Sunday, 30 November 2014

bonfire time

I had a bonfire this morning.  Only the woody material that is too spindly or spiny to use as firewood, and not suitable to go through the shredder to make mulch for the utility area goes on the bonfire.  We don't waste anything we can use, but there is always lots that's no good for anything except the bonfire, and the pile of rose prunings, bramble stalks, ivy stems, evening primrose seed heads that I'd meanly declined to leave for the birds because I couldn't face the thought of that many self sown evening primroses, pieces of eleagnus hedge that were too angular to go through the shredder, and other bulky and more or less woody detritus that wasn't fit to compost was getting too big.  It loomed over the utility area, making me feel vaguely uneasy, and half filled the garden trailer.  I'll want to use that soon, if the weather holds up, to collect even more brambles, plus the juniper by the front door that has massively outgrown its space and is scheduled for the chop.

A well conducted bonfire is good fun.  One of the pleasures of living in the countryside is that you are allowed to have one.  We try to be considerate neighbours, so definitely no soot on the lettuces, but the field next to us isn't planted up at the moment, and while the promised easterly wind did not materialise, we are far enough away from the next houses that I hoped it wouldn't bother them.  Is not the faint whiff of a bonfire one of the classic smells of an English winter?  The Systems Administrator is more fastidious about wind direction than that, and will only have one when the wind will blow the smoke into the wood, but I wasn't prepared to wait for the wind to come round.

I wouldn't want to burn that much stuff all at once, having visions of flames shooting eight feet in the air and the hedge catching fire, followed by the SA's workshop.  Nowadays I pile the bonfire material along the edge of the wood, so that it can be added to the fire in judicious armfuls.  It's better to start from scratch when you're ready to burn anyway, to avoid the risk of incinerating any hedgehogs that mistook the bonfire heap for a cosy spot to hibernate.  Though in practice, any hedgehogs that had decided that last time's ash heap was a nice place to sleep would have had quite a long time to escape.  I heaped some old cardboard boxes and crumpled newspaper into a little chimney above two firelighters, but the pyre took its time getting going, and I had to go and fetch another firelighter and some more cardboard.

Once the bonfire's in progress it's a question of alternating armfuls of tinder dry dead stems with damper stuff to steer a safe course between the scylla of flames eight feet in the air, and the charybdis of finding that you've put your bonfire out.  I'm cautious about adding too much at once and making the fire too large, which is why my bonfires take longer than the SA's.  On the other hand, the SA did once set the compost heap on fire, though that was a long time ago.  Once the fire has got a really good, hot bed, it's possible to start adding handfuls of long grass.   We have a heap of this, raked up after giving the meadow its annual autumn cut.  It was not very dry when freshly mown, and it is wetter now, having sat piled next to the SA's greenhouse for a couple of months.

Books on managing meadows, that warn you strictly to remove all mown material to reduce soil fertility, are strangely silent on what you are supposed to do with the cut grass after that.  When meadows were genuine hay meadows it wasn't a problem.  You made hay, stacked it, and in due course fed it to your stock.  But we don't have any stock, apart from the bees and the chickens, and we go for an autumn cut, whereas a hay meadow would be mown in summer when the cut grass had a sporting chance of drying, then grazed for the rest of the season.  The grass off the meadow is no good for making compost to go on the borders, because it's full of weed seeds, and there's far too much of it to cart off to the dump.  Burning seems the only solution.  The SA managed to incinerate some when disposing of the bags and bags of dry eleagnus leaves I raked out of the bottom of the hedge when I cut it back, but by the time we'd run out of leaves we'd still barely made a dent on the grass.

The utility area looked quite spacious and tidy when I'd finished, but there's loads more bonfire stuff to come, including out of the wood where the Essex Wildlife Trust's experimental resumption of coppicing, intended to benefit the wild flowers, seems to have mainly produced brambles.  And there's the rest of the rose pruning to do, not to mention the juniper.  Plenty of material for at least a couple more bonfires.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

weeding weather

An article in the Telegraph said that this autumn was shaping up to be the third warmest on record. It went on to make dark comments about the onset of frost and snow, but reading the small print the snow, if any, was expected in Scotland, not north east Essex.  The Met Office five day forecast still shows it mostly dry and consistently above freezing.  That's great in early winter if you're a keen gardener, being weeding weather.  Even light overnight frosts are a drag, rendering the borders unworkable for the first couple of hours of the day, while heavy frosts can take out the entire day.  A mild run up to Christmas is an absolute boon in terms of getting the garden set up for the spring.

I enjoy these mild winter spells of weeding.  It's pleasant to get outside, and no, you don't get cold if you wear enough clothes, and get up and move about from time to time.  The weeds pull easily from the moist soil, and there's the satisfaction that nothing too much is going to grow in the space you've cleared as the weather grows colder, so it's a chance to make visible progress.  The robins follow me closely, perching on the edge of my bucket of tools and bin of weeds, nipping in to seize small morsels, and eyeing me with bright, beady, nosy eyes.  Robins are strongly territorial, so it is presumably different robins in the back garden and the vegetable patch, and maybe another one (or pair) again in the railway garden.  They pair off early compared to many birds.

The tide of clean ground is creeping along the railway garden, as I pick up the fallen leaves, and pull the fine seedling grasses and odd weeds from among the thyme plants.  There's an annual weed whose name I don't know, with tiny, clover-like leaves and yellow flowers (not at this time of the year), and a vetch, whose name I don't know either, but whose leaves look superficially very like those of thyme.  It gives itself away by its growth habit, branching in a V shape that's different to thyme.  I'm cutting the thymes quite hard back (scissors are better than secateurs for this) which makes them easier to comb through for stray pieces of grass, as well as removing the spent flower heads, and just hope to goodness they respond next year by making fresh bushy growth like they're supposed to.  Once I'm sure the ground is clean I spread more gravel, though that's a job for the middle of the day when the light's at its best, and I can make a final check for weeds.

I've just reached a section infested with a coarse weed grass with a running rootstock, which is more problematic, especially when it goes in among the thyme plants, heathers and conifers.  I'm teasing out what I can with a hand fork, and will have to keep hitting the regrowth with glyphosate.

I let the chickens out for a run after lunch, but they, knowing nothing of my desire to get on with the gravel, decided they wanted to go and play in the back garden.  I did a brief stint with shears cutting the long grass on the daffodil bank, before they disappeared further down the hill, and I had to go and weed one of the borders to keep them in my line of sight.  The results of my day's gardening can end up looking rather spotty when too much of my schedule is dictated by the chickens, on the other hand, cutting the bank with shears felt quite hard on the wrists, and I don't think I'd want to do it all afternoon.  I need to get on with the bank, though, since the snouts of emerging bulbs are beginning to appear all over the place.  I guess colder weather would slow them down, which would be quite handy.  There's something depressing about finding you've trodden on the nose of some poor bulb, as you look down at the bent, perhaps slightly split foliage of a plant you selected, and wanted to do well, and which was doing fine until you stepped on it.

Friday, 28 November 2014

out, out, damned mouse

I finally got round to putting mouse guards on the beehives today.  I should have done it weeks ago, according to the books, but the autumn has been so mild that the bees have been pretty active, and I didn't think they'd have any truck with mice setting up home in their hives.  Any mouse that goes in there at the moment would soon be stung to death, to judge from the quantity of irate bees I had on my wrists as I fiddled with the hive entrances.  Once the weather gets cold, though, they will cluster together for warmth, living on their stores and not doing much, and then a mouse could wander around inside, eating through the comb and generally playing havoc.

The entrance to a beehive looks quite small, when the entrance block is in and they're limited to the little slot cut in it, but my beekeeping tutor and the books and magazines always emphasise that a mouse can squeeze through an amazingly tiny gap.  The mouse guard is a metal plate you put over the entrance to make it smaller still, so that it really is too tight for a mouse to get through.  My smart ones from the beekeeping supplies catalogue are galvanised strips that go the full width of the hive, with polka dot holes just large enough for a bee.  You put them over the entrance and secure them with drawing pins, job done, and while I was at it I made sure I had the entrance blocks arranged so that the slot was at the top, not the bottom, as advised by legendary former Essex county bee tutor Ted Hooper.  Some bees die in the hive over the winter, and when it's not too cold to break out of the cluster the other bees will remove the bodies from the hive to keep things clean and hygienic.  You do not want them to block their own door with dead bees, and Hooper thought this was less likely if the entrance hole was raised half an inch above floor level.

The bees did not want to have their entrance blocks turned over, or the hive body shifted three eighths of an inch on the base so that the front was perfectly aligned with the entrance block, the better to push in the drawing pins.  They showed their displeasure at being disturbed on a cool, damp morning by coming and buzzing round my head more aggressively than they usually do, and by trying to sting me through my gloves.  It is not easy manipulating a drawing pin wearing leather gloves and bent double to reach a beehive entrance below knee level, with rows of would-be assassin bees perched on your wrists and crawling a few inches from your face.

My less smart mouse guards are strips of perforated zinc my tutor gave me when I started off, which are pinned to the front of the hive above the entrance to narrow it.  I didn't have enough of the posh guards to go round, and had to put the zinc on for now, but I ordered some more galvanised ones when I got back to the house.  The beekeeping supplier was not offering Black Friday discounts on mouse guards, or anything else, but looking on the bright side I've already had an email to say that my order has been dispatched, so should arrive tomorrow or Monday.  I don't suppose the bees will be any more thrilled to see me then than they were today.

The Systems Administrator was originally going to do the weekend's food shopping, but after reading about the Black Friday supermarket riots we agreed that that tinned soup would be fine for lunch.  Better not to go anywhere near Colchester until the hysteria has died down.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

piping and dancing

It was the beekeepers' monthly association meeting this evening, and one of our members who is doing the exams and has got as far as bee communication had volunteered to share her freshly acquired knowledge with the rest of us.  We were very happy to take her up on the offer, since part of the group's ethos is that any member who knows more about a topic than most is warmly encouraged to spread their expertise around.  Apart from the saving on external speakers' fees, and the sheer implausibility of finding a professional expert on honey bee communication available to talk to a small group in north Essex on a Thursday night, active member participation is part of the division's philosophy.  The University of the Third Age works on the same principal.

Tonight's volunteer started from the useful position of teaching A level psychology.  While the syllabus doesn't include insect behaviour, it covers associative learning and stimulus response behaviour, and gives an overall framework that you might not have if you had only studied the bee behaviour module.  And being a trained teacher was a big plus, as was the fact that she is a hard working and conscientious person who had put an immense amount of work into preparing the talk, complete with video clips.

I did some of the intermediate level bee exams, but gave up after module five as I began to feel as though I really had sat enough examinations for one life time.  Bee behaviour is number six, and it was so interesting that I began to wish I'd stuck with them for at least one more.  They may have been redesigned since I did them, though.  The syllabus and exam questions used to be very old fashioned, the sort where you learn lots of facts and then produce the required facts against the clock, rather than being asked to use them to solve any kind of practical beekeeping problem.  I think it was honey bee physiology that did for me.  I couldn't see in what circumstances I was ever going to need to know the number of segments in a drone's antenna, or the names of its component parts.

Bee communication is complex.  It has to be, I suppose, when tens of thousands of individuals are combining to form a super-organism.  They communicate by sharing food, by their movements, by making sounds, and through a vast array of chemical signals.  It isn't the easiest thing to measure, either, given that bees naturally live in dark confined spaces.  I take my hat off to whoever managed to attach tiny tinfoil weights to foraging bees, measure their waggle dances as they reported back to the rest of the hive, and discover that they tended to overestimate distances when the physical effort of flying there and back was artificially increased by weighting them down.

On the other hand, sometimes the opposition between two simple effects can produce a complex outcome.  Queen bees give off a pheromone that inhibits the production of drones, while young workers (or was it worker brood?  I should have taken notes) give off a chemical signal encouraging it.  Early in the season, when there aren't many workers and the colony doesn't need drones, the queen anti-drone signal trumps the workers and the bees don't make drones.  As the season progresses and the number of workers rises, they now chemically outweigh the queen, and drones are raised just as the weather is getting warm enough for queens to fly and get mated, which is when drones are needed.  Come autumn when the number of workers declines, the anti-drone signal is stronger once again.  The bees don't make any more drones that year, and evict the ones they have from the hive.

Our speaker thought that bee communication was pretty sophisticated for three reasons.  Bees meet the basic criteria of performing deliberate communicative acts, but also the more demanding test of being able to communicate about items that are removed in time and space.  And she's right, the various dances performed by foraging bees tell other potential foragers the direction and distance of remote food sources the forager visited at a time now past.  As she said, your dog almost certainly can't do that.  The great apes can, and probably whales and dolphins, but dogs do not talk together about what they did yesterday or where they'll go tomorrow.  And thirdly, bees seem to have dialects, so that different hives or subspecies don't share exactly the same dances and can't immediately respond correctly to each other's signals, but they learn after a few days together.

I'm not sure that much of it helps me become a better beekeeper, at least in the short run.  After she'd played us recordings of young queens piping I knew I had heard that noise for real in the apiary, on the other hand by the time a hive contains young queens charging about and challenging each other, you have lost control of the swarming process anyway.  An in-hive detector that could analyse the colony noise and alert you as soon as they started to make any preparations for swarming at all, now that would be useful.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

time pieces

I have no new observations on plants or gardening techniques, because today was so damp that I gave up.  It wasn't even raining hard, just relentlessly damp.  Plus I had to go into Colchester for a haircut and to collect my watch, which was having a new strap fitted, and a pearl ear stud that was being glued back together after the pearl parted company from the post.  It's dreadful how much time it takes just trying to maintain minimal standards of fitness and grooming.  Yesterday my monthly Pilates lesson took up most of the morning, so that's more than half a day gone this week simply on having a head that does not look like a chrysanthemum, a functioning timepiece, a functioning lower back, and getting one tiddly earring fixed (though I did pick up a 2015 calendar and some concert tickets as well while I was there).  And I do not have my hair dyed, or any part of my body waxed or threaded, while my hands and feet go un-manicured, my legs un-spray tanned, and my pores un-facialed.  I have no idea how women who maintain full blown feminine beauty regimes find the time.

I have read that young people don't bother with watches.  They have so many digital devices, all of which show the time, they don't feel the need to wear an extra one on their wrists that does nothing else but.  Watches are fun, though.  I have two, and could happily buy more, if I didn't need to conserve my resources for plant supports and mulch, and went to more events where an Art Deco cocktail watch would be appropriate.  One is a Mondaine Swiss Railway watch which I saw in the Guardian and fell hopelessly in love with.  It has a red second hand with a round end, like those ping pong bat shaped paddles that platform staff use for signalling, and a red strap.  The first red strap did not last very long, crumbling dangerously where it bends to go through the buckle, and I ordered a replacement genuine Mondaine strap on line, which the Systems Administrator fitted, since there isn't a Mondaine stockist in Colchester.  The replacement strap broke down equally quickly.  I refused to keep buying straps that were not up to the job of being buckled, and took the watch to the repair counter in Williams and Griffin last week to buy a plain red strap.  The only ones they had in stock were embossed with a snakeskin pattern or had stitching round the edges, but they ordered me one and called a few days ago to say that it was ready.

Watch straps are horribly expensive, as are batteries, and I can see why the SA pursues a different strategy, which is to buy a very cheap plain watch and replace the whole thing when the battery or the strap fails.  It would be more economical.  But I love the Mondaine.  It was originally bought to wear to work, but I no longer work in the plant centre, and have decided it is too nice to wear gardening, so it is now an out-and-about, day wear sort of watch.

My other watch is definitely not for gardening or life as a plant centre assistant, being a gold Accurist that was a present from the SA years ago.  It is small, slim from front to back, and very plain, with a circular face, arabic rather than roman numerals, and no second hand, and I am extremely fond of it.  Apart from its sentimental value it is so fabulously plain, a design classic.  It only ever gets a matt black leather strap, no snakeskin, no stitching, no shiny patent.  Almost as soon as I'd dropped the Mondaine off, the Accurist began to lose time, a sign that the battery was going.  Not everywhere will tackle battery changes in gold watches, the body of the watch being softer than normal and liable to buckle if ineptly handled, and I once beat a hasty retreat from a Colchester jewellers whose assistant said she'd 'give it a go'.  The watch repair desk at Williams and Griffin inspires confidence, as indeed does the whole of Williams and Griffin, and I left the Accurist there for half an hour on the basis that they would look at it, change the battery on the spot if they could, and send it away if the back was a type they weren't equipped to remove.  The woman on the desk noted as she wrote out my receipt that the glass was scratched, as they always do so that I couldn't claim they'd done it, but her offer was that they'd be able to change the glass sometime, if I wanted to.

I left that until after Christmas, having already spent as much refurbishing my minimal collection of watches as the SA will probably ever spend on replacement internet watches in the rest of his life.  But it's a nice thought and I will probably get round to it sometime.  We all have our personal standards.  I am perfectly happy to have salt and pepper hair and un-threaded eyebrows, but I am particular about watches.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

mice, rats and train delays

One of the mouse traps in the greenhouse finally caught a mouse.  I felt sorry for it as I tipped its little body into the hedge, but remembered how I lost almost every potted species tulip and fritillary bulb last winter.  It looked like a clean kill, the creature's back must have been broken instantly.  I then found a mouse nest in the pot of nuts meant for baiting the traps.  They were originally meant for the bird table, but got too old, and I'd put the lid of the plastic storage jug on the wrong way round so that mice could get in through the spout, so the one in the trap died in vain.  It could have been living in peanuts, if only it had looked in the right place.  I reset the trap, covered it with a fruit punnet to keep any birds off, and put the lid on the peanuts properly.

The rats under the shed are another matter.  Their number was reduced by one when Our Ginger left a large rat, minus its face and one front leg, in front of the television the other night, but this is one reason why I am so reluctant to use rodenticides.  Apart from the risk of poisoning domestic pets, they end up in the wild food chain, with traces being found in many dead owls and kestrels. We tried a sonic rat and mouse repeller as our opening shot, but while it may or may not have irritated them, it certainly didn't shift them.  I've been trying to flood them out, since I'm sure they won't live in mud long term, but in the short term they seem determined to tough it out.  Next we introduced a battery powered rat zapper into the armoury, the theory being that the rat goes into the device to take food, and completes a circuit.  Bang, one electrocuted rat.  A light will flash on the box when you've caught one, and as the blurb says, you need never touch another dead rat or mouse again, but so far I've only had false alarms, which might mean that the device is getting damp.  The Systems Administrator was particularly taken by Amazon's question whether this item was a gift.

I was all for trying the yellow sticky paper, recommended by other country living friends who grapple with rats under the shed.  Sorry, but that's how country life is, full of rats.  It looks like giant fly paper for rodents, and comes with solvent for releasing non-target species.  The SA was initially willing to carry out the humane dispatch with an air rifle, but then began to worry about what we would do with them afterwards.  We couldn't just chuck them into the wood for the foxes to clear up because other things would stick to the paper.  We'll have to keep on with the flooding and the zapper for a few more days.  Rats being quite bright animals and suspicious of new things, they probably won't go in it for a couple of weeks anyway.  In the meantime the chickens are having to live on two meals a day, with no food being left outside overnight.

Putting the rodent problem in perspective, I am so relieved that neither of us commute any more. There were huge delays and cancellations last Friday evening, though that was due to a fatality on the tracks and not the fault of any of the railway companies.  There was chaos again on Monday morning due to not one but two broken down freight trains, and more delays this morning because of defective track at Manor Park.  Meanwhile, a security alert at Stratford meant that trains that did manage to run into London didn't stop there.  It is desperate.  1.4 million people live in Essex, and we are connected to the capital by a joke railway system and two wholly inadequate roads. According to the Essex County Council website there are forecast to be another quarter of a million of us by 2025, but I hope none of them ever want to leave their homes, except on foot, since there isn't going to be room for them on the roads or the trains.

A friend who still endures the commute says darkly that some people will end up losing their jobs, if they keep being late because of the trains.  Most organisations do not like you to be late, whatever their line of business.  The hapless commuters' get-out clause might be that their employers won't be able to replace all of them with London based staff, because nobody doing their jobs on their salaries could afford to live in London.

Monday, 24 November 2014

lost cookery writers

Theodora FitzGibbon's lemon cake recipe turned out to be highly satisfactory, yielding a moist but light and crumbly cake tasting convincingly of lemon.  I am a fan of lemon flavoured cakes and puddings.  Faced with a choice between lemon tart and chocolate pudding, the lemon wins.  Apart from the pure taste of the lemon, there's something appealing about the mouth puckering hint of sharpness under the sweetness.  I made a lemon meringue pie the other day following the recipe in Good Housekeeping, a blast straight from the 1970s, and we didn't even pretend we were eating it ironically.  Waitrose's own brand lemon gelatao, on the other hand, was a sad disappointment when we tried it, cloying and not clean on the palette.  Serves me right for not making my own.

I'm left with a lingering urge to buy her book.  As well as the Cumbrian lemon cake I copied out a recipe for Robert Southey's gooseberry pie, which has a top crust of slightly sweetened egg enriched shortcrust sprinkled with sugar.  I've made that in the past and it was good, apart from the fact that I let the top catch slightly, but that's not Theodora FitzGibbon's fault.  I like gooseberries in much the same way as I like lemons, charmed by the remaining hint of sharpness, though I can't imagine gooseberry gelato would be much good.

I don't objectively need any more cookery books.  If I were to volunteer to take over all the cooking at home, starting now, and followed a different recipe out of a book for every meal, I couldn't cook my way through all the books in the time left to us before we die, or are removed to an old people's home where access to sharp knives and hot stoves is restricted for our own safety and that of the other residents.  I have cooked at least a couple of dishes out of most of my existing cookery library, though admittedly not the one about Tibetan monastery food where all the recipes cater for at least forty, but I enjoy reading them.  A well written cookery book is a piece of social history as much as a practical source of instructions on what to make for dinner tonight.  It's interesting to compare recipes from different times and places, with their overlaps, similarities and divergences, much like multiple versions of folk songs.

Theodora FitzGibbon was famous in her time, from what I can discover.  The phrase 'doyenne of Irish cookery writing' crops up several times on the internet, she had a column in the Irish Times, took fifteen years over an all encompassing study of The Food of the Western World, and became the first president of the Irish Food Writers' Guild.  She also seems to have been quite a gal, hanging out in Paris with Cocteau and Picasso, and in London with Bacon, Freud and Dylan Thomas, and spending the advance on her first cookery book on a Henry Moore gouache.  A Taste of the Lake District, by which I am so intrigued at second hand, was one of a successful series (thank you Wikipedia) which did indeed incorporate history, geography, and illustrations.

She died in 1991, and I assumed her books were out of print and that I'd missed the boat on A Taste of the Lake District by approximately thirty years.  When I've looked in the past on Amazon, it was only available second hand at exorbitant prices.  Looking again the number of copies for sale has increased, prices starting at a penny and finishing in three figures.  I wouldn't fancy a used cookery book for a penny.  I'm squeamish about overly grubby old books anyway, unless I've had them from new and the grub is all my own.  But Alibris has a copy of the 1980 Pan edition graded as five stars, fine/like new, clean and shiny, for under ten pounds, and as I now know, the shipping cost from Texas, USA is the same as from Bournemouth.  What is new is that this April a young Irish food writer brought out a collection of her recipes so that a fresh generation of cookery enthusiasts can discover her, and existing fans replace their battered copies or newspaper clippings.  It is his choice of her recipes, with photographs, but I'm not entirely convinced.  Why not go back to the original source, assuming that Alibris' vendors are telling the truth about the condition of their stock?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

baking day

There's something very pleasant about a rainy Sunday, when you are certain that it is going to rain and can plan accordingly.  I spent the morning making milk rolls and a cake, and am now sitting in front of the Aga listening to the last lumps of ice fall from the roof of the defrosting fridge freezer. It's badly needed doing for days, since the top freezer drawer would no longer fit in, and a lump of ice at the back of the fridge was stopping the door from closing with the salad tray in place, but freezer defrosting and a muddy day hard at it in the garden don't mix.

The rolls were from that stalwart, the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book.  I first made them in my teens from my mother's copy.  Since my student days I've had my own, slightly later edition, but I don't imagine the recipe for milk rolls has changed.  Originally I was going to try my hand at Rose Prince's plaited milk loaf out of the Telegraph, but when I looked at the ingredients more closely and saw that it used a full kilo of flour I thought that was going to make more rolls than the two of us needed.  Milk rolls are nicest eaten fresh, not something to stockpile.  The Good Housekeeping recipe calls for a more manageable 225 grammes of flour, which makes eight small rolls.  You rub in a small amount of fat, and mix with 150 millilitres of milk, though I have a feeling that I cheerfully muddled metric and imperial measures and used a quarter of a pint.  The texture of the dough felt about right anyway.

The dough and the shaped rolls took far longer to prove than the book said they would, despite my halving the recommended quantity of salt, which I'd expect to speed things up since salt is antagonistic to the action of yeast.  We started reducing salt in cooking for health reasons ages ago, and by now our tastes have adjusted to prefer what we're used to.  I halve the salt in Elizabeth David's everyday bread recipe as well.  Getting back to the slow rise of these rolls, the dried yeast theoretically expires at the end of this month and has been open for I don't know how long, so maybe it isn't as lively as it used to be.  Incidentally, if you ever have a yeast dough that absolutely refuses to rise it's worth leaving it overnight in the fridge before binning it.  Even tiny amounts of yeast can work wonders, given time.  Also incidentally, I never understand those (always male) authors of baking books who get all strict and shouty about weighing the liquid because it is more accurate than using a measuring jug.  The moisture content of flours varies, so you don't know exactly how much liquid you'll need until you see how things are going.

The cake was a recipe I have never made before.  It is carefully written out in handwriting that no longer looks quite like mine does now, on audit paper filched (shame on me) from an accountancy firm I ceased working for in 1985, which could be something of a record for delayed action.  It was a Cumbrian lemon cake, copied from the Times, and taken from Theodora FitzGibbon's A Taste of the Lake District.  It uses the creaming method with a fairly high ratio of fat to flour, flavoured with the rind and juice of a lemon and some candied peel.  I had a stray lemon in the fridge that needed using, and the tail end of a pot of peel.  The quantities, if you are interested and in ounces are fat 6 (4 butter, 2 lard), caster sugar 5, self raising flour 8, two eggs, two ounces of chopped peel.  The only part of the instructions that caused me doubts was the suggested one and a half hours cooking time at 350 Fahrenheit.  I don't do degrees F (odd, when I do ounces, inches and miles) but translated to 180 Celsius it didn't sound right.  Only eight ounces of flour for an hour and a half in a medium oven?  I set the alarm for the hour, and by that point the edges were starting to catch.  I haven't cut it yet, and it may yet be that the centre is underdone.  We shall see.

Bread and cake combine well for a baking session, since you can get on with mixing the cake during the first proving, and the dough won't mind waiting an extra five minutes if you've got to a critical point with the cake mixture.  So, it was a very pleasant sort of morning, listening to Pienaar's Politics and Private Passions while the freezer dripped gently in the background.  The BBC was definitely on to something when they invented the Great British Bake Off.  My slightly burnt offerings don't approach Mary Berry standards by a thousand miles (or one thousand, six hundred and nine kilometers), but the Systems Administrator came back for a third milk roll.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Christmas is coming

I have made a start on my Christmas shopping.  I feel quite good about this, as there are still over four weeks to go, though when I looked again at the supplier's website for one of my ideas for the Systems Administrator I found I'd missed their deadline by three weeks and should have ordered what I wanted by the end of November.  Ah well, there's always next birthday.  It doesn't do to use up all your ideas at once.

The first purchase was a table cloth.  We used to have two table cloths, a red fake damask number from John Lewis and a mid 1980s Laura Ashley lace number, that had both suffered from numerous candle drips, dropped matches and a small fire in a table decoration, until they became so frankly disgusting I threw them out along with the sweaters that got eaten by moths.  I sulked at the price of replacement fake red damask, before settling on a pure cotton red and green plaid from Marks and Spencer, that was practically half the cost, and coincidentally the same as the value of an unspent M&S voucher that I'd had since the Christmas before last without spending, because I can never find any clothes that I like in Marks.  I tried offering it to the SA, but the SA's ideal shopping trip is a speedy in and out, with no messing around finding out how vouchers work.  I was pleased to have finally used it before it expired.  And pleased to have remembered before Christmas Eve that I needed to buy a tablecloth.

The next parcel to arrive was the pudding (you can see our priorities here).  For years I have always bought our pudding from the Barn Owl Trust, who get them from a small firm in the Lake District that markets its puddings via charities.  I had the same pudding one year in aid of a donkey sanctuary, when I lost the barn owl order form, but I prefer to get it from the owls.  It is a very good pudding.  Every year the media is filled with ideas for making your Christmas lunch different and special, which I always think are completely misguided, since the point of Christmas lunch is for it to be exactly the same.  There are those who say that Christmas pudding is too heavy, or too rich, but they are mistaken.  Christmas pudding is delicious, and anyway it's what you eat at Christmas.  Not ginger and kumquat sherbet, or filo pastry with pears and pomegranate seeds, or raspberry tipsy cake with a lemon coulis, or goji berry meringue with chocolate sauce.  No, Christmas lunch means traditional pudding, dried fruit, apple and suet boiled into submission.

The Barn Owl Trust is based down in Devon.  I've been a supporter since meeting somebody holding a collection tin outside the Exeter branch of Sainsbury, and it's a long time since my parents moved from Devon.  It always seems from its newsletters, which are frugally produced and not too frequent, to be a shiningly good charity.  They put up owl boxes, monitor the barn owl population, treat injured owls, deal with chicks that have fallen out of their nests, visit local schools to promote the cause of owls, try to persuade planners and developers to make provision for them, and carry out research into owl habits and mortality.  Fast moving traffic is bad news for barn owls, as is the loss of old stables and similar in which they can nest, and cold, wet winters and springs that stop them hunting.  They are quite lean birds under the feathers, and not especially waterproof. The Barn Owl Trust always has a steady stream of overseas students studying conservation, and volunteers, and I get the sense from their newsletters that they provide a sanctuary for some of the humans, as well as the owls.  If I lived closer I'd be an active supporter, but as it is I pay my sub and buy a pudding.

Two slim packages arrived in this morning's post with the pudding, containing the first of my Christmas presents.  One, an exceptionally obscure offering for the SA, was from a strange little website I reached via a link from another apparently hand-crafted out of tofu.  After reactivating my PayPal account, I had to fortify my courage by remembering PayPal's promise to reimburse my account if my thing didn't turn up before pressing the Confirm key.  Then I fretted that I hadn't had a confirmation email, before the parcel arrived ahead of the one from the ritzy site with a link to Amazon that I ordered at the same time.

I know that Amazon is the great Satan, but it is great for buying presents, because you can look up and see what you've bought before.  I quite often get my mother crime fiction, since she enjoys it and it's a challenge to find new authors and detective heroes, then to work out which of Death by Moonlight, Death in the Afternoon, An Unfortunate Case of Death, and Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Lead Piping is the first in the series.  But it's very convenient to be able to check whether I have already mined each fictional sleuthing seam.  For specialist subjects, like military history, gardening or food, you can get a long way by looking at the publishers' own websites. They increasingly sell direct, so you don't have to deal with the great Satan if you don't want to.

Friday, 21 November 2014

a late cut

I have finally trimmed my two pieces of topiary yew, a job that should have been done in August according to the books, though I noticed when we visited Hidcote in the third week of September that the National Trust hadn't finished cutting all of theirs.  Still, I bet they finished before November the twenty-first.  They have more gardeners, though, while I have only me, and lots of other things needed doing as well.

Mine are not very good specimens, technically speaking, though I can feel a glow of achievement that I trained them myself from eighteen inch tall young plants.  They evolved to a traditional design, with a rather square shouldered tapered cylindrical base, then two cake stand style tiers and a bobble on top, started at a period in my gardening life when I was very much under the spell of Great Dixter.  Given that we live in a 1960s vaguely modernist house, if I were starting now I'd probably try and create something more contemporary, instead of Edwardian cum Levens Hall revivalist.  They are growing quite vigorously, and given a few years remodelling they could be changed, but much like growing out a short haircut the process would be ghastly in the intermediate stages and I can't summon any enthusiasm for the project.

They are cut freehand, not over an iron former, and the results are slightly wonky, since I do not possess the talents of neatness or symmetry.  I don't want to chop into them hard now, but maybe in the spring I should try and even up the bases a bit, to make them more circular and so that the trunk supporting the upper tiers emerges centrally instead of off to one side.  Maybe I should carry a tape measure with me while cutting them, instead of checking the diameter using my erratic eye.  There's a thought.

Their heights are a physical manifestation of my own, since they are limited to the upper distance I can reach standing on the top rung of our folding ladder.  One of them began to run away from me over the past couple of years, and I toyed with the idea of buying a Japanese pruning tripod to reach its topmost extremities, but today with pruning saw and bow saw I cut the top out to bring it back to the maximum I could reach from the steps.  It looked more balanced like that anyway.

My pruning method is idiosyncratic, since rather than going over them with shears I use secateurs, raking through the foliage with the finger tips of my spare hand so that I'll nip back any shoots that have curved round out of the way of the cutting blades.  Then I grasp the twigs as I cut, and throw the prunings straight into a bucket, until I get to the top tier when I need my spare hand to hang on to the tree, and resort to flicking the cut twigs to the ground.  Some don't make it clear of the plant, and lodge among its foliage lower down, which is a nuisance since they don't show up well while freshly cut, but will once they've gone brown.  If I had more to do I'd use shears, but I like the precision of the secateurs, and the fact that ninety per cent of the cut material goes straight into a bucket and I don't have to pick it up.  And yes, I could theoretically put a sheet down to collect the prunings, but the topiary is in a mixed border surrounded by other plants, and I like to be able to see where I'm putting my feet.

A couple of years ago I found an old bird nest on one of them, but not today.  I did have time to notice, as I trimmed them, how different they are from each other in growth habit and leaf.  Some of their differences may be down to the soil, which is particularly thin, sandy and inhospitable at one end of the bed, but I should think most of it is genetic.  The one to the north is a male, as can be demonstrated by tapping its tiny flowers when they appear, which causes them to release a gust of dust-like pollen.  It has straighter twigs and shorter, finer needles than the other, which is female as evidenced by its occasional sparse production of fleshy, cherry red fruits.  It has curlier shoots and individually much longer and wider leaves than the first, and the whole plant is inclined to make more upright growth.  It was this one that I reduced by a full yard, turning what had been a burgeoning finial back into a pom pom I could reach to cut.

The roots of yew are cinnamon brown, and run far beyond the outer circumference of the crown. They must represent formidable competition within the border, and I suspect that the best way to use yew in a garden is to set it against grass or paving, and not ask herbaceous plants to live in the penumbra of its roots.  Of course, lots of great gardens do have yew as a background hedge to borders, even bringing buttresses of yew out into the beds to subdivide them, so it can be done. And it can look very splendid, but probably makes the gardener's job harder in terms of getting the best performance out of the yew's neighbours.

As to why yew is supposed to be cut in August, I'm not entirely sure.  With some pruning tasks you can see why you should do them at particular times, or at least not do them at others.  If you cut a vine in spring once the sap is rising it will bleed.  I have cut one stem experimentally to see what happened, and because it was obstructing a gate I really needed to get through, and sap poured in a continuous stream from the cut end.  You would definitely not want to repeat that over the entire plant in case it bled to death.  But I'm not sure that it hurts yew to cut it now, at least a light trim that doesn't go hard back into old wood.  It is a fully winter hardy plant, able to withstand the cold of our winters, even the very worse ones.  If it were not so there wouldn't be two thousand year old yew trees in so many church yards.  It has small leaves that can be trimmed without leaving big cut edges that might suffer in the frost.  I can't offhand think of any fundamental reason from first principles why I should not cut yew in later November.  Maybe August was traditional because that was when the gardeners had time to do it?  They wouldn't have been busy planting or dividing things then, staking would have been long done, and the bulk of sowing in the kitchen garden.  And growth would be slowing, so the yew would remain looking crisp and trim from that cut right through to the following spring.  Like the question of why the UK doesn't have more maritime woodland, it is one to tuck away and bring out again if I meet anybody I think might know the answer.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

dining out

We have just got back from the beekeepers' annual dinner.  When I first joined, quite a long time ago, it used to be dubbed the Christmas meal, and I recall eating a series of slightly dodgy plates of turkey and all the trimmings at various pubs.  There may even have been paper hats.  In recent years the date has been brought back to mid November, when members' diaries are less crowded, and the attempt at an ersatz Christmas lunch has been abandoned, along with the hats.  Which is fine by me, and I suspect the majority of the other beekeepers.  Most British adults do not honestly enjoy sitting in a public place with a slightly too small crenellated circle of magenta tissue paper perched on their head.

This year we went to a restaurant in Frinton that was willing to let us book their entire dining room for the evening.  We'd eaten their food before, albeit at a previous venture when they were tenants in a local pub, and knew the cooking would be up to scratch.  It was a good meal, and the staff did pretty well at making sure all diners were fed at almost the same time.  We'd chosen what we wanted to eat in advance, as is standard for club suppers, and there were no awkward mismatches on the night.

It is quite difficult finding a venue to accommodate thirty or forty people for a meal and do it to a budget.  This is not just a provincial problem.  Friends in London who thought they might like to throw a lunch party to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary a few years back gave up after searching in vain for an affordable north London eaterie able and willing to cater for around fifty. Restaurants don't want to give over their entire facilities and risk turning away their regular or local passing trade, or the tables are split between too many separate areas so that guests can't mingle and it doesn't feel like a single party.  Hotels with conference facilities want to charge for the room as well as the food, so that the cost per head becomes more than some people want to pay, and certainly more than the food merits.  And the public rooms of some of the hotels around here are about as atmospheric as a dentist's waiting room.

There's the thorny question of what sort of food.  One of the local colleges that does catering courses has a dining room available for bookings willing to act as paying guinea pigs for the students to practice upon.  The beekeepers tried it a few years ago, but got complaints from some members that the menu was too fancy.  This year we looked at one of the hotel cum conference outfits, but they would have required us to choose one menu and for everybody to eat the same thing.  You can get away with that at a wedding breakfast, though even then you need to make provision in advance for vegetarians and people with genuine allergies, but not at a club event when people are paying for themselves with the option of simply not going this year.

Parking is an even thornier problem.  The beekeepers are a reasonably fit lot, on the whole, but some can't walk too far, or their partners can't.  Most of them would rather not pay to park, and really wouldn't like walking through central Colchester to get back to their cars at gone ten at night.  We've racked our brains in committee meetings, but never come up with anywhere we could hold our dinner in Colchester, other than the college's practice dining room.  That leaves us looking at pubs and restaurants in the surrounding towns and villages, which means that wherever we choose is going to be the wrong side of town for somebody.  Tonight a member who is a teacher at a Colchester school had drawn the shortest straw, having been clobbered with a parents' evening, and then having to chase out to Frinton afterwards.

So all in all I am very grateful to the person who volunteers to organise the meal.  My contribution was limited to remembering to take the beekeepers' cheque book so that we could pay for it.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

on sand

It was raining heavily when I woke up.  I could tell from the sound of rain drumming on the roof and splashing on the path under the window, before I got up and looked out.  The puddle in the drive stretched across most of the full width of the gravel, which it only does when we've had quite a lot of rain.  But by the time I'd dished out the cats' breakfast, fed the chickens, sorted out the laundry, found a small and soggy rosebud to go in a tiny vase on the kitchen table, washed a few odd mugs left over from last night, refilled the water tank in the Systems Administrator's coffee machine and taken the SA a cup of tea, it had stopped raining.

The back garden was sodden, as I found while looking for a flower to pick, but the front garden takes only minutes to drain enough to be workable.  That is one of the redeeming features of gardening on sand.  Nutrients run out of it like soup through a colander, droughts turn into an endurance test of nerves and how long you are prepared to stand with a hose, and your planting palette is largely dictated by what will survive, but you can go and play in your garden ten minutes after it's finished raining.  On foot, that is.  I've noticed water lying in the tyre tracks between the beds on the lettuce fields in recent days, where the tractors driving up and down the same route every time have compacted the soil, and there were huge puddles of standing water at the end of one of the fields, presumably where the tractors turn after each pass.  Even sand will compress to an airless, impermeable mass if subjected to too much traffic.  But one solitary gardener walking or crawling around is not going to do any harm.

The SA remarked after I spent yesterday afternoon weeding the gravel that it looked cold out there. It doesn't feel particularly cold yet, well wrapped up.  There was next to no wind, and shovelling the odd barrow load of gravel as a change from weeding kept the circulation going.  Two large bulk bags of gravel are not going to be enough to do the whole of the planted gravel areas properly, on the other hand they are probably as much as I want to commit to moving in one go.  It's quite therapeutic, raking a small hand fork through the gravel to loosen the weed grass, swirling it up in handfuls with my fingertips, trimming dead flower heads off the thyme plants I didn't get round to earlier in the year, and having the occasional good dig after deeper rooted weeds.

The dwarf willow tree I planted back in the summer looks healthy, its tiny twigs plump and shiny, but it is still only three inches tall, and I am worried that the SA will tread on it without noticing. Maybe I had better put a stake next to it.  I have the same issue in the borders with plants that disappear completely from view in the winter, which I'm apt to disturb trying to plant something else in what I think is a space.  I could do with a miniature set of the rusted iron ball-topped plant stakes I use to tie up larger things.  At the moment I use bamboo canes, but they aren't very good, tending to rot off at the base or get kicked over.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

the question of maritime woodland

I have just been to a very entertaining lecture at the Colchester Natural History Society, about maritime woodland.  I wandered on to their website the other week when I was buying the book on Essex mammals, and saw that they had a talk coming up called 'Maritime Woodland', which posed the question why, when approximately twelve per cent of the UK was classed as woodland, less than one per cent of the coastline was wooded.  That was a very good question, which I'd never asked myself, and I had no idea what the answer was.  The speaker was a professional forester who'd just retired after thirty six years with the Forestry Commission, specialising in ancient woodland management, so it sounded like my chance to find out.

It turned out that the speaker didn't have an answer either, but thought the question was worth asking.  Maritime woodland, defined as woodland within a hundred metres vertically or laterally of the high tide mark, was strangely neglected in the literature, with neither of those two great experts Oliver Rackham or George Peterken having anything much to say on the subject.  His aim at this stage was map it, and put the topic of maritime woodland up for discussion in the world of nature conservation.  Not because it was especially threatened, since it isn't, most being thoroughly inaccessible and on land you couldn't use for much else, but because it was interesting and so mysteriously overlooked and ignored.

There followed a slide trip clockwise around the coast of the UK, other than that we skipped over the east coast of Scotland and north east England where he admitted he hadn't had time to look very much yet.  Suffolk and Essex have some beautiful examples including some large trees, while the Kent and Sussex coasts are almost entirely devoid of trees although woodland grows perfectly well inland.  A stand of hollies persists on Dungeness beyond the strict one hundred metre mark, but he thought Dungeness was a sufficiently maritime environment to count.  There are pockets around Southampton and the Beaulieu River, wonderful examples in the South Hams, rugged woods on the north coast of Devon and up the Bristol Channel as far upstream as the Clifton suspension bridge, a few battered trees on Lundy, and a whole variety of coastal woodland types in Wales, including woods which were previously maritime and are now inland due to coast deposition.  An island created by a century's worth of dumped ballast as the ships loaded up with slate now has natural secondary woodland on it.  The sea lochs of Scotland have some beautiful waterside woods, though none of the individual trees grow very large.

Sycamore is the coastal survivor par excellence, enduring strong winds and salt, but oak and birch are pretty good.  Then there are the stands of interlopers, tamarisk in Suffolk, naturalised pittosporum in the Scillies.  We saw how the salt water will kill the roots on the seaward side of a tree growing at the strand line, while the inland roots remain healthy, and how trees gradually toppled by undermining can survive and grow on, resting on a branch like a contemplative diner propped on one elbow.  We saw how large standard oaks and sycamore growing close to an eroding cliff die before the collapsing edge reaches them, probably because they cannot cope with the drop in the water table, while on London clay there is the additional complication that increased aeration as the clay moves can trigger an oxidation process whose by-product is sulphuric acid.  On the other hand, roots very gradually exposed to the air through erosion can grow thick bark, and be converted to an extension of the trunk.

There were some good local facts, such as that a bay on the Suffolk side of the river Stour holds the remains of a fish trap, so well preserved by the mud that the original axe marks can still be seen, that has been dated to 850 AD, making the largest surviving wooden Saxon artefact in the world.  It is not entirely original, though, since it was repaired in the early eleventh century.  The view from the Orwell road bridge was highly recommended, other than the fact that if you walk around the bridge stopping to look at the view, you will suddenly find that the police have stopped the traffic and come to see if you are OK after half a dozen passing drivers rang reporting you as a prospective suicide.

The natural history society seemed charmingly other-worldly.  There was no charge to attend the lecture, nobody at the door to check whether we were members, and the tea and biscuits were offered on a pay what you feel like basis, as compared to the beekeepers who got fed up with people deciding they felt like paying thruppence and firmly set down a charge of fifty pence for refreshments.  I have no idea how they can afford to live, though of course I don't know what they pay for the hall.  I am not overly keen on walking about central Colchester late at night, but the naturalists meet immediately opposite a quiet car park, so although I went tonight with a friend I wouldn't be overly fussed about going by myself.  In any case, the turnout was good enough that there was quite a stream of people going back afterwards from the lecture to the car park.  I've experimentally joined for a year, and will see how it goes.

Addendum  Nothing to do with trees, but there was a pod of 28 pilot whales today in the Blackwater, making their way up some small and treacherous creeks in pursuit of fish.  They made it safely back into deeper water off Jaywick, where they met a second pod of 12 whales.  The staff of the Essex Wildlife Trust are poised to set out in a small flotilla of boats to try and head them off if they attempt to enter the river again, to try and avert a mass beaching.

Monday, 17 November 2014

one barrow down, two bulk bags to go

I had two large bulk bags of gravel delivered last week, now that I've cut back the hedge and delivery lorries have a chance of getting in.  The driver was able to offload them at the edge of the turning circle nearest to the stretch of railway garden that needs topping up, instead of having to dump them just inside the entrance like he did last time.  I was seized with last minute doubts that he might be in danger of hitting the telephone wire with his hoist, but he assured me it would be perfectly safe, unloaded them without incident, and reversed out with no more damage than running over a couple of teazels, and he had warned me that he would probably run over the thistles before venturing in.  The gravel comes from Silverton Aggregates, and I can warmly recommend them to anybody in north east Essex planning to buy gravel.

The bags looked very big, sitting there at the edge of the turning circle.  Larger than the bulk bags I bought last time, though in reality they can't be.  I left them untouched for a couple of days, as I was busy cutting things down in the back garden, but this afternoon conscience caught up with me, and I thought that I had better make a start at using all that gravel.  They are not things of beauty, the bulk bags, and it would be nice not to have them where they are until late summer 2015.

The railway garden is infested with a fine leaved annual grass, whose name I do not know but it is not Poa annua.  I weeded it over the summer, but autumn has brought a new crop, not as much as there was before, but still it needs dealing with.  Gravel does not suppress the germination of weeds.  I am beginning to sound like a stuck record saying that (for any readers under thirty who are not too sure what a stuck record is, look up vinyl LPs on Wikipedia), but gravel makes a great seed bed.  The point of adding more gravel is therefore not to stop the weed grass appearing, because it won't, but to make it easier to remove.  Weeding thick gravel is comparatively easy. You rub your hand over the weeds, stirring the gravel about, and they come loose.  You pick them out, put them in a bucket and voila, job done, clean and shining gravel.  Compared to weeds growing through thin gravel but rooted in the earth beneath, weeds growing in the gravel itself have practically no purchase at all.  (I presume that the Zen garden meditation practice of raking gravel daily has a simultaneous practical reason, to stop weeds growing in it).

As I worked my way around the railway I picked up the fallen leaves from the hedge as well, and dead-headed some of the heathers by way of variety.  Initial progress seemed horribly slow, but once I'd weeded a big enough patch to be able to put down some shovelfuls of gravel without spilling on to parts I hadn't weeded yet, it began to look more hopeful, and by the time it got too dark to continue I could definitely see that I'd done something.  Although I'd used up not quite one barrow full of gravel, and the bulk bags loomed as large as ever.  It is going to take quite a while to use them up if the best I can manage is a barrow load per day.

Addendum  The Silverton website did not say where the gravel was from.  I just ordered 10 millimetre which is what we have always have.  It looked identical to all the rest of the gravel, though, as did their last delivery, and I presume it is all from the same quarry, since nobody carts gravel further than they have to.  We started off with Birch quarry gravel, because that was what the independent gravel merchant we used offered, and it looks like we're still on it.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

rain stopped play

I was happily if a trifle squelchily working my way around the back garden this morning, cutting down fading stems of herbaceous plants, chopping back the shrubby lonicera hedge that has half-blocked a set of steps, trimming dangling growths off the rambler roses, sweeping up leaves from the lawn, and carting buckets of weed-free green waste to the compost heap, until around mid-day when the call of a cup of coffee became too strong.  The light was flashing on the answering machine, and by the time I'd returned the call and chewed the cud over some beekeeping matters, I had reluctantly to admit that the few spits of moisture I'd been trying to ignore when I came inside had turned into proper rain.  And proper rain it stayed until nightfall, so that was my gardening day done.

Grudgingly accepting defeat, I turned my attention to the piles of old magazines and papers that had accumulated on my desk.  They'd spread on to my chair as well, though that didn't matter because the desk was so cluttered I couldn't possibly work at it, and for months when I've needed to type anything I've had to balance my laptop on my lap (not recommended by physios and Pilates teachers) or install myself at the kitchen table.  The kitchen is warmer than the study in the winter anyway, but still, having a usable desk might come in handy at some point.

I've been working my way through the papers slowly for ages, so the trick was to speed the process up so that I might finish in a matter of days, or at least a couple of weeks, rather than a decade or so hence.  The old gardening magazines are sorted in date order, and stored in plastic boxes in the garage.  I've always kept them, and by now my RHS magazines go back to the 1980s when I joined the society, supplemented by some from the 1960s and 70s that belonged to the Systems Administrator's father.  Gardening being my thing, they are my own historical archive, a record of popular taste and changing fads and fashions stretching back three decades.  They are sure to come in useful for something, or at any rate I'm not going to throw them away yet.

Not so the old beekeeping magazines.  The fundamental pace of change has been faster in beekeeping than gardening, with the arrival of new diseases, the withdrawal of increasing numbers of treatments and other chemicals due to health and environmental concerns, while others became ineffective as pests developed resistance, and the threat of yet more exotic pests to come.  Small hive beetle and Asian hornets aren't here yet in the UK, but they are getting closer.  Skimming through the old magazines was like watching a speeded-up, time lapse version of the debates over government funding into bee health, the regulation of oxalic acid treatment for the varroa mite, the implications of new food hygiene legislation on small scale honey producers, and much more.

I have been cutting out the articles that could be of some practical use, advice on procedures like swarm control that depend on the natural behaviour of the bees and haven't changed in the past few years, tips on how to identify the new pests should they appear, and the most recent and still applicable articles on bee health.  It's quite interesting, a crash course through several years' worth of evolving beekeeping advice in one afternoon, and satisfying to see the pile of recycling grow and the heap from the chair diminish.  Assorted other things have come to light as well, such as my Plant Heritage membership card which has now gone safely into my purse in case I'm asked to produce it at a meeting (though I bet I'm not), out-of-date Arts Centre brochures and mail order catalogues that could go straight in the recycling basket, and some truly hideous glittery unused Christmas cards that were not even fit for recycling because of the glitter and had to go into the bin proper (memo to self, do not run out of Christmas cards this year and try to buy last minute extras in Tesco).

If the dire weather forecasts for this winter in the Independent are to be believed, there are going to be a lot more afternoons like this one.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

autumn drags its heels

In the end this year's display of autumn leaves was a drawn-out disappointment.  Or maybe we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, having managed to get to Westonbirt but in the middle of September when the maples had barely begun to turn.  However, since we got back home the garden has not put in anything like a vintage performance, despite some high hopes expressed in the media about how this year's particular timing and quantities of rain and sunshine meant we were heading for a bumper autumn display.

The witch hazels decided not to bother.  By the time I've finished reading Chris Lane's book I expect to have learnt quite what it is that makes them colour splendidly in some years, and quietly shed their leaves without a fuss in others.  So far I have only discovered that the tendency of some plants to hang on to old brown leaves on the plant all winter is down to the rootstock, not the variety. Named witch hazels are normally propagated by grafting, the rootstock generally being grown from seed, so while the interesting, flowering top growth of every plant of 'Jelena' is genetically identical, the roots of every one are unique, and it's the roots that drive this holding on to dead leaves phenomenon.

The Amelanchier 'Ballerina' didn't do much either in the way of colour.  They get a great press as multi-season trees, amelanchiers, and certainly the young leaves and blossom in spring are a delight, but my plant only manages to produce the promised autumn display of red, orange and gold about one year in three, and this wasn't one of the years.  The naming of amelanchiers is confusing.  I read Bean on the subject, who said as much, and was more confused after reading the book than when I started.  'Ballerina' was classed as a variety of A. x grandiflora when I bought mine, and still is on the web by some reputable sources, but others equally respected now say it's a form of A. lamarckii.

The leaves of the birches quietly went yellow and fell weeks back, apart from one of the three Betula nigra Wakehurst form, which is still hanging on to its foliage.  Another rootstock effect? The double gean didn't flush nearly as red as it does in some years, and the leaves fluttered off bit by bit without ever peaking in a big display.  The leaves of Prunus 'Tai Haku' started turning a couple of shades redder, but then strong winds ripped half of them off before the others had finished colouring, so the display fizzled out without ever reaching a definite crescendo.  The last ones have just dropped, and I had better spend part of tomorrow morning raking them off the lawn.  Much the same thing happened to the tulip tree in the meadow, though I needn't worry about raking its leaves up.

My three potted Japanese maples were very good, I'll say that for them.  They turned to glorious shades of red, and managed to hang on to their leaves for a decent length of time.  I should just have liked to see the same effect on an epic scale, if the timing at Westonbirt had worked out. Now the oak leafed hydrangea is giving it a good go, but that really is too small to make any impact on the broader garden scene yet.  We don't think of hyrangeas as good plants for autumn, but the oak shaped leaves of Hydrangea quercifolia turn a wonderful shade of plum, and last that way for a long time.

The true oaks are refusing to turn en masse.  A scattering of brown leaves has fallen on to the lawn and blown into the beds, but the trees are still heavy and sullen in ever darker shades of dull green. I am beginning to wish they would hurry up and get on with it, partly because then I could sweep up all the leaves in one purge, instead of having to go round the garden again and again, but mainly because they are becoming oppressive.  It's a dour colour, that brownish, greenish, end of growth and life heavy shade of mud green, and I'd rather be rid of it, and see the winter's sun sparkling through the bare branches.

Friday, 14 November 2014

second flowering of the shrubby germander

My Teucrium fruticans 'Azureum' is flowering for a second time this year.  Not just a few odd late flowers, but an attempt at a full-blown display.  I'm not sure we'll get the full benefit before the first frost puts paid to its efforts, but the Teucrium seems not to know that.  It's a nice plant, the shrubby germander, with four sided stems and little, dead nettle shaped flowers that place it firmly in the mint family, and furry, silvery leaves.  The species has been grown in UK gardens since the early eighteenth century (a fact gleaned from WJ Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, and not even Wikipedia).  Unfortunately it comes from Portugal, the Western Mediterranean, and the Adriatic, and is not reliably hardy here, despite scraping into Bean's masterwork.  He warns that while it can be grown in the open in the milder parts, elsewhere it needs the protection of a wall. The brighter blue flowered form 'Azureum', introduced by Collingwood 'Cherry' Ingram from the High Atlas of Morocco is more tender still, and Bean says sternly that it needs a very warm corner.

Mine does not have a very warm corner, or any kind of corner at all.  It is my second plant, the first one have snapped clean off at the base in a gale of wind soon after planting, which says something about quite how unsheltered a spot I have it growing in.  The rootstock did not regrow.  And I'm not sure that north east Essex counts as a milder part.  We are fairly close to the sea, but still three or four miles inland.  In our favour, we do have Bean's other key requirement of light, well-drained soil.  Boy, is the front garden well drained.  An ordinary T. fruticans planted years ago in the meadow has survived the recent hard winters, though it was cut back, without any walls or corners.

I'm not really so surprised that the Teucrium is having a second flowering.  It seems in the nature of a lot of Mediterranean shrubs to grow in the autumn.  Looking around the garden I see that the Cistus have all made generous growth in the past couple of months, and are looking very fully clothed and comely.  Phlomis italica, that appeared as forlorn as a newly sheared sheep after I'd finished cutting off its spent flower stalks in the summer, has covered itself resplendently in new, grey, felty leaves, and the rosemary bushes are growing apace, apart from one that is doing that rosemary thing of suddenly going black and dying in short order.

An explanation is given in Hugo Latymer's useful book on Mediterranean gardens, published in association with Kew.  He says that the 'second spring' is characteristic of Mediterranean gardens, because the period in the first spring between the last frosts and summer's drought is so short.  Many plants take a rest in the dry summer months, then take advantage of the long period from the arrival of the first rains to the first frost when conditions for growth are excellent to do just that. We didn't have a drought this summer, but we've had a long, mild autumn with some rain, and many of the Mediterranean species in the garden have taken full advantage and grown lustily.  And in the case of the Teucrium started flowering again.

Mindful of the fact that it is a dubiously hardy plant, and not the easiest thing to find for sale just when you want it, I experimentally stuck some cuttings in compost this summer and put them in the heated propagator.  I'm not sure if the success rate was literally a hundred per cent or whether I've thrown out the odd mouldy, unrooted stem, but the vast majority took and I now have a one litre pot stuffed with young plants.  I'll leave them like that until spring rather than risk disturbing their roots now, though after what I've said about their innate desire to grow in autumn maybe it wouldn't have been such a risk to separate them out a month ago.  I was playing it safe after having killed half my penstemon cuttings by potting them singly last autumn.

Left to its own devices T. fruticans forms a spreading plant, dense at the centre but open and fringed with new silvery growths around the edges, but it can be clipped into compact domes.  That is how I want to use my cuttings, apart from having some young plants as an insurance policy against another hard winter.  Combined with clipped mounds of myrtle, also coming along as cuttings, santolina, and box, they will form a division between the beach-themed approach to the blue summer house and the railway garden, filling an odd shaped corner and usefully covering a patch of gravel that I don't want to have to keep weeding.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

chopping down, clearing up

A small, brown, padded envelope arrived for me in yesterday's post.  It was my Felco secateurs, back from being refurbished.  With a replacement spring, new (or at least reconditioned and sharpened) blade, and adjusted and oiled, they felt like new secateurs in my hand, apart from the fact that I recognised the mud stained handle as indubitably mine.  The reconditioning service offered by UK agents Burton McCall in Leicester is not cheap, now being up to £19.99, which I reckon has pretty much doubled since I first started using it a decade ago.  You could buy a pair of secateurs for less than that, in fact you could buy two or three.  They wouldn't be very good, though.

The Felcos are great if you have a lot of pruning and cutting back to do.  Mine are number sevens, with a swivelling handle to reduce the strain on your hand.  They are extremely comfortable to use, and make nice clean pruning cuts, at least when properly adjusted.  For £19.99 we really ought to learn how to service them at home, but this pair had become mysteriously loose and unhinged and resisted all my efforts to tighten them, and those of the Systems Administrator who is far more mechanically adept than I am.  It's worth paying less than the price of half a tank of petrol to have them back in full working order.

To celebrate, and as a change from weeding and muck spreading, I began to cut down the herbaceous plants in the back garden.  The Japanese anemones and Rudbeckia in the sloping border had finished flowering, and although I'd been trying to appreciate the dead heads of the asters in a disciple of Piet Oudolf sort of way, and telling myself that the seeds would be good food for the birds, I had to admit that they were not creating attractive winter silhouettes.  Anyway, there's too much cutting down to do to leave it all until February, and I'd like to get the beds chopped down, weeded, fed and mulched before the bulbs start coming through.

I took down the flowering stems of the yellow flowered Phlomis russeliana as well.  The seed heads form bobbles at intervals up the stalks, which are reasonably architectural, and would look attractive sparkling under a hoar frost.  On the other hand, it seeds about incontinently, and we don't get many hoar frosts in north Essex.  Mainly in winter we get damp.  After admiring the bobbles for a couple of months, the novelty had worn off, and I thought I'd rather make a clean sweep of things.

I should not have been so harsh about the floppiness of poor old Chrysanthemum 'Emperor of China', since when I got to that part of the bed I realised that the reason why it fell over, or at least part of the reason, was that the collapsing leaves of Crocosmia 'Lucifer' had fallen on it.  It is a tricky question, the point at which to start clearing foliage after something has finished flowering.  The late bloomers can look spotty and rather foolish if left standing in isolated patches when all around them has been cut to the ground, but allowing them to be swamped by dying stems doesn't create a great look either.  I fear the answer is a more regular and intensive maintenance regime than mine, to go round all the beds every few days deciding on an individual basis which plants are still contributing to the garden scene, and which should now be cleared.

As to how I managed for the twelve days it took to turn the Felcos around, the answer is that I have two pairs.  The second pair, which I was using up to yesterday, are getting rather blunt, and the catch that holds them shut when not in use has developed a maddening habit of swivelling round and locking them after every other cut.  I've tried and failed to tighten it to stop it doing that, and very much doubt that my attempts at sharpening them are going to be as good as the professionals'. Could be time soon to send them off to Leicester for a revamp.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

planting out

I've been planting up some of the gaps in the awkward bed by the entrance.  The pots of pink chrysanthemums went in, not before time as they were on the verge of becoming pot-bound.  My stock amounted to six pots of the tightly double, dark pink 'Dr Tom Parr', originally from Langthorn's, and five of the tall, pale 'Emperor of China'.  The roots of one of the Doctor Parrs had fasciated to a remarkable degree, spread out like pink fans around the inside of the pot.  I've never seen that before, not on roots.  It was not honestly very attractive, though flower arrangers covet fasciated stems.  I planted the entire potful as it was, and left it to sort itself out.  A few of the plants were infected with the wretched root aphid. but with any luck a winter in the ground will sort them out, since I think it's primarily a pest of pots and protected growing.

The flowers of 'Emperor of China' look just like chrysanthemums out of a Chinese painting, and I made a mental note to cut a few for the kitchen table.  My original plant in the back garden has emerged from the tangle of other things that threatened to overwhelm it, helped by the fact that an autumn gale blew a branch out of an encroaching Robinia hispida.  Unfortunately, once exposed to the elements it flopped over.  A back-up I bought from the Chatto gardens has failed to appear among the asters further up the bed.  It's always tricky trying to squeeze new acquisitions in among larger, established plants, as they can be outpaced and shaded out in their first season, even though in theory they should grow at least as tall as their neighbours.

Three Sedum 'Matrona' filled a space where some Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' died.  This perennial wallflower is only short lived, perhaps because it flowers for so long in its first couple of years it exhausts itself.  I did remember to take cuttings this time round, but used them in another bed.

A couple of seed raised verbascums that had been languishing in the greenhouse all summer went in next to an existing patch, likewise a small rooted cutting of Sedum 'Abbeydore'.  I was disappointed to find that only one 'Abbeydore' had succeeded, since I must have taken more cuttings than that, and seem to have vast supplies of 'Vera Jameson'.  Still, I'll try again next year, now I've discovered quite how easy sedum cuttings are.  Two dark purple penstemons struck from cuttings went in front of the chrysanthemums.  They had gone straggly in the greenhouse, and I layered a couple of stems of each to encourage them to spread.  I can vaguely imagine the penstemons and chrysanthemums mingling at the edges in a pleasant way, but I don't know if they'll see it like that.  I still have some even stragglier seed raised lilac coloured penstemon to go in.

Some columbines completed today's efforts, a long-spurred, yellow flowered species from north America, Aquilegia longissima.  Growing columbines from packeted seed always seems to be feast or famine, and I end up with either complete failure or two dozen plants.  This time round I have enough to experiment.  With any luck they'll like it somewhere in the garden, and seed themselves about.

And that is the opposite of the carefully planned schemes of garden designers, but is how you may set about filling up odd corners, if you have a finite budget and enjoy propagating, then need homes for your progeny.  The assortment I planted today would have cost roughly a hundred and twenty quid from the plant centre, based on that number of two litre and nine centimetre pots.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

good bye big cat

The big anxious tabby died this afternoon.  He'd become old and thin in recent months, the way elderly cats do, and struggled to keep his fur knot free, while refusing to let us do it for him, but he seemed happy enough.  He spent a lot of his time dozing in front of the Aga, but as recently as Sunday afternoon he went for a potter about the garden, and he ate some breakfast this morning, though his feet were swollen and I knew the end wasn't far off.  By lunchtime he was looking distressed, and we both knew that the time had come to ring the vet.  I was hoping they could make a house visit, to save the cat the final trip in the cat basket, but we'd missed the chance of a house call today, and I had to make an appointment at the surgery.  They promised us we could wait in the nurse's room and not the public waiting room with all the strange people and the dogs, but half an hour before we'd have had to leave the house, the cat died.

There was just enough time before it got dark to bury him, shrouded in an old pillow case, a good eighteen inches down under the lawn by the rose bank, with a slab on his grave to help discourage foxes from digging him up.  Neither of us are particularly fussed about graves, but if you are going to have one it should be decent.

I am glad he was able to spend his last hour quietly in the house where he felt safe, and not in a cat basket sitting in rush hour traffic, then the vet's surgery.  He was fifteen and a half, a good age for a Maine Coon.  He was a lovely cat, and we shall miss him, probably more poignantly in a few weeks and months time as the immediate impression of his rather draggled state in his last days fades, and we remember him as he was in his pomp, when he weighed a full stone, could stand on his hind legs and rest his chin comfortably on the dining table, and used to follow me around the house like a dog.  And that is really all I want to say on the subject at the moment.

Monday, 10 November 2014

if at first you don't succeed

I've been having yet another go at the bed at the entrance to the garden.  It isn't a total success, that bed, and never has been in twenty-one years, either in terms of design or more pragmatically in terms of persuading the occupants to grow.  By now I am not prepared to start again from scratch, and am merely aiming to fill in the gaps so as to have something reasonably harmless, that doesn't look too terrible but isn't too much work.

A fundamental design problem is that the bed is the wrong shape.  It's almost an equilateral triangle, the result of fencing off the end of the wedge of garden lying between the entrance and the boundary hedge, and calling it a flower bed.  The planting should have been carefully graduated for height at the outset, to take account of the fact that anything in the middle of the triangle and towards the hedge would be behind other things and would only be viewed from some distance away.  It wasn't, and now I'm left with some awkward spaces to fill.  I shouldn't have made it that shape in the first place, but it's done now, and the rest of the garden fits round it, so I'm not changing it.

An existential problem is that the bed, rather like a road verge, is generally viewed only in passing. Nobody is going to go and sit down by the boundary, just inside the entrance with a fine view of the lettuce farm and the dustbin.  No window looks out directly on to it (or at least the spare room does, but people don't spend long looking out of spare room windows on the whole).  It's not really a place, the entrance bed, but a space you go past to get to the house and other bits of the garden that are places.

A problem of cultivation is that the roots of the boundary hedge penetrate into it, making for tough growing conditions in what was already poor, sandy soil to begin with.  And it gets the wind.  Boy, does it catch the south-westerly blasts.  Some of the larger shrubs in it act as useful wind breaks for other plants further inside the garden, but the entrance bed itself is a pretty exposed spot, at least towards the apex of the triangle pointing south.

In this ill thought out, inadequately considered spot, as a result of two decades of efforts to clothe the ground, I have ended up with some substantial shrubs that don't stand in any particular relationship to each other, in terms of either shape, flower colour, mood, or theme.  A bird sown Portuguese laurel had made a large dome.  I clip it sometimes, and am grateful for the shelter it provides on the downwind side.  A variegated holly, Ilex aquifolium 'Argenta Marginata' is just about starting to form a decent specimen, in competition from the hedge.  A pineapple broom is doing extraordinarily well, after a difficult start to life in a pot in the conservatory.  It loathed the pot, and revealed its extreme natural desire to form a multi-stemmed shrub and not a standard, but at least I now know from first hand experience that they are highly wind resistant.  It is a complete waste of wall space to give any of it to a pineapple broom.  A variegated weigela plugs away valiantly.  I would not say that its pink flowers and the yellow flowers of the broom did anything for each other.  Two crab apples make slow growth, showing pathetic gratitude each time I feed or mulch them.  A philadelphus battles on, and a Lonicera tatarica.  A friend who grew the latter always said it was extremely drought resistant, and she was right.  Mine keeps growing up into one of the crab apples, and has to be topiarised so that you can see over it into the rest of the bed.  A Viburnum tinus right in the southern corner shows its distaste for the sand as odd branches periodically die, but the whole plant refuses to do so.  There used to be an upright form of shrubby ivy, which formed a wider and wider mat next to the viburnum until I lost patience with it and chopped it out.  It was altogether too much ivy.  Two peonies do extraordinarily well along the edge of the drive.  One I see from my notes is a form of P. officinalis, and the other I have managed not to write down on the spreadsheet, which is a bore.  Some vast red hot pokers with very bright red and yellow flowers that mustn't be put next to anything pink likewise thrive despite being in partial shade, and make more seedlings than I really need.

Then there is a long litany, or would be if I went through it, of all the failed ideas and experiments, the things that died outright, or did so badly that I took them out, or linger on but may yet be ripped out in this latest attempt to do something about the bed by the entrance.  By now I don't plan anything very elaborate, I just want to fill it with plants that look cheerful instead of half dead, that will cover the earth so that I don't have to weed it very often.  There's a useful bit of space on the edge facing into the garden, where I plan to put chrysanthemums and salvias.  I've got lots of the former, grown by chiselling little rooted bits off my existing plants and potting them up, and I'll leave spaces for the latter and buy some next year.  That will satisfy my desire to grow chrysanthemums where I can see them properly, and my renewed appetite for salvias following the Plant Heritage lecture.  The pokers should have finished flowering before the chrysanthemums start, but I think the salvias will overlap.  That could be tricky, but purple might do it, as a colour able to work with both bright red and yellow and pink.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

a musical discovery

There was more live entertainment this afternoon, but in a different genre, since it was the second concert of the music society's new season.  Indeed, it was the highlight of the entire season, if you go by the fame and prestige of the performers, since we had the Henschel Quartet, who get regular air time on Radio 3 and are properly famous, as string quartets go, which is to say that the majority of people have probably never heard of them, but the rather small subset of the entire population who are at all likely to buy tickets for a recital by a string quartet probably have.

It was a really good concert, and all credit to the local architectural practice who sponsored it.  I am absolutely delighted to be able to listen to live, world class chamber music half an hour's drive up the road, instead of having to schlep up to London for the Barbican or the Wigmore Hall, and looking at the average age and infirmity of the audience I'm pretty sure that quite a few of them simply wouldn't.  For them it is Suffolk or nothing.

The Henschel started with Beethoven, then slipped in something by Erwin Schulhoff before the tea break, and finished with Dvorak.  I'd never heard of Schulhoff, which doesn't say much since I haven't heard of all sorts of people, but nor had anybody I spoke to afterwards, apart from the chap who wrote the programme notes.  That's the way you conventionally structure a concert, start with something in a familiar idiom to get the audience in the mood, then do the unknown or difficult piece they wouldn't come to hear if that was all there was, revive them with an interval, and round off with the big reward at the end.  You can't programme the tricky piece last, or half of them will sneak off before the end on the pretext that they can't leave the dog at home by himself for any longer, or they are worried about the car icing up, or they have to relieve the baby sitter.

However, while Schulhoff was strange, he was also wonderful.  Some of the noises the Henschel made, blended with influences from Czech folk music, were straight out of the radiophonic workshop, but in a good way.  Poor Schulhoff, he did not survive the war, dying in a concentration camp in 1942.  We heard his first string quartet, and I haven't looked him up yet to see whether he even managed to write another, but I do know that never before have I seen an audience queueing to buy the CD of a completely unfamiliar piece of twentieth century chamber music with the enthusiasm they showed this afternoon.  I think the Henschel must have sold out.  The newly converted Schulhoff fans were so keen, I have just had an email from the friend I went with saying that she'd ordered a copy on the internet.

The Beethoven and Dvorak were very nice too, and so was the reception hosted by the chairman afterwards to say thank you to the sponsor.  But the highlight was the discovery of a (to most of us) completely new and marvellous talent.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

an evening of sporadically acclaimed comedy

We have just been to see Andy Zaltzman at the Colchester Arts Centre.  To quote their brochure, the undisputed, sporadically acclaimed comedian is a star of The Bugle podcast and Radio Four's Political Animal.  I got the tickets months ago when I saw his name on the arts centre website, long before the brochure came out, because the Systems Administrator is a big Bugle fan.  To judge from Zaltman's doleful predictions in a recent podcast I needn't have bothered, according to the SA, since plenty of tickets were going to be available on the door.

In fact, the turnout was quite respectable.  The room was nowhere near full, and Andy Zaltzman made a quip about how his career wasn't going that well or they'd have put out more chairs at the back of the room, but I've been to folk gigs with smaller audiences.  Although I suppose that counting your fan base in the same league as folk musicians that nobody has heard of rather than in comparison to Michael McIntyre is an admission of relative failure as a comedian.

I'm not a Bugle listener, nothing against The Bugle, but I don't do podcasts.  I can't work out when to listen to them, when I do so much of my radio listening outside on my mud spattered and incredibly battered garden digital radio, and can't stand wearing headphones.  But the bits of Bugle quoted to me by people who do listen sounded promising, and anyway I was prepared to take their word for it that Andy Zaltzman would be funny.  Likewise to take the risk that he might not be my cup of tea.  As risks go, taking the risk that you might be moderately bored or embarrassed for a couple of hours maximum isn't the greatest.

Luckily I didn't have to suffer either, as I thought he was funny too.  The format of his tour, which I hadn't managed to discover before we got to the arts centre, was that audience members nominate things for him to satirize.  Since I didn't know, I obviously hadn't sent in any ideas.  He asked who had sent in a suggestion, and a few hands went up.  Who had meant to suggest something and not got round to it?  Rather more hands went up.  That, he told us sternly, was why democracy didn't work.  He took ideas from the floor as well, five minutes before starting the show, and punctiliously tackled every one of them, though he did jump off pretty quickly from some of the less promising ones into riffs on other topics that he'd probably worked up previously.  But I could scarcely expect anybody to compose an entirely new hour's worth of material based on a ragbag of found ideas in five minutes flat.

As a forty year old, white, middle class man, privately educated at enormous expense, who had never had a proper job, Andy Zaltzman should clearly be in the Cabinet, and the only reason why he's not must be antisemitism.  That gives a flavour of his act, and I won't attempt to type out the rest from memory.  There were some Bugle catch-phrases, which I knew from the SA, too soon, too soon muttered in response to an audience mention of Jimmy Savile.  Which is a good get out, since Savile jokes would be fabulously distasteful.  The SA tells me he read Classics at Cambridge, and his wife is a high powered lawyer.  When he is not writing political satire he compiles cricket statistics.  The SA was worried that I might not like Andy Zaltzman, but I'm glad I stuck to my guns and got the tickets.  We didn't stay behind to buy any merchandise, because the SA already has The Bugle mug.