there, and I thought it would be easier.  In Tesco it took me a long time to find any cream that wasn't best before 25 December.  My flexible attitude to best before dates does not extend to cream, because off cream tastes disgusting.  The only fresh orange juice was best before 23 December, and they didn't seem to have any decent cheese, so I had to wrap the frozen chips up in my work coat and go home via Wivenhoe, to get cheese at the deli and see if the Co-op had any longer dated OJ.  It did, also Price's candles, which I wanted to go in the candelabra (it's black painted metal from Ikea.  Don't get too excited).  Tesco seem to have given up selling what they used to describe as bistro candles.  Unwrapping four different cheeses in the deli, and chopping bits off them, and weighing and pricing them, took absolutely ages and there were two people behind me in the queue, and nobody else for them to pay except for the man who was busy serving me with cheese.  You can see why supermarkets took off, occasional stock glitches notwithstanding, although the Wivenhoe deli does do very good cheese, and stocks Oud Amsterdam, which I'm especially partial to.

I did wonder how it was that I was trecking around the grocers of north Essex while the Systems Administrator was eating potted cheese in a City chop house with some old mates, but given that I won't play any part in cooking the lunch, apart from making the rum butter and maybe offering to peel the sprouts, it only seemed fair.  And I get very neurotic if we don't have the right kind of stuffing, so it's probably better if I buy it.  There was one year we found we'd bought redcurrant jelly instead of cranberry sauce, which was a blow, but I was very careful today.

It was a pleasure and a relief to go out into the wood after lunch with the secateurs, saw and pickaxe, and get on with tackling the brambles and the rhododendron stumps.  I got one stump out, but that was an easy one.  I think a branch had layered itself at some point, and the root system wasn't all that substantial.  The stump I'm stuck into now is a real monster.  I've sawed through several side roots, and dug a 30cm trench all round it, and I can still barely rock it in the hole.  I haven't counted the others, but there are several to go after this one, possibly hraia (a very large number, more than five), or even funfty.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Christmas carols

We went to a friend's house for lunch today, and I forgot to post anything before going out, which means I will have to break my normal rule never to press the Publish button on a computer, or indeed Send, after having a drink.  However, since the two glasses of red were five hours ago and accompanied by roast lamb, cheese, and apple crumble, I'm probably fairly safe.

We listened to the radio in the car on the way over, and dear old Bing Crosby was singing White Christmas.  I'm not with Bing on that one.  When you are trying to get to lunches and suppers and concerts and see people as one does at Christmas, and you would like the delivery van to make it up the farm lane with any last minute Amazon orders, and want to get to the shops to buy the ingredients for Christmas lunch, and would like the shops to have some fresh vegetables in them and not have run out of chipolatas or cream, a White Christmas is frankly a damn nuisance.  Give me damp and 12 degrees any time.

Listening to the Christmas songs on the radio reminded me that it really is time we started working our way through our collection of Christmas music, or we're never going to play most of it.  The Watersons' strange pagan offering is a fixed item on the schedule, and will come out on the evening of Christmas eve.  Then we have not just one but three discs of carols from Saint Pauls.  The first one I bought has staples like Once in Royal David's City and Away in a Manger, but then I branched out and the most recent addition is on the Hyperion label and includes tracks by Byrd and Gibbons.

There is a sort of Watersons lite offering by a more recent folk ensemble, which is quite good but lacks the elemental wildness of the original, more Lady Audley's Secret than Wuthering Heights.  Then there is a very good Christmas album by folk stalwart John Kirkpatrick.  He has been around since the 1970s, and picked up the BBC Radio 2 Folk Musician of the Year Award in 2010.  His album has a splendid song about making the Christmas pudding, and another which is a sly take on the nativity story of the stable animals being able to speak.  There's also a Christmas offering from Thea Gilmore, including the track That'll be Christmas which is getting air time again this year.  She is one of those singer-songwriters who don't fit neatly into a musical category, whose fans say they should be more widely known.  Despite liking her Christmas CD I still haven't bought any of her others.

We've got the Pogues Fairytale of New York.  I bought that last year as a surprise.  Then there's a box cryptically labelled Christmas Album, which must contain something we copied to CD ourselves, but I can't remember what.  I bought A Peter Warlock Christmas on the strength of loving Bethlehem Down, though the Systems Administrator tends to get rather restless being made to listen to that much Peter Warlock.  Finally there are three albums from the New College choir, which is probably rather a lot.  I think I liked the track listings on all of them, and they were cheaper if you bought them as a set.

That should keep us happy.  Better press that Publish button and start listening.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

decorating the tree

This morning we put up the Christmas tree.  This had a comforting element of ritual.  I searched fruitlessly through the landing cupboard for a red towel to put under the stand, to keep any spilt water off the floor, before remembering that I have a red table cloth (used in the past for collecting bee swarms) and looked for that with my beekeeping kit, before recalling that it was in a box in the spare room.  We screwed the base of the tree into the stand, and turned it round several times trying to find the best side to face into the room, and shuffled it back and forwards so that the top didn't quite touch the sloping ceiling.  Then the Systems Administrator went out, and left me to do the decorations.

Last year's lights had miraculously not tangled themselves up in the bag, and still worked (did you see the Matt cartoon of 3 December about Christmas tree lights?).  I wasn't too happy, as I balanced on the second from top step of the ladder trying to attach the first string of lights, to look down and see Our Ginger chewing the second set.  They still function, so he can't have bitten through the insulation.  I am cautious enough about tree lights to turn them off while I fiddle about arranging them on the tree.

I like getting the decorations out of their boxes.  Newspaper columnists with space to fill write annually about what's fashionable in trees this year.  Does anybody take any notice, or are most people like us, decorating their tree with whatever they had last year, plus one or two additions?  We have a set of slender glass drops, most of them a soft and lustrous red, three clear with snowflake patterns.  I got those in Heals, probably over twenty years ago.  There are some 'Shaker' decorations also dating from the 80s, bought over several years from the now-defunct Shaker Shop.  Shaker Christmas tree decorations are almost certainly a misnomer, as from what I know of Shaker beliefs I can't think they had any such thing.  These are folksy.  There is a wooden teddy bear with articulated leg joints and a tartan scarf, a giraffe with wings, an angel with organza ribbon wings and a metal halo that goes at the top of the tree, and a secondary angel with checked cotton wings.  There is a black cat with pipecleaner-thin arms and legs, wearing red mittens and a scarf, that gives me an odd frisson and sets off Strange Fruit in my mind as it hangs.  There are three large glass balls, bought on holiday in Cracow with my parents and brought back as hand luggage.

Then there are lesser baubles, some comparatively classy ones from John Lewis, and some cheap and cheerful from B&Q.  There is a set of sequined fruit, and a sequined bee, and a red metal trumpet and a couple of cookie cutters, one inexplicably shaped like a pig.  The best ornaments go in the middle part of the tree, not right at the top where I'm likely to drop them putting them on or removing them, and the zone nearest the ground gets the coloured raffia ones, and the metal decorations from Ikea, since they are liable to be chewed or batted off the tree by the cats.  There are a few unexpectedly heavy balls that have to be strung from stout twigs, or the very base of side branches, so that their weight won't bend the branches down too far.

The colour scheme is roughly red, white, gold and silver, but it's not that strict, and the look is a weird mixture of Victorian baroque glitter meets homespun crafts.  There is no tinsel.  And that's how it is.  Every year.  I don't want it to be different.  I like getting the hanging cat and the Heals pendants out of the box.  I don't care if purple, or white, or organic home gathered fruits are in fashion this year.  Fashion has no place here.  Likewise I do not feel any 'peer pressure to buy the whole of the White Company window display' to deck my festive table, which will be decorated with the same white lace table cloth and red imitation jacquard cloth it had last year, and the year before that.  I have even washed and ironed them, though I haven't managed to get the wax stains from last year's candles out of the red cloth.  We will bring out a very large hurricane lamp that someone gave us a couple of years back (customs can evolve) and I will make a wreath to go round the bottom of the hurricane lamp, and a table arrangement, using twigs and berries out of the garden.  I will save on buying a piece of oasis foam and use a large potato as the base of the arrangement.

This year's tree is rather a monster.  I was worried as we brought it up from the garage that we'd knocked the terminal bud off, because I have a thing about not cutting the tops off Christmas trees, but it's just as well it's no taller.  It fits under the ceiling inside the door to the veranda with a centimetre to spare, no more.  It looks very...vigorous.  There are some strong branches shooting out at random heights above ground, so it is not a neat tapered cone.  You can tell that it was not regularly disbudded or dosed with hormones like the ones in Gardeners World the Friday before last.  The upper half is studded with cones, large and handsome.  There is something wild and definitely Ent-like about it.  I never bother with putting out sherry and mince pies for Father Christmas, but I could imagine the tree going for them, in the dark small hours.  I'm rather pleased with it.  I'm sure that lots of spirits will come and take refuge in it over the shortest days, which is after all the point of having a Christmas tree.  I would never want a plastic one.  I know that they don't drop needles on the floor, and they are neat, and some are very realistic nowadays, but a Christmas tree has to be a real plant.  You can't expect the spirits to live in a plastic tree.

As we'd got the double doors open to bring in the tree the postman arrived, and he and I chatted about Christmas trees while he filled in the paperwork for a parcel, and it turned out that he knows my employers, because they are great fans of Scottish reeling, and he is in the ceilidh band that plays for their dances.  He sent them his regards.  The postman didn't sound Scottish.  He must just like the music, which is fair enough.  It's a small world sometimes.

Monday, 19 December 2011

not much doing

The sliding door of the chicken house was frozen into its runners, and I had to give it a brisk kick to free it.  That's the trouble with weather that is first damp, then freezing.  The chickens weren't coming out, though.  They didn't even get down from their perch.  With two days to go to the shortest day, 7.40am is earlier than a self-respecting chicken is willing to get up.

Trade at the plant centre got off to a very quiet start.  I brought the Brunnera and Aster into the shop to start defrosting so that I'd be able to pick off the dead leaves and dibble out any weeds, and fiddled around with inconsequential jobs until they were slightly thawed.  After two days of standing working at a table that was a good 15cm too low, my back was beginning to grumble, and it was a relief each time the phone rang.  At least trotting across the plant centre to see if we still had a tree that somebody had seen, liked, not bought and now wanted to buy was something to do.

Later on we had some people out Christmas shopping, but very few seemed to be buying plants for their own gardens.  It probably isn't at the top of most people's lists, in the week before Christmas.  I cleaned up Digitalis and Bergenia, and the hours dragged by rather slowly.

The nicest things in the shop are the locally made, hand-turned wooden fruit.  The wood turner uses yew out of the gardens, and the finished articles show no trace of marks from the lathe, and are polished to a beautiful soft shine.  Yew is a lovely wood, a mixture of strong yellow, reddish pink and cream, which I think is partly achieved by using pieces that have a combination of heart and sap wood.  We ought to do more high quality, locally made stuff like that.  We are going to be more expensive than other garden centres for bog standard products, so we need to add value in customer's eyes by sourcing high quality, unusual things that they can't get elsewhere.  I suggested to the owner that we ought to sell pure beeswax candles and was rather surprised when she said yes, she'd thought that, did I know anybody who made them?  I do, actually.

The owner has got a new and (to my eyes) terrifyingly large horsebox, or at least 'new' in the sense of having come recently into her possession.  I think it is quite an old and well-travelled horsebox that has done sterling service for various horsey families around the Suffolk border.  The gardener was required to take her out for a driving lesson after his mid-morning coffee break.  He said it was really quite easy to drive, as long as you remembered that there was a lot of it out the back.  It has various unusual modifications, such an isolating switch on the battery.  I suggested that there must be a slow power leak that would otherwise run the battery down, but what do I know?  Like our truck, it sounds unlikely to be stolen.

And that really was it.  After the morning frost thawed it began to drizzle, and then rained all afternoon.  Strive as I do to extract interest and entertainment from every working day, today yielded thin pickings.  I'm on holiday now until New Year's Eve, as we are shut next Monday.  I can't imagine there'll be too many customers on New Year's Eve, but the manager has promised to leave me a list of things to be getting on with.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

cold and quiet

It was freezing this morning, minus 2 degrees according to my car, and I was afraid I should have put the heater on in the greenhouse, but by then it was too late to do anything about it.  Then it rained for the second half of the morning.  Then it was just very, very cold.  Dank.  That's what it was, dank.  We had about as many customers as you'd expect in a plant centre on a day that was freezing, raining and dank.  Not even the lure of the shop, with its mugs and tea towels and locally made wooden pepper grinders, was enough to bring them in.

We sold a few more Christmas trees.  I adopted a policy of strict honesty to people who rang up asking whether we had trees, which was to warn them that the trees were rather tall, and not very bushy.  A pleasant couple from Dedham whose name I can never remember managed to find an unexpectedly balanced specimen tucked in among the oddities.  I'm glad they got a good tree.  They came along once to a lecture about a local architect held by the arts society, but left before the wine and nibbles, so I missed the chance to offer them a cheese straw and say hello in my member of the art loving middle classes persona instead of my upmarket shop assistant one.

We tidied up the evergreen grasses, and the Primula, and the Physalis (Chinese lanterns, only two left) and the Phuopsis (pink flowers, smells of fox) and the Ligularia, and the Tanacetum.  We ran out of things to clean up that weren't frozen, as I should have brought more trollies of plant inside the shop last night to keep frost free, only I wasn't expecting that much frost.  Eventually we ran out of plants to clean up on the manager's list of weekend tasks, and I was reduced to going outside and pulling dead leaves off the Hemerocallis.  It was cold.

I consoled myself with imaginary planting plans for the areas of the garden I'm clearing out.  The poorly Rosa rugosa 'Alba' could make way for an Enkianthus, or a Sorbus 'Copper Kettle'.  Enkianthus was my original idea.  It has flowers like heather bells, and glorious autumn colour, and I liked one at Wisley many years ago.  The Sorbus could grow too large, but I could clean a good length of trunk so that we could walk beneath the branches.  It has white flowers, and autumn leaf colour, and orange fruits as well, so it is one feature up on the Enkianthus.  I saw one at Hergest Croft (a wonderful garden on the Welsh borders) a few years back and was utterly smitten.  Hellebores beneath, either way.  I find thoughts of plants very consoling.  They are a good subject to think about during trips to the dentist.

At home the Systems Administrator had got a fire going in the top sitting room, as it's Sunday night and we're having roast beef.  The fire was lit at lunchtime, and loaded with coal as well as logs, and the big radiator turned on.  By 4.30pm the temperature had just edged up to 18 degrees, and one ball in the Galilean thermometer that lives on the mantelpiece had dropped to the bottom.

Addendum  I also came home to the news that Vaclav Havel had died.  I heard one of his plays on the radio, years ago, and liked one line so much that I wrote it on a post-it note and kept it stuck to my office computer screen.

'Only a corpse is never fooled'

I found that very consoling too, when I had made a bad call about some investment decision or other.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

a bird in the hand

It is almost the shortest day.  When I went out at half past seven to open the pop hole of the chicken house and sprinkle their morning treat of porridge oats and Value sultanas, the chickens were still lined up on their perch, and just looked at me through the windows.  It was obviously too early and too dark for them to get up.

The remaining Christmas trees are meeting a certain amount of consumer resistance.  One couple asked me if we would be cutting any more, which I took as a coded comment that they didn't like the ones we had.  I explained that there probably wouldn't be any more, as I thought there weren't any more left to cut, a coded response that yes, I knew the trees were an odd looking lot but unfortunately they were the absolute last scrapings from the bottom of the barrel.  Some people did buy trees, one man saying cheerfully that his tree only had one side, but he didn't want to go up the road and pay fifty pounds for one.  My colleague sawed the bottom off a tree for someone dressed in full biking leathers, face piercings and skull necklace.  I didn't nip out into the car park to see if he was actually going to drive away on a Harley-Davidson with the tree strapped to his back.  I should have really.

A customer came to tell me that there was a sparrow hawk 'in your thing down there'.  I went down to the bottom of the plant centre, and there was indeed a hawk flying around in the top half of the shade tunnel.  The tunnel has a green netting roof, but open sides, and the bird could have flown straight out if it had come lower down, instead of which it was battering itself against the netting roof as it tried to fly upwards towards the sky, which it could see through the shade netting.  Small birds have done the same thing in our conservatory at home, flying repeatedly into the transparent roof, and very difficult to remove they are too, but I've never had to deal with a hawk before, and didn't honestly know how I was going to get it out.  I went into the tunnel from the other end, and walked towards the bird in the hope that it would fly away from me and find the end opening, but it went on flying into the roof, then flopped down on to a plant and fell on its back on the ground.

I picked it up, holding its wings against its body so that it couldn't flap.  I don't know if that is the recommended way of handling a tired and frightened wild bird, but I thought that if it flapped in real panic it might injure itself, or I might drop it in surprise, or it might catch me in the eye.  I put it down, the right way up, in the border outside the tunnel and suggested to the customer that the best thing now might be to leave it to recover.  The owners don't have cats, and were out with the dogs, so it seemed a fairly safe bet just leaving it on the ground.  I checked five minutes later and it had gone.

It was a very beautiful creature, with a lot of red in its colouring.  It looked huge with its full wingspan extended, but tiny in my hands, no larger than a blackbird.  I can identify a kestrel hovering because I know that is the only UK raptor that can hover, but I don't know much about the markings of hawks and haven't seen many close up.  The Systems Administrator on hearing about it thought that it was almost certainly a kestrel and not a sparrowhawk, because sparrowhawks hunt among trees quite close to the ground, and shouldn't have had any difficulty finding their way out of the tunnel via the side openings.  That sounds sensible to me, but having seen the bird ineffectually flying around in the tunnel, and then held it, I still couldn't tell you what species it was.  The customer seemed relieved I'd rescued it.  Compared to him I did have the strategic advantage that I was wearing gloves, and some people are squeamish about handling birds, which I can understand.  Birds are very alien creatures close up, so bony and light, with scaly legs and strange eyes.  Add talons and a hooked beak, and they aren't something you necessarily want to mess with.

Friday, 16 December 2011

rain stopped play

The FSA has advised that eggs may safely be eaten two days after the 'best before' date.  My initial reaction on hearing this was surprise that Hector Sants was concerning himself with eggs, when he had so many other things to worry about, before working out that it was not that FSA, but the other one.  I ate a couple of eggs yesterday for lunch which were the last two in a box marked 'best before 15 November', and I seem to be OK some twenty-seven hours later.  They were supermarket eggs, as our chickens have gone off-lay for the winter.  Home-produced eggs do not come with a reassuring 'best before' date, but our rule of thumb is that they will keep for up to six weeks, no problem.  We don't give them to unsuspecting visitors, but happily eat them ourselves, without any ill effects so far.  This theory is based not on any advice from the FSA (Food Standards Agency as opposed to Financial Services Authority), which is far more conservative about the shelf life of eggs, but on articles about provisioning yachts for long-distance blue water voyages.  If you are half way across the Pacific in a small boat you really don't want to lay yourself low with food poisoning, and so advice on food storage methods, temperatures and safe use-by cut-offs from experienced deep-sea sailors is going to be pretty reliable.  Which said, I still haven't tried making the rillettes whose authors claim 'These keep unrefrigerated for a month'.

It rained today, mingled with a few flakes of snow, which meant I had to wash the kitchen floor.  I would have done it before, until the Systems Administrator told me that the sinister red splodge near the bins was not where the cats had eaten a mouse, but just the juice from a slice of red pepper that got dropped and trodden on during the preparation of Sichuan beef.  Then I wrapped up Christmas presents while listening to the R5 Live film programme.  I am quite eco-conscious and frugal about a lot of things, but have little patience with the annual clamour that we should give up wrapping paper for the good of the planet, and wrap our presents in re-usable cloth like the Japanese allegedly do, or use newspaper, or not wrap them, or not give presents.  Before washing the kitchen floor I sorted out the pile of papers and magazines on the end of the kitchen table that had accumulated over the past few weeks, and the weight of surplus paper generated by that exercise was much more than my three rolls of wrapping paper.  We signed up to the mailing preference service a few years ago, which has reduced the quantity of stuff dropping through the letter box, but that still leaves the inserts for conservatories, hearing aids, care plans and escorted foreign holidays that come with the garden magazines (guess what the demographic of the RHS membership is), the umpteenth Toast and Boden catalogues to have arrived this winter (I've already bought a scarf and a shirt, I'm not buying any more), the fund raising appeals thinly disguised as newsletters from our Alma Mater, the children's nature detective kit (not sure why the Woodland Trust sent me that.  Maybe they thought I'd like to see what it looks like) and so on and so on.  When the English Garden magazine stops sending me leaflets about the Times Wine Club and The Folio Society maybe then I'll rethink my stance on wrapping paper.

It's like with low energy light bulbs.  I haven't flown since 2004 on ecological grounds (as well as the fact that I hate flying).  I am sitting typing this in a room heated only by our own logs, wearing thermals under my trousers.  I don't leave my phone charger plugged in when I'm not charging the phone.  So why I am I not allowed to buy lightbulbs that I can actually see by?  The other day I had to go and get a torch to find the clothes I was searching for in the wardrobe, because even when I put the bedroom light on I still couldn't see what I was doing.  Couldn't I be allowed to have more of a say in how I personally wanted to make savings, instead of having relatively small and inconvenient savings thrust upon me by others, while far more profligate uses of energy go unchallenged (weekend break in Barcelona, anyone?).  Or failing that, maybe somebody could invent a low energy bulb that adequately illuminates a room, and without taking half an hour to warm up.  The SA claims to have heard that at least some people are getting round the problem of initial ultra-dullness by leaving their lights on all the time.  After all, they're low energy.  They can't be using much power.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

the holly and the ivy

Last night's woodland charity talk was fine.  It was at a garden club where I've spoken before, about other things, so it felt like talking to old friends, and I had the comforting feeling that if they didn't like my talks they needn't have booked me for a fourth time.  To give it a touch of seasonal appeal, I departed from the usual script to add a few thoughts on how native trees feature in Christmas stories and songs.

You must know The Holly and the Ivy, everybody does, but did you know that when the Green Knight arrived at Arthur's court in the middle of the Christmas festivities, riding his green horse, he carried a holly sprig in his hand as a token that he came in peace?  I gleaned that nugget recently from Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I asked for (and received) for my birthday after hearing extracts from it at his poetry reading at Ipswich in the summer.  It is a cracking story.

Most people must have heard The Cherry Tree Carol.  I've got four different versions of it on various CDs, but I don't think I've ever sung it.  'Let him gather thee cherries that got thee with child' and 'Up spake the child Jesus from within his mother's womb'.  No, we definitely didn't do that one at school.  On the other hand, probably only die-hard folkies have heard The Bitter Withy.  This was recorded by Mike Waterson and originally released on the Watersons album Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy.  The Systems Administrator and I have it on a re-released CD containing tracks from that that plus all of Frost and Fire, that we listen to without fail every Christmas Eve.  The young Jesus goes out to play, but is snubbed by three rich lords' sons, so gets his revenge by building a bridge out of the beams of the sun, and luring them over it to their deaths.  Their mothers complain to Mary, who punishes Jesus by beating him with a withy rod, and Jesus curses the withy. 'Oh bitter withy, oh bitter withy, that has caused me for to smart.  And the withy shall be the very first tree to perish at the heart'.  Which is well observed, as willow makes hopeless timber and does indeed rot at the heart.  I hope it was OK mentioning that sort of pagan stuff in the Methodist Church Hall.

Addendum  I heard a horrible story yesterday on the radio, which is also in the papers, about a woman who microwaved a kitten to spite the owner, and was given a custodial sentence of 168 days.  Quite right too, even though she'll presumably only spend half of that actually in jail.  On the same day I read in The Telegraph about how a pack of hounds had run on to private land, and killed the householders' 18 year old cat Moppet.  The huntsmen removed the dead cat and went on without telling the owners what had happened, returning the body two days later after the owners asked about it, in a dog food bag.  The incident was reported to the police, who said that it had been investigated and no further action would be taken.  Excuse me?  Hunting with dogs is illegal.  You may or may not agree with that legislation, but if permitting a pack of 27 hounds to run on to private land and kill a pet they find there isn't hunting with dogs I don't know what it is.

You could say that the kitten had its life ahead of it, whereas at eighteen Moppet was not long for this world anyway.  You could consider that the kitten's death was prolonged and agonising, whereas Moppet's, while terrifying, was probably quick.  You could say that the hunt was entitled to use the bridleway, and people who have cats in areas where there are hunts shouldn't live in houses on bridleways.  You could say that Moppet's fate mirrored that of countless small rodents and birds caught by cats, and that such is nature.  But the fact remains, hunting with dogs is against the law, and indeed this very day the Sentencing Council for England and Wales is reviewing the application of the dangerous dogs act when it comes to dogs running out of control and causing injury.  Is there no sanction at all against the hunt?  If not 168 days in jail for the Master, or the whipper-in, or whoever was supposed to be in charge of the hounds when they ran into somebody's garden and killed their cat, then what about saying that the hunt has to be kennelled somewhere where they won't have to pass through private gardens to go hunting (or whatever it is they do given that hunting with dogs is illegal).

OK, it was only a cat.  I am irrationally fond of cats.  But let's play a thought game for a moment.  Re-run this scenario, only this time it is not an eighteen year old deaf pet cat in the garden.  It is a two year old child.  The owner of the cat very generously says that the hounds are not vicious to people.  That is not an experiment I personally would wish to make, if it were my two year old.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

missions accomplished

The truck, which started beautifully yesterday afternoon, refused to fire this morning.  As at the third attempt the starter motor died away into a sluggish grrh grrh grhh, I began to think that we weren't going to get the Christmas tree today, but the Systems Administrator trotted away to get a can of Easy Start and sprayed some into the air intake, and the truck suddenly coughed into noisy life.  I'd forgotten that this is what cars used to be like.  It is one reason why I don't dare drive the truck, apart from the fact that it feels as though I am venturing on to the road in something the size of my kitchen, and I don't understand the modifications the SA has made to the ignition system.  Since it broke it now starts off a button, not the ignition key.  The new arrangement passed the MoT, so that's fine, and looking on the bright side the truck is very unlikely to be stolen.  Nobody would want it, and if they did they'd probably never get it to start.

We went first off to get the mushroom compost.  There was still a large puddle in one corner of the yard, but we found a dry place to stand and shovel.  A man in a bobble hat came and asked if we were bagging it or chucking it straight on the back of the truck, and I said I would like 25 bags if I had enough bags, and should I pay him or the office?  He seemed keen for me to pay him, and let me have my 25 bags for less than what I thought the going rate was, saying that they would charge me an arm and a leg up in the office.  I decided that this arrangement was between him and his employer, but it suited me as I'd discovered I didn't have enough money for 25 bags, or even 20.  Who is to say how large a bag is anyway?

Then we went to the plant centre to collect a tree, taking the truck for a short sprint up the A12, which was adventurous of us.  It's good for it to have a run.  I nipped off to wash some of the manure off my wellingtons, and by the time I got back the SA had inspected the Christmas trees, and said they were an odd-looking lot.  We'd forgotten to measure the height of the ceiling where the tree is to go, or to bring a tape measure to check the size of them.  I could have borrowed a tape, but that wouldn't have been any use given I didn't know how tall I wanted it to be.  Around 27 years ago, when  we were living in a rented flat in Highgate, we set off to Marks and Spencers to buy curtains without having first measured the window, so we haven't progressed in more than a quarter of a century.  The SA had picked out a tree that looked a nice shade of green, and had a lot of cones on, but a very obvious kink in the top 45cm of trunk.  We agreed that the wobble added character, and that it was a lovely tree, especially for what is was going to cost us.

Back home, I was startled to see two flowers out on Camellia japonica 'Alba Simplex'.  This is a beautiful old variety, with simple white flowers (the clue's in the name) bearing central bosses of bright yellow stamens.  It makes a dense, bushy shrub, and once established seems to cope well with dry conditions.  I never irrigate ours, and after seven years it has made a well-clothed shrub more than a metre tall and wide, which puts it on course to achieve the International Camellia Society's indicated size of 2m after ten years.  It is a nice thing, though it isn't supposed to be flowering in December.

I was less pleased to see that during the heating oil delivery two twigs had got broken off my Ligustrum japonicum 'Rotundifolium'.  This is a jolly little evergreen privet, with wavy edged, glossy, dark green leaves.  It grows so slowly that two twigs is a lot.

After getting ready for a woodland charity talk this evening I pruned roses for a bit, but stopped at half past three.  It was getting too dark to see what I was cutting off, and experience teaches that most times I have accidentally poked myself in the eye while working among shrubs have been in the last half hour before dusk.  It's the combination of being slightly tired and rather cold, and not being able to see properly what you're doing.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

seasonal exchanges

It blew a hooley last night, and we had 15mm of rain.  We had been planning to go and get the Christmas tree, and collect my plum tree, and perhaps some pots, and another load of mushroom compost, but the Systems Administrator suggested that maybe we could leave the manure until tomorrow, when some of the rain might have drained away.  This seemed fair enough, since it is stored in piles outside, and this morning we would probably have been wading around in slurry.  Instead I went and posted the Christmas cards.

The post office had run out of Christmas second class stamps.  It ran out last year as well, so they ought to order more, or I ought to remember to buy them earlier.  We have a choice of three rural post offices.  One is a full office able to do car tax discs, but run by someone so glum it is catching, so I tend to avoid going there.  The second is fine, except that it can't do tax discs and has limited parking on a busy road.   My preferred office is the one that burnt down a few years ago, and now lives incongruously in one corner of a double glazing showroom.  The man who runs it has a jaunty air of cheerful defiance, despite the fact that his house and post office burnt down.  I suppose it doesn't really matter about the Christmas stamps, as long as the cards arrive.  I don't know if I missed the last posting date to Japan.  I hope not.

I like Christmas cards.  I was talking to a friend who said it had all got too much, and she was cutting back this year.  She was still exchanging cards with her late husband's colleagues, who sent sympathetic letters when he died, but that was over nine years ago, and at least one of them lives in Australia, a continent she is not planning on visiting any time soon.  I only send cards to people with whom I consider I have an extant social relationship.  This includes some relations I don't see very often, and some old friends I would see more of if it weren't for the requirements of careers (theirs), children (ditto), and living a long way apart.  I like thinking of people as I write the card, and sometimes even put in a letter, if I haven't seen them for a long while.  I like getting their cards back, especially if there is a snippet of news.  And it's a mutually face-saving way to try and pick up the threads of connections which have waned for some reason.  A natural excuse to make contact, no obligation to respond.

Everyone at the plant centre gives everyone else a card, irrespective of whether we see each other outside work.  That's just the custom.  It's always been like that.  I don't remember the same rule applying in any of my office jobs, where if we exchanged cards I think it was only to home addresses, if we'd developed a private friendship independent of office life.  We got a lot of cards from stockbrokers, which had no personal meaning attached, so it was sensible not to add to the pile.  And in a large office where would you draw the line?

My instinct is that the music society committee don't send each other cards, except those that are also personal friends, but if I start getting cards from people I haven't sent them to I'll know I got that one wrong.  I don't send one to my Pilates teacher, although I've known her for about four years and like her.   It wouldn't seem appropriate, unless we started going to art exhibitions or something together and got to know each other outside the context of the lessons, and I don't suppose she wants to send cards to all her pupils.  The boatyard sends a card to the Systems Administrator (see stockbrokers, above. On that basis after the saga of the black cat's leg we ought to get one from the vet this year).

We exchange cards with the neighbours, apart from the mystery people at one cottage that nobody knows.  The Systems Administrator met the chap once, because the postman mistakenly left us a parcel addressed to him, and the SA took it round, but he just said that he'd been expecting that, and the acquaintance did not flourish.  In the past year one of the neighbours has organised bank holiday drinks a couple of times, and we all went, except me when I'd already agreed to work that day, and the people from next door (200m away)  when they were in London one time, and the mystery cottage people.  The desire for privacy versus the competing desire that someone will notice if your house is on fire or your heating oil is being syphoned off, competition over buying up odd bits of land, delivery drivers who can't find your house and always ask at the house at the end of the lane, the question of how well you have to know somebody before you can reasonably ask them to feed your cats and look after your chickens and water all your pots for a week.  It's not necessarily a straightforward relationship.

The Systems Administrator does not send cards, except to me on my birthday.  This news will not come as a painful shock to the SA's family, if they are reading this, as they must be aware that it has been my handwriting on all the Christmas cards we've sent to them for the past twenty-plus years.  Many couples have the same arrangement.  Early in our relationship I did try suggesting that the SA take on this task, and all that happened was that they didn't get cards that year.  The SA thought they wouldn't notice, but they did.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Christmas is coming

My colleagues had a busy weekend, even without the benefit of reindeer on the premises.  They sold a lot of Christmas trees, and the owner went off with the gardeners mid-morning today to cut some more.  The good news is, the Systems Administrator and I will have a choice of freshly cut trees if we go to buy one this week.  The bad news is, the fresh trees were set out with the old ones so we won't be able to tell which are which.

The owners came to a decision and offered somebody the job.  The lucky candidate hasn't got back to them yet to accept the offer, and I think the boss is getting worried in case they are using it as a bargaining counter with their existing employer, and aren't actually going to take it.  The owners did like some of the other candidates as well, so let's hope they were slow sending out the rejection letters, just in case.

It has transpired that we are going to have a staff Christmas meal.  On Thursday.  As nothing had been said about it, I'd assumed that in these tough times we were saving some cash, which seemed fair enough, although from a macroeconomic perspective the last thing the local small, family run restaurants need is for the other local small businesses to cancel Christmas.  We are going back to a place we went to three years ago, and where I've eaten with the Systems Administrator a couple of times, and the food has always been very good.  The only trouble is, we have to pull crackers and wear the paper hats that come out of them, and I hate paper hats.  It's not surprising that someone has who avoided having their photograph taken for a decade doesn't like sitting in a public restaurant wearing a tissue paper crown, but I don't even like wearing them in the privacy of friend's houses.  I'm safe at home, because such things are not permitted to cross the threshold.

The owner's mother gave us a gigantic box of jaffa cakes.  The box must have been the best part of a metre long, and said on the side 'taller than the average elf', and when I saw her with it I initially thought she was carrying a large box of tinfoil around with her for some reason.  The cleaner, who only comes in on Wednesdays, has left instructions that we are not to eat all of them without her.  I don't eat jaffa cakes, so she can have my share.  This is not for health reasons or wholefood convictions.  It's just that I don't think chocolate and orange go together as flavours.  Either by itself is fine, but not in combination.  Still, it is kind of her to want to give us a Christmas present, and kind of the owners to want to take us all out for a meal.  In the Systems Administrator's young stockbroking days, when we were living in a rented flat in Maida Vale, there was a year when the stockbroking firm gave us a turkey.  We were going to spend Christmas with my parents, and had to joint the turkey, and cram it into the freezer compartment of our small fridge.

The manager has switched off the irrigation system, and drained the water out, in case it should freeze and crack the pipes.  That makes it even more officially winter.  If we need to water anything we have to use the tap by the side of the shop, but plants aren't using much water at this time of the year.  I took a watering can out to my greenhouse yesterday, worrying that I should have checked it earlier, and was surprised at how little needed watering.

One of our garden designer customers came in and bought seven fruit trees, for her own use as she is planting herself a little orchard.  We managed to fit them all into her car, which admittedly was a Range Rover, but already contained a bird table, plus two enormous boxes of crackers.  Tis the season to be jolly.  Think of all those poor souls in their paper hats.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

birds and beasties

Now that winter is properly here, we're feeding the birds.  There was a spotted woodpecker on the table a couple of days ago, tucking into the lard with porridge oats.  I can't tell the difference between Greater and Lesser, but think it's fair to assume that it was whichever is the more common.  They seem to have had a good year, and when it was warm enough to sit outside watching the chickens, the Systems Administrator used to see them quite regularly around the garden.  The main visitors to the table are blue and great tits, robins, chaffinches, and hedge sparrows, plus a few goldfinches and on one or two occasions the long tailed tits.  Last winter when it got really cold the blackbirds came, but there are still lots of berries in the wood and garden, and they don't generally bother with our offerings until they've stripped the shrubs.  The coal tits are shy, and will only feed on the table if things get really tough in the wild.

The cats are keen to lick the lard with porridge oats, given half a chance, and I found the big tabby with his face in the bowl of bird food on the kitchen worktop.  The first time we saw his mother, she was sitting up on a kitchen unit with her long snout in a bowl of fruit while her doting owner enquired whether she had eaten that waspie, so we knew then what to expect.  Some of the larger birds would like to take a big piece of lard and porridge oats away, to eat later, but it breaks up, and I found a lump on the steps down to the conservatory, where the black cat was licking at it.  I put it back on the bird table.  I do not believe that lard with porridge oats is good for cats.

To try and stop the cats from gulping their food, in case that is what was making them sick, we have been doling out tins in small spoonfuls, and making them wait between courses while they work out whether they are actually still hungry.  I've read accounts by people who grew up in large families of how they learnt to gulp their food, so as to be in the running for seconds before their siblings had eaten everything, and I think the same thing can happen when you have five cats.  The new feeding regime is working in the sense that there haven't been any more pools of cat sick for several days, but it means that feline breakfast stretches over an hour and a half, and throughout the day whichever of us comes within reach of the food dishes is likely to be met by at least one furry accuser, staring meaningfully at the empty plates, or the door of the cat food cupboard.

There was ice on the pond yesterday morning, real ice that hadn't melted completely by the end of the day.  The trouble with ice is that the grey tabby, who appears to believe that she ought to be able to walk on water and that it is only by some quirk or error that this ability has been denied to her, likes to sit in the middle of the pond when it's frozen.  With ice like we had last winter this isn't an issue, as I could have sat on the pond myself if I'd wanted to (I didn't) but with thin ice who knows?  When she gets an idea in her head she is the most obstinate creature I know, but I have no idea how good her judgement is as to whether ice will bear her weight, which is something under 5kg.  She is now 12, desperately skinny and perpetually hungry, and we never expected her to make old bones, but though she seems to have a frail constitution she has a will of iron.  It would be a pity if she drowned or froze to death falling through the ice on the pond.

As it was drizzling and cold I thought I would go and see if I could get some cheap camellia pots at one of the local garden centres, that used to be good for cheap pots.  They didn't have any suitable pots, or even any space in the car park, and I had to go and park round the corner and walk up the road.  What they did have was a grotto with Father Christmas and his Reindeer, with a very long queue of parents and small children trailing back from it through the shop.  Poor reindeer.  There seem to be more and more of these reindeer experiences about at Christmas, but I'm not sure it is a very nice experience for the reindeer, being kept in a sort of shed in a garden centre and gawped at by an endless stream of unfamiliar people.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Brightlingsea All Saints

We went to see the Brightlingsea Christmas Tree Festival in the town's All Saints church.  This is the ninth time they've held the festival, and the first time I've been.  Last year the weather was lousy, and some years I've been working, and one way and another we never got round to it.

The Christmas trees were about the mixture of traditional and conceptual that you'd expect, and I wasn't too fussed about them, though I don't mind that sort of thing as long as it's presented as a harmless community activity and not cluttering up the Tate.  You could vote for your favourite tree (we didn't) and there was a stall selling Christmas decorations, where I bought a star made out of rose hips for our tree for 75p.  There were refreshments, and a little girl playing carol tunes on a piano, and lots of people exuded happy Christmas vibes, and the event was in aid of the hospice.  It was a nice thing to go to.

The main reason I wanted to go, apart from supporting the local community, was to get inside All Saints.  When we passed it on a walk once it was locked, and I'm not sure how often it's open.  You can appreciate much of the beauty of the church from the outside.  Simon Jenkins gives it one star, and says the tower is one of the finest in the county.  It is very fine, built of knapped flint in the Perp style, and visible from miles around.  The attraction inside is the frieze of Victorian tiles commemorating Brightlingsea parishoners lost at sea.  There are 213 of them, 15cm square, running as a dado around the walls.  They get an entry in my Tile Gazetteer (yes, I do possess such a thing.  I bought it at the Tile Museum at the Ironbridge gorge museums complex, and have been known to take it on holiday with me) of more than half a page.

Starting at random near the base of the tower, and dodging around a woman who was intent on photographing the Christmas trees, it became apparent that there must have been a very bad storm on 6 March 1883.  Six men were lost with the smack Recruit, and six more on the Conquest.  The lugger Misrotte was lost with five men, and there was a tile to someone washed overboard from another boat.  Most losses seemed to have involved entire crews.  Six drowned in the North Sea with the smack Glance in January 1891.  When the Gemina was lost off Dover with her crew of four, the Master was aged 55 and the youngest victim 15.  He shared a surname with one of the other crew members, suggesting a double loss for one family.

We couldn't see some of the tiles, because they were hidden behind Christmas trees.  Sidney Conrad Siebert, aged 30, perished in the wreck of SS Titanic.  There were tiles for yachtsmen who'd drowned, people who'd died and been buried at sea, and Brightlingsea sailors lost on the opposite coast of England and the far side of the world.  From 1914 onwards tiles start appearing for sailors killed in the Great War.  Eventually we came to a poster that explained that the tiles were the inspiration of the vicar, the Reverend Arthur Pertwee.  Nineteen people in total were lost in the storm of March 1883, which was the disaster that triggered him into action.  He researched earlier losses from the parish, and others kept the tradition up after him.  As well as commemorating the dead, he assisted the living by climbing the Perp tower to light a lamp on dark nights, to act as a beacon for the sailors.

The Christmas tree festival is on today and tomorrow from 10.0am until 6.00pm and is worth a visit, and worth getting there early because this morning it was heaving by the time we left.  You can see pictures of the tiles on this website, and the Systems Administrator and I thought we would try and find a time when the church was open to have a detailed look at them without Christmas trees in the way.

Addendum  They were giving away copies of the East Anglian Daily Times last night at Colchester station.  Most of page 3 was taken up with a story about how the council is considering closing the public lavatories at Lavenham to save money.  As I read the story I felt myself coming all over Philip Larkin (I'd skip this bit if you aren't interested in poetry).

Homage to Babergh District Council

Next year we are to shut the public loos
for lack of money, and it is all right.
Old boys who need to crap, or take a pee,
Must cross their legs and cut back on the tea.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working.  And this is all right.

It's hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it's been decided nobody minds.
Their bursting bladders are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The incontinent toddlers only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a county
That shut its public loos for lack of money.
The guildhall will be standing in the same
Timber-framed street, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it's a different country.
All we can hope is to cut the deficit.


Friday, 9 December 2011

watching pictures and people

I abandoned the garden, and went to look at Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern.  It's good to go and be cosmopolitan for the day, once in a while.  I still love the City, though it is less and less my place.  Buildings I knew are demolished and new ones erupt, and restaurants and wine bars where I was once wined and dined by stockbrokers, or met friends, or went out for after-work drinks with my esteemed colleagues, cease to be or are transmuted into something else.  I don't wear the uniform any more.  I used to have a briefcase, blue leather, handmade in Ireland and bought in Liberty, and was allowed into the offices and the livery halls, when I had an appointment or was on the list of names for the meeting.  Nowadays I look at it from the outside.

I love the Members' Room at Tate Britain.  It is right at the top of the building, with a fabulous view over the river to Saint Pauls, and is not generally full.  It appeals to cultured solitaries like me, young mothers with toddlers, friends on a day out, and people with laptops doing some sort of work, or filling in the time between meetings.  Two elderly ladies behind me in the queue for coffee (staff a bit slow today noticing that they had customers) were having a stately argument as one tried to pick up the whole tab, and the other insisted that she was paying for herself, and threatened her friend that 'otherwise I won't come out with you again'.  A young chap with a laptop called someone up as he waited for his 1.00pm business meeting.  He already had a bottle of beer on the go, and proposed meeting them at 3.30pm for draught prosecco.  'I love prosecco' he told them.  He was upset that somebody else had sent him a clumsily worded e-mail, and said it might sound odd, but he really preferred not to do business with people like that.  I thought that in these hard times his business must be going well for him to be able to be so picky.  He tried to tell the person on the phone about Winston Churchill's remark that he didn't have time to write a short letter, and was obliged to send a long one, but the line can't have been very good, because he had to repeat it about four times, and I don't think they had heard of Winston Churchill, and he forgot the punchline about the long letter.

Gerhard Richter is a major German artist.  He addresses serious themes including Germany's wartime past, and the nature of perception.  Some of his pictures are large soft focus painted versions of photographs, which I find physically difficult to look at, and would be fascinated to know if they have a similar effect on other people.  As the crystalline lenses of my eyes have lost elasticity (middle age), I need separate glasses for reading and seeing, which is fine when I settle down to either read or see, but cumbersome in situations where I need to switch between the two.  Looking at Gerhard Richter's out-of-focus pictures I had the uneasy sensation that I was wearing the wrong glasses, and my eyes struggled to compensate.

It's a big exhibition.  There are some abstracts, and some messing about with sheets of glass (regular readers will know what I think about that sort of thing).  I don't grudge spending the morning there, instead of weeding, but I didn't emerge loving Gerhard Richter.  Viewed as a sensory experience, his palette didn't do it for me.  That is a matter of subjective, personal taste, but there it is.  When Paul Klee painted a little square canvas only about 30cm by 30cm, made up of tiny coloured squares, Klee's colours made me so happy that I wanted to laugh, and then steal the painting so that I could look at it every day for the rest of my life.  When Gerhard Richter painted a large square canvas made of lots of coloured squares, it didn't make me any happier than the paint chart said to have inspired it.  Wrong colours (personally speaking).  The political paintings were interesting, but if you really want to explore those sorts of ideas, words are better.  (I'm reading Robert Fisk's history of the Middle East at the moment, The Great War for Civilisation.  It is grim but fascinating.  I'm up to page 657, and conveying the same range of facts and emotions using pictures would require an art gallery the size of Tokyo).

I had thought I might look at Rothko's Seagram murals, but they have been put into storage to make way for the forthcoming Damian Hirst show, and won't be on display again until that's over, which isn't until next September.  Apparently some of the works are so heavy the Tate is having to reinforce the floor.  Rothko displaced by a charlatan shark-pickler.  How depressing.

Then I went to see The First Actresses at The National Portrait Gallery, which was great fun.  The National Portrait Gallery does these small exhibitions very well, placing the pictures in an historic context, and so while gazing at the Gainsboroughs I learnt odd snippets of social history.  The romantic and sex lives of the most popular eighteenth century actresses were scrutinised every bit as keenly as Sienna Miller's is today, and their dresses were copied.  Some actresses on retiring from the stage succeeded as novelists and playwrights.  Others married into the aristocracy.  Richard Brinsley Sheridan forbade his wife to have any further involvement with the stage following their marriage, and her portrait gives no clue as to her past profession.  Sarah Siddons looks a forbidding creature, but I suppose she was a tragic actress.

I'd been wondering whether I even wanted to see the Leonardo exhibition, on the grounds that the ratio of visitors to paintings would be too high, but the question has been taken out of my hands, as I read in the papers days ago that all advance tickets were sold for the entire run of the show, and today there were no buy-on-the-day tickets available.  Never mind.  I remember the Vermeer exhibition several years ago, where the main thing I saw was the backs of other people's necks, or the corners of paintings with other people's faces in front of most of the canvas.  When the Systems Administrator and I were on holiday in The Netherlands we made a special trip to den Hague, to visit the excellent Mauritshuis, where we had Vermeer's View of Delft all to ourselves.  Not even the security guard could be bothered to come and join us.