Tuesday, 31 December 2013

out with the old, in with the new

Christmas has pretty much been cleaned out of the fridge.  The ham yielded one last round of sandwiches, and the chicken a final cold cut with bubble and squeak, before the carcass was boiled for stock, picked over, and the carefully de-boned meat given to the cats.  The big anxious tabby got one odd left-over sausage as well.  The extra large bargain bag of Brussels sprouts, much too big for two people but it was pre-bagged and cost a pound and I had a lot of other things to worry about, yielded up a second serving of freshly cooked sprouts as well as the bubble.  We still haven't started on the cheese, and there are some small oranges and half a box of politically incorrect dates left, but everything else has been eaten, mince pies, pudding, rum butter, the lot.

Total wastage, half a tin of Paxo and half a tray of pork and chestnut stuffing, which is a shame but down to the size they come in, too much for two, even if you like cold stuffing (I do, Systems Administrator not so keen).  One slice of bacon that got slightly dessicated in the great Christmas lunch scramble.  A mystery pork pie found in the vegetable compartment of the fridge, dated best before 16th December.  The left-overs from the second lot of sprouts haven't been consigned to the food waste recycling bin yet, but I'm not sure when we're going to eat them, so perhaps they should provisionally count.  I found a packet of date expired poppadums in the cupboard, which were not bought as festive fare so perhaps shouldn't be included in the wasted Christmas food total, even though it is Christmas, and they are about to be chucked out.  And that's it.  I shall permit myself to feel smug amidst the outbreak of media breast-beating about uneaten food at Christmas, before having to admit that even if I have not participated in the waste, I have certainly taken part in the over-consumption.

And now the new year beckons, and the Telegraph and the Guardian and the Independent and even the good old BBC are full of advice on what to do about it.  What to wear to my New Year's Eve party, why I should not go to a party, why not to expect to enjoy the party, how to kiss somebody at the party, where I could go if I am not going to a party but want to go somewhere, why I should give up drink for January, why January is a dreadful time to give up anything, ten ideas for resolutions, why resolutions are a thoroughly bad idea, and how we are about to be over-run with Bulgarians and Romanians.

Let's see.  We are not going to a party because we have not been asked to one.  Haven't been for years.  I don't think that's because our friends and relations, despite the fact that they are all planning to host marvellous parties, have decided not to invite us.  I rather think they aren't holding parties, or at least, those of them that live within walking distance of each other's houses might be going around to share a ritual bottle of champagne, but that's about it.  We do not live within walking distance of any of our friends and relations, or at least not the sort of distance we'd want to walk after a party.

Since we'll be at home, we'll probably wear the same clothes we normally wear at home in the middle of winter.  That is, something fairly warm that the cats can moult on, claw at and dribble over without disaster.  In my case, almost certainly the same thick Norwegian sweater that I'm wearing now, and have had for ages, long before Scandi crime drama became de rigueur on the TV.  Good, that solves that problem.  The question of having someone to kiss is very conveniently solved by my having married them nearly thirty years ago.  Now that's what I call forward planning, though since the SA still has a cold, now going spectacularly chesty, we'll probably skip that bit.  Instead, the SA can stare longingly at the tip of my nose and go No, I won't kiss you.

My first specifically 2014 related act will probably be to switch over to next year's calendar tomorrow morning.  Then I will probably go on writing 2013 on cheques for several weeks.  I thought that in 2014 I might have another go at making my own bread, try and make a routine of it.  Of course I need to get my employment situation sorted out, and depending on what I'm doing I might manage to grow some vegetables (next year in Jerusalem).  I will make a list of the art exhibitions I want to visit, and set about catching up with various people.  I must not leave it too long before visiting my newly bereaved friend.  Some time in January I must do my tax return.  I will let the Romanians and Bulgarians take care of themselves.  And perhaps resolve not to spend more than half an hour each day reading the websites of the Telegraph and the Guardian and the Independent and the good old BBC.

Happy New Year.

Monday, 30 December 2013

storm in a bookcase

The bookshelf crisis is getting too acute to be ignored.  Things have been getting tight for some time now, with new additions having to be stuffed horizontally into the shelves on top of the existing books, and tottering heaps starting to collect on the study floor.  I've suggested to the Systems Administrator a couple of times that it was getting to the point where we needed to start building shelves in the third spare bedroom.  Which decodes as the SA needing to build them, or my needing the SA to do so, since you would not rest anything heavier than a magazine on a shelf put up by me.

We already have bookshelves running round three sides of the ironing room, and two sides of one of the spare rooms, as well as two walls of the study.  In truth, there isn't much space in the second spare room that isn't taken up by windows, or fitted cupboards, other than the wall that the head of the bed rests against.  The SA has always been rather resistant to building shelves across the beds, perhaps fearing a Leonard Bast style fatal incident, and this time did not seem at all keen on putting up any more shelves at all.  I began to grasp the awful truth, that we might need to edit the books.

I have already been through one round of editing, by dint of tidying away some bulky series into plastic boxes and shoving them under the ironing room bed.  As I explained at the time, I was not insisting of getting rid of the almost complete sets of Dick Francis or Patrick O'Brien, and they would be there all neatly boxed up and ready to slide out from under the bed if wanted, they just didn't need to be on display in the ironing room twenty-four seven, waiting for one of us to pluck a volume from the shelves.  The SA did seem slightly offended at first, asking plaintively why none of my books were being banished under the bed, but accepted that it made sense.  A few of the massive airport thriller paperbacks, bought in the days of commuting, were even sent to the charity shop, the SA admitting that they weren't so well written anybody would want to read them a second time (and if you did, they were now very cheap on Kindle where you could turn the font size up).

It isn't just unnecessary books taking up space in the ironing room.  There are box files, and crates of lever arch files containing my old Writtle notes, and financial records going back to the year dot. Some of those are clearly highly necessary, but others really not.  I don't honestly need a file of credit card statements from the nineties, for an account that I closed in 2000.  And do I need my Writtle notes and coursework?  Principles of mechanisation definitely not, nor the introduction to science module.  But garden history?  And do the beekeepers need to keep accounts going back years?  But do I need to obtain the committee's approval before throwing them out?  Does the SA want a box of receipts and paperwork relating to a boat we no longer own?

Throwing out old stuff feels laborious out of all proportion to any objective measure of the labour involved.  I shredded my old card statements, aware it was probably an unnecessary precaution, as a 1997 gold card statement wouldn't honestly be of much use to any would-be identity thief.  They brought back some memories, though.  I used to spend more having my hair cut fifteen years ago than I do now, and I spent much more on clothes.  Petrol bought at an Aberystwyth garage must have meant a trip to visit my parents.  The name of one shop that appeared several times baffled me utterly, and I still can't think what it sold or where it was, unless it was the shoe shop near the office.  Working in an office was quite expensive, what with suits and handbags and court shoes and haircuts, not to mention the season ticket.  I felt vaguely plaintive as the evidence of my previous gilded lifestyle went through the shredder, even though I can't have looked at those statements in around thirteen years, since I filed them and put the folder in a box.  If I suddenly achieve fame late in life (which is unlikely) my biographer will wish that I'd kept them.  Or if I go senile, my carer could have used them to try and trigger memories of my youth.

Old chicken feed paper sacks come in handy when you have a lot of clearing out to do.  The shredded statements were followed by some of the less appealing Writtle notes, plus, in a fit of bravado, two cheque books for a bank account that no longer exists, since the beekeepers closed it several years ago and are not even with the same bank any more.  I put my old children's books in the boxes so liberated, along with Terry Pratchett and Miss Read (to show that it is not only the SA's books that get put in boxes).  Then I obtained the SA's permission to take the large black bin bag full of the SA's old, white, formal, double cuffed Thomas Pink shirts, none of which have ever been worn since the SA retired from office life, to the recycling centre.

After that I had to stop for a rest.  I needed the SA's input on which thrillers could go to the PDSA bookstall, or at least under the bed, which is not a question you should bully anyone else into deciding on while they have a cold and a cracked rib.  But in any case I was exhausted.  I don't even want to think about what it will be like if and when we have to move house.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

supermarket shambles

The Systems Administrator went out this morning, to buy more coal, and some fresh rolls.  The first I knew of it was when I heard the car leaving.  I protested when the SA got back that I'd have been happy to go, but the SA replied that he'd felt like going out.  I can see you might want a chance of scene.  While in the Clacton branch of Tesco the SA had tried to use some of our two-for-one vouchers for Finest wine, which have to be exchanged before the end of the month.  I'd have preferred a double-your-vouchers offer on cat food, since we always need cat food, and the cats will not be tempted by knowing it was free to eat extra, but there wasn't a pet food option, and we don't need any electrical goods or Tesco clothing.

The SA left it to the eleventh hour to swap the normal vouchers for double value wine ones, despite my frequent reminders.  These might almost have constituted nagging, except that when somebody offers you fifty quid's worth of free wine it would be foolish to miss out on it through lack of organisation.  Then the SA caught a cold, leaving the vouchers still unused with, now, two days to go.  Today's initial attempt to use them met with only mixed success, since Tesco's till failed to recognise two of the bottles the SA had chosen as Finest, despite their being clearly labelled as such.  With a queue mounting and the poor young lad on the checkout sweating, the SA gave up and paid for them in the normal way.  They came up on the receipt as rose, which they weren't.

Investigating the contents of the fridge to see what we could eat up for lunch, I thought I'd better check the dates on the cheese, or at least the soft ones.  I bought rather a lot of cheese, since the original plan was to have a cheese and wine fest on Boxing Day evening while watching a film. Actually, we were going to watch the director's cut of Apocalypse Now, which might not be everybody's choice of festive viewing, but is one of our favourites, and gets a periodic outing on high days and holidays.  In view of the SA's cold we agreed to save the film and the cheese for another time, but I was not sure how long the cheese would last.

The use by date on the box of Petit Pont l'Eveque was 11.12.2013, which caused me to do a double take.  I bought the cheese with the main Christmas shop, on 23rd December, meaning that it was already twelve days out of date when Tesco sold it to me.  I did check the dates on the chicken, and the sausages, and the pork and chestnut stuffing, and the bacon, and the cream, and the milk, and the clementines, very carefully, and made sure they would all still be good until at least 25th December, and preferably later.  I had not thought to check every individual piece of cheese.  Lo, the bastards at Tesco managed to sell me one that wouldn't merely not last until Christmas, but was already well past its sell-by date as it trundled down the conveyor belt at the checkout.

I do still have the receipt in my handbag, as it happens.  It does not name the Petit Pont l'Eveque, merely says cheese.  I could go all the way over to Highwoods with the SA when the SA goes to spend the rest of the wine vouchers, and take the cheese, and the receipt, and stand in a queue at customer services, and insist that the date expired cheese is one of the nameless cheeses on the receipt, and refuse to leave until I got a refund.  I could.  It would be very dull, and stressful, and I would be using up my time at less than the minimum wage.  Ergo, it's not worth it.

Everything the newspapers say about Tesco having lost the plot is true.  The SA believes that the Highwoods branch is better managed than the Hythe one, but I should say they are as bad as each other.  I would have liked to do the main Christmas shop at Waitrose anyway, except that I knew their car park would be a complete riot, and the queues for the tills two hours long, since it isn't a very big store.  Next year, once the Christmas rush is over, I'll be free to go where I like, and it is increasingly unlikely to be Tesco.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

the great outdoors

Today I finally got outside to work in the garden.  Originally I said I was going to resume gardening on Boxing Day, but it was still very windy, wet, and uninviting, and I could not decide whether I was going down with a cold as well, so I spent the day on the sofa, reading Sinclair McKay's book The Secret Life of Bletchley Park.  It was actually a birthday present, but I didn't get round to reading it immediately.  Then yesterday it was still damp, so apart from my run to the dump I spent the day on the sofa reading Ursula Buchan's book A Green and Pleasant Land: how England's gardeners fought the second world war.  That was a Christmas present from the SA.  They were both very interesting, and made rather a good pair, dealing with the same period of history but from wildly differing viewpoints.  The SA refuses to believe that the Nazis every dropped Colorado beetles on the Isle of Wight to sabotage the UK's wartime farming effort, though, even if a retired entomologist from the British Museum did tell Ursula Buchan so.

By this morning the wind had dropped and the sun had come out, I didn't appear to be developing a cold, and the outdoors seemed suddenly inviting.  I raked up the fallen leaves from the young oak outside the dining room window, which should have been done weeks ago, but there wasn't time, and went on trimming the back of the eleagnus hedge.  I am fairly sure this is not a job for December, but I didn't manage to get it finished in the autumn.  Now the first daffodil leaves are emerging in the lawn, and this is an area I need to finish getting tidied up pronto, so that I can stop walking on it before the bulbs are too far advanced.

Then I need to work out a proper maintenance schedule.  That sounds rather pompous, as most private gardeners probably don't consider that they have any such thing, but I need a plan for when to cut the lawn, and when to cut the hedge, given that the lawn can't be cut from early spring until mid June at the earliest because of the daffodil leaves, I can't cut the hedge while the grass is long because the lawn gets trampled down and looks unsightly, and the hedge grows jolly fast.  I'm not even sure how many times a year we cut the front face, along the drive, but think we have a nibble at it several times a year, when it is starting to block the turning circle too badly, or if we are expecting an oil delivery.

My RHS book of pruning and training says that Eleagnus x ebbingei should be cut in late summer, but then you sacrifice the flowers, which come in autumn, and are unshowy but delightfully scented of clove carnations, besides being attractive to bees.  I wonder whether the answer is to give the daffodil lawn two cuts, one in June when the oxeye daisies have finished, and again in the autumn, and to give the back of the hedge an annual fairly hard chop in mid summer.  One to ponder upon.

While I was out there I tidied some of the lower branches from the young oak, using the new bow saw.  There is a strange and terrible pleasure in cutting up wood with a sharp saw, and I can see how it would be easy to overdo it and remove more than you meant to.  Though I have heard it said that most people are too timid when pruning.  I cut up the thicker prunings for firewood, I was so pleased with the saw.  I'll shred the lighter twigs to use as mulch round the compost bins, and have started shredding those eleagnus prunings that will go through the shredder, to add to the compost heap.  It seemed no more trouble than carting them off to the bonfire, and the compost heap wants all the sustenance it can get.

The forecast for tomorrow is for more of the same, before the next storm blows in.  I hope so.  I was shocked, when I came to write up my gardening notebook, to see that today was apparently the first day I'd spent in the garden since December 7th, but having flicked through my diary I think it probably was.  Seeing people, work, getting ready for Christmas and Christmas itself, seem to have used up three weeks without the garden getting a look-in.  No wonder it is constantly a project in progress, and is never tidy.

Friday, 27 December 2013

not even for ready money

This Friday, sandwiched between Boxing Day and the weekend before the New Year, is supposed to be the day the world starts going back to work, but it isn't really, or at least, the world is making a very half hearted attempt at working.  The Systems Administrator went to our nearest Co-Op in search of vital supplies, principally medication for a fresh cold that popped up out of the blue on the evening of Christmas Day.  I nominated various things we were getting low on, milk and matches, and requested some butter and some leeks, so that I could make part of the leftover chicken into a pie.  The SA returned after a while, but without the leeks, explaining that there were none to be had in the Brightlingsea Co-Op, not even for ready money.

By then I'd realised that we were running low on both coal and wood.  We do possess a lot of wood, somd of it seasoned, but since it is mostly in the form of large logs, and some of it is half a mile away from the house, and half of that is on the wrong side of a stream, it is useless for present purposes, while the SA is blowing and streaming like a walrus, on top of the cracked rib.  I volunteered to go to the friendly local garden centre to stock up.

I swung down to Clacton via our local farm shop to see if they had any leeks, but they weren't open. Nor was the garden centre, so it was just as well I'd loaded the car with bags of garden rubbish to go to the dump, so the journey was not wasted.  It wasn't wasted: I had so many bags of weeds waiting to go to the tip, I'd run out of empty bags.  I returned via the other farm shop, which was closed, and the local Tesco Express, which was open but didn't have any leeks.  Never mind, I'm sure that chicken pie will be very nice with onions and carrots, or perhaps tomorrow one of us will galvanise ourself to go to a supermarket.

I finally got two bags of coal and one of logs from a convenience store.  The coal was displayed in a sort of wire trolley cum cage, from which it took me ages to extract it, while getting my hands covered in coal dust in the process.  The SA said afterwards that I should have gone inside and asked nicely, and they'd have opened the cage for me.  There were no visible prices for the fuel, and I wasn't given an itemised receipt, but the total came to more than I would have believed possible.  I suppose that't what you pay for their being open at all on Friday 27th December.

Addendum  Before all this happened I listened to Desert Island Discs after breakfast while tidying up in the kitchen.  The guest was Miranda Hart, and one of her choices, in fact her top choice, was Morecombe and Wise singing Bring Me Sunshine, which she said was so happy it made her laugh every time she heard it.  For the first time ever, I paid attention sufficiently to catch some of the words, and was rather surprised.  I didn't think it sounded happy at all, rather, I thought it set out a terribly bleak manifesto for a relationship.

Make me happy through the years never bring me any tears...Life's too short to be spent having anything but fun...Be light hearted darlin all day long keep singing me a happy song...

Granted, people who always moan about everything, criticise everybody, and generally refuse to look on the bright side are not the most fun to be with.  A companion who can rise to the occasion, meet upsets with equanimity, and generally greet life with enthusiasm is greatly preferable to being stuck with a Moaning Minnie.  But never bring me any tears, or have anything but fun? Be perpetually skipping around singing happily like Fotherington Thomas, all the time?  Even when faced with bereavement, redundancy, financial catastrophe, a terminal medical diagnosis, or the latest world news from Syria and Southern Sudan?  Forget all that dear, and don't expect any sympathy from me, I really don't want to hear about it.  You just bring me some sunshine.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

blowup and back-up

Google is frighteningly good nowadays.  We were trying last night to remember the title of a 1960s film about a photographer who realises he may have witnessed and photographed a murder.  Not only could we not remember what the film was called, we couldn't think who had directed it, or recall the name of the star.  I remembered that at one point he bought an aeroplane propeller in an antique shop (it was an arty film), and that the main character was rather good looking, but didn't think either of those details would be of any use as search terms.  I thought that it featured a young Jane Asher, but checking her filmography didn't produce anything.

While the Systems Administrator went off to watch the Christmas special of Downton Abbey, I typed film photographer murder into the Google search box and bingo, there it was, three of the top five results referring to Blowup, directed by Michaelangelo Antonioni and starring David Hemmings. Turns out that Jane Birkin was in it, not Jane Asher, along with Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles and Peter Bowles.  It won the 1967 Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.  I should think it would be a film you could safely claim to like in hip metropolitan circles and expect to win cultural brownie points, though you might need to be able to remember a bit more about the plot than knowing that David Hemmings buys a propeller.

How spooky is it, though, that out of all the digitally stored information of the past forty-seven years, Google knows that I am on about a 1966 art film?  The other two results in the top five were a 2004 horror film, and a 2013 Daily Mail article about the shooting of an Egyptian photographer. There must be thousands upon thousands of stories that combine those three terms in a perfectly plausible manner, the deaths of numerous war photographers for starters, and I didn't even think to include the fact that I was looking for something dating from the 1960s, and not anything recent. How well does Google know the inside of my head by now, and what would come up for other people typing the same three words into their computers?

Meanwhile, I have finally done something I've been meaning to do for ages, and saved every file on the computer to a memory stick.  The internal power system of the SA's laptop failed suddenly and completely a while back, and the SA ended up forking out a hundred quid for the contents of the hard drive to be professionally retrieved.  Following this episode, the SA bought us each a memory stick for back-up purposes.  Mine sat on my desk for a long time, because I did not know how to save every file, except by selecting each one individually and saving it in turn.  Then I could not find the stick.  Then I tidied up my desk, and found the stick again, so every now and then we would have a conversation in which I said the SA must show me how to save everything, without my ever picking a moment when it was actually convenient for the SA to do so.

The SA was an early adopter of computing.  We still have the early 1980s Amstrad tucked away somewhere in the spare bedroom, that was the SA's at Oxford.  I was not an early adopter.  I am not technophobic, I will happily use a computer, to gratify my curiosity about 1960s film titles or maintain a blog, but I am not truly at all interested in the inner workings of the computer, any more than I am interested in what happens under the bonnet of my Skoda.  I have the Skoda serviced at the correct intervals, and if it breaks down I call the AA.  I am not proud of my massive indifference to technology.  I can see it would be better, more useful and safer, to know more about the machinery that underpins my daily life.  As my old tutor said, you don't have to like it, you just have to be able to do it.  My weakness lies in charging around doing the things I do like, while thinking I will get round to learning the dull things later.

If you put two people together in a house, and one is of a kindly disposition and understands how technical stuff works, while the other is faintly bored by anything technical and not too proud to ask for help, you can pretty much predict the outcome.  So it is that after thirteen years of owning a computer, I still didn't know how to save all the files at once.  In fact, it was worse than that.  I was looking for the Excel spreadsheet of interesting sounding films I wanted to watch, which the computer had saved to a temporary address and then hidden, and did not know how to look for it properly.  The SA had to talk me through how to use the file handler, so I thought that could be the moment to ask about the universal saving as well.

The spreadsheet of films seems gone beyond recovery.  Even the SA had to admit that it seemed no longer to exist, which shows how sensible it would be to back up the other files, and how foolish I have been to go un-backed up for so long.  The selecting and saving everything took practically no time at all.  It is terrifying how much you can put on one memory stick, and how easy they are to lose.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

merry Christmas, one and all

Merry Christmas, every body.  As usual, I have woken up before the Systems Administrator, so will write a quick blog entry now.  I don't suppose I'll feel like doing one later, and in any case I generally adhere to the rule never to press a button labelled Publish or Send on any device connected to the internet after having had anything to drink.  It's a good principle, which would save a lot of hassle if universally followed, and extended to mobiles, texts and Twitter.

I have put the SA's presents under the tree, and spread out the red tablecloth and the white lace tablecloth on the dining table, and dug out the giant candle we use at Christmas.  I have washed up last night's debris, apart from two frying pans which are still soaking, and emptied the dishwasher. I have put a lump of butter in a bowl to soften at room temperature, so that later I can make the rum butter.  In a few minutes I might peel the carrots.  Maybe even the potatoes.

The SA cooks lunch.  The SA does most of the cooking anyway, and knows how to make all the components of a roast happen at the same time without having a nervous breakdown.  I can do puddings, bakery goods, and boiled things, but roasts are outside my comfort zone.  We are having a chicken.  We like chicken and it is the right size, while neither of us are all that keen on the taste of turkey, and the birds are much too large for two people.  We used to dutifully buy a Norfolk Bronze, struggle with the leftovers, and feel terribly guilty at the amount we threw away, before realising we didn't have to have a turkey.  People have suggested duck, or beef, or goose, or pheasant, or a turkey crown, but you can't have cranberry sauce with beef, and I couldn't be bothered to track down a turkey crown that was guaranteed free range.  And anyway, we like chicken more than turkey, while the SA doesn't like game.  I might volunteer to cook a duck, one of these days, and see if the SA finds it too fatty when it's done properly, but I'm not messing around with that for Christmas lunch.

The funeral went off OK.  The church was almost full, and the village hall afterwards, and everybody rose to the occasion.  The widow was marvellously composed, their daughter who gave one of the addresses had mastered the art of talking and crying simultaneously, there was an impressive turnout of classic cars, and some mourners had battled through very difficult journeys just to get there, given the storms and travel chaos.  It's a small world.  I met one of my father's cousin's friends at the refreshments afterwards, but she hadn't heard any more than I had about how he was doing.

I am afraid the prospect of going to the funeral spoiled my concentration yesterday morning, as when I looked at yesterday's blog entry in the afternoon I saw I'd muffed the headline.  It should of course have read nine lessons and carols, not lessons and lessons.  In best Guardian style this article has now been amended.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

nine lessons and carols and a funeral

It's Christmas Eve.  Time for the final stage of the ritual preparations.  On Christmas Eve morning, the Systems Administrator finally decorates the mantel piece with holly and ivy.  The birds have not generally left us many holly berries by now, but rose hips make a colourful substitute, and the Malus 'Red Sentinel' is laden with small, bright red apples and won't miss a few twigs.  The SA is very clear that this cannot be done before Christmas Eve.  The tree is allowed to come in earlier, but that's a Germanic import.  The SA's mother was Welsh, and was strict on such matters.  You must not bring ivy into the house before Christmas Eve, and you must never give a knife.  If somebody does give you one (I suppose nowadays it might be a pruning knife, or a set of chef's knives, or a multi-bladed Swiss army pocket knife) you must pay them a penny for it.

The prohibition on putting decorations up too early extends to the flashing fairy lights that the SA will run up the bannisters, but not until today.  I don't suppose ancient Welsh custom and superstition had anything to say on the subject of LEDs, but they are shrouded in ivy as well.  Which looks very pretty and hides the wires.  One thing we do have lots of is ivy.  There is a reason why Christmas decorations are traditionally red and green, which is that that's what's growing outside for the picking.

At three I shall listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.  Even when I worked in London, the office generally packed up by noon, and if I was lucky with the trains I could still get home just in time for it.  I like the music, and although I lapsed as an Anglican before even making it as far as confirmation, I like the readings.  I like the reassuring sameness of it, the way the representatives of the townsfolk and of the college get their turn, the being told a story I've heard a lot of times before.  Sitting by the fire, looking at our giant decorated Ent, with the holly and ivy on the mantelpiece, and the bannisters twinkling manically, that feels like the heart of Christmas.  On Christmas Day itself, once you've unwrapped the presents and eaten the lunch, you feel the whole thing has peaked before the day is over.

But before then, I have to go to a funeral.  A friend's husband died, twelve days ago, and their church has found them a date this side of Christmas for the funeral, which is today.  Twelve noon. I feel terribly for her, and their children (by now adults).  As I wrote before, to lose anyone is bad, but to do it at this time of the year must be even worse.  She and her children will have their memories of Christmas Eve, and whatever it was they did together as a family, and putting out their Christmas stockings, and opening them, and now it will always be the day of their father's funeral, and the anniversary will come at a time just when you are expected to be especially jolly and sociable.

I didn't know her husband terribly well.  She and I met through beekeeping, and found we had many other tastes and interests in common, so struck up a friendship outside the beekeeping association. I met him to chat to at various beekeeping events over the years, teas and barbecues, and at the annual agricultural show, and once a large group of us went for supper in a country pub, and he told an extremely funny story about finding out that one of their pet cats and dogs had let a live rat loose in their kitchen, which had taken up residence above their electric grill, whereupon he went into the hall to fetch his grandfather's sword to despatch it.  He was the sort of faintly posh person who regarded it as entirely normal to keep his grandfather's sword in the hall.

I remember him smiling often, an amiable smile as if the world was a very entertaining place, which gave him an air of relaxed alertness.  He liked classic cars, and was clever at making and mending things.  By profession he was a maritime lawyer, though it wasn't something he talked about, at least at beekeeping meetings, and I only found out when my friend told me that he had checked through the terms and conditions of our Thames barge birdwatching trip, and didn't think much of them.  I got the impression he had his own wide circle of friends, and was a very popular man. They seemed a happy and extremely well-matched couple, and I should think she will miss him dreadfully.

He'd been ill for years, one of those drawn-out illnesses where a bone marrow transplant bought a few years respite, then the creeping onset of tiredness and other symptoms signalled a relapse. Then followed bouts of chemotherapy so fierce he wasn't strong enough to complete them.  His funeral will be in his village church, followed by refreshments in the village hall.  I have never been to a funeral in a church before, but have been to the village hall quite a few times, for poultry shows, to my one and only attempt at Zumba, and a couple of WI meetings where I've been the star turn, talking about the woodland charity.  Now I'm going there for funeral baked meats.  It is all desperately sad.

Monday, 23 December 2013

between meals

The lunch went off pretty smoothly.  The miniature sausages were a sad disappointment, refusing to turn brown and sizzle even in a hot oven, they merely exuded juice while remaining resolutely grey and flabby.  We decided to leave them out, given that there seemed to be plenty of other food. Wrapped in tinfoil and stashed away in the fridge, the Systems Administrator will try using them tonight as the basis of a toad-in-the-hole.  The Thai spicy meatballs were a hit, and the cheese souffles were pronounced very cheesy.  The miniature filo tarts were the least popular, which is fair enough, as they came out of the oven mysteriously damp, and looked it.  The apple strudel tasted great, and after I'd first let the top catch and then failed to decant it from the tinfoil tray in one piece, it looked so knackered it could easily have been homemade.  Kate Reddy distressing shop-bought mince pies with a rolling pin had nothing on it.

The children behaved absolutely impeccably.  They sat down to eat their lunch, talked to the grown-ups, played with the cats, and spontaneously offered to help clear the table, then asked if they could go and play in the garden.  I told them not to drown themselves in the pond and to keep out of the wood, because there was an unsafe fallen tree, and my mother kept a discreet eye on them under the guise of taking a cigarette break, but they were fine.  They seemed happy running about, decorating the SA's secret deck with twigs, and waving a long bamboo pruning outside the dining room window.

It is not a particularly dangerous garden, but neither is it designed to be safe for children, and I can think of several ways a determined child could come unstuck.  It would be very easy to climb on to the conservatory roof, for starters, since the conservatory is fifteen feet downhill of the house, putting the top of its roof at the same level as the ground floor window sills.  I don't know whether the polycarbonate sandwich is up to carrying the weight of a ten year, but if it isn't, it's a good thirteen foot drop on to concrete below.  I think my brother's wife was more worried about what damage the children might do to the garden, but I assured her that really, at this time of the year, unless they were armed with pruning equipment there was very little they could do.

The cats behaved beautifully as well.  Our Ginger is always good with visitors, to the point where he has been mentioned by name in several Christmas cards.  Even my London German friend's father asks after Our Ginger.  However, the big anxious tabby normally vanishes as soon as visitors arrive, and yesterday he allowed himself to be stroked and looked positively amiable, as far as a yard long stone of dribbling,bony Maine Coon with a hardwired expression of acute anxiety ever can look amiable.  My younger niece said without conviction that he had tried to eat her hand, but I promised her that he hadn't, and that he must like her since he normally ran away from visitors.

Only the fat indignant tabby refused to play.  She disappeared from her box in the hall as soon as anyone other than us came in through the front door, as is her custom.  Normally she reappears within a quarter of an hour of visitors leaving, but yesterday there was still no sign of her after several hours.  She didn't seem to be anywhere in the study, or answer when called from the doorstep, and a quick inspection of places she might conceivably have got locked in revealed nothing.  Finally, at gone seven, she flounced through the hall, paused to glare at me, and vanished for the rest of the evening.  She must have been hiding and sulking in the study until then, before deciding to make a break for it.  In the morning there she was, sitting by the food dishes, still looking faintly disapproving.  We can't not ask people round because it upsets the cat.

This morning I did The Big Shop.  The SA was initially intent on going, as cook and officer in charge of food shopping, but I volunteered.  This was partly out of altruism, since the SA doesn't want to be pushing a laden trolley around with a cracked rib.  It was also a calculated plan to preserve domestic harmony.  I am terribly fussy about what we have, much more so than the SA, and thought that if anyone didn't get the right stuffing, or enough of the right kind of cheese, or the wrong kind of biscuits, it had better be me, then there would be no recriminations as I'd have only myself to blame.  There was a year I managed to pick up red currant jelly instead of cranberry sauce, and the SA was remarkably forbearing about it, which is partly due to the SA's sweet nature, and also because the SA doesn't especially like cranberry sauce.  I am fanatically keen on everything being exactly the same as it always is.  The Carr's water biscuits must be plain, and on no account have added black pepper, though this year I am lobbying for the addition of a roast onion along with the sprouts and carrots.  I did pretty well, except that I had to settle for chestnut mushrooms for Christmas eve supper instead of the large portobello ones, and when I got home the SA commented that I had bought politically incorrect dates.  I didn't notice they were from the Israeli occupied West Bank.  Oh dear.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

party season

We went to a Christmas party yesterday afternoon.  In London.  Four until seven, one welcoming glass of fizz on arrival, then smoked salmon nibbles and cucumber sandwiches, leading into tea and cakes.  The hostess was my old university friend, brought up in Germany, and the cakes were excellent.  She comes from Wuppertal, where they really know how to do cake.

She's been holding the Christmas tea party for years.  Once upon a time, her father used to dress up as Father Christmas for the benefit of her little daughter and the other children, who rushed around in great excitement, wearing party frocks that were far prettier than any of my dresses.  Nowadays, her daughter is a polite teenager, and the youngsters have their own quiet celebration in the privacy of her bedroom, while the oldies congregate below.  One of the former child guests is now in his final year at Balliol, and no longer goes to tea parties with his parents.  The guests are a mixture of former colleagues, neighbours, and other university friends, many of whom have also been going to the Christmas tea since its inception, so we have the strange connectedness of people who are happy to chat once a year, without ever having struck up an independent friendship outside the shared occasion of the tea.

There is an interesting mixture of people who are retired and glad of it, some who still work a bit but no longer regard it as the be-all and end-all, and those who remain fiercely competitive and work-focussed.  I can't contribute much to conversations with the latter.  If they remember anything about what I do, or did, they tend to think that I am a garden designer.  I never have been, but I suppose design scores more highly in the middle class pecking order than hands-on horticultural work.

My friends' parents, over from Germany for ten days, are always pleased to see me, and the other familiar faces.  They remember that I keep bees, and the name of our most forthcoming cat, who has been obliging in the past about letting their animal-mad grand-daughter fuss over him.  My friend is an only child, living a short haul flight away from them in what is, at least to her mother, a foreign city.  I think they find it comforting to think that she has friends there of long standing.

We haven't been every year.  When we both still worked, and the party was on a week day, there was a year when it was logistically impossible.  Two years it snowed and the trains packed up.  Last year she didn't ask us, I think worrying that it was too far to expect people to travel for tea, then this year she decided to simply invite us, and not second guess our feelings about travel.  With the overground from Stratford running every ten minutes on the North London loop, Islington is actually easier to reach than many parts of London, as long as it isn't snowing.  Originally we were going to make a day of it, and have lunch in the Systems Administrator's new favourite Turkish restaurant in Upper Street, before deciding we'd been out quite a lot, and would save that for another day.

Today we are hosting a Christmas lunch, having invited my parents, brother and his family over. Because we were out for half of yesterday for the tea party, they are getting ready made food. Sorry about that, folks.  We generally cook for guests from scratch.  That's partly because we generally cook from scratch anyway.  Maybe because I equate cooking with caring (though in that case the SA cares much more for me than I do for the SA).  Because I am frugal, and find it vaguely disturbing to pay £3.75 for about thirty pence worth of ingredients.  And I reckon my home-made puddings are better than shop ones, ditto my flans.  And when you have two people and five hens you are looking for any opportunity you can find to use some eggs.  And I like the ritual of the day before the party, making pastries, assembling the giant retro salad from a 1970s American vegetarian cookery book (you will never see anything like it anywhere else, but everybody eats it).  Given a full day in the kitchen I can produce a two course buffet for sixty people (on which basis I am never going to make my fortune in the catering trade).

Anyway, there wasn't time to do all that, and the point is to see people over Christmas, not cook for them.  The SA is out as I type, to buy fresh bread, and cat food, where stocks are dangerously low. I just hope the queues at the Co-op aren't too long.  For the guests to arrive before the host would be embarassing.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Christmas music, sacred and profane

We began listening to our collection of Christmas music yesterday evening.  It started off as one rumbustious folk album of seasonal music, which we used to listen to on Christmas Eve, then I bought a couple of CDs of carols, which were nice to have on Christmas Day, though I think that technically they are meant for Advent, so Christmas morning is too late.  Year by year the quantity of albums grew, until we realised that if we left it until Christmas Eve we were never going to get through all of them.

We kicked the season off with Thea Gilmore's Strange Communion.  This was something of a hit for her in 2009, and the track That'll Be Christmas has had a lot of Radio 2 airplay, so you may have heard it.  She is a fine songwriter, who deserves to be better known, but probably suffers from the marketing problem of not fitting into a tidy musical category.  Not really folk, not pop, not easy listening.

Then I sneaked in Trio Medieval doing Folk Songs, although it doesn't belong in the Christmas collection and has nothing to do with Christmas, or any other seasonal festivity.  They are a female trio, two from Norway, one Swedish, whose voices have an unearthly harmony which followed on very well from Thea.  And I love the album, and haven't listened to it much yet.  It needs decent speakers, the portable machine in the ironing room doesn't do it justice.  I first heard them on Radio 3 and was transfixed, and totally unable to work out what the music was, old or new, traditional or classical.

Then it was the Systems Administrator's turn to choose, so we got John Kirkpatrick's Carolling and Crumpets, following on from the concert.  His song about the Shropshire Wakes, which sound as though they were very jolly and incredibly drunken, includes a chorus about how young men and maids do come to shake their bums, a clear early reference to twerking.

Still to go in the box of CDs, in no particular order are firstly Karine Polwart's version of Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody.  It is a beautiful take on the song, slowed down and without the thumping percussion.  Who knew that Slade were making folk music, least of all Noddy Holder?  I bought it as a download, but copied to disc because I am hopelessly old fashioned.

Next is the choir of New College singing a Ceremony of Carols.  I think I bought a bargain offer of three albums from them for a knock down price.  It's a fairly highbrow selection, with quite a high proportion of Benjamin Britten, and I think I normally listen to it while the SA is busy in the kitchen doing things to the lunch.  It does have Bethlehem Down on it, which I love.

We've got The Pogues Fairytale of New York.  You can't have a Christmas album collection and not have that.  It's just boring having to leap up to change the disc so quickly.

Then there's another highbrow one from New College, called Carols from New College, and after that Christmas Music from St Pauls, which is reassuringly mainstream, and includes a pealing bell. After that comes A Peter Warlock Christmas, which I'll definitely have to play while the SA is otherwise engaged.

The original CD which started the whole thing off is The Waterson's Frost and Fire, a rerelease on disc of the whole of one of their vinyl albums on the Topic label, and parts of another.  It is a collection of ritual and magic songs.  Nobody else has come close to touching The Watersons in forty years, and when they are in full harmonic pelt they are about the wildest and most elemental thing you can imagine.  Frost and Fire includes The Bitter Withy, a song about how the infant Christ, insulted by some rich lord's children, makes a bridge out of the beams of the sun and lures them over it to their deaths.  An article in one of the papers recently included this among old carols that should be revived, but it doesn't sit easily with the modern commercial version of Christmas, and I can't see the C of E taking to it.  Frost and Fire is reserved until Christmas Eve, being a potent brew.

Next in the box is another Advent at St Paul's with the St Paul's cathedral choir in highbrow mode, including various bits after Palestrina, Byrd, Gibbons, and an organ Toccata on Veni Emmanuel. Then my new toy for Christmas 2013, as yet un-listened to, The Sixteen giving us an Early English Christmas, Christus Natus Est.  I have high hopes of that one.

Coope, Boyes and Simpson performing Fire and Sleet and Candlelight are following in the Watersons' footsteps, but without quite the Wuthering Heights elemental quality.  They are technically competent, but you have a slight suspicion that in their day jobs they might be sociology lecturers.  It's rollicking stuff, though, and we'll enjoy it.

Finally come yet more Christmas Carols from St Paul's Cathedral.  I think I visited their gift shop one year before Christmas.  This one has nice safe traditional carols, Away in a Manger, Once in Royal David's City, that sort of thing, not even anything as alternative and faintly pagan as The Cherry Tree Carol, another one the newspaper article wanted to see resurrected.  You can see why we need to start listening early.

Friday, 20 December 2013

christmas tidings

This morning I got round to hanging up the Christmas cards.  It's always a puzzle where to put them. The first to arrive go on the mantelpiece, but then I run out of space, not that we are so wildly popular, but the mantelpiece isn't that large, and they have to be moved anyway on Christmas Eve when the greenery comes in.  Some years I've pinned them to the pelmet above the monster window, but that's really too high up to see them properly, and it's quite hard work thrusting pins through the cardboard plus the furnishing fabric and lining.  We've tried standing them at the end of the dining table, since it's a generous six seater and there will only be two of us for Christmas lunch, but we need the table this year for a family do on Sunday, and in any case the cats always knock them over.  It's like playing at falling dominoes, how many cards can you topple with one swipe of a paw.

This year, for the second year running, they are hung over ribbons running between the wall light fittings, and taped to more ribbons hanging from the light fittings and down the banisters.  This time it's actually raffia, because I couldn't find any spools of ribbon in Waitrose or Tesco, and I had some red and pink raffia already.  A couple have dropped open rather annoyingly, so I'll need to go round with a few dabs of cellotape (or sticky tape, as they always called it on Blue Peter to avoid mentioning any brand names and giving them free advertising on the BBC).  I suppose the loving greetings inside, hand written by our friends and relations, should mean more to us than the pictures, but I quite like looking at the pretty side.

There is a small overflow section on top of the stereo speakers, which the cats will doubtless knock over more than once during the holidays.  If the last couple of deliveries before Christmas bring any more I'm not quite sure where they'll go.  If they were cards that hinge at the top then I could drape them over some picture frames, but those seem out of fashion at the moment.  Mind you, they can be a nuisance if you are trying to stand cards up, and you get one that is too weak to support itself and keeps opening out entirely, toppling its neighbours before and behind it.

We've had two for our neighbour who sold us the house, over twenty years ago.  The one that's only addressed to him I'll drop round.  The one addressed jointly to him and his wife, who died over a year ago, has gone tactfully in the bin.  One of our nieces sent us one, when we haven't sent her one (sorry Katie), but that's because she hasn't told us her current address, so she's had to make do with the joint greetings dispatched to the parental home.  News content has been a bit thin this year.  Friends in the north who always send a round robin did so this year, but they write very nice round robins, good factual stuff about what the family's been up to, with no gratuitous bragging.  A gardening friend from my Writtle days disclosed that she was now a grandmother, and that she had given up her job.  Both of these things were on the cards, given that her daughter was expecting, and that she worked for an unpleasant bunch of clowns.  I emailed congratulations, and we'll catch up properly in the New Year.

This evening the phone rang, and it was our neighbour who sold us the house.  Not with an invitation to Boxing Day drinks this time, alas, but with the news that another neighbour had died. Poor chap, he received cancer treatment a while back, but had been looking very frail in recent months, so one had a sense the thing hadn't gone away.  I feel very much for his family.  To lose anyone at any time is hard, and to have it fall just before Christmas, when you are deluged with expectations of joy and jollity, and will be every year for the anniversary, must be extra difficult.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

carolling and crumpets

We went to the Harwich Electric Palace again last night.  It's beginning to become a habit, so much so that the Systems Administrator joked that maybe we should join.  We were not there this time to see a film, but for a folk concert.  The Electric Palace had booked John Kirkpatrick, a giant of the English folk scene who has been around for over three decades.  He does an excellent Christmas show, which I saw at the Colchester Arts Centre some years back with my dad.  It was so good, I wanted to take the SA, but the next time he came round to Colchester the gig was cancelled due to snow.  Suddenly, browsing through the Electric Palace's website, I saw that they'd bagged him.

It was not a well publicised concert.  The owner of Harwich's very nice Thai restaurant, where we had an early supper before the show, expressed surprise that we were off the Electric Palace, given that Wednesday is not a film night, and remained politely sceptical when we said we were going to a concert, since it wasn't on their December flyer.  However, when we got there, the grille in front of the lobby was open, and there was a small, cheerful queue.  By the time it got to eight o'clock, there was a respectable turnout, though the cinema was by no means full.  Most people seemed to know at least some of their fellow audience members, and it was clearly a community event, with raffle prizes laid out on a table in front of the stage, and a little boy running round and round the auditorium.

Having not been to a folk evening before, we didn't know what to expect, and whether there would be a support act or if we'd get the man himself at eight.  There was a prequel, an acapella quartet singing American hymns.  There was rather a lot of humming and pointing before each number, and I think they need to practice starting off a bit more.  You need to launch right in with conviction and gusto for that sort of thing.  The youngest of the four was an extremely pretty and lively teenage girl with a very expressive face, who might just turn out to be East Anglia's follow up to Ed Sheeran. You never know.

John Kirkpatrick had only brought three of the six squeezeboxes he is shown posing in front of on his website, plus a genuine orchestral triangle, but was as good as ever, and sang our favourite songs from his Christmas album Carolling and Crumpets, especially the one about the Christmas pudding, as well as some winter songs I hadn't heard him do before.  I'm not sure how many of the audience were dedicated folkies, and how many were supporters of the Electric Palace who thought they would like to hear some Christmas music, but everybody seemed happy enough.

They got the little boy to draw the raffle tickets, and he bellowed Yellow to the massed audience with great confidence, when asked by the raffle organiser (my guess is she was his granny) what colour the winning ticket was, but fell down on the numbers, since the only number he seemed to know was five.  There again, she told us, he was only three.  I won the last prize in the raffle, a packet of crumpets, which saved me the agony of choice.  The little boy presented them to me with great solemnity.  He'd been very eager to give them to one of the earlier winners, but the chap wanted the bottled beer.

I had a couple for breakfast, thinking how much I liked crumpets.  The chickens did pretty well out of our evening as well, since the restaurant owner asked us whether we wanted a doggy bag for any of our leftovers, so I came home with a box of fragrant jasmine Thai rice for them.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

christmas tree

This afternoon we put the Christmas tree up.  Standing it securely in its pot turned out to be more of a performance than it sometimes is, not helped by the Systems Administrator's cracked rib.  I sawed a foot off the bottom with my new bow saw (memo to self, don't stint on replacement blades, a sharp saw is a wonderful thing) and we tried to wedge it in the centre of its stand, then I tightened the screws.  As soon as the SA let go of the trunk it toppled forwards.  We tried again with it lying down, pressing the trunk on the three pins in the middle of the holder and screwing it in place, but no luck.  Eventually, and with slight reluctance, I accepted that we (or rather I) was going to have to saw a large branch at the base off.  Relieved of its imbalanced limb, the tree then consented to remain upright, though to be on the safe side it is lashed to the handle of the veranda door with a piece of green gardening wire.

Then came the annual debate over the lights, which were the new lights versus which were the old ones.  My vote went to the two identical strings put away in separate Waitrose bags, which I'd found near the front of the wardrobe in the spare room, and which appeared to match the two packs of spare bulbs packed away on top of the baubles.  The SA was pretty sure we bought new lights last year, because the old ones wouldn't work if any of the bulbs were missing, and we'd run out of spare bulbs.  After a while the SA agreed that I was in charge, and had better have final say on the lights.

I normally decorate the tree.  There are families in which everyone does it together, but the SA is happy to retreat to a safe distance, only to reappear at the very end and pronounce the result delightful.  Which is the correct answer.  After years of practise I have the routine down to a fine art.  The lights go on first, obviously, once I've finished untangling them on the floor.  This lot didn't tangle themselves up as badly as some, and both strings worked first time.  I switch them off to arrange them, because I always find the annual Christmasnews  report about someone electrocuting themselves on their fairy lights so depressing, then once their on the tree I switch them on to check there aren't any strange dark holes, rearrange them if necessary, and turn them off to add the decorations.

I don't believe in fashion when it comes to Christmas trees.  Part of the point is to get the familiar things out every year, bringing back memories of where you bought them, and Christmases past. The decorations near the top go on before the others, because I need to push the step ladder in among the lower branches to reach the top.  The angel in a red dress with gauze wings gets pole position, while the fatter angel with tartan wings goes lower down.  Then the nicer and more fragile things go further up and to the sides, where they are unlikely to be accidentally swept off and broken.  The gaps are filled in with cheap and cheerful balls in red, gold and silver, and the most vulnerable branches at the base are decked with metal and straw ornaments that the cats won't break.  Our cats are getting too old to bother taking a swipe at them, but they do tend to like to sleep under the tree.

There is a set of long, slender glass drops in deep red, bought years ago from Heals, and a few clear glass ones with frosted stars on bought at the same time, but more of them have got broken. There are three huge, fat glass baubles I got in Cracow, on holiday with my parents.  There is a wooden jointed teddy bear, bought from the sadly defunct Shaker Shop in Marylebone.  I'm not convinced the Shakers went in for Christmas trees, but the whole thing is a cultural muddle anyway.  There's a giraffe angel with wings, and a sinister hanged black cat with a red scarf and mittens.  New for this year are the gingham stars from the Warner Textile Archive fair.  I like to buy a couple of new things each year, while sticking to the red and gold, Victorian Christmas meets Shaker homespun aesthetic.

It looks jolly nice, though I say so myself.  I must remember to put some water in the pot.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

lost poems

There is quite a long article in the Telegraph about the poet Geoffrey Hill, nowadays Sir Geoffrey Hill, and Oxford professor of poetry.  He is, according to the article, arguably our greatest post-war poet.  I think the qualifying use of the word 'arguably' betrays a slight lack of conviction on the part of the author, since you could argue for anybody.  I could argue that Pam Ayres was our greatest post-war poet, though it might not be a very good argument, and you might not believe me. Certainly there is a consensus that his poetry is difficult.

I fell in love with one of his poems at school, so much so that I could almost recite it verbatim over twenty years later.  I did not remember the author or the title of the poem, and because I was a nicely brought up and deeply rule abiding child I did not do what lots of other people seem to have done, and hung on to my English Literature O level poetry textbook.  It went like this:

I will consider the outnumbering dead:
For they are the husks of what was rich seed.
Now, should they come together to be fed,
They would outstrip the locusts' covering tide.

Arthur, Elaine, Mordred; they are all gone
Among the raftered galleries of bone.
By the long barrows of Logres they are made one,
And over their city stands the pinnacled corn.

I have no idea why I liked it so much, apart from the fact that I was into Mary Stewart's Merlin chronicles at the time, and that I considered the poem to be utterly beautiful, as I still do.  The trouble with remembering poetry is that you can't be sure you've got it entirely right.  Nowadays, someone seems to have put most poems up somewhere on the internet, and a fragment typed into Google will generally get you where you want to go, though if you really want to be sure I'd double check afterwards in a book.  Poems on the web have a way of mutating like folk music, with small changes and alterations.

Back in the late 1990s the internet was not the fount of information which it has since become, and so I went and asked at the Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre.  They claim to be the most comprehensive and accessible collection of poetry from 1912 in Britain, but the bearded young man on the desk could not help me with my poem.  He thought it might have been Robert Lowell.  That was not a bad guess, given that according to the Telegraph's article, Geoffrey Hill's greatest poetic influences at Oxford during the 1950s were American.  A few years later, once I had the resources of Google, I found it, and discovered the identity of the author, and that it was called Merlin.

Google does not work infallibly for lost poems.  I am still searching for the full text of a barely remembered poem about the European author's geography teacher, a victim of war, heard once in translation on the car radio while driving through Hendon.  The next year the rascals of history murdered the teacher of geography, or words to that effect, has not proved a sufficient clue, though Googling it now brings up my query on the Poetry Library Lost Quotations page as the first search item.  It has still not had any replies since 11 October 2010.

Monday, 16 December 2013

end of an era

Today was my last day working at the plant centre.  After ten years of alternate weekend working it felt like time for a change.  The idea had been knocking around in my head for a while.  When the everyday begins to pall, and the minor details start to irritate you, it's generally time for a change of scene.  There were a couple of incidents that crystallised my decision, as there usually are in such cases.  For the Systems Administrator it was a barrage of abuse from a dealer on the fixed interest desk.  Mid-winter is a good time to stop, anyway, since there's little plant based action in January, just stock taking and creosoting, and it gives the owners time to recruit a replacement before the spring rush starts.

The question is, what to do next?  Starting from my front door and looking for horticultural based employers, there is the lettuce farm, the about-to-open branch of a landscaping company that seems to have been growing solidly to judge from their website, and the Chatto gardens, and that's within a two mile radius.  There's the woodland charity I've been volunteering for for a decade. There's Thompson and Morgan in Ipswich, one of my former plant centre colleagues and Writtle alumni works there.  Or I could take a year out and make a concerted effort to break into freelance garden journalism.  I could even do people's gardens.  I'm not very good at starting lawn mowers, but could be just the right person for ageing plant lovers, who want somebody that won't chop down their tree peony.

Before even going through tangible employment options, I need to work out what I want from work. Nobody goes into horticulture to become rich, that's for sure.  But do I mind weekend working?  I miss some social events because of it, but I've got used to having time off mid-week.  It fits in well with seeing some friends for whom weekends are family time, and as the SA is basically retired we can see each other any day of the week.  Would I be happy with five mornings a week?  The SA thought it would fit in well with the garden, which it would, but not so much with jaunts with friends or expeditions to London galleries.  Should I go back to full time work for a while, since the garden is relatively under control, and full time jobs tend to be better quality than part time?  How much does it matter knowing in advance which my working days will be?  Possibly quite a lot, or rather, it suits me very well to be able to arrange not to be working on particular days when I want to do something else.  Do I want to use more of my executive capabilities than I did as a plant centre assistant?  Or am I happy with skilled manual work that brings me into direct contact with plants and lots of time spent outside?  What do I feel about travel?  If the quid pro quo of a stimulating job involving meetings, presentations and negotiations is hours spent grinding around East Anglia's dire trunk roads in the rain and fog, it might not be worth it.  Could I afford to not work at all, or at least give something really wacky a try and see how it went?

The thing I am sure of is that life should be lived well.  The English middle classes are masters of deferred gratification.  It's been identified as a strong predictor in children for success in later life, how long they can hold off eating a sweet if they're told they'll get a second treat by waiting.  Work hard at the right school and you can go to the right university, which gets you on to the right graduate training scheme, then into the right job, at which you will work extremely hard.  You might end up with a house and a pension, and be able to enjoy your retirement in security.  Or you might not.  The one known, amidst all the unknowns and insecurity, is that your life is ticking by whatever you do.

As a child it feels as though there is still ages of time ahead.  Accidents happen to other people, the boy in my primary class who was knocked off his bicycle and killed, the girl at my convent school who had a fatal asthma attack, the two people in my year who committed suicide shortly after leaving school.  Then a school friend's lovely boyfriend who died in a car crash en route to the airport, the school twenty year reunion bringing the news that the sweetest girl in the class had died of breast cancer.  Melanoma, myeloma, pancreatic cancer, brain tumour, mysterious virus, dropping dead of a heart attack.  As you go through your forties and into your fifties, you see members of your own cohort, and people only a decade older, begin to go.  Life is precious, and not a given.  Each day should be spent well, with purpose and dignity.  Work is a significant part of how you spend your waking hours.  It doesn't have to be grand, but it should be satisfying.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

the root of the question

The day started quietly, and I was able to get quite a long way further round the tree line, scooping up leaves and scraping slime off the Mypex fabric.  With my gaze largely limited to ground level, I had plenty of time to look at the pots and the lower parts of the trunks, and noticed how some of the crab apples were making adventitious roots from the first inch or two of stem.  They were all grafted varieties, and I made a mental note to try and remember to ask the manager about it in the morning.

Species crab apples can be apomictic, meaning that they set seed without sexual reproduction, which is genetically identical to the parent.  Again, I realised I didn't know how common this was among Malus, though I know (since checking on Wikipedia) that some other members of the rose family do it.  It matters to the nursery grower because if the plants reproduce sexually, and are in close enough proximity to related species to hybridize, then seed raised plants won't necessarily come true, and your only guarantee of making more of the same is vegetative propagation, which means grafting in the case of apples.  I'm sure I've been told that if you sow seeds of Malus transitoria you are pretty much guaranteed to get more M. transitoria, and not a cross between that and something else.  But if you were to grow a pip from a 'Cox' you would most definitely not get another 'Cox'.

The grafted apples were all named hybrids, hence the use of grafting.  The above ground roots were chubby little pinkish orange affairs, growing thickly on the first bit of the stem above the level of the compost.  I wondered why they were doing it, and whether it meant that the rootstock had been planted higher up in its container than it had originally developed in the open ground, and if so whether it should be buried deeper again on planting to cover the aerial roots.  The normal advice is to plant the tree to exactly the same depth as it was growing in the nursery.  Do not bury the trunk. Repeat, Do. Not. Bury. The. Trunk.

But I'm sure that in his lecture Tony Kirkham also warned us not to plant too shallow.  In fact, he said that the flare on the young tree's stem, the part just above ground level where the stem got fatter, should be left just above the soil surface, and that this would develop into the buttresses you see on mature trees.  Only some of the crab apples did not have any discernible flare, just the funny ruff of roots above the compost.  I must remember to ask.  It's so often the way, once you look closely at something, you realise that it's not nearly as neat and straightforward in practice as it sounds in theory.

Tony Kirkham himself admitted as much, since the first two or three metres of trunk of the ancient Giant Redwoods are indeed buried.  The trees are so old that since they started growing, the soil surface has slowly risen by that amount, burying the bottom portion of the trunk like a Roman pavement.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

leaf litter

The fallen leaves of magnolias have to be their least attractive feature.  They are a dull shade of brown, thick, and slow to decay, smothering the smaller plants beneath them in a garden setting. Peter Smithers in his engrossing memoir recounts how, as the magnolias in his Swiss garden matured, he had to adjust the planting around them, and abandon attempts to grow some woodland treasures, and I've noticed the same effect at home from 'Charles Rafill', not that I had any woodland treasures to start with.  The old leaves of evergreen magnolias are even worse, collecting in great, stodgy, leathery heaps wherever the wind sends them.

They make every bit as much mess in a polytunnel in a nursery setting, so spending some time scooping them up from among the pots and off the path seemed a good idea.  Magnolias mostly have largish leaves and twiggy, intricate systems of branches, so not all the old leaves make it to the ground, and you have to pick them out of the crowns, moving carefully to avoid knocking too many buds off.  Some leaves refuse to fall, until you touch them, when they part from the twig at once and flutter down to add to the mess.

In general, leaves going brown and staying on the plant is a bad sign, since leaf drop in a healthy shrub is an active process.  The plant withdraws food and minerals that it's planning to keep from the leaves, and seals off the leaf stem from the twig by forming what botanists call an abscission layer.  The leaf then generally falls of its own accord, but failing that the lightest touch or puff of wind should detach it.  If the leaves go brown, but remain firmly attached to the stem, it generally means something's amiss.

The buds on the magnolias are already swelling, and some are discarding their furry outer cases. The new buds beneath are themselves pretty hairy.  It would be interesting to compare the progress of the ones in the polytunnel with other plants of the same variety growing in the open garden.  Are they ahead due to the extra warmth?  The vulnerability of their fat, swelling buds to frost is one of the things that makes spring flowering magnolias so nerve-wracking to grow, glorious triumph when it succeeds, but one unlucky night can ruin everything for another year.

After that I removed barrow load after barrow load of leaves from around the specimen trees, so that people wouldn't slip on them.  In contrast to the magnolias, the fallen leaves of sorbus, lime, amelanchier, birch, thorn, beech and liquidambar are already turning to mush.

I was reminded of the perils of slipping as I got home to see two bags of purchased firewood outside the front door.  Bought softwood logs are a bad sign, when you have several trees' worth of wood of your own.  The Systems Administrator slipped on a wet step outside the workshop the other day, and cracked a rib.  This is a home diagnosis, based on having done it before falling over on the boat so knowing what a cracked rib feels like, plus the resources of Dr Google.  There is nothing to be done for a cracked rib.  You can't strap it or help it, but just have to wait for it to recover.  The SA has promised me that the rib definitely is not broken, because it isn't moving, and that the SA doesn't have any of the symptoms of internal bleeding or anything to indicate that the problem is worse than a simple cracked rib.  Simple the rib may be, but overnight it became spectacularly painful, leaving the SA unable to chop wood.

I have said we had better staple chicken wire over the wooden steps where they get slippery.  We are not getting any younger, but we can try and eliminate obvious hazards.

Friday, 13 December 2013

tidings of joy and bleakness

It drizzled today.  I dropped the Systems Administrator off at the railway station, en route to a Christmas lunch with old colleagues, then spent the morning writing the last of the Christmas cards, and staring occasionally out of the kitchen window, marvelling at how nice it was to have a see-through window you could look out of.  One of my lost parcels turned up, delivered by a very cheerful driver who said he knew exactly where our house was, and somebody who didn't know the route must have picked the parcel up last time.  The other is being held by the Royal Mail in a post office which I thought had closed down, so I tried over the internet to rearrange delivery for next Tuesday, and hoped for the best.

The last Christmas cards to be sent tend to be the ones that take longer to write.  Scribbling as much of our news as will fit on the reverse of the picture is a pleasant enough task, as is filling in a few pages of Basildon Bond with tidings of the new windows, and the latest health of the cats, especially Our Ginger.  The ones destined for friends where you know, or fear, that something is amiss take a little more thought.  Have a Great Christmas and New Year doesn't really cut it when one of the recipients has just started another course of chemotherapy, and things aren't going well. I guess people grumble about the cost of stamps so much because we end up buying them all at once.  If you asked them whether they grudged spending a pound once a year to let people they didn't see so often know that they still remembered them, and liked them, and hoped one day to see them again, most would reply that of course they didn't.  The pointless cards are the ones to anyone you don't like or hope not to see again, in which case the cost of stamps has nothing to do with it.

The Christmas cards, and my next task, which was to finish writing up the minutes of the music society committee meeting, will scarcely support more than two paragraphs, so I will tell you about the film we watched the other evening.  It is called Sightseers, and came out late last year.  I must have heard about it on one of the BBC radio arts shows, because I added it to my spreadsheet of films I want to see (which my laptop has now eaten, or rather hidden away under a temporary file name in a secret directory somewhere.  When the Christmas party round is over I must get the Systems Administrator to find it for me, and show me how to look for it myself next time it happens).

Sightseers is a black comedy, described in some write-ups as a pitch black comedy, which is about right.  It begins with the dowdy daughter of a controlling mother setting off on a caravan holiday with her fairly new boyfriend, who seems nice enough and perfectly normal.  There is some very sharp dialogue, and we could be in Mike Leigh territory (it was a review of Sightseers that put me on to his early work Nuts in May, which is a masterpiece).  Then cracks start to appear.  The boyfriend is not so nice and laid back as we thought.  Then he runs somebody over in a museum car park.  Accidentally, according to the police, because they are allowed to continue on their holiday. The next death is not an accident.

And I can't tell you any more than that, without giving away the plot and spoiling it for you, but it is brilliantly done.  It is not laugh out loud funny, and reviews which claimed that are wrong.  Instead it is very, very bleak, while simultaneously extremely funny, and sad, and pulls off the difficult trick of making the audience empathise with leading protagonists who have by then done some appalling things, and are probably psychopaths.  At one point in the middle I briefly lost my nerve, and thought I had persuaded the SA to spend the evening watching a mere gore fest, but the film pulled it off.  The final plot twist is brilliant, and I didn't see it coming at all.  Afterwards we agreed that it was deeply weird, but would stick.  Several days later it has stuck, which I find the best test for a film.  Fish Tank, another low budget and almost unremittingly grim independent film which I inflicted on the SA, has stuck for both of us, whereas I honestly can't remember a thing about Oceans Eleven, except that it had George Clooney and Julia Roberts in it, and  I was bored throughout.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

three exhibitions

I went to London today, to meet an old friend for an exhibition and some lunch.  The process of arranging this jaunt began back in September, but my friend, who was an early adopter of the iPhone, has since taken to responding to texts at a glacial pace, though he says he does it with everybody, and not just me.  The general effect is similar to that of trying to play postal chess with somebody ensconced in the rain forests of Papua New Guinea.  However, in a sudden flurry of messages earlier this week we finally settled on an exhibition, having fixed the date about three weeks ago, and at the appointed time he appeared behind me in the National Gallery ticket queue, looking as relaxed as if we'd last seen each other a week ago and not in March.

We were there for Facing the Modern: the portrait in Vienna 1900.  Quite a few of the portraits on display were painted well before then, and many others were later, and the newspaper critics have been pretty harsh about the way the exhibition is curated.  As an aesthetic experience, if you don't worry about any of that but just go and look at the paintings, it is very enjoyable.  Klimt, associated in my mind (and probably lots of other people's) with the mannered gold extravagance of The Kiss, initially painted highly detailed, polished portraits of almost photographic quality.  I never knew that.  There were quite a few pictures that I liked, and some that I found interesting without wishing I could take them home, and I see why patrons wanting a nice family group to decorate their house while demonstrating their wealth and good taste, might have been a tad nervous of some of the younger and more modern experimental painters.  I can't think that the two sisters staring glumly out of eyes like piss holes in snow were too thrilled with their image, unless they had progressive tastes.

After lunch we parted, and I set off to Tate Britain, to see Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists. The critics liked this one, more than the public seem to, since it was very empty.  Artist number one has standardised on one size of fairly small canvas, always used portrait fashion, and abstract arrangements of lines that reminded me of the Vorticists (Oh dear, Grayson Perry said artists hate that).  There were some interesting shadows, playing with the idea of whether the paintings were decorative surfaces in two dimensions, or representations of three.  The palette was not to my taste, but that's entirely subjective.  I wouldn't have been rushing to steal one in the confusion, if there'd been an emergency of some sort, but I thought they deserved respect.  Artist two paints mainly decaying buildings, and some abstracts, using thick oils and eschewing frames.  Again I found they inspired respect, but not affection, which was odd, since I am normally a sucker for ruins.  Artist three offered some mood boards, and an installation of painted 3-D rectilinear forms painted with green squiggles.  I moved swiftly on, but didn't find artist four any more comprehensible.  The final artist did largish oils of staircases, some with cats, and buildings, working mostly in monochrome shades of black and grey.  There was a grey tree that nodded vaguely in the direction of Mondrian (Oh dear, again).  The staircases were interesting, but sombre.  I left with the impression that painting in Britain now was rather dour.

I stopped on the way back at Somerset House, not to visit The Courtauld Gallery this time, but the exhibition of war art by Stanley Spencer.  These are normally hung in the purpose built 1920s Sandham Memorial Chapel near Newbury, now in the care of the National Trust, but can currently be seen free of charge in the Strand.  Spencer did military service in the Great War in the medical corps, and afterwards drew on his memories to paint a series of murals, thanks to the patronage of a couple who admired his work and wanted to help him in his career.  They ended up commissioning a chapel in memory of their son, for Spencer's panels to hang in.  I found them extraordinary and wonderful.  I know he is not everybody's cup of tea, some finding his work annoying, whimsical, or vaguely embarrassing, but I like it, while being able to detect its subsequent influence in some magazine illustrations and greetings cards which are indeed all of those things.  Spencer himself is sublime, full of colour and movement and gleeful observation of every day events and objects. Most of the murals depict hospital life, not actual hostilities, and the texture of the towels and gleam of light on the metal tea urns is done as wonderfully as in any interior of the Dutch Golden Age.  The great British public like Stanley Spencer too, and there were more people crammed into the three small rooms in Somerset House than there had been in the five large ones at Tate Britain.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

sliding into winter

It's officially winter.  We've started feeding the birds.  While the long, mild autumn went on we left them to get on with it, telling each other that there was lots of natural food for them to eat, but yesterday I went and put seed on the table, and today the Systems Administrator filled up the fat ball container and the peanut holder.  The SA bought a fresh bag of peanuts to be on the safe side, rather than use up last year's, since peanuts can go off and become toxic to birds, and it would be a shame to poison ours under the guise of feeding them.

It didn't take the birds long to find the food.  Do some of them remember the drill from last year, or are they simply very observant?  Piles of mixed seed suddenly appearing on a wooden table and peanuts inside a metal cage are not at all natural.  So far we have had chaffinches, great tits, hedge sparrows and robins, and as I'm typing this the first long tailed tit has just turned up.  The low winter light puts a soft sheen on the pinkish breast of the chaffinch and the lemon yellow of the great tit, so that they look like something painted by Vermeer.  The blackbirds have taken a look at the table, but they tend to stick with berries and hips until they've exhausted the natural supply.

The robin would like to keep everything on the table for itself, and flies belligerently at the other birds, including rival robins.  Given that all robins look identical, I don't in fact know if it is the same robin trying to guard the table against all comers, or a succession of different ones taking it in turns to pose with the food.  A couple of dunnocks took advantage of one inter-robin squabble to slide in for a quiet turn on the table.  They are modest little birds, as self effacing as the robins are attention seeking, with brown bodies a shade slimmer than the tits, and pale buff undersides.

The house is almost as wintry as the garden, since the window fitters kept the doors open for most of the day.  I quietly closed the sitting room double doors at one point, as it was so cold, and they didn't seem to be going backwards and forwards to their van, but the next time I went past they had opened it again, and I realised that without the ventilation, the chemical smell of sealants became overwhelming.  The kitchen is icy despite the Aga, having been without a window for half the afternoon.

A great sense of quiet and privacy descended once the fitters had gone.  There were only two here today, now the monster window doesn't need shifting, and they were a nice, polite pair of lads who have done what looks like a very neat job.  But you can't relax with strangers in the house, even apart from the sound of heavy drills.  They have done what looks like a first class installation, and I am very pleased with it, but also relieved that they have finally gone away.  The whole project was only supposed to take half a day for both windows when the firm booked the date with us, so I should say that their estimator had misjudged that one badly.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

windows D day

Tuesday 10th December was the rescheduled Day of the Windows.  I was relieved when once again the designated window fitting day was calm and dry, given that the larger of the failed windows takes up the entire end of the upstairs sitting room.  I knew they were still on target to come when I got home from work yesterday afternoon and found a pile of scaffolding by the chicken house.  It was the same type as ours, and I wondered briefly why the Systems Administrator had moved all the scaffolding, before clocking that it was hired in.  It seemed rather a waste to be hiring scaffolding when we already had some exactly the same on the premises, but I suppose Everest would not feel secure using strange kit they just picked up on the job, and their insurance presumably wouldn't cover them.

The window fitters were due from eight onwards, so I made sure I was up and about by then.  At nine the phone rang.  They had found their way as far as the lettuce farm, which was good going (and better than today's aborted DPD parcel delivery) and only needed instructions for the last bit. They were the advance guard, there to help lift the monster unit, so they sat in their van waiting for the other team to arrive, who had the actual windows.  Just to complicate their day, their van had a slow puncture.

At about ten the phone rang, and it was the second team calling to say they'd had problems with their van as well, but were now on their way.  I asked what we should do about the first van, and they said they'd ring them.  The team in the first van said they might as well get their tyre fixed while they were waiting, availed themselves of the System Administrator's compressor to temporarily reinflate it, and disappeared.

Eventually the second van turned up and the first van came back, so we were up to full strength of four fitters.  They moved some more furniture out of the way, spread dust sheets on the floor, and set about removing the old window from the sitting room.  Then nothing much seemed to happen for quite a while, and we gathered that they could not get it out.  The sitting room began to smell strongly of aftershave and frustration.

I am a coward about building works.  I don't mind the builders personally, I just didn't like the banging, or the tense air of unresolved difficulties, so went out for the afternoon, leaving the Systems Administrator to deal with it.  I nagged the SA into being lead manager on this one in the first place (I lead on vets and tree surgeons), partly because the SA is good at grappling with technical difficulties, and understands the social niceties of when to offer tea better than I do.  I got home two hours later to find a great deal of male bonding and Right Said Fred sitting down moments over cups of tea had gone on, as it had really been very difficult, first of all to get the old window out of the wall, and then to get the unit out of the building, because it was so heavy they were afraid to carry it down the stairs in case they slipped and broke something.  Eventually they had to resort to throwing it through the hole in the end of the house, but they managed to avoid the SA's satellite dish and my fig tree, so that was fine.  I'm glad I wasn't there, though.

After that there was an enormous amount of very heavyweight drilling.  We kept well out of the way in the study at the opposite end of the house, but could feel it vibrating through the walls.  The SA went to see how they were getting on, and discovered they were struggling to attach the window to the house, the walls being soft as butter in some places, and about as yielding as granite in others. That has been the SA's general experience when trying to put up any kind of hook or shelf over the years.

By quarter to four it was obvious they were not going to have time to do the kitchen window as well, but happily they too had worked this one out, and already booked another slot for tomorrow morning.  By nightfall the big window was securely in place, though still lacking some trim, and we could not admire the effect of the new, un-fogged unit, because it was dark, and the glass still had its layer of protective film on it.  It is a monster window, though, with an integral steel frame to stop it flexing in the wind, and a lifetime guarantee underwritten by the industry.  I'm sure it will be very nice when it's finished.

Monday, 9 December 2013

the beautiful light

The light at this time of the year is astonishingly beautiful, when we get calm, sunlit days such as today.  It brings into relief the thick bunches of pink berries on the Sorbus hupehensis, not yet eaten by birds (perhaps pink is not their favourite), and the rich, deep red crabs of Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel'.  The leafless twigs of Cotoneaster cornubia are weighed down with fruit.  We normally think of cotoneasters as shrubs, reliable candidates for tricky sites and supermarket car parks, but C. cornubia will form a fine small tree, if trained early to a single stem.  It may prove evergreen, but ours aren't.  Perhaps they find life in a pot a trifle stressful.

Sweeping up leaves, my barrow could almost have served as the basis for the design of a scarf, a rich yet repetitive mixture of browns, ochres and yellows, scattered through with splashes of red.  It would be fun to be a textile artist, and find inspiration in the natural world.  Alas, the only person I knew who studied textile design at college ended up working for Haringey council.

A few plants are defiantly hanging on to their foliage.  A vivid patch of yellow proved to belong to Physocarpus opulifolius, while Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet' is still almost fully clothed, its neat oval leaves having turned wine red.  I see that its entry on the excellent Missouri Botanical Garden website mentions as one of its noteworthy characteristics that it may keep its leaves until December, but I hadn't clocked that feature when I planted one at home, and it came as a nice surprise.  It turns out to be willing to live in shade and in boggy conditions as well.

The light made the most of the coloured stems around the place, the soft mustard yellow of the willow and brilliant scarlet of the Cornus.  At home, I was admiring on Saturday how it caught the cinnamon brown bark of the Arbutus x andrachnoides, and the flaking cream and brown trunks of the river birch.  It isn't just that you see stems better once the leaves have fallen, after all, the Arbutus is an evergreen.  There is definitely something in the quality of winter light.  Though it makes life tricky for photographers.  The Systems Administrator struggled yesterday to get a decent picture of our friends posed in front of the aquatic Christmas tree, as the contrast between light and dark was so severe.

By the time I drove home the sun was setting, and the sky in the west had turned a luminous shell pink, streaked with blue grey, the leafless trees silhouetted against it in mute, motionless grace. Winter can be depressing in those weeks when it is endlessly grey, and cold, but on days like today it feels like a right part of the turning seasons.  Pity those people in offices who missed the entire day, because it was still  virtually dark when they arrived, and the sun was long down by the time they came out again.