Monday, 9 September 2019

Sheer Escapism

Fully autumn soon, the nights are drawing in, there’s a chill in the air and the leaves of the Japanese ornamental cherry show just the faintest tinge of burgundy. Millie is still with me, she seems to be having a reprieve in her general health - not the arthritis, alas - and I have decided to shut the back door at night. It keeps the warmth in and she has a more comfortable time of it in the scullery. If I have to clean up after her, so be it. It won’t be forever. And it doesn’t happen every night either.

The hedge cutters are here, another sign of autumn. Raindrops are dripping on them but they are hardy young men; “it’s only water”  said the one I took round the perimeter of the garden to give instructions on what needed trimming. True, but I myself still sheltered under a big umbrella. And I needed his arm to help me over a very steep slippery grassy bit without falling over. He promptly fell over himself, should have asked me for my arm in return.

There is so little that is pleasant in this world at the moment that I am seriously keen not to add to the misery for myself. Yes, I am still obsessed with current affairs, yes, I still shout curses at politicians whenever they appear on TV spouting barefaced lies, yes, I still dread what is happening to our climate and the environment. What to do? Withdraw from the whole unholy mess of it? Could be. Escape at least occasionally. Evenings start earlier, earlier evenings require indoor activities rather than balmy nights spent outdoors. Reading, TV and maybe closer attention to this blog of mine again, after several years of neglect.

Which brings me to another question: are you old enough to indulge in bad taste books, films, TV shows without embarrassment? To my surprise quite a few of the ‘ladies who lunch’ admit to doing so. Well, in that case, so do I. Not exclusively, of course. I couldn’t possibly live on a diet of sweets and chocolates, burgers and ready meals, neither can I feed my brain exclusively on pap. However, a Georgette Heyer Regency romance, a cosy mystery from the 'Golden Era', a Mary Stewart adventure, a Robin Hobb fantasy, even a Scandi noir thriller insinuate themselves on to my Kindle now and then. (I am too embarrassed to put hard copies on bookshelves). All of the foregoing have one thing in common, they all end happily-ever-after. As for TV, well, the ladies admit to switching on certain channels which run endless repeats of British and American sitcoms, British country village thrillers and long running soaps. I have to be very tired before I give ‘Midsomer Murders' another go - it’s too much like painting-by-numbers - but it’s been known to fill the odd otherwise sadly depressing space. Morse, Endeavour and Shetland are more to my taste. I can take Agatha Christie's Miss Marple or Poirot as well, if needed. I am not so good on films, but a romcom would hit the spot nicely too.

So, there you have it, Friko’s image as culturally high-brow is shattered. I always knew it and now that escapism has become ever more urgent I am old enough to blow a raspberry at anyone who feels judgement coming on. Not you, obviously.

For those who like natural history and the science of it here’s a recommendation which is neither pap nor instant escapism: Peter Wohlleben’s ’The Hidden Life of Trees’, an informative study and fascinating look into the enchantment of trees that can talk and sometimes walk - no it’s not a fairy tale. You’ll gain a whole new perspective on the amazing processes of life, death and regeneration of woodlands. The better sort of escapism.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Trials and Tribulations

After three hot days the rain is back. From my window it looks like the whole world is weeping. Summer? What summer? I have that English disease of always complaining about the weather, whether it’s godawful or, as it occasionally is, only mildly godawful.

Things started out ok, I had a medical - which my surgery forces on people over 70 with underlying conditions like dodgy hearts or kidneys or whatever - and the results came back fine. I’ll live to complain another day.

Then I called the vet to the house to check Millie over. He came prepared to do the foul deed but she was having a good day, gave him a little wag and went to her treats corner all hopeful. Apparently, she is on her last legs, riddled with arthritis, has a heart murmur and water on the lungs, both of which make her pant, wheeze and cough intermittently. Her organs are weakening and her toilet habits leave much to be desired. The vet gently pointed out that things aren’t really fair on me now, what with her special needs, but damn that dog, she looks at me still bright-eyed, follows me around, even climbing the stairs, and eats like a pig. (How do pigs eat? Are they much slandered?) I just couldn’t do it. The vet says she may deteriorate next week or next month, that it won’t be long now and every day I dread the evening when I have to shut the kitchen door on her and leave her in the fast cooling scullery with the back door open. Last night I shut the back door. I had taken her out down the drive for a few yards about midnight and she actually did a big poo, to my relief.  Surely she wouldn’t do another one during the night? She did; I know she cannot help herself but cleaning up after her is far from undiluted joy.

On top of it all Beloved is getting in on the act. I woke up with a start at seven on the dot this morning because he called to me. “Are you awake?” I swear it was his voice. My dad once spoke to me clearly like that too. A long time ago. I hate being woken up abruptly and called out “I am now, leave me alone.” If only. It took a couple of seconds to remind myself that he has been gone for more than two years. Is his spirit fluttering around somewhere in the cosmos making sure I treat our dog properly ? If so, he should have woken me up an hour earlier, I could have let her out sooner and might have gone back to bed after feeding her.

Things get worse, if you are at all squeamish stop reading now. The night before last I committed murder, involuntary frog slaughter. It caused me a lot of stress and I can’t see why those of you still reading shouldn’t get stressed too. Once again the back door was involved. It’s wide open all summer long, not just for Millie’s sake. Normally, I lean it against a chair at night, stopping it from flying open under a sudden gust of wind. And also so I can hear the noise of it being pushed open by a burglar, which would cause me to jump out of bed, grab the truncheon I inherited from my dad, fly down the stairs with a blood curdling yell and lay about me, scaring any intruder into fleeing for his life. That’s the plan, anyway.

So, night before last, I was ready to shove the door against the chair, or vice versa if you like, and it wouldn’t shut. I tried again, pushing a bit harder. Still no luck. I looked down into the corner of the frame and the body of the door where the obstacle appeared to be and found a frog, very dead by now, bleeding over the doorstep, having been squeezed out of his life.  The silly creature had come in out of the cold several nights earlier and I had forgotten about his habit of seeking shelter just inside the frame. I hardly slept all night, envisaging his final horrible minute. I kept telling myself his death throes can’t have lasted very long, him getting squeezed would compare to one of us being pushed against a wall by a juggernaut, which would see the end of us in no time flat. But still, harming any creature, (apart from one of the current crop of politicians, of course), is wholly against my nature.

The pictures are of Millie and the frog in happier days.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Room to Think

Rain, rain, nothing but rain.

Yesterday, when I saw the weather forecast, I was pleased. A whole day to myself with nobody to disturb my peace. It’s been a busy  couple of weeks, with gardening, a shopping trip, a family visit, a couple of luncheon engagements with friends, nothing arduous or stressful, but enough to make me look forward to solitude.  It was the American poet Marianne Moore who said "the cure for loneliness is solitude” and I must admit that seeing too much of people often leaves me feeling lonely.

Today, I feel differently. This rain is too depressing and I’d love a bit of company. So, in the absence of ‘live’ companions, I am turning to you.

One of solitude’s gifts is room to think. Not that thinking leads to much in my case on a day like today, but when I sit doing nothing else thinking stray thoughts is a natural consequence. Normally I’d sit and read but, unlike my natural hedonistic attitude to life, I felt a bit guilty for doing nothing all day. So I sat and thought. Mainly about people and my perception of them as relating to me. And that is, of course, where things get complicated. I do tend to overanalyse.

I may have mentioned it before: do you enjoy a good argument or do you go with ‘anything for a quiet life’? When meeting groups of acquaintances and friends do you prefer like-minded people or are you happy to leave your comfort zone and listen to opinions you don’t share? Do you bite your tongue when someone expresses themselves in a forceful manner on subjects which you find yourself diametrically opposed to? Do you allow them to have and hold opinions in the spirit of free speech or do you fight your corner, always realising that that might lead to a fight? Or do you say ’there is no arguing with some people’ and leave it at that? Some of the ladies I meet read newspapers I wouldn’t keep for toilet paper and they do insist on repeating the viewpoint, angle and stance such papers espouse. Sometimes it’s just gossip, for instance the permanent negative bias towards Meghan Markle or ridicule of the environmentalist teenager Greta Thunberg, at other times it's the vicious anti immigrant, anti gay, racist mindset. Bearing in mind that these subjects do not come up every time you meet and that these ladies are actually friendly and helpful in many other respects do you continue to meet with them? Or is meeting with them just not worth the hassle?

Tell me what you think.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

All Is Only Transitory

I was looking for a quote to express what I want to say today; there are many, of many words, whole passages, to say just this one thing: nothing lasts for ever. So I gave Goethe pride of place, for he expressed my thoughts in just these four words.

For days on end I have been out in the garden, morning and late afternoon, whenever the temperature allowed. In the middle afternoon I had siesta, sitting reading or snoozing indoors. So gardening is much on my mind. Particularly one aspect of it made me turn philosophical. I don’t know what made me think that gardening is a pursuit which follows the same lines forever, you’d think I should know by now, after close on thirty years of it. Having more or less ignored my garden for the past three years I was greatly surprised when I noticed that many of my special shrubs and whole hosts of perennials look much the worse for wear this year. A bit worn, a bit elderly, a bit tired. Indeed, some look like they need urgent resuscitation.

Of course they do. Highly bred creatures never last as long as your ordinary mongrel, in plant language: your weeds and common versions. Species remain true to themselves, anything bred from them, sub-species and fancy varieties, give up after a few years. So my surprise is rather surprising.

What I need to do now is ruthlessly expel all shrubs past their best, perennials ditto, particularly the kind that flop all over the place and need careful (and boring) staking or those that have turned into congested clumps which barely flower now. A bit of redesigning is in order.

That might be fun. Costly fun even. It would need purchasing new plants and shrubs and involve quite a bit of digging and rearranging.

Which brings me to Paul. We seem to have settled into a relaxed working relationship. When he came yesterday I asked after his well-being, as I always do. He asks after mine too, by the way.

“Not so good today”, he said, “I’m a bit unwell”. He rubbed his chest although I don’t think that was where the source of his discomfort lay.

I made suitable noises and suggested he might want to leave after two hours’ work, before it got hot. “We’ll see”, he said. “I didn’t want to let you down, so I thought I’d better come”.

Two hours in and I asked him if he wanted to continue. “Oh yes”, he said, “work takes your mind off things”.

Later we sat on the bench in Beloved’s memorial patch and had tea, it’s the only really shady spot in the garden any time of day. (How cross Beloved would be, he loved the sun above everything and sat in it for hours, whereas I avoid it when I can. So I win.)

Paul and I got to talking about work. “I don’t really have a choice,” he said, "I need to keep my income up which is stretched perilously thin anyway”. He told me he has only four regulars and a few now and then-ners but he couldn’t really do much more because of his health problems. At the moment he gives me a regular slot on Mondays and an additional slot on another day if he has a gap.

"Thank you”, I said, “but then I’m not such a bad employer?” He turned his head as if I had surprised him and looked me full in the face, not something he does often. “Oh I think we rub along tolerably well.” he said.

For now it’s all good but I’d better not count my chickens just yet.

I added the picture of the phormium in bloom because I still can’t quite believe that is has flowered. Positively pre-historic!

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

This Gardening Life

This time of year there should be little of the hard-work-kind-of-gardening. Some cutting back, some pruning of shrubs that have finished flowering, keeping the lawn cut, watering in dry spells, dead heading roses and such like being all that is required. Normally. But for me and my garden this is not a normal year. On the face of it it all looks okay-ish; a bit more than lush maybe, but not too overgrown.

But look behind and in-between and you’ll soon see what a mess it all is. Three years of neglect don’t  just leave superficial scars. Yesterday I found a 4ft high clutch of thistles, merrily sprinkling white fluffy seedheads for next year's nightmare. Gentle, lady-like weeding is not called for; I trample through great thickets of the nastiest, most pernicious weeds and rip them out by the sackful. Anything that was meant to be there has either been choked to death or is being ripped out with the nasties.

You know how I’ve praised Old Gardener in the past and moaned about Paul's lack of effect. I tried a new chap but I didn’t really take to him. Besides, he was far too expensive. I don’t mind paying for good work but he didn’t make much difference during the basic 2 ½ hours he was here. I think he wasn’t impressed with me either, he wasn’t keen on setting another date.  Instead, Paul has been coming a couple of times per week when the weather suited.

This is what happened: during a tea break we had a chat. I had worked out in advance what I was going to say and I kept to my script. In effect I asked Paul to become my new Austin. I said I didn’t expect him to work as hard as Old Gardener but I hoped he would show an interest in the state of the garden. Give me feedback, make suggestions, answer questions, trust himself to do a decent job without constantly needing me to instruct him. Come twice a week some weeks, at least until we had created some order out of the chaos. (My pictures really are very selective!)

And this is what happened next: Paul started off by saying he could not be someone else, he could only be himself. But we could maybe make a start and see how we got on. He told me about his mental illness, his physical problems, all of which I know about and will respect. I promised that I will never ask him to do more than he can but hoped that he wasn’t just the chap who came and did what he was told, collected his wages and left, without having shown commitment or responsibility.

So far it’s worked. I hate having to get used to new people all the time and I’d rather put up with a bit of inconvenience than training yet another helper. Besides, Paul knows his way around a garden, making him use his knowledge can only be of benefit to him. Since we worked more closely together I have praised him and I think he was glad to have this confirmation of his worth. He has actually looked at me, responded to initiatives and even cracked a smile and told a joke. He has also told me a tale of his past. Maybe there will be more gardener’s tales? Of a completely different kind than Austin’s of course. Paul is a townie, formerly in advertising, who started to garden for the love of it.

Let’s hope this phormium is a sign that things will work out. I have been growing phormiums for at least twenty years and never had one flower. Suddenly, this 10 foot spike rose out of the plant practically overnight, gradually opening weird flowers. I know that for the Kiwis amongst you this is almost a weed growing on your hillsides, for me this is an event to be appreciated. I have been told that the individual section of plant will die next spring but I can divide and separate younger shoots and replant them, also in the spring. 

Maybe this gardening life will be fun again, it is definitely lifting my own sadness and doing me good.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Wouldn’t you know, Man proposes

and God disposes. Whether it’s God, Fate or more likely, Sod’s Law*, sometimes you just cannot get past the obstacles in your way.

It takes me a great effort nowadays to motivate myself to drive to Ludlow, my county town, for a bit of comfort shopping and running a few errands. I was going to pop into a supermarket on the way for an urgently needed large bag of oats for my homemade muesli and a few self-indulgent goodies at the Ludlow Farmshop like posh pies and pickled herring. In Ludlow itself the Chocolate Gourmet was beckoning, as well as more mundane shops. So, there I was, having tricked Millie into submission (i.e. not queuing at the front door to be taken along) by generously sliding a few biscuits towards her in the kitchen and set off. I got as far as the cattle grid to the road when the knocking started, a hard knocking sound, getting louder and more insistent as I accelerated. Knowing nothing at all about the innards of cars I tend to get scared quickly. By the time I reached the outskirts of Valley’s End, less than a mile from home, the knocking was freaking me out and, after having stopped at the surgery to drop off a prescription for my next batch of medication, I turned tail and car and made for home again. I rang the mechanic. No reply. No call back. I imagine he’s on holiday. The car has sat in front of the house ever since Monday morning a week ago. I will try to get hold of him tomorrow.

The weather had been rather good the latter part of last week. Saturday, I decided to do a couple of weeks’ wash, there just isn’t enough to do a full load of anything per week now. Three loads I collected, bedding, towels, smalls, etc., dark and lights, which I wash separately. I don’t own a dryer, I prefer an outside line. I had just put the first two loads out on the whirlywizzer (rotary washing line) when clouds came up. By the time the third load was rinsing the rain started in earnest; I rushed to take everything down again and loaded several freestanding indoor dryers which I set up in the conservatory. Botheration! Had I known the outcome I’d never have attempted three loads.

You know that Millie is very old and now she has become incontinent. Up to very recently she has slept in my bedroom at night; again, until recently, she managed to wake me in time to rush downstairs and let her out. Several times lately she has not managed to get out in time and presented me with the signs of her incontinence. Dog poo, in other words. Dog poo on the carpet, a heck of a job to remove and clean. It got so bad that I kept waking up in fear of her needing to get out and me not realising in time, hardly sleeping at all. So then I decided that she had better stay downstairs at night, shut in kitchen and scullery, two fair-sized rooms with hard floors, quite sufficient for a sleeping dog. She had her bed. She didn’t seem to mind. Or maybe she is just too confused. All was fine for a few days and then, bingo, lots of presents in both rooms, from tiny little spatters to solid matter. (Too much information?) So now I spend the first half hour of every day picking up, disinfecting and washing the floors. It’s not as if she didn’t have the opportunity to go out in the evening, the back door is wide open until I go to bed at 11 or later. She’s fine and continent during the day, why not at night? I think I may have to leave the door open all night during the warm weather. Poor sweet Millie, she is still such a darling, she can’t help it. I cannot bring myself to do anything drastic just yet but my ideas on how to deal with this problem have dried up. If only she would dry up too.

*Sod’s Law is the axiom that “if something can go wrong, it will", with the further addendum, in British culture, borrowed from Finagle's law, that it will happen at "the worst possible time". This may simply be construed, again in British culture, as "hope for the best, expect the worst"

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Old Gardener

Old Gardener has died. In the end it was all over within a few short weeks, the cancers took him quickly, I am glad to say. So there will be no more gardener’s tales over a cup of tea in the sun, no more crafty fags, no more tuneless whistle of a short sequence of notes, which never were nor ever could become a tune. Gardener, who was extremely hard-working, not always reliable, who often took umbrage when his feelings were hurt. Who fell out with his missus and son and made up again. Occasionally he fell out with me but I learned to grovel and he’d appear again as if nothing had happened.

At the beginning, many years ago, he came all day and worked all day. At lunchtime he ate his sandwiches sitting in the car, listening to the radio for half an hour; we had a mid morning cup of tea and another one in the afternoon, when Beloved joined us. After work he’d stop and sit on the terrace and talk. And talk. And talk. Usually I was ready to call it a day by then, ready to have a wash and collapse and often wished him gone. But old gardener could not be hurried when he didn’t feel like it. It was always just another cigarette. A dreadful Woodbine, one of the worst for nicotine content.

Later on, after he had a heart attack, he came for a morning once a week, maybe four hours. But even in those four hours he did the work of two men.  During the last year, until last winter, when he stopped coming altogether, he did less, sat down on a bench and rested now and then for a few minutes. His work got less careful, some jobs he simply didn’t undertake. I always forgave him, I had plenty of other problems to worry me what with Beloved falling ill and later on being poorly myself. We did what we could between us although he most certainly did the lion’s share.

Throughout his decline he continued to smoke. He said he had taken advice and now smoked filter-tipped cigarettes. He was quite pleased with  himself. When I pointed out to him that he smoked his cigarettes right down to the filter, getting the full blast of nicotine, he waved my comment away. When I told him to only half load the wheelbarrow, to lift smaller weights of bags, to turn the compost heaps over two work sessions rather than the one, he waved those concerns away too. Instead he deliberately lifted an even heavier weight with a face that said :’that’ll show her with her interfering ways’.

Gardener was 73 when he died. In this valley the ‘leaving’ age is mid eighties, there are plenty of 90 year olds. Gardener had a hard life, leaving school at 14 and going straight into farm labour where he stayed until the landowner sold his herd and gardener, who was  the cattle man, became unemployed. In late middle age he took up gardening for people. He knew nothing about it but was willing to learn, which he did, and although I had to watch him when he got too near ripping up one of my prize specimen in his eagerness for a scorched earth policy, he also learned to ask, most of the time, at least. Occasionally he dug up first and asked later but those occasions got fewer and farther between.

I am sure it was hard work and smoking which did for him. Last autumn we sat side by side on a bench in Beloved's memorial garden and talked. He told me that he had savings, of wich he was very proud, and he was looking forward to doing less and less and maybe treating himself. To what, I don’t know. Gardener knew little beyond work, his interests were few and Jane, his wife, had made him get rid of his beloved homing pigeons. “Filthy vermin” she said. Instead they adopted a little dog, a small terrier like creature, an awful yapper. He loved that little dog and could talk about her antics for hours. Jane too loved the dog, he said, but neither of them ever thought to give it a name.

While we were sitting talking and he was telling me about his savings he said “if I don’t make it at least Jane will have something to keep her going.” I was surprised that this wiry, stringy, tough old, 'horny handed son of the soil’ had a soft side and that he was willing to share it with me.

I miss you, old friend, and not only because I miss your work. There’ll never be another Austin.