Saturday, 28 February 2009

Slowly Does It in the Spring Garden

With the first warm, sunny day of the year the garden comes alive. Under the bare copper beech, crocus flowers open up to such an extent that bumblebees are able to crawl around in them. Dusted liberally with golden pollen, their big, hairy, black and orange bodies are ready to act as natures’ cupids.

Scents of loveliness only insects can detect have reached the beehive. The honey bees come out in force, eager to start collecting for their pantry. They have until September to produce the goods. By then, a double storey dwelling should be able to produce 50 jars of liquid amber, Food of the Gods.

But if we are to have other produce, veg beds need to be turned over and fertilized, greenhouses cleaned, tubers chitted and seedlings started on windowsills. And if the garden is to burgeon and bloom, roses, vines, trees and shrubs must be pruned, climbers tied and perennials cut down.

And this is only a small part of what should be happening in the garden. In many gardens it is underway. In this one, we’re still in planning mode: I’ll throw away all those pots; you must have a bonfire; we should buy our salad seeds before they sell out. This summer we’ll keep the garden tidy: we’ll cut the grass more often, dead-head the roses more frequently. Blast, is it too late to cut down the lavender?

My laissez-faire attitude to putting the garden to bed does mean that the place doesn’t look too tidy at this time of year. I leave all the perennials and seed heads for the birds to feed on in the winter months. I leave shrubs and herbaceous alone to give shelter to small mammals and insects. I even leave windfalls – a very messy habit.

This all in the name of ecological awareness, habitat protection - green-ness. It is an ideology that suits the lazy gardener. We have a symbiotic relationship in winter, my garden and me – I leave it alone, it leaves me alone. Then with the first signs of Spring I start planning what I will do. Planning mind - let’s not run before we can walk – planning, not doing.

And then, I’m a slow starter in Spring. The first sunny day - what can be more pleasant than a leisurely walk around the place to admire the brightness of the aconites and sophisticated simplicity of snowdrops. To seek out shy iris, smile at bright narcissus, smugly congratulate myself on the elegant hellebores. I must linger by the fragrant primrose honeysuckle and blush pink viburnum. I want to find that wonderful scent that reveals itself as modest sarcoccoca.

It’s a time to asses, to imagine, to decide….I shall fill that space with a tall perennial, move this shrub to the other side, cut down that bush and plant some more grasses. And that bench must be scrubbed, the summer house cleared out, a new hinge is needed on the gate. My goodness, look at that ash tree - how did it get there – and how come I never noticed it last year. It has to come out. Right away.

Well, soon anyway. Plenty of time before Spring really begins.


Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Ghosting - A Double Life by Jenny Erdal

Funny business, ghost writing. Okay, there are some people who have a story to tell but can’t put it into reasonable English. A ghost writer does it for them. They either take the credit or come clean and admit that they didn’t actually write it themselves.

But what do you think of a celebrity who has no story to tell but gets someone else to make up a story and write a novel for them? And what do you make of a writer who is employed by the celebrity to write the novel in secret but finally spills the beans?

Read Ghosting by Jenny Erdal and you will find out. Erdal can write, no doubt about it. Her English is good, her style fine, her little bon mots amusing. She explains in graphic detail her relationship with Naim Attallah – whom she calls Tiger to minimize the likelihood of libel I suspect – who was a Quartet Books publisher of enormous celebrity for many years.

The descriptions of him – a larger than life, highly colourful Asian character – have him down to a T. He brooked no disagreement from his staff, surrounded himself with a bevy of beautiful society girls, ate and spoiled himself to excess and was generally a demanding, uneducated but amusing and charismatic chap. Erdal, on the other hand, describes herself as almost the exact opposite.

She was from an emotionally restrained, working class Scottish family. She disliked her parents, her husband left her, she was clever but unable to succeed at what she wanted. She gives the impression that life held little pleasure for her bar her children and working for Tiger. She asked for little and got it.

In fact she was attractive, bright, went to university where she read languages, was married with three beautiful children. This all sounds pretty good. But I suspect it was the working for Tiger that did for her: he was demanding as an employer but it was an interesting job. Then her husband left her. Tiger was supportive. She had to keep working. She was sucked into a seductive world of glamour, excitement, luxury, intrigue and power.

Unfortunately a great deal of the book concentrates either on how clever she is – she peppers her prose with quotations and examples of her learning but I suspect she’s trying to compensate for being a ghost writer – or how mean everyone else is. For example she paints her parents as unkind and narrow minded.

Any writer who wishes can describe their relationship with their parents and show the reader that they were unkind and narrow minded. But what I would hope to be shown is how that experience has moulded the writer. And I should like the writer to show me, the reader, how the parents may have come to be that way. I like some understanding and illumination to shine through. Not to do so makes the writer look as bitter as the parents she despises.

So I guess that is my first beef with the book. My second is that, if she hated writing for Tiger then why did she go on doing it? And why did she volunteer the smut she purports to disdain. By this stage in her life she no longer needed the employment - her children had grown, she had remarried and husband number two wanted her to stop. But still she went on. And then when Tiger finally fell from the heights, when he could no longer pay her, only then did she leave. And write her expose.

Erdal was not manipulated by her employer, Tiger, as she tries to suggest. It seems to me that it was a symbiotic relationship. Each used the other: Tiger got a willing accomplice, someone who could write far better than he could, someone who could be bought; Erdal got paid, annual holidays in the south of France, luxurious hotel rooms and wonderful meals, frisson and power.

Ghosting is a very well written book, one that shows us the seamier side of ghost writing, but it was not, in the end, a very satisfying read for me.


Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Winter weather

Arriving back in the UK from the sunny clime of South Africa it was a surprise – although it is February - to land on snowy tarmac in Surrey. It’s Middlesex actually but art is all. No, really, sorry about the alliteration: naff, I know, but somehow it just slips out. I mean, one mention of the word sun, and the words sand, sea etc just trip off the tongue. This time it was sunny, South and, well there it was, snow, just asking to be part of it.

Well, you may wonder, what was she up to in said sunny clime? It was part research (all will be revealed in time), part R&R. Weather? Well, OK, whilst we’re on the subject…..the Midlands of Kwazulu-Natal were misty and damp. Not quite what I had envisaged. No wonder the Drakenbergs are so green and beautiful.

Durban was tropical (humid) and the Zulu battlefield sites were hot in the day, nippy at night. But St Lucia Lake was just right: not too hot and not too cold, neither windy nor wet. Then Cape Town, sunny and bright as is usual at this time of year. All in all, a welcome break from the weather at this time of year at home.

Kent is usually wet and frostily cold in February: the days are short, the evening long. Christmas festivities have faded and Spring seems a long way off. Snowdrops have surfaced and look as pretty as ever, but colourful crocuses and cheery daffodils are only little green shoots. Not even a promise of joys to come.

In fact the only excitement weather wise is the romantic thought that we might have a little snow. You know the sort: sprinklings of it on rooftops, thick white powdery stuff on the grass, butch little snowmen. Snowball fights, sledge rides, hot chocolate and muffins by the fire.

In actual fact, when we have snow its more like: slushy piles on doorsteps, solid frozen stuff on the paths, big butch gritters. Cars are snowed in, buses don’t run and bread sells out in the shops. Hey - we are warned - don’t go out unless you have to. Avoid the roads, take care not to slip, stay warm. But still we think fondly of snow.

Up North, of course, they’re a hardy lot, used to the snow and ice and digging their way out of trouble. Down South we’re wimps: we only have snow that lasts for more than a day or two every decade or two so it’s hardly surprising that we’re not geared up for it. This year there was simply much more of the stuff than usual.

This is an event, an unusual and not very serious one at that. But what do we get: newspaper headlines of blame, panic and sensationalism. Schools are closed! People cannot get to work! Shops lose takings! Councils have run out of salt and grit! Oh, come on, please, the country hardly ground to a halt. Telephones rang, orders were placed, many were able to work at home and kids had the time of their life.

We cannot store huge quantities of salt for an event that only takes place every decade at most. And I’m not sure we want to use salt on every road. On motorways, yes, it’s effective and quick. But the run-off on rural roads causes terrible damage to the ecology. Grit is what’s needed, and that should be used often in winter when ice is a more frequent danger.

The worst of our damp weather is not actually the snow itself: it’s the crazy gang who drive too fast and the kids who have never learnt that ice on ponds is too dangerous to walk on. And the biggest danger of all is the aftermath of snow which, in Britain, is often flooding. Our resources should be spent of measures to alleviate that.

I think that every child should have the memory – the day we couldn’t get to school because of the snow – of chucking snowballs and sledging on tea-trays. Admittedly, once an adult the whole process can be a bit of a pain but many a parent is only too happy to join the kids. So, enjoy what there is to enjoy about snow ....before it all turns to slush.