Friday, 31 October 2014

starting the big autumn chop down

It was the warmest end of October on record, 23.6 degrees C at Gravesend and at Kew Gardens.  It felt pretty pleasant in the back garden, and I pottered between the rose beds, chopping down fading leaves, scooping up rose leaves to go in the council bin in a token effort to combat the black spot, and trimming the edges of the lawn.

Autumn has been so mild that a lot of foliage has barely begun to turn, but on the basis that I can't do everything in March it was time to make a start.  The leaves of the Brunnera macrophylla had just begun to blacken and fade, in a rather uneven way so that some plants still looked pristine, while others were crying out to be tidied up and relieved of their embarrassment.  Brunnera is a shade tolerant species that will also put up with a fair degree of drought, and makes quite effective ground cover.  It has pretty blue forget-me-not like flowers in the spring, and unlike many woodlanders the leaves last all season in the ground, though they never did in pots at the plant centre.  I started with named forms with silvery variegated leaves, and one plain green form with white flowers.  Be warned, Brunnera is not perfectly well behaved, since those pretty blue flowers set abundant seed, and the offspring will not necessarily be variegated or silver.  The white flowers are not honestly very interesting, and nowadays I tend to dig out plain green plants, especially if they're crowding other things.

I chopped down the spent flower stems of the Acanthus mollis, and pulled off the tatty outer leaves.  That's another self sower that scatters its large, brown, shiny seeds almost too prolifically. One of the Writtle tutors warned us to think carefully  about where we wanted it to go before planting one, since if we moved it later we'd have two plants, one in the original site and one wherever we'd moved it to.  By the same token you need to be on the ball, and remove unwanted seedlings early while they're still small.  Despite my best efforts (which I have to conclude were not very good) by now I have a slightly larger patch of Acanthus than I really want, and tomorrow I'd better chisel away at the plants at the edge of the group and try and take back some territory for the other occupants of the border.

I started to cut down the Baptisia australis as well.  Its foliage turns black once touched by frost, and after the warm October most of it is still fresh greenish grey, but the plants have had a good long growing season, and ought to be able to cope with losing their leaves by now.  It's a vigorous grower, tall and bushy, and I need to clear the space so that I can get on with weeding the bed and cutting back the long stems of roses that are once again snaking out of the rose bank and towards the lawn in search of new spaces to conquer.  Baptisia has spires of blue flowers, which this year didn't seem to make much of a show, but the number of stems of rattling, black podded seed cases shows that it must have flowered fairly generously at some point.  I have read all sorts of confusing and contradictory statements about the growing conditions that Baptisia requires, but based on my experience here I've found it thoroughly happy on very heavy clay, and quite drought resistant, while it failed miserably on sand.  It's another one that will seed itself generously, given the chance.

So does the blue flowered Centaurea montana.  I dead headed them a while back, since I have enough, and today was cutting off the old flowering stems, and any shabby basal leaves.  Purple and amethyst flowered varieties have featured as part of many Chelsea Show gardens in recent years, but it was the plain blue I wanted, in homage to my childhood.  When I started looking for it a quarter of a century ago it was so out of fashion that I had a job even to track down seed, but it has since made a modest resurgence.  Like the Baptisia it seems much happier in the awful clay of the far rose bed than it ever was in the pure sand of the long bed.

The lawn edges are a mess, and I should love to have that flexible steel edging and keep the curves sweet, with a discreet, not too large gully to stop the running lawn grasses and clover working their way into the beds.  But it is fiendishly expensive and I couldn't justify the expenditure.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

a day of culture

I went to London today for the first of my bloc of four concerts that I've booked at LSO St Lukes (between now and next June) to take advantage of the reduced rate when you book four or more events at the same time.  I could happily have chosen more than four, but you have to be realistic when you live in north Essex, and the lunchtime concert is in EC1.  Today's performance was by members of The Nash Ensemble, forming a string quintet with a second viola, or at least three fifths of the line-up were from the Nash Ensemble, since it only runs to one viola, and the cellist was not their regular cellist Adrian Brendel.  Never mind, it was very good.

The first piece was by Max Bruch, and was thought lost after his death until a copy turned up in a private collection in 1991.  That's quite romantic, and it was a romantic, very pretty twenty minutes of music.  That was followed by Beethoven, grand, stirring and all the emotions you'd expect from Beethoven.  I was blessed with exemplary neighbours this time, who did not fiddle with their programmes, or their anoraks, or do anything except sit still and listen.  I do like LSO St Lukes.  It is great being able to get an hour of world class chamber music and programme notes for ten quid (or eight if you book four concerts), and the cafe gives free refills of coffee if you take your cup back.  Altogether it must be one of the nicest and most civilised places in London.

I booked myself a ticket for Rembrandt at the National Gallery in the afternoon, to make full use of my day in town and train ticket.  The exhibition has reviewed very well (with some caveats about the gallery space which we'll come on to), and Rembrandt's star is shining brightly enough that I didn't fancy my chances trying to walk in off the street without booking.  It was crowded, as I expected, at about the upper limit of being tolerable, though most people were being considerate about not standing with their faces four inches from the canvases to look at the brush strokes so that nobody else could see.  I like Rembrandt van Rijn so much that I will endure a fair amount of crowding and waiting my turn to see his paintings, more than for many painters.

The National Gallery has borrowed some fantastic works, but they aren't all that well displayed. Lighting is by overhead spots, which gleam ferociously off some of the oil paintings so that it's very difficult to find anywhere to stand where you can see the picture and not mainly reflected glare. The overall light level is kept quite low to protect the works, but captions have also been kept to a minimum with a detailed booklet being provided instead, whose brilliant white pages shine obtrusively in the overhead spotlights as visitors walk around with their open books held at chest height in an attempt to read about whatever it is they're looking at.  Meanwhile the small graphic works are quite difficult to see at all, because it's so dark, and because you feel inhibited about standing too close to them when so many people are trying to see them.  Two of the largest canvases are hung in a room that isn't big enough, so I never managed to see all of the Portrait of Frederik Rihel on horseback, because when I stood at a sensible viewing distance there were always twenty people between me and him, and when I worked my way to the front of the crowd the wretched lights made his face or else the horse's head dissolve into a white blur.

It's all worth putting up with for the sake of seeing the self portraits, and the heartbreaking picture of the Roman Lucretia after she's stabbed herself.  At least Frederik on his horse is part of the permanent collection at the gallery, so I could go and see him another time when it would probably just be me and a couple of foreign students, but Lucretia was on loan from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, so once she heads back there I'm unlikely to see her again.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

gardening under cover

The Met Office has got a new supercomputer that weighs as much as some large number of double decker buses and will be capable of performing umpteen million zillion dillion calculations per second.  It will make their forecasts Much More Reliable, according to the beaming Met Office Spokespeople on last night's news, and allow them to forecast longer in advance.  I suppose it might, though being able to perform more calculations will only improve things if you have a good model in the first place.  Yesterday the forecast for today was for heavy rain, all day.  By this morning it was for light rain from mid morning.  What actually happened was that it stayed dry until mid afternoon, when we began to get the sort of fine, silting drizzle that scarcely looks like rain at all, but makes you quite wet if you stay out in it for any length of time.  The Systems Administrator looked at the rain radar and said that there was rain further to the west, but it was petering out before it got here, as it so often does.  Let us hope that the well-demonstrated tendency of rain to evaporate before reaching the Clacton coastal strip is programmed into the new super duper computer, since the old one has signally failed to get to grips with this curious east coast phenomenon.

Originally, when I believed the forecast for heavy day-long rain, I was going to write up the minutes of the music society AGM and then make a cake.  I had to do the minutes anyway, since the Chairman is now back from holiday and we were having a committee meeting this evening.  I wouldn't want to be two sets of minutes behind, and anyway it's better to do them while they're fresh in your mind, only I had a cold after the AGM and knew the Chair was away, which made me idle.  Once I'd finished the minutes and it still wasn't raining at all, I thought I'd leave the cake to another day and go and sort out the conservatory, a job that had been on the list of things to do for a while and which I could go on with if the rain did arrive.

I have re-potted the Eriobotrya 'Coppertone'.  It looked very sad all this year, making scarcely any new growth at all, and something clearly needed to be done.  I fed it, but that wasn't enough.  I'd seen unsold specimens at the plant centre go the same way, with growth becoming increasingly sparse, and dark spots on the leaves that indicated the plants were under stress.  What it needed, I decided, was a bigger root run, some nice fresh compost it could get its feet into.  I potted my plant on when I first got it, and the results for the first couple of seasons were spectacular.  The plant produced lots of large, healthy, shiny, pink new leaves and bore a general air of luxuriance, much better than the ones at work that hadn't been re-potted.

I had some qualms about doing the deed now rather than in the spring.  You will always hear how autumn is a good time to plant trees outdoors.  They will be in active root growth, we are told, and will get their root systems partially established before the cold weather comes.  Plant a tree before Christmas and ask it to grow, the saying goes, plant it after Christmas and beg it to grow.  But we are also told to re pot house plants in the spring, and not risk them sitting wet all winter surrounded by stagnant excess compost they aren't using.  So is a large and expensive woody standard shrub in a big pot in a conservatory a tree (autumn planting good) or a houseplant (autumn planting bad)?  I decided that Eriobotrya 'Coppertone' counted as a tree for potting purposes.

I ended up having to smash the pot, which was a shame.  I summoned the SA's help, and we tried it with one of us pulling the plant while the other held the pot.  We tapped the rim briskly with a chunky length of wood.  We cut around the root ball with a bread knife, a steel rule and an old long-hasped metal hinge.  Nothing shifted it even a quarter of an inch in its pot, and I was regretfully obliged to set to with a lump hammer, and consign a large terracotta pot to history.  In the end you have to decide which is worth more, the plant or the pot.  It has gone into a truly vast black plastic pot, since it was already up to the largest size you can get off the shelf in terracotta. I'll have to be careful with the watering over the winter, and cross my fingers.  I've got away with potting Hamamelis into pots that were that much too large at the outset, but it was the kiss of death to the Strelizia that the black pot was originally bought for.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

new music

I went to the Colchester Arts Centre last night to hear The Urban Folk Quartet.  I'd never heard of them, or at least they had registered minimally on my radar because I think the Radio 2 folk programme played a track of theirs a few weeks ago, but it wouldn't have occurred to me to go and see them.  However, a friend was interested in going, based on the blurb from the arts centre, and I didn't mind giving it a whirl.  Back in the days when my employers used to subject our team to (probably academically dubious) psychological tests, to discover our strengths and weaknesses, my results always indicated an almost unnaturally balanced personality, slightly lacking on what was termed the Completer-Finisher dimension, with a small and unconvincing upwards spike on the Creativity axis.  My creativity score diminished the longer I worked for them, which worried them, but the one dimension on which I consistently scored highly was Openness.  Show me a new folk act, and I'll listen to it, at least once.

The UFQ, as they term themselves, are Birmingham based.  One is originally Galician.  The line-up of instruments is two fiddles, a set of drums that's several degrees more sophisticated than your 1970s back-beat folk-rock outfit's ever was, and perm any two out of banjo, assorted guitars and mandolin.  They used to have an oud player, but he left and was replaced by the banjoist (who can do a pretty convincing oud impersonation on his banjo when required).  All four sing.

Their style is hybrid, but in a good way.  It is quite difficult to describe, which is maybe why virtually all the websites I've looked at of folk clubs that have hosted the Urban Folk Quartet have simply lifted the phrase from the group's own website, that they perform fiddle-led music that draws heavily from celtic dance forms.  They do, and there is the germ of a reel or slip jig inside most of their instrumental sets, along with traces of Bulgarian folk rhythms, jazz, American trad, shades of Ravi Shankar, funk and afrobeat (I'm not entirely sure what that last one is, but it's in their self-description).

That lot could amount to a huge god-awful mash-up, but works for them (most of the time) because they are all very, very accomplished virtuoso musicians, and because they seem to share a joint idea of what they want their sound to be.  Their explanation is that since they come from an urban background, surrounded by people and music from many nationalities, it is natural for them to incorporate these influences into their music, while it would be unnatural and false for them to go all rural and pre-industrial.  On the whole I buy that argument.  At any rate they sound authentic. It's not an easy act to pull off.  There's been a fashion in recent years for performing traditional English or Irish tunes with a little jazzy something added, or the odd Klezmer inflection, and it can sound mannered and quite teeth gratingly irritating.

My only criticism of the UFQ is that they need to let their audience be.  We were repeatedly chivvied from the stage to shout more loudly, to whoop, to clap along, and generally provide feedback to the band that we were enjoying ourselves.  The thing is, we were listening.  There was no talking, no visible checking of phones during the sets, no rustling, no coughing.  I have been to classical concerts with worse behaved audiences than yesterday evening's motley band of folkies. The Urban Folk Quartet should learn to appreciate an attentive audience when they meet one.

Monday, 27 October 2014

golden afternoons

The golden summer continues.  It is almost unnerving, five days before the start of November, for it to be this warm.  Blue sky, brilliant sun, if it weren't so low in the sky I could believe it was August. The angle of the light makes a lot of difference to how gardens look, sideways illumination generally being better, which is one reason why garden photographers do so much of their work at about six in the morning.

I am working my way down the long bed, weeding and mulching the last patches and corners that didn't get done over the summer.  Human nature being what it is, the parts I skipped around on my way up the bed are all the bits with overhanging shrubs, their roots interlaced with running grass, that are most difficult and unrewarding to weed.  It looks good once you've done it, being very careful not to let the shrubs poke you in the eye, but ten days later grass stems shoot again from the sections of root you couldn't get out.  I must start zapping them with glyphosate on calm mornings.

I was closely supervised by a robin, or robins.  They really do all look alike, and we have never worked out how many we have in the garden, but wherever you work there will be a robin watching you, and nipping in to seize the small edible things you've obligingly turned up for it.  Yesterday there was a flock of long tailed tits as well.  They ignore us, oblivious to whatever it is the robin eats, but not afraid either.  You often hear them before you see them, making a crazed high pitched peeping noise.

Alas, the latest batch of home made compost that was ready to use has run out, and tomorrow I'll be back to the bags of spent mushroom compost from the garden centre.  I am not sure what to do about the compost bins, since it looks as though rats have just moved in.  Keep turning the compost to disturb them until they move out again?  It's an awfully big volume of material to move too often, and I don't fancy meeting a rat.  Our Ginger has been assiduously mousing recently, leaving the evidence in the form of a series of small kidneys at the bottom of the stairs, while the owls hoot nightly and we see kestrels and buzzards most days.  Poison is not a good option, and if I manage to trap a rat without amputating my own fingers setting the trap then what am I supposed to do with it next?  Once again I have a nasty feeling that I am not really a country person, just an escaped townie with a fancy for gardening and trees, otherwise I should know what to do about things like rats.  I would have a pair of good ratting terriers, and raise my own replacement chickens instead of buying hens because I'm too squeamish to cull unwanted cockerels.

This balmy weather can't last forever.  I must remember to bring in the pots of succulents and the geraniums I want to keep, before I'm caught out by a forecast of frost for the night ahead and have to move dozens of pots in a panic one afternoon.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

the clocks change

The clocks have changed, and I am confused.  It'll wear off in a couple of days, as I get used to the idea that it is now dark by five o'clock, but the immediate effect is disorientating, and rather depressing.  Only three hours of gardening time left after lunch.

I have always struggled with the terminology of when the clocks go forward, and when they go back.  There is a mnemonic, Spring Forward, Fall Back, but I've never found it in the least helpful. Instead I remember that back in my student days, a school friend and I were late to lunch with a friend of hers the day after we'd been to see the boat race, because we'd forgotten that the clocks changed.  The boat race is in the spring, ergo, the spring change means that lunch comes sooner than you were expecting, so the autumn change must mean that it will be later.

Nowadays there is practically no excuse not to know what time it is, because virtually every digital device you possess will tell you, and most of us have several.  Even our kitchen clock knows the time, and resets itself at some point during the night (though I've never stayed up to watch the hands go round.  Maybe we could film it on the Systems Administrator's trail camera.  I don't know why, but I've a fancy to see it).  I calibrate myself through the day with reference to what's on the radio (so on Sunday mornings I like to know when it's ten o'clock so that I can tune in to Pienaar's Politics on Radio 5) and was vaguely confused when the clock on my digital gardening radio said that it was still only half past eight, and not half past nine.

The SA is firm that we should switch to the new time on day one and get used to it, not fiddle around moving meals in half hour increments as we adjust, and on that basis took the full extra hour in bed.  My elderly clock radio does not keep track of the correct time by itself (which is a nuisance as each time there's any interruption to the mains power supply it starts flashing a random time) and even though I knew when I got up that the clocks had changed and it was not really twenty to eight, I still had to think about it when I went downstairs and the kitchen clock said that it was eight minutes past seven.

Daylight will soon be so short that it'll be easy to be outside while it's light, whatever time the clocks say it is, so it doesn't really make any difference to my daily life.  I remember, though, how I used to wish when I worked in an office that the evenings could be lighter.  Double summer time would have been marvellous.  It was so frustrating to sit on the train on a beautiful evening, convincing myself that I'd get at least half an hour in the garden, only for the train to be delayed, or reality to strike, and dusk to be drawing in by the time I finally got home.  I'd have willingly accepted darker mornings, when all I was doing anyway was going to work, in return for lighter evenings, so that I could get outside, and I suspect I was in the majority.  Gardening, a whizz round the neighbourhood on your bike if you're a kid, a game of football or tennis (not for me, thank you, but some people like it), or just a chance to sit down outside with the rays of the evening sun on your face.  Light evenings, bring them on.

In the meantime, how can it possibly be so dark at half past six?

Saturday, 25 October 2014

playing with wax

We spent this morning making candles.  It is a marvellously soothing process, dipping wax candles. You start off with a length of wick the right thickness for the candle you want to end up with, as too fat or too thin and it will keep guttering out or burn down in no time at all.  Uncoated wick floats in melted wax, but you puddle your length of wick around the surface a couple of times and stretch it straight with your fingers.  Then you leave it to cool and dry.  There's a lot of leaving things to cool, making hand dipped candles.

Then you just keep dipping, not too often, and leaving the nascent candle between times.  It needs to go into the molten wax at a reasonable pace, and straight out again, or you'll melt off as much as you add.  As it gets fatter, you can roll it between two panes of glass if you wish, to make the sides smoother and straighter, but I don't bother, since I'm only planning to burn them at the dinner table, not show them.

The beekeepers have accumulated quite a range of equipment, some purpose made bought off the shelf over the years, and some ingeniously fabricated by members out of old pieces of kit cadged from workplaces or bought on e-Bay.  Some is very low tech but eminently sensible, like the pot of lightweight bulldog clips and the racks of wood with small nails banged into them.  You can put a clip on each wick, loop the handle over a nail, and leave your candles hanging up to cool, instead of standing endlessly with one in each hand.  This frees up your hands for other things, like drinking coffee and eating chocolate biscuits.

We have a good collection of silicone moulds too, built up by investing in two or three new ones each year out of divisional funds.  Good quality candle moulds are not cheap, but we can turn out some pin sharp fir cones and miniature beehives, for those that like that sort of thing.  They are flexible one piece moulds, split down one side so that you can get the finished candle out, with a hole in the base to lead the wick through.  A pair of cocktail sticks held together with rubber bands rested across the top will hold the wick straight, and a few more bands around the mould will hold it shut.  The silicone is so squidgy and fits together so snugly that not a drop of wax seeps through the join.  The candle is ready to decant when the surface of the wax darkens and the edges start to shrink back from the mould.  I contented myself with one moulded Christmas tree, and rubbed gold powder on the tips of its branches with a finger.  Other people were making wax tree decorations, and casting embossed wax lumps for stiffening sewing thread.

It's a gentle activity.  You can't be in a hurry, since wax cools at the rate that it cools, and the chat flows freely over how our bees did this year, and life in general.  A guide to fungus was brought out to try and identify some mystery specimens on a tree stump: answer, not honey fungus but not one of the edible species.  The problems of training young dogs were aired, someone turned up in a vintage MG he'd just got back from the restorers (at the price they charged he was going to renew the trim himself), the identity of various useful pieces of hardwood being hoarded in the host's garage was speculated upon, and the evils of tree hating neighbours deplored.

The smell of wax brought a few curious honey bees to investigate what was going on, and is why we only hold candle making days in early spring or late autumn.  We don't want to freeze ourselves, standing about in someone's garage and front garden in the depths of winter, but candle making outside a sealed room is not an activity for the warmer months, when too many bees are flying. You can buy the thermostat controlled water baths for melting the wax and all the rest of it from specialist catalogues, but it's expensive, so unless you are going into quasi commercial production it's better just to make candles with your local beekeepers.  Our division holds a group dip once or twice a year, and members can rent the kit for the weekend (though we do charge a hefty deposit in case of accidental damage).

Friday, 24 October 2014

rural developments

A little bright, orange-red dot appeared in front of a far hedge on the neighbouring farm.  It's the wrong time of year for a combine harvester to be out, and squinting hard at it I worked out it was a digger.  I mentioned the presence of construction equipment to the Systems Administrator, who said that would be for the new solar farm.  I was confused, since I thought the solar farm was going to be in a sunken area once used for gravel extraction, and now containing some rather thin looking horse paddocks on its depleted topsoil, but the SA assured me that that was a different solar farm. I can't keep up.

The SA went for a walk after lunch, and returned reporting that the diggers were indeed there to construct the new solar array.  The SA doesn't think we'll see much of it, given the panels will be 2.5 metres tall, on the other side of a hedge, and facing south.  I'm not so convinced.  The land slopes so that we currently see some of the grass in the field, so once it's covered with solar panels I should think we'll see them instead.  But they will be more or less end on, since if they faced us they'd be pointing due east, not the recommended orientation unless you've fallen victim to a particularly dodgy solar power salesman.

Meanwhile in Bradfield they're due to get 10,000 panels in an array that will be able to power 1,500 homes.  Councillor Carlo Guglielmi, Cabinet Member for Planning and Corporate Services, said that we have to produce fifteen per cent of our energy from renewable sources by 2020, and it has to come from somewhere, and the Bradfield site that's been approved only impacts on two properties (which is fine, unless either of them are your's).  Two proposals in the area have been approved, and another two turned down.

If as a country we're going to use solar power, I'd like to see it installed as a matter of course on far more (if not all) new commercial buildings, instead of taking up farm land.  The space occupied by the footprint of a building hasn't vanished, after all, merely been elevated, so why not use it constructively and make power generation (or a green roof to help with urban rainwater absorption) absolutely standard?  In the meantime, the SA suggested that the new array going up opposite us could be sited there partly to take advantage of the national grid connection already in place for the wind turbine.

Addendum  I thought for a moment that I'd found evidence of a local community welcoming new homes being built, but when I clicked on the headline Backing for new village homes, I found that the backing came from Tendring District Council's planning committee, and that the nine (nine!) new homes had been opposed by Bradfield (them again) parish council on a number of grounds.  In Lawford, where a site for 360 homes has been put forward in the latest draft of the Local Plan, residents aren't happy about that either.  I can see why the planners would favour the Lawford site, since it's walkable to the mainline station at Manningtree.  Harwich just pips Lawford to the post, with 364 homes mooted, and residents aren't happy with that either.  As things stand they do have a point: there aren't many jobs in Harwich, and the A120 is an awful, dangerous road.  It might have got dualled under section 106 if Bathside Bay had gone ahead, but not on the proceeds of 364 homes.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

At Risk

English Heritage has released its updated At Risk Register for 2014, and out of curiosity I looked up the results for Essex, and found that we have sixty seven heritage sites at risk, thirty three listed buildings, twenty one scheduled monuments, twelve conservation areas and a garden.

I had no idea that most of the endangered ancient monuments even existed.  A friend lived in Great Horkesley for several years without my ever discovering that it had a small multivallate hill fort. Even now I do know I had to look up the meaning of multivallate, which means having three or more concentric lines of defence.  However, the Great Horkesley hillfort is steadily being ploughed up.  Some of the more recent defences aren't faring much better.  Beacon Hill Fort at Harwich, a late nineteenth and twentieth century coastal artillery fortification, is on a declining trend, with extensive significant problems and in need of management.  Several of the Martello towers are in poor condition, essentially because they are not used for anything and are gently leaking.

The same phrases crop up repeatedly throughout the report, and I presume that in conservation circles they all carry precise weight and meaning, like the words of the shipping forecast, where 'slight', 'moderate' and 'good' all describe calibrated degrees of wave height or visibility, and aren't just chit chat like the TV weather forecaster's spits and spots of rain.  Martello towers in English Heritage speak do not gently leak, they suffer from water ingress and loss of render.

Colchester's Jumbo is on the list.  It would be, really.  The register notes that it has been sold to a new owner, a commercial company who is committed to its conversion if possible.  I wish they would do something with Jumbo.  I was slightly surprised to see Spring Valley Mill on the list, having not grasped that it was as old as it is, dating from the eighteenth century.  It sits in the bottom of a small and unexpected valley not far from Ardleigh, on a lane that's a handy rat run if you want to avoid the Ardleigh level crossing, but so narrow you hope not to meet anything by the mill, and I did notice the last time I passed that the building was now held up by scaffolding where it fronted the highway.

Several of our churches have made their way on to the register, including to my dismay the lovely St George's in Great Bromley.  Grade I listed, dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with a double hammerbeam roof with surviving medieval polychrome decoration, the south porch masonry and roof have been found to be in urgent need of repairs.  It got English Heritage and lottery grants in 2012 to sort out the clerestory windows, so let's hope it gets lucky again.  It is a beautiful building, and I should like to have a proper look at it when I'm not attending a funeral. Two churches in Colchester are also new entries, including St Peter's in North Hill which I don't remember ever noticing, but then I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've walked up North Hill.  Damp is the recurring theme, missing and slipped slates and leaking windows, while poor St Botolph's suffers from abundant vegetation in its joints.

In St Osyth the Augustinian priory continues to decay.  I always think it is a great shame that this never fell into the hands of English Heritage at some point during the past century.  It is a superb complex which ought to be saved for the nation, and would be fascinating for visitors.  As it is there is no public access, just a series of local rows about parking, and planning wrangles about whether houses should be built on part of its remaining estate to finance restoration.  Not only the priory, but the whole conservation area of St Osyth, is considered to be At Risk, in poor condition and deteriorating.  I didn't think it looked that bad, the last time I was there, though I couldn't argue with English Heritage's assessment that the condition of the whole of Clacton seafront is very bad (actually, I could.  The historic seafront gardens were restored at the millennium and are still quite nice), but at least the trend is said to be improving.

The one historic garden on the register didn't surprise me at all.  Easton Lodge at Little Easton holds the battered remnants of a major Harold Peto commission, with interesting historical associations to one of Edward VII's mistresses, Daisy Countess of Warwick, the babbling brook.  Its last owners did a valiant job of trying to resuscitate the gardens, only unfortunately they are situated within 500 metres of where the end of the new runway will be, if Stansted is ever extended.  No heritage or funding body will put money into the project.  The fact that only one of the ninety three historic gardens judged to be at risk nationally is in Essex is, I'm afraid, not a testament to our success in safeguarding our history so much as due to the fact that Essex didn't have many historic gardens in the first place.  And somebody could get a thesis out of explaining why that is.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

return to Tesco

I went to Tesco today.  I know they can be very annoying in many ways, and I have been highly critical of them in the past, but they better than Waitrose at some things (or at least Asian ambient food), and I wanted chapati flour.  I don't know how much of a difference it honestly makes to the finished product using a bag of something labelled 'chapati flour' and not just normal brown wholemeal, given it's all wheat, but I thought I'd rather have chapati flour.  Why start by compromising on the ingredients more than you have to?  They sell big bags of basmati rice too, much bigger than we would ever need and presumably aimed at the catering trade, and I noted for future reference that they stocked gram flour, which is ground chick peas.  I didn't buy any without a definite plan of what I was going to cook with it, but it was useful to know that I could get some if I needed to.  Ditto coconut milk, which at 95 pence per tin is approximately half the price you'll pay in Waitrose (I think.  Knowing the price of milk is one thing, but tinned coconut milk isn't a known value item that readily trips off the tongue).

There was a little gaggle of small children by the fish counter, wearing miniature brown Tesco tabards with a slogan that they were learning where their food came from.  I thought that on that basis they shouldn't really have been at a supermarket fish counter, but down by the waterside at West Mersea or Harwich watching the fishing boats come in.  Though to give a fully rounded picture they'd have needed to watch some supplementary footage about salmon farming, the environmental effects of bottom trawling, the destruction of the south east Asian mangrove forests to make way for shrimp farms, tuna by-catch, and the use of slave labour in the Thai fishing fleet.  My faith in Tesco's educational enterprise was further undermined when the woman behind the fish counter held up a laminated sheet of A4 on which was printed the word SCOLLOPS.

I was mildly puzzled that the checkout was decorated with what looked like fake snow, thinking that Christmas was coming earlier than ever, when I spotted the plastic spiders and remembered that Halloween came first, so the fake snow must have been fake cobwebs.  They were black, life size and jolly realistic, at least to a non-arachnologist (which is a real word according to Wikipedia).  I didn't mind them myself, being quite kindly disposed to spiders, but thought that if you were phobic about spiders you might find them upsetting.  It's a common phobia as phobias go, and I mentioned as much to the woman on the till, as she was wearing a badge saying Team Leader, but she said that while she agreed with me and didn't like them herself, the matter was Out of Her Hands.  Oh dear, I'm afraid that Tesco really do have a long way to go.  Staff are a retailers eyes and ears that can tell management what customers grumble about, and maybe what they like, and a good store manager should use their shop floor staff to find out what the great British shopping public thinks of them.  Especially when they are in as deep doo-doos as Tesco are.

Addendum  I didn't care for the severed foot by the brochures for pet insurance and loans, but maybe that's just me.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

the dreadful wind and rain

Another pulse of wind and rain from the remnants of hurricane Gonzalo is blowing through.  A moment ago water was travelling almost horizontally past the window in dense lumps, as if thrown out of a bucket.  The branches of the little oak tree, still in full leaf, are tossing madly but so far the trunk remains thankfully rooted in the soil.

I made preparations yesterday, putting the parasol from the table by the conservatory away in the garage while it was still dry, and before it could blow into the wood, and lifting the wooden chairs down on to the lawn so that a particularly vicious gust couldn't send them crashing through the window.  I restaked a crab apple 'Red Sentinel' whose stake had rotted off at ground level.  It's growing in an especially arid spot in the gravel, and not doing awfully well, so I must give it another dose of fish, blood and bone, but in the meantime I didn't trust it to support itself in the teeth of the gale.  We made sure that laptops, tablets and phones were fully charged, so that if we lost power we'd have at least some internet via the battery driven dongle, and I am relieved that we had the big window replaced, so it is less likely to burst inwards in the worst of the gusts like the beginning of a horror film.

Nobody shut down the wind turbine on the neighbouring farm.  They usually do, when storms are forecast, but it was whirling as if on spin cycle this morning.  Viewed through a rain spattered glass pane the whole structure seemed to writhe in a very disconcerting fashion, and I was waiting for the blades to suddenly and horribly shoot right off, but they didn't, and I got bored with watching after a while.

I was going to use the rainy day to make a cake, but my clockwork has run down.  After an unusually packed spell in my diary, where I was supposed to be doing something every single day for over a week, today I was not due to do anything at all, and my body announced that it still had a cold and wasn't going to.  The Systems Administrator vacuumed the floors and gave the kitchen and hall a quick mop, for which I am extremely grateful, but I am spending the day rooted to the sofa, browsing though the catalogue of the Georgians exhibition and making a mess of the difficult sudoku.  I really don't have the energy to make a cake, and anyway it would only be an encapsulated ball of germs.  I'm not ordering gravel either, in case I get in a muddle and end up with the wrong thing or on the wrong day.  Ditto tickets for the Rembrandt exhibition.  Sometimes you need to take a breather.

Monday, 20 October 2014

chrysanthemum time

The garden still has a few seasonal tricks up its sleeve, even in the second half of October.  I don't count the two Iris unguicularis flowers that have just opened.  I don't want to see them now, ungrateful though that sounds, and wish the winter iris would save their efforts at least until the leaves have fallen from the trees, and it looked like winter.  No, I am thinking of the chrysanthemums.

I like chrysanthemums, despite their garage forecourt overtones and funereal associations.  We studied 'The Odour of Chrysanthemums' at school, and I've read accounts in recent years of British women who have committed social faux pas by taking bunches as hostess presents on the continent, not realising that in parts of Europe they are still considered funeral flowers.  Never mind, I find the strong, distinctive smell, not just of the flowers but of the whole plant, quite pleasant, and I like their bright neatness, as well as the fact that they come so usefully late in the year.  They last for a long time in vases, presumably why they became such stalwarts of the petrol station emergency flowers trade, and I don't even grudge taking the time to strip the leaves off.

I once read a useful article about their wild origins and the species that have gone into making up the modern garden varieties, and wish I had paid more attention, because I have had very mixed success with them.  The durable and undoubted stars are those with relatively compact growth, producing numerous tightly packed stems and nice little densely double button flowers about an inch across.  This morning I picked a small posy of 'Bronze Elegance', which makes sturdy plants no more than a couple of feet tall, indeed less in our soil, with tawny brown flowers opening from dark buds.  Why the Gardeners' World website classifies it as a tender perennial I have no idea, since my plants have been in the ground for over a decade.  Part of it once sported purple, but it wasn't a particularly nice colour break, and that section of the plant seems to have died out, which is fine.

I bought 'Dr Tom Parr' on impulse from Langthorns near Stansted five years ago, when I called in on my way back from a woodland talk,wanting to get maximum value from the drive if I were going to trek to the other side of the county.  It is another dense double, with flowers in an agreeable shade of mauve.  According to their website it can grow a metre tall, but here it's no more than half that, and I don't have to stake it.  Although shorter than it could be given more luxurious conditions it spreads steadily, making an ever wider mat, and last year I nibbled off some little rooted pieces from the very front of the bed and potted them up.  All settled happily in their pots, and I have several plants sitting by the greenhouse to squeeze into any vacant spaces, or give to friends.  Given the root aphid problems this year I'd probably keep my plant ailments on site, and use them myself.

'Julia' was another impulse purchase, got from the plant centre a couple of years ago.  She too has smallish double flowers, this time in a nice pale pink, and is starting to spread, so there might be enough of her to nip off a couple of rooted shoots come next spring.  My final double has no name, being salvaged from a tray of bedding chrysanthemums at the plant centre several years ago.  A customer accidentally broke a piece off one, and knowing how easily small fragments are to pot up, the manager suggested I rescue it.  It is a good, very dark red, and again I must make some more plants next year, so that I can extend the patch.

These four have all been very, very easy going.  I chop the old stems down at some stage over the winter, feed and mulch them when I'm feeding the bed, and that's it.  They don't seem to require regular splitting, or die out in the centre of the plant.  I like them so much, I feel slightly sorry that they are dotted around among the remains of the asters and other flowers that have already gone over.  If I were rich and had unlimited space, I should like to make a bed specifically for flowers that produce their main display this late, so that I could enjoy them in their freshness, instead of as islands of bloom in a New Perennials sea of dead heads.

The other sort of chrysanthemums are taller, leggier and have more open flowers, and I've had little success with them.  The plant spreadsheet records that I've had two goes at establishing the fine, dark red 'Duchess of Edinburgh', but there's never a flower to be seen this year, and three attempts at the apricot 'Mary Stoker', which is putting up a miserable display in the ground, though I do have some plants in pots grown on from rooted shoots.  I'd better consider what to do with them, since experience to date strongly suggests that if I plant them out into the bed they will just slowly die. The pale pink, quill petalled 'Emperor of China' isn't putting in an appearance either, and I've tried that twice, though it is a really late flowering variety so maybe it is still to come somewhere among the aster stalks.

One of these days I will settle down with a pile of reference books and the resources of the web, and try to get to grip with chrysanthemums, and why it is that some are so easy and others so impossible.  In the meantime, I'd say buy any you like the look of, but don't bother paying for more than one, since if it likes your garden it will be easy to propagate, and if it doesn't it will disappear so you might as well not waste your money.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

the concert season resumes

I might owe Blogger an apology.  Some of last night's difficulties in accessing the site might have been down to my laptop and not their fault at all.  By this morning it was so slow and reluctant to do anything that the Systems Administrator spent the rest of the day installing new anti-virus programmes and anti-malware, and running scans of everything.  The results of the scans were inconclusive, or at least reassuring in that they didn't find any nasties, on the other hand they didn't explain why the laptop was dawdling along like a resentful five year old who didn't want to go for a walk, and insisted on stopping to step in all the puddles while refusing to climb over any of the stiles unaided or walk up hills.  The SA has warned me that as of this evening it is still slow, and tomorrow it might be time to reinstall Chrome, but in the mean time it has let me type this far without bringing up the message that There was an error saving your post, and allowed me to delete the 292 unwanted comments from the Spam box instead of saving them each time I pressed Delete, as it was doing last night.

The music society concert season has started.  We have just had a young quartet playing Beethoven and Haydn plus Webern and Szymanowski.  Poor Webern, he survived the war only to be shot by an American soldier after being caught smoking a cigar during a curfew.  I still find Szymanowski one of those composers whose presence on Radio 3 sends me scurrying to the middlebrow comfort zone of Classic FM, but my friends said they liked the modern pieces better than the older ones, so I kept that thought to myself.  I could happily dawdle away entire afternoons, if not days, listening to Haydn string quartets, preferably with an inexhaustible supply of tea and a packet of biscuits.

After the concert came the AGM, which the Chairman kept admirably brief.  Admirable for two reasons, one being that nobody can honestly enjoy sitting through Annual General Meetings, and the other being that since I'd volunteered to take the minutes I had a vested interest in their being short.  The rules of the music society are that anybody who buys a season ticket, as distinct from individual concert tickets, is a member.  A touchingly large number of people do, including some who don't get their money's worth in terms of the number of concerts they attend, and a surprisingly large number of them stay on to the AGM.  I never went to a society AGM in my life until I volunteered to become Treasurer of the local beekeepers, and had to to the annual meeting because I was presenting the Treasurer's report at it.

The formal proceedings were followed by wine and cheese in the vestry, under the stern eye of the verger, and once again we managed to drop cheese on the carpet, even though this year we'd provided people with plates.  I found a cloth, probably intended to be a dishcloth up to that point, and crawled around scrubbing at the cheese spots, while a friend who had earlier been worrying that she didn't really seem to do anything on the committee did the honours with a dustpan and brush and a sponge, but next year I don't think we should give them stilton.  It's too crumbly.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

the final cut

I have finally finished cutting the eleagnus hedge along the drive.  I think.  It still looks ragged and uneven, and bald, but it will do, until it grows again and I can give the regrowth a trim.  If it does regrow.  Tiny shoots are breaking on the bare branches at the end where I started, a hopeful sign, but in the meantime there is no point in trying to even up every cut twig to give a level face.  I will keep squinting along it from both ends and every angle, in case I suddenly see a lumpy bit that's going to stick out too far into the drive as it grows, but in the meantime it is officially done. Tomorrow the Systems Administrator will help me cart away the trailer full of prunings for the last time, and move the Henchman off the turning circle.

I am heartily relieved to have finished for now.  It turned into a monster job that seemed to go on for ever.  Practically did go on for ever, given that I started in early September and have been at it ever since, apart from one week when we were on holiday.  Each time I did any other gardening task I felt vaguely guilty that I ought to have been getting on with the hedge.

I've finished cutting back the brambles by the entrance as well, which means that next week I can order some gravel, and the delivery driver might stand a sporting chance of being able to get the lorry into the garden instead of having to leave the bags at the gate.  I found some large and useful stones under the brambles, not ones picked up out of the soil but big ones bought at a garden centre, which I'd completely forgotten were there.  They can be redeployed around the middle of the circle to encourage vehicles to stick to the drive, now I've reduced the hedge and given them an extra yard of room.

I cleaned out the hen house as well, and am positively glowing with virtue at having ticked two tasks off the list.  And that is all there's going to be about today's gardening, because the Blogger website is playing up, and it's taken me a good half hour to get this far.

Friday, 17 October 2014

somewhere else, not here

I heard Hilary Benn on the radio the other morning, talking about Labour's plans to build more houses if they come into government.  The UK needed a system, he said, whereby new homes could be built in accordance with local communities' wishes.

As it happens, I agree with Hilary that the UK needs more homes.  We have more would-be households than properties for them to live in, and you do not need to be a retired fund manager to see that the laws of supply and demand will tend to push house prices up.  They've had a dizzying run, they might pause for breath or even a correction (I still remember a cartoon from a previous financial slump of some huge grizzlies standing behind a door with the caption 'Bears? There are no bears here, just us corrections') but the trend is upwards.  Bad for people who will never afford to buy a house, or are crippling themselves to barely afford a mortgage, or are still obliged to live in a house share at an age when they might have hoped to rent a flat of their own. Bad for the UK tax payer faced with an escalating bill for housing benefit.  It isn't an issue for me personally, in that I already have a house, but that doesn't mean I can't see it from other people's point of view.

Would I want the new houses next to my house, though?  That's an academic question.  Nobody is proposing to build any houses near us.  We merely have the lettuce farm, and endure salad production on an industrial scale.  If, in years to come, our friendly neighbouring farmer ever wants to put polytunnels in the field immediately next to us, you can bet that we will fight him tooth and nail, just as we objected to the planning proposals for the quarry on the next farm down the lane.  As things stand, we are not immediately threatened by polytunnels or houses.  But if we were, I'm sure we'd think of reasons to object.

And there's the rub.  I've just been browsing though the local papers while I wondered what to blog about (given that I spent the day at a friend's house, and I don't review my friends or their houses on line, other than to say that it was a very nice day (and thank you if you're reading but you're probably not)) and local communities don't generally seem to want housing.  The residents of Alresford do not want 145 homes built off Cockaynes Lane.  If Cockaynes Lane is where I think it is, it is a nice quiet rural lane leading to Cockaynes Wood, and if I lived down it or near it I would not want 145 houses built there either.  On the other hand, as a friend pointed out yesterday, Alresford is objectively speaking a sensible place to put new housing, having a rail link to Colchester and thence Stratford and London.

In Rowhedge opposite Wivenhoe on the Colne, the former waterside industrial area had fallen derelict, and has been cleared with a view to redeveloping the land as housing.  Some local residents have called for the area to be left as open green space, on the grounds that there are no jobs in Rowhedge and the occupants of the new houses would all have to commute to Colchester or further afield, creating additional traffic and congestion.  Rowhedge, in their eyes, is not a suitable place for development.  On a grander scale, Tendring District Council is eyeing up plans for up to 3,000 homes on the outskirts of Colchester.  I can see practical problems with that idea, since the traffic on the eastern fringes of Colchester is already a nightmare during the rush hour, and it's hard to see how the inhabitants are supposed to get in or out of their new homes to get to work.  Colchester MP Bob Russell is up in arms, viewing it as a dastardly plot by Tendring District to grab the council tax for its own coffers while leaving Colchester Borough with the cost of providing schools and other facilities and the resulting extra traffic.

And yet if you were to ask Bob Russell, or the inhabitants of Rowhedge or Alresford, or Hilary Benn's local communities, whether they thought there was a shortage of houses, and if they were worried about how their children or grandchildren were ever going to afford anywhere to live, they would probably agree with Hilary (and me) that we need more houses.  We all agree that they would be a Good Thing, just not next to us.  Not creating traffic on our road, causing longer queues at our surgery, making it harder to get our children places at our school, or cluttering our view.  Somewhere else, not here.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

a grand day out

I have walked miles today, and looked at so many things, my feet and my brain are both aching. But it was a good day out.  A friend and I visited Turner at Tate Britain, that is Late Turner: painting set free, and not the Turner prize nominees.  It was wonderful, and each time I look at the caption of a Turner picture I am amazed again at how early he was.  I particularly like the oil seascapes and landscapes that are so abstracted the subject matter is barely there, and some of the really wet and free watercolours, but that's a matter of personal taste.  You might go for the less abstracted cityscapes, or the mythological scenes.  All are good.  And within three canvases of the way in to the exhibition I knew which I loved more, Constable or Turner.  Constable at the V&A was fine and bold and ground-breaking, and I'm happy that his view of Salisbury was saved for the nation, but it's Turner's layers of blue and brown paint that can reduce me to the same state of reverie as Rothko.

It is on until 25th January, so you have plenty of time left to go and see it.  Do go if you possibly can.

We had lunch in the members' room, and by dint of taking an early lunch and then hitting the pictures at 1.00 found neither too crowded, or perhaps it was a quiet day.  The Turner has been on for about five weeks, so the initial rush has had time to die down.  The members' room is stylish, tucked in under the dome, and we both agreed that last year's refurbishment was well done, with the big new spiral staircase going down to the lower floor, and subtly repeating tessellating leaf motif borrowed from Islamic architecture.

From Millbank we walked up to Covent Garden to see the art installation.  Using the principles of counterweights, a mocked up classical portico appears to levitate above broken columns.  The building is a clever pastiche of the surrounding architecture, with the floating part sculpted out of polystyrene to minimize the weight, and the supporting steel upright hidden inside a market cart. You know, if you are of a rationalist cast of mind, that there must be a concealed upright, and the cart is the only place the support and counterweight can be, but it's skilfully done.  What I really like is that it does not profess to mean, symbolise or signify anything.  It's there for fun, a big, clever, visual joke.  I don't think it will be on for very long, so hurry if you want to see it.

Our final stop of the day was the Tower of London, to see the poppies in the moat.  Blood swept lands and seas of red, 888, 246 ceramic poppies, one for every British and Commonwealth soldier killed in the Great War.  The volunteers haven't quite finished putting them all out yet, they'll finish for Armistice Day, but it is already a vast and moving spectacle, running all the way around the tower.  The poppies are planted in the ground, fixed to metal spikes, and the array has been given a textured, sculptural quality by varying the length of the supports across the field, so that some areas are taller than others, while the occasional tall poppy stands among the short ones.  In a few places they crest up (or pour down, depending on your point of view) the stone walls.

We were lucky with our timing, in that I saw on the evening news that the Queen and Prince Philip visited today, and with no disrespect to her Majesty, we were there to see the poppies, and to have got caught up in a crowd trying to see the queen would have been a nuisance, as would being held back by her security people for the duration of her visit.  The very last poppy is due to be placed on 11 November, and we debated who should do the honours, and agreed before knowing of the visit today that it should only be the queen.  The poppies will be sold off afterwards in aid of service charities.  It's for a good cause, but I'm not sure that one would have much impact, or even three or five.  You need quite a lot, approximately 888,246.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

pots for the porch

I called at B&Q on the way back from Colchester to get a box of cyclamen for the shelf in the porch.  I had some last year, lined up in small identical pots from Whichford, with marbled leaves and flowers in the palest shades of pink.  They lasted for months, and when they began to look tired I moved them into the greenhouse, and kept them very, very dry.  Over watering is fatal to potted cyclamen, and I was slow to start them back into growth.  Three have now grown tufts of healthy looking leaves, and the other three corms are still solid and probably alive, but for the shelf I wanted instant gardening.

The old plants have therefore been decanted into a terracotta trough, and I hope that now I've watered them properly they will continue to come back to life, in which case they can stand in the porch under the shelf.  I'll have to be careful not to over water the trough, since the cyclamen's roots certainly won't fill it.  Cyclamen in containers are magnets for vine weevil, and I don't generally reckon on getting more than one season out of them, so I was surprised that this lot survived as well as they did.  A fairly dry baking in the greenhouse for the summer seems to have suited them, and they have managed to duck the root aphid.  I thought about planting them out in the garden, but I'm not sure they would survive the winter.  B&Q don't make any claims for them one way or the other on the packaging, but they look as though they have a fair dose of the tender Cyclamen persica in their makeup.

The little pots have been refilled with new plants, going this year for stronger shades of pink and very strongly marked silvery leaves.  I paid seven pounds for a box of six plants, which is pretty good for something that should last until the other side of Christmas.  It helps the overall effect to have a set of six matching good quality pots.  I checked carefully for mould before buying them, and sure enough there were a few dead leaves already infected with botrytis.  This grey, fuzzy looking fungus is another scourge of potted cyclamen, and is a sign of bad air circulation and too much moisture.  I fastidiously picked off ever dead leaf and each faded flower, taking care to trace the stems right down to the base and not leave any stubs, and for good measure picked off the biodegradable fabric wrapping like a giant tea bag that they were growing in, and that you are supposed to leave on when planting.  I had to remove it anyway, so as to be able to nibble away at the corners of the rectangular root balls to make them fit my round pots.

Maybe I'll eventually get bored with cyclamen and want to try something different, but they produce such beautiful flowers, and the plants have good foliage as well.  And I think there is something positively chic about lining up a row of matching pots, like those interior design shots you see in magazines of identical flowers displayed in a rack of test tubes.  It is simpler and visually more arresting than my usual instinct which is to try all sorts of things and end up with a jumble of interesting plants.  In the confines of the porch, restricted to one small shelf, simple is good.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

committee work

Tonight is a beekeepers' committee meeting, and I've prepared them a typed Treasurer's report.  I don't do that every time, but the chairman wanted a summary of how we did financially at the Tendring Show.  The answer to that is, it depends on how you measure it.  We write off expenses as incurred, which is much easier than trying to stock take items like the wooden bees we have for children to colour in at the end of every event, but makes the expenses line lumpy.  On the whole, though, I should say we make a modest loss.  It's having to buy tickets for the number of volunteers we have on the stand that does it, the allocation of free tickets isn't enough to put on the sort of show that we do.  And honey show entry fees don't cover the cost of engraving the trophies.

We run to a calender year end, and I'm starting to twitch about getting all the loose ends tied up before December 31st.  There are still two cheques outstanding since the summer that haven't cleared, one reimbursing someone for show expenses, and the other rather bizarrely in payment for honey sold at the show.  You'd think the person who supplied the honey would want their money.  I had better chase them, and try and persuade them to pay the cheques in, assuming they can still find them.  And the membership secretary who mails out our monthly magazines hasn't submitted her expenses which will be substantial, what with the price of stamps.  Still, she didn't get round to cashing her cheque before the  year end last time round, despite my urging her to so that I wouldn't have to show her as a creditor in the accounts, so if it happens again at least I've now worked out how you do show creditors.  I obediently use the format inherited from my predecessor as treasurer, which is one commonly used by charities but not by quoted companies, and I still have to look at it pretty hard before it makes sense, since the only time I need to worry about the balance sheet is at the year end.  The rest of the time I just maintain a glorified cash book.

The agenda runs to about thirteen items by now, so I'm not sure how late I'll be back.  In a sign of the changing times, the penultimate agenda item before AOB is now web master's report.  Our recently appointed volunteer web master has got some very sensible ideas, which we are due to discuss tonight, so he should probably have been bumped up the running order.  I had better keep the treasurer's report succinct.  Apart from knowing whether or not we have any money it is not something most folk want to talk about anyway.  If you want to get involved with a local society and be welcomed on to the committee then volunteering to be treasurer is a good place to start. So many people are horrified at the idea of having to be responsible for other people's money, you're unlikely to be fighting off rival candidates for the job.

Monday, 13 October 2014

sofa gardening

It's been raining, 31.1 mm in the past twenty-four hours according to the rain gauge, which has just been degunked and fitted with a new battery.  That sounds about right.  The large puddle that forms in the front drive, my quick visual check for how much rain we've had, filled this morning and spread to cover almost the full width of the drive.  We were lucky yesterday, in that it began to spit as we left my cousin's house but only really settled into proper rain as we arrived at the station.  In London it rained steadily, but there was a shelter by the bus stop, and by the time we got back to Colchester it was pouring, but being Sunday we'd got a parking space close to the covered part of the car park.  I consoled myself during the long waits for the bus and then the train that at least it was better than flogging round the M25 in the pouring rain and the dark.

I don't mind the rain as much as I would otherwise because I have a cold.  Just a slight, niggling cold, with an intermittent snivel, a hint of a sore throat, slightly stiff joints, the occasional headache, and a strong inclination not to do anything.  Since normally I am charging about full of projects, and reach bedtime with a vague sense of surprise and disappointment that the day has run out when there are still so many things left to do, I tend to believe my body when it says it doesn't want to do any of them.  Fortunately, today I don't have to.  I felt an additional sense of relief when I considered that it was Monday, and I wouldn't have to go and work outside with my cold at the plant centre, or stand at a potting bench in a polytunnel for eight hours.  Remember the gardeners and arborists, the garden centre workers and landscapers, for whom rain isn't just something they run through grumbling with their newspaper over their heads as they dash into the office.

I have been leafing through Anna Pavord's book Bulb.  It was first published in 2009, and my next birthday and Christmas both passed without a gift wrapped copy arriving in my lap.  Since then I have been stalking it on Amazon, trying to catch the moment when clean copies are available as remaindered stock.  Bottom fishing in books is a sport in itself, as long as you don't mind missing the odd one.  I got my copy of Bulb for three pounds plus Amazon's standard vendor's p&p charge of £2.80, when the full list price was ten times that.  On the other hand, I held off too long for Charles Quest-Ritson's history of Ninfa, and watched in disappointment as the price of second hand copies shot up from over twenty pounds to well north of a hundred.  Bulb, by the way, is now back to over twelve pounds for new copies.

I'm enjoying Bulb so far, in an unfocused, coldy way, skimming through each section to see what's covered and looking at the pictures (which are excellent) rather than concentrating and committing to memory which crocus need the sharpest summer baking.  I've already learned that arum tubers are particularly rich in starch, so much so that in the eighteenth century they were commercially processed to make laundry starch.  That would explain why some wild animal is so keen on digging up my arum roots in the back garden each winter.  On the other hand, she warns that Gladiolus papilio likes to be cool and must never be short of water, and I have been pleased and surprised this summer to discover several flowering in the middle section of the long bed, one of the driest and hottest spots in the entire garden, where I'd entirely forgotten I'd planted them and certainly didn't give them any extra water during the dry spells.

Bulb is based on her own notes kept over the years of plants she has actually grown, or tried to grow, which tends to make the most engaging kind of gardening book.  I would much rather read from an experienced gardener how they have tried this and that, in these and those conditions, and had the following results, than a rehash of received wisdom by someone who hasn't done it themselves, or at least not successfully.  But even your own experience will only get you so far. Most people don't get to work on that many different gardens for any length of time, maybe two or three of their own, a few more if they are professional gardeners.  When you think of the number of variables that affect plant growth and the sheer range of ornamental plants grown in Britain, it's difficult to say for sure exactly what the key factors are leading to triumphant success, or the sad and sorry death and disappearance of your plant.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

voyage to the home counties

We've just got back from a day trip to Surrey.  Ten hours and forty minutes it took us.  We took the train, thinking it would be more relaxing than queuing for the Dartford tunnel and doing battle with the A12 and the M25.  It was, but boy, was it slow, what with the Sunday timetables, and allowing time for the trains to be delayed, plus the bus that was supposed to come in nine minutes, and easily took fifteen.  We were due at a christening at half past two, and leaving the house at ten arrived with half an hour to spare, while leaving our hosts at ten to five we reached home at twenty to nine.  With timing like that I can see why the fact that we'd come by train provoked a certain amount of incredulity among the other guests.

I have always found Surrey vaguely disturbing.  On childhood visits to my uncle and aunt there was something about the dripping birch trees, and the pines, and the golf courses, and the little groups of detached houses up private roads lined with rhododendrons, that unsettled me, the neatness of the place, the women with intimidatingly done hair and skin.  It was a land of bridge parties, wives who didn't go out to work, mysterious rituals of female grooming I was never going to get to grips with, solid Tory blue.  My aunt and uncle were as nice to me as they could possibly be, but Surrey felt like an alien land to a scruffy child of academia.  At home in the west country rush matting and book shelves made out of planks and bricks were considered normal.  In Surrey they had parquet.

The village where my cousin lives, for it was he who was having his daughter christened, goes back to the middle ages, but was not much of a village at all until the coming of the railway.  Up to that point there were a few hundred people, mostly engaged in raising pigs according to a notice board we found in the village centre.  It's all heath land, and I'd wager that the original settlement was scattered and non-nucleated.  When the railway came in 1885 smart villas started going up, substantial houses for the better class of people.  Surrey was where the stock brokers lived, while the stock jobbers and the clerks went for Essex.  We walked past some of the original commuter houses on the way to my cousin's, and it's a long time since I saw so many electric security gates on private dwellings.  Some of them would definitely have counted as Mansions.

The high street wasn't very big, but contained a tile shop and two bathroom suppliers.  Have you noticed how whoever it is who dictates fashion in bathrooms (who exactly does?  It certainly changes, but what drives it?) has decreed that stand alone baths are now the thing to have.  That's raising the bar, since they require a reasonable sized bathroom if they are not to look silly, and for you to be able to clean all the way around them, not to mention separate provision for a shower. The church was built in the early twentieth century, to provide for the spiritual needs of the growing population.  Up to that point there hadn't been one, the place was so tiny and insignificant.  There was presumably no manor house, and the church lacked the series of memorials to the local squire's family that you get in older rural churches.  It was a nice building, though, plain, elegant and well built.

My cousin's daughter behaved impeccably, smiling and waving throughout the christening and the tea party that followed, cheerfully consenting to sit on a series of laps, and succeeding in modelling the family christening gown which is now on its fourth generation of babies for a remarkably long time without incident, before reappearing in a little pink dress, the heirloom safely taken off again without disaster.  I have very little experience of babies, and people know this, and tend not to trust me with them, thinking presumably that I won't know what to do and might not like them very much.  In fact well behaved babies are fine, for a bit.  I rubbed my second cousin's feet along the base of her toes and stroked her on the back, as if she'd been the cat, and she seemed to enjoy it much as the cat does.  I think that what she'd really have liked to do was chew my British Museum string of agates and quartz, but it was too short for her to get a convenient loop into her mouth.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

in search of remembrance of things past

I have got myself in a complete muddle with Marcel Proust.  You may think that it serves me right. In Search of Lost Time, also translated as Remembrance of Things Past, is notoriously long, with a gigantic cast of characters, and sentences that famously go on for what seems like entire paragraphs, if not whole pages.  It's not known as light reading, and talking about the fact that I'm tackling it could be taken as a form of showing off.  Look at me, I'm so highbrow, I read Marcel Proust for fun.

In fact, I started in a spirit of curiosity, because like many people I'd heard of the famous madeleine as a trigger to memory, and even talked about it myself, without actually having read the book, and that is posing.  So one day I downloaded part one, Swann's Way, as a free Kindle download, and started reading.  That's the great thing about having free access to classics on the internet, you can give them a go.  My kindle contents list reveals that in the case of Don Quixote and the collected works of Byron, giving it a go has not got beyond the first one per cent, while I have made numerous train journeys without so much as starting on Moby Dick, but with Swann's Way I kept reading.  Proust's observations of human behaviour, and his dissections of human motives, are so acute that they draw you in.  I coped with the long sentences and meandering structure by dint of letting it flow over me and reading fast.

At the end of part one, I was still happy to keep going, and downloaded a free part two.  Time seemed to be passing along in leaps and bounds, and I was struggling to keep up with the cast of characters at times, but hey, it was Proust.  Again, his actute, candid and catty account of how they all felt about the situations they found themselves in, not always what according to convention they ought to have felt, was so compelling, I kept clicking on to the next screen, until I got to the end.  Albertine, the narrator's girlfriend, had done a runner.

I had to pay for part three.  Proust seemed to have looped back in time, since his narrator was now laboriously trying to get to know characters that he'd been on dining terms with in part two. Still, given its reputation as a difficult book I wasn't unduly worried.  Why should it have a linear narrative structure?  Maybe Proust was saying something about all our moments being present at once in our memories.  The dinner party did go on a bit, and I disliked some of the upper class characters so much that I had to take a break from their company periodically, but Proust skewering the moment at which somebody discovers that one of their friends has a terminal illness just as they are going out to dinner, and are stuck in the social dilemma of whether to offer comfort to the dying man or avoid being late to the dinner party is one that will stick in my mind for a long time.  If you like Jane Austen, you will love Proust.

The awful truth struck when, trying to work out which volume I should buy next, having run out of free ones, I looked In Search of Lost Time up on Wikipedia, and discovered that I had been reading it in the wrong sequence.  Not all the right words, and not in the right order.  My free part two was actually part four, Cities of the Plain, also translated as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Captive, also translated as The Prisoner.  Part three was indeed part three, which I'd read after part four, but I'd skipped over part two, which explained the slightly bewildering onslaught of unfamiliar names.

That was exceedingly dim of me.  I can see how it happened: I wasn't familiar with the work at all, and driven by my desire for free content was mixing and matching from different publishers, while the descriptions on Amazon of the various Kindle editions were brief and, as it turns out, misleading.  The fact that some of the volumes have been translated under more than one title added to my confusion.  I have now invested the princely sum of one pound and fifty three pence in buying the whole seven volumes, so that I can go through catching up on the part I missed out, before progressing to parts six and seven.  I don't think that was available when I started off, otherwise it would have been by far the best way of doing it at the outset.

So, buyer beware when trying to assemble a complete copy of Remembrance of Things Past on the cheap.  I wouldn't worry about the length, though.  So much is made of it being a long book, one million two hundred and sixty seven thousand and sixty nine words according to Wikipedia, but it's only about the same as reading the whole of the Barsetshire chronicles and probably shorter than the assembled works of Terry Pratchett or Agatha Christie, and nobody would be impressed because you'd read those in their entirety.

Friday, 10 October 2014

how it all turned out

The Systems Administrator's parcel arrived mid morning, when it should have been here on Tuesday.  On Wednesday I arranged my day so as to keep the front drive in view at all times (other than when I needed to go to the loo.  It is very difficult to keep your front door under surveillance single handed sixty minutes in the hour for ten hours continuously).  Yesterday we organised ourselves to go out in shifts so that someone was here all the time, and by evening the SA had heard nothing more from the delivery company and was planning to cancel the order and tell the vendor (Maplin) not to expect our future custom.  The delivery firm was Yodel, just in case you are thinking of sending a parcel by courier company rather than Royal Mail.  The SA has already stopped using another internet seller who persisted in sending their parcels via Yodel, because delivery was so unreliable.

I have now got one John Lewis burgundy skirt hanging in my wardrobe, and a second one on its way back to the John Lewis warehouse.  I had to make a special trip into Colchester, and it took me half an hour in store.  I have yet to check through my credit card statement, which will take five minutes if the refund has worked, and an unknown amount of time to resolve if it hasn't. The total time and effort so far expended on this Click and Collect order is one hour in Waitrose and an otherwise unnecessary ten mile round trip.  I am not pleased, having expected better from John Lewis.  I should say they were about to run into difficulties with internet shopping, and need to increase staffing at their Waitrose customer service desks, and do some staff training to break down the Us versus Them Waitrose v. John Lewis attitude I am beginning to detect in Waitrose.

The customer service desk in the Colchester Waitrose is at the front of the store, so it is the first thing customers see as they come in through the door.  Fair enough, but the stock room is at the back, so Waitrose's staff have to walk the length of the store and back each time they go to find a Click and Collect order.  They try to batch them up, but it's inefficient from Waitrose's point of view, better to make the customers go to the back of the store.  There was one person on the desk yesterday afternoon, who as well as trying to sort out my skirt problem had to deal with a man who had been overcharged by six pounds for a pack of Aberdeen Angus beef which had been reduced from £14.99 to £8.99 but gone through the till at full price, a woman who wanted to return some facial wipes she didn't like as much as her usual brand (I hoped she had bought two packs and decided to return the second), an elderly lady clutching a tin of John West something or other (I thought she said passion fruit, but is there such a thing as tinned passion fruit?) which she was lobbying Waitrose to stock, a customer presenting some old Waitrose receipts which he'd been told at the checkout he could 'add' to his My Waitrose account, a phone call transferred internally by a colleague who wouldn't take a message even after she had said she was up to her eyes, a helpful customer telling her that she might like to know that the low milk warning sign was lit up on the coffee machine, several other click and collect orders, and a colleague wanting to know where the gift wrap was.

Her youngish male colleague, who I think was some sort of junior manager, had great difficulty in finding the click and collect orders and she had to give him further details over the phone, and once back at the desk he became fixated by the fact that my two parcels had two different versions of my first name (nowadays if pressed for an explanation I cite Catherine Middleton, also known as Kate, by way of illustration that it is not that unusual or suspicious to have two names). I think the young manager decided I might be dodgy or trying it on in some way, and he became rather rude.  I myself was not quite so studiously polite as I had been at the start of the process.

The Genoa cake was fine.  The recipe was from Cakes regional and traditional by Julie Duff, which I'm finding generally reliable, subject to being able to guess where in the Aga cakes need to go to equate to her instructions in degrees C, degrees F and gas marks, none of which are any help at all.  The Genoa cake needed 160C for one and half to one and three quarter hours.  I tried it on the bottom of the lower hot oven of a four door Aga, with a metal shelf above it to cut down the heat.  After an hour and a half a skewer still came out sticky, so I gave it another fifteen minutes but think ten would have been enough now I've cut a slice.  That information might be useful if you cook using a four door Aga, otherwise I apologise that it is completely pointless.

The Bakewell tart was out of Tamasin Day-Lewis's The Art of the Tart, which again I've found pretty sensible so far.  I looked at Felicity Cloake's Guardian article reviewing different versions, before coming to an Ur recipe for the ultimate Bakewell, but was overwhelmed by choice and decided to stick with the book for now.  Tamasin Day-Lewis says to cook the tart for about thirty minutes at 200C, but after twenty minutes on a rack on the floor of the upper hot oven of the Aga, the top of my tart was already an alarming shade of dark brown and the edges of the pastry were starting to catch.  Hastily extracting it from the oven, I found the burnt layer had made a skin like custard, which I was able to lift off with a knife, to reveal the frangipane layer still liquid in places.  Finishing the tart off for longer than her recommended half hour in the lower oven, and sprinkling it with flaked almonds as she suggested, it didn't look too bad for something which was frankly burnt at half time.  It came out fairly moist, possibly moister than the author intended, but fortunately the SA likes moist frangipane, finding some commercial Bakewells too dry.

The election result you know about.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

election day

It's election day in Clacton, and I was there.  Not voting, since we are firmly part of Harwich and North Essex, but talking about the woodland charity to a Probus group at the Clacton Golf Club.  I saw three election posters on my way there, all for Douglas Carswell, and the helpful man from the office who showed me the way to where the group was meeting and helped me unload my car through a handy back door short cut told me that on Monday there had been hoards of politicians, and the car park had been full of outside broadcasting vans.

Poor Clacton, it gets a bad rap.  Journalists who would never normally think of visiting Clacton for a day at the seaside have descended on it in recent weeks before returning to London to write their articles on how awful Clacton is.  Old people trying not to die in a place trying not to die, according to Matthew Parris (though at least he conceded they were friendly).  Boris Johnson couldn't remember the name of the Conservative candidate, a sign of how far from the centre of things Clacton is, despite being barely seventy miles from London.  Clacton didn't help its own case when complaints that a Banksy artwork that appeared overnight was racist led to the council cleaning it away.  Shame, it would have been worth a bit and they could have sold it like that enterprising boys' club in the west country did, if they didn't want to keep it, though actually it was not at all racist, more of a satire on racism.  Still, Banksy worshippers are not going to making a pilgrimage to Clacton now.

Yes, the inhabitants of Clacton-on-Sea are on average older than the national average, the workforce participation rate is lower and so is the level of skills.  Yes, Jaywick is poor and with social problems that put it in the top ten deprived areas in the country, if not top.  Incidentally, Jaywick lies to the west of Clacton and not the east, as stated by a blogger in the London Review of Books.  Yes, there are some rough streets behind the sea front, where stabbings happen oftener than they do in most other places.  And yes, the average customer in the Clacton Tesco Extra is fatter than in the Colchester Highwoods branch.

But the rough end of Clacton and Jaywick are only one part of the parliamentary constituency.  It also includes Frinton-on-Sea, a town so proper that the proposed opening of a Wetherspoons was seen as a local emergency, along with a plan to convert one of the tea rooms to a fish and chip shop which met equally fierce opposition, and Saint Osyth, which regularly bobs up in articles on desirable yet relatively affordable places to live, as well as assorted quiet and inoffensive rural villages.  It's not all deprivation, hoodies, and displaced cockneys yearning for a return to the 1950s.

I've done quite a few talks to clubs and societies around the Clacton area over the years, and have never met anything but a kindly and warm response.  Today's group gave me lunch, which was a step up from the usual cup of tea and a biscuit.  The golf club is a links course, and the morning shone brilliant with the reflected light from the sea, while over lunch talk carefully avoided politics, other than that my immediate neighbour was due to do a stint later manning the polls, but included somebody's recent holiday in the Scottish Highlands, and where locally one could buy saffron.  Not exactly a room full of Alf Garnetts.

My garage is in Little Clacton, and I'm perfectly happy with them.  Their charges are very reasonable, and the car they sold to me and now maintain has been reliable.  I use the Clacton Garden Centre, which has friendly staff and stocks a useful range of tools, chemicals and the stuff you need for hands-on, practical gardening.  It is just up the road from the recycling centre, where again the staff are cheerful.  I have been to a perfectly pleasant concert in a church in Frinton, and enjoyed numerous walks along the seafront without mishap.  So don't be too hard on Clacton.  It may well vote in the UK's first elected UKIP MP, and is left standing in the trendy weekend escape from London stakes by north Norfolk and Whitstable, but it's OK.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

a wet day

I was quite happy that it rained all morning, since I had things to do inside, and feel much better about getting on and doing them when I'm not missing out on valuable gardening opportunities.  I made a Bakewell tart and a genoa cake, which I can't really comment on yet as I haven't eaten a slice of either.  I will report back on the usefulness or otherwise of the recipes when they have been taste tested.  I made some honey ice cream as well, and the scrapings I licked out of the machine tasted fine.  That lot should keep us going for a while, indeed, require some hefty gardening and long walks to counteract the effects, but I have some heavyweight gardening planned, and it's getting colder.  The cats shouted for more food all morning, and as soon as I've finished the last little bit of hedge pruning and bramble cutting I'll be ordering a couple of tonnes of gravel for us to spread about.

After lunch I got the beekeepers accounts more or less up to date, and had another go at getting a butter stain out of a dress I'm rather fond of.  I splashed it, dishing up an omelette in a hurry, which was entirely my own fault for being in a hurry instead of practising proper levels of mindfulness, and for not bothering to put on an apron.  It is cotton, and the care instructions say to wash on the reverse side, delicate cold wash, blah blah, but I'm gradually escalating the attack. It will be a shame if it ends up with a faded patch on the front, in fact it will be terminal since it's a colour block design that absolutely won't accommodate the grungy, partially faded look, but I can't wear it with a permanent grease stain in the middle of my stomach.  At the moment I'm trying laundry soda crystals, which will shift most things, including blood.

All this domesticity kept me within view of the front drive, since the Systems Administrator who is out for the day was expecting a parcel.  The delivery firm posted an update on their website yesterday saying they had tried to deliver but we were out, and that they had put a card through the door.  That was a naked lie, since there was definitely no card, we were both in, and I was not merely at home but cutting the brambles by the entrance.  A van really could not have got past without my noticing, nor past the kitchen window without our seeing while we were having lunch. The SA rebooked delivery for today, but since it's now a quarter past five and there's been no sign of it I'm not optimistic.  The vendor asks for customer feedback on the delivery service, and unless a van suddenly appears in the next three quarters of an hour or so it's not going to be positive.

It makes me cross when courier firms lie about having called.  This isn't the easiest house to find, so if from time to time a driver genuinely can't locate us, maybe because they are new on the round, that's fair enough.  Contact us for instructions on how to get here if needs be, but don't pretend you've been when we know you haven't.  At least one delivery company is now putting the boot on the other foot and posting up a photograph of the front door to prove they really have been here, if they call and we are out, or so far down the garden we don't hear them.  A sort of twenty first century twist on the folks songs where the girl leaves springs of broom or a ribbon by her sleeping lover to prove that she was there earlier, only he slept through it.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

a retail disappointment

Just as I thought that internet shopping from John Lewis with Click and Collect at Waitrose was the most useful addition to my life as a consumer, my confidence has been shaken.  I was very pleased with the brown corduroy skirt, which has proved just the thing for all those meetings held in rooms that might not be very warm, at which I have to lug chairs and equipment about.  And yes, I have read the fashion articles about old lady clothes, and how this is a look that's easier to pull off when you are twenty five and being ironic about it than when you are in your fifties and being entirely serious, but I believe in dressing for the occasion and when I look candidly at my life I see a lot of chilly rooms, pets, and carrying stuff around, which call for thick tights and a good rugged skirt that isn't going to snag or split.  I was so pleased with the dark brown skirt that I ordered another one, but in burgundy.  The same newspaper fashion columns said that burgundy was going to be In, so I'm making some concession to the current trend, though I'll probably still be wearing the skirt once burgundy is Out again.

If I ever get it.  I ordered two pairs of brown socks at the same time, since there is no point in having new brown boots and a pair of suddenly in vogue brown brogues if you don't have any socks to wear with them.  I stopped at Waitrose last night on the way back from the station, armed with the confirmation email on my phone, and thinking how marvellous technology was and how time saving that I was passing the Click and Collect point on the way home.  The package, when it was retrieved from the bowels of Waitrose and brought out to the Customer Service desk, was suspiciously light.  I poked the contents around inside the bag, like a child investigating the contents of its Christmas stocking, and expressed my misgivings to the young woman on the desk that there could be a skirt in there.

Instead of going home with my dodgy parcel, I went and rested it on the little counter between the pots of sugar for the drinks from the coffee machine, and cut along the Cut Here line with the nail scissors out of my handbag.  Sure enough, it contained nothing but two pairs of socks, and a packing note that said nothing about the skirt.  I went back to the desk, showed the woman the socks, the note, the empty bag, and the confirmation email, and explained I wanted to log with John Lewis that part of the order (the most expensive part) was missing.  She apologised profusely, which was nice of her since none of it was her fault, and rang John Lewis.  There was a wait.  A long wait, in which she periodically mouthed further apologies while being transferred hither and thither.  I found a chair, and settled down with my Kindle (I am most of the way through the third part of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, which does contain the longest dinner party in literary history), after ringing the Systems Administrator to warn that I was in Waitrose and might be some time.  The poor young woman suggested I could go home, but I thought that having got that far I'd rather pursue the matter to its conclusion.  And they had charged me for the skirt, so I wanted to establish an audit trail that matched up with the physical state of goods on the ground.

Eventually the Customer Service desk woman asked whether I would like to speak to John Lewis.  I thought that she was doing her best, and was very young, and that it was probably time to haul my managerial skills out of cold storage.  The line was incredibly bad, but after an exchange of Hellos punctuated by silence, we established dialogue, and I expressed my preference to receive a skirt, but failing that my desire to get a refund.  The man on the phone wanted to know if I was willing to cancel the order and place a new one.  I thought that how John Lewis structured its order system was entirely its own affair, but said that would be fine, if it meant I ended up paying for and receiving one skirt.  My original thesis, that technology is marvellous, was borne out as an email cancelling the first order and a second email confirming the new one flashed up on the phone.  Though I wasn't impressed by being required to read out my credit card number and expiry date in a loud voice in full public view.  He forgot to ask for the security code, but I thought I'd leave John Lewis to sort that out later.

All of which left me impressed by the grace under pressure of Waitrose's Customer Service desk, and slightly suspicious about the robustness of John Lewis's internet retailing system.  If the parcel had been marked as the first of two, or if the packing note had said that the skirt was to follow, that would have been fine, apart from the fact that I'd have to make a special trip to Colchester to collect the second parcel.  But a system that's capable of sending out a confirmation email saying your order is ready to collect, when in fact only part of it is there, and with no mention of the other part, looks a bit flaky.  If the store then contacts you again to say that the rest of your order is now ready then all well and good, but if they don't?  All the customer would be left with would be a trail of emails saying the order was despatched to so and so a store, and records showing they collected it.

This morning I received two emails from John Lewis, both headed up Information on your order. My heart sank slightly as I opened them.  One confirmed the replacement order I placed last night from Waitrose, at the suggestion of the John Lewis telephone operative, was ready to collect.  The other confirmed that the original order, which was cancelled as of last night and for which I should have been refunded, was also ready to collect.  I am sure that another twenty minutes at the Waitrose Customer Service desk and a few more emails will sort it out, and that after much tedious checking of contra items on my credit card statement I'll be able to make sure I'm charged once and once only.  But, oh dear me, it is all turning into a marathon exercise.  Guys, internet shopping with John Lewis is supposed to be easy, safe and hassle free.