Saturday, 31 January 2015

in the wood

There was another thin flurry of snow this morning, just enough to delay work in the garden for an hour, but it barely settled in the wood and I was able to get back to the task of clearing the fallen birch.  By mid afternoon I'd almost finished shredding, and it was amazing how the whole top of a mature tree had compressed into no more than half a dozen smallish bags of woodchips, and a modest pile of branches no thicker than my arm.  The Systems Administrator is baffled at how birches don't seem to yield any intermediate sized logs at all, and the SA is right.  There's the trunk, which the arborists logged for us on site, and small branches and twigs, with virtually nothing in between.

I carried some more logs out of the wood, being careful where I trod to avoid the snowdrops.  It's a nice question whether to take them up to the house in small loads in the wheelbarrow, which means fewer trips but a long detour across the width of the back garden and back again, or whether to carry them individually up the dozen steps past the conservatory, saving a two hundred yard round trip.  I opted for the direct route, since the tree team had done as we asked and sectioned the trunks into pieces that were small enough to carry comfortably.  I'm sure that lugging lumps of wood up a flight of steps must be very good for toning all sorts of muscles.  Forget joining a gym or hiring a personal trainer, just get a couple of blokes to saw up a tree for you and then carry it around.

Some of the snowdrops are being smothered by the encroaching brambles, so as a change from shredding and humping wood about I started cutting them down and pulling them up.  The roots will generally rip out of the soil in a very satisfying way at this time of the year, when the ground is wet.   Brambles are adept at grabbing any light that's going, and are mainly a nuisance around the edges of the wood or where a tree has fallen or there's been coppicing.  I cleared most of them from the area just inside the wood where I've planted (shock, horror) some non-native shrubs, a witch hazel and a scented north American charmer called Oemleria cerasiformis.  The latter has begun to sucker nicely, not too much, and I think I could risk removing its protective ring of wire netting before it grows through it too much.  The witch hazel still looks rather small to be exposed to the full ravages of the rabbits and deer.

There is also a tree magnolia planted some time ago, one of those varieties that doesn't flower at a young age.  It is now getting to the size and age when I might expect flowers, and I am eager for the first bloom just to confirm that it is 'Charles Raffill'.  It should have huge, saucer shaped flowers, rose pink without and soft white within, and faintly scented.  It would be a shame to find I'd waited a decade for flowers that were small, dingy or otherwise unexciting.

A couple of Daphne bholua suckers I managed to detach from my original plant and pot on have taken nicely.  I'm pretty sure that the parent plant was on its own roots and not grafted, in which case they too will be 'Jacqueline Postill'.  They are not flowering this winter, but they are growing despite being rather over-run with brambles, and the leaves look healthy.  At one point last summer they looked very sad, as if something had been eating them.  An Amur vine planted last spring to replace a Vitis coignetiae which suddenly died just as it had made its way a worthwhile distance up a tree is probably alive, though it's difficult to tell at this time of year, but didn't make any extension growth last year.  The colour of a vine in autumn tumbling out of a tree is a glorious sight, and I decided to try substituting Vitis amurensis for V. coignetiae after reading that the former was happier on acid soil and coped better with damp.

The water table in the wood is always unstable, the latest change being that the area next to the fallen birch, which has been fairly dry for the past twenty years, has suddenly thrown up a boggy patch with two inches of mud.  I shall have to think carefully about what I plant in the space created by the collapse of the birch.

Friday, 30 January 2015

a light dusting

My dark suspicions were confirmed when I pulled up the bathroom blind this morning to see the ground covered with a thin coating of snow.  I couldn't go on clearing the fallen birch out of the wood with snow lying on the ground, because I wouldn't be able to see where I was putting my feet. White snowdrops on a white ground, a subtle effect.  When I went to let the chickens into their run and give them their morning treat of porridge oats and a sprinkling of cheap sultanas (which is about as exciting as a chicken's life gets at this time of the year, unless the fox pays another visit which could be exciting but not in a good way) the snow was melting.  Excellent, the wretched nuisance would not be with me for too long, but it does make everything outside extraordinarily wet while it's doing it.

It is a definite sign of middle age when you look on snow primarily as a nuisance.  In a way, if we had proper snow, say eight inches or a foot, and it was forecast and we'd stocked up on cat food, that wouldn't be so bad.  More than a foot and I'd be worried whether the roof could stand the weight.  Real thick snow that covers the countryside is very beautiful, and because it is proper snow nobody expects you to be anywhere.  But a miserable little dusting of snow, when tussocks of grass  poke up through it and you can still see the plough marks in the fields, doesn't look beautiful, it just looks grubby.  And those three or four inch falls we sometimes get are annoying, because it hangs on in the countryside long after the heat island effect of London and even Colchester has melted the snow in town, and none of your friends will believe that the last mile of lanes to your house is still a skating rink and the trains are barely functioning.  Actually I should hate snow anyway if I were at home and not safely on holiday somewhere, because it is so damaging to the garden, breaking shrubs apart and killing southern hemisphere evergreens like Pittosporum which seem to detest having it stuck to their leaves.

At least yesterday afternoon's mini snow event was in scale with the model railway, and looked very picturesque on the roofs of the prototype model houses that are wintering outside to test the construction method before the Systems Administrator invests too much time and energy building more of them.  The latest method of joining the corners is looking promising, according to the SA. One of the houses we visited on holiday originally had a model village which National Trust volunteers have just started to recreate, but the SA spotted the telltale signs of bubbling paint around their bases, showing that the cut edges of the plywood they were built from had not been adequately sealed.

By lunchtime most of the snow had gone, and I spent the afternoon chopping away at some ornamental brambles in the meadow, which have proved so invasive that I have given up thinking I can control them.  This time around I aim to extract every last root with a pickaxe, but even then I expect I'll be pulling up odd bits of regrowth for years.  If you should ever feel like planting Rubus cockburnianus then don't.  Get a friend or relative to confiscate your credit card, and lock yourself in a darkened room until the feeling goes away.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

a day outside

Yesterday's fierce wind had dropped this morning to a more manageable though still chilly breeze, and the sun was shining, so I wrapped myself up and cautiously took my sinuses outside to do some shredding.  There were piles of branches I sawed out of the hedge stacked up along the entrance, while in the meadow there are more heaps of ash twigs from the huge branch that came down across the pond, and I haven't even started cutting the boundary hedge along the meadow yet.  In an ideal world I'd have pretty much finished the hedges by now, and be thinking about moving on to the roses and buddleia, but I have noticed that the world is frequently not ideal in January.

Woody prunings are the opposite of holes in the ground.  When you dig a hole, you end up with a mound of earth out of all proportion to the size of the hole.  It is unfathomable where all that spare soil could possibly have come from.  When you shred prunings, you can spend all morning at it and by the end the number of bags of useful chippings and bigger branches for firewood seems disappointingly small.  At the end of my labours two huge heaps had yielded four and a half bags of mulch and one wheelbarrow of branches that were fat enough to be worth cutting up for firewood.

I have got more grasping about firewood over the years.  When we first moved here it was not so very long after the 1987 storm, and the wood hadn't been touched since then.  The supply of fallen trees kept us going for years, while everything in the garden was so small and immature that any prunings went straight on the bonfire heap.  Nowadays anything woody that's too big to go through the shredder is a candidate for fuel.  Hawthorn, hazel, eucalyptus, yew, Crataegus 'Paul's Scarlet', mature ivy, holly, willow, waterlogged winter cherry, juniper, if it grew and was made of wood we'll put it in the log burner.

I'd finished in the front garden by lunchtime, and moved down to the wood in the afternoon.  The arborists made an extremely neat job of bringing down the partially fallen birch and sectioning it (which reminds me I must post their cheque and not just drive past the postbox with it in my handbag).  The brushwood was stacked neatly in one pile and the logs from the main trunks and branches in two more.  All this was achieved with remarkably little trampling, and the emerging snowdrops are pristine.  But there must be more bulbs under the piles of debris, and besides I want them out of the way so that I can assess the area available for planting.

As I started sorting the brushwood between pieces small enough to shred and those large enough to burn it began to rain, only a light shower but enough to make me think I'd better cover the shredder and put the electric cable away.  I went on lopping and sorting, and carting pieces of firewood out of the wood until about quarter to four, when it began to get rather dark.  I thought I'd maybe done enough for one day, and went inside for some tea.  As I sat at the kitchen table there was a strange hissing noise, and I wondered initially what the cat was doing and then whether there was something horribly wrong with the hot water system before realising that it was a hailstorm.  After the hail came wet snow.  I hope it melts before it freezes, otherwise I can't see myself getting much done outside tomorrow.  January can be an awfully frustrating month, what with the weather and the germs.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

these winter days

Veolia did come and empty my brown garden waste bin quite soon, once I'd let them know it got missed off the round in the week after Christmas when collections were supposed to return to normal.  I tottered out into the garden this morning before the forecast rain arrived to refill it, since it is due to be emptied again tomorrow.  Thus the year rushes by, almost on the second brown bin collection already.  The wind was bitingly cold and made me feel as though somebody had painstakingly poured glue into all the cavities in the right hand side of my face, and I decided that the garden was going to have to manage for another day without me.

The cats weren't going out either, not in this weather, and the short indignant tabby spent the morning grizzling because Our Ginger had bagged the prime spot in front of the Aga.  Our Ginger does not do mornings.  He likes to get into the bedroom while we're getting up when he can, then after a light breakfast he likes to sleep.  He potters out after lunch, if it's a nice day, though this afternoon he is just sitting in the hall and looking at the garden with an expression of disapproval verging on disbelief.  At least that's allowed the tabby to regain the sweet spot in front of the stove.

I spent a useful hour catching up with last Sunday's episode of Pienaar's Politics while washing plastic plant labels for reuse, and a ludicrous quarter of an hour trying to arrange supper with a group of friends by text.  It takes me absolutely ages to compose a text, dabbing away and having to delete every third letter because I've hit the one next to it, in between blinking in astonishment because I've brought up the third menu page of weird punctuation symbols and letters that don't even exist in the English language, when I meant to get capitals.  I can see why some of my friends prefer it to email.  Texts do normally work, and if I didn't have the Systems Administrator to help sort it out each time my laptop crashes or freezes or the broadband connection stops working, I'd be loathe to depend on email for keeping in touch.  But I do have the SA, and oh, the frustration of trying to input data on that tiny screen.  I would never, ever dare to do any sort of commerce or banking from my phone. I'd probably find I'd transferred my life savings to a complete stranger by mistake, or bought fifteen dozen tumblers to replace the one I chipped washing up when I only wanted one.

I am now cleaning the bathroom.  It's pretty nifty to be able to do the cleaning and type at the same time, no?  But actually I am waiting for the lime scale remover to work, or at least loosen the deposits on the shower screen before I go and smear them around.

Tonight it's Wolf Hall, which is the first UK drama series I've felt excited about for a very long time. I gave up with the Tudors after half an episode, never got round to watching the second instalment of the Winifred Holtby adaptation, and couldn't get into Downton at all.  But Wolf Hall is brilliant.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

hard choices

It's ninety-nine days to go until the election.  I'm not sure that the BBC or the newspapers or the politicians themselves are going to be able to think of enough things to say about it for another ninety-nine days at the current rate, while by 7 May the entire electorate will probably fall down in hysterics shouting la-la-la-la-la we can't hear you, or collectively burst a blood vessel, if exposed to the phrases 'hard working families' or 'cost of living crisis' one more time.  Meanwhile, there are some hard choices to be made, but I expect the political parties will only come clean about those after the polls have closed.

In north east Essex the row is over public toilets.  A while back Colchester Borough Council announced that as part of necessary cost saving measures they would be closing various public conveniences around the borough.  The public backlash was predictable.  West Mersea Town Council blinked first, agreeing to take on the cost of running all four public loos on the island, after a three thousand signature petition against closure, and an undertaking by Colchester to pay £7,000 a year towards costs and refurbish one block before handing it over.  West Mersea has a sizeable tourist trade, what with the beach and the yacht moorings.  They don't want to lose that, and neither do they want desperate day trippers caught short or yachtsmen unable to face the drive back to London without a pee relieving themselves in the streets.

Dedham is fighting on.  They say that the toilet block is used 80 to 90 per cent by tourists, and it is unfair to ask the residents to pay for it when the businesses already pay business rates.  Which is true, although the car park is probably largely used by tourists as well, and there was a furious campaign against Colchester Borough starting to charge for that, which included repeatedly disabling the ticket machines by putting superglue in the slots.  It might be that parking revenue (mainly from tourists) would have made a useful contribution towards running the public loos (mainly for tourists).

Chat at the quiz night swung round briefly to the election, and one of my team mates opined that government was far too big, spent far too much money wastefully, and should be smaller.  I mentioned the proposed closures of the public loos.  That, he spluttered, was ridiculous, when we were all getting older, with prostate problems and pelvic floors not what they were.  There are going to be some hard choices after the election.

Monday, 26 January 2015

catching up with myself

The garden talk I've promised to do next month is starting to come into shape.  That's a relief, since it's not a topic I've ever covered before.  When I agreed to do it, the booking was a year hence, which seemed more than ample time to prepare.  I kept an eye out for any useful nuggets that could be incorporated, and that was about it.  As 2014 drew to a close I began to think I should get on with pulling my ideas together, but did nothing about it as a wonky arm made it difficult to type and other things kept coming up, and then the cold season began with a dismal series of headaches and snuffles.

I hate not being ready for things.  I have regular dreams in which I am approaching the end of a university course but have not done one of the core modules, or am still managing clients' money but mysteriously not receiving any valuations or making investment decisions, while the quarterly meeting draws ever closer.  I have worked with people who always as a matter of course left everything to the last minute, and claimed to need the stimulus of the deadline to get their brains working.  My brain is generally quite stimulated enough with about three weeks to go.

The choice at the start of the year was whether to start with the beekeepers' accounts, my tax return, or the talk.  The accounts had the shortest deadline and so rose to the top of the list.  The AGM was going to be held on the fourth Thursday of January because under our rules it always is, I needed to be able to talk coherently about the accounts to a room full of people, and the auditor needed time to inspect them first.  No contest.

The tax return came next because it had the second shortest deadline, and the Inland Revenue fines you a hundred pounds for late submission.  I hate doing my tax return.  I expect most people do, having to line up all those pieces of paper and make frantic phone calls to fill in the gaps, or hunt laboriously through old online statements.  I especially hate the fact that as withholding tax on dividends cannot be reclaimed under any circumstances, it does not make any difference to the end result what my dividend income is, provided that it leaves me safely below the threshold in total for paying higher rate tax, so half of the paper chasing is entirely pointless.  The tax return took up most of Saturday, and yesterday I took the day off because I still felt so cold ridden I couldn't get my head round the lecture.

This morning I corrected the minutes of the last music society meeting for the chairman's comments and circulated them.  It's just as well I got her to check first, since I'd transplanted one future event to the wrong year.  The minutes weren't playing so heavily on my mind since I did not have to present them in person and there was no financial penalty for failure.  It was nice to get them out of the way, but prioritising them may have been a delaying tactic, because after that there was nothing for it but the lecture.  Which is now coming on.  One more burst of energy should see me with a working script, and then I need some images.  I felt much better about it once I decided I was definitely going to tell them about ponds first, and then show them some pictures, rather than try to find pictures to illustrate every point.  That was based on sheer practicalities, given that I don't have the resources of a full documentary unit, but should work quite well.  People can nod off if you turn the lights out at the beginning and talk to them in the dark.

I did walk down the garden before lunch, to see what it had been doing in my absence, and the scent of the two Daphne bholua hit even my bunged up nose as I rounded the corner of the house. The Sarcocca confusa is smelling strongly as well, while snowdrops are coming through everywhere. The arborists made a very tidy job stacking the fallen birch in the wood, but the debris needs to come out as soon as possible, since I know there is a good sheet of snowdrops right under where they've stacked the brushwood.  A holly tree that was partially uprooted as the birch came down and is now growing almost horizontally needs cutting to ground level to encourage vertical regrowth, and there are a load of brambles that need pulling up.  More of these things anon, as soon as I've finished the talk, and the cold air doesn't send my nose into free flow.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

what shall we do on our holidays

The Systems Administrator has returned from Cheltenham suffering from a fresh outbreak of the cold we've both had intermittently since Christmas.  Fortunately the SA had a good day at the races first, but by the evening had a sore throat and tickling nose, which couldn't be blamed on the dry air of the hotel as they lasted all the way home.  An outline plan to call in at Ikea for bargain storage cabinets was abandoned, and I thought I'd better try and be nice and offered to cook the supper.  Sometimes I can see why wealthy Edwardians just headed south for the winter, and amused themselves making second gardens on the Med.

Escape to the sun not being an option, I consoled myself with the new National Trust and RHS handbooks trying to imagine where we might go on holiday this year.  A weekly rental is cheaper and more restful than hotels or B&Bs, unpack for the week and we're done, with privacy and the freedom to come and go as we like, but it does mean that we need to stay somewhere with enough things to amuse ourselves for an entire week without too much driving about.  So last autumn a half-formed plan to finally go and visit the West Somerset railway died a death once we worked out quite how far down the motorway we'd have to drive to get there from Gloucester, and how many roadworks sections we'd encounter along the way.

It makes me think that tourist attractions shouldn't automatically regard other attractions springing up on their doorsteps as rivals for the same consumer pound.  They might be, but they might also be contributing to a honey pot effect that brings in more visitors in aggregate than either would ever have got separately.  Would you go and stay in Minehead for a week if the only amusement there was the steam railway?  Probably not.

I have a dark and lurking suspicion that the preserved railway is the only thing in Minehead.  The people who write tourist websites have strange and sometimes desperate ideas of what might attract visitors, to judge from the one I've just looked at that boasted that their high street had a range of national retailers including O2.  Sorry, but who is going to choose their holiday destination on the basis of being able to visit a phone shop?  I don't think I've ever been to Minehead, and it is quite possibly very pretty, but the map north of the M5 does look rather empty.  There is a lot of Exmoor, which would be lovely for a day but not necessarily for a whole week, especially if it rained.

Instead I was eyeing up Dorset.  I would love to go and see the exotic gardens at Abbotsbury, but one set of gardens no more a holiday makes than one steam railway, so the question is whether there are enough other things within striking distance of Abbotsbury, apart from Chesil beach, to make up a package.  Or rather, somewhere we could stay that puts Abbotsbury within reach but takes in some more places as well, probably somewhere inland.  I learned the general principle in O level geography that coastal towns tend to be poor because they have only half a hinterland.  I suspect coastal Dorset is an exception to the general rule, but that doesn't alter the geometry of the thing, that if we stay on the coast we have only half as many places within a given driving distance.

I think the SA would like west Dorset.  There is a tank museum, and if we are prepared to drive as far as Yeovil there is an aeronautical museum.  And there are some nice cliffs, as well as Chesil beach, a couple of other gardens, a smallish steam railway and sundry regional museums.  But I won't mention it until I'm sure there really would be enough to keep us happily occupied for a week, and besides, there might be somewhere else I'd rather go instead.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

quiz night

This evening I went to a quiz night.  A friend who is fund raising for a memorial garden at her village hall helped to organise it, and rounded up a little group of fellow beekeepers to form a team.  I haven't done a quiz for years, and didn't expect to be much use, since my failure to follow soaps, sports results, celebrity gossip or any pop music more recent that Lloyd Cole and the Commotions practically fits me to be a High Court judge.  A massive vagueness about dates doesn't help either.  I am always amazed if we have Radio 2 on in the car when PopMaster comes on, and the Systems Administrator answers 1973 or 1976 with great confidence, and is right.  It's an approach that used to get me into trouble at school with history, since it seemed to me that as long as you knew that the Stuarts came after the Tudors but before the Industrial Revolution, whether something happened in 1663 or 1664 was besides the point.

But it was with friends, and for charity, and as long as I was willing to chuck my £3.50 entry fee in the tin and buy some raffle tickets it probably didn't matter.  And I was not entirely useless, getting the opening lines of 1984 in the literature round plus a couple of films from their straplines, including Saving Private Ryan which was good going since I have refused to ever watch it.  Even more surprisingly I managed to identify the catchphrase Yes But No But Yes But with Vikky Pollard despite having never seen even one episode of Little Britain, which just goes to show how self-referential the UK media is.

It was a clever quiz, or at least it produced tightly bunched answers.  The winning team scored 99.5 out of a possible 120, we got 96, and the quiz master said that half the teams got over 90.  We would have done a great deal worse if we hadn't had a music virtuoso on the side, who spotted The Hollies and Paul and Paula within about the three beats of the opening riff, correctly identified an early track as being by Tyrannosaurus Rex which predates T Rex (for which teams only got half a point, ditto Marc Bolan), and is probably still kicking himself for failing one music question, which was to name the band behind Black Betty.  I didn't know that, despite it being a staple of school discos, and the only other track that came from my era was one by The Police (Sting also accepted).

You can see how people remember the dates of current affairs, or don't, as you listen to their hissed discussions trying to answer a quiz.  If something happened while you were on holiday that can help nail it down.  One team member said he could even remember the road he was driving along when he heard a piece of news on the radio, but unfortunately then couldn't pin down the year of the holiday.  I was sure that the last big foot and mouth outbreak was while I was still at Writtle, but we ended up one year out on 2002 instead of 2001.  We were all fairly dreadful at advertising slogans on our team, and not much better at the original names of famous people.  I never knew that Fred Astaire was originally Frederick Austerlitz.  Shame, if there'd been a point for knowing Ginger Rogers' crack about doing everything that he did but backwards, and in high heels, we'd have got that.

Friday, 23 January 2015

big tidy

My beekeepers' accounts were duly approved and adopted at the AGM.  I'd heard back earlier in the week from the person scrutinising them that they were OK, so at one level I'd have been surprised if they were rejected.  It's not as though anyone else had put their name forward to be Treasurer.  But you never know with meetings.  We had way too much food, as most members who came seemed not to have taken the committee literally when we said a light buffet would be provided and ate beforehand, so I'm quite relieved I ended up providing sweet things.  Left over half buckets of Waitrose cookies are more useful afterwards if you end up taking them home with you than surplus sandwiches.  The previous show secretary, who is a highly accomplished cook, was also suffering from a cold and had resorted to Sainsbury's sausage rolls, so I was not the only one copping out.

This morning I started on the dreary task of sorting out my desk.  It would not be so dismal, of course, if I did my filing oftener, but filing is like those folk tales about people who go away for a week with the fairies and when they come back discover that seven years have passed on earth. You put important pieces of paper in the plastic tray on your desk to deal with later, and before you know where you are you haven't touched them again for twelve months and a day.  Probably not since the last time you had to do your tax return.

I'd thought that while I was at it I could finish downloading the final oddments of data from my last computer but one, then with the Systems Administrator's help destroy the hard disc and take box and screen to the dump.  I guess that hitting the drive several times with a lump hammer and putting the bits in different bin bags would do it, though there is nothing very exciting on there even if hackers bothered to look.  However, it is good practice not to jettison your old hard drive intact, except that I am not at all sure what it looks like or which bit it would be, assuming I knew how to open the box, which I don't.  But as I excavated down through the alluvial layers of beekeeping and gardening magazines, old shopping lists, notifications of changes to our electricity tariff, instructions for the electric rat zapper, out of date Boden catalogues, caches of birthday cards that I'd taken down from the mantelpiece after my birthday and not had the heart to throw away at once, snipped-out recipes, and guides to long-closed exhibitions and gardens we visited two years ago, it began to dawn on me that the keyboard had gone.

I'll have to ask the SA, and hope we have a spare one somewhere.  I don't remember throwing it away, but the SA has been having a big clear-out, and did say something about taking some old IT equipment to the dump and giving a keyboard to a member of staff who mentioned that one of the keys on his existing one wasn't working.  Failing that I could decide that if I haven't needed anything off the desktop for the past six or seven years then I don't need it at all, and junk it anyway.  There are probably some old photographs of the garden on there, but all they'd really tell me is that things have grown, and that the planting was rather thin and the spaces weedy in the early years.  Certainly there are no Bitcoins.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

back in the real world

I am finally tottering back into the world of the functioning, if not fully fit.  That's a relief, after a week of sitting in an armchair with nothing to do but try and jam an 8 into a Sudoko square that already has an eight in it, or fret about dustbins, train timetables and whether the squirrel is on the bird table again like a sort of snot-ridden Victor Meldrew.  When I am dictator the phrase 'just a cold' will be excised from the English language.  Granted, they are not fatal or even permanently disabling, but colds are completely disgusting to the sufferer and everybody around them, and represent lost days of your life.

I was supposed to be making something for the buffet for tonight's beekeepers' AGM.  I'd been quite looking forward to it, and gone through my baking books to find some recipes for tray bakes and interesting confections in paper cases, but in the end I opted out and decided to solve the problem by throwing money at it.  I am still snivelling badly enough to make me think I shouldn't handle food other people are going to eat, especially baked goods where you have to prise them out of their tins and cut them up, or decorate them.  If it were a stew where all the ingredients were going to be put in the oven and boiled for six hours then dished out at arm's length with a ladle that might be different.  I made my way carefully to Waitrose, and bought some tubs of mini chocolate and caramel things.

I'm generally in favour of home made cake.  It's nicer, and if you only have cake when you or somebody you know has got round to making one, everyone probably ends up eating less cake, which is a good thing from a health point of view.  I think of it as cheaper too, because I like baking, but if I were to factor in my time at even the minimum wage then it's probably more expensive than shop cake.  It feels vaguely infra dig to take something bought, when you've said you'll make something, but in the circumstances my tubs of cookies (on special offer at two tubs for four pounds) felt like a bargain.

Then I typed up the music society minutes, which have been outstanding for over a week.  They mostly made sense, which was a relief given that the whole thing is by no means fresh in my mind any more, but you can see the discussion beginning to get disjointed at the point where several people realised they were out of time and had to be somewhere else.

At tonight's AGM I have a nasty feeling I may be supposed to present the Membership Secretary's report as well as my own Treasurer's report, since she won't be there due to car problems.  She emailed me a spreadsheet yesterday, but I can't say I'm looking forward to presenting somebody else's spreadsheet to a room full of people.  Then tomorrow I'd better make a start on my tax return, which in turn means I need to sort my filing out.  Oh, the joys of recovery.  I'll be pining for another day spent staring at the bird table by the time I've finished that.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

services at weekends are suspended until further notice

I was surprised yesterday, as I surfed the net in an unfocussed, cold-ridden sort of way, to read a headline in the East Anglian Daily Times that there were to be no weekend trains from the region to London for two months.  It certainly came as news to me, and I passed through Colchester's main railway station only last week.  I definitely don't remember noticing any signs saying Advance Warning: reductions to weekend services.  It came as news to the BBC as well, who splashed it over the Essex section of their website.  It is due to a £15 million rail upgrade, and Abellio Greater Anglia will be running a replacement bus service for the duration.  The company's route managing director was quoted as saying that they would like to thank passengers in advance as it will mean some changes to their travel plans.

Well yes, it will, if you had been planning to travel between London and the eastern regions at a weekend between the end of January and the 22nd of March.  If you had bought tickets for a play, or exhibition, or sports match, it would mean some changes to your travel plans, discovering that you were supposed to navigate your journey via a replacement bus service.  Especially if the A12 is blocked, as it was this morning due to an overturned lorry near Chelmsford.  Or if you had signed up for a museum study day, or Saturday morning music tuition at the Guildhall School of Music, as a friend's son used to do.  Or if you had arranged any sort of social event requiring participants to travel between here and the great smoke.  You might be quite surprised to discover at less than two weeks' notice that there weren't going to be any trains at weekends.  And you might say, couldn't you have told us before?

I'm all in favour of the railway receiving £15 million of capital investment.  They are going to renew thirty year old track at Colchester, and create more crossover points at Witham, which will help speed up the recovery time when there are train breakdowns or infrastructure failures, and renew signalling and overhead cables, which are old and creaky and often seem to be the cause of delays.  All of that sounds a very good idea and quite a lot of work to get done for £15 million, but the planning process must have started months ago, and the putting out to tender, and announcing the winners, and lining up the sub-contractors and equipment and materials.  So why give the travelling public so little advance warning of when the delays are likely, to give them at least half a chance to plan their diaries around the disruption?

Luckily I wasn't planning to do anything in London on any of the affected weekends, so my indignation is entirely on behalf of other people whose lives I imagine to be more action packed and eventful than mine.  And luckily I can get away during the week, so I'm not left kicking myself that I missed my last chance to see Emily Carr at Dulwich or the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait exhibition before they close, unless I were to use up a day's holiday allowance and go on a weekday.  I'm due to have lunch in town with an old university friend sometime around the end of the month, but she's a freelancer and we aren't limited to weekends.  So I'll be fine.  But I still think it's extraordinary to tell the best part of three counties' worth of people that as of twelve days' time they won't have any weekend trains for eight weeks, just like that.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

bin problems

I was so pleased with my brown bin for garden waste.  It was emptied once a fortnight, and while that wasn't enough to eliminate trips to the dump, it cut them down to a level where I felt less paranoid about being challenged with having a gardening round, and saved some time driving to Clacton and back.  I was so happy with it, in fact, I began to wonder if I should invest in a second and see if I could do away with regular trips to the dump entirely.  Then last week it wasn't emptied.

I didn't immediately notice.  The weather's been cold, I haven't been well, and I had no cause to refill it, but then I looked inside when I went down to the gate on Saturday to collect the red bin (paper) and the food waste bin, and it was still full of weeds and moss.  Or at least, not quite full.  The contents had settled, and there would have been room for another half a bag of garden detritus, if I'd had the energy to take it down, but I hadn't.

The brown bins are emptied fortnightly, not weekly, and are normally done on the same cycle as paper, except that everything was thrown out of synch over Christmas.  The leaflet setting out my garden waste collection days is somewhere in the mess on my desk, tidying which is one of those things (along with my tax return) that I'd have been getting on with if I didn't have a stinking cold, but while I knew they were due to miss one collection over Christmas, I had a strong feeling that by last week things were supposed to be back to normal.

I looked on the council website, which offered a choice between a telephone number and an online form to report missed waste collections, but nobody was answering the phone on a Saturday morning, and the online form didn't have a box to tick for brown bins.  Red boxes, green boxes, food waste, missed black bags, not garden waste.  I did my best with the form and gave up worrying about the brown bin, and so did whoever processes the online forms, because I never heard anything about it.  This morning I remembered it again, so tottered down the drive to have a look, but the bin hadn't been emptied.  In fact, there'd have been room for slightly more than half an extra bag of weeds, if I'd had the energy, which I hadn't.

I rang Veolia, who have the contract for domestic waste in Tendring, and spoke to a polite woman who seemed rather vague herself about when brown bin collections should have resumed, and slightly fixated on where I had left the bin (in exactly the same place as it has been left ever since we first got it), but eventually said something about a trainee or unfamiliar driver on the route, and promised to report it.  I made the mistake of mentioning about the online form not having a box for missed brown bin collections.  Quick as the sound of Our Ginger knocking the TV remote control off a table came back her response.  That was the council's website, nothing to do with Veolia.

Oh Tendring District Council and Veolia, this is where outsourcing breaks down at the customer service level.  Your residents, council tax payers and supplementary green waste collection levy payers do not know where one remit ceases and the other begins.  We use the point of contact we are given, the council website, and the forms and telephone numbers on it, to try and resolve issues to do with our bins.  It is up to you to sort it out between you.  Telling a (paying) customer that they will have to take it up with the other lot is never the right answer.

She did then agree that she would email the relevant department at the council about updating the form (which was the correct answer whether she meant to or not), and later this afternoon I had a phone call from Veolia apologising for the missed collection and saying it would be done tomorrow. I'm not sure if that was in response to the original form, or today's call, or if it means the problem has been logged twice.  Whatever, Veolia and the council will have to sort it out between them.

Monday, 19 January 2015

form filling

We were sent a questionnaire a few days ago by Essex County Council.  I haven't filled it in, since I haven't much felt like doing anything, and the Systems Administrator hasn't filled it in because the SA never completes forms unless relating to an issue impacting us directly.  So the SA was lead correspondent and lobbyist on the quarry plans, but I was the one who eventually sent back the survey from our MP canvassing our views on a range of issues.  (I do wonder whether data collected from the self-selected subset of the population who can be bothered to fill forms in should be considered representative of the views of the whole).

The Essex County Council form is making me feel vaguely guilty and anxious as it sits on the window sill with its reply-paid envelope.  When my elected representatives have bothered to spend time and (my) money canvassing my opinions on my life in Essex, shouldn't I respond?  It seems rather feeble to limit my participation in the democratic process to going out to vote every few years (I always vote, on principal.  The SA not so regularly) when I could do more.

But it is such a difficult form.  I'm not sure what some of the questions mean, and maybe the researchers (from Birmingham, not Essex) will not interpret my answers to their (misunderstood) questions in the way I should like.  Does amalgamating the answers to a whole pile of ambiguous forms produce any data of value, or just give a spurious veneer of consultation and legitimacy to an essentially meaningless process?  It's as bad as the census and their rooms originally intended to be bedrooms (am I a psychic that I know the intentions of our predecessors when they built the house?).

Questions 1 and 2 aren't so bad, in that they ask me how satisfied I am overall with my local area as a place to live, defining local area as 15 to 20 minutes walking distance from my home.  I don't like the wind turbine, or the solar farm, and the lettuce farm is sometimes quite noisy at times of the day when I'd rather it was quiet, but I do like my garden, and the view of ancient woods if you look away from the solar farm.  We have never been burgled, the neighbours don't cause us any bother, and we are not planning to move.  So I can tick the box saying I am fairly satisfied.

Then it gets more ambiguous: From your home, how easy or difficult is it for you to get to open spaces in Essex using your natural form of transport?  My natural form of transport is, I suppose, my legs.  It certainly isn't public transport because there isn't even a bus stop within fifteen or twenty minutes walk of my house.  I do have a car, so does that include open spaces I can drive to?  In fifteen to twenty minutes?  And what is an open space?  There aren't any parks within fifteen minutes walk or drive, but do they mean the countryside?  Should that be a footpath, or does a country lane count?  How busy does the traffic have to be before it stops counting as an open space?  I think the answer to their question is probably Very Easy, given that I could walk multiple ten mile loops from my front door, if I wanted to, doing the minimum of it on main roads, but wouldn't a more pertinent question be whether I was satisfied with the state of the footpaths?  Or whether I have easy access to public transport?

By the time it gets to how you make public spaces in Essex more accessible (question 6) I'm completely lost, because I don't know what a public space is in this context.  Make map reading compulsory in schools?  GP surgeries to organise walking groups?  Don't close public loos in villages across Essex to save money (a recent Colchester Borough wheeze.  Fear of being caught short is as good a reason to not visit West Mersea or Dedham as I can think of).

Question 7 asks how satisfied I am about safety on the roads.  Are we still talking about a fifteen or twenty minute walk of my house now we're talking about cars, or am I meant to answer this as a pedestrian?  I think the council has been doing a pretty good job on potholes in the past year, much better than some other parts of the country, but the continued failure to sort out the dangerous junctions on the A120 is a disgrace.  But I think that is the responsibility of the Highways Authority. If so should I forget about the A120, and will other people filling in the form know that their views on dangerous junctions shouldn't influence their response?

They want to know about my exercise in the past week.  If I filled that in truthfully I'd appear almost entirely sedentary, so they could use it as the basis to start cooking up all sorts of schemes to increase my exercise levels, which would be entirely unnecessary given that in the normal way of things when I don't have a cold I'm pretty physically active.  And as to whether Essex County Council provides good customer service, most of the services I use are provided by my district council, or the NHS.  The dump is quite nice, and the bins are normally collected on the right day, but that's outsourced to Veolia.  Has Essex made a good job of outsourcing the one service you think you receive directly from the county council?  As to the quality of my built environment, I have no idea how to answer.  The lettuce polytunnels are extremely high tech, among the most advanced in Europe.  They certainly could not be accused of being low quality.  Do I like looking at them?  Not particularly.

I'm not sure about this form.  It has a one size fits all quality, that seems incapable of picking up the nuances of life in any particular place.  The research company is probably using the same form all over the country, just deleting the word Essex and inserting Devon or Powys.  But life in a rural part of the Tendring peninsular is different to life in central Colchester, or a big estate in Chelmsford, or Billericay, or Basildon.  How on earth do you lump together my experiences of open space, drug dealing, teenagers hanging about or the built environment with that of people living in those places in any meaningful way?

Sunday, 18 January 2015

cold three, human nil

Today I should have spent the first part of the morning making cheese straws, and then gone to a recital of baroque music, but my cold is runnier than ever and I did neither.  In the garden the camellias and witch hazels are coming out, but all I've seen of them is a quick glimpse when tottering out to switch the heaters on and off.  That's the third day of my life that I won't see again.  Although the Systems Administrator says the time to start worrying about my health is when I stop grumbling, so on that basis the SA is pretty relaxed so far.

I have been reading Margaret Willes' The Gardens of the British Working Class in a slow and ineffectual way, and wonder whether the influx of Dutch protestant immigrants to East Anglia in the second half of the sixteenth century that she describes is one reason why in the following half century it tended to the puritan side in the civil war.

And that's it, really, as I haven't done or seen anything to blog about.  Nothing will come from nothing.

My nose hurts.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

still coldy

I still have the cold, runnier but feeling less deathly than yesterday.  I even summoned the energy to have a shower, which was probably a relief to the Systems Administrator, whereas yesterday morning I felt utter aversion at the idea of exposing my head and body to water.

It's just as well I didn't make any New Year, New Me resolutions for 2015 since by now they would all have been broken.  Weight loss, exercise regimes, gardening projects, old friends rediscovered, intellectual ideas pursued with tenacity and panache, perhaps for money, forget it all until later. All I have done today is read about cake, eat cake, plod through a couple of online Sudokus at a speed that put me in the bottom three per cent of people playing them, flick through the Tate magazine while thinking how art is generally so much better than discussions about art, flick through the Times which we wouldn't buy if it didn't come courtesy of Waitrose, and look at the pictures in a big book about new English gardens.

New English gardens, incidentally, exist very much on a continuum with older English gardens, despite author Tim Richardson's ardent wish to discover something new about them.  Geometric layouts are in, as are New Perennial plantings (Persicaria, swathes of ornamental grasses and a generous sweep of tall daisies), hedges either pleached, square profiled or wavy topped, clipped domes of box or hornbeam, large plain paving slabs in pale stone, and earth mounds covered in short cut grass.  In other words, the mainstays of the big gardens at Chelsea over the past fifteen years.

Out are ponds, conservatories, alpines, any kind of small plant, bedding (even Cosmos and tobacco flowers), planted pots, conifers (other than yew), roses, climbers, most summer flowering shrubs, peonies, scented plants, gravel, fruit and vegetables.  New English gardens are photographed almost exclusively between the months of April and October.  It helps to have an expensive and photogenic house at the heart of your garden, an equally photogenic view beyond, and a budget running comfortably into six figures.

Friday, 16 January 2015

swamp of germs

My cold is back for another round.  The Systems Administrator complained last night of renewed streaming eyes and snivelling nose, which might have been down to breathing a face full of fur from Our Ginger, but felt more like a continuation of the cold.  I was fairly sure I was still suffering from something, just because I should not have been so tired on Tuesday.  Even allowing for having lost some fitness over Christmas, I really didn't walk that far.

In the night I woke up and realised that I was very chilly and that I ached all over, and this morning the cold was back, pain in the back of the throat, delicately dripping nose, and aching muscles. The muscle aches are like crop marks revealing archaeological features in a drought, highlighting weak spots in the form of my right forearm that I messed up last month and right knee that's been starting to feel ever so slightly dodgy for a while aching more than the rest.

Colds are so dreary.  They are not life threatening emergencies, except perhaps in the most severely immunologically challenged.  There is the erroneous idea that they are supposed to be over in a fortnight.  Maybe that's why some of my friends don't have a cold nowadays, they have viruses.  You are allowed to have a virus for more than a fortnight.  Then there's the depressing theory that if my immune system was working properly I wouldn't have a cold, making it my fault. I should have had a more positive attitude, or been less stressed, or eaten more oranges, or something.

I cannot even begin to think about all the things I ought to be getting on with, and am not doing. The Systems Administrator admits to a running nose, headache and inability to concentrate, but has gone to fiddle around in the blue shed regardless.  I am merely grateful that the SA's energies extended to organising lunch, since mine don't run beyond sitting in a chair.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

taking notes

The ponds talk is coming on nicely, though I realised at lunchtime that I should probably have got on with writing up the minutes of yesterday evening's music society committee meeting while it was all fresh in my mind.  I took copious notes, but they tend to make more sense when used as memory joggers to what was actually said, rather than reconstructed cold.  I never learned shorthand, but after years of going to investment meetings have developed a consistent set of abbreviations that generally make sense afterwards, and a rapid scribble that can keep up with most discussions.  Each to their own, the secretary of the beekeepers brings her laptop to meetings and types the first rough draft in real time, while the final version of Monday's meeting has just popped into my inbox.

Fast handwriting is a mixed blessing.  The Systems Administrator's is extremely slow, the legacy of a peculiar childhood visual problem that left the SA a right hander trapped in a left hander's body. The SA writes left handed, but the result is as laborious as I would be if I broke my right wrist and was forced to take up the pen with the wrong hand.  The advantage is that the SA has learned to condense, structure and precis, because in exam conditions there was never going to time to get down more than a page and a half of A4 on any question.  I, on the other hand, can waffle for England, with the freedom that the ability to knock out ten pages of script in thirty minutes gives you.  It isn't always a good thing.

How long will it be before exams cease to be handwritten, I wonder?  Youngsters now are children of the screen and the digital age.  They communicate via their phones and use tablets in class. Making exams a test of their ability to get things down on paper is going to seem increasingly anachronistic.

I can almost touch type, as long as it's mostly text; with digits and dollar signs I have to look.  But only on a traditional keyboard.  Give me a touch screen and I'm agonisingly slow, searching for each character and dabbing at it with a finger.  I watch the young ones jabbing away with their thumbs and am aghast at how they do it.  Technology moves on, though, and in fifty years' time they'll probably be just as amazed at their grandchildren's dexterity with a communications system invented by somebody who hasn't yet been born, compared to which their nimble thumbs look as clumsy and slow as my hesitant forefinger.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

talking about ponds

I spent today thinking about ponds.  I am due to talk to a garden club about them, since I was talking to them about something else, and they asked whether I knew anybody who could speak on ponds.  I didn't, but then thought that there probably wasn't anybody who particularly specialised in them locally, and offered to do it myself.  After all, we have two ponds, a Writtle course taught by a couple of the better tutors covered them, and I had the resources of an extensive gardening library and the whole of the internet, and time to prepare.  But the time is now ticking away, and it felt like the right point to start crystallising my thoughts.  Besides, it was freezing outside and my feet are still sore from yesterday's walking about (I will know next time to wear socks as well as thick tights with those boots).

It has struck me since agreeing to do this talk how out of fashion ponds are in the gardening magazines.  Sometimes featured gardens have ponds, but they only ever appear in the photographs. There is almost nothing in the text, ever, about pond maintenance, let alone reviews of pond plants.  When to cut down the stalks of the New Perennial plantings, yes, or how the topiary is clipped, but nothing at all about how you stop the water in those corten steel tanks from turning into green soup.

Fashions in water gardening certainly change, that's another thing that's apparent from reading through a couple of books dating from the mid 1980s, and contrasting them with what's featured at Chelsea in the past decade.  Remember the kidney shaped pool?  Ever consider building one now? Ponds thirty years ago were Arts and Crafts inspired or else Italianate, or amoebic if you wanted to be contemporary.  Where you found a pond you were highly likely to encounter crazy paving as well, and probably a rockery if it were a modern suburban pond rather than Lutyens' finest.  Leaf through Gardens Illustrated and The English Garden now, and if it is a recently created garden rather than an Edwardian restoration you will probably see rusted metal tanks, black stone and infinity edges.

There is actually a lot to be said for installing a tank above ground level, perhaps balanced aesthetically by corresponding blocks of clipped evergreens.  The earth coming out of any hole in the ground mysteriously expands to many times the volume of the hole, and finding somewhere to put all of it is a pain in the neck.  Getting the edges of a hole absolutely dead level is another, and if they are out by even an inch it will be massively visible, and you will have to resort to all sorts of subterfuges to camouflage that telltale strip of liner.  A nice simple tank, prefabricated off-site, that you could always empty and adjust if it ever slumped from the exactly horizontal, could save a lot of bother all round.

The best magazine for giving advice on pond management is the RHS, by a long chalk, and they run regular short features on what you should be doing.  Once a pond is up and running the answer is generally, not very much.  Deal with dead vegetation and fallen leaves in the autumn, the best time for planting is the spring, a big clear out if needed is best done in the autumn but shouldn't be an annual event.  But the RHS seems to have absolutely and implicitly assumed that anybody who wants a pond intends to manage it for maximum wildlife benefit, and only offers advice on managing wildlife ponds.  It is quite interesting to know that pond filters and pumps destroy the tiny organisms on which dragonfly larvae feed and are therefore best avoided, but how do you stop the water in your trendy tank filling with a rich crop of algae, in the absence of shading plants or submerged oxygenators?  And how exactly do you use that black dye that gives a mirror pond effect?

The orthodoxy on using rainwater in preference to tap water is now practically hysterical.  Tap water contains pollutants which once they enter a pond are very difficult to eradicate.  It does what?  They're talking about stuff which is regularly tested and judged fit for human beings to drink, for goodness sake.  It contains chlorine, which evaporates off after a while.  OK, it also contains very low levels of nitrates, but in levels that will wreck the potential ecology of a pond? What about stuff that dissolves in the pond out of the atmosphere?  And how does the advice to use only rainwater for fear of introducing unmanageable levels of nutrients square with the advice that waterlilies are gross feeders and need to be given sachets of plant food in their compost, or home made nutritional balls of clay and bonemeal?

One of my psychology tutors said that people were incapable of concentrating for more than three quarters of an hour, and gave us a mid lecture break accordingly.  Garden club talks shouldn't last more than forty-five minutes to an hour, as after that the audience wants their tea, or their suffering spines can't sit in their village hall seats any longer.  On that basis I should be fine, as I already have over an hour's worth of material.  There are still some gaps, but they say that the best way of learning a subject is to teach it.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

three exhibitions

Finally I got to London to see some exhibitions before they closed.  I'd been meaning to go since the gap between Christmas and the New Year, but ended up busy with other things, and having a cold so that I didn't feel like going anywhere.  So here is the usual mad scramble, with it being little use for you to think Oh, that sounds nice, because it will probably have finished.

The British Library is doing Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination.  You've got a week left to see that one.  I felt very smug at the beginning, because I have read Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, but counterbalancing that was the fact that I hadn't read any of the other eighteenth century Gothick novels featured.  I did better with the nineteenth century, having clocked up the Bronte sisters, Basil as well as The Woman in White, Poe, and even read Lady Audley's secret, but failed to connect when the exhibition reached the film age, since neither of us like horror films.  I wouldn't have thought of counting Dickens as following in the Gothick genre, but the exhibition persuaded me that he did.  I'd have like to see a slightly stronger finishing section as the show brought the legacy of the Gothick into the modern era, as Goth fashion was limited to one Alexander McQueen dress, scarcely mainstream, and why no Addams family?  It's an entertaining exhibition, following on well from their Georgians this time last year, and my enjoyment was only slightly marred by the school trip, shepherded by a teacher with a loud voice, who were trying to fill in worksheets and had nowhere to rest them except on the exhibition cases.  It seemed like quite a well-heeled school, or at least two of the pupils were called Hugo and Caspar, so I thought they might have run to clip boards.

The Royal Academy has Giovanni Battista Moroni on until January 25th, a late sixteenth century painter from Northern Italy.  He produced religious art for the counter-reformation, which was probably practically obligatory in that time and place, but the really appealing paintings are the portraits.  They have reviewed very well and deservedly so.  Moroni could do fabric.  Boy, could he do clothes.  If you enjoy satin, lace, ruffs, ermine, velvet, damask, jewels, and embroidery conjured before your eyes in oil paint you will adore Moroni, but more than that, his people almost speak to you, haughty, guarded, shyly smiling, dull stuffed shirts you'd hope not to be stuck with at a party, smouldering with suppressed violence, kindly, tired.  He was a great portraitist, and portraits are one of my favourite genres.

The Courtauld has Egon Schiele's Radical Nudes, now in their final few days.  They are spiky, energetic, moderately pornographic drawings that pulse with energy and a wonderful economy of line.  Even allowing for the fact that Moroni's sitters have a great many clothes on, while Schiele's don't have any, it is amazing how two artists could come up with such different conclusions, faced with the human body.  Schiele is brilliant but not at all comfortable.  He died in the Spanish flu epidemic when he was only twenty-eight.  The bad news at the Courtauld was that the little Braque I adored has gone.  It was not part of the Courtauld's own collection, but on loan, and I always feared that one day I'd go in and it would have disappeared, and so it has proved.

I walked from Liverpool Street to St Pancras, and thence to Piccadilly and back to Liverpool Street, and fear I might have overdone it.  After the cold, and the short days, I am not so fit as I thought I was, and my right leg started to give out on the return trip.  I'd have climbed on a bus if I'd seen one, but I think there was some sort of bus strike today, and anyway I think my Oyster card is out of credit.

Monday, 12 January 2015

dreams of vegetables and flowers

I wouldn't say it turned out nice, but the day was far less wet and windy than I'd expected it to be from the forecasts.  I went to the dump first thing, since the brown garden waste bin doesn't get emptied over the Christmas period and the bags of weeds were building up.  I'd thought I'd just have time to do that before the rain set in, but when I said so to the Systems Administrator the SA said that looking at the rain radar it was probably not going to rain until later.  Thank you, Met Office, for helping me plan my day.  I went to the dump anyway, and by the time I got back it was still not raining so I carried on weeding the vegetable beds.

I am actually within spitting distance of clearing them, though there are bramble roots in a couple I didn't use last year that will take some digging out.  The best answer to the self seeded ash that keep springing up round the edges of the vegetable area is probably to keep cutting them down, if I can't get the roots out.  Persistent grazing on the new shoots kills established coppice stools, after all, and a young plant has fewer reserves than a mature stool.  Ash dieback seems bound to arrive within a few years anyway, which will finish off most of them.

All I need to do after that is move the last of the great compost mound on to the beds that haven't had any compost for ages, to increase the organic content of the soil.  It's desperately sandy and mere stuff at the moment, but the lettuce farm manages to raise crops on it, without the benefit of compost.  Then I guess the whole thing could do with liming.  I haven't done a pH test since finishing my student dissertation over a decade ago, but looking at the sand, the creeping sorrel, and the quantity of moss growing on the soil where it hadn't been disturbed, I am as sure as can be that it is acid.  The luxuriant health of the three camellias growing by the dustbins is another clue, as is the fact that when the house was still dependent on a private water supply, the well water rotted through two radiators and the metal chain supporting the well pump.

And then nothing stands between me and home grown broad beans, leeks, beetroot, sprouting broccoli, and flowers for cutting, other than the vast reservoir of weed seeds in the soil, drought, leek moth, pigeons, aphids, root flies, slugs, voles and any passing badgers, muntjac or rabbits.  But I shall persevere.  I normally do, at least until April when it all starts to get too much.

The tree surgeon rang late in the afternoon, and he obviously doesn't take the weather forecast awfully seriously either, since he called to say that they would like to come tomorrow morning to drop the unsafe birch tree just inside the wood.  I said that was fine by us, if he was happy with it since it was supposed to be rather windy tomorrow, but he just laughed.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

moth orchid

One of the orchids on the kitchen window sill is coming back into bloom.  I followed the advice in the gardening columns and cut the flower stem back to the next joint below the flowering section, after the last time it bloomed, and then it did nothing for an extraordinarily long time.  I even fed it occasionally with special orchid food, which comes in the form of garish crystals in a tiny pot with an equally tiny spoon whose handle is just too long to fit comfortably inside the pot.  I was beginning to think that perhaps I'd had my lot from that orchid, since a kitchen window in north Essex is not very close to its natural growing conditions, when suddenly the buds at the joints of the old stalk began to thicken, and the plant threw not just one but two new flowering stems from the base.  Now the first flower is fully open, a fleshy confection in pale lilac with deeper lilac veining, and a rosy magenta core.

It is only a supermarket moth orchid, of the sort that the RHS won't even attempt to appraise for the Award of Garden Merit because they are not sold with reliable cultivar names attached.  And the disadvantage of keeping it on the window sill is that the flowers naturally turn to the light, so that all I see of the flower is its pink reverse, unless I swivel the pot slightly.  I am cautious about turning it too far because I've read that a drastic shift in the light source can cause the buds to drop off, but I can look sidelong into the flower when I'm doing the washing up.  There are eleven buds still to open, and some small developing side shoots.

Its neighbour, my other orchid, looked even less promising, having levered itself perilously out of its pot until it dangled low over the sink, while its snipped off old flower stem remained resolutely dormant.  I said to the Systems Administrator that it might be time to buy a new orchid, and the SA should not mind if I got rid of it in case it was one the SA had given me, and the orchid must have heard me, because shortly afterwards it too began to produce a new stem, while the joints of the old one began to swell slowly and reluctantly with new buds.  After making an effort like that I thought I'd better repot it, and was pleased to be able to find a bag of half used orchid compost in the garage, since a new one from a garden centre that took gardening seriously enough to stock specialist composts would have cost me about as much as an entire new orchid from B&Q.

Orchid compost is funny stuff, appearing to consist almost entirely of chopped bark as far as I can see.  I shook the old lumps of bark off the roots, trimmed out those roots that looked dead, and wedged the orchid back in its pot as upright as it would go, anchoring some of its plentiful supply of aerial roots to try and wedge it more firmly.  Later I read in an old RHS magazine that I should not have done that since they would rot, but I'm not convinced, not in the top couple of inches of the chopped bark.  It's pretty aerated in there and doesn't sit wet.

I can't remember where I did get these two orchids.  The SA has given my a couple over the years, though my comments before Christmas that I wouldn't mind another one did not result in a third (but I did get a new digital bedside clock radio that automatically resets the time after power cuts, so I'm not grumbling).  I once bought one reduced to a fiver in B&Q, and my mother re-gifted one to me that had been given to her, saying that none of her windows offered the right combination of light, warmth and humidity and that they always died.  But which the lucky survivors are I couldn't say by now.  I do like orchids, though.  The rest of our house is far too cold for most types, but I might be able to squeeze a third pot in by the kitchen window.  One of my favourite scenes from Raymond Chandler is his meeting with General Sternwood in his greenhouse, surrounded by orchids. One of Chadler's too, he returned to it repeatedly, writing multiple versions.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

friends reunited

Sometimes people disappear out of your life, and sometimes they come back.  So it was with one of the Systems Administrator's school friends.  They went to different universities, but kept in touch by dint of a few term time visits, and of course in the vacations they were living in the same town. This was, if younger readers can imagine it, in the days before Facebook, texts, or snap chat.  If you wanted to get in touch with the SA during university term you had to write, or leave a phone message at the porter's lodge (which is how it fell to a college porter to break the news to me that my grandmother had died).

After university the old school gang would meet sometimes for drinks after work, and when we moved out to north Essex the school friend was already entrenched half an hour's drive up the road in Suffolk, where he ran his own business, so we continued to see each other.  He is an intensely gregarious man, and there were usually other friends of his about, as well as a lodger.  One lodger metamorphosed into a girlfriend, to be succeeded by a different girlfriend, followed by a baby. And gradually we began not to see so much of them.

That was probably for lots of reasons.  We were both commuting, working long hours and perennially knackered, so we didn't put as much effort in as we might have done, and the arrival of the baby put paid to evenings in the pub.  At weekends the Systems Administrator wanted to go sailing, while I was embarking on the garden.  If truth be told neither of us felt we really gelled with the girlfriend, or had the slightest interest in babies.  Meanwhile the rest of the old school gang had also settled down, and had babies, so the after works drinks in London tailed off as well. And so things drifted to the point where we didn't see the old school friend any more.  You don't know when that day is, of course.  It isn't as though there is a grand scene, or act of repudiation, or declaration that it's all over, but at some point the penny drops that you have stopped seeing somebody.

We ran into the old school friend at a couple of reunion parties, the sort of large bash people put on to celebrate big birthdays or just because they can, where you meet people you haven't seen for a decade and declare that you must meet up properly, and then go home and resume your normal lives and don't meet up at all, not even because you don't like each other, but because you are creatures of settled habits and limited spare time whose routines no longer include each other and who live too far apart to go out for a quick drink.  At the second of these parties (actually, I missed the first one because one of the cats was ill) we discovered that the old school friend had moved to Brighton, and were introduced to his son, who is now considerably taller than I am, and his current girlfriend, who looks disconcertingly like the previous one in terms of colouring and features, only about five inches taller.

And then yesterday there was a phone message to say they'd be visiting Colchester today and did we fancy meeting up?  He managed to find our house, which is quite a feat for someone who can't have been here for ten or fifteen years, and we went to a local pub for lunch.  As we set off in our separate cars, in case they wanted to go straight on afterwards, I asked the SA if he could remember the old school friend's new partner's name, but the SA couldn't.  Over lunch it turned out that they were not just visiting to sort out something to do with his old house in Suffolk which he kept on as a rental property when he moved to Brighton, but were moving back to the area.  They are about to go on holiday, then should be exchanging contracts on a house near Stowmarket.  So just like that, the old school friend is back in our lives.

I like his current partner, from what I've seen of her in our two meetings, and luckily the old school friend referred to her by name so we were spared the embarrassment of admitting that we'd both forgotten it.

Friday, 9 January 2015

put off till tomorrow

It has been announced as part of their restructuring and recovery plans that Tesco will no longer be building a new store in Manningtree.  The possibility of a Tesco there has been rumbling around for ages, to the shrill indignation of some locals who said that it would ruin the High Street.  I was asked to a candlelit vigil on the walls at Mistley (my memory may have embroidered the candlelit part, but it was definitely some sort of genteel protest demonstration) to express my opposition to the new store.  I didn't go, on the grounds that I no longer lived in Manningtree but if I had I would probably have shopped in a Tesco if there had been one, since the Co-op wasn't awfully good and kept restricted hours, so it wasn't any of my business to dictate where the inhabitants of Manningtree should shop.  And now, weeks if not days before work was due to start, the project has been pulled.  It just goes to show that sometimes it pays to make a fuss about something, because if you can only put it off for long enough it may go away.

Meanwhile, the solar farm on the far side of the valley looks dreadful, now that most of the panels are in place.  It is far longer than I imagined at the outset that it would be, snaking along the side of the hill, the further panels appearing side on as thin slivers, but the nearer ones as great grey rectangles.  The only consolation is that the worst view is from our bedroom and the entrance to the garden.  From inside the garden it is largely hidden by trees and the boundary hedge, and from the veranda you only see part of it, and that is at the base of the wind turbine which is a blot on the landscape anyway.  You just have to swivel your eyes thirty degrees to the right, and then the view is of fields and ancient woodland.

When the wind turbine went up we received a letter about it first, but I'm sure we didn't get any sort of notification about the solar farm.  I suppose it is too far away from the house.  After all, you don't have a legal right to a view.  It's a shame, though, that the locals didn't kick up more of a fuss and manage to delay the wretched thing for a few months, since government guidelines now state that the right place for large scale solar generation is on commercial rooftops, not farmland, and subsidies for the power generated have been cut.  If only the scheme had been running a year later it would probably never have been built, like the Manningtree Tesco.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

it all adds up

I am sitting at the kitchen table in a state of amazement bordering on shock, as suddenly my divisional beekeeping accounts for 2014 came out.  Like a Sudoku that seems insoluble until you realise that there is only one square in the third column that could be a 2, and after that the rest of it falls steadily into your hands, after a couple of hours of confusing myself trying to disentangle the various elements of the column headed Subs, and much head scratching about the layout of the assets and liabilities, which at first sight seemed impenetrable even though I know I wrote up last year's balance sheet and the one before that, the accounts suddenly fell into place.  Instead of an apparent seven hundred and something pounds discrepancy between the income as calculated according to the annual accounts recommended format, and the income as per my monthly check of the bank statements, suddenly it was down to seven pounds, which I could pin down to a five pound error in subscriptions, and a stray two pounds to do with disease insurance.  It helped once I'd deleted the six hundred and something pounds expenditure on equipment that I'd copied into the income column as well.

In an ideal world there would not be any subscription errors, but in the real world there are a hundred and something people each putting their own unique and idiosyncratic spin on filling in a form, there are single and dual members, there is bee disease insurance for up to three hives included as standard within the basic subscription with the option to top it up.  You can choose to make a donation to bee disease research, beekeeping education or divisional funds.  People fail to add up their forms correctly or decide after they've paid that they want to increase the number of hives insured, so that my spreadsheet is soon populated with odd fifty pence and two pound payments and underpayments.  Memberships are due to be renewed on the first of January, and by the end of February the main flurry of subscriptions is over, giving me ten months to forget how the spreadsheet was laid out before it's time to sit down and pull it all together for the annual accounts.

Subs, it turned out, encompassed everything included in the basic subscription, that is capitation payments to the county and national associations, and the basic disease insurance for up to three hives, plus the divisional subscription, and I'd already split out the donations into their separate categories.  The mixture of single and dual subscriptions means that you can't just go X number of members by Y fee per category and get to the right answer.  The rule on how much insurance dual members get was changed in 2014, which added to the confusion, and in a few cases members renewed by direct bank credit and I never got a copy of their membership forms.  In the circumstances I decided it was OK to invoke the accounting concept of materiality to deal with the odd seven pounds, and lumped it in with divisional subscriptions.

We work to a tight deadline.  The AGM is held less than a month after the financial year end, whereas the music society takes six months over it, and I need to get the books scrutinised before then.  My volunteer auditor is all lined up, though she has very unluckily broken her leg, but says her brain is still working, which is a relief for her and for me as it saves me having to find an alternative willing to work to a demanding timetable at short notice.  Based on previous years' experience the chairman will ask me to keep my remarks extremely brief.  Also based on past experience, most people don't like asking questions about numbers in public, so with any luck the odd seven pounds, and indeed the whole basis of the split between different categories of membership income will pass without comment.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

home hairdresser

I had my hair cut this morning in somebody else's kitchen.  It was a perfectly nice kitchen, with a swivel office chair doing duty for a salon chair, and a pine framed bedroom mirror propped against a worktop to provide me with a reassuring view of the work in progress.  Wasted, in my case, since all I can ever see without my glasses is a pale blurry oval topped with two dark smudges for eyes, topped with greyish fuzz.  I had remembered to wash my hair in the shower before visiting the kitchen, so didn't have to have it washed kneeling in front of somebody else's bath.

I have not taken to home hairdressing, though that is normally done in the customer's own home and not a strange one the other side of Colchester, and nor has my hairdresser, or at least not on a permanent basis.  She rang me a couple of days after Christmas sounding slightly fraught, to say that the owner of the salon where she has worked for over twenty years had closed it down.  This was not the best news for her to receive on Boxing Day, but she had thought for a while that something was afoot, and was finally going to take the plunge and open her own salon.  So she hoped I would stay with her, but in the meantime given that I was booked for a cut early in the New Year, would I mind having my hair cut in her house?

Besides my hairdresser, one of the other senior stylists had worked there for nearly a quarter of a century, and a couple of the younger ones had been there ever since leaving school.  They are going to reform the band, though with my hairdresser's name on the lease, as soon as their new premises, which are not currently a hairdressing salon, have been fitted out with chairs and basins and all the other paraphernalia you need to run a hairdressers, like a credit card machine and a booking system.  It is being furnished with antique pine cupboards instead of chrome and my hairdresser is on the hunt for a chandelier, aiming at a style described as retro shabby chic, which sounds just the thing for a shabby chic middle aged bohemian such as myself.  But anyway, my hairdresser is extremely good at doing my hair and frankly, if she wanted to paint the walls lime green and magenta and plaster them with Joey Essex posters I wouldn't mind, as long as I got my hair cut.

In the meantime the kitchen hair salon worked perfectly well, and with free on-street parking.  My hairdresser said, though, that it confirmed that she didn't want to be a home hairdresser.  She missed her colleagues, and the buzz of the salon, and being inside her own house for that many hours a day was oppressive.  Roll on the opening party, to which all clients would be invited.

It is really not a very nice thing to do to text all your staff on Boxing Day to say that the business is closing with immediate effect, especially when they have all worked their socks off through December.  The run up to Christmas is the peak season for hairdressing as people want to look their best for the party season.  That is probably one reason why the owner closed it then, rake in the peak cashflow and then axe the overheads before the post Christmas quiet period.  And maybe the lease had come to a break point.  Who knows?  Still, as my hairdresser said, the end of one thing is the beginning of something else.  She deserves to do well in her new venture, and my guess is that she will.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

winter beekeeping

I finally went and trickled oxalic acid on the bees.  It was very tempting to leave it another day, since my cold seemed to have staged a resurgence in the night, but you are supposed to do it while they don't have any brood, which generally means shortly after Christmas, and the weather was right this morning, not too windy, not so cold that the bees would freeze and me with them in the time it took to open the hives, but cold enough that they would be clustered together.  The instructions for applying oxalic acid say the temperature must be over 3 degrees Celsius, and tell you to trickle a measured amount over each seam of bees, which means the dense mass of bees you see between the combs when they are all huddled together for warmth.  It is a rather beautiful expression, seam of bees.  Obviously on a relatively warm day when the bees are moving around the hive or even flying then you aren't going to get any seams to trickle over.

If you are a small scale beekeeper then you buy the acid ready mixed to the correct dilution, not long before you plan to use it, since it doesn't keep very well.  It has the effect of killing varroa mites, being much more toxic to them than it is to honey bees.  Bizarrely, despite the UK government's warm words on the importance of pollinators and for reasons best known to themselves, it has not got round to licencing oxalic acid as a veterinary medicine for the treatment of varroa infestations in bee colonies, although it is widely used here and on the Continent and is approved in several European countries.  So you cannot legally apply oxalic acid in the UK as a mite treatment.  But you can apply it as a hive cleanser, so in late December and early in the New Year many UK beekeepers, myself included, go out and cleanse our beehives with oxalic acid.

The bees do not like it.  I can't blame them.  I wouldn't like it myself if in the middle of winter somebody came and lifted the roof of my house and trickled dilute acid over me.  On the whole, given that while they weren't choosing to fly today it was just warm enough that they could if they had to, they were pretty good about it, but they weren't happy.  I wouldn't normally lift the crown boards off the hives at this time of the year, since they are trying to keep warm, but since I had to it was interesting to see how differently the colonies behaved.  The little dark bees, that are always a bit peppy when I inspect them in the summer, though not vicious, were the most active, sending one solitary guard out when I first touched the hive, though she didn't seem to think much of outside and soon went in again.  As I began to trickle they began to spill out above the combs, though not too much, and a few flew around my head.

The lovely, large, late swarm that bulked up rapidly after arriving stayed firmly put inside the hive, as did one of the more productive colonies, merely making a defensive gesture and pointing their bottoms at me.  They both had nice tight clusters, whereas the golden bees that are always late to get going in the spring seemed to be all over the place in their hive.  One of the two colonies that resulted from a bungled split had more seams of bees than I was expecting and looked far stronger than the other.  I meant to unite them at the end of last season, but dithered and put it off until it was too late, so if they both make it through the winter I know which queen to keep next year when I do unite them.

Winter losses vary wildly from year to year and between beekeepers.  Last season I went into the winter with four hives of bees, and all four were still alive come the spring.  One proved to have gone queenless, but did what the textbooks say they will do and experienced beekeepers will warn you they don't always, and made themselves a new queen when given a frame with fresh eggs from another hive.  The same thing happened in a previous year, but they didn't cooperate with the eggs so I lost the colony, which I looked on as a sort of delayed winter loss.  I've never lost more than one hive in a winter, though when you only have three or four that's still a high percentage.  I went into this winter with six colonies as a result of my attempts at swarm control and picking up that late swarm, which is too many.  I don't have time to look after them all and, crucially, I don't have enough equipment.

I prepared my bees diligently for winter.  I fed them, and put guards on their hives to keep mice out, and now I am treating them for their most serious pest - sorry, I meant that I am cleansing their hives.  I want them to be healthy, and am trying to give them every chance to live.  But if they all come through the winter I am going to have to condense them.  And if I should lose one then I'll look on it as a natural winnowing process.

Monday, 5 January 2015

back to it

The trouble with being officially over the worst of my cold was that then I had to muck out the chickens' roosting board, since noticing yesterday that it was badly in need of doing.  I've never known an animal for apparently crapping in its sleep the way chickens do.  For those of you who are not poultry keepers, and have no idea what on earth a roosting board is, hens are instinctively programmed to perch at night, and conventionally designed hen houses include a ledge underneath the perch to catch their droppings.  Then you can clean the board periodically while the rest of the hen house remains relatively clean.  There, now you know.

In the unspoken division of labour that lies at the heart of a long term cohabiting relationship, cleaning out the hen house is my job.  Always has been, always is, unless I suppose if I were to fall seriously ill for more than a week or two.  I can't grumble, since under the same convention the Systems Administrator gets the job of unblocking the drains each time they choke up, and dealing with any half dead things brought in by the cats.  Although the last is not part of the unspoken agreement but vehemently argued by me, that as the SA is keen student of military history and voluntarily watched Saving Private Ryan whose first twenty minutes forged new ground for the graphic depiction of violence in war, and I am extremely squeamish and would as soon undergo root canal surgery as watch Saving Private Ryan, dead and half dead things should fall into the SA's department and not mine.

Then it was back to the hedge.  By a perverse logic, although the most urgent things to trim are the grape vine and the hornbeam hedge by the compost bins, because they could bleed if left too late, I spent today working on the boundary hedge by the entrance.  That was where I'd left the shredder, and I reasoned that it was more efficient to finish in that area including shredding the prunings, then move the equipment, rather than take the shredder up to the meadow and have to bring it back again.  Some of the holly in the hedge has died, which puzzles me slightly since the specimen hollies in the borders all look fine, and the wild ones in the wood are rampant.  Maybe the hollies in the hedge couldn't cope with the competition from the neighbouring hazel and dogwood?  Perhaps in that situation and on such light soil the very dry spells we've had in recent years were just too much for them?

A plain green cordyline, which I grew from seed and had thought was dead after the dire winters and droughts, turned out to be alive and relatively healthy in the back of the bed.  It is not growing, though, and what I really wanted was a big exotic tree on an eight or ten foot trunk, not a rosette at ground level.  I had better feed it lavishly in the spring and see if I can persuade it to get going.  At least it has a powerful will to live, which is a start.  An everygreen euonymus which was supposed to be making a glossy dark green column is still a miserable, straggling little thing.  I saw three doing equally badly in the garden at Fuller's Mill where they had been given a much nicer situation than mine, which settles things.  The euonymus is for the chop.  It isn't a corner of the garden I want to spend much time on or that anyone is going to spend a long time looking at, right by the entrance, and what I want are some big, healthy shrubs that will help screen us from the industrial farming landscape of the polytunnels, while conveying a sense of arrival, which is where the cordyline was supposed to come in.

A cotinus has finally got going, after a slow start, and a camellia leaved holly has started growing vigorously though wonkily.  A pine that went in relatively recently hasn't grown yet, but looks as though it might be poised to do so.  Progress of a sort is being made.  I'd better dose the bed with mushroom compost and blood, fish and bone, take stock of the remaining gaps, and rack my brains as to what might grow in that corner, that could cope with the competition from the hedge, the rubbish soil and the south westerlies.  If it had at least some horticultural or wildlife interest that would be a bonus.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

farewell tree

The Christmas tree has finally departed, in a hail of needles.  Twelfth Night may not be for a couple of days, but it felt as though Christmas were over, and having a dead and rapidly balding Picea abies in the sitting room seemed silly.  I packed the decorations into their boxes, the strange hanged cat and giraffe angel from the long defunct Shaker Shop, the bulk baubles bought in a long plastic tube from B&Q, the middle market ones from John Lewis, the lustrous, red, pointed glass danglers bought many years ago from Heals, and the large glass balls from Cracow which came back on my lap as hand luggage in a white cardboard container like a patisserie box.  The stuffed gingham stars from the Warner Textile Archive Christmas fair, and the heavy metal tree and star from Ikea that are so difficult to see that one or the other is always being retrieved from the tree after it has gone on its last trip to the compost area for shredding, all have disappeared back into the spare bedroom wardrobe for another year.

I am always wistful to see the tree go, when I think how pleased I was with it at the beginning when it first went up, and the Systems Administrator always has to remind me that I would not like it so much if it were a permanent feature.  Which was not an option anyway, not with a fresh shower of leaves dropping off each time you touched it, but it's true.  Christmas trees, like feasts, depend for their effect on the long gaps in between when there isn't one.

The cards went in to three piles, a small pile of those requiring replies, or containing vital details like changes of address written in them, a larger heap to be recycled, and an intermediate pile of glittery ones.  I'm not sure whether you are supposed to put glitter in the paper recycling, or if it counts as a contaminant.

The rest of the world is almost back to normal as well.  On Friday afternoon Radio 5 Live broadcast two hours of the film review programme instead of wall to wall sport, which was a step in the right direction, but with stand-in presenters (although I've noticed that in radio parlance temporary hosts always sit in) instead of Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode.  This morning they had Pienaar's politics with John Pienaar himself, and not Mariella Frostrup or Nikki Bedi covering for him, but not much actual politics because parliament isn't sitting and the politicians are all still mostly on holiday. The second half of the programme was given over to pundits making their political predictions for 2015, and there is one thing you can say about predictions, which is that they are generally wide of the mark.

So that's Christmas and the New Year all tidied away for another year.  In the kitchen there are half a dozen medjool dates left, half a packet of marzipan, and a wedge of brie that is still as solid as when I bought it before Christmas.  The Brussel sprout stalk has gone on the compost heap.  One or possibly two chocolates are still lurking in their box, but everything else is finished, eaten, and the washing up done.  Tomorrow I might declare my cold officially over and totter into the New Year, only four days late.