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.

Sunday, 23 June 2019


Roughly once a month Paula and I meet for supper and a glass of wine in the White Horse. We book a small table in the pub window which seats two comfortably and four at a squeeze and spend several hours chatting nonstop until we’ve set the world and our small corner of it to rights. Paula has been widowed for several years more than me, she is also a good number of years older and wiser. In spite of her great age she has a permanent twinkle in her eye, she enjoys her life and has no intention of giving in to old age. In our rural world clothes are of little importance really, but Paula always makes an effort, uses make up and has beautifully kept nails. Compared to her I am scruffy.

Provision for old age is high on the agenda in our talk. Both of us own our homes and both receive an old age state pension. We also have additional occupational pensions; maybe Paula’s is worth more than mine as she has been a teacher for many decades and teachers’ pensions in the old days were generous. What I am actually saying is that, things staying as they are, neither of us needs worry about putting food on the table. And yet, we worry.

The funny thing is that Paula worries about the distant future. Her usually so jolly face turns serious. “But what if house prices fall when things get bad with Brexit?" she asks. It seems she has worked out how many years the value of her house would safely see her through the cost of residential care. “So, if in a few years’ time I have to go into a home and my house is worth less than now I could only  afford to have care for five or six years.” Paula sees nothing but penury ahead. Although she spends money on holidays she certainly doesn’t spend freely. Apparently her accountant has asked when she intends to spend a bit more, reminding her that she can’t take it with her. And yet, Paula worries. Paula is in her early 90s and fit mentally and physically so there’s no immediate prospect of her having to go into a care home. (If I could be like her I’d happily live into my early 90s too.) The average lifespan in a care home in the UK is between 1 and 3 years. Therefore, ‘in a few years’ time’ plus several years in residential / nursing care would bring her close to the end 90s. True, none of us knows what lies ahead but I think that her house, pensions and savings will probably see her to her end comfortably. When I tease her and ask how long she plans to go on for she laughs ruefully and admits that she’s both over-ambitious and over-careful.

Here’s a question which exercises me too:

do you splurge or do you hoard ?
do you live every day as if it is your last or do you save your money on the chance you’ll live twenty more years ?

PS: yes, I know this is strictly a first world problem and a very nice one to have. So please don’t remind me of the millions of people who have a hard time putting regular meals on the table and would only be too glad to worry about an old age they may never see. That’s a problem I cannot solve.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

I’m puzzled,

what is it

   with environmentalists who make a huge thing out of plastic bags (yes, agreed, nasty things, as are plastic straws, both totally unnecessary) but fly many times each year for pleasure, on short haul  trips lasting no more than a long weekend and long haul trips to far flung places for a ten day holiday?

  with feminists who shout down anyone else who dares to open their mouth (who may not even have such a very different opinion from theirs) as loudly and insistently as any self important male?

  with busybodies who, no sooner having taken up residence in a place, try to mould it to their idea of a village, setting the tone, and running it vociferously and self righteously, although the village has been doing perfectly fine for decades without their input?

  with people who pillorize you for having groceries delivered or not eating exclusively home grown or organic when they themselves chuck a lot of their organically grown produce away because it rots before they can get round to eating it or it just isn’t up to accepted norms?

  with all those women who jumped on the MeToo etc. bandwagon (yes, yes I know, I too have been very uncomfortable about male intrusion into my personal space, have been propositioned and inappropriately touched) and then appear barely dressed, boobs falling out of their tops and skirts slit to the hips. If that’s not selling sex what is? There was this picture advertising a new film, I think, showing a line up of three men and one woman; the men dressed warmly for winter on a very cold and grey day and the woman in an evening gown slit from hip to toe with her bare leg aggressively thrust forward.

What’s an angry girl to do? Bite her lip to keep the peace? Or let rip?