Friday, 31 January 2014

our daily bread

I made another loaf of bread this morning.  It seemed a useful thing to do, given that I was trying to nip my nascent cold in the bud, so was hunting around for an activity that didn't involve going outside.  The way to get good at making bread, and work out how to incorporate it into my daily routine was, I thought, to practice.

The previous loaf I made last Sunday was genuinely very nice.  In the interests of balance I should add that the chickpea stew it was made to be eaten with was really rather horrible, but the bread was a success.  Real bread is never as light and fluffy as the loaves you buy in the supermarkets that were made using the Chorleywood bread process, but my last loaf had a nice crumb, not the brick-like consistency that marked some of my early efforts.  And it tasted convincingly of bread. The Systems Administrator pronounced it excellent, and I ate the last piece toasted for breakfast this morning (so it kept for five days without going mouldy, despite the lack of additives).

The SA, finding that home made bread was in the offing, said that we could have some of it for lunch.  I warned that it might be a late lunch, since I wasn't sure the timing was going to work, and can confirm that one of the principles of incorporating home made bread into your daily routine is that if you want a traditional loaf for lunch, you need to start making it before half past nine that same morning.  In fact, you need to start no later than half past eight, and eight would be more relaxing.  A watched lump of dough never rises.

I used an Elizabeth David recipe, 500 grammes of strong white flour and 125 grammes of brown. Then I managed to switch to fluid ounces for the water, for no good reason except that having been at primary school during the decimal switch over period, I still operate in a confused jumble of metric and Imperial measurements.  I don't think it made much difference, since 12 fluid ounces equals 354 millilitres, versus the 350 given in the recipe.  Which is odd, given that when it comes to flour the book says 500 grammes or one pound, and a pound is only 454 grammes.  I have long suspected that baking and bread recipes allow a lot more flexibility than some of the modern (male) bread experts tell you, with their strict instructions to weigh water because measuring volume in a jug is too imprecise.  The water content of flour varies, anyway.

I couldn't remember how to translate 10 grammes of dried yeast into teaspoons, and my scales aren't that accurate, so I followed the advice on the tin of yeast, and used one tablespoonful (fifteen millilitres using a proper steel measure and not just a largish spoon out of the kitchen drawer).  Twenty grammes of salt sounded loads for just one loaf, so I used a teaspoonful, since neither of have particularly salty tongues (funny how there's no such expression, when you can say 'sweet tongue').

So as you can see it was not really an Elizabeth David recipe at all, but a sort of adapted, personalised, make it up as you go along one.  Which must be the way bread has been made through the ages.  It took longer to rise than last time, which might be because I didn't warm the flour for quite as long, or maybe last time I only used half a teaspoon of salt.  It was cooked for three quarters of an hour, fifteen minutes in a hot oven, fifteen in a less hot oven, and a final fifteen in the less hot oven tipped out of the tin and turned upside down.  And we disobeyed the book and started to eat it as soon as it was done, instead of waiting for it to cool and its flavour to develop.  And it looked and tasted just like real bread.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

men hate germs, but a germ thinks of a man only as a swamp in which he has to live*

It is raining.  Again.  Which is not a bad thing, as it happens, because it discourages me from trying to get out into the garden, and I have a cold.  Again.

It is not a bad cold.  On Monday while I was gardening my nose ran like a leaky tap.  I decided to ignore it, because I wanted to get on with things, and cold weather often makes my nose run (as does coming from the cold air of the street into the warm air of a room, which can be embarrassing).  On Tuesday morning, I felt slightly stiff and disinclined to get going, but gardened anyway, because I had things to do.  As I came in when it began to rain, just before dusk, I realised that there was no ignoring it, the cold was back.  Or a different one.

They are strange things, colds.  The words 'just a' are customarily appended to the admission that one has a cold, to differentiate it from flu.  Which is fair enough.  Flu can be a very nasty illness. At best you are incapacitated, and at worst you die, whereas outside satirical sketches by Bernard Levin people do not die of a cold in the head.  Colds vary in severity, though, from very mild sniffles to disgusting, mucus filled, aching marathons that leave you fuddled and below par for weeks.  This one feels at the lower end of the spectrum, and I'm moderately optimistic that if it were going to turn into a bad one it would have got worse, faster, by now.

In the meantime I feel vaguely guilty and incompetent for having it, as if I have brought it on myself through some unwise behaviour.  Either that, or it reflects badly on my immune system. Which is silly.  Living in a warm, cocooned bubble, never venturing outside (cold air) or meeting other people (germs) is not a realistic way of life (unless you are Emma Woodhouse's father).  The Systems Administrator, by way of consolation, told me how many Radio 2 presenters had sniffles, and guests missing from their shows because of colds, but it didn't really make me feel any better about having one myself.

We know the common cold is an endlessly mutable virus, which has defied all attempts to date to find a cure or a vaccine.  Millions suffer, and would willingly pay for a treatment.  That's just the sort of illness the drug companies like, so much more rewarding than some obscure fatal disease that only affects a few thousands annually, and yet Big Pharma has not yet come up with anything. Nor has the herbal, homeopathic end of the market got a convincing answer.  Perhaps if I ate echinacea extract daily I might save myself, but I don't think it's proven.  So I should not feel inadequate that my immune system has been mildly caught out by something that affects virtually every other person on the planet, while defying the best efforts of the world's pharmaceuticals industry.

It could just be a case of old fashioned middle class guilt.  I am a high achiever, ergo, anything that goes wrong in my life, however slightly, reflects badly on me.  I think the current barrage of government sponsored and media health advice has more to to do with it.  We are told so often that so many of our behaviours will make us ill.  Smoking, drinking, being overweight, not taking enough exercise, wrapping your food in cling film, they'll all give you cancer.  Eat too much and get fat, and you'll get heart disease and diabetes, and your joints will collapse.  Sleep for too few hours, or sleep the wrong sort of sleep, live near a busy road or under a flight path, lack control over your working conditions, fail to find a job at all, be married, stay single, umpteen behaviours and life choices are all now said to make us ill.

The idea of being a normal, healthy person who has randomly contracted a common germ through no fault of their own seems almost too incredible to contemplate.

*Don Marquis, in case you were wondering

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

you can't beat buckwheat for better batter

I am going through a pancake phase.  I have always liked pancakes, and every now and then persuade the Systems Administrator that we could have them for lunch, traditional British style ones, with lemon and sugar, and 'for lunch' meaning 'constituting lunch', given that we don't normally eat puddings and don't really feel like filling up on pancakes after consuming a main course.

When we were on holiday we visited a nineteenth century working mill, and I bought a bag of buckwheat flour in the shop, which sold nothing but umpteen different types of flour in seductive plain paper bags.  The flour was not actually milled on site, since the nineteenth century equipment did not meet twenty-first century standards of food hygiene, but I wanted a souvenir.  The sight of those Archimedes' screws and Victorian boulters had put me in the mood for buying crushed grain.

The packet of buckwheat flour sat in the cupboard, because I did not know what to do with it. Occasionally I would think I must do something, and sometimes the SA would remind me that I needed to use it.  About the only use of buckwheat flour on the internet seemed to be pancakes, and I got as far as downloading an American recipe for the thick fluffy ones, about the size of a side plate, that you are supposed to make into a pile and smother with maple syrup, blueberries, or both.  The quantities were all given in cups, and one of the ingredients was buttermilk, so the American pancakes remained purely theoretical.

Then in an attempt to buy a cookery book for my niece's birthday I ordered one on pancakes.  All the books I looked at that were specifically written for children seemed to major on cakes and sweet stuff, and while I enjoyed making fairy buns as a child, my brother and his wife are keen on healthy eating, and their offspring are a lot slimmer than I was at their age.  A book of mainly cake wasn't going to fit in with the family's eating habits.  Pancakes, on the other hand, seemed a good idea for an eight year old interested in cooking.  You get a result reasonably quickly and without endless tedious prep, they come in savoury as well as sweet flavours, and you don't have to make a vast amount of batter in any one go.

I misjudged the book.  I avoided the American title that had all the measurements in cups, and a style so bright and breezy that Tonstant Weader would definitely have been thwowing up all over the kitchen before hurling the book away with an exclamation of revulsion.  I failed to notice that the book I chose instead was sponsored by a manufacturer of crepe and waffle machines.  In my defence, I was not feeling very well when I chose it.  Since I wasn't proposing to buy my niece a waffle making machine, I didn't feel I could give her the book.

So I kept it, and after reading it conceived a violent desire for a Belgian waffle maker.  Gaufres were one of the treats of childhood holidays in Brittany, bought from seafront stalls, and the discovery that I could make them at home was irresistible.  The Systems Administrator thought the idea hilarious, which I found inexplicable until the SA had explained that Belgian waffle makers were a running gag in a satirical online magazine that the SA subscribes to.  I'm not sure whether that makes it more or less likely that I'll get one for my birthday, but I've found the model I want on the John Lewis website: it has detachable plates for ease of cleaning, and enough room for the batter to expand.

In the meantime I have been making savoury galettes in a frying pan.  The batter is very similar to traditional English pancake batter as taken from the Good Housekeeping cookery book, with two eggs and four ounces of flour to half a pint of milk, but you substitute buckwheat for half the flour, and whisk a tablespoon of melted butter into the mix.  The ham and cheese topping is added as soon as you turn the pancake over, and does pretty much melt by the time the second side is cooked.  The first ones keep quite happily in the warming oven while you finish cooking, and the batter without the addition of savoury bits makes a nice sweet pancake.  The spare ones keep overnight in the fridge, and reheat perfectly well.  I added a few specks of butter to stop them becoming dry, remembering that Dutch pancake houses always serve a pat of butter with their sweet pancakes.

We had ham and cheese pancakes, and the following week bacon and cheese pancakes.  After that the book starts to run out of savoury flavours that the SA would eat, since spinach and seafood figure prominently.  I fancy trying my hand at blinis, and there is a recipe for baking powder raised small pancakes with courgette that sounds promising.  Thinking back to our Dutch holidays, cheese and some sort of preserved pig meat did seem to be the traditional savoury pancake fillings.  Out of curiosity I had a look at the menu on the website of the London restaurant chain My Old Dutch (I was amazed that it was still going.  It must be over twenty-five years since I ate at the Holborn branch), but they had extended the range beyond ham and cheese by dint of listing various mixtures that sounded more like pizza toppings, some of which no self-respecting Italian would recognise.  So I tried Googling Dutch pancake houses, and as I suspected the choices were mainly variations on kaas, spek and ham.  If you want more choice than that, go sweet.  Apple and sultana is a favourite.

Buckwheat makes a pleasant batter.  I've heard it described as 'nutty', but don't detect any particular nut flavour myself.  It makes a less dense pancake than one hundred per cent white plain flour, and happily takes up the flavours of whatever it is served with in a convincing pancake-like fashion.  Which is just as well, since I bought a one kilo bag of flour, and at fifty grammes a go that equates to a lot of pancakes.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

change of plan

Today I was going to meet an old colleague in London for an exhibition and some lunch.  I suggested this Tuesday partly because it was forecast to rain heavily all day here, but be dry in London.  None of these things came to pass.  My friend discovered that she had double booked herself, so we rearranged for next week.  It didn't start raining here until twenty past four, so I had virtually a full day in the garden.  There were showers in London, so if I'd gone there I'd have got wet.  I am quite happy to see last week's forecast for this week of virtually non-stop rain give way to the prospect of nothing wetter than overcast skies until Friday afternoon, but it reinforces the uselessness of the five day forecast as a method of planning when to do anything.

The black cat looked much better today than he did yesterday, when he seemed to be permanently terrified, running away from both of us and unable or unwilling to eat.  He will be fifteen in April, old enough to make me view any sudden change in his behaviour rather pessimistically, but this morning he was back to his usual amiable self, chirruping, purring, and eating.  He doesn't seem to have been sick either, unless he has done it somewhere very discreet.

I went on with weeding the long bed, dithering about whether to keep some rather small rhizomes of bearded iris and try and nurse them back to flowering size, or replace them with something else, that might flower this year.  Although iris dislike winter wet I think they do prefer a reasonably good soil.  On our sand they tend to dwindle away to a half-size, non-flowering state, even with top dressings of 6X manure, plus fish, blood and bone.  I had to lift them because they were infested with more roots of the wretched running grass, but they were scarcely worth replanting.  I think I'd better keep those parts of the bed empty and fallow for a couple of months so that I can treat the grass with glyphosate as it regrows, since I know I haven't managed to dig and tease all the roots out.

One of the nicest plants in the bed is a golden Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris 'Aurea'.  At this time of the year its foliage has gone a soft shade of dark yellow, which sounds as though it could look unhealthy, but doesn't.  In the summer it reverts to plain greyish green, and doesn't draw attention to itself.  It is a slow grower, with a dense, busy habit, but after seven years it is starting to develop into a good feature.  Alas, a twisty branched cherry bought to sit next to it, and give a little Japanese flavour to that part of the bed, has died.  I think a fierce spell of drought before it was established did for it.  I watered it, but evidently not enough.  Or perhaps it could never have coped in the sandy soil.  In my wilder moments I think that perhaps I should plant nothing but dwarf pines in the front garden, since they seem to like the soil so much more than most things.

Monday, 27 January 2014

tanked up

I woke briefly at seven this morning, decided I did not need to get up yet, went back to sleep, briefly regained just enough consciousness to register that it was twenty past, and was suddenly properly awake at eight because I thought I heard someone knocking on the door.  I wasn't sure about that, partly because I'd been asleep, but also because the cats are capable of making so much noise that any extraneous bangs and crashes can easily be them.  I find it comforting when the Systems Administrator is away, being able to attribute any odd noises around the house to the cats.

Nonetheless, I was expecting a call at some point in the near future, because the oil was due to be delivered by January 28th.  I began to fret about the level in the tank when the electronic gauge in the kitchen got down to two bars on the display.  The SA assured me that even when it got down to only one bar there was plenty left, and that if we ordered oil on the back of two bars there would not be enough room in the tank for the quantity needed to qualify for a volume discount.  Then it got down to one bar, and I reminded the SA again.  I did not nag, you understand, just issued the odd reminder in a friendly, non-judgemental voice.  About a week ago the SA announced that the oil was on its way, and over the weekend while the SA was in Cheltenham the display in the kitchen began to flash a warning that we were now officially low on oil.

I scurried downstairs in my dressing gown, a voluminous, vaguely north African style cotton robe in an interesting shade somewhere between orange and turmeric.  I bought it because it was so beautiful, to see it was to desire it, but in truth I almost never need to wear a dressing gown, and it has spent most of the past decade hanging on the back of the bathroom door, where I can admire it while sitting on the loo.  Nobody got to see it this morning, however, because when I got to the door there was nobody there.  There was a sound of a heavy vehicle reversing, but the curve of the drive meant I couldn't see what it was.  Scurrying down to the point where I could look round the corner, I saw there was indeed an oil lorry, but it was reversing away from the house.  I rushed back inside and told the Systems Administrator that the oil had come, but was going away again.  The SA began to wear the expression of somebody who until very recently had been trying to stay asleep, while hoping that whatever it was that was going on could happen without them.

I got dressed.  It was really too cold and too undignified to pursue the oil wearing nothing but knickers and a mauve camisole topped off with a turmeric robe that looked as though I might have borrowed it from Derek Jarman.  When I went back downstairs, the oil lorry was having another go, this time reversing up the lane.  He made it almost to the house, before trundling off forwards again.  I had another spasm of anxiety that the oil was about to vanish at the eleventh hour, like a parcel being taken to the sorting office because there was nobody there to sign for it, but it turned out that the driver had decided that the eleagnus hedge made life too difficult, and that he was going to go the other way round the turning circle.  There he stopped, and began to unreel his hose.

I apologised about the hedge, but he was extremely good natured about it, and we have our oil. Two thousand litres.  I'm sure that originally the SA was aiming to fit at least sixteen hundred in the tank, and then the target crept up to eighteen hundred, but by running it to the wire we've squeezed in a full two thousand, saving an extra nought point something of a penny per litre.  It's a good game as long as you don't miscalculate, and end up with an airlock or sludge out of the very bottom of the tank in your boiler.  The SA, who had appeared by this point fully dressed, announced that he was going back to bed.

Addendum  I was amused to hear on The World at One that Labour's proposed fifty per cent top tax band would only be a temporary measure.  Of course, so is income tax itself, and it will be rescinded just as soon as those pesky Napoleonic Wars are out of the way.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

wet weather jobs

It rained, yet again.  I was relieved when at lunchtime the Systems Administrator appeared back from Cheltenham, since it was not the weather to be on the roads.  The SA came back mostly cross country, two miles on the M25 being more than enough, with the spray.  I was not expecting the SA in time for lunch, and so had not got anything that the SA would eat, having enjoyed a smoked mackerel fillet myself, but luckily the SA had had a snack on the way, as well as breakfast at the hotel.  The SA went to Cheltenham for a race meeting, of course.  That goes without saying, just as when I refer to Chelsea I mean the flower show, and not the football team, or the area of London around Sloane Square.

I made progress with the ironing room project.  Several boxes of once-read and not likely to be re-read blockbuster thrillers are ready to be taken to the PDSA bookstall, and some detective novels are destined for the railway bookshelf, via my mother's house in case there are any she has not read.  There are some detective novels I wouldn't part with, not just Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham but also Nicholas Freeling, but I'm not going to reread Reginald Hill, and I found Snow Falling On Cedars quite unreadably unpleasant first time round.  Which makes it an odd choice to give to my mother, but it was a massive international best seller at the time, so lots of people must have liked it.

Some of the mess from the ironing room has migrated to the spare room, which is cheating slightly, but I did warn the Chairman at the beekeepers' AGM that I'd be seeking the committee's permission to ditch some of the older accounts, and the boxes of magazines.

I finally finished shredding my old bank statements and payslips as well, sustaining only minor flesh wounds while unjamming the shredder.  I think I've got the hang of it now.  The instruction to process a maximum of five sheets at a time is misleading, unless they were airmail letters.  Essentially it can't cope with more than one sheet.  The wire bin that catches the shredded remains needs emptying frequently, so that material falls away cleanly from the cutting blades and doesn't back up, and it's a good idea to give it a quick burst on Rev every now and then, which makes it simultaneously chop and regurgitate any strands caught in the cutters.  If you have allowed a tightly jammed mass of shredded paper to accumulate between the blades it stops working.  You can pull and prise the jammed paper out, but the blades are extremely sharp (hence the flesh wound) and using the point of a sharp knife is a better bet.  I switch if off while I'm doing it, because I'm cautious that way, but as an added safety feature it won't run unless seated properly on its bin.

Apart from tidying the spare rooms, I'm making some bread, which fits in quite well with other indoor tasks as it sat rising while I got on with shuffling books around.  It is currently undergoing its second proving, creeping in a languid fashion towards the top of the tin.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

oh yes it is

I went to a pantomime this afternoon.  I'm not sure exactly how many years it is since I last went to one, but it certainly can't be since the early 1970s.  My aunt used to take my brother and me to a West End panto when we stayed with her in Woking during the Christmas holidays.  I remember seeing The Wind in the Willows.  I don't know who was in it, but can still recall the powerful smell of cap guns in the fight between the good characters and the wicked weasels.  And we saw Dorothy Tutin as Peter Pan, which counts as a small milestone of theatre history, and a very young Fiona Fullerton as a fairy in something or other.  I don't remember what, but it was before her television appearance as a nurse in Angels, and I felt smug watching that on the TV because I'd seen her live.

Today's panto was not such a grand affair, but very jolly.  It was staged by one of the local amateur groups, and I went along because my niece was in it.  Indeed, she was the youngest member of the cast, having met the minimum age requirement for taking part by five days.  It was not a shoe-in, either.  There were proper auditions, and not everybody got a part.

So my parents invited me along, and we sat in a row with my niece's proud co-grandparents (that's my brother's mother and father-in-law.  Try to keep up at the back) and my brother and his wife and the twins sat a couple of rows in front of us, all ready to show family solidarity.  It was my sister-in-law's second time around, since she'd been to one of the evening performances in the week to show some motherly support.

The village hall was smaller than I remembered it, but I suppose I was last there for a Farmer's Market, when it was not so full of chairs.  I should think it had every chair you could legally set up and still nominally obey the fire safety regulations, although my father looked at the throng of people and the two exits at the front, and remarked tranquilly that if there were a fire he did not expect any of us to get out alive.  The village would like a new hall, one with more capacity and that was easier to heat, but since Colchester Borough Council believes that they are well supplied with community leisure facilities, that probably isn't happening any time soon.

It turned out to be a very fine panto, performed with great gusto.  There was singing, and dancing, and some monumentally bad puns fully up to Now Show standards, and brightly coloured sets, and a Sultana of Morocco (cue more puns) as well as the traditional Dame.  There were local in-jokes, digs at surrounding villages, and a spoof Titanic moment that genuinely made me laugh a lot.  My niece acquitted herself with aplomb.  I found myself happy to join in with an audience participation song originally from the music halls, which it happened I already knew, and as unable to shout Oh Yes It Is and Oh No It Isn't as I was when I was eight.  (My aunt used to nudge us when the London pantomimes invited boys and girls to go up on to the stage, and I always thought that was an appalling prospect.  Over forty years on, I still make sure to sit far enough back at live comedy shows that I can't get picked on).

The village hall did not have air conditioning, and as we left at the end I suddenly realised that fresh air was a terribly good idea.  That, and being able to stand up, which is probably why as we walked back to my parents' house we were not as quick as we should have been to duck inside somewhere when it started to rain.  The rain developed into a torrent.  Water fell in sheets, mixed with hail, while lightening flashed, but by then we'd left the last pub so far behind that it made more sense to go on than to turn back.  We were three very soggy people by the time we reached my parents' front door.  I was not expecting it to rain at all, otherwise I'd have worn different shoes, and I didn't think you were supposed to get thunderstorms in January.  Still, it was a good pantomime.

Friday, 24 January 2014

still Treasurer

Nobody else wanted the job of Treasurer, or else they were too kind hearted to take it away from me.  Probably the former.  They didn't want to ask any questions about the accounts either.  There were some cheese straws left over from the meeting, so I ate half of them for lunch.  They seemed too nice to crumble up and put on the bird table.  I expect the birds would have liked them, but they've got some suet to be going on with.  You can tell it hasn't been really cold from the quantity of rose hips left in the garden, and the fact that the blackbirds have still barely touched the apples on the trio of Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel'.

It felt chilly today as I began to work my way down the long bed, but I took comfort from a report in yesterday's Telegraph suggesting that feeling chilly occasionally is good for you.  According to some Dutch scientists writing in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, being in a slightly cold environment encourages your body to lay down stores of brown fat, which are fabulously efficient at generating heat, and help keep you slim.  I do remember brown fat from school biology, but have no idea about the academic status of the journal.  It sounds a very northern European conclusion, that exposure to cold is good for you.  I'm sure I've read other advice saying that it can make your blood sticky and is therefore bad for you, but maybe that only applies to old people.  Or perhaps I have to juggle the relative risks of sticky blood (leading to stroke) versus lack of brown fat deposits (leading to obesity).

When I went to do my Pilates exercises I discovered I could barely feel my feet, so I may have overdone the cold exposure.  The Telegraph article did say the study suggested turning the thermostat down to between 15 and 17 degrees Celsius, rather than 3 to 5 C.

The middle section of the long bed has got an annoying patch of weed grass with a running rootstock.  All running grasses are a menace, and this one is especially irritating because it has got into the ivy hedge, the reason why I haven't managed to get rid of it so far.  I forked out as much as I could, while trying not to damage the emerging bulbs (or mourn too deeply the fat hyacinth bud I accidentally snapped off) but I will have to wait for regrowth, and then for a calm day, and then hit the emerging new blades of grass with glyphosate.  And do it again.  And probably again, while trying not to catch the hyacinths, or the ivy, or anything else (though ivy is pretty tough).

As I was pulling out the roots of grass and creeping sorrel, I came upon several star shaped brown roots which I'm pretty sure belong to some sort of hardy geranium.  Normally, when you buy a geranium growing in a one or two litre pot, you don't pull it apart to see what the roots look like, but based on my experience of potting commercially grown roots I thought that was what these were.  They didn't look awfully well, allowing themselves to dug up like that, and rather than replant them in the border I wrapped them up in a plastic bag for potting, to see if they can be nursed back to health in the greenhouse.  They were in a peculiarly nasty stretch of soil even by the standards of that bed, and perhaps their constitution was not up to it.  I rescued a nearby aster just before Christmas, because the plant's entire demeanour signalled so clearly that it was Not Happy where it was.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

the AGM approaches

It rained again.  Encore.  The rain it is raining in all the day long-oh.  I am like the king of a rainy country.  The rain it raineth every day.  Rain, rain, go away.

I did my tax return online.  Afterwards I felt cheated, in so far as I did not experience a state of transcendental bliss and utter relief, as promised on Classic FM, but was just mildly narked at having to write the tax man a cheque for ninety pounds.  Still, at least it's done.  I am one step ahead of the Systems Administrator, who is leaving the whole horrible process until the eleventh hour.

Then I made cheese straws for tonight's beekeepers' AGM.  The committee thought that if we offered nibbles it might create more of a party atmosphere, if not act as an actual incentive to attend.  The Chairman seemed to have been thinking of buying in a few pizzas (I don't know why given he makes us fabulous cakes for our committee meetings) but was outvoted.  I am rather proud of my cheese straws, and there was something in the Show Secretary's voice as she said that she would make some savoury tartlets that suggested that no members were going to be fed budget pizza on her watch.  I have got the makings of smoked salmon on brown bread to assemble before I go out, though it is only Value salmon, because I wasn't feeling that generous to my fellow beekeepers.

There is the theoretical possibility of my being ousted as Treasurer, but nobody else has expressed any interest in the job, so I expect it is mine for another year.  No-one has shown any desire to take up the reins as Membership Secretary either, which is problematic, since the existing one is adamant that after many years of service to the association she is no longer willing to continue. Where are the volunteers of yesteryear?  I can see that in the south east many of them are stuck with long commutes, or working two jobs to make ends meet, or minding their grandchildren while their children work seventy hour weeks, but I fear that quite a few of them are happy to sit at home watching Strictly and Downton.  And yet we read that more people than ever live by themselves, and that some of them are lonely.

The SA did look through the two boxes of paperbacks, and agreed that most of them might as well go to the PDSA bookstall, and that the paperwork relating to the former boat could go in the bin, apart from the final bill of sale.  It's probably a good idea to keep that, so that if she is ever found floating around the Medway as a ghost yacht, perhaps infested with cannibal rats, we will have proof that she is no longer anything to do with us.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

trying to be tidy

It rained a lot.  Again.  I returned to the task of trying to tidy up the ironing room, and make space on the bookshelves to consolidate the history section upstairs, so that gardening and cooking in the study can both budge along.

I decided that the art of chucking stuff out is to get into the groove.  I didn't need my second (or even first?) year notes on Economic Botany, and the planning framework has changed so much since 2003 that my file on that was of no conceivable use to anyone.  I remember I did sell my key textbook from that module on Amazon, as soon as I'd finished the semester, on the grounds that it would only go out of date.  Once I'd parted with rice as an industrial crop and my account of a trip to a tomato grower in Lincolnshire (a tricky assignment, that one, since he wouldn't give us any financial information at all) throwing away garden history didn't seem too hard.

By now my baleful eye has turned towards the boxes of years old bee magazines that we're currently playing host to on behalf of the Colchester beekeepers.  I had better get the committee's approval before doing anything drastic, but unless somebody else will volunteer to have them in their spare room I think they are for the chop.  Yes, they are theoretically a valuable historical archive, but I'll take the chance that somebody else somewhere in the country has a copy.  Nobody has ever asked to look at them even once since I've had them.

Likewise the committee needs to agree how many back years of divisional accounts it wants to keep.  I searched through them looking for clues as to what equipment or other assets the division might have bought in the dim and distant past, and which might now be lurking unrecorded with some of the older members, and found precious little of interest, about capital assets or anything else.  I don't think social historians of the future will be wringing their hands about the loss of priceless information if I can get my colleagues' permission to bin that lot.

The Systems Administrator's immediate reaction on learning that we had two box files of paperwork relating to boats we no longer own was that they should be kept, but we'll return to the discussion tomorrow.  I can't really see what use a twenty year old instruction manual for a boat heater which now belongs to somebody else somewhere down on the Medway is to us.

I had a nasty moment when I seemed to have broken the Systems Administrator's shredder, destroying a file of bank statements for my secondary current account for 2011 and earlier.  All that happens on the account is that miscellaneous dividends are paid into it, and my National Trust membership is paid out of it by direct debit, and the only reason I keep it is out of idleness about changing all the dividend mandates, and as an act of revenge on my original bank, who had annoyed me.  Specifically, when I was giving up the City and rang to discuss a different account package, since I no longer wanted a Gold Card, the person on the end of the phone on hearing I was going back to university said that they did have a student account, but I would have to provide written proof that I was a student.  They had all of my redundancy payout sitting on the account at the time, and shortly afterwards I was rung up by someone from their wealth management section wanting to invest it for me.  I was sufficiently irritated to take my business elsewhere, apart from leaving them with the faff of processing my dividends and the very occasional cheque, and aside from bank statements and one letter telling me that my branch (in Devon) was closing, I have not heard from them since.

The shredder was not broken.  After I'd pulled the stuck paper out of the cutter blades, and the SA had poked at the sensor with a pair of scissors, and the machine had been given time to cool down, it worked again.  We can't be sure which intervention made the difference, but agreed that it was probably not designed to shred five years' worth of statements in one go.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

exercise and drill

It was foggy this morning, and I allowed extra time to drive to my Pilates lesson, which turned out to be an unnecessary precaution as the traffic through Colchester was extremely light, and people were driving sensibly.  I hadn't seen my teacher for a couple of months, since she took a break from teaching over Chrismas.  The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.  I know that the exercises are good for me, indeed that they are all that stand between me, with my congenitally bad posture, years of life spent on trains and at desks, and current gardening habit, and a disastrously bad lower back.  But there is no denying that with the Christmas celebrations, and then starting the New Year with a bug, I had not practised so much as I should have done.  My teacher was kind about it, but there is no doubt that she could tell.

Part of the point of seeing a personal trainer for whatever fitness regime you've signed up to is that the knowledge that you've paid for this stuff, and the prospect of submitting your individual efforts to close scrutiny, drive you to greater and more diligent efforts than you would make otherwise. Well, they do if you are naturally non-athletic and opposed to all organised physical activity.  Where your own resolve falls short of the task, your teacher's may spur you on, a sort of outsourcing of your conscience.  My homework for the next month is to practice standing on tiptoe, heels together, toes turned out, and rise up and down in a controlled way keeping heels together while moving or not moving my arms in a coordinated fashion.  It sounds ludicrously simple, and is much harder to do than it looks.

Still, I can now stand on one leg on a wobble board without holding on to anything, and a year ago I would not have believed I could do that.  Wobble boards are brilliantly simple and fiendish devices, consisting of a board mounted on a semicircular axle so that it is free to tip in either direction until the edge of the board hits the floor.  If you have your weight directly above the axle you can theoretically stand there without tipping for hours.  I expect my teacher actually could, though I wouldn't pay for the full hour to watch her do it.  If you are me you can stand on the board with a certain amount of wobbling, and even step on to the board without a handhold, on a good day.  You can arrange yourself so that the board tips backwards and forwards, or from side to side.  They are used in the rehabilitation of stroke patients, to help them recover their balance.

I'm happy to work on my sense of balance, as well as the strength of the core muscles in my lower back.  It will come in handy as I get older, to help me avoid falling over, and it is a handy skill for gardening.  Working your way into a packed flowerbed, putting each foot down in a considered manner so as not to squash anything, it is useful to be able to take your time, pausing on one leg if necessary while you consider your next move.  And for pruning, even with a secure scaffold or ladder that's been properly arranged and tested to check that it's stable, it's good to have a powerful reflex to stay upright as you take the weight of whatever it is you're cutting off.  The alternative is to let it crash unimpeded on to whatever lies below, and there are times working above a border when you don't want to do that.

Monday, 20 January 2014

unwanted comments

When a bee stings you, it leaves a chemical marker which attracts other bees to sting at the same spot.  Which is yet another good reason not to get stung by a bee if at all possible.  The same thing seems to happen with spam comments on the blog.  There is one entry, months old now, that is picking up a steady stream of spurious comments.  They don't get published, because Blogspot's spam filter identifies them as likely junk, and sends them to a holding box, where I get the chance to inspect and if necessary delete them.  As part of the service, Blogspot sends me an email to alert me that someone has posted a comment.  It is not a big problem, but it's disappointing on coming downstairs first thing in the morning to see that I've got six emails, and find when I open my inbox that four of them are about Anonymous comments, and then when I open the blog that all are spam (especially when the only other emails are the Daily Telegraph's morning summary and another advertisement for the Toast winter sale).

The spam comments are not offensive: some are simply gibberish, and others platitudes about how wonderful the blog is (I particularly appreciate the ones praising the quality of my artwork and videos).  All contain links to the senders' own blogs, which are not even for anything exciting or obscene but things like vitamin supplements (as far as I can tell, having never clicked on one).  I delete them, while wishing that Blogspot would go one further and enable me to send off a pithy response or long garbled comment of my own with a single click.  Though it's never a good idea to escalate an argument gratuitously.

There was a frost first thing, and I was relieved I'd bothered to go outside last night after watching the weather forecast on the TV and shut the greenhouse and conservatory doors.  I did have them open to get the air moving through, because some of the plants were suffering from fungal attack, especially in the greenhouse.  It is a very good idea to be able to keep the floor dry in the winter months if you plan to overwinter plants under glass.  Alas, I had my greenhouse erected on one corner of a large concrete slab  with grooves running across it for grip.  In wet weather water runs along the grooves and straight under the walls across the greenhouse floor, and I have lost several rooted Teucrium cuttings to the current outbreak of botrytis.  I cannot see any way of solving the problem, short of taking a pneumatic drill to that corner of the concrete.

It was not a deep frost, and once it had melted I was able to weed the beds in the back garden, and cut last year's leaves off the smart Ashwood hellebores.  Some of them were showing the black spots of fungal infection, while the leaves of one plant had gone entirely brown and collapsed.  The buds appear sound, so with any luck we'll get a display of flowers this year.  The hybrid hellebores in the garden have generally been pretty healthy (though H. foetidus in one bed has been looking very ropey for the past year, its seedlings blackening and dying before they come to anything), but is has been such a wet winter.  The old leaves will go in a bag to the dump and not on the compost bin, to reduce the chances of recycling infection in the garden.  The flower buds are still held close to the ground, and were not awfully visible without their surrounding leaves, and I had to be very careful not to tread on any of the plants.

The Systems Administrator stayed indoors, a plan I heartily concurred with.  The air felt raw, and not the thing at all for anyone trying to cast off a chest infection, though it turned out the SA was more concerned with setting back the recovery of the cracked rib before a forthcoming trip over to Cheltenham.  However, the SA did very kindly do the vacuuming, while I was weeding.  It was kind, because gardening is my hobby and scarcely counts as housework, while the cat fur and general filth were our joint problem, and the SA would not put down vacuum cleaning if suddenly promoted to inclusion in Who's Who, and asked for a list of interests.

I was truly grateful, because I loathe vacuum cleaning.  I always get the flex wound round the furniture, and am enraged by the red light coming on again when I've only just emptied the blessed thing.  And as I don't like wearing headphones I can't even listen to music while I'm doing it.  The SA listens to podcasts, while wearing the yellow plastic ear defenders also used for lawn mowing and chain sawing over his iPod earphones, which looks slightly eccentric, but there's nobody else to see it, and I am too grateful to care.  I am very happy that the SA does the bulk of the vacuum cleaning, and hope it does not challenge his masculinity.  I contribute in other ways, such as having taken sole charge of mucking out the hen house and sourcing small bales since we got the chickens nearly a decade ago.  So to whoever it was worrying in the Telegraph or the Guardian about whether ironing her husband's shirts was compatible with feminism, I would say it's absolutely fine, as long as she doesn't mind ironing and he does something else useful, like vacuuming.

Addendum  Or cooking.  I can hear the clatter of pans from the kitchen as I type this.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

winter fragrance

I set to work today to finish cutting the eleagnus hedge.  For weeks the safe aluminium platform we keep for working at height has been sitting on the daffodil lawn, abandoned after the brief two day spell between Christmas and the New Year when I last got on with it.  Since then illness, wind and rain have intervened, and then it seemed more urgent to get the hellebores by the oil tank tidied up before they came into flower.  The view through the smart new giant window was not enhanced by having a Henchman platform, ladder and shredder full in the foreground, with a wheelbarrow, rake and two green buckets behind them in the middle distance, but that's where everything ended up. Finally, since it was calm and sunny and the daffodil leaves are starting to emerge, I thought it would be a good idea to finish the hedge, and move the scaffolding out of the way.

As I worked I realised to my delight that the garden was suffused with the scent of winter flowering shrubs.  I diligently grow witch hazel, sweet box and a form of Viburnum x bodnantense, that flowers on bare twigs for weeks on end in the winter, with daphnes to follow along a little later, and in the wet and windy weather we've had they might as well have been made of plastic for all the fragrance I could ever detect walking around.  At last, given a sunny and calm day, their smell hung on the air like it was supposed to.  It is a piecing smell, sharp, clean but heavy.

The first snowdrops are just open.  They are almost all the common Galanthus nivalis rather than any special early variety, so the fact that a few are almost full out when most of the others are still tight little spikes no more than a couple of inches high shows either the natural genetic variability in the population, or that some corners of the garden are particularly warm and favourable.  The timing of their flowering is always highly influenced by the weather.  Given a hard winter and they won't do anything until late February, which must make planning snowdrop open days in advance a nightmare.

Looking at the snowdrops coming through and the pulmonaria buds expanding reminded me that I needed to make the most of the calm weather to cut back the willows overhanging the ditch bed. Their trunks are on the far side of the ditch, and I am never entirely sure whether the trees belong to the neighbouring farmer or are ours.  They grow as fast as weeds, and send long branches out over the garden.  I have not always been so efficient as I should have been about keeping these in check, as some of the shrubs now bear witness, having grown lopsidedly forwards towards the light.

Willow wood is soft, as is often the way with fast growing trees, and it is fairly easy to cut through quite substantial branches with the bow saw.  To reach them I had to manoeuvre the platform into the bed, trying very hard not to put any of its saucer sized feet down on top of anything too precious.  I tackled some of the lower branches from the ladder, which lacking feet sank lopsidedly into the earth.  At the end of my pruning session I had a large pile of bonfire material and a wheelbarrow of sections large enough to count as firewood, once they've seasoned.  There is still some more willow to come out, though, once I can work out how to get at it, and we have agreed to take a large branch off the wild gean, but that needs the Systems Administrator and a chainsaw.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

a taxing day

I returned after breakfast to the question of my tax return.  Besides the wretched P60, I was missing the tax certificates for several dividends, which made me think there had to be a cache of tax related documents somewhere, since while I could just about believe that I'd managed to lose my P60 (though I didn't think it was likely), I couldn't believe I'd accidentally thrown out half a dozen tax vouchers as well.  Eventually I found them all together in the bottom of my filing tray, where I'd evidently put them after running out of energy to finish my filing, tucked in among innumerable letters and brochures from the double glazing company.  My earned income according to the P60 was of course exactly the same as the cumulative income given on my final payslip for the financial year, so the P60 did not serve any useful purpose at all.

It occurred to me as I scrabbled around trying to fill the gaps in my spreadsheets of dividends and interest that none of it actually served any useful purpose.  For a basic rate tax payer, the only number that matters is the difference between your income not taxed at source, if any, and the personal tax allowance for the year in question.  Tax allowance twenty pounds, untaxed income nineteen six, the tax man owes you money.  Tax allowance twenty pounds, untaxed income twenty pounds ought and six, you owe the tax man money.  As long as your taxed-at-source bank interest doesn't take you into the higher rate band, I don't see that it makes any difference to the final result whether it is fifty pounds, or five hundred.

That's just as well, since I discovered that I'd accidentally used the 2013 figures from one unit trust in my 2012 return.  That's a disadvantage of leaving the return until the final possible month: you already have a lot of the following year's numbers swashing around.  I don't suppose the Inland Revenue will notice.  When I gave up working in the City, it took several letters and phone calls to convince them that I did not owe them any money on account, because the quite large salary I used to enjoy and they used to tax had ceased to be, but I can't think they bother with detailed year to year comparisons for semi-retired part time shop assistants.

Finally I was left with one missing unit trust statement.  I am baffled as to where it can have got to, assuming that the Royal Mail delivered it to my house rather than stuffing it at random through somebody else's front door.  I thought I remembered seeing it, so I probably did something with it, but goodness knows what.  I rang the customer service number, but after jumping through all the security hoops, and the initial pain of several minutes spent on Hold listening to Einaudi, the Associate I spoke to claimed not to understand exactly what numbers I needed to know, and insisted on posting me a statement rather than risk reading the wrong ones over the phone.  I'd have thought this was peak season for tax payers making anxious phone calls to verify their dividend income, and that asking what dividend you received and what tax credit was associated with it was a fairly basic question.  It serves me right, though, for losing the original letter, but it's just as well I started to tackle the awful task two weeks before the end of the tax year rather than two days. Although in that case I'd have simply invented a number (see paragraph two).

Maybe this year I'll do it in May, and get it out of the way.  There's a thought.

Friday, 17 January 2014

progress of sorts

If it was wet two days ago, it is even wetter now.  The puddle that forms in the drive after heavy rain was more than half way across the gravel this morning, and the ground by the chicken run glistened with moisture when I went to let the hens into their run.  The grass by their house has not quite gone to mud yet, but each tuft of grass looks more isolated and beleaguered day by day.  It went on raining intermittently through the morning, then once it had stopped the Systems Administrator went for a walk in the afternoon, and reported that the Tenpenny Brook was as high as we've seen it in twenty years, practically up to the level of the footbridge.

It was not the weather for gardening.  Instead I went out to buy more layers' pellets, and some Easy Start.  I suppose that modern cars are more reliable than cars used to be, and I'm not sure Easy Start even works on them.  I certainly wouldn't know where to squirt it into the engine of my Skoda. At any rate, Tesco seem to have delisted it from their car accessories section.  I did not actually want it for a car, but for the old lawn tractor, which struggles to get going in the damp, and has been marooned in the same spot on the turning circle since before Christmas.

Then I thought I had better make a start on my tax return.  HMRC has been advertising on Classic FM, and promising me levels of peace and bliss if only I would submit my tax return akin to those I thought I might have expected if I'd spent an entire week on a Buddhist retreat.  In case this was not incentive enough, or I happened not to be a Classic FM listener, they also wrote to me personally.  Alas, I am only too well aware that I need to file a return.  I had a brief moment of hope a couple of years ago that by now I might be exempt, since my income is tiny and mostly taxed at source, but when I looked at the terms and conditions I found that I still just fell within the category of those needing to file.  Once the government machine has got hold of any part of your life I fear it is reluctant to let go.

The tax return has not got very far, because my P60 was not in the box of tax things where it should have been.  Goodness knows why not.  I didn't throw it away on purpose, so it is probably somewhere, though there's always the nasty possibility it could have got accidentally mixed up with the recycling.  Or slipped down behind a cupboard or somewhere really inaccessible, where it won't come to light until we move house (or at least have some reason to move all the furniture).  In fact my March 2013 payslip gives me exactly the same information, income in the tax year to date (small) and income tax deducted (nil), but something compelled me to spend an hour faffing around looking for the wretched right official form.

The good news is that my kind volunteer scrutineer for the beekeepers' accounts emailed to say that they were fine.  Originally I was planning to go and collect the file from her before the meeting, so that I could prepare myself fully to meet the members' searching questions.  At the last committee meeting the Chairman said he wished each of us to speak for no more than two minutes, so I have decided not to look at the file in advance, since if I can't remember very much about the accounts I won't be tempted to go on about them for too long.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

eat less, grow thinner

The big anxious tabby was very sick on the kitchen floor.  He made a strange whooping noise from behind the table, in front of the Aga, and then began to heave.  Lumps of chicken appeared, and then gobbets of cat food.  He had the chicken for his lunch, after I'd picked over the carcass of a roast bird that had boiled overnight for stock, and I noticed that he seemed not to have bothered to chew it.

He is an old beastie, and I worry when he throws up in case it is a sign of something wrong with him.  But on this occasion it may have been a simple failure to masticate.  The Systems Administrator suggested that maybe chicken is too rich for him, but I'm not sure about that.  It was simmered for over twelve hours, and must be about as bland as you could get.  His next meal had better be very, very small.  It is a job keeping weight on him while keeping it off Our Ginger, a snapper up of unconsidered trifles and other cats' unfinished dinners if there ever was one.

Meanwhile, the SA and I have both lost weight since the start of the year.  We have not adopted the 5:2 diet, or the 4: 3 diet, or the Atkins or Dukan, or ceased to consume sugar in any form (the latest fashion, it seems.  Even the monkeys at Paignton Zoo are on a low sugar diet).  We haven't gone for meal replacements, or the California Diet as achieved through the illegal use of amphetamines.  We haven't been doing fifteen second bursts of intense physical activity to boost our metabolisms, or forsworn alcohol for January.

Instead we are on a diet which every expert and journalist who expresses any views on the subject now seem to agree Does Not Work.  It is called the Eat Less Diet.  It began as an involuntary process, because I spent the first eight days or so of 2014 feeling sick.  I wasn't actually sick, but always felt as though I might be, so eating less came naturally.  The SA soon joined me, equally involuntarily.  After spending over a week eating only tiny meals, or no meals at all, and absolutely not fancying a drink, we found our stomachs had shrunk, and we didn't want to eat as much as before.  Food that would previously have served for one or two meals was suddenly enough for two or three.

I helped things along a little by donating an unopened box of chocolates left over from Christmas that had to be eaten by the end of January to my father's cousin's hospital.  Apart from that we cooked meals from our usual repertoire, albeit the plainer end of it, once we were cooking.  We started gingerly with corned beef hash, which stretched to three meals when in the past we've demolished a tin in one sitting.  The Systems Administrator made a very plain pasta sauce, which ran to three goes then we had to chuck the last bit out, and I roasted a chicken which yielded two hot and one cold portion of breast meat, plus a retro 1970s curry that stretched to lunch as well as supper.

I suppose I haven't eaten a lot of sugar.  I ate one chocolate when I gave the box to my cousin, two teaspoons of honey when I felt as though I was getting a sore throat, and a shortbread finger after my talk at the ladies' club, and put a spoon of syrup in my porridge one morning when there wasn't enough milk for muesli.  I had a slice of ginger, date and apricot loaf for lunch at the V&A, and it tasted horribly sweet.  The only time I've actually opened a sugar jar was this morning, when I needed a tablespoon for some pitta bread, since the recipe had sugar in it, but at the rate of two millilitres per helping of bread I think that's neither here nor there.  I have eaten several oranges, some apples stewed with raisins but no refined sugar, some dried fruit in the muesli, some tomato ketchup, and probably some sort of tinned soup or beans, though I can't honestly remember which, and drunk some red wine and a small quantity of gin, so there has been sugar in the mix, but not a lot.  We don't normally have puddings or biscuits anyway.

I don't know how much weight I've lost since I didn't weigh myself on New Year's Eve before the lurgi struck, but at eight and half stone am within a pound or so of being as light as I've been at any time in the past thirty-five years.  The great thing about the Eat Less Diet (especially when kick started by a gastric bug) is that it doesn't make you think about food and drink all the time.  You don't have to prepare anything special, and nothing is forbidden, so there is no guilt.  It's a shame that modern opinion says that it doesn't work.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

not so black as it's painted

The world seems astonishingly wet.  The near side of my car is covered in dark splashes of mud from wheel arch to rear passenger window, which I picked up at some point yesterday travelling to Great Bardfield.  I am not even sure when, though it was probably somewhere along the lane I took to cut back to my route after I missed a turning and found myself heading for Sudbury.  It morphed by degrees into a very small lane, complete with a ford which by yesterday was happily dry, since the depth gauge on the footbridge went up to six feet, and the road sign at its mouth saying Not Suitable for Heavy Goods Vehicles was true in a literal sense, but understated the case about as badly as Wainwright's description of the Wastwater Screes as being best not attempted in high heels.  Anyway, I must have clipped a ferociously muddy puddle at some point.

Weeding tufts of grass out of the gravel, where they have encroached over the edge, I found a hidden puddle, each tuft coming up dripping.  The sandy soil in the top part of the garden is workable after any amount of rain, but I wouldn't fancy my chances on the clay in the back.

The Systems Administrator ventured out briefly in search of something to clear congested sinuses, and took the pharmacist's advice to stick with a nasal spray rather than decongestant pills that might clear your facial passages, but knock you out in the process.  According to the pharmacist there is a lot of it about, and the strain of cold currently doing the rounds does have the nasty trick of reigniting with a fresh round of symptoms, just as the sufferer thought they were getting over it.

The evenings are getting longer, which is some compensation for the damp and disease.  I didn't finish picking leaves out from the hellebores in front of the oil tank until a quarter past four, and could still see perfectly well to put the dustbins out at gone half past.  I don't share the popular prejudice against January, as reported in the newspapers, that it is an awful month, with everybody feeling broke and flat after the jollities of Christmas, or an insane time to try and cut back on alcohol or lose weight, since January is so miserable that the only things to get you through it are booze and cake.  True, the SA has a very nasty cold, but between us we have also had particularly dire colds or flu that I can remember in April, June, August and October.

In the front garden, the winter flowering cherry must have taken my critical words to heart, and has produced a sudden flush of small, very pale pink blossoms, while the back garden is alive with birds flitting about.  The light yesterday was wonderful, and the countryside north of Chelmsford exquisitely pretty, while today was quite warm enough to work comfortably outside, and not windy at all.  True, January can be a difficult month when it snows, but so can the summer months when it rains endlessly.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

volunteering day

This is going to be a short blog post, because it's late.  Today was a day of volunteering.  I wasn't too impressed by a piece I heard on Radio 4 that claimed that government definitions of volunteering were now so broad that they included, for example, attending your child's sporting fixtures.  If true that sounded like a desperate attempt to puff up the numbers of people now contributing to the Big Society.  My contribution to the social good consisted of a woodland charity talk to a ladies' social club (I got the impression they might have been a renegade WI) and a beekeepers' committee meeting, so I was contributing actively and not merely supporting.

The ladies were a nice bunch, and met in Great Bardfield.  I'd never been to Great Bardfield before, and managed to get lost on the way, despite it being only two miles down the road from Finchingfield, where we had lunch just before Christmas.  Fortunately I'd left plenty of time, partly in case I got lost, and also so that I'd have time to find Edward Bawden's house.  He lived there for years, while Eric Ravilious was his lodger for a time.  Indeed, so many artists have lived there that the village lent them its name as the Great Bardfield Artists.  More recently Grayson Perry grew up there (according to Wikipedia).  It is a very pretty and prosperous looking village, and conjures up a different image of Grayson Perry's youth to when he describes himself as a Chelmsford boy.

I found Brick House easily enough, since it is slap bang in the middle of the village, a short step down from the town hall where the meeting was held.  To my disappointment there was no heritage plaque.  I wondered whether the village lacked a local society to sponsor such things, or whether the current owners of the house preferred not to invite strangers to come and gawp at their frontage. Presumably the owner of a building has to grant permission for commemorative plaques to be put up.

The talk went off OK, though I find the current script quite difficult to remember, much more so than the beekeeping and gardening talks that I wrote myself.  I guess it is always easier to go through something you have designed to express your own thoughts in the order they naturally occur to you than to have to follow somebody else's idea.  I've contemplated trying to rework it, but have so far felt defeated by the project, given that I'm limited to reordering the slides I've been given, unless I go out and start making major efforts with a camera.  Then I have to start worrying about image sizes, and how to superimpose text, and the whole thing seems too difficult.  Because I find the script confusing I spent the morning mugging up on it, hence no blog before lunch.

I shouldn't have left printing my papers for the committee meeting until I got back from doing the talk, since my laptop played up, the printer played up, and when I emailed the spreadsheet I was trying to print to the Systems Administrator, Excel crashed on the SA's laptop as well.  Hence there was no blog before supper either.  The meeting was rather jolly, with such a good attendance that we scarcely fitted into the Chairman's conservatory, especially as his dog decided to join us.  It was very well behaved, but it is a Rhodesian ridgeback and absolutely vast.  When the dog decides to stop moving all anyone can do is pick their way round it.

I trust that David Cameron himself would consider that enough community involvement for one day. And that's enough blog too.

Monday, 13 January 2014

last chance to see

I went today to the V&A to see a couple of exhibitions that end this coming Sunday, Pearls and Masterpieces of Chinese Painting.  I'd been meaning to go for ages, and even tried to line up one friend to come with me to see Pearls as long ago as last October, but they were ill and the proposed trip to London never materialised.  Then life seemed to get very busy, December was so stormy that the trains could scarcely be depended on to run, and in the New Year I was ill.  Now I've been, and there's so little time for you to go that there's not much point in my saying too much about the exhibitions, since if I make them sound lovely you may curse that you missed them, while if I make them sound dreary then who cares about them anyway?

Pearls was good but very crowded, and I can think of ways it could have been staged differently to speed up the flow while allowing people to see more of the exhibits.  The V&A has borrowed a lot of jewellery, really a lot, and since I love pearls I was very keen to see them.  There are also some portraits of people wearing pearls, and an introductory section about how natural pearls are formed, and some interesting displays on pearl diving, and a later section on the artificial pearls industry, but the actual gems are the real draw.

The snag is that they are artfully displayed in what look like nineteenth century safes, with the doors open, obviously.  I was never quite sure whether they were real safes, or if they had been built specially for the occasion, since there were an awful lot of them, but you weren't allowed to touch them to see if they were heavy enough to be real.  Pearls in a black lined cabinet look sublime, but the layout meant that only about three people could look at each display at any one time.  Visitors were stacked nose to tail as we politely shuffled around, but I spent a long time looking at the outsides of the safes while I waited my turn to get into a position where I could see inside.  If the jewellery had been mounted in big perspex cabinets, with a dark cloth down the middle to provide a suitable background, we could all have spent more of our time looking at the exhibits and less looking at the furniture.

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting was altogether less crowded, and interesting in a visually subdued way.  The exhibition starts with Buddhist religious art dating from the first millennium, then moves on to landscapes and flower paintings that to my untutored Western eye were more obviously Chinese.  There are some splendid, vigorous, practically cartoonish dragons, and I was very taken with one large picture of a pomegranate tree, chrysanthemum, magpie and rooster.  My main difficulty was that the light level needed to preserve the exhibits was so low that in some of them I really couldn't see the tiny boat, figures, donkey, or whatever detail the caption told me was important.  A small and talkative American (or Canadian?) man made such determined efforts at conversation that I was not entirely sure whether he was simply lonely, or actually trying to chat me up.

I quite like the V&A, when I make the effort to get there.  It is not really so very far, only a few stops further down the Piccadilly line than Piccadilly itself, or if I hadn't been running slightly late this morning I might have walked across the park from Hyde Park Corner.  I'm not fond of it in the same way as I am of the British Museum, but that's probably because it isn't part of my regular stamping ground, and if I went oftener, and was more familiar with the layout (the internal signs are not great) I daresay I'd love it.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

one step forward, one step back

I have been making good progress weeding the bed by the oil tank.  The shrub planting pre-dates the tank, since we discovered when we had the new condensing boiler fitted to replace the hated Stanley that under the latest building regulations we were obliged to get a bunded tank, and that it had to be further from the house than our existing one.  It was lucky that there was space to tuck the new tank in behind an existing Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun', a white flowered Japanese quince, and some coloured stem dogwoods, which screened it pretty well from the outset.

The shrubs are underplanted with hellebores, which are just coming into bloom, hence my desire to get the bed neat and tidy in time for one of its peak periods of display.  It is not the easiest bed to weed, partly because it is normally surrounded with a picket fence to stop the chickens from straying down the side of the wood when they're let out for a run, so if you notice a few weeds, you can't just step in and grab them but have to undo the fence panels from their supports.  Also, the Cornus sucker and layer themselves, so that there's not much space to wriggle in among them, whilst being very careful about your eyes.  Their sideways growing, slender and supple young twigs are among the best I know for sliding in behind spectacles and scraping the unwary eyeball.  And while the Mahonia is a wonderful shrub, a valiant strong grower whose yellow flowers before Christmas are beautiful, the dead leaves are hard and prickly and almost as unappealing to handle as fallen holly leaves.

By the end of this afternoon I'd almost finished scooping Mahonia leaves out from among the hellebore stems, and pulling up goose grass seedlings, and next time I'm out there I should be ready to get a bootful of manure and mulch the bed, then I can put the chicken fence back up.  The chickens could see me working near their run, and were not impressed that on a nice afternoon they were not allowed out for a wander, to eat grass and scratch up worms and insects and do all the things that temporarily free range chickens do.  I had cleaned their roosting board and put fresh sawdust in their nesting box, but they were not impressed by that.  They wanted to go for a walk.

Before I could do any of this I had to go grocery shopping, since the Systems Administrator's cold has taken a turn for the worse.  The SA mentioned a fresh sore throat yesterday morning, but optimistically put it down to sleeping on his back and breathing through his mouth.  By dusk the sore throat was accompanied by a new outbreak of running nose and general sense of woe, and by evening the SA admitted defeat, and we had to miss Miles Jupp's sell-out gig at the Arts Centre, which I had tickets for.  I did feel a selfish twinge of regret that if the SA had admitted to being that poorly earlier in the day then I might have found someone to take the tickets, or even go with me, since the SA went to bed at eight and wouldn't have missed me.  I'm not sure that is the response of a really nice person, but it's hard to be really nice all the time.  Congratulations to everybody who is, and the rest of you can take comfort in knowing that you are not alone in your human frailty.

I made celery and cheese soup for lunch, using some of the chicken stock out of the freezer, which is supposed to be good for colds.  You slice the celery very thinly, simmer it for a long time in butter, cook in stock, add some milk if you realise you haven't got enough stock, flavour with a generous splash of fresh lemon juice if you fancy the idea and have a spare lemon, and pour it over some grated cheese in the bottom of the bowl.  For supper we are having another chicken, on the basis that it is comforting, digestible, provides useful leftovers, and I know how to cook it.  And a lot of vegetables.  I'm sure that vegetables are good for colds.  My normal high level of respect for the autonomy of the individual has taken a back seat, and the SA is under strict instructions to keep warm, and go on taking it easy for at least a couple of days after starting to feel properly better, instead of setting off for long walks in the cold.  The SA agreed to this very meekly, a sign he is truly not well.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

winter flowers

I wandered around the garden this morning, to see what was new.  In the past couple of days the winter iris, Iris unguicularis, have come into flower.  The plants are honestly rather tatty, with a tangle of old brown leaves at the back of the bed, and new leaves emerging in front of them, and I realise I should have been along the row and tidied them up before they started blooming, but I didn't.  The flowers aren't looking all that great either, quite a few having already collapsed from rain or old age, while something has been eating holes in some of the petals.

I have picked one to describe to you.  It has three upstanding petals, in a colour that is more violet than blue, veined with purple.  They have slightly ruffled edges, and if given one to identify in total isolation without the benefit of the rest of the flower, I might have guessed it came from a clematis.  Inside them are three small, narrow, light purple strips of petal-like texture, ends forked liked snakes' tongues and fused at the base, whose botanical role I don't honestly know, though I presume they are some part of the reproductive arrangements.  The tips of the three outer petals droop over in typical iris fashion, and their bases are white, with a central yellow stripe and broken mauve veining.  The flower has a faint but delicate scent, akin to hyacinths, but not nearly so free on the air.  To smell it at all I have to stick my nose right in and sniff.

Some of the orange flowered Hamamelis are out, but not the yellow ones.  I didn't put my face to those, but from the vantage point of the edge of the lawn I couldn't smell any scent at all.  It was cold and quite windy when I walked around, not the best circumstances for enjoying winter fragrance.

The buds of the oriental hellebores are showing colour, and on some plants the flower stems have elongated.  So far they don't seem to have been hit by rodents or muntjac to anything like the same extent as last year.  The buds of Pulmonaria rubra, which is always the first of the pulmonarias to open, are showing a glint of soft red.  They were grazed off last year as well.  There are a few primroses out, and one cowslip.  The hazel catkins are looking very fine, though in places I slightly wish they wouldn't, because I need to cut the hedge, and don't like cutting a fine crop of catkins off when they are such a good winter pollen source for insects.

And that's about it.  There are fat leaf and flower buds aplenty, but not much is actually out yet. The young winter flowering cherry, planted at the top of the garden where the drainage is sharp to replace the one towards the bottom of the garden which ended up sitting half in a swamp when the water table moved, has not flowered at all yet this winter, so far as I've noticed.  The scent of the iris is growing stronger, however, now that it's been in the warmth of the kitchen for half an hour.

Friday, 10 January 2014

catching up with myself

Finally my brain seems to be emerging from the fog that started to envelop it at the end of last year.  This morning I looked again at the beekeepers' accounts, and they still made sense, as far as I could see.  Emboldened, I emailed them off to my scrutineer, crossing my fingers that she would still be able to inspect them.  You never know what's going to happen in people's lives: last year she had to go into hospital, and I ended up driving one dark night down to Clacton to hand the file over to an obliging Rotarian friend of somebody else on the committee.  Clacton seafront after dark, with a strong wind blowing, snow forecast, and the lights of the Gunfleet windfarm shining sullenly out of the gloom has to be one of the most desolate spots in Essex.

Then I sent my list of ideas so far for a music society stand at the local agricultural show to the society's Secretary.  She replied fairly swiftly, saying that she liked some of them, though she was not circulating them to the full committee at this stage.  My money would be on us not doing it, if I were a betting sort of person.  Too much trouble for too uncertain a reward, and it's difficult to put together a decent stand without spending at least some money on it.

After that I suited up and went to see the bees.  I have a terrible confession to make, which shows me up as a lax and bad beekeeper.  I had not put my mouseguards on.  A mouseguard is a device you put over the entrance to a beehive, which allows the bees to go in and out, but prevents mice from getting in.  I use metal strips with bee sized circular holes in them.  Mice will take up residence in a beehive for the winter, if they can, finding it warm and cosy with a ready supply of high calorie mouse food.  You would think the bees would sting the blighter to death, but they don't necessarily.  I suppose if it is cold and they are all clustered together, they won't break ranks to go after the mouse.  Mouseguards are therefore traditionally fitted in the autumn, as part of the winter preparations.

Except that last autumn it was abnormally warm, and then very windy and wet, and as one thing and another cropped up I simply did not get round to doing it.  Finally today it was calm and sunny enough, and I was sufficiently compos mentis, to risk going and disturbing them.  You don't want to be messing around with boxes of bees when you aren't fit to manage them properly.  It will not do either of you any good.  I thought that if I lifted each hive off its floor and stood it temporarily on a spare stand, I could look at the floor and check for any signs of mouse droppings.  True, I have my bees on open mesh floors, but I didn't think that every single piece of mouse poo would land conveniently narrow end downwards and drop through the floor of the hive.  If mice were already in there, I thought I'd see something to alert me to start investigating further.  Obviously, I didn't want to start pulling the frames apart unless I absolutely had to, since the bees are trying to keep warm at this time of the year.

Every hive had a nice, solid cluster of bees in it, and all the hives were heavy with stores, so I must have fed them enough last autumn to keep them going so far, and didn't need to open any of my packets of fondant.  As I lifted each in turn, the clusters began to break up, and bees came out to see what the rumpus was about.  They hadn't chosen to fly, on a day like today, but they could when they needed to.  There were absolutely no signs of mice, so I stuck the guards on with numerous drawing pins, feeling that fate had been kind to me.

After that it was my turn to be unkind to the bees, or at least cruel to be kind.  One of the treatments against the varroa mite, now that they have developed resistance to the first generation of anti-mite chemicals, is to drizzle dilute oxalic acid over the bees.  Evidently it is more toxic to mites than bees, but even so the bees don't like it.  You use the acid in winter, when there is little or no brood in the hive, and according to the bee inspector who came to talk to one of our beekeeping meetings, I should have done this in November.  I was aiming to do it just before Christmas, as instructed by the local commercial beekeeper who is my tutor when it comes to oxalic acid, but then it was so wild and windy, I didn't.  Finally today I did.  The bees do not like having acid trickled over them, and became quite agitated, and I felt sorry for them, on the other hand varroa is fatal to the colony, if it builds up.

When I got back to the house I asked the Systems Administrator to come and see whether I had bees on me, before I took my suit off.  The SA said yes, there were twenty or so on my back and the top of my head, and wanted to brush them off with a little twig.  I protested that it was too far for them to fly back to the hive, and that they would be in a pissy mood after being dosed with acid, but the SA persisted, and got stung in the neck.  I felt remorseful about that as well, although it will be a reminder not to mess around with them.  I don't touch them unless I'm fully suited up. Fortunately the SA got the sting out very quickly, which is what you must do with a bee sting, and after a quarter of an hour was not showing any signs of any reaction except a very local one.

In the afternoon I went to see my father's cousin, who was looking very well for an eighty-five year old who has just had a major operation under general anaesthetic, and seemed pleased to be visited by a family member.  He asked whether I had made a special trip, and I explained that I thought I'd better go and see him in hospital before they let him out.  The round trip to Aldeburgh is almost a hundred miles, which makes it difficult to be such a dutiful relation as I could be if he were closer.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

it's accounts time

After breakfast I thought that it was time to tackle the beekeepers' accounts.  I tried hard through last year to stick all receipts and invoices into a file as I went along, and enter them properly on a spreadsheet, so that in theory all I'd have to do in January was update the last few entries when the December bank statement arrived, and then the totals for every category of income and expenditure should drop out neatly at the bottom of each column.  If only.  Last year the process took at least two days, and the atmosphere in the kitchen as I sat at the table grappling with Excel and searching for lost paying-in slips was so fraught that the Systems Administrator was afraid to enter.

Mind you, last year was the first year I did them, and I'd made the error of recording all the information based on the format used by the previous Treasurer, and not the one I found needed to use to present the Divisional accounts to the County, when I looked in the Treasurer's handbook. Second time around I hoped it would all be slicker.  Although if I were County Treasurer I'd be looking to issue all divisions with a non-modifiable template into which they had to slot their own results, so that they could be amalgamated automatically.

My own make-it-up-as-you-go-along spreadsheets are only too easily modifiable, and there's the risk of forgetting mid way through the year how I intended information to flow through them at the start of the process.  The accounts of a little, local society tend to be small, but messy, so that a single payment of £19.60 can cover the cost of some stamps, a pint of milk, and printing menus for the annual dinner, which all fall into different expense categories, and a deposit of £260 could be mostly takings from a local show, but include one stray subscription.  My ideal was that I would break each transaction down into its constituent parts as I entered them on the spreadsheet, then use the accounting powers of Excel to derive all totals.  That way, the final grand totals for everything ought to correspond perfectly with the subtotals and the cash flow for each month, without my managing to type two different versions of the same number on to different schedules.

It almost worked.  Divisional subscriptions were the hardest to keep track of, since members make a single payment at the start of the year which covers their national subscription, county subscription, divisional subscription, a basic level of bee disease insurance, and may also include a donation towards research, a donation towards education, a divisional donation, and supplementary insurance.  There are both single and dual members, who do not pay exactly twice the county or national rate of a single member, plus Friends who do not pay a national subscription or get insurance.  The membership forms include details of every sub category except for the split between division, county, national and basic insurance.  The County Treasurer sends invoice for county and national subs in spring and autumn, and I did check his calculations at the time, likewise worked out the basic BDI when I sent off the cheques for disease insurance.  I ended up deriving divisional income as the amount left over when I'd totted up total subs, and taken national and county ones and the bee disease insurance off, which felt back to front when divisional income is likely to be the category of subscription income the divisional members are most interested in at the AGM.

Subscription errors did not help, an erroneous overpayment in 2013, and a bouncing cheque, and I spent a while fiddling about with a balancing item of £41.50.  When I described the problem to the SA, the SA said Aha, a failed trade, and recounted how in the City days, trades that didn't settle would be reversed out of the day's payments and receipts, to be settled a day or three later, only with no narrative description of what they were, and sometimes for good measure the broker would amalgamate five or six together.  Then it was a matter of looking through the list of all failed trades with that broker, and seeing if you could find any combination of numbers which added up to the required total.  Compared to that, ten pounds plus thirty-one pounds fifty didn't sound too bad.

I think I have now got an internally consistent income and expenditure account and balance sheet.  I think.  Before emailing the spreadsheets to my independent reviewer and asking if I can take the file over this weekend for her to have a look, I'd better sleep on it, and have one check in the morning, in case I have gone quite mad, or there are inconsistencies that I've missed.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

a small step

I was booked in for a haircut this morning.  On balance I thought I was probably fit to go, if I washed my hands scrupulously before going out, and avoided breathing on the hairdresser. Fortunately, cutting somebody's hair is an activity you do while standing behind them, and immediately after washing their head, so she was probably at no more risk from me than she would be using public transport, or going to a supermarket, or anywhere else where she would be breathing the same air as a lot of post-viral strangers.  If it had been the dentist I might have tried to rearrange, just to be on the safe side.  I don't actually know whether I am infectious, or stopped being so days ago and was at my most virulent before I even had any symptoms.  None of the friends and relations I've spent time with in the past ten days have reported going down with it, so it can't have been too wildly infectious.

Driving the car felt like a big adventure, and my knees felt faintly wobbly as I tottered down Colchester High Street.  I began to wonder if it had been rather ambitious to go out, on the other hand, you start losing muscle mass within forty-eight hours of ceasing to take exercise, so after six days of moving no further than between my bed and the chair in front of the stove, fresh air and exercise was going to be a shock to the system.

I'd seen in the local paper that the former clock museum, Tymperleys, had finally found a tenant and a new purpose.  The recent history of Tymperleys has caused rather a rumpus.  It is a Tudor house, updated in Georgian times (though not very much) which was left to the borough.  The council ran it as a clock museum, then closed it citing funding pressures, causing a local outcry, especially in the light of the amount they have spent on the wretched Firstsite (a banana shaped new gallery with almost no vertical walls, for conceptual art, which opened late, over budget, and has scarcely held any decent exhibitions since it did open.  It was without a curator for six months, and certainly hasn't ever tried to add my contact details to any marketing list, despite my being natural fodder for them with my ingrained gallery habit).

Anyway, the council fiddled around looking for alternative uses for Tymperleys, amidst demands it be accessible to the public, and a row about shared access that scuppered one tea room plan.  Now it has been let on a 125 year lease to the couple who run Layer Marney Towers, with the intention of fitting it out as a tea room and venue for dinners and receptions.  It was open for viewing today and yesterday, the new tenants and council representatives being available to answer questions.  I didn't have any questions, though I'd have been interested to know how they resolved the access question, if my head hadn't felt as though it were stuffed with cotton wool, but since I'd been too idle and disorganised to go and see it when it was a clock museum, I thought I'd go and cast my eye over the Tudor beams while I could.  They are very nice, and I look forward to visiting again once it's a tea room.  There are quite a few clock museum related 1980s excrescences to strip out first. The plan is to follow the London restaurant fashion and have a glass fronted kitchen on full display, so from the garden you will be able to see the staff making tea and cutting up cakes.  The new owners were very loud, enthusiastic and hospitable, and offered me coffee and cake, but at the prospect I began to feel bilious again.

While I was in Colchester I managed to track down some Worcester sauce, in Gunton in Crouch Street.  The Systems Administrator has been trying to buy it in Tesco or the Co-op for weeks, but there seems to be a north Essex wide shortage of the stuff.  They only had it in small bottles, so I bought two (and nothing else).  The woman on the checkout did not seem to find this in any way surprising.

When I got home the SA said Good haircut, which is the correct answer.  The SA has rallied sufficiently to go out for a short walk this afternoon.  I ate my lunch, and contemplated all the things I needed to start doing, like the beekeepers' annual accounts, and circulating the minutes of the last music society meeting, and thinking about how we could make a stand exciting enough to be given a free slot at the local agricultural show, plus which of three up and coming young artists we would like to book for a concert, when the sound quality on my laptop makes them all sound as though they were busking a long way away.  And my tax return, and employment situation.  After three cups of tea I decided that making it to Colchester and back had been tiring enough for one day, and that I would return to these questions in the morning.  My colleague at the music society got it spot on when she said viral things can be very debilitating.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

a bigger bang

The army has been clattering away today on the ranges.  The patter of machine gun fire and the repeated deeper rattle of something that might have been a rarden cannon, the isolated pops of rifles or small arms fire, and something so big it made the house shake and brought the Systems Administrator scurrying downstairs to see if there was somebody at the front door.

Yesterday the Royal Navy had to carry out controlled explosions on 'about nine' anti-aircraft shells washed ashore at Westcliffe-on-Sea, part of Southend-on-Sea.  There was a photo on the BBC Essex website of a chunky little explosion, half a mile from the seafront.  The shells were described as being corroded but still live.

It looked like quite a bang, but as nothing compared to the one we'd get if the SS Richard Montgomery ever went up.  The media is spasmodically interested in the Montgomery.  The BBC ran a story last June, questioning whether its presence ruled out an airport in the Thames estuary, but in general it doesn't get much of a mention.  Those in favour of Boris Island, or the Thames Hub Airport on the Isle of Grain, seem to believe that the wreck of the Richard Montgomery is a boring technical detail, which could easily be dealt with during the course of airport construction. Wikipedia's list of bullet points giving the disadvantages of a Thames estuary airport puts it in twelfth place, behind the incidence of fog and the risk of bird strike.

Could it be easily dealt with?  Who knows?  Nobody, really, not even Boris, or Sir Norman Foster, because nobody knows what happens to 1400 tonnes of nitroglycerine explosive after it has been submerged in seawater for seventy years, and that is what was on the SS Richard Montgomery when she sank.  Laden with munitions and waiting to form part of a convoy, she dragged her anchor, touched on a sandbank off the Medway, stuck, and broke her back as the tide ebbed and before salvage crews could remove all her cargo.  And there she stays.  There is an exclusion zone around her, marked with buoys, and at low water her masts still stick up above the water.  We have sailed past her, and it is a desolate, eerie, spine-chilling and skin-creeping spot.

The explosives are reckoned to be live and unstable, though by now their original operating mechanisms may well be rusted away.  Nobody knows whether attempts to move them would trigger an explosion, and there doesn't seem to be any way of finding out, short of trying it and seeing what happens.  It's not as though there is another ship containing nitroglycerine that's been marinading in sea water for seventy years, in a more convenient position, that we could practice on first.  If someone were to design a computer model of what should happen, they would have no means of verifying it.  Estimates of the damage that would occur if the SS Richard Montgomery went up vary wildly.  The resulting wave could be sixteen feet high, or four feet, depending on who you believe.  Local legend has it that the blast would flatten the Isle of Grain power station (though that was mothballed a while back anyway so it might not matter so much) and smash every window in Southend.

You can see why Boris doesn't want to think about it.