Saturday, 30 November 2013

a musical postscript

This is a late blog post, and it will be a short one.  I've just got back from a friend's concert.  She sings with one of the local choirs, and tonight was their Christmas event in Dedham church.  It takes a certain amount of effort to turn round and go out again on a winter's evening, after getting in from a day at work, but she seemed keen for me to go.  Or at least, she reminded me a couple of times that it was on, and tried to sell me a ticket in advance.  I opted for paying the extra quid on the door, in case I was so wet, or chilled, or discouraged by idiot customers, that I really couldn't face spending the evening sitting in a cold church, but I thought that I really ought to go if possible.

Generally speaking, things that you go to out of a sense of duty are often quite entertaining when you get there, while evenings at home in front of the fire when you know in your heart of hearts that you ought to be somewhere else are not as nice as you hoped they would be.  So it was with the concert.  The choir was joined by a brass ensemble, and the programme had a strong baroque element, and I like baroque music.  I'm not sure the internal layout of Dedham church is ideal for choral music, since the pillars seem to get in the way, and the choir stood to either side of the brass, so that they were singing diagonally across the church rather than down it.  Never mind, it is a very historic church, containing a picture by Constable of The Ascension (one feels he was on to more of a winner with landscapes).  The choir sang, the brass trumpeted, tromboned and tubad, a couple of other mutual friends had made it to the concert, and all in all it was worth the effort.

Work was quiet and damp.  Again.  I was puzzled when I arrived to see what looked like the young gardener's car in the car park, since he doesn't normally work at weekends, and learned that he had scratched his eye on a Christmas tree on Friday afternoon, and been unable to drive by close of play.  He lives in Chelmsford, so the owner had to take him home, probably via Broomfield hospital. It is one of the hazards of working with plants.  You think you have learned to be pretty careful, but it only takes one careless move and they've got you.  I've needed two sets of antibiotic eye drops in the past decade or so, when rogue twigs have sneaked in around my spectacles.

The Christmas trees are a peculiar lot.  I have read articles on commercial Christmas tree production, and ours are not like that.  Nobody thinned them, trimmed them, shaped them, nipped them or did anything to make them develop into the supernaturally symmetrical, bushy plants you see in conventional garden centres.  Ours were planted, a while back, and left to get on with it, and have developed a rather fabulous, wild, untidy, Ent-like character.  The Systems Administrator and I will be off to bag one just as soon as the truck passes its MOT.

A man rang up wanting to talk about a plant called a Toffee Tree.  I did not recognise that as a colloquial name at all, although I guessed he might be talking about Cercidiphyllum japonicum, whose autumn leaves smell strongly of burnt sugar.  I asked him if he could describe the plant to me, so that I could work out what he was looking for, but he refused to tell me anything at all about it, except that a chap who worked at the plant centre had told him it was called a Toffee Tree.  He asked if he could speak to the chap, but did not know who he had spoken to before.  I couldn't work out why, if he was so keen on this plant, he was unable to tell me anything about it, and began to get a dark feeling that I was talking to one of Boris's sixteen per cent.

Tomorrow I am going to have to pack and book in with the carriers my first mail order delivery, if I can find a suitable sized box.  I warned the customer that it would be my first package, and that if I couldn't make the online booking system work and had to wait for the manager to come in on Monday, it would be with her on Wednesday rather than Tuesday.  She laughed and said she appreciated my honesty.

Friday, 29 November 2013

gardens with robins

Today was another gardening day, though it was colder than yesterday.  In fact, if I claimed it wasn't cold, I'd be fibbing, but the ground wasn't frozen, and it scarcely rained, just a few spots at lunchtime, so I pressed on up the long bed in the front garden, trying to get as much weeding done as possible before things turn properly wintry.  The truck is currently at the garage for its MOT, and since they have now had it since Wednesday, and haven't rung to break the bad news, I presume that means it only needs welding within the Systems Administrator's agreed financial limits for it to pass.  The truck always needs some welding done to get through the MOT, but as the SA says hopefully, fairly soon the entire chassis will have been welded and so effectively replaced.  The mechanicals are fine.  As the garage says, trucks of that vintage were far better built than the newer ones, and will go on practically for ever, apart from the rust.

The point of telling you about the truck is that the SA promised that once we got it back from the garage, assuming we did, we could take it to buy a bulk load of compost.  That would obviously be much more efficient than my ferrying muck home from the garden centre eight bags at a time, and the long bed will need a lot of compost, once it's weeded.  The last lot has vanished almost without trace, and I have been pulling the annual weed grass that is the main problem in that bed out of almost pure sand.  Even plants that like sharp drainage and poor soil struggle in it, without some assistance.

I was followed closely today by a robin.  Robins are generally keen on people who are good enough to disturb the soil, but this one was extraordinarily bold, hopping around within a foot of me. Sometimes I stopped weeding, and it stopped hopping, and we stared at each other.  The eyes of birds are unfathomable.   I like birds, on the whole*, but I can understand why some people find them frightening, even if they haven't seen the Hitchcock movie.  Birds are very alien, even the robin is a tiny feathered dinosaur, for all that sentimentalised versions appear on myriad Christmas cards.  In real life they are pugnacious little beasts, forever fighting each other at the bird table, or trying to keep all the other birds away from the food.

When I'm weeding I chuck any stones I find into piles for collection, rough stones for the path by the dustbins, round pebbles to decorate the gravel in the middle of the turning circle, so I had to be careful not to throw any at the robin, as it flitted about.  I had a couple of near misses, but it seemed to have grasped that I wasn't throwing stones at it, and didn't seem concerned.  The SA says that a robin was equally bold and nosey yesterday when the SA was chopping up wood, so maybe it was the same one.

*There is something very annoying about pigeons, from the way they flap to that infuriating oo-koo-koo noise they make.  And the magpie that bangs repeatedly on the study window is just plain creepy.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

the mystery of the domestic cat

Today should have been the day of the new windows, but the firm rang up earlier in the week to delay fitting.  They have lost some fitters, or something, and didn't have a team of four available. It's a pity, though at least we hadn't got round to taking the curtains down.  I was rather starting to look forward to the new windows, and today would have been a perfect day to effectively take the end off the dining room, and then lift the enormous replacement unit into place (I'm surprised they can do it with only four).  Let's hope that by the fresh date in the second week of December, it's not snowing, pouring, or blowing a gale.

At least the postman brought my lost parcel.  He said it didn't need to be signed for, which leaves me wondering why in that case they couldn't simply have left it in the porch last time, but it is better not to enquire too closely into the inner workings of the Royal Mail.  It would be too much like trying to work out what the big, anxious tabby is thinking, to which the answer is, nothing that you could comprehend.  The parcel arrived undamaged and in time for Christmas.  Rejoice.

I wasn't convinced by the conclusions of some Japanese researchers quoted in the Independent, that cats can recognise their owners' voices, but never evolved to care.  If cats are played recordings of their owner's voice, and some stranger's voices, they respond differently to the owner's voice, but don't go to the sound source in any of the tests.  According to the Independent, the researchers interpreted this in terms of the differing evolutionary histories of cats, which hunted in homes but on their own, and dogs, which hunted in co-operation with people.  The Independent doesn't mention whether the experimenters actually repeated the test on dogs: unless they did, with a different result, it doesn't seem justified to drag dogs into it at all.

Cats care about the difference between their owners and strangers.  If they didn't, two of ours wouldn't disappear from sight the second a stranger, or even a repeat visitor, walks through the front door, only to return to their favoured spots in the sitting room or the hall within ten minutes of the strangers having driven away, looking completely relaxed.  The Systems Administrator says then when I get home from work, the first signal, before the SA has heard my car, is often that the cats lift up their heads, look animated, and trot off towards the front door.  They certainly don't show the same response to the postman, and we could do some quite interesting experiments testing what it is they are responding to, if we felt that strongly about it.  Can they tell the difference between my car and other cars?  My style of driving and other drivers?  Do they keep tabs of who is already in the house, so that if we are both there they know it isn't either of us arriving?

I am afraid that all the Japanese experimenters have shown is that cats don't approach a sound source that is emitting a human voice, in the absence of a visible human.  If your cat can see you, and you make eye contact and look encouraging, or bend slightly and rub your finger and thumb gently together, it often will come over to you.  My first, great childhood cat and I had a game whereby I would stand at one end of the sofa and call him, and he would walk to me along the back of the sofa, then I'd go to the other end, and we'd do it again.  We could keep that up for ages. One of the first cats the SA and I had would come in from the garden if you rapped on the window and signalled to him through the glass.  Our current lot often spontaneously begin to purr when we look and them and speak to them, even when we aren't touching them.  Strange cats will often come and see you, if you look friendly.  Certainly cats are not generally trainable in the way that dogs can be taught to follow commands, but that isn't to say that they don't notice people, or like some people while avoiding others.

I spent a happy day weeding in the long bed, until it got dark ridiculously early.  Thursdays are Classic FM request afternoons, as Radio 3 is devoted to opera.  I had to smile at all the people who claimed to need cheering up because it was cold, or because winter was depressing, or who were looking back to summer or forward to spring, when we haven't even had Christmas yet.  It wasn't really cold at all, as long as you were properly wrapped up, and already there are bulbs coming through, and signs of life.  Winter is not a dead season, when you look closely.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

high maintenance

I had to go and have my hair cut this morning.  Stretching it to six weeks between trims is as much as I can get away with, and even then it looks shaggy for the last week or two before the appointment.  I quite like my hair.  The female norm, according to all the hand wringing articles in the media, seems to be for self hatred encompassing every part of the body, and as for anyone over fifty liking any part of themselves, they must be delusional, or completely out of touch with contemporary norms.  Never mind.  My hair is thick with a natural curl, and actually I quite like the shape of the back of my head as well.  I have been going grey for years, and have now reached a sort of silvery stage, and do you know, I like that too.  However, to show all these charms off to best advantage, or any advantage at all, does require a regular trim

It should be oftener than six weeks, but that's the compromise I've reached between the time and money I'm prepared to invest in my hair, and the aesthetic ideal.  I do sometimes feel a twinge of envy about other people's hair, not that I want mine to be long or straight per se, but that I can't get away with leaving wider intervals between visits to the salon.  In my youth I sometimes wore it at shoulder length, but the ends were always splitting, and nowadays I couldn't kid myself that it looked even vaguely Pre Raphaelite, I should simply look like Gandalf.  Heigh ho.

I made my appointment for half past ten, to give time for the worst of the traffic to disperse, and while I was in Colchester I bought some charity Christmas cards, and tickets for various gigs at the Arts Centre next year, and a play at the Mercury.  Ticket prices at the Mercury have gone up a lot, but I suppose their funding has been cut, and I can't really expect the council tax payers of Colchester to pay too much for my theatre going M for Murder habit.  Annoyingly, Punt and Dennis were already sold out.  Apparently tickets were on sale before the latest brochure came out, but I failed to notice.  Since I'm on their e-mail list that suggests I haven't been reading their mailings very carefully, which either says something about me or something about their marketing technique.

That only left a couple of hours in the afternoon to weed in the front garden, before it got dark. Grape hyacinths start into leaf at the beginning of winter, and I lavished some of my limited (and slightly weed infested) supply of leaf mould on the long bed, as I thought that would brush nicely around their emerging leaves without smothering them.  And leaf mould is a supremely living mulch, and the sand of the long bed needs all the help it can get.  Darkness comes so early now.  By ten past four I had to pack my things away because I really couldn't see what I was pulling up or treading on, and by twenty past it was properly dark.

I lost half a day yesterday as well to my Pilates lesson.  Along with a decent haircut, one-to-one Pilates tuition is my only significant health and beauty expense (apart from new glasses, but they don't happen too often).  Pilates is many things to many people, and you can go to group classes where the aim is as much to meet people as to work on your core muscles and posture.  I don't think I'd learn anything at the back of a class, on that basis I might as well just buy a video.  As someone with bad posture and abysmal proprioception since childhood, I need a beady and knowledgeable eye on me to see what I'm doing and tell me about it.  I started seeing the teacher after a spell of self-referral to a physiotherapist.  I'd begun to develop an odd collection of symptoms, which eased when I lay on the sofa and did nothing, and got worse when I did anything and especially gardening, so I decided it was worth trying to get my lower back sorted out and see if that helped.

It did, but I thought I needed a long-term maintenance programme, and turned to Pilates.  The exercise regime is honestly rather dull, but it works, or at least it works for me.  I am significantly stronger and more supple than I was five years ago, and while I still get back ache, and occasional weird referred pains when I've been doing a lot of intensive bending and lifting, I'm not sure I get any more back ache than most people my age seem to get.  For anyone reading this blog who is suffering from back problems without doing anything to combat them, I would say, give it a try. Individual tuition is not cheap, but you can probably find something else you could do without, to offset the cost.  In my case, dyeing my hair.

Yesterday's afternoon gardening session didn't even last until four, because by twenty to I was too cold to carry on, and my breath was fogging my glasses up.  Truly, the days are too short at this time of the year.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

bah humbug

My non-consumerist self-image took a bit of a knock, after my impulse purchase of two recycled glass vases.  One is turquoise, one dark green with brown streaks, and they are sitting on the dresser in the hall, where they co-ordinate nicely with the existing pottery.  The pots on the top shelf are flanked by a bird nest at each end (I have sprayed them to kill any fleas), while the collection on the bottom shelf includes a wooden bowl turned by the Systems Administrator and filled with interesting bits of flint with holes in picked up by me, which gives the whole ensemble a 1960s vibe.  I did not need any more vases.

I was back on form after reading the Telegraph's list of thirty gifts for foodies.  Item one, an Alessi teabag squeezer, can be yours for fifteen of your earth pounds.  It looks like a chrome shoe horn with the sides bent upwards.  The idea is that you fish the teabag out of the tea using the fat end, then pull the bag through the narrow part to squeeze the tea out without dripping on the table.  This presupposes that your tea bag has a string on it.  For goodness sake, what's wrong with using a teaspoon like all normal people?  Or brewing up in a tea pot?

The cookie cutters, in at number five, that allowed you to bake the components of a slot together 3-D dinosaur were briefly tempting, but then I thought that probably the biscuit mixture would spread slightly during cooking, and the pieces would not actually assemble, and a whole dinosaur would be more biscuit than any one person wanted to eat in one sitting, and the joke would wear off after about one go at making tyrannosaurus biscuits.

My anti-shopping stance was comprehensively restored after I'd had a look at the website of the (rather unattractively named) company supplying the biscuit cutters.  Hands up who would like a light pull shaped like a large jelly baby, head drooping to one side, which you attach to the cord by looping the string around its neck as if it had been hanged.  How droll is that?  And why would anybody pay twenty pounds (twenty pounds!  That is over three hours' work at the minimum wage) so that they can buy a decorated cardboard box for their cat to sit in?  It is called a Cat Play House, a folded cardboard house for cats.  You can choose between a brown one that looks like a giant bird box, or a small white teepee.  Ye gods and little fishes.  Our cats are perfectly happy with ordinary cardboard boxes, left over from Amazon deliveries, and I'm sure everyone else's cats would be the same.  If you can't stand the sight of an old box in your hall then unleash your inner Blue Peter watcher and decorate it with wrapping paper or something.  Or buy something decent quality that will last from OKA.

Meanwhile, the Royal Mail continues to make the postal experience less attractive than it could be. My recent credit card statement arrived looking as though it had been scrumpled up and roughly smoothed out, while my last Amazon order was taken to the Colchester sorting office because I was not at home to sign for it.  The local post office would have been all right, or at least handy to get to.  The full horror of running a small post office seems to be steadily draining the poor chap that manages it of the will to live, and he now sits slumped behind his glass window emanating such gloom that you need to brace yourself before calling in, and if already in a fragile emotional state had better not risk going at all.

The Eastgate sorting centre is not convenient.  It is in Colchester, which is a round trip of about twelve miles from where I live, and it has no customer parking.  I looked carefully on the way in and the way out, and all the car parks seemed to belong to one or another of the businesses on the estate, but not the Royal Mail.  I parked half on the pavement and half on the double yellow line outside their door while I dashed in, and waited for an agonisingly long time, peering over my shoulder for traffic wardens, as the woman behind the counter could not find my parcel.  She asked what it looked like, and I said I thought it was probably books.  I didn't dare risk leaving the car any longer, and arranged for them to redeliver on Thursday.  There no longer appears to be any set time for the post to arrive, so that potentially leaves me hanging around all day, but since it is the day the window company comes, I'll be around anyway.

Addendum  I felt sorry for the two wolves which were shot after escaping from Colchester zoo.  A spokesman said they had been shot because they had roamed too far from the zoo, and the anaesthetic darts took a quarter of an hour to be effective, but since they also said that the wolves were very shy and posed no risk to the public, why couldn't they just have darted them and followed them around for fifteen minutes, perhaps playing them a bit of heavy metal or the Ride of the Valkyries to encourage them to take cover, and warning members of the public to stand clear, then collected them safely once they'd gone under?  Poor wolves.

Monday, 25 November 2013

storm in a compost bin

The week didn't enjoy a flying start, as one of my co-workers who doesn't get on with a second colleague let rip with yet another unpleasant remark this morning, and reduced the victim to tears. I intercepted the manager as he was getting out of his car, and told him what had happened, and that he had to sort it out.  I believe that he did.  Goodness knows what impels people to be gratuitously nasty to the other people they work with.  We are all in the same boat, trying to earn an honest living, when if the lottery millions magically came in we would all be able to think of other ways of spending our time, so we might as well be polite to each other to help the day pass more pleasantly.

(The worst case of corporate bullying I ever saw was at an investment company I worked for more than twenty-five years ago.  They employed a male secretary, which is a rarity even now.  He had the admittedly comical name of Henbest, and an extremely camp manner, and one of the senior fund managers was persistently vile to him.  I think he left, without bringing a case for constructive dismissal, which he'd have deserved to win if he had.  The culprit went on to become the enormously rich owner of an eponymous hedge fund business, and I laughed a lot when I saw how much money he lost in the Railtrack nationalisation, though he remains extremely rich.  If I am ever tempted to regret that I didn't do even a hundredth as well in financial terms as he has, I console myself with the thought that I am not an utter shit either).

Trade was rather quiet.  Someone called to collect a hundred box plants we'd bought in specially for them, and late in the day the van was loaded up with a huge order for delivery tomorrow, but the season for people having a mooch and buying the odd plant is pretty much over.  Somebody from a local landscape company we deal with a lot came in to collect plants that were reserved for two different jobs.  I knew he was from the landscape company because it was written on the back of his jacket.  I thought that to make the paperwork tidy, I should make a note of who took the plants, so we now have it on record that they were collected by Dumpy.  He said they'd know who that was.

The phone rang a lot with people wanting specific plants.  Some we had, and some we didn't.  The woman who was after Abelia x grandiflora 'Francis Mason' turned out to have tried to call in person last week, but misjudged when 'dusk' was, and found us already closed.  I wondered whether to mention to the owner that at least one customer had been foxed by the concept of 'dusk' as a closing time, but the manager said he'd mentioned it to her quite recently, and she'd said it was fine.

The turkeys hung around outside the shop for the first part of the day.  They believe that people are their friends, since I gather they are often to be found by the boss's front door.  Never feed poultry by your door.  You will only encourage them to stand there, and the droppings will be trodden into the house.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

films and shopping

We went last night to The Electric Palace to see Sunshine on Leith, or The Proclaimers musical, as everyone seems to want to call it.  The Harwich Electric Palace Cinema was as wonderful and eccentric as ever, since there was a bagpiper processing round the auditorium before the ads started.  It is true that bagpipes are weapons of war, and should not really be let off within a confined space, but the effect was quite magnificent.  The cinema was not nearly full, as it wasn't the last time we went, and I wonder how they keep going, except that all the staff are volunteers. The audience observed the Wittertainment Code of Conduct impeccably, except that there was an intermittent peculiar and not very nice smell.  I couldn't work out what it was or quite where it came from, and wondered whether somebody was eating something malodorous, or possibly sucking a series of extra strength and ultra nasty throat sweets.  Or suffering from some kind of personal hygiene issue.  Such are the hazards of venturing into the public arena.

Sunshine on Leith was good fun.  All the reviews I've seen said that it's a big, good natured, bouncy, singing and dancing, feelgood film, and so it is.  I'm not a great fan of musicals in general.  A very long time ago I went to see Les Mis and Phantom, and about fifteen years ago I saw the first half of an execrably bad musical at The National Theatre, and since then I haven't felt the urge to go to any more.  I'd make an exception for The Beggar's Opera, or The Threepenny Opera, if the opportunity arose, but it hasn't.  But I like The Proclaimers, and Sunshine on Leith manages to incorporate the song and dance routines without it feeling too strained (the scriptwriters made things easier for themselves by calling one of the characters Jean, and sending another to work in Florida).  Jane Horrocks puts in a great performance.

This morning I took a half day off working in the garden, to go to the Warner Textile Archive's Christmas fair.  I really liked the Warner Textile Archive, when I visited in the spring on a trip organised by The Art Fund, and afterwards I wished I'd bought one of their useful stout boxes covered in a vintage design, to keep my hats in.  I vaguely thought I could go back one Wednesday, when they were open, but never got round to it, and then I thought there would probably be more choice of boxes at the fair, if I got there early.  And I wanted to get something new to go on the Christmas tree, since I didn't get anything for it last year, and the museum does very good and moderately priced greetings cards with designs taken from the collection.  Basically, I was in the mood for some modest retail therapy.

I don't generally shop as a hobby.  Even when buying plants I generally have a definite scheme in mind, except at the margin.  Perhaps my book buying falls into hobby territory, with the pleasure of stalking titles on Amazon and occasionally swooping in to pick up a bargain, but I do read all of them eventually.  Clothes I buy ninety per cent on-line, on the grounds that there are so many more interesting things to do with time than trail round clothes shops.  I don't buy much general household stuff, because the house is already full, so apart from replacing things that are dropping to bits, and kit for specific projects like the ice cream machine, I can pass by piles of cushions, candle holders, bowls, plates, jugs, vases, lanterns, and all the other things taking up the ground floor of John Lewis at this time of the year, without feeling the urge to buy.  It's not that lots of them aren't nice, just that I don't need them in my house.

Today was an exception.  It was such a charming Christmas fair, and the staff and volunteers were all so enthusiastic, and most of the things were so reasonably priced for the quality, which was generally high, and it was in aid of a good cause.  I snaffled a green box with pink roses on it at once, and they kindly put it away for safe keeping in the office so that I could look at the rest of the fair.  I ended up with a set of red gingham Christmas tree stars, made by one of the museum volunteers and really neatly finished, a couple of smallish recycled glass vases that I could imagine with a few stems of flowers in, and which were insanely cheap at seven and eight pounds respectively, and a wonderful hand made silk and wool scarf in a rainbow mixture of gold, green, soft pink, black, buff and purple.  Draped round my neck, the ends reach practically to my knees. It's of a quality that wouldn't look out of place in Fenwick or Liberty, and the Warner Textile Archive were asking about a quarter of the price that a London store would charge for the same thing.

I hung on until half past eleven so that I could go on another tour of the archive.  Today was just a little taster, focussing on woven fabrics.  If you can rustle up a group of at least fifteen people, you can book a full visit like the one I went on with the Art Fund, and they will even tailor the tour to the specific interests of your group.  It is very sad that when the looms were destroyed, as many were in the war years when there was no call for raised velvet cloth woven at the rate of four inches per day, no plans or records were kept, so while the archive still has the fabric, detailed knowledge of how some of it was made has been lost.  I like the Warner Textile Archive very much, and hope they manage to keep their heads above water, in these difficult times for museum funding.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

the great fat ball saga resumes

The Systems Administrator, safely home from a second trip to the races (Wincanton, the going officially good but slippery on top, not especially classy horses), resumed battle with the fat ball blocking the kitchen sink outlet.  The great plumbing project was put on hold before Cheltenham, in case the SA hit problems and didn't have time to fix them before the race meeting.  As bad ideas go, departing for a few days holiday with your friends while leaving your partner behind without working plumbing in the kitchen would be right up there at the calamitous end of the scale.  Not as heinous as a man we knew who ran over the cat, but certainly on a par with forgetting birthdays or refusing to accompany partner to parties they judge it necessary to attend, and way above failure to appreciate new haircut, glasses, overcoat or other items of vanity and personal adornment.

The Japanese quince outside the kitchen window having been massacred (I'm hopeful it will regenerate from the root), the SA was able to investigate the point at which the outlet from the kitchen sinks entered a sump.  The top had been concreted over, for no very good reason that I can think of, so that had to be broken.  The sump was full of muck.  Silt, fat, smelly stuff.  I wish to put it on record that I am grateful to the SA for cleaning the rubbish out of the sump.  It sounds revolting.

The blockage was so complete that nothing was draining from the kitchen sink to the septic tank at all.  When we waited for the sinks to slowly drain, the water was spilling over the top of the sump and soaking into the surrounding soil.  That doesn't sound like a good idea, and in theory might have made the nearby wall or floor damp, except that since the ground at the front of the house is more or less pure sand going down yards, the whole front garden is like a gigantic soakaway anyway.

Once the sump was cleared, a hose running at full volume would drain down the pipe from the sump without backing up.  That sounds to me as though the SA has found the blockage, but to be on the safe side the SA plans to buy some extra-strength drain cleaner, the sort you can't put down interior pipework, and pour that down.  It seems like a long time since we were worried about preserving the ecology of the septic tank: by now we're on to a scorched earth policy.  Then the SA has to fashion a new cover for the sump, presumably being very careful not to breathe the fumes.

It was Dorothy Sayers who observed that there is no collection of people who cannot make animated conversation about drains.

Friday, 22 November 2013

an evening with a horticultural hero

I went last night to a lecture by Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum and Horticultural Services at Kew.  Tony Kirkham is one of my horticultural heroes, not because he has been on the telly, though he has been, but because of his modern day plant hunting exploits, and because I am biased in favour of anybody who likes trees and doubly so if they know about them.  The lecture was an amiable illustrated ramble through his world of trees, mixing highlights of his expeditions with the story of how he became a professional tree expert, thoughts on some interesting trees, advice on how to plant trees, a depressing update on tree diseases, the history of Kew, and current tree maintenance techniques.

So I learned that the flowers of Magnolia sprengeri 'Diva' smell of bubblegum, and that Wollemi pines in the wild grow to a hundred and forty metres tall, and are naturally multi-stems with bark that looks like boiling chocolate, while the flowers of Aesculus 'Dallimoreiturn pink an hour after being pollinated, to save other bees the bother of visiting and finding they have been cleared out of nectar.  Tony Kirkham is one of those people, like Roy Lancaster, whose enthusiasm for plants is palpable, and who could clearly talk knowledgeably about different plant species for the best part of a week without hesitation, deviation, repetition, or losing interest in the subject.

How Tony Kirkham ended up as the head of the arboretum at Kew, which puts him in the top echelon of horticulturalists worldwide, was instructive.  He was an outdoorsy sort of child, always playing in the park, and aged ten his imagination was seized by one teacher, who brought some sticky buds in to the class one Friday, and promised they would be in full leaf by Monday.  The young Tony already knew about sticky buds, from his conker collecting exploits, and did not believe the part about the leaves.  On Monday morning he found it was true, and the idea formed that there were people who knew about trees, and that he wanted to be one himself when he grew up.  Lucky is the man, or woman, who has found their passion in life by the time they are ten, and are able to make a living out of it.  I have noticed, though, on Radio 4 and Radio 3 programmes featuring people who have achieved eminence in their fields, be they scientists or artists, how many of them knew they wanted to engage in that field while they were still quite young children.

The boss would not have liked Tony Kirkham's advice on tree planting, which was to eschew stakes, ties and soil improver, in favour of miccorhizal fungi and a good mulch.  Freedom to move in the wind promotes trunk thickening and root development, a process called seismomorphogenesis. That's a fine new word to be tucked away for future use.  As the boss and Tony Kirkham both serve on the RHS woody plant committee they can argue about it over lunch sometime.

The tree diseases were depressing, though I was relieved it tied in with what I'd been telling people in my woodland charity talks.  The photo of the Kew arborists perched high in a cherry picker, dressed in full body suits and hoods, vacuuming oak processionary moth out of the branches of a tree, will stay with me for a long time.  I always find the definitive latest thinking on how to care for trees slightly worrying, in much the same way as I find the most recent advice on a healthy lifestyle a little suspect, in that if we now know we had previously got it wrong about flush cutting, or round versus square planting holes, or staking, or how many eggs it is safe to eat, or whether marathon running is good for you, what makes us think that the latest idea is definitely right, when all the previous ideas, offered up with equal conviction at the time, are now dismissed as being wrong?

If you are going to cross a swollen river in Siberia on foot, aided only by a stick, don't show photographs afterwards in a lecture at Kew attended by the Health and Safety Officer.  That's just a tip.

Altogether it was a lovely lecture, ticking the boxes of telling me some things I already knew, so I could feel smug I knew that, and things I didn't know.  After the lecture there were proper nibbles, sausage rolls and rye bread with bits on, and mini eclairs.  A couple of bee keeping friends were there, and some of the garden club members recognised me, from my own talks or because they are customers at the plant centre, and one wanted to pick my brains about the bees nest in her bird box.  Altogether it was an extremely nice evening.  Next year they have got the head gardener at Sissinghurst booked.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

who's the lucky birthday boy

I went into work today, to a breakfast party to celebrate the gardener's sixtieth birthday.  All firms gradually develop their own traditions, and one of ours is the breakfast as a celebratory event, for big birthdays or retirements, though to get a leaving breakfast you have to have worked there for a long time.  It's quite a sensible time of the day to hold a works do.  Doing physical jobs, as we do, people are not shy about eating breakfast, while by the time we've finished work we are generally grubby, tired, and keen to get on home, and breakfast commands a captive audience, at least among those who are working that day.  And while in the City you would think nothing of seeing people in the pub for after-work drinks by a quarter past five, in rural Suffolk that is really too early, and half of us are driving anyway.

It was a very fine breakfast, with cereal and fruit juice and sausage and bacon and scrambled egg and grilled tomato and baked beans and toast and croissants.  Someone had made a cake, though the gardener was allowed to save that until later, and we sang happy birthday.  There was a card signed by all of us, and a present from the staff and one from the owners.  The dog hung around hoping for a stray sausage, and was allowed to eat the left-over scrambled egg.

The gardener does a great deal for the business.  He mows, and strims, and clips the yew hedges. He chops up fallen trees, and lops broken pieces off unsafe ones, unless they are so big we need the arborist.  He drives on deliveries, finding his way to addresses across the breadth of East Anglia, and coping when the van breaks down.  He can mend any kind of machinery.  When a hose starts leaking, or the timber work of one of the shrub beds collapses, he is your man.  He installs the heater in the tunnel each winter, and stores it away each spring.  He will turn his hand to potting, when there's lots to do.  He digs the boss's vegetable garden, and chops his logs, and mucks out the chickens, and hauls out the little tractor when the boss has got it stuck somewhere on the estate. He drives the family on Stansted runs, and garage runs, and gets the horse box to start when it won't.  He does all this quietly, with a smile.  He has about the dryest sense of humour of anybody I have ever met.  He is never flustered, never cross, and even in moments of panic and chaos when everybody else is shouting, I have never heard him shout, or snap.  He does all this despite having been an insulin-dependent diabetic since his teenage years, which by now has left him with some of the health problems you are likely to get no matter how careful you are with your diet and your injections and everything else.  I have never heard him complain.  Happy Birthday, Stewart, I salute you.  You are the nicest and sanest person in the entire place.

During the course of breakfast we discovered why various recent mail order requests placed by customers on the website seemed to have disappeared without trace.  Our web hosting company spent some time anxiously checking for bugs in their part of the system, before the owner discovered that among the filters the boss had set up to manage incoming mail, along with those to junk the ads for viagra and on-line casinos, there was one intended to block marketing from web consultancy firms offering to push us up the Google seach rankings or whatever, that automatically deleted all incoming messages with the word 'web' in them.  Which included requests for plants from our own website. Oh dear.

After the breakfast we had mail order training.  The owner was upset on Monday that some packages had not been done up very well.  I could see her point, on the other hand, I could also see the point of view of the person who wrapped them.  Anyone who sends mail order parcels has learned it by themselves through trial and error.  There has been no training or instruction on what level of packaging the parcel company requires for the parcel to be safe in transit, and whether it is OK for the top of a tree to be poking out of the top of the box wrapped in bubble wrap, or if the whole plant needs to be encased inside a box.  There are no purpose-designed boxes, like the ones my smart Ashwood hellebores came in.  Instead, you have to improvise with whatever recycled packaging you can find from incoming deliveries, some of which isn't really thick enough, plus any odd boxes the owner has managed to pick up or that staff have brought in.  There has been no training on how to book orders with the mail order company, or how accurate the weight and dimensions data we enter on the booking form have to be (we don't have any scales).  There has been no systematic training in how the networked computer system operates, or how to print from the computer in the shop, which until recently was on a wireless internet connection that didn't work half the time.

The results were about what you'd expect.  Two people knew how it all worked, but one left, and the other only comes in three or four days a week.  The manager didn't know how to book deliveries, though he'd given packing a go, with great trepidation.  One of my co-workers had tried doing it, but their packing was deemed not up to scratch, and I refused to touch it until I'd been told more about the standards of packing required, plus how to print labels.  I don't have such a nice or long-suffering temperament as the gardener, and wouldn't trust myself to submit meekly to being bawled out for getting something wrong that I hadn't been shown how to do in the first place.

The organised training session was very good.  We should do more of them.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

the devil's in the detail

I went today to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, to see their Whistler exhibition, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames.  I like the Dulwich gallery, and Whistler, and took a friend along who had never been there, and who I thought would like it too.  It was a pity that it poured copiously all morning (though at least I didn't have to fret that I was wasting good gardening time), and that the trains out of London Bridge were slightly disrupted due to over-running engineering works, but altogether the travel wasn't too bad, for a journey involving a car trip through Colchester, two trains and a bus.

The exhibition was a delight, and is on until 12 January, so you have time to go and see for yourself.  It does what it says on the tin, etchings, lithographs, drawings and paintings of the river Thames, boats, watermen, warehouses, barges, bridges.  A portrait of one of Whistler's mistresses leaning on a mantelpiece creeps in, whose only connection with the Thames seemed to be that he was living quite near the river when he painted it, but overall the show sticks pretty closely to the brief.  As I said, I like Whistler.  My first introduction was via the Nocturnes, and it came as a pleasant surprise to discover what a good draughtsman he was.  The captions around the gallery gave tantalising clues that he led a pretty colourful life, and I shall look him up later on Wikipedia (what did we do without it?).

Coming home, Colchester's traffic was particularly slow and sticky, so that it felt as though it was going to take almost as long to travel the seven miles from the station to my house as it had to cover the sixty-odd miles to London.  As I crawled around the inner ring road, I had plenty of time to listen to the BBC's coverage of the Co-Operative Bank fiasco.  I find the revelation that the Chairman took cocaine less disturbing than his appearance in front of the Select Committee, from which it appeared that he was unable to read a bank's balance sheet.  For somebody who is supposed to be in charge of a bank, I think that's more worrying than what recreational drugs they took in their spare time, even if they were Class A and illegal.

The Telegraph website was running an article about how the drugs revelations put the £1.5 billion bank rescue package at risk, although Robert Peston tonight seemed to think it would go ahead. Neither of them had picked up on a story told to me last night by the Systems Administrator.  The Co-Operative Bank has a preference share issue outstanding.  It is not a big issue.  The SA thought offhand it was in the order of magnitude of a hundred or a hundred and twenty million, small beer in the context of a one and a half billion rescue package, or the forty-seven billion of assets the Select Committee said the Co-Operative Bank had on its balance sheet, or even the three billion of assets which their former Chairman thought they had.

Preference shares are strange things, mid-way between an ordinary equity share and a bond.  They rank below bonds for repayment, but above ordinary shares in the pecking order for dividends. They carry a flat rate dividend, and don't have the same voting rights as ordinary shares.  But, and this is the killer part of the story, the preference shareholders have to vote on the restructuring proposals to save the Co-Op Bank, and according to the great doorstop of documentation that has been sent out to the preference shareholders, a turnout of seventy-five per cent is required.

In the old days, going back twenty years, prefs were the specialised province of a few investment managers running high income funds.  The Systems Administrator was one of them.  And in the good old days, anyone needing a seventy five per cent turnout of preference share holders could have contacted the SA, and the M & G, and about two other people, and got their vote.  Not now. The investment institutions lost interest in this small and specialist market, and most of the outstanding preference issues ended up held by a small army of private investors, in search of high yield.  One of them is the SA's great mate, who bought his for his school fees plan nearly twenty years ago at a yield of over nine per cent.  He has received the great lump of literature an inch thick about the rescue proposals, which, being a Chartered Accountant, and that sort of chap, he has read.  He does not expect the average little old lady living in retirement on the south coast to do likewise.

For the restructuring to go through, somebody has to find out who all these people are, and where they are, and then persuade three quarters of them to vote.  Without the preference holders approving the rescue proposal, with a turnout of at least seventy five per cent, it won't happen, never mind what antics the former Chairman got up to.  I asked whether the bank could not compulsorily buy in the preference shares and solve the problem that way, but the SA said not. There is no law that allows a company to compel shareholders to sell their shares back to the company.  My mind is boggling slightly.  The media haven't picked up on it at all.  Either there is a way round it, which the SA and the SA's friend haven't thought of, or the BBC and the Telegraph are suddenly going to discover preference shares.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

the nature and art of workmanship*

Yesterday was a late posting, today it's an early one.  There's a frost on the garden, and we're going out this evening.  Plus, as I woke up I thought what I wanted to write about.  Such is the variable nature of a hand-crafted product, made up on the fly.

When I switched on the car radio yesterday afternoon, on my way back from work, I found I was midway through a programme I couldn't immediately identify.  A woman with a deep, strong voice was talking about the East Anglian coast, and I had a strange feeling that it must be Dame Maggi Hambling.  It was.  I don't know how I knew that, unless I'd read the Radio 4 schedule and subconsciously remembered it.  The programme turned out to be about her scallop sculpture on the beach at Aldeburgh.  I adore the scallop, so I started to listen properly.

The scallop has engendered a degree of local public outrage which I find incomprehensible.  One objection is that it occupies a previously empty section of beach, and destroys the wild, deserted feeling.  I don't accept that.  If you stand with your back to the scallop and look out to sea, it can be as wild and deserted as you like.  I have seen the southern North Sea from the middle, quite a lot of times, and it is a pretty wild and deserted sort of place even on a nice day.  Go up there when there's an onshore easterly six or seven blowing, and I think you'll find enough wildness and desertion for anyone.  If you look along the beach to Thorpeness, the view culminates in the great dome of the nuclear power station, and if you look back the other way you see the town of Aldeburgh, with the large and entirely hideous red brick block of flats where my cousin lives taking centre stage in the foreground.  They were both there well before the scallop.

The other reason given by locals for disliking the scallop was that it brought in visitors.  Outsiders. Urgh, how horrid.  Tourists, gross.  And that the scallop had been imposed on them without due consultation.  They probably wouldn't have been any happier if Michelangelo's David had been plonked down on their beach without their consent.

Anyway, back to the scallop.  What really grabbed my imagination was the way it was made.  Dame Maggi made a tiny little maquette out of scallop shells.  That is actual shells picked up on a beach somewhere, or gleaned from a fishmonger, not models of scallop shells fashioned out of plaster of Paris.  She took it to J T Pegg and Sons, fourth generation precision engineers and ironworkers based in Aldeburgh, and asked them to make her one of those, only thirty-seven times bigger. They did.

The question I was left asking is, who was the artist?  The scallop is probably Dame Maggi's most famous work, certainly the most contentious one and probably the only one to have been vandalised twelve times.  But all she made was a small model, using mostly shells which she didn't make or even imagine either, but found somewhere.  It was her idea to assemble them in that order, and to inscribe that line of verse (which she didn't write) round the edge, but all the work and skill of scaling up the maquette, bending and cutting and welding the one centimetre steel, and knowing how the material would behave structurally, exposed to the ferocity of the North Sea gales and the vandals, was done by the Peggs.  And until yesterday at about twenty past four I had never heard of the Peggs.  Even to find out that they were J T and Sons, I had to look it up on Wikipedia.  Why does Dame Maggi get all the credit as an artist, and the Peggs none?  It seems more like a joint enterprise for which they should get equal billing.

I got quite excited, for a while, that if I were to invest in a whole crab (I'd have to eat it all myself, the Systems Administrator being allergic to seafish), and mount the claws on a disc of cardboard, and track down the Peggs in Aldeburgh, and explain that I wanted it in steel, not thirty-seven times bigger but perhaps ten, and ask them to cut Eliot's lines about being a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floor of silent seas round the edge of the disc, I too could have a joint Pegg artwork.  I'd like that, though it would not carry the cache of a Maggi Hambling one.  Alas, I don't think I could afford to have it fabricated.  It is seven years to go to the one hundredth anniversary of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.  I'd better start saving up.

*In the spirit of this post, the title is lifted from a book by David Pye I still haven't read.

Monday, 18 November 2013

talk the talk

This is going to be an even shorter blog post, because it is twenty five to ten, I have just got in from the talk, and I haven't had my supper yet.  I don't like talking on a full stomach, too soporific, so I had a bag of crisps and a cup of tea before I went out, and another cup of tea and a biscuit at the garden club, but reheated goulash soup is calling.  I should have used the late start this morning to gather the twigs for my talk, but I could not tear myself away from my porridge and a second mug of tea to rush round the garden in the rain harvesting pieces of native tree, so I had to do that in the dark when I got home, and go through the slides, which I ran out of energy to do last night. It might be diplomatic to spend some of the remainder of the evening speaking with the Systems Administrator, rather than buried in the computer.

Work was quiet.  And damp.  That sums it up pretty well.  The gardener came into the shop at lunchtime and remarked that it was like the Marie Celeste in here, which it was, so it's just as well he spent the morning delivering a van load of trees to Norfolk.  At least we'll be able to invoice for those.  I like the gardener, who smiled as I remarked Very flat, Norfolk, in my best Dame Celia Molestrangler voice.

The weather is forecast to turn much colder, and so we were busy moving more plants under cover. The standard hollies had to come in, and the Ilex crenata clipped balls, and the evergreen Euonymus.  They stayed outside last winter, but dropped a lot of leaves and looked terrible for months afterwards.

The garden club was quite local, so I didn't have a long drive up the A12 to contend with.  The meeting was well attended, and I got the equipment set up with plenty of time to spare.  There was a keen volunteer from their local wood in the audience, which I knew before he said anything because one of the organisers had come to check that I knew they had a local wood.  I did.  If I hadn't checked that in advance I think I'd have been toast.  As it was, the volunteer was happy I knew about it, and by the end of the evening I'd given him my e-mail address so that next year he can take me on a guided tour of the bluebells and orchids.

Sitting quietly in a corner and waiting for the proceedings to start, the proceedings principally consisting of me, I wondered what it would be like to lose my nerve.  I worry about the equipment not working, if I press a wrong button and lose my way in the digital projector's tiny electronic brain, or if the lamp goes.  I have never yet had an attack of stage fright, but suppose I did?  I decided it was best not to think about the projector breaking down, and reminded myself that earlier tonight when I tested it on the dining table it had worked perfectly, and that so far my memory and wits had worked OK as well.

I think I covered most of what I meant to say about the slides.  There are bits of the presentation that don't flow particularly smoothly, but that's down to the way it was written.  Not my fault, I didn't write it.  The audience seemed to enjoy it, and I didn't notice anyone drop off.  I had one combative questioner who queried the entire philosophical basis of conservation, but the rest of the room seemed happy with my answer that yes, species had always died out and new ones evolved, but the difficulty at the moment seemed to be the pace at which the dying out bit was happening, wrapped up in a joke about how I was not lying in bed crying at night because the woolly mammoth had vanished.

I'd rather forgotten I'd promised to do that talk, and it slipped in under the radar when I was convinced I didn't have another until March.  I think that now I really don't have another until then. That's good.  And now I am going to have some goulash.

Addendum  The boss made it clear to me that he does not burn coal on his fire.  The black smoke was just him adjusting the damper.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

a long day

This is going to be a very short blog post, because it is quarter past eight, I haven't had supper yet, and I still haven't looked at the slides for tomorrow's talk.  The 8.15 am start came in handy again this morning, as I was able to assemble a goulash and put it in the simmer oven before going to work, so at least there is some dinner.  From work I went straight on to the concert, and the Systems Administrator has just got back from Cheltenham, so neither of us would have felt like cooking otherwise.

The SA had a nice time at the races, won some money on Friday and spent the next two days gently losing it again.  And saw some very high class horses, which is of course the important thing.  The way to stay down there economically during a race week is to base oneself in Gloucester, and get the train.  Rates at the Ibis in Gloucester, booked in advance, remains very reasonable, even thought their management must know there is a race meeting on, while the Travelodge in Cheltenham shoves prices through the roof.

I didn't see my employers at all today.  I knew someone was there at about quarter to nine, when the chimney suddenly began to smoke as if somebody had put coal on the fire, but after that, nothing.  The morning started brightly, but by lunchtime it was drizzling very lightly.  The teashop girl had been told not to come in until eleven, although we open at ten, and my colleague had to make tea for one set of customers.  They were kind enough to tell her it was very good tea, which she relayed to me, with the effect of setting up an ear-worm in my head for the rest of the morning, Martin Simpson's When I came to Caledonia.

We cleaned up herbaceous plants and put them in the tunnel on The Other Side for the winter, and were polite and helpful to those customers there were, who were grateful.  I sold somebody a dwarf Scots pine that has the trick of going gold in the winter, and a twisty branched Prunus that flowers in late winter, and explained to her that the holly in her garden that never flowered would definitely not make the hedgehog holly she was thinking of buying fruit, because the hedgehog holly was a male form.  She bought it anyway.

I thought I recognised one customer, and took the opportunity to sneak a look at the name on her credit card when she couldn't find the slot in the card machine, and found I was right.  We knew her twenty years ago or more, when her husband was very active in a sailing association we used to belong to.  He died sadly young, of a heart attack, and in tragic circumstances, at the helm of his yacht part way across the North Sea, leaving his crew to cope with a traditional wooden boat they didn't really know how to sail or navigate, and the corpse of their friend in the cockpit.  I didn't say anything.  It was a long time ago, and maybe she didn't want to be reminded of it, in the middle of shopping for climbing roses to go on her fence.  It was strange, I didn't recognise her face at all at first, but something about her rhythm of speech was familiar.

I missed the first ten minutes of the concert, originally scheduled to be Mozart, but which got switched to Beethoven due to a change in the quartet line-up and the new second violin (or whoever it was who'd left) not knowing the Mozart well enough.  I was disappointed about that, as I can slightly take or leave Mozart (Philistine that I am) but like Beethoven quartets.  Still, I wouldn't have enjoyed it, knowing I'd abandoned my friend to lock up by herself.  It would have been nice if the boss could have got organised to be around for twenty minutes before four o'clock, but there you go.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

day one of three

The eight-fifteen start came in handy this morning, as I had time to go and pick a bowl of 'Dumelow's Seedling' before going to work.  I meant to yesterday, but forgot.  It's not the most beautiful apple, having a dull green, waxy, scurfy sort of appearance, but tastes nice, and our tree crops prolifically in the corner where we've put it, the apples hanging on until they are ripe with great tenacity.  I went to pick them after the great storm, assuming they would have blown off, but they were still firmly attached to the branches.  An apple is ready to pick when it comes away from the tree at your lightest touch.  If you have to pull and twist, it isn't time to pick it yet.

I knew there must be a shoot on the estate, because there were only two radios left, including the boss's one which is stuck permanently on Channel One since he dropped it and broke the tuning knob off.  I actually find that rather handy.  The person who might have been our first customer of the day turned out to be looking for the way in to the house, because he was on the shoot.  The knee length tweed knickerbockers were a givaway, before he asked.  He was shocked that we were at work so early, which showed a sort of charming naivetee, though compared to when the day starts in the City, it was quite late.

The next might-have-been a customer was a nurseryman delivering a van load of plants from Devon.  They should have arrived yesterday, but he got caught up in the chaos on the A12 caused by a lorry overturning near the M25 junction, which was so bad it made the Radio 5 Live traffic news. He said he had a couple of plants he needed us to look at, to decide whether they were good enough to accept.  I didn't think either of us had the authority to say yea or nea on whether to accept plant orders, but we were the only people there were, so we did our best.  We weren't entirely sure where in the polytunnel we were supposed to stand the delivery, since when my colleague went over yesterday afternoon to find out, the manager's eager helper said that it was too complicated, and she would come in herself to deal with it, but then the boss said she was not to come in today. There is nothing like regarding people as numpties and refusing to show them how things work, on the grounds that they will only make a mess of it, for ensuring that they do get it wrong.

There was a distinct shortage of cake in the cafe.  My colleague got some moist ginger slices out of the freezer, and stood them on top of the cappucino machine to defrost.  I'm sure that for the cafe to ever succeed, it has to operate consistently.  I wouldn't arrange to meet a friend there, when I was never sure in advance if there was going to be any cake, or anybody on duty who could work the cappucino machine.

Overall it was a quiet day, the takings boosted by a young couple buying fruit trees.  I recognised them from their previous visits, and their charming small daughter, whose principle phrase is still Mummy, I'm hungry.  Work was not quite finished when I got home, as I had to write a newsletter. The owner asked for it on Thursday, but I was so busy with the garden and the kitchen cleaning, I never got round to it, and anyway I knew she wasn't going to do anything with it before Monday, when the woman who works in the office comes in.  But tomorrow I'm going to a concert after work, though I fear I'll miss the first part, and after the concert is the AGM, which I have to attend because I'm taking the minutes.  I might skip the cheese and wine, as I'll be driving (so no wine) and have hands you wouldn't want to touch cheese with if you were going to eat it, but I didn't think I'd feel like writing a newsletter by the time I got in.  I might have slightly overclubbed things, since on Monday night I'm doing a woodland charity talk to a garden club, so I ought to mug up on that later as well.

Friday, 15 November 2013


There are not enough hours in the day.  That's definitely the problem.  The house had got to a state of dustiness, stickiness and fluffiness that were too much even for me, and I am not overly hung up on these things.  A touch of dirt primes your immune system and prevents asthma.  But there's a touch of dirt, and then there's squalour.  The Systems Administrator said hopefully that we liked it scuzzy, to which my reply was, not this bad.  On the other hand, the weather forecast was for a beautiful day, sunny, calm, warmish for the time of year.  The garden beckoned, for who knows how many more good days there'll be before winter sets in.  The papers were talking of snow up north (I'd like to apologise to our viewers in the north.  It must be awful for them.  Possibly Victoria Woods' finest line).

I compromised and decided I'd clean the kitchen until ten, then switch to outside operations, and resume housework when it got dark.  My first two hour stint of kitchen cleaning took me round almost three sides of it, but didn't include the sinks, or the Aga.  Saving the worst till last.  I didn't get as far as doing the floor, either, but did leave the chairs stacked upside down on the kitchen table, along with the bins, as a hint to myself to do the floor later.  There are some extraordinarily large tufts of cat fur in the corners.  I think they must have been fighting.  (To anyone reading this who ever eats food prepared in this house, fear not.  We do have a good wipe round and a vacuum before starting to cook, when it's guests).

Potting up the tulips was much more fun, though I discovered I hadn't ordered enough bulbs for all the pots.  I have a set of Whichford basket weave pattern pots for tulips, bought in their winter sales over several seasons, and I hadn't realised I was up to fourteen, and only bought bulbs for ten. Now I've got the pots, it seems a terrible waste not to grow flowers in them, but by this stage of the season shops are starting to run low on tulips.  I got ten in the garden centre round the corner, while I was buying more mushroom compost, and I'll have a look tomorrow at what we've got left at work, though I know there weren't many.  I need varieties growing at least twenty inches tall, to go with a hot colour scheme, red, purple, yellow and orange.  Maybe the Clacton Garden Centre will have some left, and I can combine a visit there with another trip to the dump.  Otherwise I'm going to be scouring around the DIY sheds.

I was allowed to bag up my own mushroom compost in peace today.  The last time I went, a tall youth appeared clutching a very large shovel, just as I was unpacking my bags, and asked if I wanted help.  It seemed rude to say no, so like a true Brit I said gosh, thank you, how kind.  He took the garden centre's bottomless bucket from me, that is used as a measure of thirty litres, and then spent a long time trying to get it into the mouth of the bag, since each time he pulled one side up, the other side slipped off again.  Then he took a massive swing at the pile of compost with the large shovel, which skated over the surface without digging in at all.  I began to think that I did not have time to be helped, and went to find another bucket, unfortunately with a bottom, so once filled I had to lift the contents into bags with my hands, and by tipping the bucket very carefully.

After filling three bags the tall youth asked how many I wanted, and I said as many as would fit in the car.  After his fourth bag he wandered off.  Final score, youth four, middle aged lady six.  There is an art to shovelling shit, as there is to most things, and the tall youth had yet to master it. There is no point in smashing a large shovel into a solid mound of straw and manure, it won't dig in.  First of all you need to run the edge of the shovel down the heap a few times, to loosen pieces, then you scoop them up.  There is an art to wedging the bucket in the bags as well, though I can't explain what it is.  The curious can experiment for themselves.

After lunch I cleaned the chickens' roosting board, then planted out my two new chrysanthemums, the stately 'Emperor of China' and a lower growing one with little pale pink buttons called 'Julia', bought on impulse from the plant centre because it was so pretty, and late season, and I thought I could squeeze it into the bed with the other chrysanthemums.  The dark red double 'Duchess of Edinburgh' has disappeared without trace from the bed, though a smaller growing un-named red double grown on from a piece of a bedding chrysanthemum a customer broke off at work is doing nicely.  I wonder whether I put the Duchess in a particularly nasty piece of soil, or if she was not such a good doer as the others.  A quick check on Google came up with a supplier who described her as less vigorous, and another who said she was half-hardy, so maybe.

Then I moved a clump of Galtonia, originally raised from seed, that I had in a too-dry spot, so that while it made leaves it never flowered, and a patch of the aster 'Little Carlow' that was struggling under the double burdens of very light sand and partial shade, stuck between shrubs in the long bed in the front garden.  I put it to live with the other asters, where it should be happier, on slightly heavier soil that's received a lot of muck.  The books say to move asters in the spring, when they are starting into growth, not in the autumn, so I didn't risk breaking it apart too much, but did split it in half, as it was big enough to yield two decent sized lumps.

And now it is back to the kitchen cleaning.  Alas.  The black cat is purring in front of the Aga.  He isn't going to like it when I switch the vacuum cleaner on.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

pure genius and Victorian tail tweaking

I went today to see the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern.  I adore Klee.  I went to a previous show at the Hayward, which I guess from a quick search via Google (what did we do without it?) was the one co-curated by Bridget Riley in 2002.  I loved that show.  I remember standing in front of a little canvas of coloured squares, painted after Klee went to north Africa and discovered colour (or rather, the full potential of colour.  One presumes he was not seeing the world in black-and-white up to that point) and laughing with happiness because I liked it so much.

Klee was a genius.  A pure and simple, bona fide, fully signed up, one hundred per cent brilliant genius.  He could draw.  Certainly after his Tunisian revelation he was a complete and utter master of colour.  The works on display span a dazzling array of media and techniques.  Graphic media, that is.  No film, found objects, or constructions in this exhibition, just room after room of paintings and drawings, which are simultaneously disparate and united.  Disparate because Klee used such a range of techniques, and palettes, and subjects.  Sometimes works seem to echo or prefigure the work of other artists, though always seeming utterly original and the authentic voice of Klee.  United because they are the authentic voice of Klee.  Sometimes he returns to a familiar theme, or even a strong diagonal line across the canvas you recognise from two rooms and several years back, but however broad or delicate the lines, sombre or humorous the subject matter, vivid or monochrome the palette, they all feel like the output of one mind.

None of them are very large, and as Grayson Perry remarked in his Reith lectures, the largest works are not necessarily the best (though they tend to be the most expensive).  I have no idea how expensive Klee is.  I'm sure I couldn't afford one, on the other hand I don't think anything of his has sold at auction for anything remotely approaching a hundred and forty two million dollars.  The friend I went with demanded to know why we hadn't been taught about Klee at school, and she is right, he is ridiculously unsung.  He was, by all accounts, a very kind, clever, funny, perceptive, thoughtful, brave man, and those qualities shine through his works, along with the beauty and deftness of each line and fleck of paint.

He was a genius.  It is a genius exhibition.  Go and see it as many times as you can.  It runs until 9 March 2014.

After that it seemed almost a waste to dilute the memories by going to see anything else, on the other hand, we had taken a day to go to London, not to mention the cost of train fares nowadays. Fortified by sandwiches and a sit-down in Pret, we returned to Liverpool Street via the Guildhall art gallery.  They are showing Victoriana: the art of revival, though only until 8 December.  It is a set of recent works by an assortment of artists, produced in response to Victorian taste and aesthetics. As someone who finds steampunk quite entertaining (not to the extent of wanting to go around dressed in a black corset, goggles and gauntlets myself, but amusing as a spectator sport) I wanted to catch it if I could, before it finished.  It's been on since 7 September, but dates and locations never worked out before.

It is great fun.  Not in the same class as Klee, but fun, tongue-in-cheek, laugh-out-loud fun, with some beauty, and some sombre, odd and downright squirm inducing moments.  Well, the heydey of the British Empire wasn't all cakes and ale for everybody all the time.  Some of the artists have chosen to play with actual Victorian art objects from the permanent collection, so that as you enter the exhibition you are greeted by a bust of General Gordon wearing a pair of steampunk goggles, which sets the tone for the rest.  I wouldn't walk five hundred miles, and then five hundred more for it, though I practically would for Klee, but it's nice if you're passing.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

planned power cuts

Today we had a scheduled power cut, to allow trees growing near the power lines to be safely cut back.  It was originally scheduled for last Wednesday, two days after the great storm, and we weren't entirely surprised when a letter dropped through the door shortly before it was due to start, telling us that it had been deferred.  Half an hour later a second pick-up truck swooshed round the turning circle, bringing the new date, and I did feel a twinge of irritation that UK Power Networks couldn't have organised themselves slightly better and made one journey instead of two, doing their tiny bit towards efficiency savings to help keep electricity prices down.

The Helpful Information on the back of the letter warned us to 'turn off and unplug any sensitive equipment such TVs, satellite receivers, machinery, computers and other office equipment'.  Given that they all have to take their chances in the frequent unscheduled power blips that occur here, it seemed rather late to start worrying about that.  There is no need to leave one light on to let us know when the power returns: the cacophony of bleeps and flashing lights from gadgets whose timers have been thrown out by the interruption to the power supply does that more than adequately.

I continued weeding and mulching the rose bed behind the house.  I was about to write that my progress is like the advancing tide, but that would not be true, since there are no little rushing waves and retreats.  It is more like a lock filling, very slowly.  You can't see the water level changing, but after a while you realise that a layer of bricks that was visible is now covered.  I pick up the fallen rose leaves, destined for the dump to avoid recirculating the black-spot, pull up weeds, pluck horsetail, and dibble the soil surface around with a trowel to destroy any small weed seedlings. I cover the soil with compost, dust with blood, fish and bone, and sprinkle with Strulch.  By mid afternoon I'd run out of compost, again, and was down to my last bucket of Strulch.  I don't like to even try and calculate how much compost I'd need to do every bed I want to do, or how much it would cost.  Better to keep buying it, eight or ten bags at a time, until I run out of energy, or the weather brings proceedings to a halt.

The Systems Administrator could not chop up any logs for the fire without power for the electric chainsaw, and proposed going for a walk.  I said hopefully that an alternative would be to take the anti-chicken netting off the front of the dahlia bed, and chop the dahlias down, a project I have mentioned before, more than once.  I don't really expect the SA to help with the ornamental gardening.  It is my hobby, after all, and the SA chops logs, does any tree work requiring power tools, mows the lawns (but doesn't cut the edges), builds things, has bonfires, and drives the tractor to cart debris around the place.  But there is lots to do at this stage of the great winter clear-up, and always the awful possibility that by the first week of December it could be snowing, and not let up properly until late March, so I thought I'd try my luck and ask.  The SA obligingly cleared the bed.  The left hand compost bin is filling up nicely.

The power came on again at four on the dot.  You get so used to having electricity, you forget how many things in the house need it.  Scrambled eggs on toast for lunch, or omelette?  Er, no toaster. And the garage up-and-over door is electrically driven.  It has an emergency manual over-ride, but I didn't like to use that when it wasn't an emergency, in case I messed up the automated system, so had to search for my tools in the dark garage by torchlight, and carry them out through the laundry.

Our Ginger hid in the laundry, which he doesn't normally do, and later on invented a new and quite imaginative (for a cat) game with the black cat, in which they batted at each other through the vents in the louvre door.  The SA heard the scrabbling noise, and came to let the trapped cat out, but Our Ginger didn't want to come out, and once the door was closed again they resumed their paw fight.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

gifts for gardeners

It's that time of year when families and friends start asking each other what they would like for Christmas.  Cue the Archbishop of Canterbury, to tell us that we should not place too much emphasis on expensive presents.  He's right, it's the thought that counts, as we may mutter through gritted teeth when given something utterly inappropriate, like the Christmas a long-deceased relative gave my mother, who never wears scarves, the same identical scarf for the second year running.  True thought, of course, lies not in the buying a gift for the sake of it, because you have to give something but don't have a clue what to buy or the energy or nous to find out, but in managing to track down something that will genuinely be appreciated.

I like books, for example, but it's risky for anyone except the Systems Administrator to buy me books on spec, because they don't have regular access to my bookshelves and can't see what books I've already got.  And I have a lot of books.  There are several ways round this problem, requiring varying degrees of thought and ingenuity.  One is simply to ask me what I'd like.  Another is to spot something I might like, perhaps recently published to reduce the chances I already have it, and discreetly ask the SA whether I've got it, or whether the SA was planning to buy it for me.  A third way is to take a punt, perhaps mentioning that they have the receipt should I need to change it.  A classy option not open to everyone would be to buy something overseas or from an obscure museum or gallery that isn't generally available in the UK, and that I am incredibly unlikely to have.

In the plant centre at this time of year we get customers who want to buy special plants as Christmas presents.  Sometimes they have clearly discussed it with the intended recipient first, such as the parents who are buying their daughter a plum tree for Christmas, and co-habitees buying for each other are fine, since they share a garden.  Other times, I have a lurking suspicion the object of their generosity may secretly not be nearly as delighted as they are supposed to be. Oh, they have a huge garden, the special plant buyers confidently inform me, as they bear away a silver stemmed birch (ultimate height sixty feet) or a large shrub.  Even gardens measured in acres generally have their full measure of trees, after a few years, and when they don't, keen gardeners have their own pretty strong ideas about which ones they would like to allocate space to. The cultivated part of our garden runs to a couple of acres (that is using 'cultivated' in a fairly loose sense for parts of it) and I would be struggling to find room for most medium sized shrubs, never mind a large one or a tree.  I have a couple of nasty, windy, rooty, problem spaces I need to fill with something that won't immediately die, and that's about it.

Plants that are supposed to have short little lives are safe.  I like giving people violas, because they are so pretty, and nobody expects them to last for too long.  The gift invites enjoyment in the moment, without making any long term claim for room in their garden.  I have a couple of times given peonies, when I thought the recipients had room for one, because they are special plants, that should outlive their new owner, and ask for nothing except to be planted at the correct depth in decent soil, and to be left alone.  Keep other things off their crowns and cut off the dead leaves in winter, and that's it.  But in general I don't advise giving gardeners plants as presents.  Swapping bits of things you've propagated, when they can say yes or no, is another matter.  I am the grateful recipient of a tall white lavender and a drought resistant ornamental pea from a gardening friend who is equally pleased with the odd box of eggs.  That's different.  I could have said if I didn't want them.

If you want to make a keen gardener happy, think about giving them useful stuff.  Gardening gloves are a disposable item, when you put in eight hour days hand-weeding.  They go at the finger tips. But, and this is where the thought counts, find out their preferred make or brand, and buy them some of those.  I favour green rubberised cloth gloves that sell in independent garden centres for around six pounds fifty a pair.  Cheaper green gloves are available, but not as good, because the green stains your hands and is incredibly difficult to scrub off, so you have to eat your lunch and spend that evening with digits like an extra from a zombie movie.

White plastic plant labels are brilliant for anyone who does a lot of their own propagating, sows seeds, or pots bulbs.  It is a great luxury to be able to label every pot, and not rely on labelling one in the tray, which seems so obvious at the time, and so confusing after you have moved things around in the greenhouse, or had to stand a couple of dry pots in a tray of water to re-moisten them.  They are not glamorous, white plastic labels, but will probably prove much more useful than a packet of eight expensive metal or wooden or slate ones, that don't go with any of the pots or mulches or materials in the garden, and end up sitting for years in their unopened packet, unless they are quietly re-gifted as raffle prizes to a gardening club.  If someone gave me, say, three hundred four inch long white plastic labels I would be really pleased, but people don't.

Once, when my mother asked what I would like, I said truthfully that I needed some blood, fish and bone, but I didn't get that either, as she exclaimed that she couldn't give her daughter dried blood for her birthday.  Soil conditioner is very useful stuff, and most keen gardeners would like to have some more.  Again, the thought lies in finding out their preferred brand.  If they are an organic gardener, at least when it comes to soil fertility, they don't want an artificial chemical product, while if they have a keen digging dog then they don't want anything containing bone meal.  I believe firmly in the almost miraculous properties of liquid seaweed, and would be far more thrilled to receive a big bottle of that than a bottle of port, which we don't drink, but over the years we have received more port than seaweed solution.  In fact, we have not been given any seaweed solution at all.

Tools are tricky.  Shops set out to lure non-gardeners with pretty, shiny tools with wooden handles, some of which are not strong enough for serious use.  Proper gardening tools are often rather utilitarian in appearance, and gardeners tend to have as strong views about their tools as they do about trees.  I do my light pruning with a pair of swivel handled Felco secateurs that cost about as much as I'd earn in a day at the plant centre, and are extremely comfortable to use for hours at a stretch.  I may smile nicely and say thank you if given an alternative set (folding, or with Liberty print handles), but I won't swap them for the Felcos.  On the other hand, if anyone quietly found out the model number of the Felcos and gave me a packet of replacement springs for the correct type, I'd be touched.

Unfortunately, even though all of these things would be appreciated by keen gardeners, and would show true thought and trouble, would-be gift givers don't buy them for Christmas.  Between now and Christmas I expect a steady trickle of customers in the plant centre buying special plants, ornamental labels, under-engineered hand trowels and forks, and herb growing sets with too-small pots.  That's the way it goes.  Some things are socially coded 'Gift' in our society, and some aren't.

Monday, 11 November 2013

a damp day

Winter is drawing closer.  It may still be technically autumn, but the doors of the polytunnels in the plant centre were shut this morning, and after lunch the gardener was told to set the paraffin heater up on bricks, ready for use.  He must have filled it, too, since a powerful smell of paraffin hung on the air in front of it.

My job was to continue bringing herbaceous plants in under cover for the winter.  Dianella, Liriope, Libertia and Kniphofia can none of them be trusted to over-winter outside in a black plastic pot.  Up to five pots of each variety go on the ground in front of the heater: that's why it's on bricks, so that it will blow warm air over them rather than straight at them.  Any surplus pots over and above five have to go in the tunnel on The Other Side, and take their chances without a heater.  I'm not entirely sure why we bother with the heater, since all sorts of things end up spending the winter months in the back up polytunnel, and not many seem to die of cold.  Plants that need the protection of a cold conservatory is about as tender as we mostly stock: we don't do any needing a heated conservatory as a minimum.

Dianella and the rest of them are united in their tendency to develop discoloured brown or dead leaves, that need removing to make the plant look smart in its pot.  Liriope are not such offenders as the others.  I grow them in the garden at home, and am quite pleased with the result, without spending hours grooming out old leaves.  Libertia tends to become tatty with age, and I don't like it so much as I did a decade ago.

I had to explain the pollination requirements of Skimmia to one customer, whom I gathered had taken over garden duties beyond mowing the lawn after his wife died.  He lamented that they were complicated.  The existence of one hermaphrodite form, capable of berrying by itself, confuses the issue slightly, but apart from that I'd have thought that Skimmia were pretty straightforward.  The concept of separate male and female plants, the females bearing berries and the males needed for pollination, is a very small step from the human model.  Apples are far worse.  Do I need a male 'Cox' to fertilise my female 'Cox'?  Trying to explain that apples are not male and female per se, but require a different variety for pollination, is a much larger leap away from the human equivalent, and as for when you get to triploids...

The varifocals were great, though.  It's such a novelty being able to see the customer, the price labels on their plants, the till, and the credit card machine all at the same time while maintaining an upright position.

As the afternoon went on it began to drizzle, a fine, persistent rain.  Three lady customers who had arrived quite late chortled to me as they walked past that 'they must be mad'.  It is no use expecting anyone working in a plant nursery to admire you for walking around in the rain looking at plants with a view to purchase.  After all, you are free at any point to declare Sod it, I'm freezing, let's come back when it's dry.  The staff are stuck there until close of play.  Our advertised closing time in winter is Dusk, a distressingly vague concept, and I wish we could just say 4.00 pm like the Chatto Gardens do.  The ladies seemed to take a fairly generous view of when Dusk was, as they wandered around still looking at plants, now with the manager in tow.  At five past four I took a phone message, and at ten past another, and then, as the manager was temporarily detached from his ladies and carrying a tree about for them in the rain, I asked if I should cash up two of the tills and could I go home now, please?

There was no progress to report on the kitchen sink.  It wasn't the weather for dismantling the plumbing, or even using power tools outdoors.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

kitchen sink drama

The war of the kitchen sink has stepped up a notch.  The sink fired its opening salvo back in the summer, when it began to drain slowly.  Specifically, the left hand sink began to take over-long to empty itself.  We have two sinks, side by side, a wonderful arrangement that does much to preserve domestic harmony, and which I heartily recommend to anyone who can find the space in their kitchen.  It means that one of you can wash their hands, or empty the teapot, or do whatever sink-based thing you need to do at that moment, while the other continues washing up, or scraping carrots, or whatever they were already doing in the other sink.  Apart from dual controls on the electric blanket, it is one of the most tension eliminating household arrangements you can have.

The sinks have developed a secular version of distinct kosher roles.  The left hand sink is the food sink, for washing vegetables and doing washing up that won't go in the dishwasher.  The right hand sink is for the cats' dishes, and is the one I choose for washing plant pots and labels.  It acts as an overflow space for standing saucepans to soak, but we wouldn't immerse anything we were going to eat, or eat off or out of, in it.

I announced my intention of buying a bottle of drain clearing gunk.  The Systems Administrator implored me not to do that, since it would upset the ecology of the septic tank, and insisted that a quick go with the plunger would fix it.  It did, for about ten minutes, then the sink began draining slowly again.

As the weeks passed, the drainage issue got worse, and more obscure.  Sometimes, running hot water down the sink seemed to clear it.  Sometimes, the right hand sink wouldn't drain, and the left hand one would.  If the right hand sink was full of water with the cats dishes soaking in it, sometimes running the water out of the right sink had the effect of making the left one drain, when it wouldn't before.  The SA admitted that the problem had gone beyond the plunger stage.  Two bottles of drain clear failed to have any lasting effect.  The SA rodded both drains, then took everything out from the cupboards under the sinks, dismantled all the plumbing, and cleaned every pipe.  Twice.  The left hand sink went on not draining, while the right hand sink generally did drain, though not perfectly, despite the fact that every inch of pipework above the point where the outlets combined had been cleaned.  The SA began to wear a haunted look.  A friend suggested it must be something to do with airlocks, while I favoured a Douglas Adams disruption in the space-time continuum, like the one accounting for the sofa half way up the stairs.

The SA announced that we were going to have to lift the manhole cover outside the front door, and go in from the bottom.  This in turn would entail lifting the wooden deck that now sits over the manhole cover to act as a vaguely scenic front door step, which by now has been partially obscured by an over-vigorous juniper growing over it.  My services were booked, to help lift the deck, and to cut back the juniper, since the SA held that if one of my plants was going to be knackered, I had better do the fell deed myself.  The promise of spending this Sunday afternoon cleaning out the drains dangled before me like a hot date.

The SA started studying on-line plumbing forums.  There would be such a thing, of course.  The general consensus chimed with the SA's previous diagnosis, that we had a fat ball floating about somewhere in the sink outlet.  Pouring large amounts of boiling water down the sink was recommended, and when I came in from the garden mid-morning as well as two kettles on the go and the stock pot of hot water, there was a powerful smell of vinegar, as bicarbonate of soda and vinegar was another recommended treatment, along with the advice not to spend up on proprietary drain cleaners but just to buy the cheapest basic bleach.

By lunchtime the SA had announced a change of battle plan.  We were not going to lift the deck and the manhole cover, since the SA was not convinced that the sink outlet went there.  However, the Chaenomeles under the kitchen window was going to have to go, so that the SA could dismantle the sink drain from the outside.  In deference to my feelings, rather than require me to execute the Japanese quince myself, the SA set to with loppers.  It was going to have to be substantially reduced anyway, to allow the window fitters access to the outside of the kitchen window when they come, so I was already more or less resigned to its loss, but still not looking forward to doing the deed myself.

Tomorrow, the SA is going to unscrew the kitchen waste pipe outside the kitchen window, and rod it as far downstream as possible, or if necessary jet it with the high pressure water jetter.  I'll be at work, but I have an uneasy feeling that this may not be the final, decisive battle in the war of the kitchen sink.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

short days

I went to the dump this morning.  I hadn't been for a while, for all sorts of reasons.  I was busy.  It was raining.  It just had been raining so the bags of rubbish were wet, and would make my car wet. It was a nice day and I wanted to spend the time in the garden.  It was a windy day and the rubbish would blow everywhere.  In the end I had to go, because I had run out of empty bags in which to put any more horsetail, nettles, creeping sorrel and other horrors.

The dump was doing quite brisk trade, for the second week of November.  It is generally a cheerful place.  Everyone using it is united in the knowledge that they are behaving like virtuous citizens, and not just tipping their waste into the nearest lay-by or field entrance, and the staff joke and laugh with their customers.  You would not imagine that a civic recycling centre in Clacton would be a jolly place to visit, but it is, on the whole.  As a bonus, I was pleased to find that none of my bags had leaked on the back seats.

I came home via the local garden centre to buy mushroom compost.  They sell composted green waste as well, but I've seen what goes into that, and don't fancy it so much, all that diseased plant material and weeds.  The mushroom compost must be reasonably free of nasties, given it has just been used to produce food.  Alas, that will be the first of many, many trips.

Then it took me until lunchtime to move the pots of dahlias and Eucomis from the deck outside the conservatory into the greenhouse, a job I should have done weeks ago.  They were rather wet, but only one plant felt suspect and rotten at the base.  I had to stash them under the staging, where they can dry off and will be protected from the worst of the winter cold, but they'll need to come out before they start into growth.  They have started growing under the greenhouse bench before now, but they became drawn and leggy, and never really recovered for the rest of the season.  I'm sure they need repotting into fresh compost anyway, as they've been in those pots for ages, and didn't grow or flower all that well this year.

As things stand, there is no room for them to come out from under the bench, which will be tricky come late March.  By then I'll just have to have planted out some of the other things that are currently occupying the greenhouse floor.  There are all the iris I got from a Peter Beales' special bargain offer of Howard bare root iris.  Howard are a wholesale grower up in Norfolk: I know their plants, and the thought of buying iris at one pound fifty instead of the six pounds fifty the Plant Centre would charge for the identical same plant, after it had been potted into a two litre pot of compost by someone like me and given a couple of months to root in, was just too tempting.

After lunch I spread mulch and compost in one of the rose beds, until the light went.  It gets dark disgracefully early at this time of the year, but I know from past experience that it is not worth trying to press on into the final ten minutes of dusk.  That's when accidents happen and I poke myself in the eye, and end up spending Sunday morning waiting to be seen at the walk-in clinic.  It was starting to rain again anyway.