Sunday, 31 March 2013

snow at Easter

I am beginning to get an inkling of how it must feel to be on an unsuccessful Polar expedition, beaten back repeatedly by the weather.  This morning really didn't look too bad.  The sun was almost shining, and I saw a bee on a flower in the front garden.  Just the one.  Swaddled in thermal leggings, thermal long sleeved vest, long-sleeved t-shirt, old office cotton shirt, thermal hat and neck fleece, heavy fleece jacket and jeans, I strode forth to garden.  The Systems Administrator looked at me dubiously, and I said encouragingly that it was really not too bad out there.

If it had not been such dreadful weather I would have been to the dump at Clacton, and if I had been to the dump I would have come home via the Clacton Garden Centre and bought a large tub of fish, blood and bone.  And if it had not been so very cold and windy the SA and I would have taken the truck to collect a big load of mushroom compost.  If it had been marginally nicer out then at least I would have taken the Skoda and collected a boot-load of compost to be going on with.  Because I had not done any of these things I had run out of mushroom compost, and soon ran out of fish, blood and bone, which put paid to further applications of Strulch.

I did plant out the remaining tray of seed raised oriental poppies from the greenhouse.  Since the plants come into leaf and flower in the spring and are pretty dormant over the summer, I'm experimentally combining them with a patch of perennial sweet pea and Geranium 'Ann Folkard', which die down completely in autumn and take their time to get going the following season.  My hope is that the poppies will have time to do their bit before they disappear under a tidal wave of pea foliage.  The seed came free with a magazine, and I can't think where else to plant them, so it is a low-cost experiment.  I'll let you know how it goes.  I planted some of the poppies last autumn, and it's interesting to see how much bigger and stronger the plants in the ground have grown compared to the ones that overwintered in their pots.

Half way through planting the poppies it began to snow.  It's Easter Sunday, after all.  Why wouldn't it snow?  I was about to give up when it stopped snowing.  I planted out five pots of Muscari 'Dark Eyes' at the front of the border, wondering why I had bought so few bulbs.  I love grape hyacinths. Some tidy-minded people grumble about their self-seeding habits, but I don't.  Extra flowers are always welcome, and I like the semi-natural, interweaving look that you get in gardens where self-seeding is allowed.  I don't even mind the spreading patch of Allium triquetum, which some look on as a fearsome weed.  Mind you, if it escapes into the wild then it is a fearsome weed.

I planted a pot of a miniature Narcissus called 'Baby Moon', then began to wonder if I had put it in a sensible place, or if the perennial pea would smother its little leaves before it had finished growing for the year.  I scooped up 'Baby Moon' and put it back in its pot, deciding it was too cold to think and I would weed the island bed and cut down the last of the old herbaceous stems.  It began to snow again.  I gave up.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

dusting down the squeezebox

We were going to go to the point-to-point at Higham.  Neither of us have ever been to a point-to-point, and I thought it might be rather charming, smaller even than Fakenham races, being to Cheltenham what a novelty dog show is to Crufts.  That is probably unfair to point-to-points, since the Systems Administrator says you get some quite good horses at them.  By the middle of the week, as the weather continued so cold and the forecast barely any better, I began to think that it would be unbearably chilly.  I froze at Fakenham, although I enjoyed myself, and that was with the benefit going to lurk periodically in the members stand, where we could look at the course through a big plate glass window while drinking hot chocolate.  You don't get anything like that at a point-to-point.  You are basically standing in a big field while horses run about.  If it had been a lovely spring day, with happy members of the hunting, shooting and fishes classes and jovial dogs all brisking around, it would have been fun.  Not in the icy blast from Siberia.

When I got up and looked out of the bathroom window I discovered it was snowing.  I had to rush downstairs and put the camellia and Corylopsis I borrowed for Thursday night's talk under cover so that the flowers didn't spoil, since I'd left them standing by the front door until I return them on Monday, but I hadn't been expecting it to snow.  We were definitely not going to the point-to-point (though according to the Racing Post all point-to-points were going ahead today, and a miserable time I'm afraid they'll have of it).

My bread-making skills are coming on by leaps and bounds, with all this dire weather, so I couldn't amuse myself making bread because I did that yesterday.  We ate some of it for yesterday's lunch, but there is still enough left that we don't need any more yet.  The SA's confidence in the bread has risen to the point of not buying any yesterday morning when going shopping, so if the bread hadn't worked we'd have had to eat oat cakes, or crisps.  I was touched, though, since it would be rather demoralising to pull a freshly baked loaf out of the Aga only for one's partner to announce that they had bought some anyway, in case your's was inedible.

Instead I dug my concertina out of the cupboard.  I haven't touched it for years, and recently I've been thinking that maybe I should.  It is a Wheatstone English concertina, and was my father's before me.  He bought it in a junk shop in Glasgow, whose name, Dunlop's, 31 Candleriggs, is still on a plate inside the lid of the case.  He was a junior fellow at an Oxford college at the time, and looked so shabby that the shop owner was initially reluctant to let him touch the instrument.

The English concertina is small with hexagonal ends.  Standing flat on the kitchen table beside me it measures 15 centimetres tall.  The ends are covered with polished steel, cut into a flowing leaf curlicue pattern, and the bellows are of black leather.  There are two screw holes on the upper side of the body at each end, relicts of a time when it must have had a strap fitted.  Towards the bottom of each steel plate is a small steel shelf with curved end, that rests on your little fingers while you play, and towards the top of each plate is an adjustable black leather loop through which you put your thumbs.  Although it is a small instrument, it feels remarkably heavy after a few minutes, taking its entire weight on your pinkies and your thumbs, and I tend to play sitting down so that I can rest one end on my knee, but professionals like John Spiers just stand there and play.

The keys are metal, as are the reeds, though I haven't touched those since my father had it refurbished for my benefit around 1980, by a chap who lived in Lacock who cured a couple of stuck notes and a leak in the bellows, and re-tuned it.  It probably needs tuning again, but not so badly as to upset an amateur ear like mine.  It has two volumes, off and loud.  The buttons are arranged in four rows at each end, the white notes in the inner rows and the incidentals in the outer rows. Successive notes in a scale are at opposite ends of the instrument, so to play a scale you hit a key at one end, then a key at the other end, then the next key diagonally up the instrument at the first end (going to the outside row of buttons for a black note, staying on the inside row for a white note) and so on.  Since you can't look at both ends of the instrument at once while you play you have to learn to find the notes without looking at all.  It makes the same noise whether you push or pull.

I don't know what any of the notes are.  I could find middle C on a piano, but I don't know which it is on the concertina, though I suppose if I can play a scale without using any notes in the outside rows I must have started on C.  Since I can't read music it doesn't make any difference not knowing. When I played (a little, and very badly) at Oxford I was teased for always arranging tunes in C, so I learned to choose a key with at least one outside row button in it, just to make sure that whatever key I was playing in it wasn't C.

I stumbled my way through a few half remembered Irish tunes, then dug out a reasonably familiar CD by Kathryn Tickell and loaded it on to my i-Pod to give me something to learn, and practice upon.  The i-Pod is brilliant for this purpose, compared to the old days of having to drop the stylus down on a vinyl LP again and again.  Learning tunes isn't so hard, if you were brought up as a folkie and have never been able to read music.  You listen a few times, hum along with the source, hum it some more, and start trying to play it, and it sticks.  I was never at all good at the concertina, and after a lapse of years am still at the stage of searching around for the notes on the instrument. They are easier to find when they are close together, so I get half a dozen right, the tune coming haltingly, then a bigger interval flummoxes me and I am left trying keys experimentally, looking for the note.  Add to that the fact that sometimes I know where the button is but hit the one next to it by mistake, and it must be agony to listen to.  Fortunately the SA doesn't mind watching telly through headphones, and we don't live in a studio flat.

My father was of the stern belief that you must keep the rhythm going, so if you hit a bum note don't stop to correct it, but keep the shape of the tune and keep going.  That's good advice, but only once you have got to the stage of knowing where all the notes are and being able to hit the right one reliably.  Once I can do that I can focus on the shape of the tune, and start putting in chords and twiddles and triples, and little percussive shakes of the bellows.  If I ever get there.  If the weather would only brighten up I'd be outside like a shot.  I very much doubt that my playing will ever progress to the stage where I would wish to inflict it upon other people.  I am not musically gifted, but just musical enough to be able to hear the difference between inspired genius and the dull plodders.

Friday, 29 March 2013

winter feeding

It felt marginally less cold today when I went out to let the chickens into their run, and the weather station was reading 4.8 degrees C on the roof.  The ceaseless cutting wind of the past week had dropped back, and the sun was shining.  It was rather thin, unconvincing sunlight, and after five minutes of sitting on the doorstep the black cat retreated to the upstairs sitting room to sunbathe through the double glazing, but it was sun.  This meant that it was time to go and feed the bees.

I received an e-mail from the British Beekeepers Association a week ago warning me of the danger of starvation.  Even without the reminder I was thinking about what stores they must have left, given that they have been able to get and out forage for no more than two or three days all month. However, I didn't go and look at them as soon as I got the BBKA message, because it was so cold, and then so snowy, and windy, that I really couldn't face it, and didn't think it would do the bees any good at all to disturb them.  If they had been starving then refraining from disturbing them and leaving them to die of starvation would have been a pointless courtesy, but I didn't really think they were starving.  When I checked the weight of the hives in February they felt good and heavy, and I fed them then anyway, so I thought they probably had enough to last a little longer.

One of the dangers the BBKA warns against, which I was taught in my beekeeping classes, is that in very cold weather the bees will stay in a tight cluster in the hive and won't move, so if the bees are at one end of the box and the remaining supplies of food are at the other, the bees can die even though they have food a matter of centimetres away.  The BBKA therefore wanted me to go and check, not just whether the hives were heavy enough, but whether the food was where the bees could reach it.  But to do that you have to remove the crown board and start investigating individual frames.  You are going to disturb the bees a lot, and let heat out of the hive, and I really didn't fancy doing that in this weather.  Perhaps my attitude is rather harsh, that any strain of bees so inept that they can't find their own food inside a beehive might as well be weeded out by natural selection.

When I lifted the roof off the first colony I couldn't see any bees through either of the holes in the crown board, and for a moment I thought that maybe I had been over-confident, and they had died, but when I lifted the crown board there they were, in a tight group.  I smeared the contents of a very old jar of honey over the tops of the frames around them, left over from a bumper crop that arrived at a time when I had no outlet lined up to sell it, and just before a period in my life when I was rather ill and couldn't cope with what to do with a large amount of honey.  I was taught in classes that I should never feed honey to bees, for fear of spreading disease, but this was from my own apiary and I had no reason to think the colony from which I harvested the honey was diseased. I never saw any signs of illness, and it was a very strong colony to have produced such a large crop.

The other three hives also contained live bees, in a slightly more active state.  I gave each of them a jar of honey as well, spreading it on top of the crown board since they were already moving about and were going to find it.  I began to worry in case the honey in the first hive ran down over the cluster of bees and squashed them, but told myself that they were bees and could cope with honey. It had granulated and was no longer at all runny, though not rock hard.  Since honey is their natural food, I thought they ought to find it easier to eat than sugar.

It is rather desperate to be going into April with the bees still not able to fly, or build up numbers or do anything except survive, but at least they have survived so far.  I may yet discover that one or more colony is queenless, but four out of four colonies are still alive.  In beekeeping terms there is still all to play for.

Bees tended to, I went to plant the rest of the snowdrops, that have been sitting in their plastic bags for the past week since the snow came.  They didn't look too bad at all, given that in an ideal world they'd have planted ten days ago.  I was peacefully crawling around in the wood listening the Radio 3 when from the direction of the garden I heard a terrible animal shriek, as if some creature were in great pain or danger.  I put the trowel down, and went to see what the noise was, accompanied by Our Ginger, who is incurably nosy and perhaps did not wish to be left alone in the wood.

Rising up horribly from one of the chairs in the conservatory, smeared in pollen or algae, I beheld the face of Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat, gaunt and ghastly as Martin Sheen arising out of the swampy waters of the Nung river.  The horror, the horror.  I had shut Alsatian Killer in the conservatory, the last time I closed the door.  I couldn't think exactly when that was or quite when I had last watered it, but days ago, perhaps getting on for a week.  The plants don't need much watering when it's this cold, and I didn't feel like clambering up and down the steps with cans when the snow was lying.  He could have drunk out of the fountain, so he wouldn't have been thirsty, though he might got have lead poisoning, but the heating wasn't on so he would have been barely above freezing, and with nothing to eat.  I opened the door and he slunk out, looking very seedy.

I went to fetch a small plate of food, not too big since I didn't think he should eat too much at once on an empty stomach.  He had vanished when I returned, and the Systems Administrator suggested that he might have gone home, but when I called his name he appeared out of the wood.  He ate the food with the speed of a cat that hasn't been fed for a week, then howled at us, and seemed to want to come with us.  I didn't want Alsatian Killer in the house.  I felt very sorry for him, at being shut in, and at being such a hopeless pet that the neighbours hadn't been round asking if we could check our sheds.  I put a pair of wellington boots in front of the cat flap, backed up by the latest Naked Wines delivery, and Alsatian Killer sat outside and screamed at us while our cats sat inside the glass and bristled back.

After half an hour he was still there, and I put on a coat and leather gardening gauntlets and went out to give him another small meal.  I have no desire to be bitten again by Alsatian Killer.  The last time he got my hand I was on antibiotics for a week, and it took more like six weeks to regain normal sensation in one finger.  After he'd eaten the second meal he had a wash, and began to look slightly less awful, though since most of one ear is missing and his expression is invariably malevolent he looks fairly sinister at the best of times.  We had to let our cats out, since the plump tabby was starting to cross her legs, and there was a great deal of posturing and hissing.  After another half hour I gave him a third small helping of cat food, and told him that that was it, and he should go home now.

He hung around the garden for the rest of the afternoon, occasionally screaming with rage or some strong emotion.  Anger at having been locked in?  Futile desire to be allowed to come and live in our house with the rest of the cats?  Stomach ache?  I don't even understand why he didn't make a noise to be let out before.  The bird table is right by the steps down to the conservatory, and he must surely have heard the SA coming out to restock the table.  I feel remorseful that I managed to shut him in like that.  In cold weather when I'm not watering every day or even every other day I shall have to keep an eye out, in case he lurks in there again.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

the road to Harwich

We went last night for the Systems Administrator's delayed birthday night out in Harwich.  I like the old town in Harwich, and if it were not a slightly over-long and tedious drive we'd probably go there more often, if we went out.  To get to Harwich you have to use the A120, which you share with rather a lot of lorries heading for the port, while the multi-lingual signs on the way home reminding you to drive on the left serve to emphasise that some of your fellow road users are likely to be very tired, and not guaranteed to remember which side of of the road they are supposed to be on.

The last stretch as you approach Harwich is not dual carriage way.  If the Bathside Bay port development had gone ahead then paying to dual the remainder of the A120 would have been one of the planning conditions.  The proposal to extend the port has been rumbling around for at least four decades, according to a friend who has lived in the area for that long, but has been kicked back into the long grass yet again due to a combination of planning concerns, economic concerns, and the fact that in the meantime a large new container port has opened much further up the Thames estuary.  If Bathside Bay had gone ahead we would probably have had a quarry next to our house, so on balance we are happy to live with the non-dualled stretch of A120.  It is a dismal road, though, prone to banks of fog, and the same friend who knows about the port's planning history says it feels haunted.

The worst bit of the A120 is actually the stretch of dual carriage way nearer home.  I have grumbled in the past about how much I dislike turning right on to that road, or turning right off it.  In fact, nowadays I refuse to use the junction at all, except to turn left off the main road, and last night we took the back route through Tendring and picked up the A120 at the Weeley roundabout, at the point where it reverts to single carriageway.  People have been killed on that stretch of road, and in January the authorities spent spent several hundred thousand pounds painting new white lines and rearranging the cats' eyes to reduce it to single carriageway in both directions.  The idea was that it would cut the speed of traffic and accidents.  It didn't work, and there have been more crashes. Indeed, last night as we drove home from Harwich we saw a car in the verge where it had run straight off the road instead of turning left.  It was still there this morning when I went out for something else.

The latest proposal is to close the gaps in the central barrier so that people can't turn right at all, off or on to the main road.  This idea has been met with dismay by all those living on the lanes and in the villages that will suffer from the resulting increase in traffic.  The trouble is, the A120 cuts in a great swathe across the Tendring peninsular, and there aren't enough places to cross it if you want to travel from north to south, as I do each time I go to work, or for local traffic to join or leave the main road safely.  What we need is a roundabout on the site of the current dangerous junction, but of course roundabouts cost money.  Locals are asking why speed cameras can't be installed and a 40 mph speed limit on that stretch of road rigorously enforced, instead of making them take a long detour down single track lanes each time they want to return home from Colchester, let alone London.  Perhaps the Highways Agency and police don't believe people will stick to the speed limit, and fear there will be more accidents, or maybe they don't want to pay for the speed cameras, or perhaps port traffic mustn't be disrupted and the locals will just have to suffer the inconvenience.  I am waiting to see whether my normal route to work remains tenable, since it includes a longish single track section with only limited passing places.

I digress.  We went to Harwich, and went for a pint (or in my case half a pint) in The Alma.  The Alma is a lovely pub, so if you've just clicked on the link back there don't worry about their slightly lack-lustre website.  The decor is stripped wood and bare floor boards, but in a salubrious way. They have a decent range of draught beers, and the food is said to be good but not cheap (that's often the way).  There is no music and no TV.  We once called in when the landlord was running an esoteric quiz on spices that would have stumped most of R4's Kitchen Cabinet.  I didn't know the answers, and I fancy myself as a bit of a foodie, or at least well-read.  There was a large group of people in the bar, who were slightly but not excessively dressed up, and appeared to know each other, so we reckoned that was a works do, or a birthday, or something.  It came as a real shock to walk into a pub and find it full of people and buzzing with conversation, especially on a Wednesday. Normally it's just us and two or three blokes, and we wonder how the pub can keep going, and then leave.

For those of you who like pub quizzes, the battle of Alma was the first battle of the Crimean War, in 1854.  There was a broadside ballad written about it, and later it was recorded by Donovan.

After The Alma we had supper at Thai up at the Quay.  This gets almost uniformly rave reviews, and is very good.  I had let slip when making the booking that it was someone's birthday, and even though we ended up going not on their birthday we still got Happy Birthday glitter sprinkled on the tablecloth, and a complimentary pudding, which turned out to be a scoop of icecream and two slices of a Thai bread pudding with a little start shaped candle on a stick.  I didn't know the Thais went in for bread pudding, but this one was rather nice.  It tasted more of Christmas pudding than anything, and the owner told us it was made with coconut milk.  The vegetables in tempura batter (really just an excuse to eat batter), chicken satay, beef curry (hot enough to give the SA hiccups) and vegetable Phad Thai were all very good.  When I ordered vegetarian options the owner checked whether I was a strict vegetarian or if fish sauce would be acceptable.  As it happens I'm not a vegetarian at all, but I was impressed that he asked.  It seems unnecessarily hostile to tell restaurateurs that I'm concerned their chicken, pork and fish may not be ethically sourced, so if asked I just say I like vegetables.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

late arrivals for the twenty-first century ball

I'm feeling my way with the new phone.  The first time it rang I failed to answer it, because I had not read or else forgotten the section of the manual that said that I had to not just touch the green icon of a phone on the screen, or tap it, but drag it sideways.  The whole routine of dragging my finger across the screen to confirm that I want it to wake up again, every time it goes into energy saving mode, has caused me some difficulties, and I think I have made one or two silent calls to contacts by mistake, through hitting dial on the contacts screen without meaning to.  That would explain why I got a call this morning from a friend who doesn't normally ring me for a chat.  They kept their end of the conversation up with aplomb, but afterwards I began to suspect that the reason they'd rung had been to find out the source of an incoming call from an unknown number.

Mind you, I think making false calls must be easily done with a touch screen.  I found I had a voicemail, that turned out to be four minutes and thirty-three seconds not of silence but of rustling, with the odd clonking noise as if a mug were being put down on a desk.  The on-line instruction book had very little to say about voicemails, since they are provided by O2 and not Samsung, and it took some time to discover by trial and error that in order to delete the voicemail I apparently had to listen to the end, before it would give me the option to Press 3 to delete.

I don't understand why a couple of outgoing texts seem to have stuck in draft instead of sending. The first time I sent a second, with apologies in case the first had already arrived.  The second one formed the tail end of an exchange of courtesies about tickets for a friend's upcoming concert, and I left it.  It will be interesting to see whether the entry in the messages summary next to that name suddenly stops saying Draft in red, and puts in the first few words of the message like the ones I know did send.

I managed to work out how to turn the phone to silent mode very early on.  The former colleague I saw yesterday was mildly impressed that I'd already cracked that one.  Before getting the phone I had vague ideas of downloading ringtones, and was considering the relative merits of the Pink Panther theme and the one from the 1970s TV version of Lord Peter Wimsey with Ian Carmichael, but the reality is that I don't want it to make a noise at all.  I have got it on vibrate, so that I know when it does something, and left on a surface like the hall table to act as a soundboard it makes a subdued but powerful buzzing noise.

Unfortunately I haven't yet found a setting that will let me silence it entirely for e-mails, and only buzz for texts, or incoming calls (not that I expect to get many of those).  It is rather disappointing to hear it buzz, and find not a text from a friend, but an automatic e-mail from Blogspot warning that another irritating marketing message has been appended under the guise of a comment.  That or Fidelity suggesting that now is the time to think about getting back into equities (because they want to flog ISAs at the end of the tax year, after the market has gone up a thousand points. Telling me to get into equities when the index was at 5,300 would have been much more useful). Indeed, it is still rather peculiar to have access to e-mails on the move, and part of me feels it spoils the surprise of getting home and seeing what has arrived in the course of the day, like looking through the morning's post.  I said as much to my friend yesterday, who laughed, and welcomed me to the twenty-first century.

I tried the map twice yesterday.  The first time I was using some free Wi-Fi (I think) in a branch of Costa Coffee, and the map didn't quite seem to work, since it opened centred on my house and not the City, and failed to add more detail as I tried to zoom in, instead expanding the overview map of London which simply became blurrier without adding any street names.  The second time at Liverpool Street using my tiny data allowance (I think) it opened beautifully, pin-pointing me at once to Bishopsgate, and adding information as I closed in until it showed every individual platform.

I still haven't cracked the camera, so haven't tried to read one of those QR codes.  The first time I ever saw one was by the jade vine in the Cambridge Botanic Gardens, and I thought then what a brilliant idea it was, except that I didn't have a device capable of reading it.  Nowadays they put them on cereal packets.  As an inveterate cereal packet reader I suppose that could give breakfast an extra high tech frisson.

All in all it's just as well I got the new phone when I did.  If I'd left it much longer, until I was even older and phones yet more complicated, I doubt I'd ever have got it to work at all.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

a concert, an exhibition and a flower show

I went to London today, and made sure I crammed as much in as possible, starting with a lunchtime concert at the excellent LSO St Lukes.  It is their tenth anniversary, and today's performance was by the Wihan Quartet (and was broadcast as the Radio 3 lunchtime concert, so you have seven days left to listen again).  The Wihan quartet played at the first LSO St Lukes lunchtime concert in October 2003, with the same line-up of performers, when they performed the second of the pieces they played again today, Dvorak's string quartet in F major.  The Dvorak was the major draw that led me to pick today's concert rather than another day, and I was grateful to the Radio 3 presenter I'd heard introduce them as 'Veehan' and not 'Why-han', so I did not embarrass myself in front of the old friend I dragged along with me to the concert.  LSO St Lukes was a new experience for this friend, despite the fact that he is a cultured sort of chap, and proved a hit, including the basement cafe which I was afraid might lack finesse in his eyes.  Not that I am into one-upmanship with my friends, or no more so than is healthy if we are to discover interesting new things and not stick in a rut, but it is gratifying to have introduced a native Londoner to a London landmark they didn't already know.

As I strolled up to Old Street from Liverpool Street I was treated to a small Proustian moment of remembrance, seeing a taxi parked outside an office in Chiswell Street with the name of the person it was reserved for written on a piece of cardboard in the window.  It was a name I knew of old, a former colleague of the Systems Administrator.  He was once a close enough friend that we flew all the way to Italy for his wedding.  Soon after that he and his new Italian wife went out to try their luck in Hong Kong, and the next thing I knew he was agonising about whether or not they could ask their maid to wear uniform when friends came to dinner.  He rose up and out of our ambit, and I haven't seen him since.  I didn't hang around to ambush him as he got into his taxi, but went and had a nose around Bunhill Fields.  The massed ranks of tombstones behind their iron railings needed only a weeping Dickensian heroine to complete the effect, but instead I got an incongruous sprinkling of daffodils.

After the concert I yomped down to the Strand to see Becoming Picasso at The Courtauld Gallery. Originally I was going to get the tube, and even recharged my Oyster card when I arrived at Liverpool Street (memo to Transport for London: the reason why next time I don't top up on line, as they suggest, is that in order to activate your top up you have to swipe the card at a nominated station, and I prefer to decide on the day of travel whether to get the tube, or the bus, or walk, or not go to London at all).  However, the more I looked at the tube map the less I could see any sensible tube route between Old Street and the Aldwych, whereas it was a fairly short walk.  Even my native-Londoner friend admitted that it was a soddy journey by tube.  There's probably a bus, but I don't know the number.  The short walk would have been more pleasant if it hadn't been for the trail of large blood spots on the pavement every few paces along part of the Strand.

The Picasso exhibition is popular, and the Courtauld were operating timed tickets, though when I was there they were timed to go straight in.  This show consists of work he did in 1901, so he was no more than twenty years old at the time.  I hadn't realised his child with dove, familiar from a thousand postcards, was painted so early in his career.  It's a very good little exhibition, and well worth catching, on until late May so you have plenty of time.  While I was there I went and communed with my favourite Braque, and was happy to discover that an extremely weird Elizabethan portrait of a naked, bearded man up to his waist in water, with a ship and allegorical scenes behind, had reappeared from storage.  I think the background scenes are allegorical in the sense that art historians can't agree what the hell the painting is about, but it always reminds me of the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens.

After the Courtauld it was a toss-up whether to proceed on to the RHS show in Vincent Square or turn round and head for Liverpool Street, since it was already four o'clock and Vincent Square was another four tube stops in the wrong direction.  The flower show won by a neck, since with this weather I have spent a lot of time sitting in my house recently, and will be spending more.  The show was spread over both RHS halls, competitive daffodils, alpines and flower photographs in one, along with cutesy barrows of flowers, old-fashioned street lamps and bunting in one, and growers' stands in the other.  The daffodils and alpines were lovely.  I used to think that when I got too old and feeble to manage a large garden, I would retire to a small one and grow impossibly neat and perfect alpines, sheltering out of the rain in my alpine house.  I have rather given up on that plan, realising that I am not a neat person, and that a small messy courtyard garden stuffed with pots and objets d'art would be more my style, but I enjoy looking at other people's incredibly perfect, tiny plants.

It's a pity that the RHS decided to add to the intended Victorian street-scene ambience by turning down the main lights while I was there, so that I could no longer see the plants very well.  I heard a fellow show-goer giving the woman on the RHS information desk a very hard time about it, rather unfairly so in that her badge said clearly that she was a volunteer.  He should really have directed his ire at the management, though he was absolutely right about the lighting.

The trade stands were fun too, and I bought a plant, a young Parehebe perfoliata, which I've been after for about four years since admiring one at the Wrabness Open Gardens.  They like sunshine and free drainage, and it should be very happy in our front garden.  It appeared to be the only one on the stand, since I was given the display plant instead of another being produced from under the bench, and its little handwritten sale sign said that they were not often seen nowadays, which is true.

The boss was judging at today's show, but I think he'd gone long before I arrived.

Monday, 25 March 2013

last orders

I took the long way to work, to avoid the back lanes which certainly won't have been gritted.  As I approached the Ardleigh level crossing, which is the main reason why I normally use the lanes as a rat-run, the gates were up.  Just as I thanked fate that I hadn't been caught, the amber light came on with fifteen metres to go.  I don't believe in jumping lights at railway crossings, and resigned myself to spending the next quarter of an hour stuck the wrong side of the railway line, so it was a nice surprise when just one train went through, and I was only held up for three minutes.

Although I was early to work, a white van had beaten me to it and was already sat in the car park. This turned out to be a delivery from a supplier based down in the West Country, a one-man band who propagates some rare and unusual plants.  His van, a very old Transit with home made wooden shelves along both sides, was absolutely stuffed with pots, some of which were for us and some which weren't.  He handed these out to us one at a time, picking his way through his crates of plants and murmuring that this one for us, that one wasn't, there had to be another of these somewhere.  Occasionally he managed to offload a whole crate at once.  He obviously didn't believe in wasting money on labels, so some pots were individually labelled, some varieties just had one small stick-in label between all seven pots, and some weren't labelled at all.  The manager seemed happy that between them they added up to his list of what he'd ordered, so I expect he'll manage to work out which pots of dormant twigs are which.

They were nice plants, well grown, which is to say that they didn't look too much like the things grown for instant appeal pumped up on the plant equivalent of steroids, and aimed at the garden centre trade.  We sell those too.  These plants were quite young, still fairly skinny, and not cosseted with too much heat or nitrogen.  Moved into the ground as soon as the soil warms up they would grow away like crazy.  Proper nurseryman's plants, not nearly as lush and opulent as the ones that arrive on Dutch trolleys from bigger suppliers, but garden-ready.  Dutch trolleys are those multi-tiered metal racks with wheels that you have seen around the place in garden centres and farm shops.  We try to keep them tidied away behind the scenes, if the suppliers even leave them with us, and never put stock out for sale still on them.  They are having an insidious effect on plant breeding, since if you can fit more shelves into a trolley you reduce transport and delivery costs, and this is creating a commercial pressure to breed shorter plants.  Truly.

Our supplier from Devon just scraped in under the wire, since the boss and the manager agreed this morning not to order any more plants until the weather warms up.  I knew they were bound to do that.  The van with colour came, as it always does on a Monday morning, and apart from taking some trays of things we'd ordered, half of which were for a particular customer anyway, we didn't have any plants.  No pansies, no daffodils, no Pulmonaria.  I'm afraid much of their current stock is destined to bloom unseen, not on the desert air but in the back of a van driving around the Eastern counties.  What they do with it when the flowers fade I do not know.  Perhaps there will be bargains to be had in Norwich market, for gardeners who are prepared to be patient and wait for their Pulmonaria to bloom again next year.

It was desperately quiet, and cold.  I put together a good-sized mail order collection for somebody who telephoned from Wales.  I thought Wales was buried under snow, but obviously not his part of it.  Another customer rang to defer delivery of their order, because the last half mile of track to their house was impassable.  Two elderly ladies bought an extremely nice hellebore as a present for someone, and I made it look as smart as I could with green florist's paper.  The young gardener managed to find himself a warm job in the morning, printing off more labels for the plants in the garden, but then in the afternoon had to go and tie the labels on, and reappeared at five o'clock with numb fingers.  I played hunt-the-pot in the tunnel on the other side of the car park, to stick prices on various herbaceous plants in 11 centimetre pots.  The older gardener drew the short straw, and had to muck out the chicken house.  We all tried hard to make ourselves useful, but what we need is customers.  Customers and not snow.

The dogs have been chasing the turkeys, and drove one of them into the pond, where it was fortunately discovered in time and rescued by the owners' daughter.  The owners are trying to teach to turkeys to go into the chicken house at night, instead of sitting on the lawn in the snow.  Last night both eventually went in through the pop-hole, which represents progress, though they did have to be herded with sticks, and the cock is so large he can scarcely squeeze through the door.  We debated whether they needed poles to roost on, though as the gardener said, in a commercial operation the turkeys manage in their sheds without poles.  Whether or not they get poles may depend on how long the weather remains unsuitable for gardening.

In the plant centre we were reduced to de-icing the path from the shop with dishwasher salt.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

tough times

I was sorely tempted to call work and suggest I didn't bother going in, faced with the prospect of another cold day, melting snow soaking my gloves, few customers, and not enough to do.  Taking a purely short-term view of it, the owner would probably have been happy enough to save a little on the wages bill.  I didn't make the call.  Taking the longer-term view, once you start deciding to not turn up to work on days when you don't really feel like it, or your employer decides to start standing you down at short notice to cut costs, you are both on a slippery slope.  Another time, I might decide I'd got other things I'd rather be doing on a day when my services were badly needed.  Small teams need everyone to be utterly reliable.  In the past decade I've missed a handful of days at short notice, through illness, and once when a tree collapsed over the front garden and it wasn't reasonable to leave the Systems Administrator working alone with a chain saw.

It wasn't very nice, though.  I finished putting the plants from the red trolley out for sale, except for one tray of Polemonium.  To make a space for them required me to move all the rest of the Jacob's ladders, and they were so covered in snow that I really couldn't see which was which or what I was doing.  Once the snow melts it will be the work of two minutes to sort them into the right order.  I removed the shrink wrapping from a delivery of plastic-coated obelisks, being careful not to damage the plastic, or lose the screws and wing nuts from the larger designs that come in two parts.  One finial was badly scuffed in transit, a great flap of plastic coating scraped away from the underlying metal, and will have to go back to the supplier.  I assembled the two-part obelisks, and stuck prices on packs of flexible plastic plant ties.  I searched through the list of plants people are waiting for and made phone calls, shamelessly ringing about enquiries dating back a full year, which drummed up a couple of prospective sales.  I was as nice and helpful and enthusiastic as I could be to two couples who were both making their first visit to the plant centre.  It snowed all morning and half of the afternoon, while the wind whipped the lying snow around.  It wasn't fun.  It wasn't what people dream of, when they imagine a fulfilling job working with plants and people who are interested in plants.

It is even less fun for the owners.  We have stocked up for spring, and need to start converting that stock back into cash.  There are suppliers to be paid, not the mention pay-day for the staff at the end of the month.  The growers we get the plants from must be pretty anxious too, since if retailers aren't shifting the stock they've already got, they won't be re-ordering.  The growers started propagating and potting months ago, and are now sitting on peak stocks themselves.  They equally need to start converting that stock back into cash, besides which plants will only keep for so long in pots before they start to deteriorate.  It isn't a business anyone would be in unless they really liked plants.  Or at least, they shouldn't be.  Digging out my ancient and moth-eaten investor's hat, it's an industry I would only put on a very low PE ratio.

It has its compensations, though, as a way of life.  Last week a friend from our City days parted company with his investment firm rather suddenly, and the SA suddenly realised that the only e-mail address he had for someone we've known for nearly thirty years was the office one, which had already been stopped.  And last night we watched Margin Call, a financial thriller released with little fanfare in 2011, that opens with a mass-sacking, immediately before the firm discovers that its holdings of complex financial instruments may have pushed it into insolvency.  The head of risk management was one of the staff to be fired.  His former bosses cannot call him to ask for help because when they fired him they cut off his telephone.

One of the things I decided when I left the City was that I was going to own my own life.  No corporate phone, no corporate e-mail, no corporate hospitality, no corporate lunches.  My social capital would be my own, my address book would be wholly mine, no employer would be able to cut me off from anyone I knew, and anybody who chose to spend time with me would do so because they wanted to, not because they were after my firm's business.  It is a decision I have never regretted, even on days like today when it left me trudging about lining up rows of geraniums in a snow storm.

Saturday, 23 March 2013


The alarm went off at six, and I dragged myself out of bed and took a sneak preview out of the window that faces on to the wood, to see if it had snowed in the night, and whether I would have to go to work.  There was a very light dusting on the leaves of the camellias opposite the dustbins, and that was it.  Work beckoned.  Oh goodie.  Not that I don't like my work, on the contrary, I generally do, but it's more fun when it's busy with customers than on deadly quiet days at a time of year when it should be buzzing.  And while I am a reasonably hardy creature, spending eight hours mostly outside while the thermometer hovers around freezing is quite tough.

The boss announced that he had a bone to pick with me, which was worrying and also faintly confusing as I hadn't been there since the start of last week.  I enquired what I'd done, but it transpired that the boss had been reading the blog and liked it.  Liked it so much that he presented me with a bottle of wine.  That was very kind, and totally unexpected, and certainly preferable to the alternative, which is that when your boss discovers your blog he sacks you.  He said he knew all about it, though he hadn't bothered reading it for the past eighteen months, but having returned to it he had enjoyed recent posts, and that for my information turkeys did not roost in trees, or catch colds.  Mind you, his turkeys tried to spend the night sitting on the lawn and he had to herd them into the chicken house, to try and teach them to go there at night.  If they don't learn about foxes they won't last until Christmas.

My first job of the day was to set out for sale the last of a delivery of herbaceous plants, that were still sitting in the trays they were delivered in.  We don't like them to remain in boxes, though some garden centres put them out for sale that way.  The trays look messy, especially once they are half empty, and we need everything to be in strict alphabetical order, in one or at the most two rows. The tables are getting fuller, to the point where sometimes existing rows have to be shuffled along to make room for new stock.  Today's setting out was made more difficult by the fact that most of the labels were coated in snow, and the plants were snow-covered lumps that could have been all sorts of things.

There were a couple of red trolleys of stock from The Other Side to be put out for sale as well, and I trudged around the plant centre lining up neat rows of Hydrangea, Cornus, Narcissus, Stokesia, and Origanum, gloves getting steadier soggier as I lifted snow covered pots and brushed slush off labels.  It snowed all morning, sometimes in flurries of heavy, wet flakes, and sometimes in a mini-blizzard of fine particles.  My feet began to feel rather cold, and I reflected that I must buy some better boots.  My right wellington has split over the big toe anyway, and would not be waterproof if I were to stand in more than a centimetre of water.

A few customers called in.  One bought a single bundle of bare root hawthorn hedging.  In some years you'd be pushing your luck towards the end of March with bare root hedging, but not this year. The buds are barely swelling.  Somebody rang to buy a gift voucher, someone else called to collect five trees, but his wife had already paid for them.  I did my best to drum up custom by calling people who were down on our list as wanting particular plants, if I knew the plants had arrived.  One woman who had been waiting for a year for Philadelphus delavayi professed herself absolutely delighted that we finally had some, declaring that she had been looking for it for years, since smelling one in Michael Heseltine's garden, and that I had made her day.  It is a nice feeling to have made somebody that happy, and helps compensate for the times when I steel myself to call someone when a long-awaited plant finally turns up and meet with scornful rejection.  They found one elsewhere, or planted something else, or moved house in the meantime, or can't remember why they wanted it in the first place.

The owner called me over the radio in the early afternoon, to say that it was entirely up to me, but that the snow was starting to settle on the roads and I might want to think about going home early. I sent one final e-mail, to somebody who was looking for a particular rhododendron and one Dianthus 'Desmond' (an unlikely combination), and my fingers stumbled on the keyboard.  I went home.

The Systems Administrator and I were going to visit the excellent Thai restaurant in Harwich tonight, but yesterday when I saw the weekend weather forecast I rang them and moved the booking to Wednesday.  The beekeepers' candle making session that should have been held today had to be cancelled, since it really wasn't a day for standing in somebody's double garage with the doors open, dipping wicks into vats of melted wax.  Surely spring must come soon?  Still, I'm glad the boss likes the blog.  All we need now is for it to go viral, and bring a flood of customers in search of the brilliant, bonkers corner of rural England that is the plant centre.  Chance would be a fine thing.

Friday, 22 March 2013

one of those days

Oh, dear me, the weather.  If you should be reading this blog in Arizona or Marseilles, and think that the English are always grumbling about the weather, take it from me that this is exceptional. It is not meant to be like this in late March.  It is technically spring, but it is blowing a freezing gale, with snow blanketing swathes of the north, and forecast for Colchester tomorrow.

The Systems Administrator was all lined up yesterday to help replace the broken poles in the fruit cage roof. They are hollow aluminium, like tent poles, and were bent out of shape by the weight of snow so badly the winter before last that it was impossible to straighten them by hand.  A couple actually broke.  It was my own fault for leaving the netting on the roof over winter, but I used to believe that it didn't snow that much in southern England.  I bought replacements for the worst damaged ones, then summer last year was so unremittingly dull, wet and foul that I gave up with ideas of fruit, and never fitted them.  The SA said that we could replace the poles without removing the netting from the roof, which would save us quite a lot of work, and I was about to go along with this when it struck me that it might not be a very sensible idea, not if it is going to snow on Saturday.  To mend your fruit cage on 21st March and have it damaged again by snow two days later on the 23rd would just be perverse.

This morning the SA was all lined up to take me to the local garden centre in the truck, so that I could buy a bulk load of bags of mushroom compost, and not just as much as I could fit into the boot of the Skoda.  As I lay in bed this morning listening to the wind howling, and trying to summon the energy to go and have a shower, it didn't sound like a very good day to go and load compost. Going outside to let the chickens into their run I found the wind had swung round to the north, and cut to the skin.  We agreed to leave fetching compost to another day.

I thought that maybe the back garden would be sheltered from the worst of the gale by the wood, the house, and the lie of the land, and set out to plant more of the bulbs I've been growing on, and spread a layer of Strulch over the bed, but as I looked at a tray of rather nice Allium rosenbachianum it struck me that they probably wouldn't like being covered in snow, fresh out of the greenhouse.  My plan was to plant before mulching, so as not to disturb the Strulch once it was down, so if I couldn't plant, I couldn't mulch.  The cold was making my eyes water so badly I couldn't even see very well, and I gave up with gardening for the day before I trampled too many plants to death.

That left me with the rest of the morning to play with the new phone.  As of yesterday evening it would receive e-mails but not let me send them.  Apparently this is a well-know glitch of some Samsung Android products, though not one that any of the phone companies mention in the glowing product descriptions on their websites.  Instead you can read about it in lots of chat-rooms where disgruntled owners compare solutions, most of which sound horribly complicated.  The SA knew of a simple answer, which was to download an app that accesses e-mail via Yahoo instead of the e-mail icon that came ready loaded on the phone, and that solved the problem, but it seems ridiculous.  Why can't Samsung and O2 just sell me a phone with an e-mail function that works?

I managed to text my own old phone, which was a start.  I have not tried to transfer my old number to the new phone.  Only about six people have my number so it's easier just to tell them the new one, and I can barely make the phone work as it is, without the added complication of trying to transfer numbers.  Anyway, I needed the old number to practice on.  My dismal failure to text the first friend I tried to contact turned out to be because I had typed her telephone number into my new Contacts list incorrectly, but I can't blame Samsung for that.

By lunchtime I had managed to download one free app, and was equipped to find any Art Fund supported venue within a specified radius.  The SA, more prosaically, suggested I add one that would tell me the times of London buses and service status on the underground, and sneaked in the national rail enquiry service when I wasn't looking.  It was the first time I ever looked in an app store, and it is not the most clearly signposted environment, but I suppose it is aimed at young people who grew up with digital technology and not fifty year old late adopters.  It is tricky exploring a new touch screen device when every time you touch anything trying to find out what it is and what it does, something happens, and you find you are either apparently downloading something you don't want, or have rung somebody up you didn't mean to call.

In the afternoon I made the dough for another loaf of bread, but after the success of my last two attempts, this one is very slow to rise.  It is that sort of a day.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

trials of a late adopter

I have finally bitten the bullet and bought a smart phone.  Only a mid-range one, nothing fancy, but something that will give me mobile internet, and arrange my texts in easy-to-follow conversational sequences.  After spending ages looking at details of telephones and tariffs it felt like time to step into the twenty-first century, and I thought that the only way to find out how useful a smart phone turned out to be, or not, was to draw a deep breath, get one, and start using it.  Besides, my credit on my pay-as-you -go antique Nokia was down to £1.82 and I didn't want to give O2 another tenner if I was about to ditch the old phone.  In the end I stuck with O2.  Originally I was thinking of switching to 3 Mobile, but there has nearly always been a signal for the Nokia when I needed one, and 3 Mobile seemed to have permanently sold out of the phone I was planning to buy.  Their monthly tariffs weren't that attractive at the lower end either, but something has to pay for all those advertisements at Colchester railway station.

I bought the phone on-line with no problems, ignoring the almost endless list of add-on purchases O2 wanted me to make.  I don’t want a beanie hat with built-in headphones, and I certainly don’t want to pay six pounds a month insurance in case I lose or break my phone, since by the end of the contract I’d have paid enough premiums to buy a new phone anyway.  I signed up to a modest monthly tariff, invented a password and an answer to a memorable question, and O2 sent me a flurry of e-mails confirming that I'd bought a phone, and signed up as an O2 customer and all the rest of it.  One of the e-mails contained a link for me to click on to confirm my e-mail address, which I had to use within 48 hours before the link expired.  I clicked on it two minutes after receiving it, and it said the link had expired.  I tried again.  And again.

In order to contact O2 by e-mail to find out what I should do about the fact that I couldn't confirm my e-mail address, I had to choose from a bewildering array of menu options.  None of them seemed to cover problems verifying your e-mail address as a newly signed up pay-monthly customer, and I thought maybe it would be easier to ring them up.  When you ring up O2 your call is answered by an automated female voice, who after greeting you in tones so fruitily ecstatic they verge on the embarrassing, wants you to type in the number of your telephone, so that you can speak to the right person.  My telephone was not due to arrive until the following day, so I didn't know what its number was.  I waited to see if there was an alternative option, such as Press One if you do not know your telephone number, but there wasn't.  The fruity voice merely said She was sorry, she didn't catch that.

That left the option of an on-line chat with a Live Person.  The first Live Person identified themselves as Bartosz, and but after a while he or she passed me on to a second Live Person from the sales team.  Both Live People were very anxious to reassure me, while persistently failing to answer my question about the verification e-mail.  The whole exchange was quite extraordinary, as was the fact that O2 let me have a transcript at the end.

info: Welcome to O2. Someone will be with you soon. 
info: You're through to 'O2 : Bartosz'
O2 : Bartosz: Hi I'm O2 : Bartosz. How can I help?
Me: Have just bought phone and signed up to pay monthly on-line. The email link to verify me e-mail address does not work.
O2 : Bartosz: I'll help you.
O2 : Bartosz: may i've your email address please ?
Me: [my name]
O2 : Bartosz: thanks.
O2 : Bartosz: Please wait while I check this for you.
O2 : Bartosz: thanks for being patient.
O2 : Bartosz: Please can you tell me the 4th and 5th character of your security answer?
Me: Do you mean the favourite pet etc question by security answer?
O2 : Bartosz: yes, you are right.
Me: le
O2 : Bartosz: thanks.
O2 : Bartosz: I can see that your order is still under process.
O2 : Bartosz: You need to wait for some time.
Me: I can quote you the order number as confirmation email has come through, it's just the verification e-mail that I'm supposed to use within 48 hours says it has already expired
O2 : Bartosz: You don't need to worry about the verification email.
O2 : Bartosz: Everything has been set up on your account.
O2 : Bartosz: Once the order is complete
O2 : Bartosz: You'll receive the email for the confirmation.
Me: Why do you send me a verification e-mail I don't need to worry about? I'm confused.
O2 : Bartosz: I understand.
O2 : Bartosz: Please be online I need to transfer this chat to our sales team, they are in better position to help you with this matter.
info: We’re putting you through to the right person, won’t be long.
info: You're through to 'Daz'
Daz: Hi there. My name's Daz I am an O2 Sales advisor, how can I help you today?
Me: I have just bought a phone and signed up to pay monthly on line. I received various e-mails from O2 including one with a link I had to click within 48 hours to verify my e-mail address. The link does not work, says it has already expired. Your live-chat colleague says I don't need to worry about the verification e-mail. Do I?
Daz: I'll be happy to help you with that.
Daz: Yes you'll get confirmation mail
Daz: May I know your order number?
Me: ms-301161249
Daz: Thanks.
Daz: Your order has been placed successfully.
Daz: You'll get confirmation mail too.
Daz: No worries.
Daz: You have placed order for ace 2\
Daz: Its on the tariff of £14
Me: I have had a confirmation e-mail so I know I have placed an order. will I get another confirmation e-mail about my e-mail address. Do I need to worry about it?
Daz: No need to worry [my first name].
Me: Should I expect another verification e-mail or is O2 happy that it knows my email address?
Daz: Yes that's fine.
Daz: You do not need to worry about your verification code, 02 is fine that you know your email address.
Daz: Rest be assured.
Daz: Are you with me ?
Me: Yes. I know my e-mail address. Do I need to confirm my e-mail address to O2?
Daz: No that's fine [my first name].
Me: Thank you.
Daz: I've checked you've not added Insurance for your phone, I would recommend you to add Insurance as its just for £6 a month and if you calculate it would just cost you 20p per day to secure your phone. If  something happens to your phone then you'll have to spend £129.99 for the new phone and that would be expensive.

Don’t you love the final attempt to sell me insurance, after I’d logged out of the Live Chat?  So far I have succeeded in installing the battery into the phone, which is charging up.  I hope I can make it work, since I don’t fancy any further contact with the customer service team at O2.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

snowdrops and Strulch

The pallet of Strulch I'd ordered arrived good and early.  I do like it when deliveries arrive first thing after breakfast, freeing me from the need to hang around within earshot of the phone, waiting for the driver to call from the public lane asking where we are, exactly?  Today's driver was very cheerful about the fact that his pallet trolley wouldn't work on the gravel, and he was going to have to break down the load on board and pass down all fifty bags to me, one by one.  He didn't grumble about giving me the pallet, either, and offered me a second spare one for good measure.  With the rising popularity of wood burning stoves you get drivers who would rather keep empty pallets for their own use, and are curmudgeonly about handing them over, but he was clearly not a wood-burning man, and said that he got into trouble at the depot if he took too many pallets back with him.

The Strulch delivery was therefore a good experience, although fifty bags looked a lot when it was still shrink-wrapped on the lorry, and really looks an incredible amount when heaped loosely on the concrete.  It is my big gardening extravagance for this spring, instead of buying any pots in the Whichford sale, but it saves so much work weeding that it will be worth it.  And who needs to join a gym to avoid flabby arms when they can spend their spare time lifting fifty bags of composted straw mulch off a lorry?

A gentler task was to plant the snowdrops, which arrived yesterday, a thousand single and fifty double.  The doubles were easy to find a home for, slipping into any little empty spaces in the ditch bed in the back garden.  The singles were destined for the wood, where my aim was to fill in gaps in areas where the existing snowdrops were doing well, while not wasting too many bulbs by setting clumps in places where I'd tried snowdrops previously, and they'd failed.  Snowdrops like to be planted in small clusters rather than singly, according to the advice slips the growers put in the box. I don't know why this should be so (or if it is a cunning ploy to make your thousand bulbs not go so far, so that you will need more next year), but I follow their advice.

My usual technique when addressing a new area is to place clumps a reasonable distance apart, maybe as much as 40 centimetres between groups, and see how they do.  If they are flowering well and have bulked up, the next time I'm planting snowdrops, I put more clumps in the gaps, to make a more impressive display. If they are not doing so well, maybe sending up a few thin leaves but not thriving, I don't waste my efforts planting more in that spot, but try somewhere else.  The difficulty is that after quite a few years of planting snowdrops, if I see a completely snowdrop-free area, I have to try and remember whether I planted them there previously and they have all died, or if I have never tried that particular spot.  Bulbs can be very particular about what conditions they will and won't grow in, as can be seen by looking at the distribution of bluebells in a wood.  In our small wood, and in any other semi-natural woodland you care to go and look at that supports a population of wild bluebells, you will see at this time of year areas where the ground is thick with emerging leaves, often with sharply defined edges, and other patches where bluebells don't grow at all.  I presume it is all down to levels of light and soil moisture.

Planting the snowdrops was a good experience too, until it began to rain.  I ignored the rain for a while, until it became rather un-ignorable.  The Systems Administrator was looking at the rain radar, and told me that at the plant centre it was sleeting.  If I were not incurably optimistic when it comes to gardening I could almost have felt discouraged at that point.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

traditional Irish

The Irish band were very good.  That's not much use to you if you live in the Colchester area, since they've been to the Arts Centre now, and as their previous visit was a decade ago they may not be back for a while, but you can still catch them at Westcliff-on-Sea, Arundel, Salisbury, South Molton, New Milton, Hitchin, and Nettlebed.

I knew nothing about them before going to the gig.  After agreeing to go with my dad, I didn't even get around to checking them out beforehand on YouTube.  There was no point, since I was committed to seeing them anyway.  I'd vaguely assumed they must be a young band, since I'd never heard of them at all, but when the support act said he'd opened for them at a previous concert nineteen years ago I realised they couldn't be all that young.  When they trooped on stage they weren't, apart from the fiddle player who looked as though he should still be at school.  It emerged in the subsequent stage chat that by day he was a dentist, another reminder that the medical profession is getting younger and younger.  First vets, and now dentists, albeit Irish dentists that played the fiddle on the side.  Checking out their website afterwards, I saw that he was a stand-in fiddler, since he wasn't the guy named on their site who had been with them since 1986.

The name of the band was Craobh Rua.  It's pronounced Crave roo-ah, and translates as Red Branch. All four band members came from Belfast, but their name, and the fact that their opening and closing greetings to the crowd were in gaelic, gives you an idea of where their sensibilities lie. They referred to themselves throughout as Irish.  I was brought up listening to my dad's collection of Irish music and loved it.  To me it was just that, Irish music, and it came as a real shock when I eventually saw on the TV news some Republican prisoners being released from jail, all carrying bodhrans, and I suddenly realised that even in making music you were making a sectarian statement.

Craobh Rua were splendidly traditional.  The leader and co-founder of the band played the banjo and mandolin (not at the same time, obviously.  The banjo is a great instrument, despite the prevalence of banjoist jokes.  What do you call a banjo in a skip?  A start.  Cruel).  Then there was a uilleann piper who doubled on the tin whistle, a guitarist who took lead vocals, and the moonlighting dentist fiddler.  They played traditional tunes, sang traditional songs, had a good line in chat, and played everything absolutely straight.  Splendid drive, timing, harmonies, the lot (though I would have liked a bodhran if they'd have one) and no jazz fusion, klezmer influence or any other world music, cross-genre indulgences.  It was great.  Not that I don't like a spot of jazz and klezmer fusion (it drives jazz fans potty when non-jazz people use the term jazz so loosely, and the rest of us know exactly what we mean) but it is refreshing not to get it all the time.

So if you can get yourself to Hitchin, or Nettlebed, or any of the other venues on the rest of their tour, you should have a very nice evening.

The main problem with live music is the rest of the audience.  This can't be strictly true, since my dad and I would have felt very silly sitting in the middle of an otherwise empty Arts Centre while failing to enjoy a private command performance from Craobh Rua.  But why can't other people be more like us?  Or, in this case, why can't the Arts Centre serve drinkable beer?  Through the course of the first half I kept getting strong whiffs of a very disagreeable vinegary smell, which after a while I began to pin down to the half pint of brownish liquid the man on my left was holding.  I presume it had been sold to him in the guise of beer, and to judge from the smell it was the most off, rancid, frankly disgusting half being served in the whole of Colchester.  In the interval he went and got himself a refill.  Unless the smell was him, and not his drink.  The coughing from the woman behind me was enough to make you think it was the beginning of the next SARS outbreak. At least there was no out-of-time clapping along to the music.  I've said it before, Irish music in concert doesn't need clapping.  If they had wanted a percussion section they would have brought a bodhran player.

Monday, 18 March 2013

a quiet day

Things were quiet at work over the weekend, spring open days not withstanding.  I was afraid they would be.  This morning some thin and watery sunshine broke through, as the overnight freezing fog cleared, and I thought wistfully that it would have been helpful if it had been like that on Saturday.  Though really what we need is several days of decent weather.  Most people, setting to work on their gardens, don't start by rushing out to buy plants on day one.  Or at least, you might pop in to a garden centre for the odd treat, to reward yourself for the slog of getting things tidied up, but on the whole you can't really see where the gaps are, and what has died or become hideously senile or could be split until you've done some preparatory work.

My colleague, whose working days don't normally coincide with mine nowadays, but who was in to provide cover for the manager who was taking a delayed weekend after working for seven days on the trot, attached sinister significance to the fact that all the customers on our mailing list, who had been sent details of the open days and hadn't come in over the weekend, weren't there on Monday morning either when the sun was shining, but I thought that was overly pessimistic. They've missed the free tea and cake, and the talk and guided walk.

The owners have got two new pets, in the form of a pair of Norfolk Black turkeys.  They are currently confined to a coop in front of the house, while they imprint on their new home, but are apparently for life and not just for Christmas.  I haven't been to see them yet, but am told they are extremely large.  The woman who works in the office is wary of them, in case they turn out to be as unfriendly as the late Eric the rooster, who used to attack her when she got out of her car, since the turkeys are about four times the size of Eric.  The young gardener wondered where they were going to live at night, since he didn't think they would fit through the pop-hole of the chicken house, and wasn't sure they'd get on with the chickens.

I struggled to remember whether I had read anything useful about the nocturnal habits of turkeys.  I vaguely thought there was something in the autobiography of the father of journalist turned independent MP Martin Bell, but from what I could recall it wasn't very encouraging, since I think those turkeys attempted to roost in some trees, and the farmer and Martin Bell's father had to poke them out of the trees and shoo them into the barn, because if they roosted in the trees in the rain they would catch cold and die.  I cannot see the boss going out each evening with a broomstick to chase his turkeys out of the trees, and if that is the level of care they require I fear they are doomed.  The fearfully upmarket commune at the other end of the village has some turkeys, and one of the people who helps with the potting lives there, so the owners should ask her advice.

Meanwhile, the new young dog is still not house-trained and has been confined to the kitchen.  I find it about as difficult to imagine the boss taking her to puppy obedience classes as I do to see him chasing his turkeys out of the trees at night, but it would probably do them both good.  She likes to come into the shop, and it is going to be embarrassing if she wees in there, let alone in the cafe.

My job for the day was to tidy up the Hemerocallis, which entailed pulling off very small dead leaves, removing the odd pathetic little plant of hairy bittercress, scraping off any moss and sprinkling the pots with fresh compost.  The sun went in again by mid-morning, and I got very cold doing it.  Either that, or I am developing a cold.  Time will tell.