Thursday, 28 February 2013

a talk

Today's woodland talk was slightly different to the usual events I go to, since it was held in somebody's house instead of a village hall.  I'd suggested to the organisers that I'd better arrive before the pre-talk refreshments, to set up the projector and screen and bring my things in, and in fact I was earlier than I needed to be, having allowed time for getting lost or not being able to find the house, and then finding that the house was exactly where Google maps said it would be.  When I saw how many chairs were fitted into the sitting room I was very grateful to be putting up my screen and crawling around plugging in the extension cable before the room filled up with ladies holding cups of coffee.  Apart from anything else, it was one of those rooms containing tables of family photographs and antique china, that we don't even attempt to have, since the cats would only destroy them (and anyway we would never dust them).

I had a strategic advantage over my hostess, in that I knew who she was.  She comes to the music society concerts, and shops in the plant centre, and once when she was ordering a shrub I took down her name, which seemed oddly familiar, until later the penny dropped that she is a local councillor.  On the other hand, she had no reason to know my name, so I thought it might be a surprise to her when I popped up on her doorstep.  It was, but she bore it with equanimity.

She was ailing with a cold or flu that had struck that morning, but insisted to her friends that she was fit to carry on.  Her husband already had it, and had retreated upstairs with the dog.  The friend who had got me the booking arrived, and disappeared again after a few minutes on the grounds that due to family commitments she absolutely could not afford to risk catching the cold and/or flu, and that she had heard my talk before anyway.  There were cries of sympathy, cries that our hostess should have cancelled, and instructions to go and lie down for half an hour, which were ignored.

I waited for them to be ready to start, while inspecting the titles in my hosts' bookcases and the tottering stacks of books piled next to the bookcases, which won my full approval.  Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple, Lynn MacDonald, Beth Chatto.  Travel in Asia, military history, gardening, fine art, natural history.  All good stuff.  I love looking at other people's bookcases.  It would be rude to touch, but I read the spines.

The talk was fine, though I had to include ash dieback, which was depressing.  I decided to cover it near the beginning, since it is so topical and otherwise would have been hanging over the rest of the talk in a great unspoken cloud, which meant I needed an extra image between slides 5 and 6, and the existing slides 6 to 32 inclusive all had to be renumbered.  The Systems Administrator kindly fixed that for me earlier in the week.  The only way of doing it I could think of would have been laboriously slow and error-prone.

After the talk came lunch, which I'd been invited to stay for and so did.  Chicken casserole, salad, French bread.  I am beginning to grasp that these are staples of middle class mass catering, since that's exactly what we're doing for the music society supper concert, albeit with a different chicken recipe.  And a choice of puddings.  People were friendly, and I was given two primroses for my garden and a generous donation for the charity.  As gigs go it was definitely at the genteel end of the charity talks circuit, and beat flogging back up the A12 from south Essex in the middle of winter at ten at night, fortified with nothing but a cup of tea and a custard cream.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

charmed by finches

Getting into the car to go out to lunch this morning, I noticed a large flock of small birds in the hedge.  They were making a lively chattering noise, and I couldn't see what they were.  Later on the Systems Administrator, on returning from a different lunch, said that there was a big flock of some sort of small birds outside.  The SA couldn't see what they were, but thought they might be finches.

Looking out of the bedroom window at around a quarter to five, there they were in the big holly at the end of the wood, a great number of little birds flitting energetically through the branches of the tree and twittering to each other, and I saw that they were goldfinches.  Bright creatures, with a yellow flash along their wings and distinctive red patches on their faces.  A flock of goldfinches.  A charm of goldfinches, indeed, though I think that is becoming pretty archaic.  I can't think when I last heard anyone, wishing to refer to a quantity of finches, referred to them a charm.  It is probably still a valid term for purposes of crossword setting and pub quizzes, but in normal conversation it is edging into the territory occupied by people who peruse menus instead of reading them.

I wondered what they were doing in the holly.  They are seed eaters, and I have seen them on the teasel heads and the old stems of the evening primroses in the gravel, but they wouldn't find any seeds in the holly.  They feed insects to their young, so maybe they eat insects themselves as well, but would they find any insects in late February?  They must know their own business, so I'm sure they had a reason to be there.

One of the pictures of the infant Christ in the Courtauld gallery showed him holding a goldfinch, and a passing visitor explained to me that in Christian symbolism the goldfinch is associated with the Passion and the crown of thorns because of the thistle seeds it eats.  Since then I've read somewhere the idea that the red splash on the goldfinch's face is because a drop of blood fell on it at the crucifixion.  It's strange how animals and plants get attached to that story.  In a few weeks the Crown Imperial fritillaries will be up, and if you tip one of the strange, foxy smelling flowers up to you and look into it you will see a permanent bead of nectar glistening at the base of each petal.  These are said to be the fritillary's tears of shame at its failure to bow its head at the crucifixion, and is why the flowers now nod downwards in penitence.

From these elevating thoughts I went to my music society committee meeting.  By the end of it I had agreed to spend a hunk of Saturday cooking four dozen chicken thighs for the fundraising supper concert.  I realised on the way home that I had no idea how large a stew for twenty four people was, but if it won't all fit in our two casseroles there is always the stock pot, and in an emergency the jam saucepan.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

cooped up

My three days charging around in the fresh air at the plant centre must have exhausted me, because when I woke up this morning it was twenty to nine, and I didn't have a riotous evening last night to celebrate the end of my working week (scrambled egg on toast, teetotal, in bed by eleven).  The trouble with waking up at gone half past eight when you keep chickens is that after realising what the time is your first thought is that your chickens are still locked in a box.  The cats were keen for their breakfast as well.

It was too cold to do anything outside.  It is a testament to my strong Protestant work ethic that I managed to do so much over the weekend.  Wishing to keep my job, and feeling that if I was being paid to work I should do some, I stuck it out.  Today, left to my own devices, being outside simply seemed too horrid.  I spent half an hour watering the pots in the greenhouse and conservatory, and at the end of that my hands were so cold I couldn't type properly.

The Systems Administrator had to venture out after lunch to cut some more firewood, since we are chewing though our supplies at an alarming rate, and came back indoors after an hour with chattering teeth saying it was no good, it was too cold.  And last night my mother rang about a proposed trip this week to look at the hellebores at Beth Chatto, saying it was too cold for garden visiting, and could we just have lunch instead.

I don't understand why it feels so cold.  According to our weather station it was four degrees outside when I got up, which is not that cold.  The SA said it was because the humidity was so high at ninety per cent, though when I asked why that should make it feel colder neither of us really knew.  We agreed it must be that damp air was a better conductor of heat away from the human body than dry air, or else that tiny beads of moisture condensed from the atmosphere on our skins and then cooled us by evaporation, or both.  Whatever the reason, it felt cold.  Always work from the evidence.  My least favourite rationalists are those who, failing to know the reason behind an observed phenomenon, or observing a phenomenon that does not accord with their accepted theory, argue that the observed phenomenon cannot in fact be the case.

We listened to The World at One with our lunch (more eggs.  We forgot to heat the baked beans up) and grumbled about why the producers thought the Italian election results ranked beneath a long interview with a woman involved in the Liberal Democrat sex scandal, and another interview with a woman who had been involved in a previous Egyptian balloon accident.  Having your leg touched in a hotel bar in Peterborough while surrounded by other people also known to you sounds thoroughly unpleasant on many levels, as does being injured though not killed some time ago in a balloon accident, but  we couldn't see why they merited fifteen minutes on what is supposed to be a flagship news and current affairs programme, ahead of the outlook for the Italian economy, the Euro, and the European banking system.

The cats are all bored with the winter as well, the big tabby alternating between following us around aimlessly, niggling for food he then doesn't eat, and needling Our Ginger.  Roll on the spring.  We all need to get out more.

Monday, 25 February 2013

shifting pots

Day three in the plant centre.  It was a tiny bit warmer again, just enough so that it was drizzling instead of lightly snowing, but it was still cold.  Really quite cold.  The manager was trying to stock-take the climbers to see what needed ordering, and grumbled that he could not feel his fingers as he clutched his clipboard and pen.

After being assigned to stick price labels on  the week's selection of pansies and hellebores from the van of pretties that visits on Mondays, I thought I might as well volunteer for a proper job, rather than being given a series of little tasks.  I therefore offered to start loading the plants I spent yesterday and Saturday labelling on to a red trolley ready to come over for sale in the plant centre.  Not all of them, only those that can be stood outside at this time of the year, but they were enough to keep me occupied.  Loading the red trolley does not just mean picking up the pots and plonking them on the trolley.  Each plant has to be weeded, if there are any weeds, have any moss and liverwort scraped off the surface of the compost, and any dead or broken twigs cut off.  If roots are growing out through the drainage holes they need to be trimmed as well, and if there is space in the top of the pot and the existing compost is uneven or has any roots showing, a top-dressing of fresh compost works cosmetic wonders.  Finally each pot is given a sprinkling of pre-emergent herbicide, except for those species that don't like the active ingredient.  These include Hydrangea, Spiraea, Syringa, and Cytisus.  When you start working in a plant nursery you will be told which plants not to treat with Ronstar.  After a while you are expected to know.

There wouldn't have been room in the plant centre for the entire delivery, so I took all of the ones with coloured stems and variegated evergreen leaves, that are useful for making ornamental displays at this time of year, but no more than five of the others, enough to make up one row on the shrub beds.  Before loading the trolley I had a quick scoot around the shrub beds to see what was already out for sale, and which ones only needed topping up with two or three pots at this stage.  By lunchtime I'd filled both tiers of the first trolley, and was ready to start on the second.  As I cleared some of the pots from the ground, the remaining truncated rows looked messy spread out over the plastic landscape fabric in front of the polytunnel, and I moved them to fill in the gaps created elsewhere so that I had a bloc of plants still in neat rows in one corner, instead of little lines of pots scattered everywhere.  When I'd filled the second trolley I had two varieties left over that wouldn't fit on, so left them to one side ready for the next person loading trolleys.  One of them was a rare Philadelphus that we've had someone waiting for since 2011, so I thought I'd let the manager make that call, to see if they still wanted them.  They might, in which case they could be delighted to hear from us after all this time, but they might not.  I tried to interest a customer in a Gaultheria mucronata that he'd been enquiring for as recently as January of this year, but he'd already found one elsewhere.

When I'd finished loading both tiers of the second trolley I found a broom and swept the spilled compost off the cleared area of mypex fabric.  After I'd had a cup of tea I unloaded the first trolley, which the young gardener had towed across to the plant centre.  That left me with fifteen minutes to spare until going-home time, but I thought that by then I'd earned the right to sit down.  I have not attempted to calculate how many times my own body weight in compost I lifted through the course of the day, but it must have been a lot.  Many times.  Many, many times.

It is actually quite peaceful moving pots of plants around in a purposeful fashion.  Some of the day I spent thinking about my own garden, and some of it not thinking about anything in particular.  I should say I had a physical workout equivalent to going to a gym, and a mental one not far short of going to a meditation class.  As a reward to myself I bought a particularly beautiful primula with small, intense violet flowers on very long stalks.  It is such a chunky plant I wonder whether I could split it into three.

Someone has written up an enormously long list of hot drinks which we theoretically serve on the blackboard in the cafe, which left my young colleague who is supposed to make the drinks trying to remember what exactly a Mocha is.  That's another advantage of spending most of the day on the far side of the car park, shifting pots.  You don't have to answer the telephone very much, and are a long way away from the cafe.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

slow, busy later, then quiet

Today was marginally warmer than yesterday, which is to say that when I left the house to go to work the car thermometer was reading plus half a degree rather than minus a half, and when I cam home again it was a balmy one and a half degrees Celsius instead of freezing.  That still doesn't sound very warm, but it made a critical difference to how it felt, as working outside had become merely chilly rather than insane-makingly cold.

I finished putting on the rest of the labels for last week's delivery, other than one set of five pots of bamboo which I could not find.  I walked round and round inside and outside the polytunnel, though I was fairly sure it ought to be inside, and I could not see them.  They were only £12.50 each, which is not much for a bamboo, and told me they must be quite small plants, but I simply couldn't find them.  Eventually I gave up.  The manager presumably knows where they are, and can tell me tomorrow.

The problem was that by the time this delivery arrived the tunnel was already so full that the plants that needed to go under cover were simply slotted in anywhere they would fit, in no logical order whatsoever.  I believe that is the modern way of filling a warehouse for optimum space utilisation, the difference being that we don't have a computer that records the location of each variety.  All we have is the memory of whoever it was that originally put them away, and what I and my colleague yesterday learned through observation walking about.  If you are interested in plants you tend to remember that you saw Pileostegia viburnoides over there, or Holboellia latifolia in that corner.  If you aren't it is presumably a nightmare green blur.

I rang a few people who'd put their names down for some of the plants that just arrived, once it was late enough to be decent to call them on a Sunday morning, which I reckon is from half past ten.  I spoke to one woman who did still want an Aktinidia kolomikta, but she'd only been waiting since last October.  Some had been waiting for months longer than that, and I was quite relieved in a purely social sense to only get their answering machines.  From a strictly commercial point of view it would be better to know at once if they don't want the plants, then we needn't waste time reserving them, and are immediately free to try and sell them to somebody else.

We saw no customers at all until well after eleven.  I wasn't altogether surprised.  It was cold, snowing very lightly, and it was Sunday morning.  Most people aren't in a tearing hurry to go and walk around a plant centre in those conditions first thing on a Sunday.  In the late morning it began to get quite busy, and I had to summon the owner to come and make hot drinks while my young colleague was at lunch, since I don't know how to do anything involving heated milk, and there were only two of us on duty.  I ended up switching my radio off while I ate my lunch, since the boss was grumbling over the airwaves that my colleague wasn't replying to his calls.  He doesn't always seem to appreciate that the staff need a lunch break, and that if you leave one person to operate the till, tea room, telephone, help customers find plants they are looking for, dig up bare root fruit trees and point people in the right direction for the loo, they may not be free at all times to answer you on the radio.

The day's takings were boosted by a couple from West Sussex who spent over two hundred pounds, and a woman who bought ten red stemmed Cornus at £9.95 a pop.  The West Sussex people were actually in the area to attend a funeral, but were making the most of the trip to visit some local plant suppliers.  Their garden ran to six acres, and they sounded keen and knowledgeable.  She wanted advice on plants that would make dome shapes for a formal garden, since they had the sort of house that seemed to demand some formality, and their garden didn't have any.  However, she also confessed to suffering from box blight and disliking formal gardens.  My advice was not to have one, then, and do what she enjoyed.  We discussed other plants she could use besides box, but she didn't sound as though her heart was in it, since she either didn't like the other plants I suggested as alternatives to box, or already had enough of them, or rejected them as being too slow growing.  Then she filled up her trolley with some interesting shrubs, none of which were remotely dome-shaped, and as she left remarked cheerfully that she thought I was right, and she wouldn't have a formal garden at all.

I felt I could take some credit for the Cornus alba 'Westonbirt' sale since while the customer had arrived with the intention of buying red stemmed dogwood, we had only got one plant out for sale and I found her the ten required using my skill and judgement to retrieve them from the great mass of shrubs I labelled yesterday.

Both dogs managed to get into the shop during the course of the day, and made friends with all the customers in the tea room.  It was lucky that everybody today liked dogs.

Saturday, 23 February 2013


It was cold at the plant centre, and I spent most of the day putting labels on plants.  That's about the gist of it, so the rest of this blog post is padding (or colourful incidental detail, depending on your point of view).

Most of the plants were shrubs which were delivered last week, and have been standing behind the scenes since then, waiting to go out for sale.  My first pile of labels were for plants outside the polytunnel on the far side of the car park ('the other side').  They were flexible plastic labels, each with a hole near one end shaped like a cartoon representation of a dog's bone.  Think Gromit's bedroom wallpaper and you've got it. Beyond the bone-shaped hole are two notches, one on each side of the label, creating a thin neck. You wrap the label around the stem of the each shrub, poke the end without a hole through the hole, and pull it until all of the fat part of the label is protruding, and the narrow neck is in the hole.  The label will now lie flat against its own folded-over end, and is relatively unlikely to come undone.  If you just vaguely poke part of the label through the hole it will soon fall out again.

I used to believe that it was not possible to do up plastic tie-on labels wearing gloves.  I now know this not to be the case.  If you do not wear gloves on a day like today you make quite rapid progress for about fifteen minutes, but soon begin to suffer severe pain, and after a quarter of an hour or so cannot move your fingers.  Gloves it is.  You work more slowly, but keep it up for longer, and if you watch what your fingers are doing, since you can't feel much through the gloves, you find it is possible to poke and pull as necessary.

You fasten each label below a convenient branching point or some evergreen leaves, and not towards the tips of unbranched deciduous twigs, otherwise it will slide off the end.  The manager's list of jobs for the weekend specifically mentioned this, and that labels must be pulled through fully.  I have been labelling shrubs for him for the past decade, but maybe he lacks faith in my ability to learn, or to grasp the workings of a label from first principles.  It is also necessary to attach the correct label to each variety, and to put one label on each plant rather than two labels on two different branches of one and none on its neighbour, but he left me to work that out for myself.

After a while one of my colleagues found the labels for some of the shrubs inside the polytunnel, where it was marginally warmer, and by way of a change I stapled labels to pots of herbaceous plants.  Then the boss printed off some more labels and it was back to shrubs outside the tunnel.  I gave up labelling at quarter to five, on the grounds that I was too cold and it was getting too dark, and my next step was going to be to poke myself in the eye.

There weren't many customers.  It's strange how all those gushing enthusiasts who exclaim in June what a marvellous job I must have, and how they would love to have my job, and even (in cases of extreme enthusiasm) that they would kill to get it, don't want to come and visit the plant centre in February, on a day when the thermometer is reading two degrees and it feels more like minus two due to the wind chill.

My colleagues did not actually say that they liked the coconut buns, but they ate quite a lot of them.

Friday, 22 February 2013

the experimental cook

It was too cold to work outside, even for a gardener of almost boundless enthusiasm verging on obsession.  I took a car load of weedy green waste to the dump, made a mental note that the dump would be closed for improvements the week after next, and decided that was my outdoor work done for the day.  The staff at the Clacton dump are very helpful, and a kindly man swaddled in numerous layers of clothing topped off with luminous green lifted all my bags of waste into the garden waste hopper while a light dusting of snow fell on us both.  The Systems Administrator says there is a petition in the post office for the St Osyth dump to be reopened, but I can't think it's going to be, not if the waste company are investing in the Clacton one.

Instead I took to the kitchen.  I made milk rolls, which will do for my lunch box over the weekend.  The last batch of rolls took much longer to prove than the Good Housekeepers recipe book said they should, so this time I was more aggressive about warming the milk to tepid, instead of using it straight from the fridge and assuming that standing the bowl near the Aga would do the trick.  The dough rose in a lively fashion almost immediately, which made it worth the extra hassle of washing a milk saucepan.  The moment of truth will come tomorrow lunchtime, when I discover whether I cooked them for long enough.  I thought the last lot were maybe a touch overdone, and gave these a couple of minutes less.  Since the Aga isn't reliably exactly the same temperature from one baking session to the next, the only answer is to keep practising until I know exactly what the rolls ought to look like when they're cooked.  If I daren't risk undercooking them they will always tend to come out overdone, just as if I won't take a chance on overcooking them they may always be doughy.  To learn where a boundary is you need to be allowed to cross it.  I said this to the SA, who said not if you were a test pilot.

Then I had a go at some coconut buns, which can be my contribution to enliven the chilly tea beaks in our staff room.  I couldn't remember what recipe I used last time, and after searching fruitlessly through my file of cookery clippings and internet printouts found it still on my laptop.  It is a good bun recipe*, very plain, and basically a coconut flavoured version of rock cakes.  I don't grudge the time to cook for my workmates, but I'm afraid they're not getting friends and family party level ingredients, so no ground almonds for them.  Half a packet of butter and some flour and sugar I can run to.  We had the dessicated coconut anyway, left over from a curry.  The cooking time given in the recipe would have been more helpful if it had said how many buns to make, and therefore how large each bun was.  Their little knobbly bits caught slightly in the top oven, so maybe next time I'll try them in the top of the bottom one, even though that is theoretically colder than the temperature in the recipe.

After that it was time for another Elizabeth David basic loaf.  Again, I made up tepid water with some hot out of the kettle, and the difference to the speed and liveliness of the dough was dramatic, even though I have a warm kitchen to prove it in.  For bread making to be a regular fixture I do need it to be happen reliably within a defined timescale.  Dough that sits around for hours, not really doing anything but demanding my attention, or finally announcing itself ready to be cooked at about the time that I should like to go to bed, is a nuisance.


That interlude was me getting the bread out of the oven.  It had fifteen minutes in the top oven, which is hot.  That's where I slightly burned the buns, then fifteen minutes in the lower oven, which is less hot but still pretty warm, then another fifteen minutes upside down in the lower oven turned out of its tin.  The book says to start it at 220-30 C, then reduce to 200 C, but the Aga doesn't have any temperature gauges, and recipes expressed in terms of a conventional oven don't seem to map on to positions or timings in the Aga in any linear fashion.  The loaf looks done, but I'll only know whether it is tomorrow when I cut a slice.  Elizabeth David says sternly that this sort of bread is not good until it is quite cold, and in fact does not develop its full flavour until the day after it is baked.  At least it has risen convincingly above the top of the tin.

*Coconut buns from The Recipe Corner (no idea who they are, I Googled coconut buns)

225 grammes self raising flour, 125 grammes butter, 125 grammes caster sugar, 50 grammes dessicated coconut, an egg, 1 tbsp milk (15 ml if you're worried about being consistently metric), vanilla essence.

Rub the butter into the flour, stir in the sugar and coconut, mix to a stiff dough with the milk, egg and vanilla essence, cook at 220 C for ten minutes on a greased baking sheet.  Makes around twelve buns.

Addendum  The SA experimented with Toad in the Hole last night.  It came out very well, except that it caught a bit, so next time we might risk opening the door to check on its progress and maybe even turn it round, even though all the experts say you MUST NOT LOOK until it is cooked or it will deflate.  The SA was very worried beforehand that it wouldn't rise, and we would just have a tray of cooked batter in grease with sausage.  I explained that I had got so cold gardening that a tray of cooked batter in grease sounded delicious.  It rose up.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

the fifth line

It was cold.  I weeded the gravel anyway, since I want to see my small bulbs in a sea of pristine stone chippings and not a mess of dead leaves, grass tufts and creeping sorrel.  I started off thinking that given a whole day I could surely finish it, but that proved over-optimistic.  The cold slowed me down, as my fingers were clumsier than usual, and the freezing air made my eyes water so that I couldn't see properly, partly due to blurred vision, and partly because of the tears falling on my glasses.  I snapped off the heads of a few emerging dwarf iris, but not too many.  There are tulips, Chionodoxa and Scilla to come behind them, so while it would have been nice to have done the job a fortnight ago, before the iris started flowering, it is still worth doing.

There are a large number of Dierama seedlings, and I'm going to have to decide if I want to keep all of them.  I already have potfuls in the greenhouse, raised from seed, some of which I bought and some which came free with a seed order.  The flower stalks are so graceful and airy, they don't look as if they would interfere with anything, but the basal foliage gradually expands to a substantial clump, and my existing plants are already overshadowing the some of the dwarf iris.

I started reducing a large patch of Artemisia canescens, a prostrate form which after fifteen years (it was planted in March 1998 according to my spreadsheet) has expanded from its original single potful to cover an area approximately two by two metres.  That is more artemisia than one honestly needs.  In the summer when it's covered in tiny silver leaves it is pretty, though annoyingly not weed-smotheringly thick, but in winter it presents an unappealing, threadbare aspect.  Ours had managed to collect an understory of thick moss punctuated by clumps of grass, which made it look worse than threadbare on gravel would have.  Anyway, I want some of the space for more dwarf bulbs.

I had to take more than the usual number of tea breaks, and packed up altogether at half past four, because I it was too cold and dark to carry on, so I didn't really put in a full day's gardening, and the gravel is nowhere near finished.  Mind you, even if the weather had been a lovely I don't think I'd have finished it in a day.

The Systems Administrator scored a success, however, having managed to get a BT engineer to come and fix our line fault a week after we discovered it.  This was a fault so arcane that I'd never heard of it, and neither had the person in the call centre in Mumbai that the SA eventually managed to speak to after spending hours going round in circles on the BT website.  The problem was with the fifth line, which it turns out is the part of a land line system that makes your phone ring when there's an incoming call.  In the days of old-fashioned, circular-dial telephones that contained an actual bell that rang, the fifth line carried the current that rang the bell.  Nowadays in the era of the electrical phone, the signal that makes your phone emit your noise of choice when someone rings you up is still carried on the fifth line, not the same line that carries the phone call.  Weird, archaic, seemingly unnecessary, but true.

We realised we had a problem with the phone when we saw we had a lot of missed calls at times when we'd been at home, and definitely hadn't heard it ring once.  We rang our home  number from a mobile, plugging in every handset we possessed in turn, and none of them rang.  Internet researches and a chat with the SA's oldest brother, who is an electrical engineer, led the SA to conclude that it was a problem with the fifth line.  Conventional line tests do not cover the fifth line.  The SA began to suspect this, and confirmed it via the internet telephone forums occupied by other exasperated people who had problems with their fifth line.  If you try to contact BT to report a line fault, you are not initially allowed to speak to a real person.  You cannot even obtain a phone number on which to attempt to call a person, until you have carried out line tests yourself via the website.  The line tests do not cover the fifth line, so they come up clean, so the website will not let you talk to anybody to explain that you have a problem with your fifth line.

I do not know how the SA finally circumvented this system, but I gather that it took a substantial part of last Monday, while I was at work, and the process had not had a positive effect on the SA's mood and outlook when I got home.  The result, however, was that today a real live engineer arrived in a BT Openworld van, tested the line from our end, confirmed what the SA had already worked out, that we had a problem with the fifth line, drove two miles to the telephone exchange, fixed it, came back, and tested it.  He was a very nice engineer, who originally learned his trade in the navy.  In the old days if a customer reported a fifth line problem and sounded as though they knew what they were talking about, the engineer would have gone straight to the exchange and fixed it, but nowadays the rules say he has to go to their house first, to confirm what they've already told him.  Such is progress.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

still winter

Spring is taking her time to arrive, popping her head round the door every now and again, then deciding the party hasn't really started and retreating.  Yesterday it was a delight to be outside, while this morning it was raw.  I decided I didn't have time to wait until it felt nice, and put a coat on over my fleece.  It was originally my walking coat, bought in a sale in the Ludgate Hill Branch of Black's Leisure when I still worked in the City, and did me good service for many years.  It has been to the top of Scafell and Scafell Pike in February and proved adequate to the conditions. Once I started wearing it to work at the plant centre it gradually became so crusted with dirt that I was reluctant to wear it walking, or at least the kind of walking where you might conceivably wish to end up in a pub, or meet any other walkers and not be mistaken for an environmental activist currently living in a hole in the ground.  Eventually at work we were given the car park attendant uniform coats, but by then my red one was wrecked for anything except gardening.  It is still a quantum lighter and warmer than the uniform one, which goes to show that quality will out, since even in a sale close to fifteen years ago I paid three figures for it.

I weeded the damp bed in front of the rampant yellow bamboo, and spread out what was left of my last boot load of mushroom compost.  Five bags of mushroom compost don't go very far, and the Systems Administrator has offered to take me to collect a bulk load with the truck, once the back of the truck isn't filled with wood from the hedge waiting to be sawn into lengths that will fit in the stove.  I am not utterly sure why the SA stacked the wood on the back of the truck, and not on the concrete, but I expect there's a plan.

The bamboo is Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Aureocaulis'.  I have just looked it up on my spreadsheet (which I must update from my garden notebook), and am telling you the name so that you can make a special note of it, and not plant one, unless you want it to cover a large area, or have put some sort of root barrier around the space you would like it to fill.  My retro-fitted galvanised lawn edging seems to be doing the trick so far, but I have found one section of rock-hard root outside it, that I failed to pick-axe up completely last year, and must dig out before it can make a break for freedom.  I pruned out some of the thinnest stems while I was working on that part of the bed, and think I should take some more out.  I'll look at the clump again over the rest of the week with a critical eye.  It's a shame to rush a task like that, and end up realising you've removed too much.  Far better to take it gradually, nibbling away until you decide you've done the right amount.  The stems do have a tendency to fall over, and I wonder whether that's due to a lack of light, although the bamboos in the Cornish gardens I've visited have often been growing in fairly shady conditions.

After lunch I went to my first Pilates lesson for three months.  First of all my teacher took some time off for Christmas, and then she was ill.  It's terribly easy to let your practice slide when you know you are not going to see your teacher for weeks and weeks, and part of the value of seeing her lies in her enforcer role to make me practice, as well as her feedback in the actual lessons.  She is a gentle and courteous person, who teaches by encouragement, rather than criticism when she justly suspects that I haven't been putting the hours in, so her enforcer role depends on my conscience being pricked.  I have heard of teachers who do bawl their pupils out, but I wouldn't go to one myself.  I'm not paying anyone to shout at me.  She was unable to solve the worrying question of why my right knee has started hurting slightly when I kneel on it.  I am hoping it will sort itself out if I am kind to it and very careful what I do.  I need to be able to kneel down.  Short of a Victorian housemaid I can't think of anyone who needs to be able to spend hours on their hands and knees more than I do.

The potholes on the route to her house were quite dreadful.  In fact, they made Tendring's roads seem good in comparison.  There were a few points in the lanes around Birch and Layer Breton where the holes in the road were so large they practically joined up, and were on the verge of ceasing to constitute a made-up road, while other holes with savage steep edges along the sides of the lanes threatened to send your near-side wheels crunching into them if you tucked close to the hedge to allow another car to pass.  Here and there water welled from the road surface, whether because a spring had spontaneously appeared under the road or because a water main had fractured I could not tell.  Which said, the potholes in the farm road leading to our house are getting very bad.  We need to do the ones on the last stretch that, although it belongs to the farm, only leads to our house and so is only used by us and our visitors, but I keep hoping that the neighbours will muck in and help with the ones in the lane outside their house, which we both use.  I suppose we should fill the holes in our stretch, and half of the ones in the part of the lane we jointly use, and see if they take the hint.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

winter flowers

This morning I went to the Beth Chatto gardens.  A friend I'd only seen fleetingly since before Christmas got in touch a few days ago, and we decided we'd go this week on Tuesday or Thursday depending on weather.  By yesterday evening we'd narrowed it down to Tuesday, and today dawned so much brighter and more beautiful than the forecast early fog that we agreed to strike while the iron was hot, and before fog could roll in from the North Sea like it did on Sunday, and go this morning.

The famous gravel garden had that pinched look of plants that don't relish an English winter.  I was interested to see a young gardener digging large amounts of some sort of compost into one section.  I believe Beth Chatto when she says that after planting the garden is not irrigated, but what she does not say is that the soil is periodically renewed and improved section by section.  I know what the earth in that garden would look like without the addition of compost, since it is very similar to the sand in our front garden, and it would not be dark and crumbly to at least a fork's depth like the area I saw being dug over this morning.  That's fine, there's nothing wrong with improving the soil, but visitors should be aware that while they are looking at a genuine example of what can be achieved given low rainfall, no irrigation and sharp drainage, it is not representative of what you can expect to achieve on raw sand.

The snowdrops in the main garden were looking great, at their absolute peak in full bloom, while we were a week or two early for the hellebores.  There are lots of those to come, and I felt a pang that muntjac have eaten so many of mine.  The lawns were terribly wet, and odd corners and sections had been fenced off to visitors.  They must be desperately hoping we don't get much more rain in the next few weeks, to allow the grass to dry out somewhat before things get busier.  The garden was quiet today, despite the sunshine, with no more than half a dozen other people wandering around at the same time as us.

The only trouble with visiting other people's gardens on a nice day is that while you are doing that you aren't working on your own.  I was delighted to have heard from my friend, and genuinely pleased to see her.  I like the Chatto gardens, and it is much more pleasant walking around them in bright sunshine with birds singing than trudging around in freezing fog (which I have also done, on a pre-booked snowdrop walk).   However, I did find myself remembering a lunch in London several years ago, with someone who tended to be more interested in updating me about their life than hearing about mine, who suddenly observed with an unusual flash of insight that I must be disappointed to be spending the only dry day of the week in town.  They were right: I was.

After lunch the Systems Administrator and I finished clearing away the last of the hedge cutting debris from the back garden, so that I could finally admire the late winter flowers without the foreground distraction of piles of brush.  The Crocus tomasinianus are blooming in the middle of the bottom lawn, and look very pretty, only I need more of them.  Really lots more.  This summer when I'm putting together my order for autumn-planted bulbs I must forget articles I've read by gardeners who claim to have planted a couple of hundred bulbs a few years ago and now have sheets of thousands, and order lots, a thousand rather than two bags of a hundred each as I did last year.  Maybe our grass is too thick for them to multiply, but they are not bulking up quickly enough to make a real show.  The bees found them all right, and were busy in the sunshine collecting pollen.  As soon as the sun goes off the crocus flowers they close up again, and become almost invisible in the grass.

At four o'clock as I passed by the chicken run the hens all came rushing up to me expectantly, though not the rooster who had already gone to bed.  It was such a nice day, and they looked so hopeful, that I let them out for a run.  We got on pretty well except when they made a determined effort to scratch among the dwarf iris in the gravel.  I tried shooing them off, and bribing them with sultanas to play somewhere else, but ended up chasing the old lady Maran several times round the Mount Etna broom.  Once a hen has an idea in its mind it can be very difficult to shift.  I still remember the moment at which I first thought that chickens could be interesting animals.  It was on a visit to an open air museum with reconstructed houses, one of which had a chicken run which contained a hen, which had stuck its head through the bars of its enclosure and was trying very hard indeed to reach a piece of greenery just out of range of its beak.  I had only seen free range chickens outside farms wandering about in what seemed a desultory fashion, and it came as a revelation that a hen could want something so much.  I picked the coveted plant and gave it to the hen, and the germ of an idea was born that one day I would like to keep chickens.

I cleaned their roosting board first thing, before going to the Chatto gardens.  The ridge of the hen house is leaking slightly, and needs the SA to fit a new strip of flexible waterproof whatever it is over the hinges.  Chicken keeping is not only about sentiment and making yourself feel good by giving them tasty titbits.

Monday, 18 February 2013

back to earth with a bump

The Bellowhead concert was great.  We suffered some preliminary confusion because I hadn't grasped that the Ipswich Corn Exchange and the Ipswich Regent are two different venues, although they share the same booking office and ticketing system.  Fortunately we looked at the tickets before we were due to go out, and managed to work out where we were supposed to be, which wasn't where I thought we were going.  The Systems Administrator was duly impressed at my success in finding the car park I was aiming at without driving around Ipswich's one way system for fifteen minutes first in an increasingly erratic fashion as the starting time for the concert approached and my stress levels rocketed.

It took me a while to appreciate Bellowhead.  They are a titan among folk bands, a vast eleven piece group with a brass section, who have won umpteen awards in recent years.  Their material is traditional, or was before it was given the Bellowhead treatment, but their sound is folk-rock with the emphasis on rock.  I only began to like them once I gave up measuring them against traditional folk, and listened to them on their own terms, at which point they started to make sense.  Initially, faced with Bellowhead, I was like somebody who, loving Gothic architecture, appraises all cathedrals according to how closely they approach the Gothic ideal, and finds St Paul's sadly lacking, when the fault is not with Wren's masterpiece but in the blinkered eye of the beholder.

Bellowhead have a reputation as a superb stage act.  Indeed, they have won Radio 2 awards for best live performance.  That's one reason why I wanted to see them live, and was prepared to trek all the way to Ipswich, and buy two concert tickets, instead of just getting their last couple of CDs.  They lived up to their legend, with a proper light show, while the musicians danced (sometimes while still playing.  I can't work out how you play the fiddle while pogo-ing, but it can be done, unless the next scandalous revelation in the music industry is Bellowhead Mimes at Ipswich Regent), and the brass section posed theatrically with their instruments like members of Madness.  Lead singer and driving force Jon Boden was in full Freddy Mercury homage mode, arms flailing.  It was, as the SA observed, the only folk concert we've been to where there was a mosh pit.

The SA did overhear a fellow concert goer complain in the interval that they couldn't hear the words, but I don't think you should expect to in a live concert, or at least not all of them.  I knew versions of most of the songs so could generally work out what was going on, though it took me a couple of verses to realise that one was the familiar ditty of my teenage folk club-going years, The Old Dun Cow Caught Fire.  The audience spanned a wide age range, from children to the significantly senior, and as far as I could tell was solidly middle class, in that there were lots of neatly trimmed beards, I saw loads of rugby shirts, but only one tattoo even when the auditorium got warmer and men began to roll their sleeves up.

That was a nice evening.  At work this morning the manager was excited as we walked up to the office to see the pile of plants sold over the weekend and waiting to be delivered, then the owner announced that sales over the weekend had been busy, but not busy enough, in fact a bit disappointing, and we must all speak to any customers who came into the plant centre to help them find what they wanted so that they wouldn't leave without buying it.  The atmosphere deflated like a pricked balloon.

After that I was quite glad to spend most of the day sticking price labels into the little 9cm pots that were delivered last Monday.  This is a fairly straightforward job, provided you don't stop reading the plant names after the first word, and regard 'Sunrise' and 'Sundown' as interchangeable.  There is a physical knack to it, in that you can't push a flexible plastic label through compost, but have to slide it between the root ball and the side of the pot.  If it sticks you can make a space by gently squeezing the pot, but this takes much longer as you have to lift the pot, and if you squeeze too hard it will crack.  The easiest pots to label are the ones that are mostly showing compost, with a few small leaves or dormant buds in the middle.  The worst ones are those where the edges of the pot are completely hidden by overhanging leaves, which if you care about plants you will carefully part, instead of shoving the label right through them.  The whole job is made harder by the fact that the tunnel is so crammed with pots that you are working from walkways between 15 and 45 centimetres wide.  If you weren't fairly flexible you couldn't do it.  I am, and have a good enough sense of balance to have avoided falling over or treading on any of the pots, but I think I'm going to feel a bit stiff tomorrow.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

tidying away the debris

I was all set to move the remaining branches, twigs and debris from the back garden, so that I could admire the full effect of the snowdrops before they go over.  The beds are actually quite tidy, so it seems a waste to have great piles of prunings in front of them.  However, the view out of the bathroom window when I got up revealed that there was a frost, so it was not possible to get anywhere near the heaps or drive the tractor over the lawn until it thawed.

I spent some time picking dead leaves and weeds out of the gravel in the turning circle, while I waited for the lawn to warm up.  There is definitely something meditative about fiddling around with gravel, and of course with all that Zen raking it would never get the chance to grow weeds.  Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat was dozing under one of the clumps of grass, but by mutual consent we ignored each other.

Once the grass was fit to walk on and I went to inspect the piles I discovered that one of them was not willow as I'd assumed, but pieces of hawthorn and field maple out of the hedge.  I originally helped put them there, so I must have known, but I'd forgotten.  The Systems Administrator had done such a massive amount of shredding that it seemed incredible that there was yet more to do.  Unfortunately the pile of brush to be shredded blocked my access to one of the piles of willow that I wanted to move.  The crocuses have just started flowering in the middle of the bottom lawn, not that they were open today, so I wanted to carry everything around the edge, which is kept mown all year round as a path, and not across the centre where the bulbs are.

Shredding woody prunings to make your own wood chip mulch takes ages.  Branch by branch I stripped off the twigs that were small enough to go through the shredder, shoved them through the shredder, stripped some of the tiny and really weedy remaining twigs off the main stem, and piled the trunks in a heap ready to be seasoned and chopped for firewood.  I enlisted the SA's help to move the existing trailer load of prunings destined for the bonfire, refilled it with willow twigs, and then twice with firewood, and then bonfire material again.  Willow does not chip, but winds itself around the interior of the shredding machine and jams it.  I need the SA to pull the trailer, not because I can't steer the lawn tractor (though in truth I am not very good with anything in tow), but because I can't start it.  It is nearly twenty years old now, has had a hard life, and has reached that idiosyncratic stage where only an understanding hand can make it go, since firing it up involves a strange home-made choke, copious quantities of Easy Start, and a portable jump-starter.

The SA obliged, but strained a tendon in the process shifting the wood, before abandoning logging operations to do battle with BT.  Something is wrong with our landline, so that the telephone doesn't ring when we get an incoming call.  The SA's oldest brother, who is an electrical engineer, has a theory involving The Fifth Line, which is something I never heard of but is apparently the part of a BT telephone line that makes your phone actually ring.  The rest of the line is all right, hence we can make outgoing calls, but a telephone that doesn't tell you when somebody is trying to ring you up is of limited utility.  I don't regard it as an absolute emergency, since most people I know use e-mail or text anyway, but it needs sorting.  BT will not give you a number on which to ring them to report the fault until you've done a line test.  The page of their website where you are supposed to do the line test is coming up blank.  The SA, half frozen and with a sore arm, is pretty annoyed.

I didn't manage to move all the prunings.  I hoped I would have, but I suppose I should have started earlier, if only it hadn't been frosty.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

getting to grips in the utility area

Finally it feels pleasant to be outside.  In fact, today seemed much warmer than yesterday, when it was jolly cold at Fakenham, and I was baffled at how so many people could wander around apparently quite happily although not wearing hats.  Today was a thermal leggings, fleece hat, heavy-weight fleece and two shirts day, but it felt very nice.

The Systems Administrator was out supporting our nephew's rugby team.  I've just checked the score, and they lost, so that won't have been such a good day as it might have been, especially when the SA has had to trek all the way to Mill Hill to witness the family defeat.  As somebody who is truly and serenely indifferent to the outcomes of almost all sporting contests, I can't share the SA's pain.  I felt a rare pang at the result of the 2.45 at Fakenham yesterday, but that was only because I'd made discouraging noises when the SA proposed backing a horse called The Black Baron, along the lines that it had unseated its rider the last time it ran, come fourth the time before that, and been pulled up on its only other outing in the current season.  The SA was swayed by my doubts and didn't back the horse, which went on to win at nine to one.

I thought that today to show willing I'd better use up some of the bags of chippings the SA has been processing from the prunings we took out of the hedge.  The SA had started grumbling ominously that I still hadn't used last year's bags of chippings, and it wasn't very motivating to spend ages shredding wood that sat unused in the bags until it rotted.  Besides which, I am running out of bags to collect mushroom compost in.  I see the SA's point about it not being awfully rewarding to shred woody stuff instead of simply burning it on the bonfire unless it's used, though in practice wood chips inside a plastic bag take a very long time to rot down.  The problem last year was that with all the rain the weeds grew like stink, and I didn't have any clean ground on which to use the chippings.

Today I weeded in front of the compost bins and by the fruit cage.  Two of the rhubarb crowns are coming into life.  I seem to have lost a third, but I recall it was late into leaf in previous years and I thought it must have died by the time it finally appeared.  I think I found it today by dint of sticking my fork through it while weeding, since I hit something underground that wasn't soil, and felt uncomfortably as though it might have been a rhubarb crown.  Given that you can split established clumps I expect it will survive the fork, assuming it is alive.  I even reached the point where I had weeded all round one of the crowns and could mulch it with mushroom compost.  Rhubarb is a greedy feeder, and the endless rain must have washed most of the nutrients out of the sandy soil in the top part of the garden.  It looked very smart in its little island of dark compost, surrounded by wood chippings.

Unfortunately I'm not going to have enough chippings to cover the whole utility area, even with the bags saved from last year.  I'll weed all of it now that I've started, but it's difficult to keep the bare soil clean all summer, once the weeds start growing.  I've got a heap of prunings from the grape vine waiting to be chipped, but you need an enormous quantity of twigs to yield enough chipped wood to cover a single square metre of ground.

Beyond the rhubarb clumps lies the chaos of the vegetable beds.  I didn't try to grow vegetables last year.  I took the original decision in March, because there was still so much work to do in the rest of the garden clearing up after the ravages of two hard winters.  Various friends and relatives asked me periodically about my vegetables, and responded with surprise when I said I wasn't doing them, or even with faint affront as if my failure to join in was casting aspersions on their vegetable growing enterprises.  It wasn't meant to.  It was simply that I didn't have time given everything else there was to do, and as the spring drought gave way to the everlasting rain and concomitant lack of sunshine I was quite relieved I'd already decided not to bother.  While I like cooking, and vegetables, my real passion as a gardener is for the ornamental garden.  Those who were shocked by my status as a vegetable growing refusenik lectured me on how nice really fresh vegetables were, that you had grown yourself, and they are, but you have to admit that you can buy a week's supply of quite edible vegetables for less than the cost of employing a decent gardener for two hours.  Ergo, if you have a large and out-of-control garden it pays to spend your time tidying up the borders, and buy your food.

That said, I might give it a go this year.  I can feel the vegetable growing juices rising gently, and the prospect of fresh broad beans beckoning.  Or little baby turnips, if I fleeced them against whatever fly it was that sent grubs burrowing through the roots last time.  Or maybe some salad leaves.  We'll see.

Friday, 15 February 2013

out and about

The day has barely started, and is already being written up.  That's because we're going to the races at Fakenham.  We went last year and it was a hoot, with the finals of the greyhound race that descended into a fight halfway up the track, so that neither of the finalists ever made it to the finishing line.  We think there might be greyhounds and foxhounds again this year, but it's difficult to tell.  The Fakenham racecourse website is fairly Delphic on the subject, beyond confirming that there is a race meeting.

It even made the Today programme, as one of the runners at Fakenham featured in their racing tips.  I can't remember which horse or in which race, which given the accuracy of the 2012 Today racing tips is probably all for the best, but it suggests the meeting is on.  We've been tracking its prospects for the past few days, looking at the weather forecast and the declarations for what horses were running.  By lunchtime yesterday the Systems Administrator even thought that Ruby Walsh might be riding.  By yesterday evening he had been diverted to Sandown, but there are enough good class horses and jockeys for the SA to get quite excited.  I know very little about racing, so all the horses tend to look beautiful and glamorous to me, but the SA as somebody who has not missed a Cheltenham Gold Cup since 1986 did not want to drive all the way to north Norfolk to see scrappy fields of three third rate horses.

I will not be able to tell you about our grand day out when we get back because I'll be turning around and going out again to the music society lecture.  The Chairman sent out an e-mail reminder a few days ago, reminding us that we did refreshments after the talk, and that it was our duty to bring some nibbles.  She suggested small sandwiches, but I'm not at all sure there'll be time to mess around putting teaspoons of mackeral pate and smoked salmon on squares of rye bread in between getting in and going back out, so made cheese straws yesterday.  I have rolled them very thin and cut them quite small to make them seem more like a healthy eating option.  Transporting trays of open sandwiches in a car that earlier in the week you were using to collect half a dozen bags of overly fresh mushroom compost is a nightmare anyway.

The lecturer is Marina Warner.  It is rather a coup to have got her, given that her fame and status as a learned professor and past Reith lecturer is out of all proportion to the membership and resources of our society.  It was actually my idea to ask her, since thinking the unthinkable is one of my specialities, but the approach was made by a fellow committee member who knew her vaguely after being tutored by her on some course or other.  She is due to talk about St Helena.  I hope she turns up.  Assuming she does we will have to think as a committee how we follow that for next year.  I've been trying to work out how we could persuade Grayson Perry to do it, but without coming up with a convincing plan so far.

Last night's bee committee meeting was very long, which was fair enough as it was a new committee and we had a lot to get through, not least to breath life into the almost moribund remains of the old and terminally dysfunctional old committee.  The new Chairman is very keen, and proposes revolutionary methods such as having a a list of things we are supposed to do with deadlines to do them by, and then making sure they are done.  This is such a good idea, and so much better than the previous method of agreeing things at meetings and then doing nothing about them until the next meeting, when we either agreed them again, or changed our minds and agreed the opposite, or expunged them from history and never spoke of them again, that I can forgive him for talking about visions and journeys.  He did explain that he had a background in local government.  He has a vintage 1950s Wurlitzer jukebox in his sitting room, and anyone who has that and a collection of 4,000 singles on vinyl (which includes Manhattan Transfer's Chanson d'amour and Popsicle toes) to go with it is clearly a person of imagination and vision.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

intimations of spring

The last of the very cold weather might be behind us for this year.  It was raining when I woke up, but I didn't mind that, because I was expecting rain, and with the rain came the warmer airflow.  It's not forecast to flip back to cold conditions in the next two or three weeks, and after that we'll be into March, and while frosts are still a possibility, we shouldn't get another hard spell when the thermometer hovers around freezing all day and dips below it at night.  Nothing of course is certain, except death, as they say, and taxes, but from now on I won't be holding back from pruning the bay, the overgrown Cryptomeria, and any other marginally tender or evergreen subjects I've been refraining from touching.

If we have indeed seen the worst of the winter for this year then the planting in the gravel garden has come off pretty lightly.  There are some frosted branches on the Phlomis italica, but there were last year, and it produced plenty of new growth come the spring.  The olive is unscathed, and the two myrtles, and tender form of Teucrium fruticans.  The lemon verbena looks quite dead, but it always does at this time of year, and I'm sure that it's poised to perform its annual act of resurrection.  The birds think that spring is coming.  The long-tailed tits seem to have started to pair off, whereas in winter they charge around the garden in a great gang.

Since it was raining I thought I might as well go to the bank to pay in one stray membership cheque that the beekeepers membership secretary passed to me before going on holiday.  She normally pays them into the bank herself, for which I'm very grateful, since I don't generally go anywhere near a bank from one month to the next, and am with a different bank to the beekeepers anyway.  Eventually I suppose we will all be paying our subscriptions by electronic bank transfer, or PayPal, or using our mobiles, but beekeepers are a gently conservative lot, and while the technology sections of the broadsheets keep running articles about modern and alternative payment methods, they don't seem to have much traction in the real world in north Essex.

I went to Brightlingsea, since it has a branch of the bank the beekeepers use, and parking is free and closer to the bank than it is in Colchester.  While I was there I visited the Brightlingsea superstore, as it is signposted from the main (and only) road into Brightlingsea, which is a reasonably large and fairly new Co-op approximately one twentieth of the size of the new Sainsbury superstore at Stanway.  That shows what a useful anchor for shops in a small town a bank branch still is.  If I'd had to go into Colchester to pay in the cheque I'd just have done my shopping at my usual Tesco on the way home.  Brightlingsea High Street has a knitting and sewing shop, and I went in and would have bought some black button thread, but the only assistant was taken up with some complicated enquiry involving knitting wool and dye batch numbers, which looked as though it was going to take longer to resolve than I wanted to spend buying button thread.  Another time.

We are not celebrating Valentines Day.  The Systems Administrator's father died on 14 February in our first year at university, so our initial Valentines Day after getting together would have been the second anniversary of the SA's father's death, and hearts and flowers didn't seem appropriate.  Celebrating Valentines is a ritual that, if you haven't started while in the first flush of romance, you are unlikely to take up when your thirtieth wedding anniversary is just over the horizon.  Anyway, I'm going to a beekeepers' committee meeting.  I have made the SA a ham, leek and mushroom pie and peeled some potatoes, as a quasi-romantic and charitable gesture so that the SA won't have to cook.  Originally I was just going to buy something in the Brightlingsea Co-op, then it occurred to me that since I was making cheese straws for the refreshments after tomorrow night's lecture, I could use some of the pastry to make a pie top.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

two exhibitions and a railway station

Today was forecast to be as cold as yesterday was, so I went to London to look at some exhibitions, reasoning that as I hadn't liked working in the garden yesterday, I wouldn't like it any better today, and might as well use the time productively to catch things I knew I wanted to see.  It was jolly cold in London too, so much so that coming inside from the street I found it difficult to speak when buying my tickets, and my lunch.  London was shrouded in a dismal, grey mist, and anyone who spent nearly thirty quid booking their trip up the Shard will have been sadly disappointed.

My first stop was The Northern Renaissance: Durer to Holbein at The Queen's Gallery.  This is absolutely excellent, and it is on until 14 April, so you have plenty of time to go and see it.  I've never yet been to a dud exhibition at The Queen's Gallery, presumably because The Queen owns a splendid collection of artworks.  Also Her Majesty employs a good curator, who writes interesting and useful captions for every picture, in the same style as they use at The National Portrait Gallery, a place I adore.  My particular favourites were the three Cranachs, a masterly self-portrait and accompanying portrait of the artist's second wife by somebody whose name I've already forgotten, and a lovely little Durer sketch of a hound, but you can have your own.  If you buy your ticket at the gallery itself and get it stamped on the way out it gives you free readmission for a year.  It was very cold in the gallery's entrance lobby, and the security staff were wearing strange blue capes over the rest of their uniforms.

My second port of call was The British Library, via King's Cross, where I wanted to look at the new western concourse.  It is Europe's largest single-span station structure, and very impressive, a great glass latticework like the cap of a giant mushroom radiating out from an impossibly small stalk of columns.  The impression of space is slightly diminished by the fact that part of the dome is occupied by shops and restaurants, but I suppose it is a working railway station, and people need somewhere to shop, and eat, and Network Rail wants the rental income.  It is still marvellously uncluttered.

The British Library is showing Mughal India: art, culture and empire, which runs until 2 April, so again you have plenty of time to go and see it.  There are some wonderful objects, mainly books and pictures, as you'd expect in a library.  It is not especially clearly laid out as an exhibition, certainly not compared to similar shows at The British Museum, and there is a distinct lack of signposts about what order you are supposed to walk around in, so that at one point I found myself looking at portraits of all the Mughal emperors in reverse chronological order.  The Mughal succession was a bloodthirsty affair, making most English dynastic politics since the Wars of the Roses appear comparatively benign, but the Mughal emperors combined their tactics of murdering their brothers and imprisoning their fathers on their way to the throne with a great passion for art and literature.  If you don't read Persian script then the pictures are honestly more interesting than the manuscripts, after a while.  My favourites by a whisker were the animal pictures, in particular the squirrels chasing each other up a tree, but the seventeenth century portraits came a close second.  You can see how European iconography and perspective techniques gradually enter the Mughal artistic vocabulary, particularly if you manage to look at the paintings in chronological order, which I didn't.  A National Art Pass gives you half price admission.

Then I came home.  It was simply too cold to be wandering about.  I didn't take my leather coat off all day, even indoors.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

driven indoors

The time is just before five in the afternoon.  We've had the stove in the study lit since mid morning, and the temperature is up to twenty degrees Celsius.  In the sitting room it is twelve and a half degrees, and outside it is 1.2 C.

I told myself this morning that although it was not very inviting outside, still it was not actually raining, freezing or blowing a gale, and that I should get on with the gardening.  I went to the local garden centre and bought six bags of bag-your-own mushroom compost.  They'd recently had a fresh load delivered, and when I asked in the shop which pile of soil improver was the mushroom compost they laughed and said Follow your nose.  It was wetter than the last batch I bought from them, and reluctant to shake down through the bottomless 30L pot you are supposed to use as a measure down into my brought-my-own bags.

Then I found a spot in the back garden to plant out a potted camellia that keeps blowing over in its pot, and never looks so healthy as the ones growing in the ground.  I've been dithering over where to put it, and am not entirely sure that my decision made today in the teeth of the icy blast was the best one, but the job of planting it out before it died had risen to the top of my list of things to do.  Thinking about how you could prune something even as you plant it isn't the most encouraging sign that you are doing the right thing, but at least I made a decision.

Then I gave up.  It was simply too cold.  I felt chilled all over, and each time my breath blew up over my glasses they fogged up and blinded me.  As the Systems Administrator said, it is February and I have to accept that there are times in the winter when I simply can't garden.  The SA is reluctant to go outside more than necessary following the final spell of dental work, which still hurts in cold air from where the needles went in.

We had pancakes for lunch, since it is pancake day, the newspaper websites have all been full of articles about how to cook them, we both like them, and we have the equivalent of about a year's supply of WWII egg rations in the fridge.  The ladies started laying again almost as soon as it went past the longest night, and after a temporary blip are laying again.  I found six eggs in the nest box this morning.  The Telegraph told us that it was Shrove Tuesday, but not to panic, which betrayed a rather low opinion of its readers' culinary abilities or nerves.  Anyone who panics at the prospect of making some pancakes needs to get out more, or perhaps seek professional help for their anxiety disorder.  The SA's standard batter is from my vintage 1970s edition of the Good Housekeepers cookery book, and is the same one as used for Yorkshire puddings.  We take it in turns to cook our own pancakes, and eat them with lemon and sugar.  I like the sound of Nigel Slater's caramelised onion and cheese (without the spinach) but nothing beats lemon and sugar.

I am now halfway through Jerry Brotton's book on maps, A history of the world in twelve maps.  I like maps best when they tell you something about the world view and politics of the time, like the Spanish and Portuguese in the sixteenth century each clinging to their own, equally inaccurate, versions of where the Cape Verde islands were, after they'd signed a treaty that defined their overseas territories with reference to the islands.  I know that I ought to be interested in the mathematics of Mercator's projection, but can feel my mind wriggling in its chair like a bored child as I try to tell it about spiral loxodromes.  It is a good book, though, and mercifully free of that extrapolating the universe from a fairy bun tendency that you sometimes find with those Histories of X in Y books.

Before the maps, and after the history of Prussia, I romped my way through Jane Ridley's Bertie: a life of Edward VII in the course of a few evenings.  That is not to decry her biography of the last monarch to give his name to an era ('the new Elizabethans' never really caught on).  She is a professional historian, and her account of Edward the Caresser is based on solid research, while being thoroughly readable (not always the case).  Victoria and Albert come across as an appalling couple, not a bit like Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend in The Young Victoria, and Daisy Brooke was not so sweet as the publicity for the gardens at her old home Easton Lodge would suggest.  I was gripped throughout.  As well as the soap opera personalities and affairs you do get a thorough account of the changing nature of the relationship between politicians and the monarchy, the unfolding events in Europe leading up to the Great War, and other solid educational topics.

History is of course much easier to read when you are already familiar with the broad shape of the period or events being discussed.  That's probably one reason why twentieth century history is more popular than Medieval, and UK history more than European, let alone further flung places than Europe.  Battling your way through a history of Prussia when you don't know what the Holy Roman Emperor is, where he came from, or quite what Electors are, how the Holy Roman Empire relates to the individual German states or where the Habsburgs fit in, what Lutheranism entails and why people felt so strongly about it, and so on and so on, is quite hard, compared to Victorian and Edwardian England where the state boundaries and institutions are already broadly the same as they are today.  It is tempting to conclude, as the writers of school history syllabuses apparently have, that twentieth century UK history is therefore more relevant to UK children than other sorts, Medieval, say, or European, or Middle Eastern, or Indian.  Tempting, but misleading.

Monday, 11 February 2013

taking delivery

We had a tiny bit of snow in the night, but not enough to stop anyone going anywhere.  I was keen to get to work, since I had a feeling the potting was due to arrive today.  I missed last week's, and I enjoy potting, besides which it's one of those jobs that requires many pairs of hands to get it done.  They have to be skilled hands, though, and the manager let slip that one of my colleagues is not allowed to pot, being deemed hopeless at it.

The lorry from our supplier arrived with thirteen Dutch trolleys on it, all for us, though not all things to be potted.  Some were plants ready for sale, in 2L and 9cm pots, then lurking behind them in the back of the lorry were cardboard boxes of roots, waiting for us to put them into 2 and 3L pots.  We set the trays of 9cm pots down on the mypex fabric in front of the tunnel on The Other Side, passing them from one to another in a chain to get them moved as quickly as possible, and I mused that it must be possible to model a bucket chain mathematically, in terms of how far every member of it has to walk, and how the congestion point where someone is standing holding a tray of plants and waiting to pass it to someone else shifts up and down the length of the chain over time.

The ready-potted 2L plants had to be unloaded from the Dutch trolleys individually into our silver trolleys, which will hold 18 2L pots, to be carted over to the mypex.  Most wholesale growers follow the convention that they don't bother labelling each individual pot.  Instead one pot will have a label with the variety name and the information that the consignment includes thirty plants of that variety, or fifty, or eight, and pots containing the same variety are stood together on the Dutch trolley.  Fifty 2L pots take up more than one shelf, so as you unload you have to be careful to keep like with like.  Some plants are so distinctive even at this time of year that you couldn't confuse them, but one dormant hosta looks very like another.  There was a year we managed to get ourselves in a thorough muddle with some grasses, but today we were very systematic and disciplined.  It helps if the people doing the unloading have a keen eye for plants, and can see at a glance when they are mixing up dormant hostas and dormant rheums.

Having unloaded the lorry in super quick time we then discovered it was stuck on the grass.  The driver initially sounded optimistic, and said we needed some cardboard under the wheels.  Cardboard was duly fetched, and I waited to see whether, as I expected, the lorry was going to shoot the cardboard under the back wheels in the same way as our ex-builders' Transit did, the time we got it stuck.  It did.  The manager said we must push.  I was fairly sure you don't push lorries, since if you had done a risk assessment you would have concluded that there was a risk of someone slipping and ending up under the wheels, but I was fairly sure this lorry wasn't going anywhere.  I helped push, and as I expected all that happened was that the back wheels dug in a little further.  We needed the gardener to tow the lorry out with the tractor, but unfortunately the boss had sent both gardeners on an errand to Ipswich, so all we could do was give the lorry driver some coffee and wait for them to get back.  They returned, and tried towing the lorry out with the Landrover, which was not up to the job.  Eventually the big tractor came from the farm, and towed the lorry out, and the gardener quickly smoothed out the worst of the ruts with a garden fork before the owner could see them.

The owner was having a horsebox crisis, needing it to go to some big meeting in Lincolnshire on Saturday, and having discovered last night that the MoT expired last October.  He therefore needed to get it to the garage as soon as possible, except that it wouldn't start, so one of the gardener's jobs was to get the horsebox to go.  I suggested helpfully that if the owner set off now on the horse, he would be in Lincolnshire by the weekend.  The gardener, who is talented with machinery, did get the engine to fire up, and drove the horsebox away to the garage, while we all waved him goodbye.

The trays of 9cm pots, that had been set down in rows in a hurry and in no order whatsoever, had to come into the polytunnel out of the rain in alphabetical order, or at least with all the As together, followed by all the Bs.  Last year they went into the tunnel in a complete jumble, and the woman who was trying to stick price labels in them wasted an inordinate amount of time and went quite mad with frustration wandering around trying to find each variety.  I was given the job of locating them in the right order, which was initially desperately slow as the only way to do it was to work systematically along every row looking for A, and then looking for B, and so on.  By the time I got to E and F I'd got a better idea of what was there, and we speeded up.  The trays filled the space the manager had allocated to them before we were more than half way through, and the rest had to stand along the aisles in the tunnel, reducing them to little tracks no more than 50cm wide.  By the time the potting is finished the tunnel will be filled to bursting.

We didn't finish the potting.  There was no way we were going to, in one day.  It amazes me the way that herbaceous plants can survive when their roots are out of the soil for so long.  Apart from those with the most fibrous roots they reach us with very little soil attached.  The grower must have a system to wash them, otherwise he'd have sold all the topsoil out of his fields by now.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

on the tourist trail

Sometimes with weather you lose on the swings what you gained on the proverbial roundabouts.  Today was about as uninviting for walking around outside or at best in an unheated plastic tunnel as you can imagine, short of actually snowing.  It rained all day, up to the point where it started sleeting instead, it was windy, it felt cold, and the grey, leaden, sunless sky would have made the entire contents of Kew Gardens look drab.

It left me in a bit of a fix about what to do with myself.  I'd finished my jobs on the manager's list of tasks for the weekend, and there weren't any weedy pots of herbaceous plants I could take into the little greenhouse or the back of the shop and tidy up.  The first job on the list was to water anything that looked dry.  I checked the conifers and large specimen evergreens yesterday, so today I patrolled conscientiously up and down inside the tunnels, pouring water into any dry-looking pots from a plastic Haws watering can.  Even the plastic ones are better balanced than any other can on the market.

There is a limit to how long you want to spend trudging backwards and forwards in the rain with a can of water, getting another lungful of exhaust fumes from the boiler each time you refill it at the tap, and after an hour I thought I'd probably reached it.  I went over to the tunnel on The Other Side to see if I could bring out any more potted bulbs for sale, but the individual pots didn't have price labels, so I couldn't.

Then I thought I could check the e-mails, and deal with any that were straightforward queries about whether we had a particular plant in stock, but the internet connection to the shop wasn't working.  I spent some time searching for Lindera benzoin, since the year end stock take showed we had three in stock, and we have three customers waiting for them, two of the enquiries dating from such a long time ago that they have probably changed their minds, or forgotten all about it, or emigrated or died in the meantime.  I couldn't find the Lindera.

After that I gave up trying to find anything useful to do, and read Hilliers dictionary of shrubs while waiting for a customer to arrive, or the phone to ring.  There is always something new to learn in Hilliers, and I focussed on improving my knowledge of hydrangeas.  The owner came out to the shop to get the cafe ready for a coach party of Germans which was expected in the afternoon, and I did not have the heart to pretend to be doing anything except reading a book about shrubs.

She was accompanied by the young dog, which after it had finished making friends with the only three people having coffee in the cafe was happy to have its tummy rubbed for five minutes.  It is a nice little dog, with a very fine beard and eyebrows, and enjoys being fussed over.  On the negative side of the equation, it will roll in anything vile-smelling that it can find, and absconds whenever it feels like it.

The coach load of Germans arrived slightly late, and chaos ensued as to whether they were going to have a guided tour around the garden as originally booked, or not go round the garden because the weather was too bad, or those that wanted to go round by themselves, or nobody be allowed to go round unaccompanied because the garden was so wet and slippery.  The tour had been rearranged twice, having originally been booked in for Friday, then moved to this morning, then moved again to this afternoon, and the owners, having rearranged their weekend to accommodate them, while scrupulously polite to the tour leader were understandably irritated at the idea of the gate money for the garden evaporating.

Not going round the garden maybe worked for the best, since the tourists spent a lot in the plant centre and the shop.  I dutifully went and spent half an hour standing outside in the rain and smiling at them with an expression intended to convey that I was ready to help.  One person asked me where was Euonymus planipes, which goes to show the value of botanical Latin plant names.  I don't speak German, but I knew exactly what she was talking about, whereas the German equivalent of a common name like big budded spindle would have passed me by completely.  Apart from the Euonymus the only thing anyone else wanted to know was the whereabouts of was the loo, and after a while I went back inside to help with the tills, where there was a queue.

Into the middle of the chaos appeared a customer who was nothing to do with the tour, asking for help choosing trees and saying slightly plaintively that there was no-one outside to ask.  I thought the presence of a German tour bus in the car park and a large number of Germans in the plant centre and shop might have given her a clue what was going on.  We went and looked at trees and shrubs, and she proved to be not as difficult as I thought at first she might be.  It is so tricky having the right number of staff on duty in a business like ours.  There were two of us today, and in the morning we had almost nothing to do while in the afternoon we were rushed of our feet.  Yesterday there were three of us in, and more than enough for us to do, but it was a nice day.  At least with tour buses you know when they are coming, but you don't know what the weather's going to be like on a given day at the point where you set the rota.

When I got home I realised I'd forgotten to shut the tunnel doors on The Other Side, which was a bad mistake to make, since rabbits are liable to create havoc in there overnight.  I rang the owner to confess and ask if she could close the doors.  Fortunately she sounded quite relaxed about it.  In my defence, I never got a tea break in all the rush, and by the time I left it was sleeting.  Tomorrow we might be potting, if we aren't all snowed in, though I don't think we will be here.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

signs of life

We were lucky with the weather at work.  A customer who'd travelled from somewhere else in Suffolk said they had snow, and when I got home I discovered it drizzled here, but in the plant centre it was dry, calm, and fairly bright.  Cold, but really quite nice.

The first of the spring flowering bulbs we potted ourselves were ready for sale, and it was my job to unload them from the red trolley in which they'd made the voyage across the car park, and set them out in alphabetical order by the entrance to the shop.  The only ones in bloom were a tiny iris 'Gordon', a dainty little thing with flowers in a vivid shade of mid-purple, splashed with yellow.  They were delightful, but even the pots that contained nothing yet but newly emerging tufts of leaves had a very hopeful, engaging quality.

After putting out the bulbs my next job on the manager's list was to move all the hostas lined up on the gravel in the shaded tunnel back on to their tables, now that the creosote substitute on the tables has dried.  This initially looked as though it was going to be an utterly baffling task, since the order of the hostas on the ground was not immediately clear, and they needed to be in strict alphabetical order on the tables.  Once I'd understood what the person who took them off the tables had done it became very straightforward, and simply involved lifting a large number of pots.  They were only two litre pots for the most part, so not individually very heavy, but collectively they must have weighted a lot.  It didn't seem worth putting them into a trolley to move them a few metres, so I had quite a thorough low-impact workout lifting a pot in each hand and carrying them several paces to the table.  I weeded them all, trimmed off any remaining dead stems, and topped the pots off with fresh compost.  They were not very weedy to start with, but I used about half a bag of compost, handful by handful as I levelled off the top of each pot.

By mid afternoon I'd finished the jobs allocated to me on the list, so in a spirit of co-operation did one of someone else's tasks and lifted the moisture loving plants back on to their table as well.  My colleague was working hard packaging up mail order deliveries, so I didn't mind helping out with something on his list.  My other colleague was supposed to do some more creosoting, but I drew the line at volunteering to help with that.

Now that the cafe people are not coming back they have taken their chiller cabinet away.  It was vast, hideous, horribly noisy, and blocked one of the windows, so I'm not sorry to see it go.  They have also taken their wall clock.  The owner bought a replacement in Hadleigh for an impossibly small amount of money, seven pounds and something for a largish wall clock, but it has a fussy face with Roman numerals, and makes me realise how much better designed the cafe people's clock was.  It probably cost more than seven pounds and something.  We have inherited the blackboards for the menu, which have been customised with our name on so are no use to them, and a scrappy oil painting of their original cafe which I hope they are coming back for, since I really don't like it.

The bright day and promise of spring around the corner brought out the customers.  Our tally at the end of the day was helped by the man who bought over five hundred pounds worth of trees, but even without him we'd have hit a respectable total.  Let us hope we don't get snow next week, otherwise it will all go quiet again.

Friday, 8 February 2013

minor missions completed

It was a productive day for getting things finished.  By lunchtime I'd managed to dig out the rootball of the misplaced Chaenomeles, snipping through the last two anchoring roots with secateurs just as the 12.57 weather forecast began.  I had to get the Systems Administrator to help me lift it into the wheelbarrow and out at the other end, then enlarged the planting hole I started yesterday once I could see how big a pit I needed, and slid it in, having dug in the last of my bags of mushroom compost and sprinkled the bottom of the hole with Rootgrow.  I hope it survives the move.  I trimmed the ends off its longer branches, on the basis that since the roots had been damaged the top had better be reduced as well, and watered it in.  The forecast is for pouring rain all day on Sunday, which should help it settle down.  It has a suckering growth habit, having thrown up quite a thicket of stems from the roots since I planted it the first time, and I'm pretty optimistic that it will recover.

After lunch the SA and I finished cutting the overhanging branches around the boundary in the back garden that required the use of the Henchman platform to reach them, and even put the Henchman away afterwards, instead of doing our usual thing and leaving it lying around for several weeks.  The snowdrops look more pastoral without a large aluminium scaffold in the foreground of the picture.  There are still piles of willow branches littered about the lawn, which are no use for anything except burning, since they bind and jam the shredder if you try to chip them, but maybe the SA will deal with those over the weekend.

I suddenly noticed that the Parrotia persica was in full bloom, its branches studded with small, deep red flowers similar to those of witch-hazel.  It's not surprising they look so similar, since they are closely related, both members of the family Hamamelidaceae.  Parrotia, the Persian ironwood, is a native of Iran, and is grown in gardens for its superb autumn leaf colour and flaking bark rather than its floral display.  The latter, while fleeting, is charming when it happens and I was glad to have caught it, and made the SA come and look at it.  I'm afraid the Parrotia didn't make a very striking impression, since the SA had to ask me what we were looking at.  It is somewhat obscured by a side branch from the wild gean, which I will ask the SA to remove, but leave that until cherry pruning time in May or June.  Standard advice is to leave pruning Japanese ornamental cherries and garden fruiting ones until early summer to reduce the risk of their contracting silver leaf disease.  I don't know if the wild gean is equally susceptible, but why take the chance?

I finally got my car fixed as well, since the e-tyres fitter came and put a new tyre on my spare, which was my near-side front until it got a slow puncture.  The SA fitted the old spare to the car, so I've been driving round without one since last weekend, or rather not driving, except to go to work.  It's a relief to have a spare tyre again, and the tyre fitter was very happy that one of his last jobs on a Friday afternoon did not require him to jack the car up.  When he rang this morning to say what time he was coming he asked me to make sure that the wheel locking nut was available, if I had one.  This made no sense at all to me, so I asked the SA, who said that my Skoda did not have a wheel locking nut, because the wheels were not sufficiently valuable.  The SA was consoling about the flat, saying that it was the oldest tyre on the car and I'd probably have been told to change it at the MoT in March anyway.  I blame the potholes.

The tyre fitter did throw me for a moment when he rang this morning, since he called me by my forename.  I happen to be one of those people who is always, but always, called by a nickname rather than my baptismal given one.  Seeing an unfamiliar mobile number on the phone and hearing a strange voice address me by a name nobody uses, I thought for a moment it must be a wrong number before remembering that of course Friday was tyre fitting day.  He'd obviously got my first name from my online booking, which I did using the name on my credit card, because that makes life so much easier.  As our surname is impossible to pronounce or spell I wasn't too upset about achieving such an instant level of familiarity with a strange mechanic, but it illustrates how using the first names of people you don't know can create the opposite of the friendly impression you may be trying to create.  Amazon do it in their e-mails, and some inept cold callers, but as soon as I'm ever addressed with a name that I never use it makes it utterly clear that the person first-naming me doesn't know me at all.