Friday, 31 May 2013

the old ones are the best ones

We saw an absorbing little piece of cinema history last night.  Strictly speaking it was not cinema but television, since it was made as a Play for Today, back in the days when the BBC used to do one-off high quality dramas.  However, when I tell you that it was an early piece by Mike Leigh, and that I heard about it in a review for the film Sightseers, which was released last year, you'll see why I regard it as part of cinema history.

It was called Nuts in May, and can be hired from Lovefilm as part of a set of Plays for Today, and watched in the comfort of your own home.  It has been awarded a very respectable 8.0 out of 10 by 917 users of IMDb, which sounds fair to me.  Not bad going for a 36 year old made-for-television drama.  That's slightly more than Atonement (7.8) and a lot more than Twighlight (5.2). Sightseers, the black comedy about a camping holiday which sparked this foray into the past scores 6.6, but has only chalked up 42 user ratings so far.  We haven't watched that one yet.

Nuts in May features a middle class couple camping in Dorset.  The husband is humourless and controlling, the wife earnest and down-trodden.  Their relaxing stay on a campsite is deranged by the arrival of two sets of uncongenial neighbours.  Don't read the Wikipedia entry, or even the full IMDb description, until you've seen the film, since they are full of plot spoilers.  It is such a slow-build, atmospheric piece that it would be a shame to know any of the action at all in advance, but suffice it to say that after the first ten minutes you feel that something awful is going to happen, and that almost anything could.  Seldom have I seen such a small cast using such slender resources, three tents, a car and the Dorset countryside, build and sustain such  a palpable sense of dramatic tension.

The interplay of conflicting characters reminded me strongly of Ayckbourn, and the atmosphere somewhat of Rainy Day Women, another Play for Today from 1984, whose tapes seem sadly lost. We saw it on TV at the time, and I'd love to track down a copy, but don't think such a thing exists. It's interesting, if you've enjoyed Mike Leigh's more recent output, which I have, to see where he started, and how much he's changed in the past thirty years.

Nuts in May features a young Alison Steadman, already showing her colours as a commanding screen presence, but the whole cast is good, and the entire production is so redolent of the 1970s that if you were there you may feel faintly hysterical.  The flares, the platforms, the cheesecloth smocks, the bad folk music, the ethnic shoulder bags, the grotty tents.  Last night brought it all flooding back.

I'd strongly recommend you get hold of a copy and watch it.  You will find it 84 minutes well spent.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

unions and taxes

I went today with my mother and nephew to visit the National Gallery.  My nephew is seven, and extremely keen on art.  Wivenhoe has been celebrating its branch railway's one hundred and fiftieth anniversary, and he not only won the children't art competition, but designed the anniversary poster on the station platform.  He admires Van Gogh and Monet, but didn't think that the Constable painting saved for the nation was worth forty million pounds on the strength of the photograph in The Times, though he knows that Constable tended to put a flash of red in his pictures.

The trains ran to time, and the buses weren't too slow, and we all enjoyed looking at the paintings. Our visit covered a fair span of art history, since we saw Velasquez (that Habsburg chin), Gainsborough, Stubbs (rearing Arab stallion on a gold ground), Turner (early and late), Van Gogh, Sisley, Monet, Rousseau (tiger), and loads more besides.  We couldn't have looked at any more paintings.

What was very annoying, even though we had looked at as many pictures as our brains would hold, was that quite a few rooms were closed due to industrial action.  We couldn't see any of the Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century, which are among my favourites, or the Uccello which my mother particularly wanted to revisit, or the entire Sainsbury wing, which my nephew wanted to go to after previous trips with his other granny.  Actually, I fancied seeing Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks again, having contributed to the public appeal to buy it.  The whole of the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery, which houses the twentieth century portraits, was closed as well.

What on earth is the point of industrial action in the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery by members of the PCS union?  There is no more money.  Do they imagine that people working in the private sector are getting pay rises, or are not being asked to do more work with fewer people? It made me very cross.  It made my mother very cross as well, though by unspoken mutual consent we agreed to look at the rooms we could see, and not throw a huge strop in front of my nephew.  It was a completely pointless and useless gesture which spoiled other peoples' days out, will achieve absolutely nothing, wins them no public sympathy, and has not received any press attention at all.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has picked up on another pointless action by public servants, which I'd been meaning to blog about for a few days since hearing about it from the Systems Administrator. I do not normally read the Mail, but Googled the story after hearing a mention of it in The Today Programme's round-up of the papers.

A great friend of the SA has become treasurer of his local cricket club.  He recently received a request from the Inland Revenue to come and inspect the club's books.  The SA's friend suggested that, while they could look at the books, it would not be a very productive exercise, given that the club leases its premises and has no employees.  The Inspector insisted that he wanted to look at the books, and would meet the treasurer in his office at the ground.  The SA's friend said that he did not have an office at the ground, and that if they went there the pavilion would probably be locked, so if the Inspector insisted on visiting he had better come to his house.  The Inspector duly did (a nice day out of the office, travelling from Cambridge to Hitchin).  The only thing he could find in the books was that eight years ago they employed an overseas player.  The SA's friend, who is a chartered accountant, queried the relevance of this, given the six year cut-off for pursuing back taxes.  The Inspector harumphed about how, if they employed anybody else, they must be sure to pay income tax and national insurance, and went back to Cambridge.  Like I said, a nice day out.

The System's Administrator's friend chatted to some other treasurers of local sports clubs and discovered that they'd been inspected by HMRC as well.  According to today's Mail, this is part of a concerted campaign by the tax authorities to collect unpaid tax from local sports clubs.  Some of them have been paying small amounts to people on a casual basis for bar work and cleaning.  Others have paid as much as a hundred and twenty five pounds a year for out-of-pocket expenses to members who have put up visiting players overnight.  HMRC has put in claims for back tax for as many years as it can, and shock, horror, one club owed a whole £15,500 in back taxes!  Its members had to take out a loan to pay it.

The Mail is indignant about this chiefly because it represents an assault on village life.  That makes me cross, but what really made me angry when the SA first told me about the great tax investigation into village cricket is that it is such a blatantly inefficient use of the tax inspectorate's finite resources.  If they are trying to track down the billions in unpaid tax that we, the people, could really do with being paid, they are not going to find it secreted among the amateur sports clubs of the Home Counties.  On the other hand, how pleasant to spend several weeks inspecting cricket clubs.  No risk there of meeting really scary lawyers, or dangerous hard men with rottweilers.  No, there will be nothing more threatening than some exasperated retired chartered accountants, and maybe a few Rotarians.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

brief news from north essex

This will be an extremely quick blog post, since I have all of forty minutes to write it, change out of my gardening clothes, wash the mud off my face, and grab something to eat before going to a beekeepers' Tendring Show sub-committee.  Mind you, brevity can be a good thing.  Yesterday's post did probably go on a bit.

Early this morning I heard a skylark, and looking up saw it high over the neighbouring field.  There used to be lots of skylarks, and I think there are not so many since the field was taken out of set-aside and put back into agricultural production: potatoes this year.  But the farm leaves some grass headlands, and the larks cling on.

Simultaneously from the lettuce field came the sound of Eastern European music.  The hedge is now in full leaf, and I can't see quite what the lettuce brigade are up to, without sticking my head into the hedge and peering through, which I haven't bothered to do.  I think they finished picking that field a couple of days ago, so presume that today's music was to cheer the workers while they followed the automatic planter firming down any stray plugs.  It was strange, wild music, or at least strange to me.  To the lettuce pickers it presumably sounded comfortingly familiar and normal.  It had echoes of Klezmer, and echoes of some of the Middle Eastern music I used to listen to when R3 broadcast World Routes at a sensible time on weekend afternoons, instead of at ten at night.  I don't know if they are picking up a radio station or bringing their own music, but there didn't seem to be any ad breaks.  I find it rather touching that they choose that rather than the universal sound of Beyonce or Jessie J.

I was really struggling there to think of any contemporary pop acts, let alone how to spell them. Shame I still haven't cracked accents on Blogspot.

The Agapanthus came out of its pot eventually.  I had to use the bread knife to saw through the lower part of the rootball, to reduce it to a cylinder that would fit through the top of the pot.  Even then, I had to hammer it out using a wooden spoon handle poked through the drainage hole and wedged against the crock, while I hit it repeatedly with a mallet.  When I came into the house to get the bread knife, I discovered the Systems Administrator had brought the freshly made up frames in from the workshop and piled them on my desk.  I did not want to deal with the frames at that moment, and thought I'd better shut the study door to keep the cats out, assuming that none of them were already in there.  I couldn't find the fat indignant tabby, and that, My Lord, is why I was wandering around the house holding a knife and asking whether the Systems Administrator had seen Smilla.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

a day in the glass shed

The day promised to be wet, so I thought I might as well settle down and start sorting out the greenhouse, rather than start off working outside, and spend the first half of the morning wondering how hard it had to rain before I admitted defeat and gathered up my tools.  The greenhouse had got into rather a muddle.  I think this is the inevitable tendency of greenhouses, and by extension all covered growing areas, to judge from the polytunnels I've seen at work, and on a nursery visit organised by the Hardy Plant Society.

The tunnel on the far side of the car park, where customers are not admitted, but things that have been potted up or potted on are grown and  extra stock there isn't room for in the walled garden is held, is periodically tidied and reverts inexorably each time to chaos.  Newly potted iris, or geraniums, or whatever they are, are lined on the freshly swept Mypex fabric, and look incredibly neat and tidy.  While they root in, weed seeds land and germinate on the compost, and liverwort forms on the tops of the pots.  As the best and most advanced ones are taken out for sale, the remaining pots become increasingly gappy.  Some flower and run to seed, or even start to die down, without being sold in that season, since that's the nature of retailing.  A few fail to thrive, and never come up, or make a sad little attempt at growing some inadequate leaves, until eventually the manager pronounces them doomed.

The tunnel at work is generally pretty tidy, barring the problem corner, of which there always seems to be one.  Not so the commercial nursery I visited a few years ago.  That has since ceased trading, though I believe its difficulties were compounded by the tendency of the manager to drink away his takings in the local pub.  He had several polytunnels, all of them filled with a bewildering jumble of healthy shrubs and climbers, and plants so hopelessly old and pot bound that they were no longer fit for sale.  The spaces between the tunnels were a similar mixture of the good and the moribund.

So it goes in a greenhouse or tunnel used for propagation.  Plants start off, reach a peak of health and vigour, then decline if not potted on, and sometimes even then.  Things die, sometimes due to errors in watering, since it isn't practicable to lift every pot to check how wet each is, or the gardener misunderstands their needs.  Weeds take hold.  The greenhouse owner needs to be on top of the weeds, and the potting on, and it all takes time.

I was meaning to repot the dahlias this year.  I thought they could do with some fresh compost, and even bought a couple of bales in readiness.  Then I ended up running late with everything in the garden, because of the cold spring, and the dahlias still weren't repotted by the middle of May.  I worried that it was too late to do them now, since they must have started making roots, while simultaneously worrying that I had not watered them enough, and the tubers would have shrivelled and died.  I had been going very easy on the watering, given that in my mind they were still winter dormant and awaiting repotting.  Logically, I should have worried about one thing or the other, since they could not be simultaneously rooting into their old compost and shrivelling to nothing, but sometimes logic, like goodness, has nothing to do with it.

Some of the dahlias had made little shoots a few centimetres tall, while most of the others had shoots close to the surface of the compost, when I scrabbled around.  I decided they'd have to be top dressed and dosed lavishly with liquid feed, and that repotting would have to wait until next year.  Which does at least save me a job and quite a lot of compost.  A couple had failed, and investigating the pots I found a complete absence of roots, and vine weevil grubs among the compost.  The dead dahlias, plus their compost and weevils, went in bags to go to the tip.  Three poor little tubers I bought weeks ago, which had been sitting in their packets in the study ever since, proved to be still alive, slightly shrivelled but with tiny obstinate leaf shoots.  I was surprised and relieved in equal measure, and potted them up.  It is shameful for anyone who works in horticulture to be so remiss, but it has been a frantic, late spring and they just didn't get done when they should have been.

Some overwintering seed raised herbaceous plants, that I didn't manage to find a home for in the garden last year, died quietly in their pots.  It was a very long, cold winter, and it's hard to know how wet to keep pots. I may have erred on the side of caution, and let them dry out too far, or they may have ended up sitting wet.  Spent compost that is free from vine weevils goes on the compost heap.  Other plants I was afraid had died surprised me pleasantly by emerging into growth, so there were gains as well as losses.  An Anemone rivularis bought a couple of years ago from Avon Bulbs, which has alway teetered close to death, amazed me by sending forth several leaves.  I think that had definitely better take its chances in border soil sooner rather than later.  I had a bad run with potting around that time, and suspect that whatever reduced peat compost I was using was not up to the job.  There are some awful composts around, and even keeping a careful note of what brand you've used doesn't help, since the manufacturers keep switching ingredients and suppliers, or so a Which report on composts concluded.

Many but not all of the overwintering pelargoniums survived, and are producing new leaves now the weather's warmer.  I picked off the old, brown leaves, cut out the dead stems, and soaked them lavishly with liquid seaweed solution.  They will need feeding regularly through the summer.  It is so easy just to water everything with the hose to save time, I am not so good at feeding my potted plants as I should be.  I was shocked at how dry some of the pelargoniums were, since I have been watering them since the weather warmed up, but clearly not enough.

My final challenge for the day, which I did not complete, was to remove a potbound Agapanthus from its container without breaking the latter.  The pot is a rather nice one with a pie crust top, while the Agapanthus is a nameless hybrid picked out because it was a good, dark shade of blue.  I decided that on balance I attached more value to the pot than the plant.  Getting the plant out while keeping the pot intact is proving slow and difficult work, partly because Agapanthus roots tend to hang on to terracotta, but mainly because I had committed the cardinal error of potting something that would in due course need repotting in a pot that was narrower at the top than it was further down.  Don't do that.  If you are potting a long-lived species that you hope may grow, use a traditional flower pot shaped pot out of which the rootball will slide relatively easily, when the time comes.  Save the ones with wide middles and narrower necks for annual pretties which will simply be hauled out and composted when they've finished doing their stuff.  I speak as one who knows.

Monday, 27 May 2013

working holiday

We were lucky with the weather for the Bank Holiday, since today was originally forecast to be rainy, instead of which we got brilliant sunshine.  Plant retailing is desperately weather dependent, and if it's pouring with rain, cold, and windy, that puts a lot of customers off.  You can't blame them.  My gardening timetable slips in spells of bad weather, and I am a fanatic, so you can't expect the merely keen or conscientious to do any better.

The first task after watering was to finish unloading the van load of plants left over from the Helmigham plant fair yesterday.  Our sales were quite good, but we didn't sell everything. According to the manager, who was there but in his capacity as a plant expert rather than manning our stand, it was mainly the really unusual stuff that was selling.  The man selling shrubby peonies sold practically all of them, although they were close to thirty quid each, but stallholders with more run-of-the-mill offerings didn't do so well.  In fact the manager did end up on our stall for half an hour, since he went in the early afternoon to see how the person who was running it was getting on, and discovered they'd had no breaks at all, and had been dying for a pee for the previous two hours.  In their place I'd have just grabbed the cash box, asked the person on the next stand to keep an eye on my plants for ten minutes, and gone to the loo.  Maybe this is one reason why I have never been asked to help at any of the shows we attend.

I did think about going to the Helmingham fair, but decided against it, because I had so much work to do in the garden, and didn't really need unusual plants that much.  What I need is ground cover, as the foliage of the existing planting fills out and I can see where there are still gaps, and I might as well get that at work.

The Paeonia rockii in the border has come out.  It is a superlatively beautiful species, and the owner warned us that the boss was trying to get some plants for us to sell in the autumn, but they would retail at around the hundred pounds mark.  One customer asked me whether we had that peony in the border, but when I told her about the hundred pounds, she didn't want one.

The owner had organised for a young lad to come and staff the cafe.  This was his first day, and he seemed to get the hang of it very well, though he cut an incongruous figure with his little blue apron over his incredibly skinny and low slung jeans.  I found myself wondering whether they were normal jeans, merely worn so low as to expose fully six inches of underpant at the rear, or whether they were cut unusually low in the crutch to achieve that halfway down the thighs look.  If the Systems Administrator and I had teenagers ourselves I suppose I'd be au fait with that sort of thing.

The white peahen has laid an egg or eggs for the first time, but has chosen to make her nest part way down the garden near the pond.  Given the strength of the local fox population that isn't a good idea. Her mother always nested in the raised planter right outside the office door, which exposed her to human scrutiny but was relatively fox-proof.  It is all rather incestuous, since the father is the white peahen's own father.  The boss declines to have more than one peacock on the premises, and the chick that turned out to be another cock a couple of years ago was re-homed with a man who came on a garden walk.  You can't be too careful in your dealings with the plant centre, go along on an innocent guided tour and the next thing you know you have acquired a peacock.  I only went there originally to go shopping.

By the time I got home my face felt as though I had caught the sun, although I had worn my Tilley hat outside.  Maybe the sun reflected up off the gravel.  It is strong by now, with less than a month to go to the longest day.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

sweet music

Sometimes, when things go your way, you know that later on they won't.  So I delighted in Radio 3's Baroque Spring earlier this year.  I love the Baroque, much more than the Systems Administrator, and out of deference to the SA's feelings I only occasionally put Scarlatti or Soler on the CD player in the evenings.  It was a real treat to be able to flick on Radio 3 at any hour of the day, and weed and prune to the strains of Boccherini or one of the Bachs.

Now it's payback time, and Radio 3 is doing Wagner.  I'm not a huge Wagner fan, apart from the scene in Apocalypse Now when the helicopters are swooping in for attack.  Wagner absorbed a great hunk of Rob Cowan's show in the morning, and all of this afternoon was given over to Lohengrin.  If somebody would take me to Glyndebourne, and I could sit through Lohengrin wearing an extremely glamorous evening dress (not that I possess such a thing) while being continuously plied with champagne and smoked salmon, I wouldn't mind watching Lohengrin just once, for the experience, but I don't want to listen to it on the radio while I'm weeding.

Venturing out across the digital airwaves, it was a great surprise and pleasure to discover that Charlotte Green can now be found on Classic FM on Sunday afternoons, introducing a great composer.  Today's subject was Felix Mendelsshon.  I like Mendelsshon, and I adore Charlotte Green.  I've missed only hearing her doing the clips on the odd News Quiz, since she gave up regular R4 continuity work.  The programme format assumes that the listener knows practically nothing about the composer's life or work, but Charlotte Green sounds so nice that I didn't mind being talked to as though I were a slightly slow eleven year old, and in truth I don't know much about Mendelsshon.  As it was Charlotte I was even ready to forgive her mentioning the name of the radio station every three minutes or so.  Mendelsshon's work, tuneful, upbeat, and downright pretty, is excellent music for weeding to on a sunny day when you have loads to do.

Satie is very good for winter pruning, by the way. There is something about the meditative, mournful cadences of the Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes which exactly suits the moment, standing outside in temperatures only a few degrees about freezing, and contemplating which stems to remove.

At five I thought I'd see if there was any news on Radio 4, but what I got was Face the Facts, an investigation into drug resistant superbugs.  I suppose Face the Facts always has the five o'clock slot on Sundays, and thinking about it I often catch the second part of it in the car on the way home from work, when we finish at five rather than six.  But today is Bank Holiday Sunday.  Do people really want to think about drug resistant superbugs in the middle of their holiday weekend, or wouldn't they prefer something a little more cheerful?  I retreated back to Classic FM and their classical chart.

My aunt, who is a professional musician, cannot understand why I listen to music while working in the garden.  Was gardening so boring, she enquired.  She doesn't like music to be used as a background to other activities, and refuses to have it playing in her studio when she teaches Pilates.  Gardening is not boring at all, but routine maintenance leaves enough of one's brain over to be able to think about something else as well.  I use radio programmes partly as samplers, and if I like a composer or piece I can buy the album, and listen to it properly.  Though that's easier with the Romantics (big enthusiastic tick from the SA) than the Baroque, or Haydn and Schubert string quartets (boring according to the SA).

My bank holiday weekend comes to a halt tonight, since I'm working tomorrow as usual.  The thought that I am on double time will sustain me.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

a lovely day

We needed yesterday's rain.  Today, everything was washed clean, and practically growing in front of my eyes in the sunshine, and it was a pleasure to be outside.  I pressed on with the gravel behind the long bed, planting out the rest of my tray of alpines, and most of the second large lump of sempervivum, before being distracted by the temptation to go on weeding.

There is something compulsive about pulling weeds out of gravel.  It must trigger ancient monkey grooming instincts buried deep within the human psyche.  After the rain, the roots of the creeping sorrel pulled out in satisfying long threads, and the tufts of grass parted company effortlessly from the soil.  I do want to get the sorrel and the grass out before their seeds can ripen, but the appeal of weeding went beyond the rational.

I trimmed a fair amount off the ivy hedge while I was at it.  The trouble with ivy as a hedge, if it is growing well, is that shoots run out over the ground at the same rate as they grow in the hedge. You have to go round both sides of the hedge, pulling them up and cutting them off.  By the end of today I'd almost filled the big garden trailer, and I hadn't even started on the side of the hedge inside the flowerbed.  Another issue with ivy used in this way is that eventually patches of it shift to the mature, flowering and fruiting form.  The ivy then sends strong shoots upwards and outwards, which disrupt the smooth line of the hedge compared to its early years when it consisted entirely of juvenile foliage.  The mature shoots are difficult to trim to give a regular outline, and occur only sporadically, so the hedge assumes an increasingly motley appearance.

Probably box would have been better.  Assuming I'd ever managed to keep it trimmed, which I almost certainly wouldn't have.  I haven't even finished cutting the small box hedge around the hybrid tea roses, which has got much too fat on one side, and the two topiary yews have got whiskery tops.  I need a day when it is not blowing a gale to trim them.

I dosed the alpines in the gravel with a dusting of blood, fish and bone, and sprinkled some round the Malus tschonoskii.  This is a narrow, columnar crab apple, chosen for that position in the gravel for its shape and its ability to tolerate poor soil.  The leaves go a good colour in autumn, but the flowers and fruit are both negligible.  Ours has proved a good tree for a tricky site, and on that basis I'm grateful to it, though it isn't a plant to set your pulse beating faster.  In my early years as a gardener, the seductive lure of the special plant was very strong.  Now that I'm middle aged, and have been gardening in a serious way for more than a quarter of a century, I'm more inclined to think in terms of what will do well here.  The answer might be something not often seen in gardens, or a deeply prosaic bread and butter plant.  Something common, grown well, is more satisfying than a struggling rarity that's barely living.

The Malus 'Red Sentinel' need the blood, fish and bone treatment.  One in particular is in a vein of particularly bad soil that you can see run through the boundary hedge and on into the long bed where poor 'Professor Sprenger' died.  So do the ivy hedge around the bed by the entrance, and the thin patch in the boundary hedge.  I'd better do that tomorrow, since by Tuesday it's forecast to be raining heavily again.

The Systems Administrator kindly offered to make up some more beehive frames for me.  They come as boxes of machined wood components, which fit together with a sheet of wax with wire embedded in it to give it strength when you lift it out of the hive to inspect the bees.  It's a slightly fiddly job fitting all the little pieces of wood into their right slots, and tacking them together, and I was resigned to having to stop gardening mid afternoon to have time to do it.  The SA made only one trifling miscalculation, which was to leave the workshop door open.  In due course a bee turned up, presumably having smelt the wax, and after ten minutes there were three or four bees, and then six or seven in the workshop, and the SA realised it was time to beat the retreat and put the wax in the house with the doors closed.  This is why the beekeepers' candle making day has to be held in winter or fairly early spring, before the bees are flying.

Addendum  I was sorry to read of the row about judging at Chelsea that has broken out publicly between one of the judges, the other judges, and some of the exhibitors.  It is very un-British, like challenging the umpire at cricket.  And Northampton rugby club had to play the whole of the second half of their league final with only fourteen men, after their captain was sent off for swearing at the referee (they lost).  Keep a stiff upper lip, and keep mum.

Friday, 24 May 2013

bulbs good, housework bad

The cleaning caught up with me, as I knew it would.  I have wiped the kitchen worktops, and the cupboard doors, and scrubbed at the Aga with proprietary cleaner, and the sinks with Mr Muscle for kitchens, and washed the floor.  It was not the heaviest grade blitz, since I didn't clear out the fridge or wash the pottery on the shelf over the Aga, but I did wipe the chair legs where the cats have rubbed against them and left a film of grease, and spent a long time winkling grease and fluff out of some of the Aga's more obscure interstices.  The man who sold it to us told us a cautionary tale of discovering that one of his customers was in the habit of shoving a knitting needle through the front grille and perilously close to the electrics, in her attempts to extract fluff, but I can't say I'm surprised.

The Systems Administrator was sufficiently moved by my display of domestic activity to volunteer to do the vacuuming, and collected five boxfuls of dirt, mainly cat fur.  I am trying to decide whether this entitles me to cross Clean Sitting Room off the list without my dusting it, or whether that would be cheating.  I am sure it needs a wipe, but I don't like dusting.

There is a strange seed pod on the mantelpiece, green, nobbly, and fully 10 centimetres long, with a deep groove down one side which suggests that at some stage it may burst open, Alien like.  It is from Araujia sericifera, the Cruel Plant.  Some time ago a customer brought a similar pod in to work, for the boss to identify, and it was proclaimed to be from the Cruel Plant, which gets its name from the fact that it is moth pollinated, at night, and has the habit of seizing hold of the poor moth's proboscis and holding it captive until morning.  The pod sat in the office, until it spectacularly split open and a mass of silky seeds burst out.  Nobody seemed to want them, so I took some home to try and germinate them.  The plant now growing in our conservatory is the result.

I have only ever seen two or three flowers on my plant, though one of those must have managed to do its cruel thing with a moth.  They were very high up, small, pale coloured and utterly unremarkable.  However, there is a nice symmetry to having arrived back at a seed pod.  The Systems Administrator appears rather nervous of it.

Now it is a toss-up between summoning the energy to go and clean the downstairs cloakroom, and settling down with the Kevock on-line catalogue.  They have a marvellous list of bulbs, and a separate list of herbaceous plants and shrubs.  I can get quite a few of the latter from work, if I need them, or from Beth Chatto, and I am mainly interested in the bulbs, this time round.  The persistence of some fritillaries in the long bed makes me think that it would be worth planting more of the varieties which like free drainage and a summer baking.  The relative prices of bulbs give a pretty good clue about how easy they are to grow.  Seven pounds for 25 bulbs, they probably bulk up easily and are difficult to kill.  Eight pounds for one bulb, probably trickier to manage.

The temptation is to compare all prices with Peter Nyssen.  Their website will not accept bulb orders until the first of June, but is already available to view.  Eight pounds for 25 bulbs from Kevock versus £4.75 for the same thing from Peter Nyssen is a tough call, when I know Peter Nyssen's bulbs are of good quality.  But if keen gardeners like me don't support specialists like Kevock, they won't exist.  The trick to avoiding internal conflict is to order varieties from Kevock that Peter Nyssen simply don't do.  Avon Bulbs have sent their catalogue through the post, now in A4 size and beautifully produced.  They do lovely plants, but god, they are expensive compared to Peter Nyssen's wholesale prices.

The rain has finally stopped, and the sun come out, though too late for the chickens to have a run.  Poor chickens.  I suppose I had better clean the cloakroom, before hitting the bulb catalogues.

Thursday, 23 May 2013


This afternoon's anticipated rain barely materialised.  There were a few very light showers, scarcely wet enough for it to be worth packing up my tools and coming inside.  The garden's gain has been housework's loss, since I expected to have to give up gardening by lunchtime, and was resigned to spending the afternoon cleaning the kitchen.  Looking at the forecast I think I really will be stuck inside tomorrow, so I'll have no excuse for not doing it then.  The hall and the sitting room are looking pretty ropey as well, and the bedroom, en-suite bathroom and downstairs loo.  Though I do need to make up some brood frames and update my spreadsheet of things planted in the garden.

I still haven't finished planting my little tray of alpines in the gravel.  There is something seductive about weeding gravel, which produces a great temptation to do just another handful, then shuffle forwards until the handful has become another metre of clear ground.  The clear bareness of freshly weeded gravel is temporary, and illusory.  Unless planted up with ground covering plants, or dosed with the sort of persistent weed killers I don't use, it will soon be recolonised by a fresh crop of weeds, plus escapes from the borders like Geranium sanguineum.  I now have a template in my mind, taken from the Best-in-Show winning Australian garden at Chelsea, in which arid zone vegetation clustered so closely that no ground could be seen.  Obviously I can't use most of those plants, since they wouldn't be hardy in Essex, but I'm aiming for the same aesthetic.

So I have gone shooting half way up the back of the long bed, abandoning the tray behind me.  Further progress will be slower, partly because the gravel starts widening out so a linear metre of forwards progress covers two or three times as much ground, and partly because I have got to an area of thyme, which has been infiltrated by an annual grass, and that takes longer to weed out.  I don't know its name.  It is not Poa annua, but something taller and with more slender leaves.  The appearance of the grass popping up among the thyme slightly disproves the ground cover theory of weed control, since the thyme has not succeeded in suppressing it, but grass is persistent stuff.  If I can get it all out before it sets seed there should be less of it next year.

I'll finish planting out the alpines on Saturday, assuming it rains tomorrow.  I had to come in from the garden rather early tonight, because I'm off to the beekeepers monthly meeting, where the lecture will be on the subject of stings.  I have two requests for books from the library, and am concentrating furiously so as not to go out on autopilot without them.  The library is too large, and some of the books in it too out of date or downright unhygienic, for me to take all of them to meetings, but I will put a selection of the more relevant and sanitary books in a box and take them along, in case anyone wants to borrow anything.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

a question of priorities

Seeing all those plants so beautifully grown and presented at Chelsea always inspires me to press on with my own garden.  It isn't that I want to copy anything in particular, though I did note down the names of a few plants I'd like to grow if I can find a suitable space, more that the day reminds me how good plants and gardens can be.  The alternative reaction would be to grumble that my garden could never be remotely as good as that, and give up.

The tricky question is where to start.  Planting out the little accumulated stash of recently purchased plants by the front door seemed a good plan.  They have all been chosen with particular beds in mind, where I know there are gaps, and the sooner I plant them the faster they can start growing.  Once a plant has filled its pot with roots, most don't honestly like sitting there for even another week.  My aim is to cover the ground, so that annual weeds can't find space to germinate, and difficult to eradicate perennial weeds will be hidden.

I began with a box of low growing, drought tolerant perennials destined for the gravel in the front garden.  Unfortunately the gravel has by now amassed a crop of spindly grasses and other weeds, which I had to pull out before I could plant, so progress was slow.  I told myself that once the perennials spread to form a continuous mat the weeds would get much less of a look in, but by lunchtime I'd only planted out a few handfulls from a big clump of un-named, seed raised sempervivum, which I'd had in a clay pan until the pot disintegrated in the frosts.  I thought that rather than repotting it as a lump, if I divided it up and used it as ground cover it would cover quite a lot of space.  Still waiting to go in are the three Antennaria, the trio of alpine Phlox, and the prostrate Gypsophila, plus three more pans of houseleeks, and assorted succulents rescued from a failed experiment in creating a green roof on the pot shed.

Maybe weeding and planting is not the most urgent thing.  There are mysterious patches of die-back in the prostrate juniper by the front door, a rosemary in the turning circle, and part of the ivy hedge around the long bed, while Malus x zumi 'Professor Sprenger' planted at the same end of the long bed has failed utterly.  Probably I ought to remove the dead wood as my top priority.  I don't know what is causing them to die.  The soil in the front garden is extremely odd, and the lettuce farmer ended up fallowing the next door field for several years to try and build up its fertility, after his first crop of lettuces on it proved uncommercially erratic.  He said that there were patches through the field where the crop simply refused to grow.  The deaths are not all down to it being a former orchard, which as I now know are notorious spots for honey fungus, in that the rosemary and juniper are close to the house and well away from where the apple trees were, in what was already garden.

The edges in the back garden are whiskery in places.  Letting the edges go undermines the whole look of the garden.  Perhaps, before planting out ground cover and cutting out dead wood, I should cut all the lawn edges.  Except that the goose grass is running up in places, and I should definitely remove that before it can seed, and because it looks so ostentatiously messy.  And a willow tree that was trimmed with the Systems Administrator's help back in the winter has suddenly flopped branches down in front of a couple of the hydrangeas in the ditch bed.  They are not getting enough light, and will grow out of shape, which is a structural problem more lasting than whiskery edges, so should I trim the willow before pulling out the goose grass?

It makes the idea of building a Chelsea show garden seem positively straightforward.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

the greatest flower show on earth

The Chelsea flower show was wonderful.  We've been recording the TV programmes about it, and will sit down to watch them in a minute.  Really the media coverage nowadays is so comprehensive that there isn't a lot of point my adding to it on the blog.  Without photos.

Initial impressions.  The bag checks on the way in were perfunctory.  I could have had a small pearl handled revolver in my handbag and the security guard who glanced inside it would never have noticed.  And the RHS has doubled the price of show programmes to ten pounds.

Apart from that it was all jolly nice.  Recession seems to be biting slightly, either that, or the disinclination of large corporations to be seen to be associated with conspicuous consumption and elitist activities, since trade stands and catering occupied some spaces which I'm sure used to contain show gardens, in the sunny upland years before the global banking crisis.  This year's standard was very high, and the Gold Medal quota was higher than ever, but almost everyone played it safe in design terms.  Plenty of soft-edge modernist, interlocking rectangles softened with abundant but harmonious planting, some nods to the Arts and Crafts movement, nothing that represented a decisive break from gardens I've seen before at Chelsea, many times.

My favourite bit is the pavilion, and when the Systems Administrator and I divide forces for a while, as we always do, I spend my time looking at the plant stands rather than the show gardens.  I have no idea how you stage exhibits like those with clematis and why they don't break in transit or while you are trying to put the stand up.  Broadleigh Bulbs have ceased exhibiting, as they said they would, but Kevock are exciting new kids on the block, there for the second year.  This year I must buy some of their fritillaries.  Other favourites were still represented, thank goodness.  Auriculas, them reckless plants, as Margery Fish's old gardener used to call them.

I checked my phone mid morning, as I'd felt it buzz.  Bloms had sent me an e-mail to say they had won their 63rd Gold at Chelsea.  I already knew that, since I'd seen it.  Peter Beales and David Austin roses both got Golds as well.  Phew.  Poor Peter Beales is dead now.  He was too ill to attend for the past couple of years and used to be represented by his straw hat.  The hat was there again this year, with a nice photograph of him, presumably taken during the set up for a show, since he is wearing a high-vis vest.

We bumped into one of my friends from work, with her friend, who is a committed galanthophile and stalwart of the Suffolk branch of Plant Heritage.  I didn't meet the boss and the owner, but given the crowds it is fairly unlikely you'll run across anyone you know.  We sometimes meet former City colleagues, contacts and competitors, but not today.

It was quite cold.  It wasn't forecast to be warm, and we'd gone dressed accordingly, but I kept my wind proof coat zipped up for most of the day, over my heavyweight Icelandic sweater, and at times I wished I'd had a hat and scarf.  And gloves.  My hands got astonishingly cold at one point.  They tend to be chilly, which probably accounts for my relative success at making pastry.

I didn't buy or order any plants, though I did get a catalogue from Lockyers, purveyors of reckless plants.  They don't have a website.  Or accept credit cards or PayPal.  The Systems Administrator bought me a present, a Dutch stainless steel sharp thing with a cherry wood handle for scraping weeds out from between paving stones.  For the full Kiplingesque effect I ought to use a broken dinner knife, but a Sneeboer stone scratcher will be more effective.

Having arrived at nine, by half past four I had to admit that I'd seen most of it (though I managed to miss the iconoclastic gnomes) and that it was getting too crowded.  I left on a high, but after sitting on the tube all the way back to Liverpool Street, when I had to get up again I realised that my clockwork had run down.

Monday, 20 May 2013

capable of working without supervision

The manager informed us that our newest plant centre recruit has handed in his notice, as he has got a place on a training course at Cambridge Botanic.  He lasted eighteen months, which I fear is as long as we can expect to get from a sparky and competent youngster.  It is a great opportunity for him, since he'll learn a lot at Cambridge Botanic, and it will look good on his CV.  Working in the plant centre doesn't really offer any opportunities for career advancement.  It is a role for people who have done something else with their lives first, and have reached a stage when they can afford to hang out with plants for rather little money.  Since my shortly-to-be-departing colleague is thoroughly competent, and is the only full time member of staff in the plant centre, apart from the manager himself, the manager is understandably depressed about losing him.

Meanwhile, the continued chilly and dull weather means that sales are below what they should be for the time of year.  Much, much better than they were in the winter, but falling short of the seasonal norm.  The loss of one of his more reliable members of staff, and the dismal reality of finding trade once again hit by the weather, after only a month of boom, and the misfortune of having put his back out, combined to depress the manager's mood.  A small miasma of gloom surrounded him all day, and threatened to spread to the rest of us.

I removed myself to a safe distance, and finished putting the roses out for sale.  I don't know how many there were, since I stopped counting when I got to forty pots, but there were lots.  They had been unloaded onto the lawn at the top end of the plant centre.  Before putting shrubs out on the beds you are supposed to sprinkle the top of the compost with a pre-emergent herbicide, to cut down on subsequent weeding.  If you sprinkle it on the lawn, the grass goes yellow, so it is better to work over a gravel path or other hard surface, since it is quite impossible to cover the top of a pot without spilling some granules over the side.  The only vaguely convenient hard surface was the manhole cover in the middle of the lawn, so I had to move every pot before I could treat it.  The furthest rows of pots were four paces from the manhole cover, and since the human opposable thumb is not designed to bear that much weight repeatedly, I used both hands to move them one at a time.  If the foliage had been dry, I could have simply loaded up a full trolley and then done all the pots at once working over the path, but since it was drizzling and the rose leaves were wet, I needed to be able to tip each pot and tuck the foliage back out of harm's way, so that the weedkiller landed on the compost instead of sticking to the plant.

Why do we not have deliveries put down on a hard surface instead of a lawn?  Discuss.

The manager showed no signs of directing me, so when I'd finished moving the roses I stuck prices on the morning's delivery of pretties off the weekly van, since he had left the list of prices on his desk.  Then I deadheaded the camellias, swept the mess off the tunnel floor, and arranged them in neat rows in alphabetical order, since that was on the list of jobs to do left over from the weekend. It is just as well that I am what used to be called in job advertisements A Self Starter, and Capable of Working Without Supervision.

It would have been nice if somebody had said thank you and well done for moving all those pots, but nobody did.  When I left at six, the unhappy manager was setting out tea cups, in preparation to show an evening group around the garden.

Addendum  The blog is hit from time to time by spam e-mails, most of which are correctly identified as such by the spam filter.  I erase them and you never see them.  I was tickled by this morning's example, though obviously I am not including the link to their blog.

Do you have a spam issue on this blog; I also am a blogger, and I was wanting to know your 
situation; many of us have developed some nice methods and we are 
looking to exchange techniques with others, be sure to shoot me an e-mail if interested.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

the art of watering

This could be a short blog post.  I might go to sleep before I have finished typing it.  I left the house this morning just before half past seven, and it was twenty past seven this evening by the time I'd finished the watering here, after my day in the plant centre.  I have no idea how many pots I have shifted in the past two days, but it was a lot.  All the red trolleys and the silver trolleys and some of the roses.

Apart from running the automated irrigation this morning on the trees, and the roses because they looked dry, we watered everything else by hand.  The plant centre had got into that state where some plants were bone dry, while others were sitting far too wet in saturated compost.  The manager's list of jobs for the weekend told us not to over-water, or water things for the sake of it, since some had been over-watered and had died, but one of my colleagues set every bit of the automated system to run that could be set, before even opening the shop door and seeing the list. It would have been a better idea for the manager to have spoken to him about the watering on Friday, but that is the problem with management by leaving notes.  It's generally better to speak to people.

I like to believe that I am good at watering, better and more observant than some of my colleagues, but this is probably a fallacy.  When asked how good their driving is, most people who drive rate themselves as above average.  I consider myself a rather mediocre driver, and make allowances accordingly, but that's not to say I'm not delusional about my watering abilities.  Judging how much to water pots in a commercial setting is quite tricky.  At home you can test the weight of the pot, but when you have hundreds to get through, if not thousands, while you can lift the odd one you mainly have to do it by eye.

The colour and texture of the surface of the compost will tell you a lot, but sometimes the pots are packed together so densely that you can't see the compost.  Sometimes you can see the surface of the pot, but it is not representative of what's underneath, because the pot has been top-dressed with a fine layer of loose compost, or else a layer of crushed bark.  Top-dressings may make pots look smart, but in practical terms they are a damn nuisance.  First of all the plant centre staff can't see whether to water the plant, and then the top-dressing falls out in the customer's car.

Once a plant has started to wilt it is obvious it needs watering, unless the reason for it wilting is that it has been so systematically over-watered that its roots have died, but our aim is to catch plants before they are anywhere near that stressed.  Subtle changes in the colour of the leaves, and the angle at which they're held, can flag up thirsty plants to the practised eye, and after a while we get to know which are the usual suspects, the specimens which are either getting slightly pot-bound, or else from suppliers who have been using a special joke non-moisture retaining compost. As growers try to move away from peat, there are some truly horrible composts around.

I answered the phone to someone who wanted to know whether we had various plants in stock, and when I'd finished looking thanked me for my help and all the walking about.  We don't have a live stock system on the computer, so the only way to find out whether we have a particular variety at that moment is to go and look for it.  I'm there to help people, but it's nice to be thanked, nicer than yesterday's caller whose response to my answer that unfortunately we didn't have Daphne retusa in stock was a long, theatrical sigh followed by a faint and infinitely weary Thank you.

The village turns out to be twinned with somewhere in France.  That information is probably written on the road signs, and I have simply been ignoring it for the past decade.  This weekend saw a visit by some of the French twinners (twins?  Twinnees?) and the plant centre rang for a time with cheerful French voices.

The design journalist came in for some lavender plants, and we agreed that spring was a wonderful thing.  One of the local RSPB people called in on her day off, and we talked about birds.  We are at that stage of acquaintance where we know each other's names (though my surname has probably foxed her) and will chat in the plant centre and when we bump into each other at wildlife fairs.

The owner had a very successful day yesterday at the Hadleigh Show, much better than last year. This could be because the economy is picking up and consumers are more confident than they were twelve months ago, or because she had a better pitch this year, and more people could find her. Who's to say?  The Hadleigh Show doesn't run to supporting mobile credit card machines, and the owner manages by dint of simply taking people's card details, provided they look honest, and processing the sales the next day.  It works a remarkably high proportion of the time, though when I went home she was on the phone to somebody whose card wouldn't go through.  She didn't seem too fussed about that, saying that she had probably written the number down incorrectly.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

too many pots

The cold, overcast weather has hit sales.  Or at least, sales turned down at the same time as the weather turned, and more than one customer has commented to me that they would have bought more, but it was too cold, or they had given up working in their garden because it was so chilly and grey.  The dip in sales has unnerved the owner and the manager.

There was a small row last Monday, because some Dodecatheon that were in full flower but not fully rooted in had been put out for sale in the manager's absence.  He was keeping them back until they had proper root systems.  I gather that since then the owner has been putting pressure on the manager to bring as much out for sale as possible, that's in flower or looking leafy and fresh.  When I arrived for work, there were two and a bit red trolleys to empty of plants, which are the multi-tier large ones we use to move stock around the plant centre, and three or four silver ones, which are the normal shopping trolleys the customers use, and will hold 18 two litre pots.  You may recall my calculation that a silver trolley's worth of plants in normally damp compost weigh around 20 kilogrammes.

The manager seemed to have responded to the owner's injunction to bring it all out extremely literally.  My job was to empty the red trolleys (and presumably the silver, though his long list of jobs to do over the weekend didn't mention those at all) and put the plants out for sale.  Some of them were already represented in the plant centre, and the benches were pretty full so there wasn't room for them.  The hardy geraniums ended up in a muddle, as I tried to find space for yet more pots, on tables that were so crammed there were no gaps to move rows up, so that I could keep everything in the right order.  Some of the overs and fliers were in bloom, and the manager's list of things to do said that I might need to ask my young colleague to use them in the ornamental displays.  On the basis that I've done dozens of display tables in my time, and that my young colleague was busy doing other things, I filled the gaps in the tables myself.

As well as putting out the contents of the red trolleys for sale, we were supposed to put out a fairly large delivery of David Austin roses, and some trays of plants that arrived on Friday from a van that calls weekly.  Some of the roses were on order for customers, so we needed to check which and contact them.  Then we were  supposed to go through the viburnums and cut the dead twigs out, go through the camellias and dead-head them, tidy the bedding, tidy the trees, top up the herbs from the overflow supply stashed in one of the tunnels, and half price the bulbs.  And operate the tea room, and the tills, and answer the phones.  With three people.  My young colleague had to box up a delivery of a hundred and twenty lavenders bound for a garden designer in Oxfordshire, which took five boxes and most of this afternoon, but that wasn't on the list.

I suppose that the manager is demonstrating the impossibility of the demands upon him, by placing impossible demands on us, but it is a pointless gesture.  He needs to demonstrate them to the owner, not the staff, and the owner doesn't read the list of jobs left for us every weekend by the till.  The only way she will get to know about the list is if the boss happens read the blog, and since it's a busy time of year, with the Hadleigh show today and Chelsea next week, he almost certainly won't be dipping into Cardunculus in the next few days.

I distinctly heard a cuckoo this afternoon, the first one I've been entirely sure of this year.

Friday, 17 May 2013

three exhibitions

I went to London today.  I almost didn't go, because there is so much to do in the garden, but in the end I decided that weeding, like the poor, you will have always with you, and there were things I wanted to see, that finish soon.  In the grand sweep of things it seemed a pity to miss them, and I'll remember them long after the incremental amount of gardening I would have done has ceased to be of any consequence.

I started with Murillo at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  That ends this weekend, on 19th May, so there is little point in recommending it, if you haven't already been.  I still have a slight psychological block about going to Dulwich, feeling that it is a long way away, being south of the river and on the overground instead of the underground, but in reality the train journey takes twelve minutes from London Bridge, and the trains go every quarter of an hour.  It's about another twelve minute walk at the other end, but in aggregate no worse than getting to the V&A.  Mind you, I always feel that is rather a long trek.

The Murillo is nice.  There are some religious paintings, some genre paintings of children, and some supporting evidence including X ray photographs that reveal which of the paintings Murillo got straight off, and which ones he fiddled around with, altering postures and moving props about as he went along.  I feel the same about Murillo's religious paintings as I did about Barocci's: I'm not a Catholic, or even a practising Christian, and I can't look at them in the same way as their original seventeenth century audience did.  But they are beautiful as paintings, the faces full of expression, the backgrounds glowing with a subtle light, the draperies billowing convincingly.  He was very good at painting children.

There was a group of small children seated in front of one picture, of a sleeping patrician and his wife being told in a dream by the Virgin Mary to build a church on the site of some miraculous snow that fell in August.  The children were being told a story, by a fat, bouncy woman with a very loud voice, that had absolutely nothing to do with the painting.  In her story, the sleeping people were dreaming of going to London town, and it was so long ago that there were no buses or taxis (which was true).  It does annoy me when people tell small children stuff which is essentially lies.  I can see that there are some subjects you would prefer not to broach at all with a six year old.  The Rwandan genocide, say.  And other things they are simply not going to get at that age.  Constitutional reform in the nineteenth century, for example.  But this was a Spanish painting, and dreaming that you have to build a church is a perfectly good story in itself.  Why drag London town into it?  The Mercury is doing something similar, with an upcoming show about a worker bee who is called Bertie, and is a boy.  Worker bees are female.  Even if you are going to invent stories about bees, why confuse the issue in the minds of small children by telling them that worker bees are boys?

After Murillo I went to Tate Modern, to see the Lichtenstein retrospective.  The walk from London Bridge took me through the corner of Borough Market, and I considered going to look for the Brindisa deli, to buy Spanish ingredients like salt cod, but decided against it.  The market was very crowded, I hadn't looked up their precise address, and I didn't really want to carry a piece of salt cod around the Tate.  The stalls selling street food looked appetising, but the queues were very long, so I gave them a miss as well.

It seemed a waste to be going to the Lichtenstein by myself, when I have just upgraded my membership to Member plus Guest, and know that at least two of my friends wanted to see it, but that was how things turned out.  It closes on 27th May, and I simply hadn't found the time to go before.  A tentative plan to go last week collapsed when the chosen day clashed with the funeral.  I have mixed feelings about Lichtenstein.  I thought I ought to go simply because he was an innovator, and is famous, and the retrospective would form part of my art education.  I liked his ideas much more than I was expecting to.  Seeing Picasso, or a trio of Monet Notre Dames, reworked in pop art dots, is extremely entertaining, and makes you think about the nature of art, which is what Lichtenstein intended.  However, I don't like Lichtenstein aesthetically.  I'm not good with dots: Seurat always annoys the hell out of me.  And I dislike bright, acid primary colours.  So if Rothko is my idea of twentieth century paint heaven, subtle brushwork and layers of masked colour in rich earth tones, Lichtenstein is the opposite.  I can see it is clever and sincere, but it makes me jittery.

From the Tate I walked along the south bank and over to Charing Cross and Piccadilly.  The Thames, which was still ebbing when I crossed London Bridge, and at slack water as I walked up to the Tate, had started to flood.  It is a slightly frightening river, its muddy waters swirling around the bridges and mooring buoys, and I know from taking boats on it as far up as St Katherine's Dock how strong the cross currents are.  Somebody I once worked with was on the Marchioness the night it was run down, which probably colours my view.  I don't like those party boats.  I would never even want to be on the Thames when I'd had anything to drink.  It is a river to be on your guard with, at all times.

The Royal Academy is showing the American painter George Bellows, and that's on until 9th June, so you still have time to go.  I really, really liked George Bellows.  He made his name painting boxing matches, at a time when boxing was still an illegal sport in New York, but he also painted the city, and seascapes, and landscapes, and people.  They are vigorous, fairly impressionistic paintings, and Manet's influence shows in some of the portraits, though elements of his most famous painting Stag at Sharkey seem to me to almost prefigure Francis Bacon.  There are lithographs and drawings as well, vivid and lively, sometimes touching on caricature, sometimes savage social comment.  He died in 1925, when he was only forty two, and western art was the poorer for it.

Three exhibitions in one day is really rather a lot, though these three were all very different to each other.  I liked George Bellows so much, I should have liked to look at his rain soaked park and snow covered hills for longer, only after an hour of looking at his pictures my brain was full.  Catch it if you can.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

chicken feed

The problem we had with the chickens eating their eggs has ceased.  I can't be certain why this was, since we have changed more than one experimental variable at the same time.  I have started feeding them a diet of almost pure layers' pellets, instead of a mixture of pellets and mixed grain and probably more grain than pellets, which has considerably raised the protein content of their diet.  Simultaneously, with the warmer weather, the Systems Administrator has been letting them out in the evenings for chicken exercise time.  A run round the garden allows them to practice their natural foraging behaviours, and gives them a change of scenery.  If they were eating eggs because they were bored, perhaps they are now less bored, and foraging outside the run further changes their diet.  So we can't say definitively why the egg eating has ceased.

It stopped within days of switching their food, which is a salutary thought.  They are only chickens, not possessed of intellect or free will according to conventional theory, whereas we are.  But if a change in diet can produce such a dramatic alteration in chicken behaviour, why do we believe that human beings are immune to similar effects?

One of the Speckeldies has gone broody.  She sits in the egg box, wings outstretched, looking grumpy.  Yesterday, when we did not let the chickens out for a run because they might not have gone in again by the time we needed to go out, I went in the late afternoon to collect the eggs.  As I attempted to budge the broody over to the other side of the nest box to check under her for eggs, while she squawked in protest, one of the other Speckeldies suddenly tried to make a leap for freedom through the open lid.  I slammed it down hastily, then had to look to see if I'd inadvertently brained either of them, but they were both fine.  One of my colleagues once told me how his primary school had chickens, and one evening after they had just gone to roost somebody opened the roof above the roosting perch for some reason.  The rooster stood up to see what was going on, at which point the lid was accidentally dropped.  It got him full on the skull, and that was the end of him.

A broody hen stops laying.  That isn't an issue for us, since the only reason we have as many as five hens is to provide company for each other, and at this time of year they churn out more eggs than we can eat.  I give boxes of eggs to our friends and relations when I see them, but it's still hard to keep up.  The spring rush should start to subside fairly soon, though Speckeldies are bred to be prolific egg producers, and these are young birds in their prime.  The old lady Maran produces an enormous, dark brown egg two or three times a week.

When they are allowed out the chickens have taken to wading around in the mud at the bottom of the garden, where the water table has risen to form what is now a bog bed.  They go rushing down the slope with a great appearance of having a set purpose, and paddle.  Somebody needs to explain to them that they are chickens, and not ducks.  Still, they do less damage playing in the mud than when they are raking through the straw mulch, or eating the leaves of my plants.  One unlucky geranium was reduced to half its original size, before they lost interest in it.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

a night at the theatre

The audience at the Mercury last night was the thinnest we'd ever seen it.  That was a pity.  We've enjoyed some good shows at the Mercury over the past few years, and with falling public funding the theatre needs all the bums on seats it can get.  That was clearly the management's view, as at the end of the performance one of the actors thanked us for being a lovely audience, and appealed to us to come to some of the other plays in the Ayckbourn series.

We were not an especially lovely audience.  An elderly couple who were sitting in splendid isolation in the otherwise empty row behind us talked to each other about switching off their phones after the play had started, and had another all too audible exchange about the play near the end of the first half, just as one of the actors was delivering a key speech.  There was a rather stuffy announcement before the play began asking us to turn phones off, because the lit screens as well as the noise were distracting to the performers and other audience members, so maybe they should have gone whole hog and reminded us not to talk as well.

I don't know why the play was so poorly attended, since I'd have thought that Ayckbourn was a natural for the Colchester audience.  Sharp but not too intellectually demanding comedy of middle class manners and misunderstandings.  That's normally right up Colchester's street.  Don't get me wrong, I admire Alan Ayckbourn.  His plays are funny, horribly accurate skits on human nature, and I am sure there is great technical skill in the way he makes his plots hold together and gets his actors on and off stage.

Perhaps the Mercury was over ambitious in scheduling four of them so close together.  They are putting on a short run of four two-handers from a longer cycle called Intimate Exchanges, which according to Wikipedia was written when Ayckbourn had a season to fill at his Scarborough playhouse, and all except two of his troupe of actors suddenly left to do other things.  The same two actors play all the characters, six in total last night, and the same characters appear in more than one play, with the action diverging after five seconds, five minutes, five days, five weeks and five years to give a total of sixteen different unfolding plots and eventual outcomes.  The first couple of scenes are necessarily fairly short, otherwise audience members who did go and see more than one play from the cycle might start getting restive at having to go over the same material again.

As the Systems Administrator pointed out, the Mercury has to stage all four plays close together, because otherwise they couldn't get the actors back, and part of the point of it is to have the same actors in all the plays.  The trouble from our point of view is that while we like Ayckbourn, and the Mercury, we don't want to go and see his plays twice in the same week, or even weekly, so we booked one from the series.  The publicity material assured us that any play stood alone, so we simply chose a convenient date.  It may be that other people's appetite for regional theatre was about the same as ours, hence the empty seats.  Or maybe some people didn't believe that you could watch any one of the plays without seeing the earlier ones, and were put off.

I'm not entirely convinced by the concept of the two-hander, although I can see it helps keep costs down in these hard times to only have two actors.  Even with slick costume changes there has to be a lot of time when only one character is on stage, either soliloquising, or talking to somebody who can't be seen, because they are off stage, or as in last night's play because they are hiding in a garden shed.  That gets a tiny bit wearisome, and the temptation to guess which character the second actor is next going to appear as, and which entrance they are going to use, is irresistible but distracting.

It's a challenge for the actors to differentiate between the various people they're playing.  Last night's cast made a reasonable stab at it, though I thought the female actor relied a little too heavily on wig and costume to distinguish between the two middle class characters.  I suppose they were both brittle, unhappy people, so Ayckbourn hadn't made it easy for her, but I could have done with them walking and talking slightly more differently.  A friend who went earlier in the run said that the performances were dreadful, which seemed harsh, but they weren't compelling either.

So maybe word has spread among the theatre going public of north Essex that it wasn't a vintage effort by the Mercury.  Or maybe the fact that ticket prices have gone up is hitting sales.  The best seats are now £19 on a Tuesday, whereas when we started going a few years back they were more like £13.  Tickets for Spiers and Boden recently were around the £15 mark, and that was a sell-out, so the inhabitants of Colechester can afford to go out when they want to, but perhaps when a pair of good seats at the Mercury set you back closer to forty pounds than twenty-five it is enough to make people think about how many shows they book.

Anyway, I hope trade picks up for them, without feeling the need to book tickets myself for the rest of Intimate Exchanges.  It would be a great pity if the Mercury ran into the financial quicksands and folded.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

in it to win it

I almost forgot to blog.  We are going to the Mercury later, and I need to do my back exercises, so there is not much time left for blogging.  The reason why I forgot is that I was tapping away at the keyboard all afternoon, doing something else.

The Garden Museum is running a Festival of Garden Literature at the end of June, at Tom Stuart Smith's garden, and as part of the festival they are running a garden writing competition for a memoir.  I am not at all sure what constitutes a memoir.  Sir Peter Smithers talked a bit about his life, and a lot about plants, but he had more than 2.500 words to play with, so I have done the same thing but on a necessarily more miniature scale.  I am not sure whether the memoir is supposed to be set entirely in the same garden, or whether a series of different gardens is permissible under the rules of the competition.  Unless you are Christopher Lloyd or Adam Nicholson (one of the judges) most people's lives span more than one garden, and mine certainly does.

Anyway, I started my essay a couple of weeks ago when the weather was foul, and then it perked up so I switched to gardening, and then I realised that the closing date for entries was the end of the month so I'd better get my skates on.  It took all afternoon to finish, and I forgot all about the blog.

I probably won't win, but if I don't enter I definitely won't.  And I do know one person who won a competition, for travel writing.  His essay is now available on Amazon, and I have read it, and it is pretty good, but I thought I could do as well.  When I was twelve, to the extent that I had any ideas about careers at all, which on the whole I hadn't, I probably wanted to be Bernard Levin.  Having your own column in the Times was not presented as a career option by my school or my family, and I thought it must be something that other people did, people with extra abilities and the right connections.  When I was in my first year at Oxford the girl in the next door room had a friend who was also reading English, who is now a novelist.  Not a novelist on track to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but well enough established that publishers bother to quote nice things he has said about other younger novelist's books on their covers.  He was a very pleasant man, quiet and gentle and unostentatiously gay at a time when being out was more of a statement than it is now, but he was not a super-human.  So on the basis of having met a normal person who won a competition, and another normal person who became a professional author, I am entering.  Somebody has to win.  It could be me.

It probably won't be, but if I do I will tell you.  So if I don't mention it again, you'll know that I haven't.  No need to ask.

Monday, 13 May 2013

a time of gifts

The cold turn the weather has taken is bad for trade.  In fact, it is a thorough all-round nuisance, since I have loads to do in the garden for the rest of the week, and need to check the bees for swarming, only it is not warm enough to open the hives.  Today in the plant centre I wore my fleece hat for the first part of the morning, and by mid afternoon was back in the NCP car park attendant's coat.  The wind blew incessantly, drying out the pots so that my co-workers will have a lot of watering to do tomorrow.  It is windy now, a bottom-end six in the gusts round the showers.

Somebody rang wanting to send a magnolia in lieu of funeral flowers.  Once I'd understood that she wanted a plant delivered locally, rather than sent by mail order, the conversation became much less incoherent, and I managed to find a specimen of the variety she'd chosen.  She wanted a card to go with the magnolia.  I suggested a photograph of a fritillary, whose nodding head and muted colours seemed suitably restrained but also beautiful.  She e-mailed us the message to go in the card, and I copied it out in my best handwriting, and explained to the gardener who will deliver it the importance of making sure it got there before Thursday.  As he is a quietly competent and kindly man, and lost his own father-in-law quite recently, I'm sure the delivery will be fine.

Another customer rang about a white Cercis siliquastrum the gardener delivered this morning, wanting to know who had sent it.  I had another incoherent conversation, before grasping that he hadn't bought it himself, and wanted to know who had given it to him.  I found the delivery book, but all it said was that it had been paid for by a third party.  I explained to him that unfortunately our records didn't say who had bought it, and that he must have a mystery benefactor.  He laughed, but went away puzzled.

A woman rang from Durham, who had fallen in love with Amelanchier, after seeing two growing on a slag heap.  She didn't know how they had got there.  I suggested that as the fruit were attractive to birds the seeds might have arrived that way.  She wanted to buy herself a small plant, and wavered over the different varieties described in the RHS magazine before settling on Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Ballerina'.  She told me that she had been given some money, and so didn't mind the delivery charge, but thought this was a wonderful way of spending an unexpected gift.  The whole transaction took rather a long time, and I suspected that she wanted somebody to talk to.  People who ring up the plant centre quite often do.

I have a slight cold.  I've had intimations that a cold was lurking around for days, so am glad it held off until after the funeral, supper, and the anniversary party.  The Systems Administrator had already got what sounds like the same cold, which is vaguely encouraging in that it remains slight, an ache and a snuffle.  We will just have to sniff our way through tomorrow evening's Ayckbourn at the Colchester Mercury Theatre.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

old friends

We went today to a party to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of one of my school friends. She and I must have known each other for forty years, which is a solemn thought, and apart from her mother and brother I may have known her for longer than anybody else there today, though we don't see each other very often.  She lives in Bromley, which is not somewhere you can pop round for supper starting from north Essex, and manages to combine having three children with being a partner in a City law firm.  That doesn't leave a lot of spare capacity over for other things, especially given that her mother still lives in Devon.

We took the train.  My initial reaction, when the Systems Administrator said that we could go on the train, was one of complete surprise.  I am so used to there being engineering works at weekends on our line, and replacement buses for a stretch between Witham and Chelmsford or some such inconvenience, that the idea that trains worked at weekends and that you could use them to visit people did not occur to me.  The trains ran more or less to time going there and coming back, though as we de-trained at Liverpool Street I did hear an announcement that the next service to Stansted was cancelled, with apologies for the inconvenience caused.  No replacement buses for the Stansted bound passengers.  They'll just have to miss their flights.

I did wonder, as I groped in the back compartment of my handbag for my one day travelcard for the umpteenth time and then struggled to put it away again one handed, why it was that I had opted to take a white peony and a box of eggs as hostess presents, instead of buying a bottle of fizz or a decent burgundy and making life easy for myself.  Still, there were lots of bags containing bottles in their hall, while nobody else had brought plants and eggs that I could see.  A peony is a good present for people who are not mad keen gardeners, as long as they have a reasonable sized garden. Provided it is planted at the correct depth, which is the same depth it's already at in its pot, it needs nothing else doing to it, ever, except to cut off the dead leaves at some point in the winter, and it will live longer than the recipient.

The forecast rain held off, and it was sunny enough for us to stand out in the garden with our pre-lunch drinks and nibbles.  It was even sunny enough for me to need my sun hat, which I'd taken just in case, a retro style vaguely 1930s ruched number in white cotton, and warm enough for me not to be cold despite the fact that I'd forgotten my cardigan.  I had a raincoat, but standing around eating sausages on sticks wearing a coat rather spoils the atmosphere.

Big set piece parties are like weddings and funerals, bringing together people from different stages and aspects of their hosts' lives.  At work based events most people more or less know each other, and you can exchange politenesses with members of other departments before gravitating towards your particular mates.  At beekeepers gatherings there are easy, if formulaic, questions to get a conversation going.  Do you have  bees?  How many hives?  Where do you keep them?  Are you finding swarming really bad this year?  Following which you can gravitate towards your particular mates.  For weddings, and anniversary parties, I suppose the nearest equivalent is enquiring which of the couple other people know, and how, plus how far they've travelled, but you don't necessarily have any particular mates to gravitate towards, so you have to hope you'll strike lucky.

Fortunately we did, with a former housemate of my friend whom I recognised vaguely from our Oxford days, and her husband, who turned out to be kindred spirits.  Keen gardeners, large garden, cats, liked poetry, arty people with a practical streak.  It's a pity they live near Dorking.

So it was a very nice day, and we even managed to spend some time talking to our hosts, which doesn't always happen at parties, and I discovered how you combine being a partner specialising in intellectual property with having three children, which is that you have a formidably efficient nanny. The nanny was very nice, unmarried herself and with no children, and probably the nearest thing to Mary Poppins you will find in Bromley.  I tell myself encouragingly that as my school friend and I have managed to stay in touch for this long, if we can keep it up for another ten or fifteen years she will have retired, and we'll have time to have lunch and go to an art gallery.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

last of the daffodils

It is just starting to spit with rain, so I have come inside for a cup of tea, while it decides whether it is going to rain properly or stop.  The Systems Administrator's view is that the cloud is so high and fast moving that we won't get much in the way of rain just yet.  In fact the ground could do with a proper soaking, since the top few centimetres of soil is starting to get quite dry, but I'd much rather (not that my preferences will have any bearing on what actually happens) that it did that at night.

I have been planting out more of the daffodils, carefully potted up last September.  It is late and slightly mad to be doing it, since they have almost finished flowering and I have missed getting the benefit of them in situ for this year.  However, I haven't had time to finish the job before now, and there are advantages to planting them as they start to fade.  I can see what else is flowering around them, and avoid colour clashes like the orange and yellow 'Jetfire' with the pink and purple Pulsatilla, and I can see how tall other foliage has grown by this stage, and how much leaf deciduous shrubs are carrying, to make sure I don't plant the daffodils in a spot where they are going to be concealed and invisible by the time they flower.

'Pipit' is lovely, with strongly scented pale yellow flowers, the trumpet almost white, held in clusters of two or three blooms on one stalk.  'Cheerfulness' is a white double with a muddled yellow centre, also scented, though I don't find the fragrance as free on the air as 'Pipit'.  I am dropping them into the island bed, between the clumps of asters.  I suppose there is a risk that the aster foliage will grow too tall and shading before the daffodils have finished dying down, and that the bulbs will not be able to store sufficient energy for next year, but the way to find out is to try.  You often see daffodils planted in borders among herbaceous plants and shrubs, and they seem to last from year to year.

I planted out the pale yellow tulips 'Concerto' from their terracotta pots as well, breaking them down into groups of three bulbs.  The bulbs look hugely fat and healthy, and I'm hopeful of flowers next year.

In the sloping bed the Exochorda x macrantha 'The Bride' is breaking into bloom.  It has white flowers (what other colour could they be?) and is well named, with a pendulous, mounding habit that means the ends of the branches seem to trail along the ground like a train.  By a lucky chance it is planted at the feet of a double gean, Prunus avium 'Plenum', which flowers at the same time, so that from a distance you see a cascade of white running from the top of the tree to the ground.  If you should plant Exochorda x macrantha then watch its neighbours carefully, and curb any that crowd in upon it, since if any of the Exochorda's branches are shaded out they will die.  Many roses behave in the same way.

There is lots of basal foliage on the tall growing, slightly tender Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue', and it is starting to run about with new isolated shoots some fifteen centimetres from the central mass of shoots where I planted the original potful.  I take this as a sign that it is happy.

Anyway, it seems not to be raining, so I shall go back to it, though the sky has gone very grey, and the wind is howling dismally in through the garage door, the gusts banging the cat flap open.  The forecast for the end of next week is starting to deteriorate, to the dismay of the Systems Administrator who has tickets for the second day of the test match.  Tomorrow we are going to a lunchtime party to celebrate an old school friend's silver wedding anniversary, and on Monday I have to go to work, so I'd better make the most of it while it's not raining, even if it is grey and blowing half a gale.

Friday, 10 May 2013

three cricket matches, a flower show and a funeral

The Systems Administrator was comparing notes with a friend, as they made arrangements to go to the cricket, and the contents of the SA's diary were three test matches, the Chelsea Flower Show, and a funeral.  Today is the funeral.  I don't suppose I'll feel like doing a write-up of what is anyway a private affair when I get back, so I will tell you about my father's cousin's late wife now, to help fill the odd couple of hours until it is time to go out.

She was called Ann, and she was ninety, so had a good innings.  She went as I should like to go, fully active until hospitalised with a bout of pneumonia, and that was it.  Only twenty four hours in hospital.  Musician and individual.  Wife of Derek.

Ann studied at music college, where she was so poor she became malnourished, and contracted TB, which she survived.  As a young woman she made her way out to Africa.  She met my father's cousin, and they ended up running an outward bound school in (I think) Rhodesia.  Unusually for the time, it was fully mixed race.  We've seen photos, and it developed into quite a large operation, but in the early days it didn't run to a bathroom, so Ann took her baths in a pool under a waterfall, while the (almost entirely male) staff discreetly absented themselves.  One of the photos was of her sunbathing (decorously in a bikini) on a rock by the waterfall, and in her day she was a stunner.

Back in England she taught the piano, and when they moved to Aldeburgh she persuaded the authorities at Snape to let her play in their practice rooms sometimes.  That's pretty good going for an octogenarian, getting access to a concert grand in one of England's premier music venues. Kindly, sociable, a fount of stories about her own life, interested in other people's, deaf as a post, discreetly silent on whatever other ills of old age affected her.  The SA always said she was as mad as a box of frogs, which was intended as a compliment.

I remember two stories in particular.  As a young woman she went on holiday to Scandinavia with a group of friends.  I suppose this must have been soon after the war, and that exchange controls were still in place.  Standing on the deck of a ferry they debated whether to visit Denmark, but none of them had any Danish kroner.  A man overhearing their conversation told them that he worked for a bank, and that if they decided to come to Copenhagen if they should call at his bank and he could exchange some money for them.  He gave them a card, and as he seemed quite respectable and they were young and blithe and wanted to see Denmark, they went to Copenhagen and called at the address they'd been given.  The doorman seemed surprised to see them, but took the card and let them in.  It did not seem quite like a normal bank, but they were able to exchange sterling for kroner and were not pounced upon by white slave traders.  Afterwards they realised that they had just visited the Danish national bank, and that their acquaintance on the ferry was the Governor.

Later on, in Africa, Ann needed to take her driving test.  Tests were administered by the local police chief, so Ann set off to the testing site, a police station surrounded by bush, taking one of her music pupils with her as a chaperone.  In my day in England you had to reverse round the kerb on a corner.  Ann had to reverse round a rose bush, which she ran down.  In her defence she pointed out to the police chief that it was over anyway, to which he replied 'Madam, it is now'.  When the test was over Ann's chaperone began to complain that she was hungry.  The police chief sighed and said 'I suppose you had better stay to lunch'.

Today's funeral is intended by her husband to be a celebration of her life.  There was much to celebrate.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

rose, thou art sick

The wind has been getting up through the day, and is now blowing close to a full gale, while out at sea the Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic is recording a force nine on the Beaufort scale.  That's a severe gale.  Once it gets up to force ten it is a storm, a storm being bigger than a gale in technical weather terms.  Not all advertising copywriters know that.

A gale is enough to make large branches in the ash trees in the wood wave about, while the alder seems to sway almost down to the coppice stools.  It's not weather for working underneath trees, unless you have to, and the Systems Administrator had to put plans to remove more of the fallen ash at the far end on hold.  I crawled around trimming the edges of the top lawn, where the largest thing that could fall on me was a rose bush.

There is a lot of sudden die-back in some of the roses.  They looked healthy when I pruned them back in the winter, and the leaf buds began breaking normally, but in recent days many of the leaves have shrivelled, and the ends of stems, and even some whole stems down to ground level have blackened.  I don't honestly know why.  Sudden death of the visible parts of a woody shrub is often down to root damage, so has last year's endless rain rotted their roots so that they can't support the bushes?  Or is there a soil-borne infection?  Or did a cold night coming at a critical time just as the sap was rising burst the cells and kill parts of the plants that way?  Is it old age?  They can't have been in for more than a dozen years, and roses ought to last longer than that.

I pruned poor Magnolia grandiflora 'Samuel Sommer' extremely hard.  It is a case of kill or cure, and I fear it will be the former, but it looked so terrible with its great bare defoliated branches that it was doing no good as it was.  Our neighbours' gardener, the one who is still using our spinney as an off-site compost heap since we still haven't got round to fencing it, cut down their M. grandiflora hard.  I know this, because I noticed it had disappeared at the same time as some evergreen magnolia branches appeared in the spinney.  The other day as I was going past I saw a fresh crop of magnolia leaves rising above their fence, so the stump is clearly shooting again.  I'm afraid that 'Samuel Sommer' has picked up a fungal infection following cold damage in the recent hard winters, and am not at all optimistic that it will respond in the same way as next door's plant.  I washed the pruning saw when I'd finished, and wiped it with Dettol.

The Arbutus x andranchnoides is looking terrible.  The last few hard frosts hit it hard, and most of the leaves have gone brown and crispy.  A few green ones are left at the very top, indicating that the wood is not entirely killed, but I expect there is a lot of dead wood in there.  I have a dark suspicion, based on how it behaved in the previous couple of winters, that if it manages to produce a new crop of leaves it will take most of the summer over it, and that I'll have to do a lot of fiddly pruning out of dead twigs.  It was doing beautifully, up to the winter of 2010-2011.