Friday, 30 November 2012


Frost covered the grass when I pulled up the blind in the bathroom this morning and looked out over the back garden.  I wasn't surprised, since I'd had to defrost my car when I set out at half past six last night to go to the beekeepers' monthly meeting.  That went OK.  The turnout wasn't high, but those who did come made an effort to participate, though I think they'd rather have had the lecture about top-bar hives.  The beekeepers are generally kindly, curious and patient people, which is probably why I'm still involved in the society after thirteen or fourteen years.  The magazine of the British Beekeepers Association slightly took the wind out of our sails by publishing a one page crib guide to honey labels in the latest magazine, two days before our quiz and group discussion, but that couldn't be helped.

The frost meant that there was no great rush to get outside, since I couldn't walk on the grass to get access to any of the beds in the back garden, and you can't weed frozen ground.  If I were designing a garden for a keen gardener who was not at liberty to pick and choose their gardening weather, for example somebody with a full time job who wanted to garden at weekends, I would definitely think about providing all-weather access to most areas.  Sweeps of grass look great, and are cheap to construct compared to hard landscaping, but they render great chunks of the garden out of bounds for most of the morning in frosty weather.  The pattern of melting ice as the morning progressed illustrated which parts of the garden catch the sun, and which are permanently shaded at this time of year.  There is starting to be a little too much shade, and we need to reduce the height of the boundary hedge at some point this winter, and remove some low branches from the wild gean.

After lunch I let the chickens out for a run and went on cutting the Eleagnus hedge by the drive.  The hens decided en masse to cooperate less fully than they did yesterday, and disappeared behind the hedge where I couldn't see them, and the fox wouldn't be able to to see me.  I hoped the sound of human activity and the Radio 5 Live film programme would act as a deterrent.  They busied themselves fossicking under the little oak tree for a while, searching for things to eat among the dead leaves.  The rooster is not all that keen on the back garden, and sat on the gravel in the front where he could see me, looking peeved, until I gave him some sultanas.  Then one of the hens frightened herself and ran back to the chicken house, and the rest of them trooped round from the back and spent the rest of the afternoon foraging near the chicken house, where I could see them.

As I added to the pile of prunings along the side of the drive I began to worry that it would end up blocking the front door, which would be rather hard on the post man.  The Systems Administrator was going to have a session with the tractor moving prunings to the bonfire area, but has been struck down with toothache.  Cold air makes it much worse, as do cold and hot food.  Having Googled the symptoms, the SA assures me that these are the classic signs of root canal trouble, and has made a dentist's appointment, but could not get one until Monday afternoon.  In the meantime outside work is off limits, and the piles of prunings will have to remain until Tuesday.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

working at height

I spent another morning squelching around the back garden, pruning, weeding, and picking fallen leaves out of gravel with my fingertips.  The sheer volume of material needing to be removed before spring is quite staggering, and shows what a bit of rain can do.  I can't tell you the year's rainfall total to date at this moment, since that's one of the pieces of data waiting to be retrieved from the Systems Administrator's hard disc, but from a recent chat with a friend who gardens locally I think we've already had over 700 mm, compared to average annual rainfall of around 500 mm.  And to think that back in the spring we were surrounded by hosepipe bans.

Despite the fact that parts of my back garden have turned into a swamp, and I can feel every footstep sink into the soil, 700 mm of rain is not very much by UK standards.  DEFRA and the Met Office are both rather coy about giving me a table of UK averages, at least within the amount of time I have to spare to look for the data, but in a slightly old Guardian article I found a table of UK annual rainfall for the past one hundred years.  I shouldn't rely on newspaper articles for that sort of information, otherwise I'll be caught out by statistics like The Daily Telegraph's shock revelation only 100 cod left in the North Sea (correct answer only forty three million cod left in the North Sea), but according to the Guardian there were only four years in the past century when the UK as a whole scored less than 900 mm.  OK, the year isn't over yet, but here am I thinking that over 700 mm is more than enough, thank you very much.  The UK average is inflated by places like Crib Goch in Snowdonia (thirty year annual average 4,473 mm), but it makes me wonder how people in other parts of the country ever manage to do any gardening at all, or alternatively how I manage to grow anything in a usual semi-arid year.  To put 900 mm of rainfall in context, that is what Beirut gets in an average year.

My feet got very cold kneeling or treading carefully in the borders, and after lunch I decided I'd let the chickens out for a run.  I saw them the other day trying to peck through the wire at the tussocks of grass outside their chicken run, and thought that they would enjoy the exercise, and some greenery would be good for them.  I was planning to combine guarding the chickens with cutting the Eleagnus x ebbingei hedge along the drive, as the Systems Administrator made a beautiful job of the lower half a while back, but hadn't got round to doing the upper part, leaving the hedge looking worrying top heavy and liable to be bashed by every parcel van.  I'd reminded the SA about the hedge a couple of times, to be told it was on the SA's list of things to do, and my general maxim is that if you remind someone about something more than twice, it ceases to be reminding and becomes nagging.  Sometimes you need to nag people, but not about a hedge.

The hedge always used to be my department anyway, before the SA retired.  I got the step ladder out, and began to realise that it had grown a lot since the last time I trimmed it.  The SA found me wobbling around on the top of the steps, and asked if I would prefer to use the Henchman.  I agreed that would probably be safer.  The Henchman is a wonderful thing, consisting of an aluminium platform with a safety rail round three sides of it, supported on four extremely stable flared legs, that bolt in place with cross braces so it can't wobble, collapse or tip in use.  The SA bought ours at the Chelsea Flower Show years ago, and it makes working at height a great deal safer.  It is light enough for one person to be able to drag it along level ground single handed, though two of you would be needed to manoeuvre it through a border.  It has flat, circular feet to spread the weight, which are hinged in all directions, so after moving it you need to check that these are flat on the ground.  Apart from that it is a doddle to use.

If I were ever asked to write a book about managing a large garden, for garden owners who have to do everything themselves rather than employing a gardener, one of the things I should stress is the value of investing at the outset in the right equipment.  Tractor, trailer, hedge cutting equipment.  You can waste a great deal of time and effort, and end up getting yourself into situations which are objectively speaking quite dangerous, trying to care for two acres with kit that would be perfectly adequate for a third of an acre suburban plot.  Our next purchase will probably be a post wacker, a heavy, hollow, metal cylinder with handles on each side that you put over the top of a fence or tree post and drop repeatedly, a process much less likely to result in serious injury or death than the alternative method of one person holding the post while the other person hits it with a sledge hammer

Alas, nobody has talent spotted me at a woodland talk and said I should be the new face of television gardening, and we don't go to the sort of dinner parties where one of us might be sitting next to the gardening editor of the Observer, or Frances Lincoln, who upon hearing about our delightful garden and my inimitable prose style would sign me up, so I probably won't be asked to write the book.  But you read it here first.  Buy the right kit, it's easier in the long run.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

two gardens

The ground in the back garden is so wet, it squelches when I walk on it, which makes me feel guilty about treading on the borders.  It's an insoluble problem, since the only way that everything needing pruning, trimming, cutting down, tying in, leaf sweeping and weeding will get done at all is to keep at it through the winter.  There simply isn't time to wait for the borders to dry out.

The rambler roses that are covering the bank between the top and bottom lawns, and making a pretty good job of it, are also trying to spread forwards across the border along the top of the bank.  This contains some shrub roses, which are not strong enough to compete with the questing branches of the ramblers.  I've been working along the back of the bed, disentangling pieces of rambler and honeysuckle from poor old 'Buff Beauty' and 'Gloire de Dijon' to give the shrubs airspace.  Roses hate being shaded by other plants growing into them, and the shaded branches will often die.  It isn't always obvious which stem originates from which plant, so pruning out the unwanted growths of the ramblers isn't a job to be hurried, or done in bad light.  Dead stems have accumulated inside the bank, since the ramblers' growth habit is to pile new growth upon old, and I'm pulling those out where I come across them.  So far I have avoided spiking myself, poking myself in the eye, or cutting though a stem and then realising that it supported a great mass of growth that I wanted to keep.  I've been working into the bed from both ends, and have about a two metre section in the middle still to go.

I've started pruning the David Austin roses in that bed as I come to them.  I don't know when the exact optimum time is to do that, but in our garden roses get pruned at any point between November and February when I have time to do it and weather conditions are suitable for me to get outside.  I don't take the David Austin roses down hard, as I might with a floribunda or hybrid tea, but besides taking out the dead wood I reduce their height.  They can be prone to wind rock, when the effect of the plant thrashing around in strong winds is to create a depression in the soil all around the base of the stem.  This is liable to fill with water, and the water can easily freeze, none of which does the plant any good at all.  By the end of the morning piles of prunings were collecting all over the lawn, waiting for the Systems Administrator to cart them off to the bonfire.

As a change from pruning I did a stint trimming the fading leaves of the Brunnera macrophylla from the opposite bed, together with shabby Acanthus leaves and the brown remains of peonies.  I scraped up as many of the fallen rose leaves as I could without also scraping up all the straw mulch.  I don't spray for blackspot, reasoning that if a rose can't live healthily without doses of fungicide then I'll get rid of it and find something that can, but I do try to help garden hygiene along by collecting the fallen rose leaves and taking them to the tip rather than putting them in the compost bin at home.

The first snouts of bulbs are already appearing here and there, and seedlings with long, thin seedling leaves like an emerging carrot, which experience teaches are baby Orlaya grandiflora.  This is a delightful white umbellifer, used with great success by Tom Stuart Smith at Chelsea a few years ago, which does much better when allowed to self seed than if raised in pots and transplanted.  The drawback to using an effective mulch is that while it cuts down weeding, it also reduces the scope for successful self-seeding, so I was anxious not to waste any of the emerging Orlaya.  It is a desperately labour intensive form of gardening, doing the sort of hand weeding that requires you to be able to recognise plants and weeds at the seedling stage, but it is the only way of achieving a certain kind of garden effect.  As the great and gracious lady gardener with whom I am now on lunching terms said, it takes a lot of work to achieve a relaxed and natural looking garden.

In the afternoon I went to visit a gardening friend who has gone down the opposite route, of wildflowers and native trees.  She and her husband had the opportunity to buy the field next to their house a year ago, which has thrown their retirement plans into some disarray, but the opportunity was the flip side of a threat, since there was a risk that otherwise the land would be developed for housing.  The centre of the field is still rented to a neighbouring farmer, who is growing turnips on it this winter, but she is establishing a wide wildlife strip around the edge, which the farmer kindly offered to sow for her if she bought the seeds, and she has planted bulbs of bluebells, snowdrops and fritillaries.  There are some good oaks on the boundary, and she is planting further strips of hawthorn and yew in the corners.  They have seen barn owls, tawnies and little owls.  Plans are afoot to separate the field from the garden proper with a modern day ha-ha, the vertical face lined with sandbags instead of stonework, so that the view from the house will stretch unbroken to the horizon.  Clearing dead elm out of the hedge she accidentally wacked herself in the eye last week, when a branch she was dragging to the bonfire site sprung up and hit her in the face, so she is on two different antibiotics and unable to drive for a fortnight, but she is undeterred.  Once you have got the gardening bug then mud, rain, cold and the odd trip to accident and emergency are no reason to give up.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


Most of my Christmas shopping arrived yesterday, in three separate deliveries.  Last week DPD sent an e-mail saying that one of the parcels would arrive on Friday, and would I ensure that somebody was there to sign for it.  On the morning of the due day they nailed the time slot down to between 11.32 and 12.32, which wasn't very convenient as I had a haircut booked in Colchester.  The Systems Administrator hung about, but nothing came, and when I checked the tracking information on-line at the end of the day it said that the parcel had gone back to the depot, because they couldn't find the address.  Given that the house has been in the same place since the 1950s, and we are regular internet shoppers, this seemed rather lame for a professional delivery company, but there you go.  The previous time that DPD delivered anything they took two goes, and after the second I found a scrunched-up piece of paper in the drive, which turned out to be a map of how to find our house.  You'd think they'd keep a crib book of hard-to-find addresses on each route.

When I got in from work yesterday I enquired how the SA's day had been, as sympathetic spouses and partners do.  The reply was that the SA had mended the stove in the study (an inspection plate fell out.  The SA can't see how it ever stayed put in the first place), watched some racing, and gone for a walk in the front garden waiting about for my parcels, with a warning that we were low on milk because the SA hadn't been out.  One package came at lunchtime and another late afternoon.  It seems rather hard to have to spend the day hanging around for your own Christmas present to be delivered, but that's the downside of internet shopping.  At about half past six there was the faint whisper of what could have been a distant train, or wheels on the gravel, and it was the third and final parcel, looking very lonely as it was the last box left in a long wheelbase transit.

Meanwhile the beekeepers committee won't decide what we are doing for Thursday's monthly meeting.  A couple have said that they won't be able to be there at all, which is fair enough, as people do have work and family commitments.  The others have mostly remained silent, and it has fallen to the membership secretary to try and chivvy them along, simply because she maintains the e-mail contacts list for members.  If ever a body of people was in urgent need of leadership, this one is.  I suppose I will feel duty-bound to go on Thursday, simply because I am an officer of the society by dint of being Treasurer, and it seems wrong for members to turn up and find nobody there, but at the current rate of progress there is going to be nothing going on.  They don't read cardunculus, by the way.

Nor do the committee members of the music society, where I am waiting for confirmation that tonight's get together to talk about publicity is on.  The Systems Administrator, trying to organise the day's meals, asked me whether I was going out tonight, and I had to confess that I didn't know, since I hadn't heard from my prospective hostess and felt rude chasing her.  In fact I have now chased her, and all I could suggest about supper was to make something with flexible portion sizes that would keep, so that if I went out this evening my share could be recycled as tomorrow's lunch.

There is something about being in limbo and not knowing what you are doing later that is peculiarly unsettling.   Should I start compiling a quiz?  The weather forecast was for rain, but it is not raining very much.  Should I go out into the garden?  The excellent Buddhist principle of mindfulness would say that I shouldn't worry about it.  Enjoy the rest of the morning, and the afternoon, and see what if anything turns up.  Excellent principles can be very hard to apply in practice.  I don't like waiting about in a state of uncertainty.  I suppose it is time to start practising, since the older I get the more of it I'll probably have to do, one way and another.

Monday, 26 November 2012

solo in the plant centre

I arrived at work to be greeted by the boss, who told me he had some bad news for me.  I wondered whether this was that I was going to be put on short time until March, but it turned out to be that I was going to be on my own in the plant centre, as both the manager and my colleague who normally works on Mondays had called in sick.  The owner asked hopefully whether one of the other part timers wouldn't be in, but since she was one of the people the manager was due to lay off until spring as of last week at the owner's instructions, the answer to that question was No.

When I opened up the shop I discovered a very tall, thin parcel at the back of it, which was obviously some tree packaged up and ready to go out by mail order.  I thought our normal height limit for parcels was four feet, but somebody must have been feeling lucky, or talked nicely to the delivery company.  The parcel had a name on it, but no address, and I sighed mentally and resigned myself to having to hunt around for the paperwork later on, so that I could work out what to do with it.  At about nine o'clock a smiling van driver in a luminous green vest appeared, saying that he had come to pick up a parcel but it wasn't in the usual place.  I showed him the package in the back of the shop, and the names tallied, but I had to dolefully confess that I didn't have an address label.  He said that he did, and produced one printed out with the address and consignment number, which he stuck on the box.  He left with my fervent thanks ringing in his ears, having done his Sir Galahad deed for the day.

By ten I'd picked up all the plants that had fallen over in the wind, and was starting to feel a little dull, when the phone began ringing.  The first call was from a woman, who from her voice I guessed was quite young, wanting to know whether we had Quercus x hispanica.  I went to see, and found we had one plant of a named variety, but none of the straight species.  It turned out that she wanted forty.  I guessed she was calling from a landscape company.  I don't know where you would go to buy forty Quercus x hispanica, but I don't think any retail plant centre would keep that number of them in stock, ready to sell just like that.  We normally sell around five a year.  Landscapers do tend to give impossible plant sourcing tasks to very young members of staff who don't understand the market or know what they're doing, and it wastes their time and ours.  The most entertaining request was from the man who rang, with no hope in his voice, asking whether we had around forty plants of Berberis 'Georgei' in seven and a half litre pots.  I explained that unfortunately we hadn't been able to obtain that one for some time, and indeed had a list of over twenty customers waiting for plants if only we could get them, so I rather doubted whether there were forty Berberis 'Georgei' for sale in the country at that moment.  He said he had begun to suspect as much, and in a way was grateful, as I'd given him ammunition to go back to the landscape architect and explain that they'd have to rethink that part of the planting plan.

A few customers looked as though they might have liked tea, but the owner had given me dispensation not to open the cafe.  Apart from the hygiene aspects, operating the till, and the telephone, and finding plants for people, and doling out advice on which plant to choose, is more than one person can do, without trying to do refreshments as well.  It was pretty quiet, and customers were very good about waiting to be served, and my friend in the office helped out with the phone, but you can't run an operation like that smoothly with just one person.  The owner came out in the late morning to cover while I had some lunch, but then had to be somewhere else by one o'clock, so I had one twenty minute break in a seven and three quarter hour day.  It felt like quite a long one.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

a year of theatre

After the rain, the wind.  When I got up and looked out of the bathroom window, the birches in our neighbours' field and the bamboo in our back garden were bent over and thrashing wildly, a symphony of agitated yellow leaves and stems.  Trying to garden in that much wind tends to be a mistake.  It is thoroughly uncomfortable, and things get spilt, spoiled and smashed as you get flustered and make mistakes, or your bucket of prunings blows into the nearest border.

Instead I thought I would tell you about the forthcoming season at Colchester's Mercury Theatre, since I picked up the new brochure yesterday when I was in town.  Details are now up on their website, whereas they weren't the last time I checked, so it may yet be that a brochure is in the post and on its way to me, but since they dropped us off their mailing list a year ago for some reason I thought I'd grab one while I was there.

The Mercury has a new Artistic Director, and is trying a new marketing approach.  They are publicising their own company productions for a year ahead, instead of six months, and offering large savings if you sign up to eleven shows, or fairly large savings if you book six.  The savings are so large partly because if you only want to go to a couple of things then ticket prices have gone up.  Eleven Mercury performances in twelve months sounds like a lot.  I'm not sure the Systems Administrator is that keen on theatre.  I'm not sure I am.  Six might be doable, and of course I could hunt around among my friends and acquaintances for volunteers to accompany me to one or two of them.  Except that all tickets have to be booked at the same time.  Getting a firm commitment to a particular date nearly a year ahead and writing it on the hall calendar is just about manageable when you are negotiating with your partner.  Trying to bring friends into the equation as well begins to feel like hard work, all those e-mails flying about, and everyone being held up by the one person who always takes ages to reply to anything, or isn't sure when they are going on holiday, or when their daughter is getting married.

The first offering is about mid-life crisis.  I should say that mid-life crisis was a stage the average audience member at the Mercury had passed a while back, but they can always look back in fond reminiscence, if not anger.  Four middle-aged, middle-class misfits try to spark a punk revival in a funny, touching and distinctly loud new play.  Contains strong language and very loud music! says the brochure.  I don't have a problem with strong language, but I don't do loud.  It hurts my ears.  And this production is in the studio theatre, which I have never been to, but a friend who has warned me that the seats were very uncomfortable.  The SA doesn't do uncomfortable seats, so that seems to rule out Garage Band on two counts.

Next up we have Ayckbourn, not just one but four plays taken from a linked cycle of eight.  We like Ayckbourn.  Social comedy with an extremely sharp edge.  The Colchester audience likes Ayckbourn too, hence you can only count one Ayckbourn play towards your total of six performances if you are going for a Silver season ticket, though if you buy one you can then top up on Ayckbourns at a concessionary rate.  We might manage an Ayckbourn or two.  I'm not sure I want four in as many months.

Then comes a musical, The Hired Man by Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall, about struggling life on a Cumbrian hill farm.  This is a revival of a touring production from 2008 which reviewed well at the time, and is in the proper theatre with the comfy seats.  I could probably cope with The Hired Man.  That is followed by The History Boys, which I would happily go to see per se, being an admirer of Alan Bennett.  Unfortunately it isn't very long since we watched the film version, which rather diminishes my desire to see it again.  Why couldn't the Mercury have chosen an Alan Bennett that hasn't been made into a hit film with Richard Griffiths in it?  The History Boys is followed by a stage version of Quadrophenia.  I saw the film when I was a student (at a meeting of the Keble College film society, I think), but the SA, amazingly, hasn't.  If you have never seen Quadrophenia then surely the film is the place to start, rather than a stage version by a company of the region's most talented young performers.  Though the play will be directed by Tony Casement, who did a very good version of Journey's End.

My hopes of finding six plays that I wanted to see were diminishing by this stage, since I was up to one definite, one possible, and three thank-you-but-I'd-rather-nots.  The next offering in the brochure didn't help, since it is The Butterfly Lion based on a book by Michael Morpurgo.  It concerns a boy who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a white lion cub he rescues one day from the African Veldt, then the action somehow moves on to the bleeding heart of war-torn France.  Suitable for adults and families with children aged 7+ years.  I don't think we'll be going to see The Butterfly Lion.

I would like to go to The Good Person of Sichuan, as I like Bertold Brecht, or at least I like the Threepenny Opera and the Seven Deadly Sins (avoid opera singers with trained voices for that, go for the Marianne Faithfull recording).  The SA does not like Brecht, so I'll be looking for a companion for the evening.  Then we could see Man to Man by Manfred Karge, translated by Anthony Vivis, which is billed as an uncompromising contemporary counterpoint to Brecht's masterpiece.  It is a one-woman play about a young widow who assumes her husband's identity to survive under the Nazis, which catapulted Tidla Swinton to public attention at the Royal Court in the late 1980s.  I don't think we're going to get Tilda Swinton in the Mercury version.  Man to Man is in the studio theatre on the hard seats.

Last in the brochure before the pantomime is The Opinion Makers, a brand new musical comedy about incompetent 1960s market researchers.  Think Mad Men meets Carry On, says the brochure.  The SA did, and didn't like the idea.  I wasn't hugely enthused.  The pantomime is Sleeping Beauty, and is not included in the season ticket offers.

We won't be buying Gold season tickets, or Silver.  There isn't enough there that appeals.  The Gold ticket would be worth buying at £132 if you were sure you wanted to go to all four Ayckbourns plus a no more than a couple of other plays, since that gives you the best seats available, including on Saturdays, early booking so you should get good seats, and programmes.  You could afford to give more than half the performances a miss and still end up marginally ahead financially.  The Mercury gets a known amount of money early in the season, which is handy for them, though it could be demoralising for the performers at the less popular shows if the season ticket holders simply don't show up.  The Silver ticket gives you six productions for less than the price of four, but only one Ayckbourn, and there aren't five other productions that I want to watch, let alone five that I could drag the SA to.

The best seats on Monday and Tuesday evenings are now £19, compared to (as far as I can remember) around £13.50 when we started going to the Mercury in 2008, or £22 on Wednesdays and Thursdays, up from £17.50 for Arsenic and Old Lace on a Wednesday last month.  Given the squeeze on public funding to the arts it's only to be expected that ticket prices have gone up, and we can still enjoy an evening at our local theatre for less than the price of the train fare just to get to London's West End or the National Theatre.  It's a pity that in the coming year there isn't more that we want to watch.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

the joy of tech

Wet days are for catching up with domestic stuff.  I went into Colchester for a haircut.  Admittedly that was booked in the middle of last week, so if it had been a lovely day for gardening I'd still have had to go, but it is always mildly satisfying to be able to catch up with things like that while feeling that the opportunity cost is pretty much nil.  I bought a 2013 East Coast Calender by Den Phillips as well, while I was at it, and went to the bank.  I parked behind in the car park behind the leisure complex in Cowdray Avenue, to avoid the aftermath of the water main that burst last night at the bottom of Balkerne Hill, and the sound of church bells ringing as I walked back across Castle Park in the light rain had a sort of melancholy charm.

By the afternoon the rain was seriously settling in, and the puddle in the drive that indicates we've had more than a sprinkling was beginning to form.  I decided it was time to do my ironing, which had been piling up on the spare bed for quite a time.  There was a lot of ironing, enough to last for the whole of Schubert's Death and the Maiden, and two Beethoven piano concertos.  Actually, I think my iPod was doing something peculiar with those, along the lines of playing all the right movements but not necessarily in the right order, and I have just scrubbed them off my iTunes library and reloaded them from the CD.

Meanwhile the Systems Administrator was wrestling with new replacement technology, in the form of a laptop and a stereo amplifier.  The SA's previous laptop failed spectacularly, or at least totally, two days ago.  It didn't start playing up and getting cranky about things, but simply stopped.  No lights, no action, no power, no nothing.  It is now with a professional firm in Colchester to retrieve the data off the hard disc.  By yesterday evening the new replacement laptop had wiped the SA's iPod, instead of reloading the SA's music library from the iPod to the laptop.  By this evening the SA had managed to find the file where the laptop had put the library.

The amp died by degrees a few weeks ago.  First one channel went, and then weird distortions started appearing on the other.  It had done us well, since the SA bought it not long after we moved into our previous house, which dates it to 1987 or 1988.  It was a Marantz, which came out well in hi-fi surveys in the late 1980s.  Twenty five years later it still does, so the SA replaced like with like.  The new amp comes with a remote control, and it is rather lux to be able to adjust the volume without getting up, going to the shelf under the stairs where the stereo lives, twiddling the knob and shouting to the person in the upstairs room to ask if that's OK, or if it needs to go up a bit or down a bit.  The stairs would get in the way of the remote signal, but an infra-red booster station that we already had gets round that.  As an added bonus it is possible to change tracks via the remote.  The SA can't work out quite how the stack does that, but says that the amp and CD player must be able to talk to each other, in which case well done Marantz for maintaining compatibility between pieces of equipment bought a quarter of a century apart.

Now I have a technological challenge of my own, to update my iPod after copying some more Chopin and Dvorak into my iTunes library on the laptop.  The iPod has been getting rather difficult about updating itself, so I hope that technological death is not going to come in threes.

Friday, 23 November 2012

clubs and associations

I went last night to hear Bob Flowerdew talk at a local garden club on the unlikely subject of Gardening by UFO light.  I'm not a member, but know a couple of people who are, and have lectured there myself a couple of times, so for the last two years when they've opened the booking to their annual celebrity lecture to non-members they've made sure I got a ticket.  They make a proper evening of it, with the village hall packed out, and home made sandwiches and cakes included in the price of the event (home made by members of the committee.  It seems to be a feature of village committee life that you help provide refreshments, and I get off rather lightly in that respect when it comes to the beekeepers).

My first and irrelevant thought was that he was shorter than I expected.  Given I've mainly heard him on the radio I don't know why I expected him to be any particular height, though I do have his Organic Bible and I suppose there are some photographs of him in there.  The talk was great fun, in a bonkers way.  His central thesis was that since science was complicated and there was a great deal we still didn't know, it was better to be open minded and curious about gardening problems and life in general than to dismiss or attack new or unfamiliar ideas.  Which sounds fair enough.  I am not inclined to start believing in healing crystals, or planting by the phases of the moon (planting when I have time and it is not pouring with rain is as much as I can manage), but look at the way that, for example, recent new understanding of how the expression of genes can be switched on and off by environmental factors has complicated notions of heredity.

The Systems Administrator spent the evening catching up with old work friends, which would have been a nicer evening overall if the 22.18 and 22.30 out of Liverpool Street hadn't been cancelled, and the 22.38 left ten minutes late, spent another ten minutes stopped outside Stratford and dawdled back to Colchester, so that the SA got home at five minutes past one.  The late running 22.38 had people standing as far as Colchester, since passengers for Norwich had been told to get that train and it was packed.  There was no information at Colchester about how they were supposed to get to Norwich.  Greater Anglia's apology after two days of chaos in this morning's East Angian Daily Times only covered the severe delays on Wednesday night (a friend's husband who left Liverpool Street at twenty to seven or thereabouts got home at gone eleven) and the daytime delays during Thursday, and didn't even mention that Thursday night was chaos as well.

Meanwhile, a dispute has broken out among the beekeepers committee, conducted mainly by e-mail with occasional telephone sorties, about whether or not you can move the venue of an advertised event at one week's notice.  You can't.  End of.  I thought I had the final say on that, as I was going to lend the projection equipment for the talk and could decide where I was taking it (to the advertised hall), but yesterday we discovered that our booked speaker was unable to make the date anyway, leaving us with one week to organise an alternative entertainment.  I've suggested a session on honey jar labelling regulations, presented as a light-hearted quiz and group discussion, but so far only one fellow committee member has replied.  They said it was a good idea (in fact, a brilliant idea) but a minefield.  Which seems a very good reason to have a teach-in on the subject.  Nobody else has suggested anything, apart from one volunteer to cover the original topic, which was brave of him, but seems hard on the booked speaker, who was very keen to do the talk and has got all his slides ready.  It is not his fault he can't make it, so we should try and reschedule him for next year.  I'm waiting for the rest of the committee to start showing more interest in the problem, as I volunteered to be Treasurer, not Entertainments Officer.

In the garden I continued to cut down herbaceous stems, and trim back the roses on the bank between the top and bottom lawns, which are sprawling out across the border at the top, engulfing an iron tripod and threatening to annihilate a tree peony.  Everything has made a phenomenal amount of growth (for north Essex) after the wet year.  I filled an entire trailer with stems and leaves bound for the compost heap, and there is masses more to come off.  In fact, I am going to run out of space in the compost bins fairly soon, despite the Systems Administrator building another one only recently.  The ground is absolutely saturated, so that I am breaking down the lawn at the edges of the beds as I kneel down to work, and I dread to think what damage I am doing to the soil structure walking on it.  But there isn't time to wait for it to dry out and do everything in March.  Work will continue right through the winter, unless it is pouring, freezing or snowing.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

real bread

Most of us live with some significant gaps between the sort of person we imagine ourselves to be and the things we feel we ought to be doing, and the things we actually do.  For some this means living with the dream of being a footballer, or a pop star, or even just being a celebrity, famous for being famous, while continuing with the day job as an accountant.  For me it means imagining I am the sort of person who bakes their own bread.  I feel it goes with the beekeeping and gardening and general enthusiasm for baking.  I have the sort of short, strong, broad hands that were clearly made for kneading.  I have an Aga.  I like home made bread.  I like the idea of knowing what is in the loaf I eat and that it contains flour, yeast, salt, and water.  No enzymes, flour treatment agents, bleach, reducing agent, emulsifier, or preservatives.

There is one snag with this self-image, which is that I am not very good at making bread.  I've managed milk rolls over the years that weren't bad, in a slightly yeasty sort of way, and a Moroccan flatbread cooked in a hot frying pan, that was pretty good.  I even once, with enormous effort, produced a ciabatta that was quite nice, though not necessarily sufficiently nicer than the ones from Tesco to justify the time spent making it at home.  I made a soda bread the other day as a sort of preparatory move towards bread making.  But producing a proper wholemeal loaf that looked, felt and tasted like bread, rather than having all the texture and flavour of a brick, has eluded me.

It doesn't help my confidence that the books say that wholemeal bread tends to be denser than white.  I prefer wholemeal, for everyday use, but dense is not a good characteristic in the Systems Administrator's eyes when it comes to bread.  The SA would like bread to be fluffy.  Sliced brown bread from the farm shop or supermarket passes muster, but I don't think you can get brown, or rather wholemeal, to fluff up like that at home.  I think you need all the steam and additives the Chorleywood bread process can give you, and maybe a mix of wholemeal and white flour with a dollop of caramel to give that nice brown colour.  I have once or twice experimented with the Cranks recipe book Doris Grant no-knead brown loaf, and I think it came out right, or at least like the bread in Cranks, when there used to be a branch round the corner from my office in the early 90s, but it was much too brick-like for the SA's taste.  Cranks has now retrenched to one branch, in Totnes where they don't mind eating bricks, as long as they are wholefood.

Since yesterday it was raining I decided after we'd been shopping for the Significant Birthday present that I would make bread.  Originally I was thinking of a stollen.  I did make a stollen the Christmas before last, and it came out remarkably well, given my lack of expertise with yeast cookery.  But then I realised I didn't have any marzipan and hadn't soaked the fruit, and that the bag of wholemeal flour was on the elderly side, as was the tub of instant yeast.  The flour smelled all right, so I decided to practice using the most basic ingredients on a bog standard ordinary brown loaf.  If it wasn't very nice I could always feed it to the chickens, since they wouldn't be that fussy, and organic wholemeal flour certainly wasn't going to hurt them.

I decided to go with Andrew Whitely on this one.  His book is slightly ominously titled bread matters.  The state of modern bread and a definitive guide to baking your own.  It was that or Richard Bertinet or Elizabeth David.  Bertinet's book is called Dough: Simple Contemporary Bread, and it leans towards oil enriched doughs made into fancy shapes.  Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery is simply wonderful, but more discursive than I wanted at that moment, since it starts with the history of grain before moving on to the history of milling, reaching different types of oven by page 155 and finally recipes on page 255.  The recipes are hedged around with enough anecdotes and alternative methods to not be entirely confidence inspiring to the nervous cook.  I wanted somebody bossy to tell me what to do.

Andrew Whitley includes a fair amount of pre-amble, including detailed descriptions of the ingredients and methods going into modern commercially produced bread that leave you not really wanting to eat it.  However, once you get on to the recipes on page 141 he does kick off with something called Basic Bread.  I thought that basic bread was what I wanted.  If I could get the hang of that I could start adding walnuts or olives or sundried tomatoes, once I was over the brick stage.  The recipe for one large or two small loaves told me to use 600g of wholemeal flour and 8g fresh yeast.  Now I did not have any fresh yeast, only some Allinson's Dried Active Yeast that was best before the end of July.  I vaguely recalled that to convert from fresh to dried yeast you halved the weight in the recipe, which was also what it said on the tin.  But the tin said to use 15g of dried yeast or one level tablespoon for 650g flour.  600g and 650g aren't so very different, not nearly as different as 4g versus 15g.  I had a nasty feeling the books all cautioned against using too much yeast, as the resulting bread would taste odd, keep badly and otherwise be a sad disappointment, on the other hand I didn't want to be sitting up until two in the morning waiting for the dough to rise if I used too little.

I followed the instructions on the tin.  After all, I don't even know if all dried yeast is the same.  The books tend to be rather sniffy about dried yeast, encouraging you to go and beg some from a local baker, or buy it in a health food shop.  No wonder making your own bread ends up sounding so off-puttingly complicated, if you have to trawl around the local health food shops and negotiate with bakery counter staff before you can even start.  The yeast frothed up gratifyingly in the jug of warm water with a teaspoon of sugar, so had not died since July.  I mixed it into the flour and salt, transferred the dough to a board once the liquid was absorbed as the book said, and kneaded for ten minutes by the clock, then left it to prove for something over two hours next to the Aga, the bowl covered with a damp tea towel.  After a slow start it rose until it was quite a lot bigger.  I shaped it into two loaves as the book told me, not because I especially wanted small loaves but because I only had small tins, and left them for a second proving for something over half an hour.  They did get larger, though not enough to reach the corners of the tins, and I thought that maybe I was heading for brick territory.  The books warn about the dangers of over-proving, which can cause the loaf to collapse, or taste odd, or something, so when they began to feel quite spongy I put them in the bottom of the top oven for ten minutes, then moved them to the top of the bottom for another twenty.

The cooking times in the book were amazingly vague, for a recipe that gave the total weight of ingredients as 1013g and not one kilogramme.  The instructions for telling whether your loaf was cooked weren't cut and dried either, warning that even if the bottom sounded hollow when tapped that didn't mean it was cooked all the way through.  Basically, if it looked cooked it was, and if you didn't know what cooked bread looked like then that was tough.  Keep practising.  I thought the loaves looked cooked after half an hour and decided to risk taking them out of the oven, since overcooked bread would be as nasty as undercooked, and if they were doughy in the middle the chickens would eat them anyway.

We didn't need any bread with supper, so I had to wait until breakfast time to cut a slice and see what they were like.  They were just like real bread.  The crumb was OK all the way through, not soggy in the middle, and it tasted like brown bread, not all weird and yeasty like some of my past efforts.  If I'd been given a slice with soup in a gastropub or restaurant that boasted home made bread I'd have thought it was perfectly fine.  Very nice, in fact.  The Systems Administrator had some for lunch and pronounced it to be good, though with some regret that it wasn't as fluffy as the farm shop sort.

It was pretty straightforward to make, and the washing up didn't take long, just one bowl and the pastry board, plus the tins and cooling rack.  I think the main obstacle to making bread regularly is working out when to do it, since after starting it off you have to come back to do more to it in a couple of hours, for which you need clean hands, and then hover around for the next hour while it proves and cooks.  If your ideal day at home consists of disappearing into the garden after breakfast and then not reappearing until lunchtime, happy and grubby, then making your own bread would disrupt the morning.  If you do it in the evening then unless you get started by six you won't be finished until after you might have liked to go to bed, unless you are by nature an owl rather than a lark.  The ideal might be to find a recipe that would work with the second proving overnight, in the fridge.  Then the initial kneading and shaping the loaves could be done in the evening, after I'd finished gardening for the day and cleaned my hands.  I'd even have fresh bread for breakfast, hot out of the oven, if I weren't in a tearing hurry to get going.

In the meantime they do sell bread in Tesco.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

a time of gifts

As December approaches my thoughts are starting to turn to Christmas shopping.  I haven't got anything so far, apart from the pudding (hand made by barn owls, ho ho) and some new Christmas tree lights.  The Systems Administrator got those in Tesco a couple of weeks ago, because noticing the enormous display of them right inside the door reminded me that last year I fitted the last of the spare bulbs to our existing ones when a bulb blew, and had totally omitted to try and source any more bulbs in the intervening period, so if another went then the lights wouldn't work.  I also remembered that last year the shops seemed to sell out of tree lights quite a long time before Christmas.  I was baffled by the choice of lights, having no idea whether we wanted fairy lights or LEDs, so left that to the SA, who said the former because the light was warmer.  Two strings of one hundred lights apiece may be too many, but if it is we can cannibalise one to supply the other with spare bulbs and should never need to buy any more tree lights again, which at five pounds a box can't be bad.

I'm rather worried about the tree, because I'm not at all sure if the plant centre will be selling them this year, or if last year's crop of tall, thin trees represented the last scrapings of the barrel.  The plant centre trees were always extraordinarily cheap, an excellent bargain provided you had a very high ceiling and weren't fussed about the tree not being very bushy, and having to go to another garden centre or B&Q and buy a normal tree at the usual commercial rate is going to be a shock to the system.  I asked the SA if we could chop down an alder that has seeded itself by the wildlife pond where I don't want a full sized tree, and have a deciduous Christmas tree instead, but the SA said that while I could if I wanted it would look rather Blue Peter made out of coat-hangersish.  Which it probably would.  But it would be free, and incredibly green.

Anyway, I haven't got as far as Christmas presents.  Indeed, the SA and I went today and finally bought the last part of my present for my Significant Birthday, and that was over two months ago.  The SA said on the day that I could have a piece of jewellery but that it would be better if I chose it, and that we might see something on holiday, but we didn't, and I didn't find anything I especially liked in my favoured craft jewellers in Colchester.  A friend had told me that there was a talented designer and maker in Thorpe le Soken, and sported a very pretty necklace from her to prove it, so I'd been planning to go there on a wet day and when I was in the right mood for shopping.  I found a necklace of smoky quartz beads with a silver and gold leaf pendant (it is made in the shape of a leaf, and decorated with gold leaf) which I liked very much, so took the SA back with me after lunch to make the ceremonial purchase.  I could have bought it the first time I was there and presented the bill, but that isn't the same.  The jeweller made it into a beautiful package while we watched, which seemed a slight waste when I was going to unwrap it again as soon as I got home, but was fun.  The quartz beads are cut with facets so that they catch the light and sparkle gently, and the quartz seems to change colour from soft black to brown, and from opaque to translucent, depending on the light source.  The jeweller is called Marisa Arna, she has a shop in Thorpe le Soken High Street, sells her own off-the-peg designs or will work to commission.  You could get something simple but good in silver and have change from forty pounds, then prices go up from there.  Her style is more bohemian arty than Mappin and Webb.  I loved it.

But that doesn't solve the question of Christmas presents.  Martin Lewis has written an article in the Telegraph asking if it is time to ban Christmas presents.  He argues from an economist's perspective that the social requirement to reciprocate gifts distorts spending priorities, and that people end up spending money they can't afford in order to end up owning things that wouldn't have been their top choice of what to buy.  Gifts should be for children only.  This is moderately amusing, though somebody (possibly Martin Lewis) has certainly made the same point in an article in a previous year.  It contains a grain of truth but also a couple of fallacies.  Firstly, it is possible by mutual consent and without having to invest in a special app that sends out formal No Gifts requests to your friends and relations, to limit the circle of people with whom you exchange presents and the amount that you each spend.  Secondly, it is not necessarily the case that presents have to be Gifts, as in useless clutter that the recipient doesn't need or want.

I like presents, hence I am very pleased to be the possessor of a smoky quartz and silver and gold leaf necklace that until this afternoon was sitting in a showroom in Thorpe le Soken.  I am happy to be allowed to choose something I really like, though I enjoy surprises.  Provided they are something I want.  Another article in the Telegraph said that British women are the recipients of £100m of unwanted lingerie every year.  The Systems Administrator and I solve this problem by mostly giving each other books.  In fact, I give practically everybody books.  Admittedly, it is easier if you live with someone and can check the bookshelves to see what they've already got, but failing that if you stick to titles that were only recently published you're relatively safe.  The SA and I have pact about not buying books for ourselves within four to six weeks of birthdays and Christmas (except for really obscure titles that the other could never possibly think of) to make it easier, and I know at least one pair of friends who have a similar arrangement.

The Kindle makes it more difficult, without that row of spines to check out on the bookcase.  Looking at somebody else's Kindle feels vaguely intrusive, only one step away from looking at their mobile phone.  And I don't know why Amazon still haven't introduced the technology for making gift purchases of kindle titles in time for Christmas.  Another Amazon innovation I'd like to see is the ability to tag books bought as presents when you buy them, so that later on you could search by the name of the recipient and see what you'd previously bought for them.  At the moment you can only look up each order.  They go back an impressively long way, but it would be very handy to be able to check which detective stories I've already given to my mother, for example.

The most difficult aspect of present giving, and the reason why people end up giving and receiving Gifts, is when social convention dictates you have to give something to somebody you don't know that well.  You don't know enough about their tastes, or pet authors, or hobbies in the event that they don't like books, to be able to make a reasonable stab at choosing something that they might really like.  My default position is champagne and chocolate, but that's not foolproof.  Not everybody likes champagne, or chocolate.  We have a growing collection of bottles of port, given to us by people who meant kindly but didn't know that we don't drink the stuff.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

cold coming

Listening to the radio the other day I heard a feature about predictions of a dire winter to come, the worst for a hundred years.  It think it was on the Today programme, and they were reporting an article in the Daily Mail, or some other paper.  I didn't gather who was making the prediction, or how credible they were, or what their past track record was, and let it pass me by, since it seems as though every year the media get excited over forecasts of extreme weather, then allow those that don't materialise to pass without further comment.  Apart from the Met Office, that is, and their much ridiculed predictions of a barbecue summer.  I did have a look on the Met website later on, but they have stopped publishing medium range forecasts for public consumption, presumably discouraged by the public's inability or unwillingness to grasp the concept of probability.

Looking out of the kitchen window this morning at the gravel garden in the turning circle, with the olive, the extra-blue, extra tender form of Teucrium, the Phlomis italica, myrtle and variegated Luma, and the lemon scented Aloysia, not to mention the rosemary, Acca, and Buddleia 'Silver Anniversary' (which took so long to recover from those two cold nights last February that it has only just started  flowering.  It had better get on with it before this year's cold weather arrives) I wondered which of them would survive the winter.  Which was a rather depressing thought.

I asked the Systems Administrator about the medium term forecast of a bad winter, and was told that the prediction came from a commercial forecaster, which was quite reputable and sold forecasts to businesses that needed to know badly enough to be willing to pay for them.  The SA thought that what they had actually said was not as apocalyptic as what the Today programme said the Daily Mail (or Express, or whoever it was) had said they said.  Maybe more along the lines that December and January temperatures could be below average, with some sharp snaps, and some snow.  Like winter, in other words.  Curiosity then got the better of the SA, who went and invested six pounds buying their premium UK weather forecast for winter 2012-13.  I was going to give you their name and a link to their site, but the SA says that if I do that I can't tell you anything about what's in the forecast.

It doesn't honestly make very jolly reading, not if you have a collection of Mediterranean shrubs, and work for a plant centre where trade is already slack, and where you won't get paid at all if you're snowed in and can't get to work.  December is likely to be very cold and exceptionally snowy, while parts of eastern England are likely to experience below average temperatures for the vast majority of the month.  I summarise.  It doesn't say for your six pounds which parts of eastern England are facing the mini ice-age, so that could be Colchester, or Hull.  January is predicted to be a re-run of December, then in February things start to return to normal.  Normal for February, that is, which is still pretty cold.

Oh dear.  It makes me glad I haven't invested in a pair of tickets for the carol concert by candlelight in Long Melford in mid-December in aid of stroke victims, with the choir of one of the Cambridge colleges, which sounded very nice, but as the Systems Administrator said, you don't want to be committed to driving to Long Melford in the middle of December.  It's bound to be either foggy or snowing.  And my ticket for a bird watching barge trip in the first week of January may have been an unwise purchase.  We'd better start stocking up on baked beans and cat food, just in case.

Monday, 19 November 2012

chill winds

The chill winds of recession are blowing through the ornamental plant industry, even if the economy is technically back in growth.  One of our suppliers is shutting down their nursery from next week until after Christmas, with the staff put on unpaid leave whether they like it or not, while another has just laid off forty people.  At the plant centre the owner has been looking for volunteers willing to reduce their hours, with a couple of part timers dropping days or laid off until spring regardless of whether they volunteered or not.  My truthful answer to the question whether I wanted to reduce my hours over the winter was that no, honestly, I did not want to.  Although I knew trade was quiet, I needed a part time job, not a casual job.

It's a difficult one.  If I lost a day's work a fortnight, or even a day a week, between now and the beginning of March, that would be a few hundred quid.  In the grand scheme of things between now and when I start drawing my pension that isn't so much.  And the owner isn't alone in trying to cut staff costs to suit her cloth.  Earlier this evening I was reading an article about an electrical manufacturing business up towards Bury St Edmunds that has put the workforce on to short hours rather than make compulsory redundancies, faced with a falling order book.  But once I accept the principle of dropping days when it's quiet then I become a casual worker in the owner's eyes, and this won't be the last time.  And I am good at my job, better, dare I say it, than some of my co-workers.

Meanwhile, the manager found three nibbled bags of peanuts in the bird food section, so Ruby the white terrier was right.

After lunch I was finally given some labels for the Italian plants, though by no means all of them.  Putting labels on plants is one of those unskilled jobs which it is amazingly easy to mess up.  You can put the labels on the wrong plants, because you confuse different varieties that look vaguely similar and happen to be standing close to each other (how similar depends on your ability to see plants.  A former co-worker perceived no difference between Choisya and a narrow leaved form of Pittosporum tobira).  Or put labels on the wrong plants because once you have read the first couple of words in the name the rest of it passes you by.  Cornus kousa  var. chinensis 'White Dusted'.  Cornus kousa var. chinensis 'Wisley Queen'.  Whatever.  You can put two labels on different branches of the same plant, so that another goes out for sale without a label at all.  This is especially easy to do if the plants are sitting in a trolley, and you decide to save time and effort by not taking them out.  You can put the label on to a deciduous plant so that the only thing stopping it from dropping off the end of the twig to which it is attached are the leaves, which are going to drop off themselves fairly soon, instead of putting it lower down below a point where the twig branches.  You can put the label on upside down, which is surprisingly easy to do if the plant is on the ground and you are stopping down over it.  You can joyously and randomly put ten Edgeworthia chrysantha labels on ten plants, irrespective of the fact that the plants come in two different sizes at two price points.  I managed not to do that today, by dint of reading the labels as I was going along.  If you suffer from passive-aggressive tendencies then given a lorry load of Italian plants you can indulge in all of the above, on purpose.

We had buyers waiting for some of the labelled plants, so I made a couple of calls, and at least one person still wanted the Danae she had been waiting for since April.  A would-be mail order purchaser of a couple of Euonymus and a Viburnum henryi, who had telephoned last Thursday to find out what we had in stock, called again to place an order, and by today we had run out of the Viburnum.  It's never a good idea to let these things drag on, with rare shrubs.  Strike while the iron is hot, once you've located your plant.

Let us hope that things pick up come the spring.  It would be very sad if it turned out that in the new flat UK economy we could not afford the sort of specialist plant retailing that has grown up in the past half century, and were back to people swapping roots and cuttings with their neighbours, plus a few specialist societies, and small, fanatically keen growers selling rarities to a few passionate gardeners while content to live in poverty on a diet of lentils.  There again, this has been an exceptionally wet year, and it might all be looking better by March 2013.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

compost and culture

There was a frost this morning, which came as a surprise to me since the overnight Met Office forecast for Colchester had suggested a minimum temperature of 4 or 5 degrees.  My car had an extraordinary amount of ice on the windscreen, for a night that wasn't supposed to be frosty at all, and by the time enough of a hole had cleared for me to see out safely I thought I was going to be late to work.  However, I arrived just in time to find a colleague unlocking the gates.

Following on from the clear night it was a bright and beautiful late autumn day, and the plant centre and arboretum, or at least the bits of it I saw over the wall and from the car park, looked lovely.  The sunshine brought customers out, and there was a reasonable stream of people heading for the till carrying trees.

Ruby the white terrier from Clacton came in with her owners, recently bathed and wearing a smart red collar with white dots on it.  However, although she looks every inch the pampered pet she still has hunting terrier instincts, and was a great deal too interested in the bird food stand.  Her owner assured me that there had to be something hiding in there, but though I crawled on hands and knees to peer underneath and behind it, I couldn't see any mice whisking out of sight.  There were two mousetraps, baited and set, but with nothing in them.  I'm afraid Ruby's instincts are probably right, though.  Unless she is modelling herself on the pair of terriers in the Kipling novella who used to pretend there were rats behind the wainscot, to upset a governess they disliked.

My colleagues agreed that they didn't mind if I clocked off half an hour early, so that I could scrub the worst of the filth from under my fingernails, get changed and arrive at the church by four in time for today's concert.   I used to go to afternoon concerts that fell on my working weekends in my work clothes, dirty fingernails and all, when I first discovered them and didn't know anybody there, and would just sit quietly in a corner exuding damp and compost.  Nowadays I would rather feel vaguely clean and tidy and in the same sartorial zone as the rest of the audience.  Besides, now I am on the committee I have standards to keep up.

The chairman has subcontracted the teas to the ladies of the church at a pound a go for tea and a biscuit, in aid of church funds.  I didn't mind pouring tea and then washing cups frantically, but it is nice to be able to be able to talk to people.  And to actually get a cup of tea and a biscuit.  When you are pouring out and washing up for the entire interval there isn't time.  Now that we don't have the teas to occupy us the chairman has nominated three of us to be a working party to increase the amount of publicity for the concerts, and the audience numbers.  I'm quite happy with that, since I like my fellow publicists.  One of them has invited the other two of us to supper in a couple of weeks so that we can discuss it.

The concert was jolly good by the way, a string quartet plus clarinet, playing Mozart and Bliss.  When we were originally discussing booking that quartet at the committee meeting I recall we had a choice between the clarinettist and a brass player, and that the brass player was going to play something very contemporary.  I could see the committee striving to embrace the new and veering towards the brass, and as the voice of the middle brow I murmured regretfully how nice the Mozart clarinet quintet was.  The sense of relief in the room was palpable, once somebody had said the philistine unsayable, and we went with the clarinet.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

a priceless delivery

The Italian plants had arrived at work.  They came on Friday, later in the week than we were expecting, but still on a day when I wasn't there to help unload them.  One of my jobs for today should have been to put the labels on them, with prices and descriptions, but the boss hadn't done those, so I couldn't.  I compromised by helping my colleagues for half an hour as we removed the netting sleeves the plants were packed in to travel.  Imagine the sort of plastic netting tube some Christmas trees come in, and you get the general idea.  The wrappings stop the branches from getting tangled with each other and broken during loading, unloading and transport, and squashes the plants smaller so that more will fit in a lorry.  It is amazing how most shrubs will put up with being trussed up as if in a straitjacket, and then spending several days in the back of an articulated lorry, but I feel sorry for them by the time they reach us.  I want to release their confined limbs, and let them breath.  In the hours after taking the netting off you can see the branches relax, and the leaves move back into a more natural orientation relative to each other, and the light.  They really do look grateful.

I had a look to see what had come in.  Most were things we stock regularly, so there weren't many surprises.  A lot of clipped standards in various varieties of holly.  We get virtually all of our standards from Italy, except roses.  I think the Italians have the skills to produce them, and it may be that plant growth is faster under an Italian sun than an English one, so that the trunks thicken to a marketable size more quickly.  Whatever the reason, they seem to be an Italian speciality.  There were some large and very nice plants of the butcher's broom, Ruscus aculeatus.  By large I mean large for a Ruscus, a slow growing species.  These were a good fifty centimetres high, whereas the last ones that came in, from a specialist nursery down in Devon, were nearer five.  There were some chunky looking Danae racemosa as well.

Perhaps the labels will be ready tomorrow.  Or on Monday.  Quite a few varieties come in at several different sizes, so matching label to pot requires some thought.  It is embarrassing to put shrubs out for sale at £19.95, and then discover that you have labels for £39.95 for smaller plants of the same variety.  If you run out of labels, or think you have too many, that should sound alarm bells, since the boss is normally pretty good at printing the right number, and the manager is very hot about checking off deliveries.

The disagreeable discovery was that after tomorrow the new cafe people are giving up until the spring, and we will be back to dishing out tea and cakes in between manhandling plants off lorries.  Oh dear.  I really thought we had solved that particular problem, and now here we are back at square one until March.  By the middle of this morning my hands were filthy, as I'd been weeding pots of herbaceous plants and dressing their tops with fresh compost, and compost had worked its way inside my gloves.  I couldn't serve in the cafe in that state.  Not that I want to serve in the cafe anyway, so it's quite fortunate to have a good excuse.

A regular customer came in and chose four trees to be delivered.  I remembered to ask her if she needed tree stakes, ties, and rabbit guards and she decided that she did.  I helped someone else find the particular sort of evergreen Euonymus that he wanted, by dint of searching around on the ornamental displays, and spent a long time on the phone describing what Euonymus europaeus forms we had in stock, to somebody who had seen them on Gardeners' World.  And I pointed out the different forms of climbing hydrangea we had to somebody who came in thinking she wanted one climbing hydrangea, the usual deciduous form, and ended up buying two, a less usual evergreen species and an even more unusual variegated one.  So I tried hard to follow the boss's early morning injunction to sell, sell, sell.

The boss was in rather a good mood, so I seized the moment when I was not in disgrace for being implicated in till errors, failing to set the house alarm or other staff misdemeanours and asked whether he was able to sell me some straw bales for the chickens.  It turned out that he ploughs his straw in rather than baling it, to add the organic material back into the soil, but he thought he might be able to get me some straw.  A neighbouring farmer who might have some bales owes him a favour, apparently.  I thought the boss would have straw for the horses, but it seems not.  They live out.  That shows how little I know about horses.  I don't know any farmers either, except for the boss, despite living in the country, or at least not well enough to ask them a favour.

Friday, 16 November 2012

taking part in the democratic process

We went to the beekeepers' annual dinner last night, and on the way stopped to vote in the PCC election.  I firmly believe in the democratic process, and that if there's an election going I ought to vote in it.  When my grandmother was born, women didn't even have the vote.  Vote early and vote often, that's the slogan in our house.

I remember dutifully voting in the elections for the regional MEP, back in the pre-internet days of the  late eighties or early nineties (remember those?  It is like confessing that you lived in the Stone Age) and taking weeks to discover who had won, as it wasn't in the local paper.  I did keep an eye out, but nobody seemed interested in reporting the outcome.  Actually, nothing much has changed there as I still couldn't tell you who my MEP is, though at least nowadays I could look it up if I wanted to.  As the PCC elections drew closer it seemed that history was repeating itself before the ballot, because none of the local papers had anything to say on the subject at all.

I was disappointed by that.  I'd thought that maybe the East Anglian Daily Times could interview them over a few editions (starting with the candidates standing in Suffolk, naturally, but squeezing Essex in later).  Or somebody could organise a debate between the candidates and report on it.  Or there could be some town meetings, or a hustings, or something.  And it would have been quite helpful if the BBC, or the Telegraph, or Guardian, or Independent, had explained quite what it was that the winning candidate would be allowed or expected to do.  They can 'hold police forces to account' and they have the power to sack the Chief Constable.  Apart from sacking the Chief Constable I wasn't clear how they were supposed to hold police forces to account.  They could have a good moan at them, or grumble about them in the media (assuming they could persuade it to take any notice) but I didn't see what they could actually do, that would be any more effective than the threats of the English teacher at my school who couldn't keep order that if we didn't behave she was going to punish us in a minute.  She never did punish us, we never did behave, and only one girl in the class (not me) got an A grade at O level Eng. Lit.

The PCC is supposed to set policing objectives, but not to interfere in operational policing matters.  They are meant to act as a bridge between the police force and the communities they police, and relay the concerns and priorities of the community to the police.  That sounds excellent, like motherhood and apple pie.  Except that if the public say they want to see more police on the beat, is that a policing objective or an operational decision?  Sounds pretty operational to me, deciding how many policemen and women are going to be pounding the means streets of Colchester and Harlow versus doing other police duties.  Like traffic patrols on the A12.  Or dealing with fraud, or domestic abuse.  Or reporting animal sanctuaries to the authorities for having exotic owls.  I'd have been happy to hear an informed debate on where the boundary lies, but nobody held one, or if they did it was kept a closely guarded secret.

I looked at the website with details of the candidates for Essex on it.  Three were standing on political party tickets, or four if you count the English Democrats as a party, and there were two independents.  I'm not sure that party politics belongs in policing.  In fact, I'm rather sure that it doesn't.  I read what they all had to say about what they would do if they became Police and Crime Commissioner, but it was a bit vague.  Listen to the views of the community, put victims at the heart of policy, make Essex a safe and secure place to live and work.  Yes, but what are you actually going to do?  The UKIP candidate wanted a five year sentence to mean five years, a legal reform which I don't think will lie within the remit of the PCC, so he seemed about as unclear about the role as I was.  Or he knew he couldn't actually do that but was saying so anyway because it sounded good.  Whatever.  The main policy of the English Democrats seemed to be to fly the cross of Saint George over police stations, which sounded quite sweet, but irrelevant to policing.  The Conservatives were the most organised party, delivering a flyer to our house (in itself an achievement, professional delivery companies can't find it half the time) while a canvasser in a blue rosette was handing them out at Colchester railway station on Wednesday.  Their candidate had worked for thirty years at senior level in national security and defence.  That's what his biography on the Choose your PCC website said.  Does that mean he was a spy?  Or a software engineer?

I began to despair of the lot of them, and seriously thought about spoiling my ballot paper, to make the point that it wasn't that I didn't know the election was on, or couldn't be bothered to go out to vote.  But I've always thought that voting for None of the above was babyish.  In the real world you have to choose from the available alternatives, however unpalatable, and one of this lot was going to be the first Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex.  I voted.  Ours was the only car in the car park, and I could see from the number of names ticked off on our page of the electoral roll that not many other people had.

The Conservatives won, in Essex and Suffolk.  It's not really surprising.  East Anglia was a sea of blue in the 2010 General Election, with just Colchester and a couple of seats in Norfolk going to the Liberal Democrats.    I haven't yet discovered what the turnout was*, but I shouldn't think it was very high.  Maybe by the time we have to vote again we'll have discovered what it is that Police and Crime Commissioners actually do.

*12.81 per cent according to the Telegraph.  That's abysmal.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

a quiet day at home

It was foggy when I got up, so much so that I couldn't see the wind turbine on the neighbouring farm, my usual benchmark for bad visibility.  There was a gleam of sunshine around mid-morning, then the fog rolled in again, to the extent that the Systems Administrator couldn't see the avenue of lime trees leading on to the farm from the kitchen window.  When the trees disappear from view that's foggier than when it's just the turbine.  It was very localised, as the SA went out to buy metal strips to finish mending the chicken house, and said that there was bright sunshine in Colchester.  The fog was cold, clammy stuff that chilled your legs and penetrated through thermals.  As the hours of daylight continue to diminish I console myself with the thought that it's only five weeks to the shortest day, but that doesn't work for cold, since we don't usually see the worst of it until February.  Another three months of this to go.  Good grief.

I have got to the bottom of the current crop of home made compost.  There is some leaf mould, but since I let weeds grow up around the leaf bin I need to think carefully about where I use that.  It will be full of goose grass burrs, and the seeds of a tall, rampant dead nettle relative whose name I don't know, and which I could happily do without.  In an ideal world the utility area with the compost bins would be the tidiest, most weed-free part of the entire garden, but Dr Pangloss hasn't yet arrived in this part of Essex.

I had to trim the Osmanthus delavayi on the corner of the island bed in the back garden, because it was spilling out over the lawn on two sides, and the other plants in the bed on the other two.  It is an evergreen with small, neat, dark green leaves, and sweetly scented white flowers in April.  If this were a pub quiz, and you knew nothing of Osmanthus delavayi but were asked what colour its flowers were, or whether they were scented, you would be pretty safe in saying White and Yes, since all Osmanthus seem to have fragrant, unshowy white blooms.  O. delavayi is a slow grower, and mine remained a pathetic little mite for several years, but the wet weather has obviously suited it, and after a trim earlier in the year it has pushed out another twenty to thirty centimetres of growth.  Once a shrub is a couple of metres across and approaching that in height, twenty centimetres of growth all round adds alarmingly to its bulk.

I hope I have not removed too many of next spring's flowers in the process.  I don't know when they are initiated, or if the early loss of some buds at this stage will encourage the production of more.  Trimming a plant makes you look at it closely, and it is striking how much denser the shrub is on the sides, where it has been pruned regularly, compared to the top, where it hasn't been stopped so much.  I copied the idea of trimming it and using it as a formal feature on the corner of a bed from the writings of Christopher Lloyd.  Left unpruned, it makes an open, graceful shrub.  Mine is in full sun and seems to relish it, but I have seen them do OK in light shade.

The ritual of the big tabby's special lunch continues to evolve.  He started getting a pouch of Sheba in the middle of the day to encourage him to eat, because he was too thin, and had to have it in the kitchen to stop the other cats from taking it.  He quickly got used to the idea, and started hanging around the kitchen from mid-day onwards, waiting for the treat.  If the other cats were getting normal cat food at lunchtime he learnt not to eat that, having discovered that if he held back from the ordinary food and loitered about the kitchen looking sorrowful he would get the expensive sort.  Then he began to jump on to my usual kitchen chair as lunchtime got closer, and now does that daily as a signal that he would like his Sheba.  Unfortunately his powers of sustained concentration are not good, and today he got bored of special lunch about three quarters of the way through it, and wanted to be let out of the kitchen.  He came back in half an hour to polish it off, but by then Our Ginger had eaten it.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Cotman in Dulwich

I went today to the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  This is one of my favourite galleries, notwithstanding that it is south of the river, and I have sung its praises before.  This time I took a friend who had never been there, thinking that she would like it as much as I do.  Thankfully, she did, so that was a success.

Dulwich is currently showing as their temporary exhibition some watercolours, drawings and engravings that John Sell Cotman made during the course of three trips to Normandy undertaken after the end of the Napoleonic wars meant that British tourists could once again visit France freely.  This is a lovely little exhibition.  Cotman was a fine draughtsman, who liked and understood architecture but also had a good eye for human detail, so his clean, meticulous renditions of houses, churches, ruins and street scenes are sometimes enlivened by frisking dogs and cats, or exact sketches of the different sorts of headgear sported by the local women.  I read in the caption to one watercolour that Cotman's use of colour was sometimes criticised at the time for being too loud, but I liked it.  He does use rich deep colours, by the standards of his time, and is all the better for it.  There are also some pictures of the region by other artists of the time, including Turner.  The show runs until early January, so you have time enough to catch it.

London Bridge station is being bewilderingly rebuilt, and having gone through a ticket barrier I don't think we should have, we took a strange and marvellous route up a tunnel and platform and over a bridge to get to where we should have been going, which turned out to be not quite where the member of transport staff we asked at the outset told us we should go.  Having discovered when we arrived at London Bridge that we had just missed a train, it took us most of the time until the next one to find the platform.  On the way back we found the shiny new concourse that we managed to miss on the outward journey.  And to demonstrate that luck about missing and catching trains does tend to average out, on the way back a train drew up seconds after we'd walked down the steps to the platform at north Dulwich station, and that was after I'd had to stop and top up my Oystercard at the machine because it only had 15p left on it.

On Wednesdays the Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery organise free concerts at lunchtime in the chapel.  Today's was billed as a trumpet concert, and given that we both like music, and that we were allowed out of the gallery and in again as many times as we wanted during the day (so civilised) we went.  I was interested to see the chapel anyway.  It turned out that the lunchtime concerts were a platform for local young musicians, and that today's slot belonged to Dulwich College, but the boy who was supposed to be playing the trumpet was not well, and we had an impromptu mixed brass programme instead.  The only reason I would normally go to a school concert would be if a relative or friend of the family were playing in it, but young musicians need to practice on somebody, and it was only for half an hour.  At the end of this I had concluded that if there is anything more lugubrious than one boy learning to play the trombone, it is four boys playing the trombone at once.

A rather small boy who performed a rondino on the trumpet with an air of great seriousness and a crisp sense of timing did catch my eye.  He had a great name for a musician, of which I have made a mental note, in case he should go on to great things.  So far the Systems Administrator's and my best musical coup is having seen Kate Rusby play live in the upstairs room of a pub, since last month she celebrated nineteen years in the folk business with a concert in the Royal Festival Hall.  If in twenty years a Benet Parker is the new Humphrey Lyttleton or Alison Balsom, then I saw him in the chapel at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2012.

There was a retiring collection at the end of the concert, in aid of funds for a new piano for the chapel.  My friend, who can play the piano, murmured that they needed one.  The Friends are no slouches, though, raising about £200,000 per annum for the gallery.  Another funding scheme Dulwich has adopted, which I never noticed on my previous visits, is that you can adopt an old master.  I've seen zoos do this, and even gardens with particularly attractive trees, but not an art gallery, though since Dulwich have been doing it since 1988 I obviously haven't been paying attention.  You contribute to the restoration costs, basically, and are invited to meet the conservators and to the unveiling when it goes back on display, and can have its image to use on your Christmas cards.

Dulwich does its share of outreach work, and there were several clusters of primary school children sitting on the ground in front of some of the pictures in the permanent collection, and an art class going on in a room in the modern extension by the original Soane gallery.  The children were all very well behaved and seemed fully engrossed in the art.  I thought that was great.  Often, when you hear somebody who has achieved eminence in their field interviewed, and asked when they first got interested in so-and-so, or when they first knew they were going to make a career out of it, the reply is that they were hooked before they were ten.  So let them try out some fine art at a young age, so that tomorrow's people who might be able to make a living out of doing something visual (not necessarily as artists) while loving what they do can start discovering what rocks their boat.

There is a very nice modern cafe, where we had first of all coffee and cakes, and later on bagels and tea.  The bagels at the Dulwich Picture Gallery are absolutely first rate.  By the time we'd eaten, and drunk, and been to the concert, and looked at the permanent collection as well as the Cotman, we'd made a full day of it.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

more rodent problems

I thought we'd seen off the rats, for now.  The bait that I left by the chicken house, protected from passing birds and the cats by a broken flowerpot, had remained untouched for weeks and I was about to clear it away.  Then this morning, going to let the chickens into their run, I discovered as I topped up their food that a rat had gnawed a hole in the top of the back wall of the nesting box.  That must have happened within the past twenty-four to forty-eight hours, since it was fine the last time I filled their food hopper.

If you live in the country then rats are an undesirable fact of life.  The gardener warned the boss only yesterday morning that he had seen a huge one near the boss's chicken house.  The chickens at work live in a solid brick built outbuilding, not a mere wooden hen house, so the rat at work couldn't have got in, but was presumably on the lookout for spilled food.  The boss said that he was setting traps, and would catch it in due course.  It is a very unpleasant thought, but I'm afraid the rats are there, even at the best addresses.

The Systems Administrator had to go and buy a two by four sheet of heavy grade plywood specially, which was not cheap, and spend the afternoon cladding the nesting box in an extra layer of timber.  At my suggestion tomorrow the SA will also get some metal strips, as used to cover the edges of carpets where they go across doorways, and run pieces of that round the top of the nesting box, to prevent any rats chewing another hole.  (Metal edging is not a good look for carpets, and properly fitted ones don't have any.  We have ended up with it in the past when cats have got accidentally shut in rooms, and scratched up the carpet by the door trying to get out).  As rats need an edge to get a purchase on, and can't gnaw straight through a flat piece of wood, that should do the trick.  As long as they don't think of chewing at the corners of the chicken house, in which case we will need an awful lot of metal edging.

I enjoy keeping chickens.  They are entertaining creatures, and I like the eggs, when they are laying, which they mostly aren't by this stage of the year.  I'm happy to take responsibility for where my food comes from, when it comes to eggs.  However, they are not cheap pets, when you take the cost of housing and bedding into account as well as food.  Anybody who suggests you can save money on food bills by keeping your own poultry is deluding themselves (or their unsuspecting audience).

In the afternoon I went for my Pilates lesson.  This is nominally a monthly thing, but in practice happens about ten times a year, after taking holidays and illnesses (mine and the teacher's) into account.  She is taking a break from teaching in December, so I won't see her again until the third week in January.  My lower back was moving remarkably well, which is not always the case, and was the reason I started Pilates in the first place.  She asked me how it was feeling, and I realised it wasn't really feeling anything in particular, or rather, it was feeling normal.  It was moving when asked to, and the rest of the time it was quiet.  No aches, no stiffness, no weird referred pains in legs or feet, no anything.  Those of you who have suffered from a bad back at any point, which is a terribly large percentage of the population, will understand how pleasant that realisation was.  Anyone who has not experienced a bad back, and maybe even believes that bad backs are excuses invented by other people who want to be a nuisance or gain attention, don't be too smug.  Your time will come, probably.  The human spine is not one of the world's best bits of design, in the unfortunate way that things invented for one purpose (four legged locomotion) and adapted for something else (bipedalism)  so often aren't.

My teacher, seeing that for once it was all going well,  taught me new variants on some of the exercises, intended to challenge my abdominal and inner thigh muscles, and at the end of the lesson wrote them down complete with stick man diagrams so that I wouldn't forget them.  I don't find sequences of movements at all natural or easy to learn or remember.  Poetry, or the names and preferred habitats of plants are fine, but not any kind of choreography.  If I keep working at them then maybe by January I'll have a bum like Pippa's.

Monday, 12 November 2012

back in the plant centre

I don't understand the traffic at the Manningtree railway bridge on Monday mornings.  I left extra time for my journey to work, after arriving on the late side a couple of weeks running, and sailed straight through the bridge this morning with scarcely any need to queue.  This meant I was nearly ten minutes early, but there is a basic asymmetry in having a defined starting time for your job, which is that if you are ten minutes late your employers grumble, but if you are early you get no credit for it and just have to kick your heels for a while.

Mondays when I haven't been at work over the weekend start in a relatively relaxing fashion, as I can be fairly sure as the manager works his way through the accumulated pile of notes from the weekend and the owner appears to quiz us about till errors or garbled messages that none of it was my fault.  I haven't been there for a week, and know nothing.  A message from yesterday said that on Saturday somebody had told a customer that Clematis 'Etoile Violette' didn't exist, and he was so cross that on Sunday he came in with a book on clematis to demonstrate that it did (it does).  There was another note from the owner to the manager saying that he must Find Out who had delivered this piece of misinformation.  It wasn't me, Guv.  I was in Harlow, and have witnesses to prove it.

The only job the manager could think of for me to do first thing was to dead-head the pansies.  I like pansies, so that's fine.  Dead-heading the violas is so fiddly it is almost an act of Zen meditation, as you trace each tiny stem to its base and snip it off with scissors.  Then I had a look at the list of jobs for the weekend, to see what was left over, and saw that cleaning up the Dianthus and moving them into the tunnel on the far side of the car park (the Other Side) was still outstanding.  My colleague tasked with moving herbaceous plants had done a lot yesterday, and I could see why she'd left the Dianthus until last.  As the leaves lower down the stems die they wither and hang on to the plant rather than dropping, which looks unsightly, and  they are liable to fungal attack if left on the plant, but you can't cut the whole thing down to compost level with one ruthless chop because they are evergreen, and don't respond that well to hard pruning in November.  So the only answer is to snip out any dead stems, and pull the dead leaves off individually or in small groups with your fingertips.  They are brittle plants, and if you pull too hard on the stems they break away in your hand.  Finishing the Dianthus took until almost lunchtime.

I'd made some buns from a recently acquired book of cake recipes, but even allowing for the difficulties of translating normal cooker temperatures and times into an Aga method, I think the recipe overstated one or both.  I ate a couple, because I was cold after standing outside for most of the morning, but they were definitely overcooked, and I don't see how fifteen to twenty minutes at 200 degrees could ever have worked for such small cakes (twelve of them from only eight ounces of flour).  I checked them after twelve, alerted by the smell, and they had already caught.  I expect my colleagues will eat them anyway, since they didn't taste too bad (lemon zest and mixed spice is a good combination) and frankly some of my co-workers will eat anything.  If they really don't like them they can throw them away when I'm not there.  As long as they don't lose the tupperware box.

It began to rain in the afternoon, and I took refuge in the small greenhouse while I cleaned up the geraniums that need to be kept dry, ready for them to come inside for the winter.  One customer remarked to me that I should get an inside job.  There were some customers, despite the rain, and in the morning by special appointment the friend of the owner of a largish and quite good garden that opens to the public.  The manager was instructed by the boss to expect them both and be very helpful, but in fact while the friend seemed a perfectly nice chap he only bought a couple of shrubs.  We did get some people buying reasonably large trolley loads.  By this stage of the year they tend to know what they want and are on a mission.  You don't get many people who just want to wander about and look at plants in November, especially when it's raining.

Addendum  For all of you Lucy Jordans out there, who haven't yet ridden through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in your hair, you'd better get on with it, at least if you were hoping for a ride in a classic.  I have just seen that the Mayor of Paris plans to outlaw the use of cars more than seventeen years old inside the A86 ring road by September 2014, in order to cut pollution.