Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Jack Frost

Only a week ago I was collecting holly to deck my boughs, humming a cheerful carol - “The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,” – and thinking how lovely everything looked in the sunshine.

And now I’m freezing! Too smug, we’ve been punished by the spirits with a toe numbing blast of cold weather. Just in time to see the old year out, or the new one in, depending on your perspective. But there is up side to the frost: everything in the garden looks so magical - chillingly beautiful.

I pull the bedroom curtains and there below me is an alien vision – every single element is frosted white: the trees, the shrubs, grass, plants and climbers. The deciduous trees are the most eye catching at first glance, bare branches silhouetted and dramatic.

The garden is – not to sound too corny – a winter wonderland. I can see where those Hollywood visions of winter landscapes come from now. They always look confected to me but now, as I look outside, I can see that they are based on fact. The garden is straight out of a fairytale.

Later, on closer inspection, every element has been transformed. Ivy leaves have silvery glass edging like sugar frosting. Each leaf stands out in relief, no longer one of many but each a tiny work of art. Their veins – hardly noticed when glossy green was the over-riding effect – appear more pronounced, a fine filigree.

And the bright green that was the Arbutus tree of last week now has what appears to be tiny glass bead decoration. The ‘green’ of the garden has been transformed by Jack Frost, the winter painter and decorator.

A corkscrew hazel – always an interesting outline – is even more charming than usual. The leafless branches stand out against the sky and the catkins that hang from them remind me of twinkling Christmas fairy lights.

The old stone ball – long ago toppled from some grand entrance pillar – looks like it’s been given the designer treatment. The moss that grows on the crumbly parts of it is more defined, more textured. It’s taken on the aspect of crusted moonscape and is eerily attractive.

And look, on an old pane of glass (that has no right to be propped up against the garden room wall) has had the Jack Frost treatment. Fern-like outlines and curling, curving shapes make a most beautiful decoration on it – there is little that can improve on nature.

I look, I admire, but then – the veritable wimp – I slink inside for a nice hot cup of tea. Beauty can give a frosty reception and be a cold companion. And so from the comfort of the fireside I appreciate Jack Frost but hope that he’s off to cast his spell elsewhere tomorrow.


Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas restoration

Today it’s Christmas Eve: as usual chaos reigns everywhere. The roads are choked with traffic, airports are frantic, the towns are packed with shoppers and people throughout the land are wondering if they will get everything done in time for Christmas morning. Then, in a flash, it’s all over.

It’s at times like these when a break outside - a breath of fresh air - is a restorative exercise. Go out and look at our beautiful countryside, soak up that superlative view or study a perfect flower: the simplicity of nature does help us get things into perspective. Christmas will be here tomorrow, gone the day after. The landscape is here to stay.

Yes, how I should hate to be without my own garden: my very own green space, even in winter. It is escape. But it needs to be nurtured to provide what I want from it. I like informal planting held in check with a firm structure: there must be plenty of food for wild life, mature trees and scented shrubs. I like the odd sculpture to juxtapose with the living landscape and strong axes.

I don’t need flowers every month of the year but I do like contrasts in foliage, both in colour and form. And I hate a sparse winter garden and bare earth. Evergreens are feature I think it essential to include in the English garden. It would be very bare without. Clipped shrubs are a particular favourite. They give a crisp outline, a foil for lush, overblown perennials. And in winter they really come into their own, strong geometric shapes in the cold winter light. Snow sprinkled sculptures in the bitterest weather.

Berries and winter flowering shrubs can also make a dramatic statement in these cold winter days. The bright yellow and architectural form of the mahonia is one of my favourite winter shrubs: the vivid berries of the pyracantha a cheerful addition. And one of the most attractive at the moment is the strawberry tree – Arbutus unedo – with its pretty little fruits hanging off the branches.

And I’m feeling as pressured as everyone else so I’m off out into the garden to chop down some ivy. Nothing quite like a little controlled destruction. If I can find some ivy with fruiting bodies that will be perfect for my mantelpiece. Long strands will look pretty draped over picture frames and a big bunch looks great just stuffed in an old bucket. And if I’m very lucky I might find some holly with berries that the birds have missed.

Hopefully, when I’ve had time to slow down, when I’ve brought a little green inside, I shall feel better. Not quite at one with nature, not quite divorced from the crazy tasks we set ourselves at times like these, but definitely a little restored. Ready to enjoy a very merry Christmas.


Saturday, 13 December 2008

Gweilo, A memoir of a Hong Kong childhood

Martin Booth's autobiography, Gweilo, was written at the end of his life and covers three years of his young life in Hong Kong. For research, he relied on memory and a scrap book as well as visits to Hong Kong as an adult.

Not that this is a problem, but the groupie who chose and presented Gweilo probably had a lack of objectivity with regard to this autobiography: as a child she too had travelled on a liner on her way to an exotic new life abroad. She too had been allowed an enormous amount of freedom, of the sort that parents today would shudder at the thought of. So many of the experiences in this autobiography echoed those of her own childhood.

But she chose the book because she felt we would all enjoy it. And we did: it’s an easy and enjoyable enough read. Another of our group has lived in Hong Kong and was delighted with Booth’s descriptions of places. And for those of us who have only visited it is also possible to recognize many of the places that crop up in the book. There is an authenticity to the descriptions of Hong Kong: the places totally believable and colourful.

Many of the stories recounted in the memoir must be apocryphal – they feel it anyway – and quite obviously he could not possibly recall the conversations he writes about. But this brings us to the whole question of ‘what is memoir?’ In his case it is a construct: a reconstruction of a period (1940’s/50’s), its mores, the culture of Hong Kong, its atmosphere and family relationships.

The style of the autobiography is a bit of a hybrid: it veers between travelogue and memoir. He may have chosen style this to beef up the landscape and life in Hong Kong for his readers. I understand that in his other novels he includes facts for the reader so perhaps this is just his way.

I’m aware too, from my father’s descriptions, that Booth’s depiction of the boat journey across the oceans was spot on. And he conveys very well the sense of freedom that all children in the Colonies (and in Britain at that time) enjoyed. His descriptions of places in Hong Kong are colourful and lively, and he manages to get across the magic and excitement of his childhood there.

And Booth captures the moment too: there is a description of his visit to an opium den in the Forbidden City that is an experience that could never happen now. As such it encapsulates a period in the history of Hong Kong that is quite unique. Being British, and in the Services, gave those who were posted there an elevated sense of their own importance and this was true of his father.

His father may well have been pompous and a bully but the one thing in the book that I did not like was his biased portrayal of him. The young Booth was totally in thrall to his mother: she was his hero. His mother was Peter Pan, his father Captain Hook. He admired her - and not without reason - as he portrays her as a woman ahead of her time. But, like many war-time babies, he had spent his early years alone with his mother, his father’s return an unwelcome one.

He shows us a mother who derided her husband, and championed her son. And his character assassination of his father sits uncomfortably on the page. I should have hoped that at stage he wrote the book, and having experienced fatherhood himself, he might have shown us a little more insight into their relationship or at least let the reader make up their own mind about his parents and their relationships.

Gweilo is, after all, as much a book about his parent’s marriage as about his childhood exploits in Hong Kong. As such it captures the time perfectly, as well as the excitement of a childhood spent in an outpost of the British Empire. A good book to buy if you’re planning to visit Hong Kong or want to reminisce about your time spent there.


Sunday, 30 November 2008


Byzantium, such a lovely word: conjures up pictures of a mystical east. We imagine the riches of Constantinople and a great empire. We’re reminded of the amazing architectural and artistic heritage of the period.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy in London reinforces all this. And, with a plethora of icons and other saintly images (and much gold leaf into the bargain), it’s likely to put you in a very Christmassy mood.

I guess, in the 5th century - aeons before TV and advertising - the gold leaf and images did a very good job. The murals and mosaics told particularly good stories pictorially speaking. And, by all accounts, they convinced worshippers that there were riches awaiting them in heaven.

Icons and illuminated manuscripts had one up on these, in my estimation, because they could be carried around. The former were to worship visually, the second possibly read whilst waiting for the next camel train. Either way, they sure beat a glossy magazine and a grubby paperback. But, of course, you don’t have to be so rich to afford these modern day messages. But then nor do they inspire us to higher things, only more consumerism.

One of the most interesting conclusions that emerge form the exhibition is that there are only so many ways that specific religious events can be portrayed in an icon. It seems that the images of Christ, Mary and the Angel had to adhere to classic poses carried down over the centuries. Whether 5th century or 14th century icons, they had to stick to the story.

It’s an interesting fact that the figures in an icon were not meant to depict real people: they were flat, two dimensional, to be prayed in front of. They were meant to be inspirational. I loved the beauty of the icons but my Best Beloved, who thoroughly enjoyed the historical content of the show, found himself iconed-out by the end.

Although, to be fair, the show is not all icons: there is jewellery too, and household items and relics on display as well. One of them, the Antioch Chalice, was rediscovered 100 years ago. Since then it’s inspired several art forms: books and films based on searches for the Holy Grail. But, contrary to speculation, the chalice couldn’t have been the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper as it actually dates from about 500AD. There you are, that just goes to show what advertising and a bit of hype can do.

It’s also obvious from the exhibits that Constantinople (Istanbul to us) was an amazing city. It was called the second Rome, but one halfway between the eastern and western cultures of the day. Their religion was neither Muslim nor Catholic, whilst the architecture drew on both. Think of vast square spaces, enormous domes and rich decoration.

Overall, you get the impression by the end of your visit that the Byzantines were a cosmopolitan lot. You have until 22 March to be dazzled and see for yourself.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The curse of agricultural sprays

It’s all in the news: the ugly face of pesticides and herbicides. At last, farmers are being asked to watch where they spray all that stuff they say they need to make their crops grow. Maybe they do – some of it anyway – but not over all of us, please.

Last week a brave and determined young woman convinced the courts that the excess spray from a neighbouring farm has seriously damaged her health. It should be quite possible before spraying for farmers to give at least 24 (or preferably 48) hours notice that they are about to spray their crops in ones vicinity. At the moment, inconsiderate farmers are spraying next to homes, gardens, schools, playgrounds and parks without any notice.

The droplets are carried in the air and inhaled by all and sundry in the vicinity. Not to mention what it does to our gardens and wild life: it kills stuff off. Fortunately there are farmers who do care about their neighbours and wild life in general. They've reduced intensive farming methods and take care with their spraying whilst those who are organic, only spray with vegetable based products.

And many farmers who wish to increase wildlife on their land (possibly, in part, because they realise the un-sung benefit of it) have re-laid and maintain their mixed hedges. These allow wildlife to move from area to area and forage in safety. Other ‘wild life corridors’ are the uncultivated strips of land alongside field boundaries. Such bio-diverse habitats as these allow insects, birds and small mammals to thrive.

Farmers have been helped to encourage wildlife (whilst reducing food mountains) with ‘set- aside’. This was a EU policy that paid landowners to leave some fields fallow which allowed wild life to flourish on it. Unfortunately, the policy of set-aside has now come to an end and, with it, large areas of wildlife’s little larders and safe accommodation.

So it’s down to us gardeners as never before. Many of us already feed the birds in an effort to keep up their numbers whilst having the pleasure of watching them. And we fill our gardens with plants rich in seeds and berries, nuts and fruit.

But it’s the ‘wild’ side of gardening we need to embrace. Forget neat, embrace natural. Not so easy on a small plot, I grant, but even a tiny corner with a clump of nettles and brambles and the odd rotting log will do wonders for the wild life population. And benefit you too.

Many of our most beautiful butterflies need nettles to breed and ‘weeds’ such as comfrey encourage the bees. Finches will welcome the seeds left on the spent heads of perennials whilst larger birds appreciate fallen nuts and ivy leaves that harbour insects. Small mammals, like dormice, will welcome the blackberries that fruit on wild brambles and hedgehogs will be thankful for a cosy home under a blanket of leaves or a pile of old logs.

And if you want to spray your garden with a good natural feed then those clumps of nettles and leafy comfrey plants will come in handy. The leaves of both are compost activators: add them to your heaps and your compost will rot down much faster. Add the leaves of either to a large water butt and, a few months later, you’ll have the most nutrient rich liquid feed or spray that your plants could ask for. Now that’s what I call a friendly spray.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo

It’s not often that one goes to the theatre and runs out of superlatives to describe a play. This is what happened to me last week. Our book group went to see War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo, which is on at the National Theatre, and we were blown away by the production.

Michael Morpurgo wrote the book, War Horse, for children and adults. He had wanted to write about the madness and carnage of the First World War (1914-1918) and the part that horses had played in it. And the sad fate that became most of the horses in France and Flanders.

The story is told through the eyes of a horse, Joey, who is reared on a Devon farm by a young farm lad, Albert. His father sells the horse to the army and Joey is shipped out to Belgium. There he plays his part in the war as a British cavalry horse that is captured by the Germans and used to pull guns and ambulances.

Albert joins up to find Joey but it seems that both he and Joey will meet a sticky end. However, in the style of all good fairytales, the baddies get their come uppence and everything comes right in the end. We had a group of eleven year olds in front of us and they were transfixed but the eighteen years old behind us (who fidgeted more!) were just as complimentary in their appreciation of the play.

The acting doesn’t stand out particularly but the adaptation and direction of the piece is excellent and the design of the set is absolutely stunning. The story moves very quickly from one scene to another and the devices used (lighting, videos, revolving stage, rolling or rising constructions) are brilliant. It is a visual treat that will hold the interest of not only children but theatre phobics too.

The horses are life size puppets made of jointed wire and steel made by the Handspring Puppet Company, a South African company of marionette makers. This makes sense to me because wire work animals and models are quite an art in Africa. The large puppets are manipulated internally and externally and the nuances, movements and character that the puppeteers manage to imbue them with during the performance is very clever. Their movements are so lifelike, subtle and moving that it is quite enthralling.

A war artist sketches during some of the scenes and moving images are projected on to the backdrop that are reminiscent us of the work of the First World War artists such as Paul Nash. Poems and songs in the play remind us of the First World War poets too. My blog of 11 November 2007 covered the poetry and prose relating to the war: if you like Vera Brittain, AE Houseman etc then just go to the archive for 2007 on your right to read the blog about them. War Horse was particularly moving for us as it was so close to Remembrance Day.

Morpurgo has written over 100 stories, most of them for children, several of which have been made into films. I haven't read any of them but I shall also now read his novel, A Wide Wide Sea. This book is also aimed at children and adults, the story inspired by the fate of the children shipped out to Australia after the Second World War, and the neglect and abuse some of them suffered. The novel is very well thought of and I shall read it as soon as I have the time. But first I shall read War Horse: the play was a real inspiration. We need to be reminded that war ravages not only countries and cultures but every living thing.


Friday, 31 October 2008

The Colour of Autumn

When at last we get a really cold snap of weather the trees get the message and turn their brilliant autumn colours. In England we don’t get those wonderful vibrant reds of the American New England natives but the many different greens of our native trees do take on orange, ochre and lime, yellows, rusts and browns, which give a beautiful, toning tapestry look to the landscape.

In gardens, sumach trees show us just how wonderful those foreign reds can be, and the odd red leaf oak looks stunning; the leaves of our garden cherries only a soft and pale imitation. The first foreigner to turn in my garden is the Amalanchier, which goes from green to mass of pinky red. The beautifully textured leaves of the Cornus kousa Chinensis turn a deep rich claret, those of the Malus a bright, light yellow.

Two of our best native trees for autumn colour are the hornbeam and beech which turn a rich copper, the hornbeam holding onto to its curling, brown paper rustling leaves throughout the winter. The leaves of our large weeping copper beach turn, surprisingly, from copper to almost green before - with the hardest frost – they turn steadily darkest orange to pale tangerine.

The grass beneath gradually becomes a rust-coloured carpet that parts satisfyingly as we walk through it. When the leaves have all fallen we will rake them up and use them as a mulch, piling them in situ in corners of the garden where no wind will send them skittering away. There they will stay until next spring, a thick warm blanket, protecting the bulbs, suppressing the weeds.

The oak tree is the last to turn, the leaves holding stubbornly on until its every neighbour is nearly denuded. Then, by Christmas, the wind will have taken these and sent them all over the garden to settle themselves like blankets under hedges and gates. Or we will find them, damp or dry, piled in between pots and plants.

Then, before we have had time to track them down and consign them to the compost bin, sneaky snow or ice will cover them, making a treacherous surface for the unwary who venture out without wellies.

Some people say that this is their favourite time of year, the air crisp, the colours so beautiful. But for me, Spring must be the best time with its promise of things to come. Although I must admit that the landscape now is mellow - the hedges trimmed, fields ploughed, verges cut - everything ready for a winter rest.

Out walking with Freddie today – himself the foxy colour of fallen leaves – this world seems still and quiet. A rabbit – wary and waiting – goes almost unnoticed against the bare brown earth until, suddenly, snow white tail up, it makes a dash for the hedge and home. Freddie sees it too late. A motionless pheasant - the iridescent emerald and pillar box red of its head surprisingly camouflaged in the landscape – thinks we are getting too near and suddenly scurries across the field to the safety of the wood edge.

The light is beginning to fade: tonight is All Hallows Eve when in days gone by bonfires were lit to the dying sun. Superstitions and ghosts, apples and nuts, games and wine were intertwined, all part of this night. It marks the end of the colourful season of autumn: winter’s ahead.


Sunday, 19 October 2008

Shakespeare's Sonnets & Simon Callow

Simon Callow was performing Shakespeare’s sonnets at the Tonbridge Arts festival. Simon Callow, on locally, how could we pass this up. “Shakespeare’s sonnets contain some of the most famous lines in the English language and yet nothing is known of the story behind them” reads the blurb.

In presenting this one man show, Master/Mistress of my Passion, Callow tries to show the audience that in fact Shakespeare’s sonnets tell a tale – they are a narrative that charts Bill’s infatuation with the ideal of beauty.

Apparently, Shakespeare met and admired Mary Sidney, the Earl of Pembroke’s mother and whilst at her pad saw a painting of her son, William Herbert, and was mesmerised. This boy came to personify the ideal of beauty to Shakespeare although he had yet to meet him. And this is where the sonnets start.

These are poems that praise the beauty and disposition of his young idol and are passionate poems of unrequited love:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare, the poet, is not the same as Shakespeare, the playwright. In the latter he is the writer of brilliant and entertaining plays that explore character. In the former, he is a philosopher investigating the question of Time and its effect. “Time triumphs over flesh, and Love over all”

Callow was quick to point out that Shakspeare’s crush was not a homeoerotic one but solely a passion for beauty. Eventually he met the beautiful young man who was not very impressed with Bill’s ardour and admiration. Young Herbert did not reciprocate the passion Shakespeare felt and Bill was miffed.

Slowly Shakespeare’s passion waned although one is hard pushed to tell from the contents of the sonnets. At the time, he had a mistress and some of the sonnets are addressed to her. Like many poems of the day the content was often very bawdy and, if we could have followed them a little more slowly, we might have been a little more shocked. Finally, Simon says, Bill and Will became good friends. Although, to me, Bill still seemed a little struck.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Simon’s reading of the sonnets were interspersed with madrigals sung by Quintus. These obviously suited the period but also gave the audience a break from the intensity of Callow’s rendition. With two bass, two sopranos, one counter tenor, one tenor and one contra-tenor it was quite a large group who sang the fugues quite beautifully without musical accompaniment. A lute player also performed at intervals although we found this rather tedious.

To really understand and appreciate the sonnets it needs a great deal of scholarship, attention and experience. To hear Shakespeare’s sonnets rendered so theatrically – in true Shakespearian actor style – meant that they were a little difficult to absorb. To have followed the written word would have helped or, if we had known what homework to do, we could have read them beforehand and got our ear in. It meant that much of it went over our heads.

In fact, our group of ten found the entire programme a little long. I suspect that many of us were remembering Callow’s excellent show on the life of Dickens. It had been on in the West End and the costume and content was really quite splendid. This show, it was felt, was but a pale imitation.

But Simon Callow did get me thinking: here was a reason to read the sonnets again armed with a little more knowledge about their background. And to have a man of Callow’s fame and ability, here, in the sticks, spouting Shakespeare: we would have been Philistines not to go.


Sunday, 12 October 2008

Put your faith in trees, not paper

In an uncertain world there are some things that are givens and the best of these have had as little to do with man’s tinkering as possible. One of them is the oak tree - a symbol of merry olde England if ever there was one. In a world that's in a constant state of flux at the moment it’s reassuring to learn that a natural feature can still be relied on to enhance our environment.

Oaks were native to Britain in the prehistoric era before they were finished off by the ice-age and driven southwards to warmer climes. Then, gradually, they made their way up from the Med into northern Europe again.

The tree was sacred to the Anglo-Saxons and Druids and by the middle ages the native oak, Quercus robur, grew extensively in woodlands throughout the south east and central areas of England. For centuries it's been used for timber framed houses and barns, cathedrals and churches: the wood warmed houses, the tannins preserved leather, ships were built of oak timbers.

But although we can now manufacture materials as durable as oak and more stable it is good to know that the oak tree still has a vitally important role to play. As far as biodiversity is concerned, the native oak tree supports more wildlife than almost any other tree. Over 400 species of insects and fungi can exist on one specimen which in turn attracts a wide variety of feeding birds and many small mammals.

The Turkey Oak, Quercus cerris, a native of southern Europe and further east, was re-introduced to northern Europe in the eighteenth century. It reached Britain in 1735 at the time of Trafalgar in an attempt to boost oak supplies for ship’s timbers. It is possibly the fastest growing of all oaks in this country and is easily identified by the winter buds and the acorn cups being hairy.

As our climate changes we have come to realise that the return of this oak may help our birdlife survive warmer temperatures. The Turkey oak’s particular claim to be truly beneficial is because gall-wasps like to lay their eggs on it. A gall forms round the eggs to protect them and birds (those such as tits which are now laying earlier in the year due to a warmer climate) rely on them to feed their young.

The oak has always featured in literature and here is a rhyme by Geoffrey Grigson that demonstrates just what a large part it played, from cradle to grave, in the lives of men throughout history.

Wae's me, wae's me!
The acorn is not yet
Fallen from the tree,
That's to grow the wood,
That's to make the cradle.
That's to rock the bairn,
That's to grow to a man
That's to lay me.

And it is still playing an important role in all our lives: it’s a small ecosystem all on its own and something we can continue to put our faith in. No matter what state your finances you can now gather an acorn, plant it deep in the earth and watch something worthwhile grow.


Monday, 29 September 2008

Michaelmas, an autumn festival

Today is Michaelmas Day: known in the Christian church as the festival of St Michael and All Angels it is, more simply, the feast of St Michael, the Prince of Angels. The Archangel Michael was a scary being. No messenger he. No, he commanded the War in Heaven. He could be portrayed as quite terrible in that old sense of the word: causing terror.

Marble statues of angels are pure white, beautiful and perfect of face and body. And paintings too show us angels with beautific expressions, golden auras, flowing white robes and golden wings and so we think of them as guiding man kindly between birth and death. There is supposed to be a unity of men and angels, the natural and the supernatural, and in days or yore this unity was celebrated on Michaelmas Day.

But the festival of St Michael that most of us are aware of is that of celebrating the end of harvest. To quote my blog of last year: it was on this day that servants were hired, farms changed hands and magistrates were appointed. And many tenant farmers presented their landlord with a goose as a gift or sometimes in lieu of rent. A goose was a gift to prize: dried, salted or pickled it would last through winter and roasted goose was a meal to celebrate with.

You can simply look in my blog archive (in the right hand column) to read what more I said then so I shan’t repeat myself. Very often the only time we remember Michaelmas now is when we think of the Michaelmas daisy. The daisy was that simple white flower with a yellow centre first mentioned in literature by Chaucer. The cultivated ones we know best are the asters in shades of rose red and varying shades of mauve that are such a welcome splash of colour in our borders at this time of year.

These perennials – given some sun and half decent soil – will grow nearly anywhere including coastal regions. But, beware, they can become very annoyingly invasive and absolute stink to get rid of. However, they are like manna from heaven to wildlife and worth giving a forgotten corner to just for that. Bees, butterflies and seed loving birds like finches absolutely love them, as do they the sedums that are so colourful now.

The sight of Michaelmas daisies in flower reminds us that autumn is approaching. Rosy apples fall from the tree, cobnuts and hazel nuts (those the squirrels have not filched) are collected, blackberries fruit in the hedgerows and leaves begin to turn colour. John Keats (1795-1821) describes this time of year beautifully in his ode, To Autumn. Here is the first verse:

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.


Sunday, 21 September 2008

The Girls by Lori Lansens

The groupie who chose The Girls for our September book group meeting said she did so because the novel is, in her opinion, an amazing feat of imagination. And very well written too. Like the subject or not, there can be few who dispute either of these statements.

Rose and Ruby are born naturally but emerged joined at the head. Their teenage mother – who must have been in a terrible state after such a birth – disappears and the saintly nurse, Lovey, who delivered them, wins guardianship. With her Slovakian husband, Stash, she raises them on her Ontario farm to live as independent and normal a life as is possible.

A potential reader could be forgiven for wondering:
a. Who wants to read about craniopagus twins
b. Do I want to read what can only be a heart-rending and possibly mawkish story
c. Can such an extraordinary tale end in anything but grief.
I know I thought these things.

But Lori Lansens manages to pull it off: the story begins when the girls are 29 years old, and Rose (the clever one) about to start her autobiography. She convinces Ruby (the pretty one) to write her side of the story too and this is the way the novel is structured: Rose’s romantic chapters interspersed now and then with Ruby’s down-to-earth ones.

The twins share a major artery and can never be separated. Rose has to carry her sister on her hip making Ruby appear to be more reliant on Rose than vice versa. But Lansens manages to convey how much the girls rely on each other - spiritually as well as physically - and how both have to compromise to survive life as a conjoined twin. Eventually, the weaker of the twins emerges as the stronger.

The theme of the novel could be seen to be all about connections and dependency: that of Rose and Ruby is of course obvious but there is also their dependency and connection to Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, and theirs for each other; their neighbour Mrs Merkel and her lost son Larry, Stash and his lost family in Slovakia, their ‘cousin’ Nick and the girls.

Lansens throws in some surprising – and not altogether successful extras – Rose has a child and Stash takes the family to a weird family gathering in Slovakia; Mrs Merkel and Stash have an affair. And when the character Nick – a useless ex-con – undergoes a complete character change when he begins to care for the twins it seems a rather obvious tale of rehabilitation.

But Lansens manages to convey that Rose and Ruby, with their separate brains, personalities, interests and views are like any pair of sisters could be. And what she also convinces us of is the deep love they have for each other, for their adoptive parents, the parents love for the girls and the deep feelings they all have of belonging and caring for the landscape they live in.

Soon we are convinced that the lives of these conjoined twins are lives that have been worth the living, that pity is not part of it and that humour, love and achievement is. It is, finally, a difficult book to put down.


Monday, 8 September 2008

Summer End

We have had a rotten summer here in the UK. It must be the wettest on record. We did make the most of the odd week of sunshine and grasped greedily at the occasional sunny day, only too aware that summer can be elusive. And we were right.

With an economic turndown and a growing awareness of carbon footprints – well carbon wings – many families took their annual holiday in dear old Blighty this year. By now they will remember why they usually holiday somewhere the weather is more predictable and reliable.

The only benefit has been that the garden has not needed watering. In fact it is looking very, very green. However, the blowsy and pastel colours have now gone from most of the beds and borders: a few roses throw up a welcome colourful bloom and one or two perennials soldier on but that’s about it.

But thank goodness I’ve got my hot bed which has really come into its own: I developed it about five years ago using shrubs from around the garden, interspersing them with perennials. In a year it looked established, now it looks really mature.

The backbone is a purple hazel (Corylus avellana purpurea) which has grown to quite a tree. The purple leaves are a great foil for the green border that is its backdrop and a marvellous foil for the orange and yellow flowering perennials in front of it. A Golden Elder (Sambucus aurea), and Pheasants Eye (Leycesteria formosa) provide dramatic deciduous colour and an evergreen Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) and Mahonia complete the shrubs.

Tall grasses (Miscanthus sinensis, Stipa gigantea and Calamagrotis) and low bronze mounds of Carex comans add movement and lightness whilst a large claret phormium and smaller rust-red cordyline provide strong vertical elements.

In July, in between yellow and orange daisies of rudbeckias and heleniums, orange day lilies and red hot pokers provided bright splashes of colour. For ground cover there were mounds of flowering geraniums and Lady’s mantle and a very thick layer of wood chippings, weathered to a pleasing dark brown.

But now, when everything else in the garden is looking faded and sad, the dead-headed daisies and geraniums in the hot border are beginning to flower again and the silver feather grass has beautiful silky heads. And suddenly some bright beacons burst into flower too, warm enough to cheer a failing heart: bright flame coloured crocosmia makes a stunning statement, lime green eucomis looks wonderfully exotic and a beautiful late-flowering toffee coloured kniphofia is elegant and unusual.

And these all remind me so much of days out at Kirstenbosch - the South African world famous botanical garden in Cape Town - that I find my spirits lifting despite the wet and grey skies. Summer is ending with a splash - in every way!


Friday, 29 August 2008

Favourite Books

It’s August; holiday time. Our book group doesn’t meet in the school summer holidays. This is historical. In fact, as our children are no longer young, we can actually sometimes manage to finish a book at a sitting even though they are at home. We don’t really need that break any more. So when one groupie invited us all for a social evening – albeit with a literary theme - we were all up for it. And everyone did their homework.

The suggestion was that we all note down our favourite books. I was one of those who was actually up against it time-wise and so cheated by reading out my blog (The 3 R’s: reading, reading and re-reading) of February 2007. Strangely – or perhaps not - most people mirrored my views. Nearly everyone chose books that reflected different stages in their lives.

Enid Blyton came out as a clear winner in the childhood choice: today it would be Rowling for much the same reasons. They were books with a clear structure, a story that was full of excitement with a good moral underlying it all. Many said that it was the Enid Blyton books that got them reading: the plots are sequential – not too many time shifts - so it’s not necessary to re-read great sections every time the story is picked up again.

A few of the same books cropped up as ones we enjoyed as teenagers: The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mocking Bird for example. And then most of us seemed to have enjoyed books such as The Great Gatsby and Gone With the Wind, and easily digestible books such as those by the Mitfords, Laurie Lee or H E Bates.

I was surprised, though, at how many of us chose Thomas Hardy as a favourite author. So many people immediately dismiss his works as too lengthy and descriptive. Perhaps it’s because Hardy was often the exam choice when we were at school and maybe because we had to read the whole book we got a taste for it.

On the other hand, no-one mentioned Dickens: another author who often gets a bad press as ‘difficult’ to read. Nothing could be further from the truth. His novels are a doddle, amusing and colourful. George Elliot, on the other hand, cropped up in several groupies’ choices.

Overall, Midnight’s Children – which had been one of our book group choices - was the clear favourite. Others that several groupies chose were My Name is Asher Lev, The God of Small Things, Wuthering Heights, anything by Margaret Attwood or Jane Austen.

For re-reading Dorothy Dunnant was mentioned by a few, as was The Alexandria Quartet, Music & Silence by Rose Tremain and The Mill Stone by Margaret Drabble. Latterly – so it must be an age thing – several groupies are enjoying biographies: two we’ve read in the group - Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire and Samuel Pepys – were both mentioned by more than one member.

It was a very interesting exercise and a great way to remind each other of books we had loved, those that we should read and those we intend to: a very successful evening altogether.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Lammas festival

What a lovely word, Lammas; it’s derived from Anglo-Saxon and means ‘loaf-mass’, and it was one of the four agricultural festivals. Held on the first Sunday in August it was when loaves made form the first ripened corn would traditionally have been consecrated.

Lammas was a heathen Anglo-Saxon festival, which ebbed and flowed in popularity but completely disappeared at the Reformation. Many believe that prior to that Lammas was the Celtic festival of Lughnasadhl – the festival of the Sun God. Latterly, the Church of England has begun to celebrate agricultural festivals such as this one again.

But in all farming communities the harvest, cutting of the corn, the in-gathering, has always been an event to celebrate. Up until the middle of the last century harvest manikins - corn dollies – were still made from last ears of cut corn to lament the Corn Spirit. This corn dolly was then ploughed back into the soil the following year to ensure a good crop. We are less superstitious now.

Now that the wheat is grown in enormous, hedge-less fields and cut by one man in a giant machine all the community involvement and romance of the harvest has disappeared. Up until a hundred years ago there would have been no serious work on the farm for a week after the harvest was brought in. It was Harvest Home: time to give thanks for the safely gathered crop after all the hard work and worry that the weather might spoil it.

Bringing in the crop involved everyone on the farm, other farms, and villagers too. The hay had to be reaped, tied, loaded, carted and stored. The wagon and horses used to carry the corn would have been decorated with ribbons and flowers, with the children lifted on top, and the journey home accompanied with songs and laughter. At home there would be beer and cake before the corn was taken to be stacked.

In the evening it was time to celebrate at length: a supper of roast beef and plum-pudding with plenty of beer and cider to wash it down would have been followed by an evening of speeches and songs, rhymes and ballads. When men worked the land with their hands and their horses, when they relied on what they reaped to keep them for the coming year, they appreciated the results and celebrated their accomplishments. I’m all for progress but we’ve lost a lot of joy in the process.

But in literature we still come across the stories of bringing in the harvest, take Thomas Hardy’s novels for one. And in art we have plenty of reminders, Constable immediately springs to mind. And the Corn Spirit of pagan times has been called John Barleycorn, celebrated in ballads throughout Britain.

Robert Burns wrote a song based on old ballads to John Barleycorn – barley of course was used to brew beer which is why so many pubs are called The John Barleycorn and why the teetotal Burns was agin him – and here are the first and last verses.

There were three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand,
And may his great prosperity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland.

In many parts of the country there are John Barleycorn festivals again – perhaps we are trying to get back to our roots after all and celebrate our crops again. I’ll drink to that!


Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri

One of our book groupies has been to India and fallen in love with it. Now, back in grey skied England, she enjoys books about India instead, revelling in their colourful, magical quality. And The Death of Vishnu- her choice - certainly gets that across.

Vishnu – in this case no God – is homeless and lives on a landing of a small block of flats. He relies on the owners – four families – to keep him alive in return for errands. Unfortunately, they are not very successful because he lies dying on the landing. As he lies comatose he relives, as in a dream, his past: his mother, his lover and his life.

In alternating chapters of the book we are introduced to the families and how they interact with each other, and how they react to Vishnu in his dying state. Apparently, in Indian mythology, the God Vishnu is there to establish order when there is friction: in this story the man Vishnu – or rather his imminent demise – creates disorder where there is friction.

The inhabitants of the apartments represent a microcosm of life in Mumbai: Hindu and Muslim living in close proximity to each other, with all those unable to afford a flat living wherever they can, doing whatever they can to survive.

Mrs Asrani and Mrs Pathak share a kitchen but this close-proximity causes tension. They are arch rivals and vie for one-upmanship but their efforts are doomed. Both have ineffectual, hen-pecked husbands who constantly have to subjugate their finer feelings to agree with the petty demands of their wives. These are comedy characters, and although Sunil illuminates the small time mentality of these people and their lives it is difficult to empathise with them.

Their respective offspring, looking for romance and escape, rashly decide to elope. Their disappearance causes much speculation and leads to the most interesting part – and denouement - of the book. Mr Jamal, the boy’s father, is a Muslim but has a Hindu vision. This religious awakening leaves him more oblivious than ever to his wife’s feelings, which eventually has serious results.

The Death of Vishnu was not badly written but the characters were stereotypical caricatures that did not develop: it read like a TV sitcom. No-one felt any warmth towards the characters and many felt this was because they were not well drawn. However, the novel did give the reader a glimpse of how the different castes and religions rub along in India and, to its credit, ‘politics’ were refreshingly missing.

It was the dream sequence chapters – steadily more surreal and lurid as the book progressed – that annoyed many of the book group. They were rambling – as many dreams are of course – and some thought too odd to bear any resemblance to what Vishnu’s life could have been. Fortunately, those who did quite enjoy this aspect of the book reassured our host – who was feeling a little unsure of the wisdom of her choice - that the book had been worth reading!

The Death of Vishnu had certainly been wildly hyped: it is a poor man’s Midnight Children, a pale God of Small Things. Perhaps in Manil Suri’s next novel he will manage to balance creativity with believability and pull it off. I hope so.


Sunday, 20 July 2008

Summer: picnic and open air concert time

Only the Brits would do something this daft: I ask you, would any sane person pay good money to sit in the open air - freezing cold, rain drizzling down their necks – to eat a picnic and listen to music? Are we a nation so in love with the idea of al fresco music and meals that we will suffer for it? I’ve been to two operas and a jazz concert this summer so I should know.

Going to these concerts is like embarking on an artic expedition and takes at least half a day to organise all the gear necessary, even if you’ve decided to cheat and just buy the food already prepared. It takes all day if you’ve decided to show-off, prepare the dishes from scratch and serve them in style.

Firstly all the stuff you’ve been storing in the car boot (a suit for the cleaners, several sample tiles to return, various M&S articles of clothing too small or too large to go back when you next pass the store, a soggy box of ├ęclairs that must have fallen out of the supermarket bag and some old shoes for the re-cycle bin) has to be taken out.

Then in go the wellies, brollies, waterproofs and plastic sheet: that’s just the ‘cater for all eventualities’ weather bit. Next it’s folding table (if they’re allowed), collapsible chairs, picnic rug and rubbish bag. An ice box to hold all the food and a bag for the picnic set and cutlery, paper napkins and glasses are next. If you’re showing off, its lanterns, tablecloths and china too.

Booze is a category all its own – insulated bags are essential with plenty of water for the lucky person who draws the short straw and has to drive back. Forget a bottle opener at your peril. When you get there you have to lug all this stuff at least a quarter of a mile and do battle to find a space where you can see the stage. Because all this takes so long you will probably only have time to eat one course before the music begins.

During the interval you will pick your way to the loos and, if the queue was not too long, find some of the second course left when you get back to your party. When the music starts again you and every other person there will spend the first five minutes donning every article of clothing they have with them, finishing off with the picnic rug.

With luck the sound system is man enough to cater for an enormous space with nothing to bounce off and you can actually hear it. And perhaps your luck is really in and its clap-along music, which will at least keep your hands warm: this is an English summer. What fun!

Picture this: a day out in the country in the 1960’s. A green Morris Minor pulls up on a roadside verge, just beside a farm gate. Dad gets out, and from the boot comes a folding melamine topped table, two low canvas fold-up chairs, a rug, a thermos flask and a picnic basket. Mum gives instructions and everyone gives a helping hand to construct a little picnic scene.

Mum and dad drink tea, the children sip squash and everyone tucks into the fish paste sandwiches whilst the wind flaps the corners of the rug that the children now sit on and grey clouds scud over head. Every now and then a cow moos, a horse whinnies and they hear a bird sing. The portable radio is tuned in to family favourites. It is downright uncomfortable and the quality of the country chorus and the music is dubious but they sit it out. Our parents weren't quitters.

For several years my daughter went to Glastonbury: I don’t think there was one year when it didn’t rain – it usually poured - but it didn’t put her off. She just took her tent and kettle, her gumboots and lots of black plastic sacks. What was a little bit of rain and a river of mud when you could listen to bands all day and all night and eat on the hoof.

Thus are the next generation of ‘open air concert and picnic’ lovers born. The reason we keep going to open air concerts in spite of the weather may just be the triumph of hope over adversity or it could be plain old tradition. Either way, only the Brits who would do something so daft.


Sunday, 13 July 2008

The green, green grass of home

I’ve just spent a wonderfully lazy week in the south of France and it was great. I loved the picturesque sea views, the craggy coastline, the neat vineyards and colourful flowers. But arriving back I realise one of the things I love most about England - the green landscape. And after all the rain we’ve had here it’s a very GREEN landscape.

One of the pleasures of travel for me is to see the gardens of the area I’m visiting. We were staying about half an hour from St Tropez but, although well known for its lavender and olives, it's not an area well known for gardens.

In the small hillside towns you can glimpse the most charming little courtyards – all the more intriguing for having to peer over walls to see them. Clipped evergreens grow in containers, geraniums on doorsteps or in window boxes, bougainvillea smothers walls, oleander bushes line the roads, plumbago tumbles over fences and wisteria clothes facades: all very colourful and pretty.

But there are few, if any, gardens open to the public, unlike further along the coast near Nice. Before I left I did check in my little book on the gardens of France if there was anything close that we could visit and the only thing that came up was a garden on the Iles de Porquerolles, close to Hyeres.

Of course we did visit it and an excellent day out it was too: very worthily the French State has bought up most of the island of Porquerolles and it is now a Parc National. The island – which has woods, orchards and vineyards as well as beaches, a marina and village with a beautiful place and lots of restaurants and cafes - allows no cars and no development. The Conservatoir Botanique National de Porquerolles protects the environment and also the ecology of the island. They are doing everything they can to be as ‘green’ as they can, including using only organic methods of weed and pest control.

The island is on the same latitude as Cap Corse (daily sunshine and very mild winters) and a ‘Mediterranean Garden’ has been established there to show what plants can be grown in such a climate. If you want to find out what plants will survive and flourish then this is the place to find examples of them. But, although of horticultural importance, it is not a pleasure garden that anyone would visit to see how beautiful French gardens can be.

It’s the bare, brown earth - parched and dry - that leaves me cold, that and the lack of lush greenery. But it doesn’t have to be green underfoot: I can happily live with only gravel instead of grass but there has to be plenty of other green - whether on trees, plants or hedges - to fill the space. I’m obviously conditioned to green.

Before I went away I was desperate for some sunshine, it’s so very cheering as well as warming. And I got plenty of sun - recharged my battery – and loved opening the windows each morning to a beautiful blue and cloudless sky. But, returning to the inevitable rain I gave a very Gallic shrug, tans pis, this is why it’s so very refreshingly green here. There’s nothing quite like the green grass of home.


Monday, 30 June 2008

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, would probably never be published today. The author would be told that it was too dense, too long and that it didn’t have enough plot. So we are very lucky that publishers of the past had a different take on literature: novels could just be a pleasure to read - as this one was.

There are three main characters in the novel and a host of others so colourful that they could have had a novel based on them alone. The story starts with the death of one, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, who leaves a letter for one of the central characters, Dr Juvenal Urbino. Urbino finds the letter so disturbing that he does the unthinkable and changes the pattern of his day

Some critics wonder if this novel is tragedy or soap opera? It is both. Others describe it as tragic and magical, erotic and absurd. It certainly has some of this in it. But it is essentially a love story: married love, erotic love, yearning love and love that stands the test of time. And the three central characters, Urbino, his wife Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, all experience different forms of love.

Florentino Ariza is perhaps the main character: he is a dreamer, romantic, desperate in his search for closeness and love. He thinks love is all and falls deeply in love with Fermina when she is only a girl but is thwarted in his attempt to marry her. He spends his entire life waiting for the time when she will be his. Although in the meantime he experiences physical love – often carnal and erotic experiences – he never loses sight of the one he is ‘keeping’ himself for.

Unlike Florentino, Urbino appears to be rational but it turns out that his view of life and marriage is just as strange. He thinks that ‘the most important thing in a marriage is not happiness, but stability’. On their marriage, Fermina and Urbino do not love each other but Urbino thinks that in time ‘there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love”.

As a girl Fermina Daza enjoys the idea of being in love with Florentino: when she realises it was an infatuation she marries Urbino, who is everything Florentino is not. He has position, power, good looks, style and she enjoys what these benefits bring throughout her marriage and believes that they finally love each other. They certainly rely on each other. However, when her husband dies she wonders if she ever did love Urbino. And Florentino has his chance.

Our host – who chose this book – did a sizeable amount of research regarding the history of the setting and the author’s life: the former was fascinating, the latter illuminating. It would be very interesting to read about the history of Columbia before reading the book, because although we all know it is beset by drug dealing gangs, kidnappings and killings we were surprised to find that this has all been going on for hundreds of years!

But, it would probably not such a good idea to know all the personal life of the author beforehand as it might colour the reader’s view of the characters and their relationships too much. Marquez, born in 1928, started writing Love in the Time of Cholera in 1965. How come a guy, and one of only 37, knew so much about women and marriage? He was brought up by his grandmother and was surrounded by aunts which might explain it.

Marquez describes all the minutiae of married life brilliantly, often with humour. And he describes ageing in a very unsentimental way but so sympathetically. His observation is astute. He shows an understanding of the way that women tick which is not always the case in novels about women written by men.

Our groupies all loved the book but there were one or two question marks: we were not convinced of the need for the fleeting initial character, Jeremiah, nor do we ever get to hear what this letter contains, which annoyed some of us. Nor did we think that the introduction of the character, America, was necessary and most of us thought it introduced a jarring note. But, overall, those who had read it last twenty odd years ago, or those who were reading it for the first time, all thought it should definitely be on everyone’s Must Read list.


Monday, 23 June 2008

Elder Weeds

This is the best of summer time but the worst of times: the evenings are cool but long – I can work in the garden till after 9 o’clock - but it’s past 21st June, the longest day. So, before the evenings warm up and I have a chance to sit out at night and enjoy the summer scents with a glass of sauvignon blanc, the long evenings will be gone.

And gone before I’ve conquered the weeds. Everything in the garden has grown like mad this year – I’m sure I say this every year – but we have had weather weeds love: warm and wet. I am in the beds and borders until dusk hacking them back, pulling them out by their roots, un-entangling them from the plants and cursing them to kingdom come.

Bindweed is my biggest problem because if I leave the tiniest piece of root in the soil it will come back sure as eggs is eggs. Then there are nettles, I like to leave some in a wild area for the butterflies, but the pesky things know no bounds and encroach on the borders. And finally, after many smug years, we have fallen prey to ground elder.

I mistakenly thought it was some angelica that had self-seeded - prettily shaped bright green leaf - but by the time I realised my mistake the stuff had spread everywhere. It had obviously sneaked its way past me in a potted plant and now I’m stuck with it. It creeps until its invaded everywhere and it’s a real menace to get rid of. I shall still be battling years from now.

But not all weeds are a total menace. Take elderflowers; not the sought after Sambucus nigra with its wonderful dark leaves or its relative, Sambucus canadensis ‘Aurea’, with its bright yellow-green ones but plain old Sambucus canadensis. Several of them have self-seeded in the garden and although they grow at an alarming rate of knots - and keep coming back if not dug up with all roots – they do produce wonderful flat white panicles that look very attractive, followed by lots of dark crimson berries that the birds love.

And those plate-like flowers make the most marvellous drinks. For years I made elderflower champagne but it was very temperamental - the gas makes the bottles unstable. I finally stopped when one batch nearly gave us heart failure as it exploded in the garden shed. Quite apart from the shock, what a mess! I also once made elderberry cordial but it took a mountain of berries to produce a very small bottle of cordial: not worth the effort.

But, elderflower cordial is quite another matter: it couldn’t be quicker or easier to make and it’s very well behaved - lasts for years! The flowers are out in mid-June in time to make the cordial and store it for a few weeks - diluted with ten times the amount of sparkling water - when it makes a very refreshing cooler on warm summer days. It’s also good poured over ice-cream or used with gooseberry puddings.

To make it, water and sugar are boiled to a syrup, citric acid and lemon juice added, and about 20 heads of flowers steeped in the mixture for 24 hours. Hey presto – elderflower cordial. Of course it always needs more bottles than I have and there is a mad scrabble emptying dregs from anything I can find: the presentable bottles make nice gifts when visiting friends. Elderflower: a weed to grapple with but a weed with a heart.


Monday, 16 June 2008

The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

It's always pleasing to get an invitation to the Summer Show at the Royal Academy of Arts and it’s good fun to go but .....it’s not the sort of show that you want to pay a load of good money to see!

Why not? Well, it’s a jumble: a mish mash of different tastes, a rag bag of artists’ work, a mix of medias with a number of items of dubious quality. But, it’s for just this reason that many will tell you that this is why they like to go.

This year a number of people have curated a gallery with what they consider are interesting or arresting works, by amateur or well-known artists. They are artists, art historians or others with the reputation for artistic taste. Taste is so subjective though: the very first gallery celebrates the art of R.B.Kitaj, if celebrates is the right word. Fortunately, after that it could only get better.

In the Large Weston Room the walls were covered with the questionable, the mundane, the good and the very good. The gallery is a mixture of etching, aquatints, woodcuts, silk screens, lithographs and photographs, most of them affordable. Different styles and media seemed to be put together any old way but the room was packed with visitors who were finding it all rather interesting.

Next to it was the Small Weston Room, where oils and acrylics completely covered the walls, all cheek by jowl in any old order. Some works were very boring, others ok but then – what joy – a hidden pearl: a Bernard Dunstan, a Diana Armfield oil. Then a watercolour by Leslie Worth and my impression of the event was definitely on the up.

After a Pimms and a packet of crisps in the next gallery – very bright and very large canvases there – I was definitely feeling in a more mellow mood. But it wasn’t always easy to keep that way. Gallery VI was devoted to architecture – models, drawings, photographs – and was inspiring and interesting (and that wasn’t the booze talking) and the next gallery provided me with more to inspire and delight, some oils of landscapes by Donald Hamilton Fraser and Ivor Abrahams’ figures.

But gallery VIII was a little less calming: Tracey Emin was the curator and she was out to shock. One or two pieces did just that with nothing else to them they seemed a bit pointless but, surprisingly, a truly shock factor sculpture of pink hands and pink members – which looked nothing but a mess of pink parts – very cleverly produced two silhouettes of heads when projected on to the wall!

And in one of the next galleries I was really impressed by the postcode collages by David Mach – made of millions of slithers and cut-outs of postcards the effect is multi-layered in every sense of the word. Yes, they were art and they were stunning to boot. And there was wit: Margaret Calvert’s, ‘Woman at Work’, was one.

One reason the show is so popular with members of the public is that most of the works on display are for sale. Many of the more modestly priced pieces by well known artists who are Royal Academicians – mostly numbered prints – are covered with little red stickers on the very first morning. I did wonder why when I saw some of them: it may be that this is a buyer’s chance to do a little investing – in the hope the value will increase when the darling drops of the proverbial perch – or perhaps it’s the chance to own a piece of work by a well-know artist.

So it’s not a serious show no matter how the RA tries to convince us that their worthy curators have managed to give us something new and stimulating. It’s a circus of a show, a bit of a joke, a chance to see worthy works sitting next to our Billie’s painting of the garden. And we can all benefit from a less rarefied view of art sometimes: a little bit of fun never hurt anyone.

Lucy Ann White

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance: not a book that I would ever have considered picking up, let alone reading. The groupie who suggested Better is a doctor, and an American one at that: ah, we thought, this book will be very medical, very deep. But that is the great thing about book groups; members are encouraged to read out of their comfort zone, often with a pleasant result.

Atul Gawende is a surgeon in one of Boston’s leading hospitals – no ordinary surgeon I might add. He also has a degree in PPE from Balliol, is an assistant professor at Harvard School of Public Health, a staff writer on The New Yorker and a writer of two books to date. This,his second, is based on some essays that he originally wrote for the New Yorker.

He’s arranged the essays into a book of three parts: Diligence, Doing Right and Ingenuity. It is a warm, easy to digest, interesting read in which the author is not ashamed to admit to his own mistakes. And the overall message is: how can doctors do better? What does it take to go from being good, to being better. Indeed, how can we all do better at whatever it is we attempt.

Each of Gawende’s chapters focuses on a particular area of medicine and one in which change - sometimes of the most minor - can make the difference between correct and incorrect diagnosis, average and excellent treatment, life and death. In the first part, Diligence, he starts with a chapter entitled ‘On Washing Hands’ and shows that just how well it is followed can impact of the worldwide hospital problem of MRSA.

In the next chapter, ‘The Mop Up’, he looks at vaccination programmes and how this has had world changing results, but that when it is not carried out the effect can be fatal. In these chapters, as in all the following ones, Gawande does not preach, nor does he patronize, but instead he deconstructs the reasoning behind these practices and shows how the issues are often more complex than it might seem on the surface. Everywhere he finds paradox, conundrums, quandaries, heroism and dedication.

In the second part, Doing Right, there is a chapter ‘On Fighting’ and how it is necessary to fight for your patient when everything around the doctor tells him that he has done all he can. I guess it could be called ‘going that extra mile’. His style for each chapter begins with a short story, usually open-ended. He then goes off at a tangent with a human tale or other. Finally, at the end of the chapter, he draws all the threads of his tale together and often leaves the reader with a question, philosophical poser or bon mot.

‘The Score’ is a chapter in part three, entitled Ingenuity, in which Gawende relates the story of a multi-talented female doctor who, in 1933, was thwarted in her attempt to be accepted as a surgeon because of her sex. She went on to devise a test that is still used today to score the condition of a new born baby. Ingenuity, the reader can see, applies to us all no matter what job we do.

The chapter, ‘The Bell Curve’, describes the treatment of cystic fibrosis: he explains the graph – the bell curve - that shows the results of all the centers treating it in the USA. He explains that no matter how the treatments improve there will always be a bell curve which shows the average outcome of treatment. However, at the end of this long and interesting essay he concludes that the average may always be there but that is always room to raise the bar and for every one to try and be above average.

All of us in the book group enjoyed the book, everyone finished it, and it made us question how we do things, if we are happy to be average, if we do go that extra mile and try to be better as often as we should. Our French groupie described is as a ‘very American’ book – which it is – but a very good one. I shall read it again, if for nothing else, to remind me to try harder and to wash my hands that bit longer and that bit better.


Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Chelsea Flower Show

The Chelsea Flower Show opened yesterday, but only to the Queen and the Royal Family, the great and the good, the famous and not so famous like the press….and lucky old me.

As I explained about the show last year - just read the Chelsea blog of May 2007 by looking through my archive – and you can see it all on television anyway, I’m going to take this opportunity of doing a bit of professional soap-boxing.

If I’ve heard the remark, “It’s very green this time”, or, “There’s not a lot of colour in the show gardens”, once this year then I’ve heard it ten times. And I can only repeat what I say in reply: “Gardens should be green and green is a colour”.

But of course I know what they mean: some people like riotous clashing colours, others like toning shades of pastels or vibrant hues in their beds and borders. But these colours would all be unbearable without the background green of the leaves or grass. In the marquee and in many of the show gardens small and large there were some amazing flowering plants, whether bulbs, perennials or annuals. All were quality plants which were breathtakingly beautiful, spectacular, delicate or just plain pretty.

But a garden of green can be colourful and interesting in its own right. There are very many greens: pale, bright, dark, light, yellow, acid, variegated. And there are very many textures to leaves: crinkled, smooth, glossy, matt, ribbed, rough, feathery. Shapes? What about leaf shapes: round, linear, heart-shaped, oval, dissected, palmate. Then the very form and size of the plant adds an enormous interest. And put together these all create a pattern, or lots of different patterns, that add interest by their contrast or complimentary qualities.

So an all green garden can provide colour, texture, form, pattern, shape and size. Just look at the garden designed by Tom Stuart-Smith for Laurent-Perrier: this is one of the show gardens described by many as Very Green, and Not a Lot of Colour. But it is the most interesting garden because the designer has combined all the above with an interesting layout, real attention to detail and the use of top quality plants.

Although, look again, and the design does include either subtle hints of another colour – mostly white – or occasional splashes of something other than green as a highlight. And there is drama: the trees he has used for height - hornbeams – are pruned in a highly unusual way. Water is there too, always a pleasing component, and its smooth, dark surface reflects the different elements. Believe me, the garden’s a knock-out.

Of course gardens of the past were often very green: look at the clipped edged beds and hedges of eighteenth century gardens or the landscapes of Capability Brown, all sinuous shapes of smooth green and clumps of trees. And those classical gardens of Italy with their evergreen box and yew in pots or tubs of green leaved fruit trees. We are drawn to those landscapes: we love our parks with their grass and trees, our urban street trees, our countryside hedgerows and verges. Why do we like them so much? Why have these landscapes such a timeless appeal?

Those designers of yesteryear knew what we seem to have forgotten with all our choice of flowers and bulbs: that green is a very calming colour, a colour to refresh the spirit and the rest the mind. And we all seem to need a bit of that nowadays.


Sunday, 11 May 2008

Chelsea Pensioners

It’s nearly time for The Chelsea Flower Show again, and as usual it will be held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, one of the prime sites in London. Commissioned by Charles I and built by Christopher Wren in 1618, this is the home of the Chelsea Pensioners and must be the grandest old folks’ homes in all of England.

As organisers and exhibitors of the prestigious show labour to transform the gardens of the Hospital into a showground, and the massive machinery of it all lurches into action, spare a thought for whose real garden is being used for the purpose. The Royal Hospital, Chelsea, is home to those who have served in the army and have an army pension, are over 65 years of age and either ill or infirm and none should have any dependents.

In fact the residents watch the building of the show with interest: this is a highlight of the Hospital year and one of their main forms of revenue. When the show is on they change from their normal navy blue uniform into their ‘scarlets’ – a red wool dress jacket – and get to sport their tricorne hats when Royalty visits the show.

This is not just the home of the Pensioners it is their own little world. They refer to the Hospital as a small village: there is a library, pub, post office, billiards and snooker tables, laundry, dry cleaners, workshops for crafts, an art studio and a band. Everything is all found for them: they take breakfast, lunch and high tea in the Great Hall and for single men this is one of the greatest benefits. To give you a sense of the history of the place, the wood that was used for the walls and the floor of the Great Hall in 1652 is said to have come from the captured French Fleet.

The men each have their own ‘berths’ – like wooden stalls – in what are known as The Long Wards, on the top two floors of the building. Berths are each fitted with a bed, chest, desk and chair. There is a hatch which opens onto a communal corridor with windows. But revenue is needed to upgrade these so that each man has his own facilities and a small reading room with a view. If the men are ill or need respite care they are admitted to the infirmary.

And it is because a new infirmary is being built – which will give the men their own en-suite facilities – that the revenue raised by their fund raising events, and Chelsea Flower Show in particular, is so important. When the new infirmary is finished the present one in Light Horse Court – now too small - will be made available for ex-army women. Women? Ye Gods, the men say. But even the pensioners have to move with the times.

Fortunately the formal grass courts that surround the buildings of the hospital are not used for the show during Chelsea week. This means that Pensioners still have somewhere to rest and chat to their comrades. They are on the whole a game bunch and keep a keen eye out for the excitement and public spectacle of the incomparable Chelsea Flower Show.